Here’s the current newsletter: November 2017 UPDATE

Nov2017

Pausing to Pray

Rushing from the plane to find the nearest rest room, I did not pause to read more clearly the adjacent signs overhead. My initial encounter with the city of Dubai was erroneously walking into an Islamic prayer room — not a restroom. A vacation of a lifetime culminating in a mistake I could have avoided with a simple pause. Subsequently, intentional pausing became the theme of reflection concerning the vacation.

Paramount to the theme was an encounter that happened when my daughter and I were browsing the largest shopping center in the world. It was mid-afternoon, a clock chimed and groups of people began to move swiftly in the same direction. It took only a brief assessment of the movement to understand that these groups of people were responding to the call of the chime. They moved away from the things that just moments before had held their attention. They were all moving to the prayer rooms. I was in a Muslim country and the chime was the afternoon call to prayer.

A public call to prayer is not uncommon to me; it happens three times a day here at Richmond Hill. However, to have such a blatant call happen in the midst of a shopping mall was quite unfamiliar. It was quite unfamiliar indeed to see spaces provided in public buildings to accommodate one’s prayer life. I was pleasantly surprised on the one hand and surprisingly jealous on the other — jealous for this kind of commitment to prayer among Christians in my own country.

Though the community at Richmond Hill gathers to pray for metropolitan Richmond three times a day at the call of a bell, I could not help but ask myself the question: What would it be like to have the physical infrastructure of our country created in a manner that supports a commitment of God’s people to pause for prayer?

This Dubai experience was quite a contrast to the previous ten days of vacationing in South African cities. While I heard no chimes calling people to prayer there, nevertheless, the call was there all the while. There in South Africa, life was lived with such a sense of ease and simplicity that the culture itself provoked in me a sense of pausing and praying; the congruency of the two flowed throughout each day. Prayers of thanksgiving and praise seemed to be a natural outflow of pausing to take in the awesome beauty of the landscape and ocean fronts, the striking nature of numerous animals, the freshness of the air, and the goodness of the people. I was especially grateful for the unhurried and unencumbered time with my daughter with whom I traveled.

Reflecting on the experience now, I am not sure if the prayers within me promoted the pauses or if the frequent pauses nudged me to prayer. What I am sure about is: moment by moment the pausing and praying forced me to give attention to where I was, who I was with and how the Spirit was moving in all of creation. In its own way, even my body let me know that, whether understood or not, pausing to pray changes things.

As fate would have it, one suggested reading during this Easter season was a rather lengthy story from the book of Acts. This story gives an account of an encounter between two men who, in separate cities and at different times, had paused to pray — the Apostle Peter and Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman army. In that story, Peter, whose life is often viewed as a symbol of the Christian journey, offers a powerful witness to the change that had happened in his own life after he had gone to the roof of a house to pray. After a chain of events that followed that prayer time, Peter concluded, “I truly understand now that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.” (Acts 10:34-35)

As the story goes, when Cornelius and Peter had paused to pray, dual visions were granted to them both. The not-so-subtle hand of God moved to bring the two individuals together, precipitating a critical moment of change in both of their lives. Typically, we recall this story with the idea that it was Cornelius who had the greater conversion. However, at the core of the story is Peter’s vision of unclean and clean animals — a vision that began to persuade him of the social and cultural boundaries that prevented him from experiencing more of God through others.

Though Peter gained this great insight about God while associating with Cornel-ius and his family, we have only to re-member Gethsemane to know that Peter did not always recognize the wind of the Spirit in his life. He did not always give such attention to prayer. In the Garden of gethsemane, after several attempts to have Peter and other friends pray with him, Jesus gave up asking and moved forward to pray alone. Ultimately, Peter’s confession about who God is conveys that Peter’s life may have changed more dramatically than Cornelius’ life.

While pausing to pray does appear to be the impetus for this change, we cannot ignore the fact that this conversion experience for both Peter and Cornelius occurred after the resurrection. We cannot ignore the blessing of the Spirit of the Resurrection to give us the courage to pause and the power to dismantle our solidified social and cultural boundaries. Peter testified to this truth.

God’s Spirit is indeed moving throughout the world, bringing us to new understandings and new ways of being with ourselves and with others. The hope is that when the bell rings, when the chime calls, or the beauty of creation draws us, we will hear and pause to pray; we will seek the clarity that comes as we experience anew the reverberations of the resurrection, which challenge us to new and unexpected ways of being in the world.

