Sermon: Owning our Taboos
Biblical Text: Luke 21: 1-4
Academy of Homiletics, San Antonio – November 17, 2016
What a gift you all gave to me inviting me to preach today. I am most grateful! I want to thank my sister Margaret Moers Wenig for the first invitation and for my brother Wes Allen and my sister Lucy Lin Hogan for giving me this oopportunity.
Our theme this year is fascinating, one that gives us so much to ponder about. As we saw yesterday, this bold theme can be very helpful for our current time after the disaster of the election last week. Our panel helped us see the many nuances of the meaning and function and construction of taboos and today I want to engage the taboos that I believe are killing us or trying to keep us dead.
To get into some of our own social, religious and political taboos, we must know that any movement will be fraught with the dangers of easy blaming and self-righteousness, attacks or reactions of anger, bitterness, hatred, self-protection and defensiveness.
Perhaps the best way to engage taboos is to take a personal perspective on the political arena and drench it with personal/public contextual stories and ways of living. Like Ta-Nehisi Coates or Patrick Reyes when they talk about their personal/public lives. The focus here is more on the knower than on what is known.
As a metaphor for myself, I preach as a barbarian, as one included in the empire but one who hasn’t been enough civilized. Viet Thanh Nguyen says that “Empires rot from the inside even as emperors blame the barbarians.” I am to be blamed for the rotten conditions of this country. I am the rapist, the murderer, the extended carnival, the joker, the one with diseases, the affliction of the middle class, the one stealing jobs, the very image of the bad hombre. I am the “foreign citizen,” both in Brazil and in the US, always reminded that my deepest roots do not belong either here or there anymore. My illiterate self speaks 3 broken languages that need to be proofread every day. My scholarship and my soul continue to be proofread, time and again. As an undefined character in the magical realism of our society, my behavior doesn’t land fully in any language.
Our political space is always inhabited by proper languages and proper players and I circle these places with thoughts that look like jokes and jokes that look like thoughts. Everything is either partially or overwhelmingly felt. Eccentric is my faith, my hope, my love. My body. Even my own sense of fatherhood and the very word dad is marked by my kids’ hesitations and clear enunciations of love. I have to live in-between a foreign and forgotten land day and night, but this gives me a certain entrance to taboos that are supposedly not mine but in fact, so fully mine.
Please don’t hear this as my sorrowful note. This is not about me only. Instead, the social mirroring of my private self is a public act that sets me up in a collective place where I can’t actually choose. I am placed, with no hesitation, at the border, lurking and waiting for the healing water to be disturbed. A place of almost no-belonging. However, if I am lucky, I get in. And bingo, I got lucky! I am in! A citizen! Perhaps! A mistake read as a miracle! Now, if I just provide some form of official knowledge, me, the knower, now in, would also be expected to be a protector of certain taboos. It is from this lucky place that I am asked to respond: what taboos do I see? Or hear?
In that way, the question for us is: where do I preach when we preach about our taboos? Where is my “locus of enunciation,” the place where I, the knower, control the vision, the feelings, the bodies, the knowledge? Am I ever affected also by that place of enunciation?
If we pause here for a second and turn to Jesus in this passage, we see that Jesus’ locus of enunciation is very specific. While others might be positioned to see God or do their spiritual obligations in the temple, Jesus’ site is positioned where he can see the poor widow. Knowledge is a strategic choice around the cartography of our desires, desires that determine what we want and can see. Always ambivalent, porous, inconsistent, our locations are always drenched in political predicaments. Sites of ambivalence, paradoxical, inconsistent, contradictory, frightening.
What does Jesus tell us about this woman and her offering? What does her gesture entail? What does the giving of these two small copper coins to the temple have to do with us today in the post-election, Trump president of the Christendom empire?
The offering of that poor widow had more to do with the rituals of the temple, the socio-economic structures of oppression of that time, and the power and money dynamics controlled by both the empire and the temple. It was both the denunciation of the temple and the illumination of a poor woman’s offering. The common reading of the text detaches the story from a larger context and concentrates on the generosity of a private/singular woman who has sparse resources. In this way, the reading of this story is constrained to her life, gender and social oppression. Her individual gesture/life is what matters.
The patriarchal political economic religious wrappings around her body and soul do not matter much beyond the contrast of the donors of money in the temple, and the circling back to her beautiful generosity!
