Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Wrath

The wrath sing, goddess, of Peleus' son, Achilles, that destructive wrath which brought countless woes upon the Achaeans, and sent forth to Hades many valiant souls of heroes, and made them themselves spoil for dogs and every bird.

The Iliad of Homer, Book I, lines 1 to 4

Every school year, thousands of high school and college students open up their copies of the Iliad, read those sweeping opening lines of Homer, "Sing, O Goddess, of the wrath of Peleus's son Achilles..."

...and decide to just read the SparkNotes.

Me?  I had to read parts of the Iliad's sequel, the Odyssey (for my money the first sequel ever to buck the rule that sequels suck compared to the originals) in the Greek for my Greek 201 class in college and translate them as a part of my coursework.

And it was there, reimmersing myself in a story I had long ignored since sophomore year English in high school, that I finally understood something.

Everything that Homer said, that he wrote, that he sang (for his poetry, like Shakespeare's, was put to to verse) all began with this one great and terrible word: mhnin.

In English, we say wrath.

Everything that comes forth in this story of gods and kings, of heroes and warriors, of life and truly terrible death, comes forth because of the mhnin.

Because of the wrath.

Because of the wrath, woes were brought upon the Greeks.

Because of the wrath, heroes were condemned to hell.

Because of the wrath, men and women, children and babies, were made the spoils for scavenging dogs and carrion birds.

And because of the wrath, our mhnin, today,

If I could translate mhnin now, I would simply say: look at Baltimore, Maryland.

Look and behold a wrath so great and terrible, so furious and unholy, that it spares not the man who finds himself in police custody, spine severed almost entirely in two, to die slowly and painfully over the course of a full week.

Look and behold a wrath so awful and sickening, so livid and pervasive, that it calls peaceful protests a "lynch mob" and sees its citizens as enemies, not as neighbors.

And if you cannot see that wrath for your having instead seen and condemned only the wrath expressed in the burning of drugstores and the setting of cars afire...

...that's part of the problem.

The mhnin in Baltimore existed long before the first rock was thrown and the first Molotov cocktail was ignited.

And while I am certain that the destructiveness of arson and looting grieves God (I mean, for f***'s sake, some jerks tried to set my church on fire over Thanksgiving weekend in 2012), I am as certain of this:

God even more powerfully grieves the destructiveness that comes from a legacy and history of lynching and beating and spine severing.

God grieves far more powerfully the destructiveness done against His own children than the God does the destructiveness done against their property.

And it can be no other way: God is, as Christ says, God of the living and not of the dead.

But did not Freddie Gray have a pulse?  Did he not belong as a son to a mother?  And can we ever say the same of a storefront, or a car, or a window?

Is God not more the God of Freddie Gray and the police officers who murdered him and denied him immediate medical care more than God is the God of our things and our stuffs?

And if God is more greatly grieved at the loss of life, and the injury to people (including fifteen police officers), then what business have we expressing our wrath and condemnation upon the riots after our radio silence after the news of Freddie Gray's murder first broke?

Sing to me, then O goddess, of the wrath, the wrath of God.

The wrath that I know, surely as I live and breathe, that I too will one day face when I die and await judgment in the last days.

What I rest firm in, though, is this: that when I do experience the thunder and fury of God's own wrath, it will be because I know that I did not fully and truly love my neighbor as myself as Christ commanded, and commanded so explicitly, when asked what the most important commandments are.

It will be because I know that I could have done more to stop suffering, to kneel and pray with the hurting and the downtrodden, and to strive with ever fiber of my being to lift them to new heights scarcely imagined by humanity before or since.

It will be because I know that I have, in every sense of the term, fallen short of that which I believe Christianity boils down to: "How can I love God and people the way that Jesus loved me?" and not "How can I love my things the way that Jesus loved me?"

Imagine, then, the wrath of God for us valuing our property before our people, and especially our people of color.

Imagine the wrath of God for us not believing, and not for a second wanting to believe, the stories of discrimination and pain...physical, mental, emotional, spiritual pain, of people of color that came at our hands.

That is the mhnin of Baltimore: a wrath of such proportions that it comes only when a people have been so systematically and heartlessly put down for centuries that only liberation from that reality will do.

Such was the case for the Israelites in Egypt, when God decided, at long last, to free them from their enslavement to Pharaoh.

Such was the case for the Israelites in the time of Rome, when God decided, at long last, to become flesh to free them from sin itself.

And such, then, may it be the case for us today, if God decides, in wisdom and in mercy, to free us from the pain we inflict so shamefully upon one another.

Because we do indeed know better.

In truth, we have always known better.

And we can no longer plead ignorance before God to the truth that our brothers and sisters of color deserve far better than what they have experienced.

Sing to me, then, O goddess, of the wrath.

And pray for me, and for all those who still await it.

Yours in Christ,

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