Rev. Janie M. Walker
Co-Pastoral Director

The Rev. Dr. Benjamin P. Campbell Receives Honorary Title Pastor Emeritus

Our Christian faith encourages us to honor the elders who labor among us: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” (1 Timothy 5:17) 

As a visible and symbolic way of honoring the distinguished service of The Reverend Dr. Benjamin P. Campbell, on Monday, February 13, 2017, the Council of Richmond Hill voted unanimously to bestow upon Ben the title, “Pastor Emeritus.”   A resolution to that effect was submitted to Council by the co-pastoral directors of Richmond Hill, Janie M. Walker and Joel T. Blunk, esteeming Ben as a distinguished leader of Richmond Hill for 28 years, and one who continues to live out the mission of Richmond Hill in his personal life, faithfully seeking the healing of metropolitan Richmond.

In his letter of acceptance of this honor, Ben wrote: “…it has completely obliterated my childhood impression and made me feel fully alive? I love it. And I love you all for this genuine honor.”

Get the latest newsletter: October 2016 UPDATE

october2016_rhillupdate

Get the latest newsletter: April 2016 UPDATE

Apr2016_RHillUpdate

Get the latest newsletter: March 2016 UPDATE

Mar2016_RHillUpdate

The Theology of Race

GraceNamePlate

1st Fall Lecture for the Koinonia School of Race and Justice, given September 28, 2015 at Richmond Hill by the Rev. B. P. Campbell

Introduction: Constantine and King James

In 325 A. D. the Emperor Constantine, who had just, after 13 years of battle, murder and intrigue, secured his position in control of the Roman Empire, locked all of the Christian bishops he could find into a room in the tiny town of Nicaea, about 60 miles from Constantinople — modern Istanbul.

Until that moment, Christianity had been a kind of liberal clone of Judaism, so far as the Roman Empire was concerned. It was far more racially inclusive and culturally diverse than its parent religion. In many cities of the Roman Empire Jews and Christians hung together, and empire policy toward the religious groups changed with the moods and preferences of successive emperors. Barely 20 years before Constantine’s accession, the Emperor Diocletian had instigated murderous policies calling for the elimination of the Christian religion from the Empire altogether.

But this was not Constantine’s narrative. In fact, he wanted to go exactly the other way. He told the Bishops at Nicaea that a decade earlier, before he decisively defeated his rival Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, he had seen a cross in the sky with the inscription IHS – in hoc signo — “In This Sign Conquer” on it – and took this as an instruction to make Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire.

Under Constantine, Christian church membership would become virtually identical with citizenship in the new Rome. The price was imperial control of the church, bishops, appointments – and above all the definition of Christianity as a religion which attempted to shape only religious ceremonies and personal behavior in personal settings. Public behavior and opinion were regulated by the state, which was assumed to be the proper representative of God. The essential job of religion was to prepare and qualify people for a rewarding life in Heaven after death. Thus its task was also to excommunicate people who did not, by their quiet and obedient lives and loyalty to the state, qualify, and to condemn them to a fiery punishment after death.

Constantine took Christianity’s multi-racial form of Judaism and repackaged it as Roman citizenship, trading justice among the living for utopian life after death, and making himself de facto Messiah of the earthly realm. The only characteristic of Christianity that really suited itself to Constantine’s action was that it was multi-racial, and therefore able to fit the multi-national, multi-racial quality of the Roman Empire and its legions.

Constantine’s version of Christianity was still around when John Smith, Christopher Newport, and a dozen or more sailors bumped their boat onto an island down near 14th Street Bridge on May 24th, 1607.  The religion they carried used the word “Christian” as a synonym for “white European.” The goals and limitations of their version of Christianity were the same as its goals in the Roman Empire, but it served a state which was less racially tolerant than Constantine’s Rome. In King James’ Virginia, full credit as a child of God was not usually available to a non-European individual, and when it was, only if the individual was assimilated both into the Christian religion and the culture of the conquering race.

It is the contention of this lecture that Race is one of the central themes of the religion of Jesus. I will elaborate on that theme, and then leave it to you to judge how much relationship the religion you have received, or the religion you observe, has to the simple mystery of racial justice and reconciliation which Jesus presented as the work of the Messiah.

The Tower of Babel

To begin at the beginning: Every culture has myths of origin – stories which explain the way things are. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the diversity of languages and races is explained through the myth of the Tower of Babel, recorded in the 11th Chapter of Genesis:

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

And so the inhabited world was divided among different nations, each of them distinguished by race, language, and territory, and each having its own god.

