Van Gogh: Gospel in the Coal Dust

Van_Gogh_self_portrait_as_an_artist

I fell in love with the art of Vincent Van Gogh in high school.  I don’t recall my first exposure to him  I suspect, like most, that it came from a combination of the painting ‘The Starry Night’ and the story involving his severed ear.  I remember seeing a dramatic performance of Leonard Nimoy’s ‘Vincent’ performed at a school speech competition, and the pathos of Theo as he speaks about his tortured brother stuck with me.  

After seeing the performance of ‘Vincent’, I watched Robert Altman’s cinematic masterpiece ‘Vincent and Theo’.  Their relationship, as depicted in the film, seemed to point at something greater than philia, or brotherly love, and toward a true sense of agape, that is pure, unconditional love.  No matter how outrageous or erratic Vincent’s behavior, his brother Theo loved and cared for him.  

After watching Altman’s film, I read Irving Stone’s ‘Lust for Life’, a fictional re-telling of Van Gogh’s life.  Though I loved the entire book, one particular section stuck with me.  Stone describes Van Gogh’s brief tenure in the ministry.  Before becoming an artist, Van Gogh worked as a pastor in the Belgian Borinage region, among the country’s coal miners.

Rather than stand apart from and above the miners, Van Gogh attempted to sit with them in their suffering.  He journeyed into the mines and mingled freely with the people.  He gave away everything he owned.  Stories are related of him carrying heavy loads for pregnant women and ministering to the injured after an explosion at the mine. Locals referred to him as ‘Christ of the coal mines.’  This zealous approach to missionary work and his seemingly extreme behavior scandalized the church and they fired him after six months.  

Screenshot 2017-06-23 at 12.11.40 PM

Much has been written about Van Gogh’s later life, after he devoted his life to art.  Most know of his madness, the madness that led him to cut off his own ear and to (presumably) commit suicide.  Yet throughout his suffering, he continued to find and embrace beauty in the world around him; one senses in his artwork something akin to the praise and agony poured out by King David in the Psalms.  

We are, all of us, broken.  As Brennan Manning once said, “To be alive is to be broken; to be broken is to stand in need of grace.”  The scandal of the Gospel is that God loves, embraces, and even pursues us in our brokenness.  As recipients of this love, we are called to give it freely to others.  Like Vincent’s brother Theo, we are called to love others, even when they abuse and hurt us.  Like Vincent, we are called to sit with those in the coal dust, to stand with the broken regardless of what the world or the so called religious may say.  And like Vincent, we must continue to look for God, for the beauty and wonder around us, even in the midst of darkness.  We must remember that in the darkness there are stars.

thPNEXQIVF

Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and the Sins of the Church

The stories of Richard Allen and Absalom Jones demonstrate both the power of faith in the face of bigotry and the potential for the Church to fail in its moral and spiritual duties.  

Richard_Allen_crop

Richard Allen

Born in 1760, Allen converted to Christianity in 1777 and became a member of the Methodist church.  He began preaching at an early age and even converted his slave master to the faith.  After purchasing his freedom, he began travelling on the Methodist Circuits and in 1786 joined St. George’s Church in Philadelphia.

Absalom-Jones_Peale

Absalom Jones

Absalom Jones was born in 1746.  Though born a slave, Jones learned how to read as a young man and later attended a Quaker school that taught him mathematics and handwriting.  In 1784, he gained freedom through manumission.  He met Richard Allen and in 1787 the two formed the Free African Society, a humanitarian organization.  Like Allen, Jones preached at St .George’s Church.  The power and eloquence of their preaching led to a larger and larger number of African Americans attending the church, leading to increased racial tension.

Leaders of St. George began requiring African Americans to sit in pews closest to the walls, reserving the rest of the seating for white parishioners.  One Sunday, a group of African American members accidentally found themselves sitting in new pews reserved for the congregations white members.  An article in Christianity Today recounts what happened next:

As these blacks knelt in prayer, a white trustee came over and grabbed Absalom Jones, Allen’s associate, and began pulling on him, saying, “You must get up—you must not kneel here.”

