Friday, August 12, 2016

The Sacrifice of Humayun Khan

Abraham and Ishmael; Brooklyn Museum
When Khizr Khan, father of a soldier killed in Iraq in 2004, took the stage at the Democratic National Convention in July to contest Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, he invoked the language of sacrifice to upbraid the Republican candidate:

"Go look at the graves of the brave patriots who died defending America — you will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one."

Trump’s spluttered response was shallow: "Did Hillary's script writers write it? I think I've made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard."

Hillary Clinton’s own comment pulled the focus on sacrifice back to those who died in war: "this is a time to honor the sacrifice of Captain Khan and all the fallen. Captain Khan and his family represent the best of America, and we salute them."

The noise surrounding the contest over the US presidency itself is such that some important issues in this exchange may get lost. One is just what “sacrifice” is. Mr Trump certainly misses the mark, but it is not hard to see how he slid into his claim; he identified his own hard work as “sacrifice" because he made certain choices, giving up certain goods or goals for the sake of others. This is part of a typical modern and metaphorical "sacrifice," but Trump's attempt to climb the altar falls short at the step where Khizr Khan and Ghazala Khan - and their son Captain Humayun Khan - stand. Mr Trump may have given up certain things for the sake of other things, but it is no sacrifice merely to make choices, or even to exercise discipline. Going to the gym is not sacrifice, and neither is single-minded aggrandizement. The Khans gained the higher ground at a cost.

The idea of “sacrifice” itself deserves to be interrogated further, though. The nobility exhibited by the Khan parents and the bravery shown by the son may exemplify what it means in modern terms, but ironically this is not quite what Islam otherwise means by sacrifice, nor was it originally what Christianity or Judaism meant.

Among these traditions Muslims are unique in actually still sacrificing literally, on Eid al-Adha, slaughtering an animal and distributing the meat, a third going to the poor and the other two-thirds being retained or shared with family and friends. This ritual has something of the character of gift and divine service, but does not carry redemptive overtones as Christianity might expect of sacrifice; a degree of altruism is also involved in Eid al-Adha, but the cow or camel bears the greatest burden, rather the family itself.

Yet the Muslim holiday, to be celebrated in a few weeks from the time of writing, does refer to a story more like that of Khizr, Ghazala, and Humayun Khan; it commemorates Abraham’s not-quite sacrifice of his son (in Islam the almost-victim was Ishmael, not Isaac). With that story in mind, one can actually hear Khizr Khan presenting himself and his son as a modern Abraham and Ishmael to the DNC; the father offered his son in obedience to a higher power, but here no angel stayed his hand. Khizr, not Humayun Khan, made the sacrifice.

This is slightly different from the usual Christian or post-Christian western view of how sacrifice works. Clinton’s further comment, wherein the fallen is the sacrificer as well as the offering - just as Jesus, the sacrifice par excellence, is both priest and victim - is more typical of the "deadly altruism" that has come define sacrifice in most modern western use. Here Humayun Khan offers himself.

Mrs Clinton’s more familiar figuring of Humayun Khan’s death allows him agency at least; his sacrifice is his own choice, whether made rightly or not. For all its dignity, Khizr Khan’s view of sacrifice is one in which the father, Abrahamically, gives the son to God. For many Christians, ironically, this view may also be resonant with a popular if pernicious quasi-trinitarian dynamic in which the Father offers up or demands the life of the Son, and where divine life seems more like domestic violence than cosmic love.

So there are at least two kinds of sacrificial logic, even in this one story, not counting Trump's; despite claims by some social theorists and theologians that all sacrifice has one origin and meaning, in reality sacrifice is a complex field of thought and practice, not just one idea. Ancient sacrificers, like modern Muslims at Eid, were not typically focussed on human victims, scapegoats, or redemption. Yet both these recent uses of sacrificial image and story reflect a modern tendency for sacrifice to have become a way of talking not about gift, celebration, and sharing, but about violence and voluntary suffering.

What do we learn of the meaning of Captain Khan’s death by this language? Both Khan's and Clinton's statements deserve scrutiny, because both in fact use the metaphor of sacrifice to interpret or even to justify violent death and war - and a problematic war at that.