Judaism: Chosen People

The Hebrew people emerged, according to their own history, out of the area of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers – ancient Babylon and Assyria, modern Iraq. Their progenitor was Abraham. They served as slaves in Egypt, but escaped and were led out by Moses — a person of their own race who was raised in the household of the Pharaoh. When they were in the desert, according to their tradition in the Book of Exodus, “The LORD said to Moses, “Go, leave this place, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, and go to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your descendants I will give it.’ I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.” (Exodus 33:1-2)

The Hebrew people had come to believe that their god was not simply a national/ethnic guardian, but superior to other gods, thereby giving them preference over over other ethnic groups and entitling them to take their territory by force. Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivies, and Jebusites became subject or displaced peoples.

Their God was superior to other gods: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.” (Isaiah 43:28-29) This God had chosen the Hebrew people over what they now referred to as the “Goyim,” – the other race/nations, — in English, the Gentiles; in Greek, ta ethne, the ethnic groups. “You are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.” (Deut 14:2)

The stories of the Jews told baldly of racial preference. No story was more formative in this regard than the story of Abraham’s children. Abraham’s wife Sarah was barren, so he first had a son by Hagar, an enslaved Egyptian woman. That son was called Ishmael. Afterward, he had a son, Isaac, by his wife Sarah. Abraham and Sarah banished the mixed-race Ishmael from their tribal lands. Ishmael is considered by Muslim tradition to be the ancestor of Arab tribes and of the Prophet Mohammed. In Judaism Isaac is the preferred son, the progenitor of the race, and is the father of Jacob, whose other name was Israel.

The Hebrew stories could not help but breed a sense of racial superiority, confirmed and supported by a God who was superior to the gods of all of the other ethnic groups. The Jews regarded their God as the supreme God and their culture and religion as superior to other nations. It was a religion of inclusion and exclusion. Jews had preferential treatment from the God of the universe.

But in the radical preaching in Israel, prophets said that the divine preference included higher demands and sometimes resulted in harsh treatment. God’s chosen people did not simply receive preferential benefits. God expected higher performance from them. This teaching did nothing to decrease the narrative of racial preference, but in the hands of some of the best Jewish theologians it instilled a sense of divine purpose which benefitted other races as well.

Just before 700 B.C., the prophet Isaiah said that Israel’s culture and religion was meant to be a model for the world, ultimately resulting in the gathering together of all the world’s races. The great gathering, the prophet said, would happen in Jerusalem:

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the races (the goyim) shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the races, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isa. 2:2-4)

The independence, unity, and ascendancy of the Jewish nation eroded steadily from the time of King David, known as the Messiah, and his son Solomon – who reigned from 1000 to 900 B.C., until the nation was finally conquered and completely destroyed in 586 B.C. The destruction of Israel seriously challenged the narrative of racial preference and superiority, demanding reinterpretation.

The most powerful reinterpretation of chosenness came from a theologian we know as Second Isaiah – a prophetic preacher whose writings were attached to the writings of the earlier prophet of that name. He wrote sometime around 540 B.C., when what remained of the Jewish people had been enslaved in Babylon and were being freed by the Persians. [Yes, that’s right. The Jews were saved by the Iranians.]

This second Isaiah said that God chose the Jews to reunite the races of the world. The reunification would come, he said, not by conquest, but by service. And the definition of that service, the sign of God’s victory, would be the establishment of justice. Speaking of the Jewish people he said this:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the races.

He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.

He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. (Isaiah 42:1-4)

The Jews had developed a religion of powerful personal and collective discipline and laws. They also had created a narrative of divine preference, which translated pretty directly into racial preference. I am absolutely certain that these narratives of racial preference have emerged in every tribe and race that had any self-respect throughout the world. But the Jewish narrative has been formative for Christianity and for this nation, and it is the topic of tonight’s lecture.

Jesus and race

What happens with Jesus and with the advent of the Christian movement is dramatic. You can evaluate it as a historian, or as an anthropologist, — or you can see in it, as I do, the clear identification of the holy spirit of God in the world and the ultimate intention of creation.

In any case, the developments and the teachings are there for all to see. Nearly 2000 years ago, Jerusalem was the definitive home of the Jewish people, centered on the ancient mountain where Abraham learned God did not want him to sacrifice his first-born son. Now it was the site of an enormous Temple built by Herod the Great as the religious center of the nation.

But at the turn of the Milennium, Jerusalem was not simply a single-race city. The Mediterranean world had been swirling around for five or six centuries in successive empires – most especially the Greek empire of Alexander the Great and its successor, the Roman Empire. All over the empire different ethnic groups learned Greek and Latin as second and third languages. All of the major cities became multi-ethnic, just as all the world’s major cities are today.

Jesus emerged in that context.