“Jones asked him to wait until prayer was over, but the trustee retorted, “No, you must get up now, or I will call for aid and force you away.” But the group finished praying before they got up and walked out.”  http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/denominationalfounders/richard-allen.html

This walk out led Allen and Jones to form the “African Church” in 1792.  The group became part of the Episcopal Parish, though Allen wished to remain part of the Methodist Church.  Both Jones and Allen did extensive work during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, while simultaneously enduring threats of expulsion from the body of the Methodist Church.  In 1793, Allen left the African Church and formed Bethel Church (later Mother Bethel AME Church).  The African Church later became the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas.  

Mother_Bethel_Philly_a

Mother Bethel AME Church

In 1795, Jones was ordained a deacon and seven years later a priest.  Allen was ordained a deacon in 1799 and an elder in 1816.  The two hold the distinction of being the first two African Americans to be formally ordained in any denomination.

Today, the Mother Bethel A.M.E. church stands as the oldest church property continuously owned by African Americans in the United States.  Allen, who died in 1831, is buried in a crypt in the lower level of the church.  Jones, who died in 1818, is buried in the Absalom Jones Chapel of  the African Episcopal Chapel of St. Thomas.

Remembering the mission of Allen and Jones, remembering how the Church marginalized them and other people of color,  and how these marginalized members endured and ultimately flourished, remains essential to understanding Christian history.  We cannot hesitate to tell the painful stories of our past.  Even the Bride of Christ can fall short of its mission to live as God’s hands and feet on earth.  We must remain eternally vigilant, aware and repentant of our past sins, in order to continue the work of building Christ’s Kingdom for all.

 

Christian and Muslim Unity

Shortly after 9/11 I started reading the Quran.  The divisive rhetoric regarding Islam had reached a fever pitch and I wanted to better understand the faith.  What I found helped me see the dichotomy between true Islam and the extremist vision of the terrorists who co-opted the name of the religion for their own purposes.  Education dispels ignorance, which lies at the root of fear.

Sixteen years have passed and we find ourselves again in a time of schism.  Extremists from all sides attempt to appeal to our base natures and  seek to drive us into a regressive tribalism rooted in a fear of the other.  Now, as before, I think we need to be deliberate in working against this.  Knowing our history can help.

Many people know about the Crusades, the long and bloody religious war between the medieval Latin Church and Islam.  However, if we look deeper into the history of the two faiths we find a deeper history of mutual respect and brotherhood between Muslims and Christians.

The Migration to Abyssinia

 

Amrah

A coin of King Armah

In the earliest days of Islam (613 CE), followers of Muhammad found themselves facing persecution at the hands of the polytheistic residents of Mecca.  The persecution reached such a high level that Muhammad  told his followers to flee the land and to see refuge in Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia and Eritrea) under the protection of the Christian Negus Ashama ibn Abjar (called King Armah by modern historians).  Members of the persecuting Quraysh tribe pursued the refugees and attempted to bribe the Christian king into handing them over to their persecutors.  They even appealed to the king’s faith declaring, “They have abandoned their own religion but neither accepted yours, and have invented a new faith which neither of us know.”  King Negus called the Muslims into his presence and asked them to speak of their faith.  After hearing what they had to say, and despite entreaties from his bodyguards, Negus declared that he would never hand them over and that they could remain in his kingdom in safety.

The Achtiname of Muhammad

The_Patent_of_Mohammed

The Patent of Muhammad

A decade later, Muhammad would offer similar protection to Christians.  In 625 CE, he wrote a document that has come to be known as the “Achtiname of Muhammad” or the “Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai”.  The letter declares itself, “directed to the embracers of Islam, as a covenant given to the followers of Jesus the Nazarene in the East and West, the far and near, the Arabs and foreigners, the known and the unknown.”  It goes on to say that, “he who disobeys that which is therein will be considered a disbeliever and a transgressor to that whereunto he is commanded. He will be regarded as one who has corrupted the oath of God, disbelieved His Testament, rejected His Authority, despised His Religion, and made himself deserving of His Curse, whether he is a Sultan or any other believer of Islam.”  

The letter details a list of freedoms to be guaranteed the Christians.  It begins with a broad statement that, “Whenever Christian monks, devotees and pilgrims gather together, whether in a mountain or valley, or den, or frequented place, or plain, or church, or in houses of worship, verily we are [at the] back of them and shall protect them, and their properties and their morals, by Myself, by My Friends and by My Assistants, for they are of My Subjects and under My Protection.”  After this, it states that Christians are not to be unfairly taxed.  They are not to be compelled to leave their faith or to take up arms in times of conflict, instead stating that Muslims should fight for them.  The letter also declares that if a Christian woman marries a Muslim man, she should not be hindered from practicing her Christian faith.    

