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What’s a Life Worth

$16 million. That is the estimated cost of the funeral tomorrow of Margaret Thatcher, the late British Prime Minister. It will not be a full state funeral, the British Government says, but to all appearances, the difference between what will transpire tomorrow morning and a full state funeral is really just a matter of semantics. The current establishment of British politics wants to give Margaret Thatcher a grand send-off and that is what she will get. The Guardian newspaper has estimated what $16 million can buy you in Britain: 322 nurses, 272 secondary school teachers, 320 fire officers, 7,042 average householder’s annual gas and electric bills, and most telling of all, 11,111 public health funerals, free funerals for people whose relatives cannot afford to pay for their loved one’s funeral (
All of this raises the question: what is a life worth? Crossing the Atlantic, the reaction around the world to the terrible events in Boston has offered a hard reminder that the awful terror that has been visited upon the victims, bystanders, and close ones of those involved at all in Monday’s bombings is something that people in some parts of the world experience on a daily basis. Listening to a BBC World Service news broadcast of ‘World Have Your Say’ today, some of the callers from the Arab and Persian BBC World Servicedesks reflected on the event on America’s east coast. The words they used were ‘indifference’ and ‘apathy’ to describe the responses that they saw their local populations have as news of the bombing spread.
To those whose lives are somehow intertwined with the tragedy in Boston, such a response seems heartless and indeed indifference felt in response to any death is a tragedy within itself. Yet for those who now have lived with the daily bombings in Syria for over two years, the loss of life seems mercifully small and the devastation to everyday life minimal. Such a perspective begs more questions. Is it any more tragic to see hundreds of people die around you than it is to see a handful? And who is to say that the life of one British politician is millions of time more valuable to humanity than anyone else?
Of course, as a global community we can agree that all life is profoundly valuable, yet it is when we can place that valuation within the context that it properly belongs that we are able to get a sense of why. Societies place value on human beings by various contingent means: consumer spending, defense of the state, positive impact on the lives of others, social capital. However, a theological view of human value is not contingent on anything other than it is a life
whose source is God. Human life is of infinite value because it is a gift of God. Nothing can diminish it or augment it. Its value simply is. Of course our affinities to those who die, in tragic circumstances or not, will impact how we mourn and remember them, yet we should be wary of a world that has become so saturated with indiscriminate killing that one community can mourn while another is indifferent. Today Damascus is indifferent to Boston. Tomorrow it will be the other way around.
It is when we can say as a species that we are all Bostonian now, we are all Syrian now, we are all Iranian now, we are all American now, that we will have begun the long journey to a recognition that it is in our common life that our best hope of lasting peace on Earth lies. Until that epiphany, may God bring comfort to all those who mourn near and far.

Becoming the Word Made Flesh

As holy week approaches, a recurring question of this time in the Church’s year comes to me: why do people come to church services around Easter? Perhaps it is a sense of duty, of something that should be done, like paying taxes or walking the dog. Or maybe there is a family member to be satisfied, a cultural heritage of religiosity that demands that to be true to one’s family of origin one must ‘do the religious thing’ before heading off to an Easter Sunday brunch. I have also wondered though if there is more going on in people’s sudden appearance at this time of year and that it has something to do with our need to remember.
The Church’s liturgy is resplendent with memory. The ancient tales of antiquity’s nomadic and oppressed people of God, the anamnesis of the broken body and bread of Jesus, the signs and symbols of the ‘something more’ of God that permeates our world yet whose life in us we are sometimes dull to realizing, all of them are on display through the course of an hour and half’s worship. Yet the enduring problem of such other-worldly acts, both for people who come to experience them weekly and for those whose experience of them is intermittent, is that the act is mistaken for the reality that is being remembered. We come to worship in the context of community not to complete something, a duty or a cultural behavior, but to start something entirely different altogether. We come to worship to remember what it is to be human, to remember what it is to long for the deep things of God that hitherto in our busy and distracted and indeed self-satisfying lives have gone unnoticed.
The life of the worshiping Church is where we come to remember in order to re-member our life with the world’s life. To be immersed in the ancient song and ritual of the temple is to offer us the opening to be re-oriented to our true vocation: to be salt and light for the world. To hear the words of millennia-old scripture and witness the vibrancy of people who gather to proclaim a good word to the world is to prepare ourselves to become Word made flesh. For it is our fleshliness that counts in the end. Our capacity to become divine in the world for which God became flesh in order to be reconciled to is our best hope for the world to see God for itself.
When we set out, prepared in advance by our liturgical labor together, to meet the world as it is in all of its holiness and utter profanity, we make our way on the road to Galilee, the place of the nations, the place where worldly things are. When the divine life in us shows up in our homes, in our family relationships, in our workplace tensions and hopes, on our street corners and in our shopping malls, in our prisons and our schools, in our gated communities and our housing projects, the Word becomes flesh all over again. Hope is spoken to an amnesic world, and the God of glory may come in to heal and redeem his people. And so, as the week we call holy beckons us to sit in the sanctuary and enter into again the silence of a slaughtered God, our hope is set on what this unnerving demonstration of true power – the power of a love that gives itself away for us – will do to us as our flesh shall also see God.