The religion of Jesus cannot be understood without affirming the spirit in which it is offered and practiced. There was clearly a spirit in his being that drew people to him and communicated the truth of the words which he spoke. That spirit accompanied all that he did and said, and what he did and said is understood today when the spirit which enlivened the words and actions is admitted and affirmed.

So his simple criteria for life and truth were not in any sense a lessening of rigor in the human journey. They did not reflect the absence of value, but rather a clarity of deepest meaning.

Jesus believed that The Kingdom of Heaven is coming from heaven to earth. It was his privilege to be present as that was happening and to point to its arrival.

The poor were hearing good news, he said; captives were being freed, blind persons were recovering their sight, the oppressed were being freed, and people were hearing good news and finding hope. This, he said, was proof that the kingdom was now coming. He invited people to look for the good news, and to help to bring it to the community. (Luke 4:14-21; cp. Mt. 11:2-6, Isa. 61:1-4) Along with this came the forgiveness of sins – and therefore the abolition of the authority of religious authorities over heaven and hell.

Jesus said that God was not recruiting privileged membership or establishing hierarchy; he was seeking servants for the kingdom.

Jesus adopted the theme which the second Isaiah had identified. So far as God was concerned, whatever chosenness he might be involved in was not about privilege. It was about service. It is important to understand what this means: If Jesus was recruiting servants, then the banquet was for the entire population. He was not recruiting privileged membership in the Halls of Heaven, but rather committed persons who would help bring heaven’s kingdom into the earthly races.

Those of you who are familiar with Christian scripture know the story of James and John the Zebedee brothers, two of his twelve interns, who came to Jesus and asked if they could have privileged positions in the Kingdom – if not here, at least hereafter. Jesus replied that this kind of hierarchy was natural in every nation and race in the world, but it could not be in the Kingdom of Heaven. Here in this order the greatest would be the servant, the first among all would be the slave of all. (Mk. 10:35-45)

He used the word servant. He used the word slave. No privilege of race or religion or education or family was of any account. No hierarchy would serve this kingdom.

For Jesus, whatever choosing God may do has nothing to do with race. Servants of God may be of any race, gender, vocation, or personal history.

In Jesus’ teaching, and in his behavior, it becomes abundantly clear that race is not a criterion that determines who will serve or be served, or for choosing the servants of God.

He begins by declaring that family lineage – tribe or race – has nothing to do with what he is looking for. Early in his ministry they told him that his mother and brothers were trying to get him to come outside and talk to them. “Who are my mother and brothers?” he asked pointedly. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-5) On another occasion he was arguing with the religious leaders who constantly confronted him, not least over his indiscriminate associations with persons of another class or race. “A certain man had two sons,” Jesus said. One said he would help his Father but didn’t. The other said he wouldn’t help but did. Which son served the Father?” (Mt. 21:28-31) The point was that it was spirit, intent, and behavior which empowered one for service, not religion or kinship of race.

John the Baptist, whose language and presentation was far more harsh than that of his cousin Jesus, shouted at the Jewish leaders – the Pharisees and Sadducees – who came to hear him, that he was tired of their acting as if being Jewish was in and of itself a virtue: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’,” John said. “God can raise up children of Abraham from these stones.” (Mt. 3:7-9)

The most convincing testimony of Jesus about race was not what he said, but what he did. He constantly and consistently spoke with all comers. He did not overtly recruit people to his movement, but the presence of their stories in the New Testament all but assures that a great diversity of people were members of early Jesus fellowships, telling one another the stories of their transformation.

We don’t know the race of many of the people whom he served, but if he was dealing with prostitutes and beggars and persons in outcast professions, we can be fairly certain that many of them were not Jews. We know specifically of

  • A woman who was Syrian and Phoenician: This woman approached him when he was in what is now Southern Lebanon. She asked him for help for her daughter. His Jewish disciples tried to send her away. Jesus repeated a direct racist epithet to her: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs!” She came right back at him, as I am certain he knew she would: “Yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table.”   She and her daughter were healed right at that moment. (Mk. 7:24-30)
  • A Samaritan woman: Jesus met a Samaritan woman – of a different race and religion than his own – at a well and had a long discussion about the different beliefs of Samaritans and Jews. He summarized the discussion by saying that the fundamental issue was that people, regardless of race, should worship God in the right spirit and in truth. (John 4:4-42)
  • A Roman centurion, who could have been of any race among those many recruited or compelled to serve in the Roman army. Jesus was so impressed by the man that he said his spiritual commitment exceeded that of all the Jews he had dealt with. (Mark 8:5-13)
  • There was a demented man named Legion who was of some non-Jewish origin and who lived in a town where pigs were the business – anathema to Jews. (Mark 5:1-20)
  • Finally, Jesus told a very pointed story about a good Samaritan man who got what Jesus was putting down better than a Jewish priest or Levite who ignored the man in the ditch. (Luke 10:25-37)

These encounters, no doubt representative of what happened with Jesus, define his spiritual teaching and his attitude toward ethnic and religious privilege.

