About djgrieser

I have been Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Madison, WI since 2009. I'm passionate about Jesus Christ and about connecting our faith and tradition with 21st century culture. I'm also very active in advocating for our homeless neighbors.

Naming Evil: The Armenian Genocide

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the event that became the Armenian genocide. On this day in 1915, Turkish authorities rounded up around 200 Armenians in Constantinople. Most were eventually killed. Over the next decade, the Armenian population fell from over 2.1 million people to less than 400,000. Diplomats and journalists at the time recounted stories of mass killings and deportations. In 1915 alone, The New York Times printed around 145 articles on the atrocities against the Armenians. Background from vox here and the Times here and here.

The Armenian genocide took place during World War I, when Germany and the Ottoman Empire were allies. After the war ended, the victorious allies carved up the Ottoman Empire. As Amanda Taub points out on Vox:

Several of the Turkish officials who had been architects of the Armenian genocide went on to found the modern Turkish state that emerged from the Ottoman Empire’s ashes.

Those Turkish officials became heroes of modern Turkey, and their reputation wrapped up in the legitimacy of this new state. Admitting that the genocide happened would risk tainting the Turkish state itself, as well as the individuals responsible. “It’s not easy for a nation to call its founding fathers murderers and thieves,” Turkish historian Taner Akcam told the New York Times.

The question of whether to call what happened to the Armenians “genocide” has long been tied up with Turkish nationalism and international politics. Thomas de Waal, author of a recent book on the controversy, explains in Foreign Affairs wonders whether the word “genocide” itself has become part of the problem:

Simply put, the emotive power of the word has overpowered Armenian-Turkish dialogue. No one willingly admits to committing genocide. Faced with this accusation, many Turks (and others in their position) believe that they are being invited to compare their grandparents to the Nazis.

It may be that the word “genocide” has exhausted itself, and that the success of Lemkin’s invention has also been its undoing. Lemkin probably never anticipated that coining a new standard of awfulness would set off an unfortunate global competition in which nations—from Armenia’s neighbor Azerbaijan to Sudan and Tibet—vie to get the label applied to their own tragedies. As the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov has observed, even though no one wants to be a victim, the position does confer certain advantages. Groups that gain recognition as victims of past injustices obtain “a bottomless line of moral credit,” he has written.

Whatever it’s called, it was a crime against humanity, a great tragedy, and a great evil. Humans continue to witness and perpetrate such evils in the twenty-first century. Naming evil, having moral clarity on evil is one thing. Reconciliation is something else. We cannot hope to create a more just and peaceful world community unless we are able to recognize and name evil, and to seek such reconciliation in its aftermath.

NT Wright on the Resurrection

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Jn 21:16

There is a whole world in that question, a world of invitation and challenge, of the remaking of a human being after disloyalty and disaster, of the refashioning of epistemology itself, the question of how we know things, to correspond to the new ontology, the question of what reality consists of. The reality that is the resurrection cannot simply be “known” from within the old world of decay and denial, of tyrants and torture, of disobedience and death.

And this is the point where believing in the resurrection of Jesus suddenly ceases to be a matter of inquiring about an odd event in the first century and becomes a matter of rediscovering hope in the twenty-first century. Hope is what you get when you suddenly realize that a different worldview is possible, a worldview in which the rich, the powerful, and the unscrupulous do not after all have the last word. The same worldview shift that is demanded by the resurrection of Jesus is the shift that will enable us to transform the world.

NT Wright, Surprised by Hope, HarperCollins, 2008, pp. 72, 75

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, April 9, 1945

Today is the seventieth anniversary of the martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While in prison, he wrote a series of letters to his close friend Eberhart Bethge in which he began speculate about “religionless Christianity.” While this notion has received considerable attention over the decades beginning in the 1960s, his words remain as challenging and questioning in the twenty-first century as they did when he wrote them while imprisoned for his participation in an assassination plot against Hitler, and as World War II was coming to an end:

Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the “religious a priori” of mankind. “Christianity” has always been a form–perhaps the true form–of “religion.” But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless–and I think that that is already more or less the case (else how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any “religious” reaction?)–what does that mean for “Christianity”? It means that the foundation is taken away from the whole of what has up to now been our “Christianity,” and that there remain only a few “last survivors of the age of chivalry,” or a few intellectually dishonest people that we are to pounce in fervor, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them goods? Are we to fall upon a few unfortunate people in their hour of need and exercise a sort of religious compulsion on them? If we don’t want to do all that, if our final judgment must be that the Western form of Christianity, too, was only a preliminary stage to a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for the church? How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well? Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity–and even this garment has looked very different at different times–then what is a religionless Christianity?