Pope Francis, remember Jenny

Two weeks ago, a woman who had become known to our church community through the course of the past several months suddenly passed away on the sidewalk in front of our church building. Her name was Jenny. Jenny was a particularly private person and at the time of her death we didn’t even know her name, let alone much about her life. We did know her, though, for her gentleness of spirit  and her smile. She was one of so many who make their dwelling on the streets of our city and one of the number who make their way to our particular community of faith.

For our church, Jenny’s passing has only deepened our resolve to reach out in friendship and service to those most in need, at times right there on our doorstep. Yet her death has also opened up a more mutual space of relationship and identity for us. A couple of days after Jenny died, family members from across the country began to get in touch. We were able to gather with them for an evening’s service of memorial in the side chapel that Jenny had sometimes known as her church home. The family members who came joined us around the communion table as we were reminded in that simple meal of bread and wine how our difference is subverted by the Spirit who binds all humanity into one.

Within the little time that has passed since these events, another church’s doorstep has become the focus of some attention as the Roman Catholic Church announced that it has a new pontiff, Francis. Pope Francis is known to be a man who has chosen to live into a simpler expression of his vocation, electing when he was formerly the Archbishop of Buenos Aires not to live in his episcopal palace but in a simple apartment, cooking his own food and travelling to work by bus. Francis is also known as a champion for social justice and of the poor and has denounced the “demonic effects of the imperialism of money.”My request to the new Bishop of Rome is simply this: Pope Francis, remember Jenny. There has been so much focus in my own Episcopal tradition on civil rights issues from an internal church perspective – the rights of women and of openly gay men and women to be in positions of church leadership – that the struggle for life free from oppression and degradation beyond the institutions of the Church has fallen away from the forefront of our focus. The Church of Rome has also been beset with internal struggles, from the alleged corruption at the Vatican Bank to the institutional failures surrounding a myriad of abuse scandals. My hope for Pope Francis is that he may remember his vocation to remember the poor and help all Christians re-discover forms of living that embrace simplicity and justice in the same movement.

For me, the question of how we retain the memory of Jenny’s life and loss is to ask how we are to be the Church in the liminal space between street and sanctuary. In the night, Jenny would straddle that edge between the street and the sanctuary, sleeping under the eaves of our church entrance. In the day, she died on a small strip of grass with that sanctuary space as most likely her last image of life on Earth. The between-space, that for us marks a death, is now the place where we are called to find the Lord of life. As we seek him there, may we dare to hope that by pitching the tent beyond the church walls something might be changed, starting with ourselves.

Ashes, Art and Making the Connection

So, I did it again. Ashes in small bowl, purple stole, black clerical shirt, down to the boardwalk. Placing my heels on the first grains of the sand of the Pacific, I stand. I wait. This goes on for a while.

As I stand, I notice the range of responses that passers-by have. The most common reaction is the non-reaction. Most people walk by, say nothing, don’t look my way at all. After all, this is Pacific Beach, and people do weird things all the time, so much so that you can stand out here if you aren’t making a scene of yourself.

The second category of passer-by is the ‘sniggerer’. Some sneak a sideways look, others nudge one another and grin. This group often contains a sub-group of ‘double-takers’, just to ensure that what their brain is telling them they have just seen is actually what they have just seen.

So, I stand there, and wonder to myself, ‘is this street theology?’ an embodied evangelism minus the soapbox and loud haler? As I ponder the nature of what exactly I am up to, I notice the third category of passer-by: the one who stops. They are few, it must be said, but their diversity of responses is fascinating.

‘You getting many customers?’ one man asks. He’s one of those who stop to ask a question. Another asks what the ashes stand for, another why Ash Wednesday is today and not another day. My favorite of this group of question-askers is the elderly Italian woman on a bike who comes abruptly to a halt to ask,


‘Episcopal’, comes the reply, and she rides on, arguing with her husband in Italian.

With all of this are the family dynamics that get revealed as people choose to engage the religious-looking person a little out of place at the beach. One woman brings her mother to be ‘ashed’, another commands his wife to have their children have ashes imposed – ‘they have to do it!’ – despite the mother’s protest (they end up moving on, with only the dad receiving ashes). ‘This is church’, he retorts, prophetically.