The early church seems to have been composed of small fellowships of varied race and gender in the cities throughout the Eastern Roman Empire. Paul discovered that persons of other races – Gentiles – were responding to what he was saying better than many Jews. Peter had similar experience. In a powerful dream sequence described in chapter 10 of the Book of Acts, Peter saw a great net coming down from heaven filled with all kinds of creatures, and he understood this to be God telling him that persons of all races were of equal concern to God. Jesus’ own brother James, who was the leader of the Jesus followers who stayed in Jerusalem, said he was convinced that the whole movement affirmed a prophecy “that all humankind may seek the Lord– all the races over whom my name has been called. (Acts 15:17)

One of the most significant revelations about race in the New Testament is detailed in Luke’s description of the celebration on the Jewish festival of Pentecost in Jerusalem soon after Jesus’ resurrection. According to his account, there were Jews and non-Jews from every race – literally “every nation under heaven” who heard Peter and the other apostles preaching and understood it in their own language. The spirit in the place was powerful. You knew it was right. People of every race were joined together in fellowship. The event was seen as a reversal of the tragedy of the Tower of Babel in prehistory. Because of the spirit of God, people of every race were able to understand each other even though they spoke different languages. (Acts 2:1-13)

It was a joint Jewish-Roman cabal in Jerusalem who eventually killed Jesus. Both Romans and Jews conducted his trial. It is obvious that the religion which Jesus preached and taught by his life and action held everyone to account, regardless of race. Jesus served people indiscriminately and recruited followers indiscriminately. The only criterion of choice was that they should seek to do the will of the father. Their participation was determined not by their race, but by their commitment to service.

To be clear: The multi-racial, inclusive quality of Jesus’ message and ministry related not only to the people whom he served individually, but to his larger work as Messiah. He had rejected the route of military power – offered to him by the devil in the desert Temptations at the beginning of his ministry. The devil suggested that if Jesus would adopt satanic methods, he could have all of the races kneeling at his feet. But Jesus intended to inaugurate the work of the Messiah – to bring the Kingdom to the earth and reconcile the races. He understood, and taught, that the methodology of the Messiah would be dependent on a different spirit. He seems to have followed the methodology of the servant-Messiah that was described in the writing of the prophet we call Second Isaiah which we quoted earlier:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. (Isaiah 42:1-4)

Why is Christianity inseparable from the issue of race?

What is powerful in Jesus’ presentation about race is that he attacks the issue of hierarchy and privilege. He does this indiscriminately – making it the central issue of his religious critique. The judgements and promises of God are to all people of all races. Jesus serves people of all races. He invites all to true leadership and service, and his criticism of false privilege and leadership is directed, in his situation, more at the religious people than at any one else.

Since racism is always the handmade of hierarchy and privilege, race is a central issue for Christian theology. A Christian theology that says nothing about personal and structural racism misses the point desperately. Race is the most powerful and obvious handle on the spiritual sickness of humankind. The dismantling of racist structures and righting of racial wrongs is the inescapable service of those who wish to follow Jesus.

I’m a Christian – I guess it’s obvious – but Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and persons of no religion can work at this as well and many do – they know that the God of their understanding has no favorites, as Peter said in Acts, “but in every race anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” As Jesus said clearly, It doesn’t matter what you call yourself, it’s what you do that counts.

The Feeding of the 5000

In the early Church, there was one story from Jesus’ ministry that was told more frequently than any other. It occurs six times in the four Gospels. It is called the Feeding of the 5000.

It’s clear that Jesus’ work was consistently interracial, and his most famous gathering clearly was. The event became one of the most storied in his entire ministry. It occurred in Galilee, where his teaching and healing ministry began. Galilee was known as a multi-racial area. Jews were in a minority there. Arabs and Phoenicians were the most numerous inhabitants.

While teaching and healing in Galilee, Jesus became exhausted, and decided to go off with some of his disciples in the boat, away from the crowds. But people followed him from all of the towns, and when the boat landed a crowd was there to meet him. Rather than leave again, he decided to address the crowd. They sat down on a hillside, and Jesus taught. It seems the people could not get enough. The day went on and on, and as it came to evening, the disciples told Jesus it was time to disperse them.

