parker palmer on the death of RBG

Last night I heard the sad news: Ruth Bader Ginsburg—aka The Notorious R.B.G.—had died.

The first movement of my heart was shock and grief at the loss of a truly great human being. She fought the good fight for basic human rights for all, and was loved by people ranging from Antonin Scalia to Black rap artists. But my grief was quickly replaced by political calculations that drowned out my instinctive human response.

Then a voice rose up saying, “No! Stop. Return to the first movement of your heart and feel the deep humanity of this moment. There will be time for politics, but the seeds of salvation are found in allowing yourself to be purely human at a time when that’s what matters most. Allow your heart to break, and it will break open, not apart. If you don’t, you’ll become part of the problem.”

Now, twelve hours later, I’m grateful for that voice. The collapse of respect—even respect for death—is one of the underlying illnesses of American culture. Yes, the nearly 200,000 American deaths from COVID-19 have political implications. But first and foremost, each of them is a human loss, deeply and forever felt by family members and friends. That truth must come first, before we turn to the politics, or we will have lost all that truly matters, all chance of crafting a politics worthy of the human spirit.

the possibility of change

The moment when mortality, ephemerality, uncertainty, suffering, or the possibility of change arrives can split a life in two. Facts and ideas we might have heard a thousand times assume a vivid, urgent, felt reality. We knew them then, but they matter now. They are like guests that suddenly speak up and make demands upon us; sometimes they appear as guides, sometimes they just wreck what came before or shove us out the door. We answer them, when we answer, with how we lead our lives. Sometimes what begins as bad news prompts the true path of a life, a disruptive visitor that might be thanked only later. Most of us don’t change until we have to, and crisis is often what obliges us to do so. Crises are often resolved only through a new identity and new purpose, whether it’s that of a nation or a single human being.

  • Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby (2013)

the freedom of god

[excerpts from the final chapter of a book exploring how we respond to the fear of death]

….”God” and the religious institutions can become as enslaved to the fear of death as everything else in the culture….

So how are we to be set free from this idolatry? How are we to proclaim and experience the freedom of God? In the Old Testament, the battle with idolatry was fought by the prophets. And at its heart, the prophetic impulse is to proclaim the emancipation of God, the freedom of God, the liberty of God. The ambition of the prophet is to end the slavery of God….

This capacity for prophetic imagination, that God is free to be against us, is the great weapon against idolatry. Whenever and wherever the people of God lose this capacity, God becomes enslaved. When the prophetic imagination is eclipsed – when God can no longer be imagined as being against us and for those we oppress, exclude, stigmatize, marginalize, ignore, or aggress against – God is no longer free but a slave….

And what might be the sign of this eclipse of the prophetic voice? What are the symptoms of this failure of the prophetic imagination? Simply put, the alignment of, equating of, and identification of our voice and interests with God’s own….

This is how we know that God has been emancipated and set free from our slavery to the fear of death: When we can hear the voice of God crying out against us in the voices we ignore, marginalize, victimize, exclude, ostracize, harm, and kill, we know that God has been set free. The radical, prophetic freedom of God is fully realized when we see the face of God in our victims and our enemies. In that moment our slavery to the fear of death is fully overcome. In that moment the sacrificial love of Christ becomes fully manifest.

In that moment the Kingdom comes, on earth as it is in heaven.

  • Richard Beck, The Slavery of Death (2014)

memory, death and life

[Our community has been touched by death twice in recent days – once at the loss of David Stewart, who contributed so much to memories at SSU, and even more recently at the loss of Debbie MacDonald’s daughter, Tammy, after a long and brave journey with cancer. These losses made me appreciate this passage from a novel by Wendell Berry:]

Back there at the beginning, as I see now, my life is almost entirely memory and very little time. Toward the end of my life at Squire’s Landing I began to understand that whenever death happened, it happened to me. That is knowledge that takes a long time to wear in. Finally it wears in. Finally I realized and fully accepted that one day I would belong entirely to memory, and it would not be my memory that I belonged to….

Some days, sitting here on my porch over the river, my memory seems to enclose me entirely; I wander back in my reckoning among all of my own that have lived and died until I no longer remember where I am. And then I lift my head and look about me at the river and the valley, the great, unearned beauty of this place, and I feel the memoryless joy of a man risen from the grave.

– Wendell Berry, from Jayber Crow