First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean;
We are proud to claim the title
Of United States Marines.
Giant American flags were waving across the stage;
soldiers with fake guns came marching one by one into the building,
the children’s ministry came adorned with red, white, and blue ribbons of celebration. Hundreds of voices sang the Marine core anthem at the tops of their lungs. It was at Van Dyke United Methodist Church, in Lutz FL, where my best friend Morgan Clark and I were working. It was our 11am worship service and while everyone else stood to sing our many national anthems
I stayed sitting.
My stomach turned, my palms were sweaty, and my heart was pounding out of my chest. I bowed my head and prayed in silence. Morgan stood with the rest of the congregation but also remained silent.
At this point in our Christian journey, we had both come to understand Jesus’ message to be a non-violent revolution of love, of acceptance, grace, humility, and hospitality for strangers. None of which seemed to define the United States military then, now, or ever. The myth of redemptive violence is a vicious lie, and it must be challenged.
I almost lost my job for staying planted in the pew that day.
Laura, our administrative assistant stopped talking to me. A few parents complained that I was anti-American, especially after showing no interest in pledging my allegiance to what I understood and still understand to be the most powerful Empire in existence.
This decision of mine eventually created so much turmoil in our office-relationships that I started looking for a new job with Young Life. I put both of our jobs on the line because I was convinced Jesus had much more important things to worry about than American nationalism. Morgan stood right by my side during these troublesome days.
She stood there by my side in Pastor Matthew’s office when I told him why I had remained seated during the Church-war-anthems. She held my hand when I had to tell family, friends, and co-workers that I didn’t think America was the greatest thing to happen since Jesus.
Growing up in the conservative town I did, these were extremely difficult times in my life. They were the cause of anxious nights and restless sleep. Morgan never left though, never told me I was stupid or misguided, never blamed anything on the Devil, she never mentioned any Christian cliché’s, and she ultimately left Van Dyke a year or so later after realizing she too couldn’t exist in a community that understood American military as an object of Christian worship.
“Morgan needs a microphone because she can’t lead a room like Gregory, she is a woman after all.”
You’ve heard me tell this story many times before. It was such a defining moment in my journey, that I know associate this quote with my willingness to explore an open mind. Growing up as an evangelical meant I grew up in a cult of masculinity. My height, skin color, gender, and charisma were everyone’s favorite – perfect for condemning people to Hell with. This was the year I changed my major from Architecture to study women’s studies. At the time I didn’t know how to articulate equality but I knew Morgan was not less than me because she had boobs.
I went looking for ideas and ways around gender-inequality, diving straight into the study of women and gender, exploring all of these new and brilliant ideas. I could now call myself a feminist, I was leading protests and rally’s fighting for women.
And the reason I was doing it: Morgan Clark.
She was my motivation and she still is, I would do anything for her, even change the direction of my life and career for her sake. Ain’t nobody gonna tell me Morgan Clark is less than anything or anyone, and if they do I’ll search the world for every possible reason why they’re wrong.
These were the first stories that came to mind when I read Ruth’s story, I saw the beautiful commitment Ruth had to Naomi and was reminded of the give and take, the balance of support and solidarity that Morgan and I have with one another. I called Morgan to ask her what she thought about all this and she had this epic line, “Our love is not based on the circumstances but on the person.”
As a widowed foreigner and enemy of Israel, Ruth’s circumstances we’re not the best, and Naomi’s were just as bad if not worse because of her old age. But their circumstances could not stop the loving bond they had for one another. Verse 14 says Ruth “clings” to Naomi, which harkens back to Genesis 2:24 “therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife” A new “untraditional” family is created by this union of friendship, love and loyalty; Ruth’s pledge of loyalty abandons gods, family and country to be faithful to Naomi. Ruth accepts the hardship of isolation and a potentially miserable life and still choses to stand alongside Naomi.
My experience of having too liberal of theology does not compare to loosing my husband and sons, my source of income, and my dignity. I can only imagine how much more difficult and beautiful this makes Ruth’s loving commitment to Naomi.
These stories of friendship and fidelity are what first captured my mind but then I began to wonder, how might my experiences with Morgan and the loving connection I have with her be used for the common good? How might we harness this same commitment to a person, but direct it toward people in general? What does being really good friends have to do with justice?
“Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all of your mind, and all of your soul.” is found in Deuteronomy 6:4.
Observant Jews consider the Shema to be the most important part of their prayer service; it is recited twice daily as a mitzvah (a religious commandment). It is traditional for Jews to say the Shema as their last words, and for parents to teach their children to say it before they go to sleep at night.
It is also the prayer that would have been fresh on the minds of first century Jewish Rabbis, much like Jesus. In the Jewish tradition this prayer had become a sort of “born again” type prayer we Christians became famous for in the 80’s. It was a sign of commitment and even conversion. But Jesus adds something to this. He adds, “Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.”
The troublemaker he was, he takes a culturally common idea and tells everyone they’re wrong. They’ve missed the biggest piece of a loving relationship with God, which is the whole part about loving everyone else too.
What better way to love God then to love others?
When asked who our neighbors are Jesus says, “anyone in need.” In this way Jesus is saying “All lives matter!”
Some have suggested that we might be better off saying “all lives matter” rather than “Black lives matter” – but they miss the point.
When we are fighting injustice we do not say “let us fight injustice” rather we say “Climate action now!” or “Gay Rights are human rights” or “profit over people.” In these pithy sayings we attempt to draw on specific problems, to give them a face, a name, and a mission for transformation.
Jesus’ generalization here cannot be isolated from his ministry itself. Where,
Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Samaritan lives matter.”
Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Children’s lives matter.”
Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Gentile lives matter.”
Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Jewish lives matter.”
Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Women’s lives matter.”
Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Lepers’ lives matter.”
Jesus truly does believe that all lives matter, but he also seems to have understood that the weight of oppression bearing down on “the other” needs to be named directly.
We cannot white wash our problems with another generalized justification of empty morality. Rather we should follow Jesus to the margins of society, to the East Palo Alto’s of our world, to where the nobody’s, outliers, and social outcasts hang.
As Christians we must do something to the System by proclaiming loud and clear, that individual lives matter, that people groups matter, that anyone and everyone ignored or subjected to hate by society not only matters but will be welcomed into the church with open arms and find a committed body ready to stand in solidarity with their struggle.
We fight the same struggles amidst our various differences, the struggle to survive, to belong, and to live lives of happiness. Jesus’ radical commitment, much like Ruth’s, was one of unending love. His love was directed to the least, lost, and lonely. Jesus showed us a commitment to love of neighbor, non-violence, and political protest. Jesus’ life was lived in direct opposition to the Roman Empire and Caesar’s tyrannical leadership. Jesus’ Beloved Community was based on grace and not power. His fidelity to the vision of justice ultimately lead to his death on a cross. As a political revolutionary Jesus hung, beaten and bruised, nails through his hands, and still proclaimed, “forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Commitment doesn’t get much better than that.
May we learn from Morgan, Ruth, Naomi, and from Jesus? May we learn from their commitment to one another, to the ministry of presence, and to their unwavering commitment to the Beloved? Amen.