You’ll just have to imagine who was in the crowd. If you can’t imagine it yourself, try seeing the Monty Python movie The Life of Brian and see what the producers of that film imagined it was like. This must have been an incredible group of people – hardly the crowd from the Lincoln Center – more like a crowd in the center of Mumbai. They were of every conceivable race and culture – a few well-to-do, a lot of women and children as well as men, many sick, many poor. Thieves, prostitutes, and village elders. Each town had its own racial composition and religion. Here they all were mixed together in a crowd.

The disciples wanted to get them out of there before it got dark, but Jesus knew it was time to eat. He invited them to sit down together. A young boy offered his bread and fish. Touched by the offering, Jesus raised it up, gave thanks for it, and gave it those nearby. Then, as if by signal, food spontaneously appeared all over the hillside. People fed one another. People shared with all their neighbors the bag lunches, the wine, the fruits and breads that they had brought with them. According to all the accounts, everyone ate and all were satisfied.

The Feeding of the 5000 was a miracle, but I don’t think the miracle was in the multiplication of fish and loaves in a magical act. The miracle was the feast of at least 5000 random people from every race and religion, every social class and profession, in which all ate and all were satisfied. The spirit of Jesus was shared by the crowd. It was an incredible celebration. The story was told over and over again in the early church. Someone in the fellowship would say, “I was there,” and tell his or her version of the story.

It was, they would say, a sign – a sign of the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven to earth, what they had been taught by Jesus to pray for daily. It represented the economics of the kingdom. It represented the justice of the kingdom. It represented the service of the kingdom. It represented the racial and ethnic respectfulness of the kingdom.

These characteristics – effective economic sharing, justice in social organization, people committed to service and citizenship, and racial and ethnic respect – have from the very beginning been the characteristics of the spiritual and social movement which Jesus identified, which he called the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. They are not peripheral, they are central. And no Gospel which does not enjoy their presence can survive as true religion.

The question which we must answer is this: Can we honor what we know of the spirit of God and remain passive before the serious and sophisticated structures of racial discrimination which have been carefully erected in metropolitan Richmond since its beginning, or does the spirit call us forth into the unknown territory of justice and repair, the righting of racial wrongs? Can we, who know the truth of God and must tell the truth about what we see, tolerate a transportation system designed a half-century ago to perpetuate racial segregation? Can we accept the drastic under-funding of schools into which are crowded the racially segregated young persons of the center city?

Or are these matters which do not belong to true religion, matters which we are powerless to address, matters which should be left to others who will not address them?

Can anyone doubt that race is central to the Gospel? And where that is denied, can we be silent about it?

— Reverend Benjamin P. Campbell
at Richmond Hill
September 28, 2015 

Word and reality

Everything is so much more than the words that describe it …than the measurements that describe it …than the chemical and physical analysis that profile it. Everyone is so much more than the words that describe them …than the things you can say about them …than the analysis you can make of them …than the history you can tell of them.

All of these descriptors and analyses, all of these dissections and divisions into elements, all of these photographs and MRI’s, are both profound and profoundly lacking as they attempt to describe life in the most simple day in this world. Limit the space you are describing, limit the time – it is still profound. The truth is beyond our grasp.

We can make significant mistakes in attempting to describe what we see, and great catastrophes can result. We act, after all, based on what we see or think we see. So if we see incorrectly, our actions are unlikely to have the desired result.

But making mistakes about what we see is a minor infraction compared to the great mistake of our time, which is to declare that what we see is the same thing as reality.

Computers simply incarnate the current madness. Computers are about the measurement and description of reality. Life is simultaneously expanded and reduced to megabillions of bits and bytes.

Meanwhile, the most highly developed society of this century, the most highly computerized society of this century, the most thoroughly researched and described society in human history, the most persistently polled society in the world, is rapidly disintegrating into fragments of its former self, more racist, less humane, more frantic.

The study of economics devolved into mathematics and graphs – with no attention to the purpose and success of economies in supporting and building a nation. Look at what we have — an economic policy that consistently maldistributes wealth, destroys cities, reduces wages, eliminates jobs, generates enormous deficits, oppresses subject nations, and devours the common wealth.

The study of politics devolved into polling and prediction – with no serious attention paid to the earnest issues of the time. Look at what we have – the development of competing poll-tested slogans powered by enormous amounts of money. We have mouthpiece leadership by interchangeable candidates in electoral districts designed to be non-competitive.

The study of medicine has concentrated on drugs and machines – with less and less attention paid to the mysterious healing properties of human care. Look at the result – the highest health costs in the world, hospitals that frantically try to expel the patient as soon as possible, pill-based psychiatry, and cost-accounting instead of conversation.