As broken human beings, there are times that members both faiths have failed to live up to their highest ideals.  There are now and have been in the past, fringe elements of Christianity and Islam that have sought to distort the faiths for their own personal agenda.  We need to look beyond this, to find those things that bind us together, to find the stories in our past that demonstrate that a better world is possible today.

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

Father Mychal Judge: The Saint of Brooklyn

Screenshot 2017-06-14 at 3.03.26 PM

 

Exploring more stories in Christian history, I’d like to share a little about one of my personal heroes: Father Mychal Judge.

Born Robert Emmett Judge in Brooklyn,  New York, Fr. Mychal Judge served as a Franciscan priest from his ordination in 1961 until his death as the first recorded victim of the September 11 attacks of 2001.

A recovering alcoholic, Judge spoke openly of his struggles with addiction and shared the story with others engaged in the same battle.  Over five decades, he became known throughout New York City for his willingness to minister to the marginalized.  In the documentary film Saint of 9/11, friends recall occasions when Judge literally gave the coat off of his back to those in need.  Judge, a gay man who maintained his priestly vows of celibacy, also ministered extensively to New York’s gay community, ministering to AIDS patients during the height of public panic regarding the illness.  Stories of Judge giving tender touch to patients bring to mind the stories of St. Francis kissing lepers.  Another account in Saint of 9/11 relates that an AIDS victim once asked Judge, “Do you think God hates me?” Judge responded by holding the man in his arms and giving him a loving kiss.

In 1992, Judge became chaplain of the New York City Fire Department.  On the morning of September 11, 2001, Judge went to the World Trade Center towers in support of his “boys”, members of the department actively working to save lives at the scene of the terrorist attack.  As he ran to the scene, Mayor Rudy Giuliani asked judge to pray for them, to which Judge responded, “I always do!  I always pray for you!”  Judge then entered the North Tower and when told to leave reportedly stated, “My work here is not finished!”  According to reports, Judge later attempted to climb the stairs in an effort to minister to injured firefighters when he debris struck and killed him.

judge-16

When we follow Christ, we are continually called from safety into the heart of the fire.  Jesus tells his disciples repeatedly that they are not promised safety, that they will suffer and even die for His sake.  We are called to follow him into the margins, to love those the world forgets or refuses to love.  We are called to lay down our lives in love.

May we live by Mychal’s prayer:

“Lord, take me where you want me to go, let me meet who you want me to meet, tell me what you want me to say, and keep me out of your way.”

 

 

 

 

 

Responding to the March Against Sharia

On June 10, cities across the United States hosted what they termed a “March Against Sharia.”  The event page on social media stated the following rationale behind the event, “If you stand for human rights, please join us to march against Sharia. Sharia is incompatible with our Constitution and with American values. We stand against female genital mutilations and child marriages.”  The rhetoric of the march attempted to demonize the Islamic faith, grouping the entire religion with the worst actions of a handful of its practitioners.  We have seen this type of behavior before, in Klan marches against African Americans, in the internment of Japanese and Italian Americans during World War II, in the persecution and murder of Mormons, and more.

Today, the world faces a growing fear of and a demonizing of the Muslim faith.  Over the years, I have had the good fortune to meet and befriend many Muslims.  I’ve worked with members of local masjids to try and build interfaith relationships and unity.  I’ve written about some of those interactions before. (https://shaunjex.com/2017/02/26/what-ive-learned-from-valley-ranch-islamic-center/ and https://shaunjex.com/2016/11/25/building-bridges-instead-of-walls/).  One thing I’ve learned in the process: as allies we often risk speaking over the very voices we ally ourselves with.  To learn about true Islam, ask a Muslim.  With that in mind I’d like to share the following thread.

I’ve had the privilege of interaction with Muslim scholar and author Qasim Rashid, Esq. He writes frequently about Islam and social justice and shared these thoughts on Sharia the day of the march.  He shared then via Twitter.  To help spread this important information, I’ve coped his tweets into paragraph form below:  

“As the white supremacist led March Against Sharia goes live—here’s my thread as an American Muslim lawyer on what Shariah *factually* is: Shariah is the law of Qur’an & literally means “A path to life giving water.” Yarrah (root of “Torah”) means same. Shariah is Abrahamic!  Shariah has 5 branches: adab (behavior & morals), ibadah (worship), i’tiqadat (beliefs), mu’amalat (contracts) and ‘uqubat (punishments).  

