Along the Way

These reflections illuminating areas of church, Christian and spiritual life are offered in each Friday email by our Plymouth clergy.

Witnesses to the Persecution

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, March 29, 2024

Can we . . . ‘redeem’ Good Friday in a way that affirms the interplay of divine love, human creativity, and human brokenness, while avoiding dubious theologies that assume salvation requires violence, including the predestined death of God’s only Child?

—Bruce Epperly

There was a time when I avoided Good Friday services. Not because I don’t think Jesus’ crucifixion plays a critical role in a fuller, more meaningful experience and understanding of Holy Week, especially as the foundational event in Jesus’ life and Christianity that makes his resurrection God’s earth-shattering, world-transforming act of vindication. Good Friday goes a long way in tempering the rush to Easter. But I sense an uneasiness with Good Friday services because I think progressive churches have become far too self-conscious about the uncomfortable biblical, theological, and liturgical baggage they carry. From odious substitutionary atonement theological constructs underpinning familiar hymns and prayers to the Gospel texts carelessly read and recited to stoke antisemitism, we may be tempted to skip the observance.

And yet, we must confront and address the reality of the crucifixion. Persecution thrives where there is silence, indifference, or accommodation to the forces of oppression, domination, and exploitation. And we can easily slip into justification of persecution when we accept it as a means of redemption. That was my problem with the movie The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s popular film about the crucifixion of Jesus, including the 12 hours before his death. The violence of Jesus’s crucifixion that it portrays is so graphic and prolonged that it appears to be the sole point of the movie, forcing us to look at it more as a spectacle served up to satisfy God’s demand for a sacrifice than violent persecution visited upon those who embody love and justice without compromise. In harmonizing very different accounts of the crucifixion of the Gospels, many churches (and Mel Gibson) rob us of a range of perspectives about Jesus’ death and responses to it that speak to our hunger for good news.

In the apparent silencing of Jesus, in the belief that they had thwarted the in-breaking of the reign of God, the forces of empire felt vindicated that they had secured business as usual against an insurgency of love, liberation, and neighborliness. It is fitting that we take the opportunity to grieve and suffer in recalling and remembering the story of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial, crucifixion, and death. In doing so, we take on the responsibility of bearing witness to the persecution of so many in our own time and testifying in response to Jesus’ final words that life is sacred. Unlike Jesus’ followers at the time, we stand in solidarity with Jesus and the persecuted in every age during their trials. It may cause us to tremble and remember the costliness of persecution, but we also recognize our responsibility to join God in healing, saving, and renewing in response to it. Amen.

It’s Happening to All of Us

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, March 22, 2024

Whatever has happened to humanity, whatever is currently happening to humanity, it is happening to all of us. No matter how hidden the cruelty, no matter how far off the screams of pain and terror, we live in one world. We are one people.

—Alice Walker, Overcoming Speechlessness

I recall two times when denying one’s humanity shook my sense of safety and belonging. The first time came when my family gathered around the television to watch the miniseries Roots and the news coverage surrounding it. It was the first portrayal I ever saw of the horrors perpetrated upon Black bodies. I was young, so a lot of what happened in the movie and what people said about it on the news went over my head, but I do remember thinking, “Wow, white people do not like us.” The second time came with the attack on Matthew Shephard, a gay college student in Wyoming who was left to die tied to a split rail fence. At a rally at the U.S. Capitol where survivors of anti-gay violence told their stories, I remember thinking, “Wow, straight people do not like us.” The lesson was that humans do horrible things to other humans.

I have read Rev. Martin Luther King’s words many times: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” But watching how humans hate, harm, and kill other human beings made those words seem solely aspirational, untethered from the reality and banality of war, violence, and persecution. And yet, in the context of church life, worshiping, discerning, and sharing as a gathered community, I’ve discovered the meaning of connection to others and affirmation of humanity. Looking back on those feelings of disconnection because of race and sexuality, I now know I was experiencing loss and diminishment because of the behaviors of others. As Alice Walker described it, “no matter how far off the screams of pain and terror,” it was happening to me. Something in my young mind understood the impact on humanity of hate and violence because, in those moments, far removed from the actual offense, I felt it.

Despite humanity’s inhumanity, the idea of us being all one people resonates with me. Perhaps it has something to do with the bigness and mystery of creation. Or the belief that all of humanity bears the image of God. Or the witness to how the poisons of war, hate, and violence harm both victims and perpetrators. Or the suspicion that we inhabit a moral universe in which the law of God is perfect, the decrees of God are true, the precepts of God are right, and the commandment of God is clear (Psalm 19). What is happening to the people in Gaza, Ukraine, Haiti, Israel, and anywhere else who cry out in pain and suffering is happening to us. We must care for all of us.

