Saturday, December 31, 2016

Go tell it on the mountain.


There are two Christmas stories.

I mean, literally, there are two. We have four Gospels, but Mark and John do not consider the circumstances of Jesus' birth to be significant enough to mention. Instead, they both start the action with John the Baptist doing his baptizing thing. Jesus enters the story fully grown and ready to go.

The Christmas story most people think of, the Charlie Brown special one with the shepherds and the angels, comes from Luke:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered...All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
 
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them...The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

The...other Christmas story is in Matthew:

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit...an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit"...When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him...Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was...On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and...opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him"...When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.
 
It's not very festive. But it is enlightening. We are used to the idea that The Establishment grew increasingly frightened of Jesus and his message throughout his adult ministry, eventually killing him in an attempt to silence him. Matthew reminds us that Jesus, as the promised Messiah, was understood by The Establishment as a threat from his first breath.

We do get some of the same message earlier in Luke with Mary's hymn of praise to God for the child God has given her, shared with her relative Elizabeth, herself the mother of John the Baptist under miraculous circumstances:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

The Magnificat explains concisely what Jesus' people hoped for and expected. It is, in a sense, the job description for the Messiah.

So it's not a question of different people having different understandings of what Jesus meant if God's promises indeed came true through him. It's a question of different people having very different responses to a singular truth. One group of people is frightened and lashes out. The other group is overjoyed and celebrates.

Quaker pastor Mike Huber frames this distinction as worrying about "what if?" instead of worrying about what is. For the more powerful or privileged who benefit from the status quo, change is a threat. For the less powerful or privileged, the status quo is a burden that change may relieve them of.

When one embodies change--say, by forming a strong, healthy and openly proud family that has more than two adults in it--one has to decide how to deal with the fears that others have. One common way of looking at it is to say: You should stay quiet. Don't draw attention to yourself. Be as deferential and non-threatening as you can.

But that approach doesn't work. You will still scare people, and they will still come for you.

In late August, Katherine Willis Pershey published "Get Ready for the Polyamory Movement" on the Patheos website. As a pastor in the United Church of Christ, a denomination that understands itself as a progressive champion of inclusiveness, Willis Pershey struggles with how to condemn polyamorous people without coming off as, y'know, judgey:

I admit that much of what I know about polyamory came from a single article by Olga Khazan in The Atlantic...The few polyamorous relationships with which I have more than a passing familiarity haven’t ended well...It would be wholesale logical fallacy of vividness to presume stories such as this are the norm, but I nevertheless suspect that they are more than merely the exception...Because I do wholeheartedly affirm the love and commitment between same sex partners, I can’t just parrot a line about marriage (and sex) being designed for “one man and one woman.” Still, I am convinced that there’s something to the one and one...(At the risk of really sounding like those people who argued against same sex marriage 20 years ago…what about the kids?)...Just as Christians are monotheistic in our religion, we are called to be monogamous in our relationships. No gods before God; no lovers on the side.

After some choice words to myself about the piece proving my point about the blind spots of liberal theology, I experienced the usual sequence of anxiety, anger and despair. My denomination, Metropolitan Community Churches, has an agreement with the UCC that they reciprocally recognize the credentials of their ordained clergy, and it's not unknown for MCC congregations to "defect" to the UCC--would a dust-up over polyamory in the one spill over into the other? Why would a UCC pastor with a moderately high public profile, in the absence of any formal polyamory advocacy in the UCC or significant pastoral experience with polyamorous people, decide to use their visibility to abstractly stomp all over the hearts of real people with real families? When would institutional Christianity stop being actively hostile to me and mine?

But as I watched the supportive comments roll in, and participated in my own restrained way, I started to feel hopeful as I realized it actually is the same pattern as it was with "those people who argued against same sex marriage 20 years ago" in the more liberal mainline Protestant denominations. While MCC blazes a path in the wilderness, the others use intellectual debates to stall for time, calculating what their reputations and internal sense of moral authority can bear. Eventually, they will come around as the cognitive dissonance falls more on the side of "aren't we supposed to be the open-minded ones?" and less on the side of "aren't we supposed to be the respectable ones?"

I didn't expect to see confirming evidence quite as quickly as I did, though. In October, Rev. Rachelle Brown began her term as Interim Moderator of  the MCC. Buried in her resume--but still there! in public!--is her role as the Convener of the MCC Polyamory Affinity Group at the 2016 MCC General Conference. In December, Rev. Dr. Robin Gorsline and Malachi Grennell offered a webinar approved as a continuing education course for MCC clergy:

This one-hour workshop will examine different aspects of non-monogamy, as well as discuss ways that we can be more open and inclusive to non-monogamous families in our churches and communities--because do not doubt that you know and interact with such families, in church and elsewhere.
This description comes from the presenters' blog. Eventually, the webinar should be available as a screencast on MCC's Sacred Space Online Learning site. Amy was able to attend it live; she got Rev. Dr. Gorsline's permission to share some of his comments on Facebook. I can't share them all here, but I want to highlight that he said he has "become convinced that Metropolitan Community Churches must take the lead among faith communities, at least the Christian ones, on this issue. We helped the larger church begin the long journey toward more openness to homosexuality, and now we need once again to step up on non-monogamy."

And I returned, glorifying and praising God for all I have heard and seen, as it has been told us.

In the meantime, the United States also had elections. Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton for President despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million. The Republicans held onto their majorities in both houses of Congress. With a few exceptions, the story was much the same at the state level. In the face of changing demographics and social norms, large swathes of the American populace asked themselves "what if?" and did not like the answer they got. They looked at what is and chose to see only their own (often parochial and self-aggrandizing) suffering.

Understandably, equally large or larger swathes of the American populace have felt we've gotten a Matthew Christmas instead of a Luke one. I'll readily admit I am among them. We'll likely avoid a literal slaughter of the innocents--at least, more than we already have with unaccountable police, violent transphobia and under-addressed domestic violence--but I see a high probability of pruned or shattered lives amounting to a metaphorical slaughter.
 
And yet, I have hope. Because the response to the elections has not been what I expected. I thought that both the fears and the responses would slip into abstraction. The thing about abstractions is you lose even if you win. Your story is lost.

Instead, the focus has remained significantly on people's stories, told by the people who have the most to lose. People are refusing to stay silent as mere data points in debating The Issues. Whether it is health care, immigration, civil rights or criminal justice, people are already creating the record of the human cost of regressive policies. This multitude will not tell Trump and his supporters merely that they are politically wrong. They will say: Here is my family, which you have torn apart. Here is my parent, who is now dead. You did this to us. You. Us.

It is important to tell these stories. Under oppression, resistance arises. And more importantly, where resistance starts early, oppression finds it harder to gain a foothold. More people are going in haste, and seeing, and sharing what they have seen. More people are understanding that just because someone is nice to you, it doesn't mean they're incapable of hurting others. More people have stopped pretending not to notice the disgust, fear and entitlement that have consumed so many (white, Christian) Americans for so long.

We tell each other our own stories, instead of waiting for the Wise Men to interpret them for us. We share our stories, instead of holding them in the privacy of our hearts. We stand together. And so God's promise comes into the world, with the specter of tyranny kept at bay a little longer.

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