The teaching of children is concentrated on standardized computerized tests – with no attention to the development of the mind or spirit or the true sources of inequity. Look at the result – firing and imprisonment of teachers, higher and higher expenditures on computers and standardized short-answer tests, total ignorance of classroom culture, and the destruction and defunding of public school systems throughout the nation.

The evaluation of society is relegated to statistical measurement of individuals, with little or no attention to the common wealth and the less measureable but easily seen quality of the community. Look at the result – more and more isolated people, miserable affluence and impossible unemployment, long hours in busy isolation on crowded highways, decades of deterioration of public facilities, insufficient or non-existent public transportation, the world’s highest level of incarceration, leaders who think that their own material wealth is the goal of existence, and an increasing number of incidents where someone walks into a public space and sprays bullets into their fellow citizens.

The problem is not measurement that can be quantified and computerized. The problem is that this measurement has replaced other ways of seeing. The closer and more detailed this measurement becomes, the less it sees of the larger realities which really describe and determine human life.

The critical questions of human life and society deal with meaning and purpose, community and love, justice and equity, inclusiveness and value. The critical components of humanity are not only individuals but also families and tribes, cities and nations. The critical questions of economics deal today with preservation, health, distribution, and employment, rather than exploitation, capitalization, consolidation, and monetization of the world’s remaining relationships.

If we do not pay attention to reality, it will not stop reality from being real. We will simply be broken by it. God is unseen, but that does not mean he is not real. He is unimaginable, but that does not mean he is not true. He is unfathomable, but that does not mean he is not kind. And he is by nature incredibly patient, but that does not mean the reality he has created can be ignored. His whole goal is to help us recognize and deal with the great mysterious and unseen reality in which he and we are fully existing. His intention is that we would so live and so love in this reality that we would know our eternal life.

In order to do that, we have to take seriously the things that are unseen – but as clear as the nose on your face.

Rev. Ben Campbell
UPDATE, May 2015 

Divine Treasury

The search for the treasures of of heaven is a daily one. That is a part of its character. There is nothing static about it. It is a daily commitment, a daily exploration, a daily mystery, a daily prayer.

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is trying to teach us into the Kingdom. His teaching has a mysterious quality. Its meaning is allusive. It stimulates inquiry and interpretation on a continuing basis. Treasures in heaven, treasures in heaven – the phrase rolls off the tongue as if its meaning were clear. But it is not. What are clear are the characteristics of the treasure which may be sought. The treasure is true wealth. It has a heavenly or divine quality and blessing. It is indestructible, ever-living, and permanent. No one can take it from you.

Every day, millions of people go to some source of information – now it is almost certainly web-based – to see what is happening to the value of various stocks, bonds, commodities, and financial instruments. A split second’s delay (literally) in reaction to a change in monetary value can make the difference between profit and loss for an investor or manipulator of money. To succeed at the accumulation of monetized wealth in this fashion demands total attention and dedication. (Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.)

There are people – and I know some of them – who can give this kind of attention to the markets and yet put their hearts toward the treasures of the kingdom. They are very special people, and they have been made special by the difficulty of this intense conflict of value.

In one form or another, this intense conflict of value confronts everyone, not just persons engaged in financial markets. Each of us finds at least one particular treasure which tries and tempts us as our primary competition for the treasures of heaven. Temptation teaches. It ups the ante. It makes us aware that we have hearts, and that there is choice to be made. The temptation treasure can ultimately become a sacrament for the treasures of the kingdom, but only when it is first renounced for its own sake. You don’t get to keep primary allegiance to the obsession that encapsulates your heart by renaming it a sacrament, or by sending a few charitable donations to heaven.

I think that the quest for the treasures in heaven must be a daily one. There is something alive here. The quest is not a denial of attention to one’s life and the things of this world. Rather the quest for the treasures of heaven demands an attentive presence to one’s own life – to the concerns which one has, and to the persons and situations which one confronts.

Is it possible that a search, day after day, for the treasures of the kingdom might awaken hope, or train the heart, or familiarize the ears and eyes to the signs of opportunities for divine investment? Surely we hope so – that as we pray our way into each day and seek to respond to its possibilities, we might be more and more on the path that leads through the emporium of true wealth.

The business of heavenly treasure is a commitment to a lively and constant rediscovery of the kingdom. It doesn’t stay found. About all we can do is learn to mark the territory: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44)

The treasure of the kingdom is not something that we possess, but rather something of which we ourselves become a part. There is a collective treasure here. The very quality of heavenly treasure is its collectivity. It benefits oneself and others – the benefits are expansive, non-discriminatory.