However, if we are to pay attention to the locus of her enunciation, we must go beyond her offering and see how she, as an individual, is wrapped up within a larger sense/knowledge/place of her society.
To understand her site of full generosity, we must place her individual life in connection with the systems of inequality of that time, the abuse of patriarchal religious authorities and the utter abandonment of the poor. If taken in all its challenges, her story has the power to turn our own taboos visible.
The place where she speaks, her locus of her enunciation, was the only place where the disenfranchised could be: paying taxes, being a consumer or being disposable. In her case, this woman was totally disposable. She didn’t count. What was she for the temple? For the Empire? She is the unwanted presence of what does not matter. In this story her offering to the temple serves only to show the contrast between the small sound of her ridiculous two coins compared to the loud sound of the many coins offered by the rich.
Marifé Ramos González in Las MujeresEn El Evangelio De Lucas says that “wealthy people had the habit of casting coins to a kind of large funnel, from afar, for the coins to sound and call the attention of people passing by. It was a way that their generosity became apparent.”
The widow is cast between the absentia and muteness of her presence and the loud presence of the rich. What do we see? hear? What do we hear? This! This is what Jesus is teaching: What we must see and what we must hear.
Her body entails an enunciation that is framed around a certain politics of knowledge. Her body is a site of waste, of no-knowledge that sanctifies the existent knowledge of able bodies that belong to a certain class. Her body is a cartography of forgetfulness, a site of blindness, a house without belonging. In her body, the concealed vision of a religious and state system that necessitates her presence to make others see that the problem is NOT in the government but in her situation.
She is in that place because of her lack of preparedness, of struggle, of dignity, of education, of proper gender and class. She’s a black body who doesn’t work enough! She always needed social security and without government help she can’t make it. She is lazy! She is a loser! She is a no-body only needed for the game of blame. In this game, the one to blame gains the honor and the one who deserves the honor is ashamed.
Once she gets all the blame, we must get rid of her, either by imprisoning her or by casting on her a social shadow of abandonment and dismissal. She only has worth as an in-between being, a forgotten citizen, a source of profit, a homeless or a ghetto citizen. Her body tells us about our bodies! We are the ones who offer the big offerings in the temple, we are the ones to be honored, we are the ones shaping a faith-knowledge at the expenses of the no-knowledge bodies of the poor.
Where is our map of honor? Who do we decide to honor? We say, Let us honor the rich! Let us give them prizes, plaques, statues, trophies, walls with their names! Because without them we can’t survive! Literally! Imagine if the temple was to live off of the offering of that woman? It would surely disappear! So the temple must work on behalf of those who can give and control everything. If we pay close attention we will realize that the very possibility of our faith depend more on the good will of donors than our very faithfulness to God! We are caught between the enunciation of our message and the antagonistic reality of its sustenance. OUR TABOO.
The contrast between the offering of that poor widow and the scandal of the temple is remarkable! It mirrors our interpretation of our taboos:
we talk about our budgets so we don’t need to talk about the whole capitalistic system that sustains our jobs and our communities;
we talk about the shocking news of Trump’s election so we don’t need to talk about the rampant racism that marks the history of this country;
we can’t stand the election of Trump because now we cannot hide under the pretend flag of dignity and decency;
we can’t stand to lose to Trump because now the eternal promise of inclusion falls prey to a system that has objectively been excluding people since day one;
Trump is breaking with the sacred taboos of the beautiful America! Damn it! Our locus of enunciation was finally discovered. We cannot hide now that the poor widows of our country, the minorities and lower classes of this country, never ever meant anything more than collateral damage. Trump makes us feel naked! Worse, Trump is showing how savage we are and have always been! White supremacy does not need to hide anymore. When a white supremacist wins the highest position of this country we finally realize who we actually are and what country we have been all along.
I wonder now, what the story of that woman can tell us about the ways our Christian systems continue to place that poor widow in the same condition. Perhaps, if for a minute we take Jesus’ place in our own temples, the temples of our churches, the temples of our politics, the temples of our race system, the temples of our social classes, we might see something about ourselves.
If we take Jesus’ position, we might be able to check the taboo of the relation between capitalism and the Christian faith that shapes the history of this country. How our Protestant institutions have helped theologically with the naturalization of our civil system of oppression? The history of this country is fundamentally a history of betrayal of its own poor people.
