SAINT: Subversive Agents Inspiring Nonviolent Transformation

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Listen to sermon here: SAINT Subversive Agents…

Readings for All Saints Day (Year C):

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18

Luke 6:20-31

This sermon was preached at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in San Rafael CA on November 6, 2016.

Today we celebrate the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, feasts that invite us to remember the venerable saints who have inspired us communally as a church and the deceased souls who have touched us individually in our own particular lives. The Celtic Christians referred to these days as “the thinnest time of the year, the season at which the veil between time and eternity can easily become transparent, the time when darkness overtakes the light.”[1] These days function as a “powerful mirror-image of the energy flowing through the Spring Triduum”[2] of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday in which we celebrate the miraculous “resurrection” movement from death to life as we watch winter turn into spring. This Fall Triduum (All Hallow’s Eve, All Hallow’s Day and All Souls Day) recognizes and attends to the sobering and unavoidable movement from life to death as we witness death and decay in the plants and trees around us. The Lakota Sioux refer to this month’s moon as the Moon of Falling Leaves.

This last week, Carol Ann and I spent All Saints Day and All Souls Day standing in solidarity with members of the Sioux nation in North Dakota in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). This timing was appropriate as my experience at Standing Rock has given me new perspective on what it means to be a “saint” as well as new insight on how to honor the faithfully departed.

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My experience at Standing Rock has invited me to understand saints as more than just super humans who have died. I have been invited to understand saints as those who respond to violence and hate with love and compassion and who risk their own safety and livelihood to protect those who are vulnerable and that which is vulnerable. I have been invited to understand a saint as an agent of God who works to transform, subvert and dismantle the systemic sin and violence (in which we are all complicit) by means of love and non-violence. In other words, I see a saint as a subversive agent inspiring nonviolent transformation, which happens to be a nice acronym for the word saint: subversive agent inspiring nonviolent transformation.

In this way, being a “saint” is not at all about being passive and submissive to violence as many of us often suppose. In fact, the Gospel reading for All Saints this year has often been understood as a call to be just that: a passive doormat for violent bullies to walk on: “If someone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” In other words, “Let people slap you around because that is what a good Christian saint does,” right? Perhaps that’s what the people of Standing Rock should do if they want to be true saints, right?

One of my favorite New Testament scholars Walter Wink has shown that, when understood in the context of first-century Palestine, this injunctions of Jesus take on a whole new meaning. Indeed, this injunction is actually a call to practice creative non-violent resistance, summoning us to be saints, to be subversive agents inspiring nonviolent transformation.

Matthew’s version of the teaching to “turn the other cheek” is helpful in its specificity as Jesus says, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Walter Wink points out the importance of Jesus specifying the right cheek because, he asks, how exactly does one strike someone on the right cheek?

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You see, you cannot naturally strike someone on the right cheek unless you are using your left hand; and in Palestinian Jewish society, you only use your left hand for unsanitary tasks. So the only way you can strike someone on the right cheek with your right hand is by using your backhand. And if you are striking someone with your backhand in this culture, you are not necessarily doing so to injure but rather to insult, not so much to hurt but to humiliate. Masters would backhand their slaves, parents would backhand children and Romans would backhand Jews.[3] So why does Jesus counsel his Jewish listeners to turn the other cheek?

Because it is by turning the other cheek that the oppressed “robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate.”[4] By turning the other cheek, the oppressed person is saying, in effect, “If you’re going to hit me, hit me as an equal, as a peer, as a human being just like you. If you’re going to hit me, do so with full respect.” The oppressor therefore has the choice to either hit the other on the left cheek and therefore acknowledge the other as a peer or to stop hitting altogether.[5] In this way, we see the injunction to turn the other cheek as a call to nonviolently resist de-humanization.

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Walter Wink interprets many of Jesus’s sayings in Luke and Matthew as invitations not to submit to oppression but rather to expose the absurdity of the oppression, to subvert the violence of the system and to invite the oppressor to repent. This venerable tradition of creative nonviolent resistance (which has its roots in Judaism) is also the tradition of the saints, the subversive agents inspiring nonviolent transformation, and it is the same tradition that is being practiced and upheld by the Lakota Sioux at Standing Rock, North Dakota.

Those who stand in opposition to DAPL (the Dakota Access Pipeline) do not even call themselves protestors, but rather protectors, specifically “water protectors,” as they protect the water of their sacred river, which is becoming vulnerable to toxic contamination. And every day, they offer non-violence training for those who want to expose the absurdity of a system that has oppressed them for centuries and desecrated their sacred lands. (And it’s working. I just read that at least two police officers turned in their badges, acknowledging that attacking peaceful protestors is not what they signed up for.[6])

I was proud to pray with, stand with, and even risk my own safety with these “water protectors” whom I would also call saints, subversive agents inspiring nonviolent transformation. I see them carrying on the same tradition of Jesus, a dark-skinned man who preached peace and practiced creative nonviolent resistance under the shadow of an oppressive empire, that eventually had him killed.

My experience at Standing Rock has also helped me understand how I can honor those who have died in a very pragmatic and down-to-earth way. Although we often stress creation care and environmental stewardship out of concern for generations to come, the water protectors of Standing Rock helped me to see how connected creation care is with our concern and respect for those loved ones whom we have lost. Members of the Sioux nation see their land as sacred because their ancestors are buried there. Their bodies have literally become part of the earth and soil, so desecrating the land means disrespecting the bodies of the ancestors. We, as Christians, believe in the resurrection of the flesh and yet we cannot deny the reality that, when we die, our bodies will likely become part of this earth. Some of the cells of the very grass around us are essentially recycled cells of our ancestors, many of whom were indigenous peoples (the Miwok) who lived here centuries ago. My experience at Standing Rock has taught me to show respect for my ancestors and the beloved dead by caring for creation and speaking out and standing up against its exploitation.

By spending the days of the Fall Triduum at Standing Rock, I have come to see that we are indeed knit together in one communion with those who have died and with all of creation and that we are called to follow God’s blessed saints in defending creation as subversive agents inspiring nonviolent transformation. I trust that by seeking to expose and transform violent systems of oppression through creative nonviolent means, we will indeed come to those ineffable joys that God has prepared for those who truly love him, that our deepest hungers will be satisfied, that our weeping will turn to laughter and that our present poverty will lead us to enjoy and even leap for joy at the beautiful riches of God’s abundant reign on earth. Amen

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[1] Esther de Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer: The Recovery of the Religious Imagination (New York: Doubleday, 1997) , 54.

[2] http://www.contemplative.org/fall-triduum/

[3] Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 14 – 15.

[4] Wink, 15.

[5] Wink, 16.

[6] http://www.trueactivist.com/police-turn-in-badges-rather-than-incite-violence-against-standing-rock-protestors/

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About deforestlondon

Episcopal priest
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