We never stop having the opportunity to put things into the divine treasury. The different stages of life, with their different tasks, provide different opportunities. When we are sick or in bed there are some unusual, deeply powerful opportunities for this wealth for ourselves and others. And when we are actively involved in our lives, there are not only the daily deposits which we may make, but also the incredible entrepreneurial opportunities. We cross what seemed to be solid lines of stubborn negativity and break forth at last with others into the wealth which Jesus had in mind from the beginning.

I suppose one day the wealth of the kingdom will simply overwhelm the riches of this world, working through its own mediums of exchange to bring about a kind of leveraged buyout of the Kingdom of this World.

It will happen, if it does, because of the choices which people are making daily as they come to see the only treasures which make any difference at all, the only treasures which have true value, the rhythm and melodies of the songs of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Rev. Benjamin P. Campbell, Senior Pastor

The ear of God

There is another dimension.

It is not the third dimension. It is not the fourth, or the fifth dimension. It does violence to this dimension, in a sense, to give it a number. This is the dimension where number is nonexistent.

In the first two or three dimensions, number is required and defining. Length, width, depth, or height — these are measurements, and the first dimensions are measureable. We should know. The society is obsessed with measurement. In fact – and even 30 years ago one might have considered this absurdly impossible – a significant portion of the society considers immeasurable things insignificant.

The great enforcer of measurability is the computer. But money also helps.

Trillions of dollars (literally) are currently being invested to force the nation’s public school system into a computer-based model, in which a few large software and hardware companies require use of their products and control what short answers children are taught – and in which all teaching and learning is reduced to things that can be answered on a computer-based test.

The power of the economic profitability of this is enormous. Major foundations are pushing it, and hedge funds exploiting it. It has taken over the current U.S. Department of Education and the public schools of several states. Its profiteers are contributing mightily in elections.

In the doublespeak which has been perfected by a market-driven, concentrated-power society, the centrally controlled computer-based Common Core curriculum is said to introduce “critical thinking” into education where it was missing before. It does exactly the opposite. Test-writers write trick questions and call that critical thinking. In order to deflect the short-answer syndrome of all computer-based testing, extensive attempts are being made to get computers to “read” students’ essays.

Needless to say, few who have a choice will choose computerized classrooms, where experienced teachers are replaced with lower-paid classroom monitors, driven constantly by high stakes standardized testing. Most of us would prefer to have our own children educated in small classes in imaginative and encouraging private classrooms.

Kindergarteners’ play and creative work is being replaced by short-answer computer-based tests, frequently given, so that they can “get ahead” as quickly as possible. Their life of play and community is devalued, debased.

The drive for measurability is in no way confined to education, of course. Time and money, measured by whatever results can be measured or quantified, are the dominant shapers of medical care and non-profit funding as well. The logic of this is inescapable, but nurture is immeasurable. What is measured comes to dominate all activity. Poorer societies often do better at the immeasurable.

The U. S. Department of education and many education “reformers” whose investments are driving them are insisting that teachers be evaluated on the standardized test scores of their children, thereby removing any incentive to teach anything but the test, eliminating dissenters, and compelling survivors to gravitate toward students who will get good test scores.

Silence. Meaning. Depth. The immeasurable realities of life receive little attention and, even more distressing, little time. Time is money, whether it is in education, or in community work, or in medical care. Television and computers skate across the surface, demanding more and more of our attention and alluding to the meaning of life only by title. They occupy us.

There is no time for meaning. No encouragement of discussion. No truth of depth. Nothing unseen, unspoken, unheard is acknowledged. Things are not thought or connected. We feel the truth, but we are not led into its pathways. The paths become overgrown, and the way is even blocked on purpose.

There is no time for something immeasurable – a song or a symphony, a question or an alternative thesis. How would one determine what was substantial, or important – what had weight? Does one thing matter more than another? Is there something open-ended? Would there be wonder, or appreciation, or discussion, or reconciliation, or fellowship? No time for the smokiness of spirituality, no sense of the intersection of time and the timeless moment.

What gets revenue is what is produced and marketed. What is taught is what is tested. There is no place for learning about the world, for the advance of humankind, for the building of community, the holding of hands, the things that really and truly endure.

The depth of things is the beginning of each day and the foundation of our journey. But our financial-profit-driven materialism conspires to keep us on the surface at all costs. Even our electronic gadgets are our captors: the average smartphone is occupied two hours and 53 minutes every day. Dare not to envision the deep!

Meanwhile, there are press reports that more people are turning to spirituality. We are starved for meaning, desperate for depth, longing for silence. It is what a friend of mine calls “the ear of God.” Perhaps if we cry out he can hear us in immeasurable being.

The Rev. Benjamin P. Campbell, Senior Pastor