Both sacrificial reflections name a sacrifice, but only imply a God. The God to whom Humayun Khan's life was offered is of course not the one worshipped by either religious tradition to which the speakers adhere, but is the nation and its policies. The fine line between the two here is sobering. In modern times, Christians have often allowed or encouraged the confusion of civil and divine orders in sacralizing war, or at least the tragedy of death in war, in terms that - to be as sympathetic as possible - allow meaning to be sought in the midst of violent death and tragic loss. Captain Khan’s death however has become not merely a matter of personal bravery to recall as a moral example, but an offering placed before the specific altar of the Iraq War, as much as of the US Constitution.

By figuring Captain Khan’s death thus, the speakers at the Democratic Convention have demanded a high price of the American people too. One of the few positive things one could say about Mr Trump’s campaign—and it is a struggle to find many—is that at least on some days he has questioned US foreign policy in the Middle East, when the Democratic candidate has not. The incoherence of Trump's statements, among other things, prevents them from being a serious critique, but such is still necessary. A war whose causes and effects are deeply questionable - even for those who accept the possibility of a just war - a war whose scandalous origins have recently led to a scathing and important analysis in Britain through the Chilcot inquiry, requires fearless scrutiny rather than have its ugliness covered over with words of sacrifice.

Here however the system has failed Americans in general. But it may have failed Humayun Khan and other Americans who have borne the cost of the Iraq War for the US (not to mention Iraqis themselves groaning under the weight of civil war and the repellent rule of ISIS) more specifically. Through this sacrificial rhetoric, Humayun Khan has been offered to the cause of multiculturalism and liberal democracy - or is that multiculturalism and democracy have themselves been drafted for the war? Did Captain Khan, a brave man who loved his country, die to prove that Muslims and migrants can sacrifice to the same false gods too? His memory and his sacrifice may still require a different kind of service; an increasingly diverse American nation may still need learn to exist with itself, as Khizr Khan scathingly demonstrated to Donald Trump; but however diverse it may become, the USA also needs to learn how to exist with others and to make its truest offerings at the altar of peace.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Bread and the Bible

This week I am teaching a course in the summer session at Yale Divinity School on bread in history, focusing on biblical and theological tradition.
Andrew McGowan with an emmer and barley sourdough loaf
prepared by participants in the YDS summer bread course
As well as considering a variety of biblical texts (more on that in another post maybe) we are baking breads that, if not necessary completely authentic (probably an illusory quest) then at least illustrate some of the key issues that faced producers, eaters, and those who wrote about these issues in the ancient Mediterranean world.

In a paper I gave at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual meeting in 2014, I suggested that for eaters in most places and periods relevant to biblical literature and to ancient Christianity and Judaism, there were three factors that made bread more or less desirable, and an indicator of one's status and wealth (or lack thereof): color (refinement, bolting of the flour etc.), grain (wheat or barley, in particular), and fermentation or leavening.

In this week's course we are dealing with the last two issues in a variety of ways, and are doing some baking that involves using older grains and seeing their properties. We have been using barley and emmer flours, these being the two most significant cereal crops in the ancient Mediterranean, at least until the emergence of bread wheat, as well as einkorn and modern wheat.

A few days ago to prepare for the course, I created a barley starter or sour, armed with the knowledge from previous attempts that it would probably begin well, but then become too acid unless used on about day 3. We used the barley starter (about 500g) to create a leaven with both barley and emmer flours in equal quantities.

The leaven worked well; it did not expand a great deal, but was unmistakably active.

We split the leaven, keeping some back for a new starter, and with the remainder we then made a slightly wetter dough (c. 50% hydration) for a large loaf to be baked in a pot, and a slightly drier one for small flat breads, both with equal quantities of barley and emmer again.

The large one we proved in a banetton - not too archaic, although I don't think it's implausible to think of proving in a basket or other vessel in ancient times - then slashed and baked the result in a heated enamel pot at high temperature (500F).

It rose more than expected, and the bread had a well-developed flavor - quite sour, but allowing the grains to come through. The texture was of course fairly dense, given the flours used, and still quite moist. As with rye breads that may be more familiar to many, these might be better on the second day than straight out of the oven.