Shariah forbids compulsion. (Islamophobes hide this fact) There’s no permission for govt to ever force Shariah—Shariah itself forbids it.  Qur’an does not promote any specific form of Govt, but requires govt be based on adl or “absolute justice.” Not religion—justice. HQ 4:59 “Verily Allah commands you to give over the trusts to those entitled to them, and that, when you judge men, you judge with justice.  And surely excellent is that with which Allah admonishes you.  Allah is all hearing, all seeing.”  This is a critical point.

Qur’an: Judge humanity w/justice
Extremists: Judge w/a theocracy?
Q: No, Justice
E: Religion?
Q: JUSTICE

So contrary to what  March Against Sharia bigots say—Qur’an teaches separation of mosque & state. Why didn’t Muhammad(sa) enforce Shariah? He had political power. He had an army. He didn’t b/c Islam forbids theocracy. Plain & simple.  Shariah obliges Muslim loyalty to our nation of residence. Thus—American Muslims must adhere to US Constitution as Supreme law of land.  Jews have Halacha. Catholics have Canon. Muslims have Shariah. It’s our personal faith on prayer, food, Ramadan fasting, inherit, marry.  The 1st Amendment to the Constitution protects freedom of worship. Banning Shariah = Banning Halacha & Canon. It is Unconstitutional.  

What about regimes like Saudi & Iran? Isn’t that Shariah?  No. That’s theocracy, which the Qur’an & Muhammad(sa) vehemently condemn.  Let’s be clear. There’s not even 1 example of a “Shariah compliant” country today. They’re draconian regimes bent on power—not justice.  Likewise there’s not 1 example of Muslims trying to enforce Shariah in USA. (http://www.jurist.org/forum/2015/03/steven-schwinn-sharia-law.php) The drive to “ban Shariah” is lunacy.  As far as allegedly “violent” verses commanding Muslims “take over” w/Shariah—Nonsense. I address here in detail :(http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/islam-muslim-terrorism-islamist-extremism-quran-teaching-violence-meaning-prophet-muhammed-a7676246.html) .

I sat and read every single case of “Shariah in US Courts” & wrote a law review article dismantling that garbage. (http://claremontjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/America%E2%80%99s-Muslim-Problem-Anti-Shariah-Laws-and-the-Threat-to-American-Civil-Rights-by-Qasim-Rashid.pdf)

Those promoting fear of Muslims & Sharia today are no different than those who claimed JFK would hasten a Papal takeover of America.  2017: Muslims accused of infiltrating USA as “Creeping Shariah.”  1957: Catholics accused of infiltrating USA as “Subtle Conspirators.”  US History shows similar propaganda & bigotry against Jews, Mormons, Black Christians, Native Americans, Italians, Irish, Chinese,& Japanese.  And just as McCarthyites & Anti-Semites & Segregationists are remembered w/disdain, tomorrow Islamophobes will be remembered w/disdain.  But to get there in peace, we need to stand together as a United America against hate. What’s that look like? Here are a few suggestions:

1) Sign up as a Muslim Ally at http://trueislam.com
2) Attend a Ramadan Iftar at http://trueislam.com/events
3) Educate yourself on Islam

4) Reject govt policies that discriminate Americans who are Muslim
5) Speak up when you hear someone promoting hatred & fear of Muslims

6) Support non-profits working to educate & build bridges of interfaith harmony
7) Elevate the voices of American Muslims in media

8) Vote. For the love of God vote
9) Be committed for the long haul. Anti-Muslim hate didn’t come overnight & won’t dissipate over-night

Looping back. Shariah isn’t the enemy—ignorance & hate are. Shariah = justice for all people regardless of faith, just like our US Constitution.  We’ve a long way to go but we’ll get there together. Thank U for your solidarity & support. Much love to all of you. Peace!”

Check out more of Qasim’s writing at http://www.qasimrashid.com/

For followers of Christ, we are commanded to love our neighbor as we love our self.  We are commanded to love mercy, seek justice and walk humbly with God.  We are told that the world will know that we follow Jesus Christ, whom we claim as God incarnate, not by who we exclude, but by how we love.  