I’ve previously written about Bonhoeffer here and here.

Easter Wings–George Herbert

Easter Wings

By George Herbert

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
      Though foolishly he lost the same,
            Decaying more and more,
                  Till he became
                        Most poore:
                        With thee
                  O let me rise
            As larks, harmoniously,
      And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

 

My tender age in sorrow did beginne
      And still with sicknesses and shame.
            Thou didst so punish sinne,
                  That I became
                        Most thinne.
                        With thee
                  Let me combine,
            And feel thy victorie:
         For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

Resurrection Imperfect–John Donne

RESURRECTION, IMPERFECT.
by John Donne

SLEEP, sleep, old sun, thou canst not have repass’d,
As yet, the wound thou took’st on Friday last ;
Sleep then, and rest ; the world may bear thy stay ;
A better sun rose before thee to-day ;
Who—not content to enlighten all that dwell
On the earth’s face, as thou—enlighten’d hell,
And made the dark fires languish in that vale,
As at thy presence here our fires grow pale ;
Whose body, having walk’d on earth, and now
Hasting to heaven, would—that He might allow
Himself unto all stations, and fill all—
For these three days become a mineral.
He was all gold when He lay down, but rose
All tincture, and doth not alone dispose
Leaden and iron wills to good, but is
Of power to make e’en sinful flesh like his.
Had one of those, whose credulous piety
Thought that a soul one might discern and see
Go from a body, at this sepulchre been,
And, issuing from the sheet, this body seen,
He would have justly thought this body a soul,
If not of any man, yet of the whole.

Desunt Caetera

Seven Stanzas for Easter: John Updike

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

John Updike, 1960.

Experiencing Resurrection: A Sermon for Easter 2015

Can you imagine what it must have been like for Jesus’ disciples as they grieved his death? They had come with him from Galilee. They thought he was the Messiah. It’s likely many, if not all of them, imagined that when they got to Jerusalem, Jesus would instigate a revolt that would lead to the Jewish people’s independence from Rome. Instead, here they were the day after he had been arrested and crucified in a public and horrific display of Rome’s power. If you read the gospels, it’s clear that the disciples themselves went in hiding. They were noticeable for their out-of-town accents and likely feared that if they were caught, they would end up like Jesus, crucified, crushed under Rome’s tyranny.

How deep was their grief and despair? Had they begun to consider what they were going to do with the rest of their lives, that is, if they safely escaped Jerusalem? Or would that come later, after the worst of the grieving was over, after they had made their way to safety, after they had begun to pick up the pieces of the lives they had left behind, months, or even years before?

I wonder if the feelings they had in those couple of days are anything like the feelings many of us have right now, as we despair over the state of our city, our state, our nation, even the world. The unrelenting barrage of negative news just keeps coming. Global Warming threatens life on our planet and we’re experiencing foretastes of it with longlasting drought in California. Violence in our world as we hear stories of the deaths of Christians in Kenya, in the Middle East, and Nigeria. War continues in so many places—Syria, Ukraine.

It’s no better closer to home. How many of us are struggling with the threatened budget cuts—to UW, for example? What about the ongoing racial disparities in our community? And then there’s the despair and grief that only or our closest friends and family know—the deaths of loved ones, serious illness, broken relationship, unemployment. The euphoria created by a Badgers victory in the Final Four is only temporary. Too soon, today, tomorrow, Tuesday, we’ll be back to the reality of our lives and world.

Some of us may be asking questions very like the ones Jesus’ disciples were asking, “What now? How do we put our lives back together? How do we go on?”

We bring those questions with us today. We bring with us the struggles and pain of our lives and our world. We are like Mary Magdalene, who came to the tomb to mourn Jesus’ death. Her world was broken, as ours is. She was lost and grieving. We don’t even know why she came to the tomb that morning. Unlike the other gospels, John doesn’t say she came to anoint Jesus for burial (In fact, that had already taken place). She came in grief, to mourn her teacher.

When she came to the tomb and found it empty, she ran back to tell the disciples. Peter and the Beloved Disciple ran back with her, probably in disbelief. They wanted to see for themselves that the tomb was empty, that Jesus’ was gone. And when they arrived and their curiosity was satisfied, they returned to the place they had been staying.