Lots to to think about in the course of an hour. Nice weather too. But what was it all for? Was it art, as the young man who asked to take my picture on his i-Phone, ‘It’s pure art, man, and you don’t know it’. Is that the life of the Church in today’s society, a relic of an art form, a beach walk show? Or is it about being recognized, ‘being visible’ as churches like to say? As I made my way back to the church at the end of my time on the boardwalk, a young man in shirt and tie says to me as he passes, ‘People treat you differently when you’re all dressed up’. Is that it? Is this about being treated to a different kind of conversation than normal? Do church symbol and ritual action allow us to speak to one another in different ways than we might otherwise?

Perhaps the Church in our world is all of the above: a spectacle, something to ignore, something to joke about, a space to ask questions, a space for family and other relationships to get played out within a narrative of the divine-human relationship, a vehicle for symbol and art, a way for us to have a different kind of conversation with one another. In the end, the Jehovah’s Witness who cycled by and stopped for a chat had it down to one concise insight: ‘people think that we are trying to convert everyone, we just want them to make a connection to God’. This is the age of connections after all, the networked age. Maybe I should come down here more often.

Gun Control and the Archaeology of Difference


French philosopher, Michel Foucault, made the case that society is governed by an archaeology of knowledge, a set of unwritten rules that influence what is stated about a particular category of knowledge at any particular time, and how that statement of knowledge is related to other statements of knowledge. These ‘rules of formation’ of the discourses of society are what Foucault describes as an ‘archaeology of knowledge’.

We are living in a time of such a discourse, a discourse about mental health that has been co-opted into the political struggle over gun control. Early on in the public debate over gun control following the terrible events at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, CT, mental health entered the scene, touted as a serious contender for American society to find a lasting solution to the problem of mass shootings. As well as the assertion that ‘the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun‘, the National Rifle Association made the case in its very first public statement of substance following Sandy Hook that what was needed was an ability to know who is sane and who is not:

“How many more copycats are waiting in the wings for their moment of fame …A dozen more killers? A hundred? More? How can we possibly even guess how many, given our nation’s refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill?”.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NAMI), in its own response to the tragedy, attempted to soften the growing association in the public eye between mass shootings and poor mental health by stating that ‘the overall contribution of mental disorders to the total level of violence in society is exceptionally small‘. Citing data from a study of nearly 18,000 subjects, NAMI makes the case that over a lifetime, violence occurred among 16% of people with serious mental illness – like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder – compared to 7% of people without any diagnosed mental disorder.In spite of these findings, the case that mental illness has a marginal influence on violent acts in society is increasingly hard to make. The White House is currently highlighting a slew of measures that, we are told, will offset decades of under-investment in mental health services. For instance, in 2011, according to a survey by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, over 10 million people had a serious mental illness, and of those more than 40% did not get care. The Affordable Care Act will ensure that 65 million mostly poor Americans every year, will get access to  mental health benefits under Medicaid.

Mental Health advocates have rightly cheered the efforts being made to bolster mental health services that could help millions of individuals and families gain access to preventative care and on-going support and advocacy. Yet, beneath all of the rhetoric is an archaeology of our society’s discourse about mental health. A mass shooting of children is such a hauntingly terrible loss of human life that we are inclined to look for apparently productive ways forward wherever we can find them. Yet, the rules of the formation of our discourse of the past several weeks have led to a conversation about an archaeology of difference: the point about Adam Lanza that all of this public narrative drives home is that he was different to us. The photographs, the descriptions of the life he led, the covers of magazines all seemingly cement this view.

Yet, what this accumulation of image and word around Adam Lanza’s supposed difference to the rest of society most reveals is not difference but sameness. In a society such as ours where between the Sandy Hook massacre and the President’s Inauguration there were over 1000 fatal shootings, the conversation that we are yet to have is why we are so easily inclined to react violently to one another. Sandy Hook stands at the apex of a vast trend in our nation where angry outbursts aimed at complete strangers are not only common but to be anticipated, so much so that our lexicon has enlarged to accommodate the shades of rage we should expect on one another: road rage, web rage, air rage, even desk rage.

We equate freedom of expression as our ability to say what we want, when we want, and how we want. We live in times when our ability to customize our daily experiences – from our music to our Facebook friends – is in danger of making our worldview myopic. Ours is an age of profound impatience and excessive demand for consumer satisfaction. And all of this, in all of its ubiquity across America, is the context within which a desperately deranged young man tragically took the lives of 26 human souls two and a half months ago.

One of the most essential gifts of the Christian tradition to our world is the theological assertion that we are fundamentally the same. Each of us is made in God’s image. Each of us bears his likeness. Each of us is beloved by him. Christianity’s voice in the public square is one that says to the world that an archaeology of difference is ultimately a flawed project. One of the Church’s great gifts to the societies that it finds itself in is that it has been willing to offer public voice to the deep need we have to reflect on our life together. Our current debate in this country about gun control and mental illness is too narrow. We need to look at ourselves and ask why it is that we are willing to live so estranged from one another, and the Church needs to offer a word of hope to that conversation that says a customized and ego-driven universe is not the only one on offer.