To Dream of Better Things

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, March 15, 2024

We must do all we can to imagine the Other before we presume to solve the problems work and life demand of us . . . What would it be like to live in a world where the solution of serious, learned people to practically every big problem was not to kill somebody?”

—Toni Morrison

In her recent book on the life and relationship of civil rights heroes Medgar and Myrlie Evers, journalist Joy-Ann Reid recounted Medgar Evers’ work with Clyde Kennard. Kennard was a Korean War veteran who, after returning to Mississippi to take care of his mother, decided to apply to the segregated Mississippi Southern College to complete his education. The retaliation was swift. Files from the white supremacist, pro-segregation organization the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission reveal a coordinated campaign to frame and charge Kennard for a series of crimes, including possession of alcohol in a dry state and theft of $25 worth of chicken feed from a farm co-op warehouse. It took an all-white jury 10 minutes to return a guilty verdict. Sentenced to 7 years in the deadly maximum security Parchman Penitentiary, Kennard could not apply to any college in Mississippi and was diagnosed with cancer soon after being remanded to prison. I’m not naïve, but it still stuns me how serious, learned people, with a range of possible options and responses at their disposal, indulge their diabolical imagination to destroy and kill. Unable to see the humanity of an Other, they chose to kill.

In a commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College in 1988, the author Toni Morrison invited the graduates to pause on pursuing personal happiness, which has overwhelmingly become synonymous with money, power, protection, and possessions. Instead, she asked them to dream. She saw dreaming as a “preamble to problem-solving,” whereby we visualize the needs, concerns, and experiences of the Other, those who are unlike us or less fortunate than us, whose precarity is usually addressed (or unaddressed) by benign neglect or plausibly denied death. It is possible to feed the hungry, house those who need shelter, or provide livable wages to workers if we allow our dreams for a better, safer, more neighborly existence for all to influence our living.

As Morrison convincingly articulated, “Dreaming is not irresponsible; it is first-order human business.” I think the Apostle Paul understood the possibilities that unfold for those who are willing to reject the dehumanizing conventional paradigms of state and community relations: “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Intrinsic to the covenant relationship with a gracious, merciful God is the ethical response to the needs of our neighbors. We are empowered to embrace an ethic of care, which begins with a vision of the humanity of the Other, a dream of better things.

Previous Articles

Say Their Names

Open to All

Choosing Hope

Then What?

Fear Not

October 23, 2020 and Earlier

October 23, 2020 Plagues, Pandemics and Promises

October 16, 2020 The End of Times

October 9, 2020 Rebellion as Sacred Work

October 2, 2020 The Notorious RBG!

September 25, 2020 The Call

September 18, 2020 Dismantling the Silos

September 11, 2020 Revolutionary Love

September 4, 2020 Jesus Is the Answer

August 28, 2020 Worship: God Is the Audience

August 21, 2020 Our Knowledge of God Is Participatory

August 14, 2020 Frederick Douglass, Prophet

August 7, 2020 Do You Want to Be Healed?

July 31, 2020 Vulnerability

July 24, 2020 God’s Backside

July 17, 2020 A Sign of the Times

July 10, 2020 Desiderata

July 3, 2020 A Genius with a Thousand Helpers

June 19, 2020 Unsung Volunteers

June 12, 2020 Our Own Gardens

June 5, 2020 Church Update

May 29, 2020 The Call

May 22, 2020 Scroll Down

May 15, 2020 Don’t Push Send

May 8, 2020 Navigating Mistakes

May 1, 2020 Teach Us to Count Our Days

April 24, 2020 Sitting with Not Knowing

April 17, 2020 Feed My Sheep

April 10, 2020 Life’s Refrain

April 3, 2020 How Do We Show Our Love?

March 27, 2020 Moving through the Fog

March 20, 2020 To Love Kindness

March 13, 2020 The Virus

March 6, 2020  The Seth I Know

February 28, 2020 Triage

February 21, 2020 Impermanence

February 14, 2020 Pruning

February 7, 2020 Inner Life

January 31, 2020 Ask Not

January 24, 2020 Doing Right Things

January 17, 2020 Radical Acceptance

January 10, 2020 The New Year—20/20 Vision

December 27, 2019 Closing the door

December 20, 2019 Winter Solstice and Christmas Day

December 13, 2019 Sacred rest

December 6, 2019  Judge little, forgive much

November 29, 2019 My favorite holiday

November 22, 2019 Making space is spiritual work

November 15, 2019 Looking to the future

November 8, 2019 We stand at the crossroads

November 1, 2019 Ecumenical and Interfaith Connections

October 25, 2019 A Plea for Civility

October 18, 2019 Preacher, Pastor, Prophet

October 11, 2019 . . . to being still