But Mary Magdalene stayed behind, weeping, disconsolate. Peter and the Beloved Disciple had looked in the tomb; they saw the rolled up linen burial cloths. They had seen enough. Mary followed them. Only now did she peer inside the tomb, and she saw something very different. She saw two angels who asked her why she was weeping. She still couldn’t figure it out—she didn’t know who, or what, they were.

Then she turned and saw another figure, one who asked the same question of her that the angels had, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She’s still confused, she thinks it might be the gardener, so she replies to him as she had to the angels, asking where Jesus’ body had been taken. It’s only when he says her name that she recognizes him and calls him, “Rabbouni.”

The whole gospel has been building to this moment. This encounter has been foreshadowed repeatedly from the very first chapter. When Jesus called his first disciples, he bid them “Come and see.” When Nicodemus came to him by night, wanting to know more about this great teacher and worker of miracles, Jesus talked about the new life that he was offering those who followed him. In his last public appearance before his arrest and crucifixion, some Greeks came, they wished to see him. In each case, people came in search of something, wanting to see Jesus, but it’s not clear that they did; it’s not clear that they encountered him, understood his words. It’s not clear that experienced his life-giving words.

And now, in this encounter in the garden, Mary Magdalene, didn’t know who or what she saw until Jesus spoke to her, and called her by name. In that moment, with that simple word, her eyes were opened and she experienced resurrection.

Well, I suppose that settles it. Or perhaps not. The resurrection—the notion that Jesus emerged from the tomb after dying, that he lives now—lies outside of human experience. Even the gospel writers, even Paul, in the reading from I Corinthians, struggle to make sense of it, struggle to communicate what it was, what it means to their readers and to us. The stories in the gospels are confused and contradictory—was it a young man? One angel? Two? Who came to the tomb and why? And to whom did Jesus first appear?

There are actually only a few details on which the gospels agree—that women, among them Mary Magdalene, came to the tomb; that it was empty; that they received the news that Jesus had risen from the dead. And Paul, who’s writing a few decades before any of the gospels were written, doesn’t seem to know anything about the women or the empty tomb. He says the Risen Christ appeared first to Peter, then to the twelve. He goes on to list other appearances of the Risen Christ including one to himself, “and last of all as to one untimely born, he appeared to me.”

But to ask these sorts of questions, as interesting as they are, is to miss the point entirely. We are trained to be skeptics, even cynics. We want only to believe what we see with our eyes, what we can touch. We want to believe only what conforms to our worldviews, our expectations, the narrow confines of our minds. Think of our political and cultural discourse. We are full of what is called confirmation bias—fitting the evidence into our preconceived categories, expectations, and worldviews.

But the resurrection lies outside all of that. It is incomprehensible, incommensurate, inconceivable. To imagine what might have happened, to understand what Mary Magdalene might have experienced, we need to think differently, we need to have our eyes opened.

John begins his account of the last supper with the following sentence, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” In those chapters, indeed throughout the gospel, in Jesus’ encounters with others, he offers them new life, rich abundant life, life lived in him. That’s what he means by love. Love is not just an emotion, it is a way of knowing, a way of knowing the other fully and through that knowledge, coming to know oneself. That’s what happened to Mary when Jesus called her by name and her eyes were opened.

The resurrection of Christ offers as an encounter with his love and it changes everything. When we open ourselves to Christ’s love, when we are opened by Christ’s love, we see the world in new ways; our old ways of thinking and being are shattered by the reality of the new creation and the hope.

Resurrection, the new life of Christ, new life in Christ, opens up to us a new world, a world in which we can imagine and help to bring about the reign of God proclaimed by Jesus Christ. The resurrection offers us a new way of seeing, a new way of being, where we are no longer constrained by the limits of our imagination, or by human sin and evil.

The resurrection offers us a new way of seeing ourselves—in spite of our shortcomings and struggles, in spite of our doubts and despair, when the risen Christ calls us by name we can see ourselves as he sees us—as new creatures, new beings, living in him.

The resurrection offers us a new way of seeing each other—no longer focused on the ways we’ve been hurt, the ways others have fallen short, we see them with the eyes that Jesus saw Mary, we can see each other as new beings alive in Christ.

Whatever struggles we have today, whatever our fears, doubts, whatever suffering and pain we might know—all of that might still be with us tomorrow, it probably will—but thanks to the resurrection, thanks to the Risen Christ, we know the possibility and reality of new creation. We know the world is being made new by the power of love; we know that Jesus Christ has triumphed and a new world, the reign of God is being born.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!