America the beautiful has never been a beautiful country to all its citizens but only to a certain percentage of white people who historically own the wealth and the means of production of this country. Max Weber would be astonished to see how a “Protestant” United States was able to develop in radical ways the Christian spirit of capitalism.
At the heart of this country and its own spirit lays the kidnapping of Christianity to capitalism and consumption. There is no covenant between people and the God of the Christian religion but rather, a covenant between the people and the religion of capitalism. That is the most fundamental confession that marks the heart of this country’s history.
If we take Jesus’ position, we might be able to check the taboo that shows how Christian theology has shaped the notions of Manifest Destiny and Exceptionalism. How much our Christian America the beautiful has used the law only to protect the wealth of a few?
If we take Jesus’ position, we might be able to check the taboo that shows how we Christians have helped shape a spirit that makes our people proud of a nation whose empire has been built on the backs of black people and the work of undocumented immigrants?
What about the taboo of how the building of this nation/empire was done by global militarization and stealing resources from around the globe? We are 4% of the world’s population and we use 44% of the world’s natural resources. What about that taboo?
If we take Jesus’ position, we might be able to check the taboo that shows how much have we naturalized the history of war in this country? “The United States has been at war almost continually since 1776. In the past 236 years we have been fighting some type of conflict for 214 years or about 90% of the time.” The death of others is a fundamental sum of the national budget, its necessary development and our wellbeing. What about that taboo?
If we take Jesus’ position, we might be able to check the taboo of the history of our own denominations. Our churches have literally billions of dollars invested in the market that supports the crush of Palestine and so many others. The maintenance of these investments is a immoral depravity in the face of poverty and death.
If we take Jesus’ position, we might be able to check the taboo of the disparity of salaries between pastors or teachers? Why some steeple pastors get 300 thousand and others 20 thousand for 19.5 hours so they won’t get any benefits?
Same thing with us teachers. Some of us get much more than others and we don’t say anything because this is how the system works.
In many ways our Protestantism is but a desperate fight to keep our class allegiances and place in society. We do everything to protect ourselves, from monocultural churches to new liturgical and homiletical revival, from the flight to suburbia to new forms of media. But there is nothing on the radar about serving the poor besides a program here and there in our budget.
The same spirit is in our schools. ATS is moving us into a neoliberal way of objectifying our work so we can count every single learning outcome as if we can count wonder! Or God! One time I heard a finance man from ATS telling us that our budget is our mission! And I wanted to scream NO!!!! It is Jesus Christ our mission! Serving the poor is our mission! The love between us is our mission! NOT the budget! However, this is too late. We all operate already under the budget as our mission. Without a budget, we can’t have school, or a church. The criteria for a church to exist is the amount of money in our bank accounts and not the love we can offer to one another. For the first five years of my time as pastor we never had a budget. We had people! We had church!
Capitalism has kidnapped our faith, our desire, our spiritual practices and even our Spirit! Our Christian faith is caught within the empire that seduced us into the god of the market, keeping us revolving around our own circle of endless consumerist desires. Marx called this form of capitalism the religion of the daily life. This religion runs on the fetishism of goods and capital and faith. We are all enmeshed into this system.
Art by Quantisha Mason
Going back to our biblical story, we there is no resistance. This dis-graceful woman cannot do anything but contribute to the wealth of vultures who don’t care about her. Why did this poor woman do that? Why did so many women vote for Trump? Why could the Latinos vote for Trump? They voted for the same reasons this woman gave her offerings to the temple. They all hope for something. They all give hoping for some potentiality to arrive, some agency to take place. They have totally different hopes than ours, we might even say that they have misguided hopes. However, they have hopes nonetheless.
Even Jesus doesn’t do anything in this text. There is no anger, no turning the tables, no prophetic words of fire. All he does is look at her. And he loved her.
Perhaps, even if in the midst of this pretend faith called Christianity where we deny our Jesus not three but a thousand times… If our locus of enunciation can position us to look to the poor and love them, that might be the best we can do now. Perhaps that gaze can transform us the knower, more than it might change the poor, the known.
Perhaps, if we can look at the poor and pause, and love them for who they are, we might see that God’s sight in the site of the poor is a better identity than the identity of consumers we carry these days.
Perhaps, if we somehow shift our locus of enunciation and our preaching locations, we might be able to speak… even in the midst of our ongoing denials of this faith, we might be able to speak words of faith, words of love, resistance and transformation:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!