I believe that a better world is possible, but it will take concerted effort by all of us.  It will require us to choose love in the face those who would sow division and hatred.  It will take education and a willingness to listen.  In a future post, I plan to write more about the historical relationship between Christianity and Islam, as seen in events like the Migration to Abyssinia, in which a Christian kingdom protected persecuted members of the Islamic faith, and the Ashtiname of Muhammad, in which Muhammad declared the respect and protection that Muslims should provide to their Christian neighbors.

 

 

Dirk Willems: A Fool and Martyr for Christ

Screenshot 2017-06-09 at 12.09.55 PM

For much of their history, Anabaptists faced violent persecution at the hands of their fellow Christians.  Labelled as heretics, bounties were set on for their capture.  They were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered.  They were often burned at the stake or beheaded, the punishment varying with their willingness to recant their faith.  Officials even declared it a crime for others to give Anabaptists food or shelter.

In 1569, a Dutchman named Dirk Willems faced imprisonment and execution for being re-baptized as an adult and for hosting Anabaptist services in his home.  While in prison, he created a rope out of strips of cloth and escaped, fleeing for his life across a frozen pond.  A guard gave chase and, during the pursuit, fell through the ice into the freezing water below.  Rather than continue his flight, Willems turned back and pulled the guard to safety.  This act of mercy moved the heart of the guard and for a moment it seemed he would let Willems escape, but a nearby Burgomaster witnessed the event and insisted on strict adherence to the laws against Anabaptists.  

A statement by the court recounted his aforementioned “sins” and then states:

“all of which is contrary to our holy Christian faith, and to the decrees of his royal majesty, and ought not to be tolerated, but severely punished, for an example to others; therefore, we the aforesaid judges, having, with mature deliberation of council, examined and considered all that was to be considered in this matter, have condemned and do condemn by these presents in the name; and in the behalf, of his royal majesty, as Count of Holland, the aforesaid Dirk Willems, prisoner, persisting obstinately in his opinion, that he shall be executed with fire, until death ensues; and declare all his property confiscated, for the benefit of his royal majesty.”

On May 16, 1569, Willems was burned at the stake.

I’ve thought a lot about Willems story over the years.  I can’t imagine the faith and compassion it took to return and save the man who meant to kill him.  The action goes against all common sense and all human instinct.  He might have lived if he only kept running.  Instead, he turned around walked willingly into the arms of death.  How foolish!  But then… “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?  For what can a man give in return for his soul?” (Mark 8 :36-37)

I admit that I don’t have Willems faith.  I want justice when I am wronged, and if not justice, at least revenge.  This is, I think, the human response.  This response embraces the wisdom of the world.   Still, I can’t help but wonder, what if we were all willing to turn around?  What if we were willing to go back?  What if we tried to pull our enemies up to safety and life rather than leaving them to drown?  What would the world look like?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44-45)

 

 

Martin of Tours

Screenshot 2017-06-05 at 12.43.33 PM

We live in chaotic and uncertain times.  As noted in previous posts (https://shaunjex.com/2017/03/19/rooted-in-story/) we are strengthened by a knowledge of our history, by the intentional connecting of our story to those who came before us.  In that light, I’d like to begin sharing bits of Christian history that I believe can guide us through the violence of our modern times.

Born in 316 CE in modern day Hungary, Martin of Tours converted to Christianity at the age of 10 years old though he would not be baptized until the age of eighteen.  Five years after his initial conversion, the Roman military forced him into service.  

While in the army, Martin encountered a beggar suffering in the cold.  Moved by his plight, Martin removed his cloak and cut it in two, giving half to the beggar.  That night he dreamed that he saw Jesus wearing the cloak and when he awoke the garment had been made whole.

At 23, he refused a war bonus and famously said, ““I have served you as a soldier; now let me serve Christ. Give the bounty to those who are going to fight. But I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight.”  He petitioned emperor Julian (known as Julian the Apostate) to be released from service. According to tradition, when accused of cowardice Martin offered to go to the front lines of battle armed only with the sign of the cross.  His refusal to fight resulted in his imprisonment, but he eventually gained his freedom and went on to study under Hilary of Poitiers.

Today, Christians remember Martin as Patron Saint of soldiers and conscientious objectors.

When faced with violence, may we remember the example of St. Martin of Tours who chose to follow the path of the Crucified Lamb.

The  Prayer of St. Francis beautifully compliments the example of Martin of Tours.  May it be our daily prayer:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.