The other issue we were considering was of course that of leavening. My barley 'sour' was created just by mixing flour and water. No yeast in the usual sense - brewer's yeast - has been added to these breads. They help illustrate what many scholars and translators seem to be unaware of when dealing with texts such as the Exodus narrative about the importance of unleavened bread, the Leviticus prescriptions for bread without leaven as sacrificial offerings, and the parables and sayings of Jesus about leaven; namely, that leavening is a spontaneous process that arises when flour is moistened, not an adulterant like brewer's yeast. 

The significance of all these passages is somewhat different when we realize that leavening has this almost mysterious character, and that it arises within dough itself rather than being an additive. For Exodus, this helps us understand the concern about time; in Leviticus, we see leaven as corruption or at least instability that makes it less suitable for an offering; and in the examples from Jesus' teaching, negative and positive alike, it is the power of leaven to communicate itself, and assimilate other dough to its transformed character, that underlies the image.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Life and Death

Sunday Sermon: Life Before Death, June 5, 2016 from Trinity Church Boston on Vimeo.

[Luke 7: 11-17]

This past March I went with a group of students from the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale on pilgrimage to Rome. Not unnaturally a bit of our time was focussed on the Vatican, where we went to a general audience with the Pope and about 10,000 of his other best friends, discussed ecumenism with present Roman Catholic leaders, and where we also spent hours literally underground, seeing why the Vatican was even there.

Rome was a city where like Nain, featured in today’s Gospel, the dead were brought outside the walls for burial. Ancient Jews, Romans, and Greeks did not create burial places around the picturesque streets of cities like the Granary burial ground, or in gardens like at Mt Auburn - they took the dead solemnly out to quite separate resting places, from the realm of the living to realm of the dead.The cities of the ancient mediterranean were thus divided by their walls into two parts - the realm of the living, of houses and streets and taverns inside, the polis - and outside was that of the dead, the necropolis, outside.

At one time the Vatican, outside the city walls of Rome, included a cemetery. St Peter’s Basilica stands where it does because Peter, and Paul, were according to tradition martyred in Rome under Nero, and Peter’s remains were buried in that very necropolis. Paradoxically then, the Christians came to view these places of the dead as monuments to faith and life, and centered communal worship around them, turning space inside out, the realm of death becoming a place where life could be celebrated. 
Today’s Gospel spells out this strange claim of the Gospel more fully. It depicts not only the two spaces, the inner and the outer, but reports the movements between them; a procession familiar in the ancient world, a large crowd of mourners including a widow who are taking the body of a young man, her son, outside the town and the realm of the living, to the place of the dead outside.

But in this story, two processions encounter one other; for Jesus and his disciples, and a second large crowd, are coming in. These two crowds meet outside the town gates, almost like two armies at this point, or like two tides contending in uneasy equilibrium; which way will the water flow, between the realms of life in the city, and death outside where they stand. 

The mother does not ask Jesus for anything, but “he had compassion for her,” saying “do not weep”; he touched not even the body but just the bier and said “young man, I say to you, get up.”

After this event we know nothing of the man or his widowed mother. We can celebrate that story implies not just return to life for him, but rescue from destitution for her. Yet this is not really the point of the story.

The mysterious victory that Jesus achieves in this skirmish with death is implicitly transformative for the lives of these two, widow and son - but also, and just as importantly, for that crowd flowing out of the city gate of Nain, if not in an easy way: “Fear seized them all” Luke says "and they praised God, saying 'a great prophet has arisen among us' and 'God has looked upon - cared for - God’s people’.” Fear seized them, because something had happened there that disrupted the usual flow of life and death, and reversed the tide.

I said we know nothing about these two, widow and son, but actually we do know one thing - they died. Eventually they were both carried by a similar crowd out the same gate, and no opposing flow of life led by a great prophet stopped the tide, at least not visibly or materially. If the point of the story was that Jesus could revive corpses, the story rings somewhat hollow then.

This is however a story about life and death, and about Jesus’ authority over death.

The human struggle with death is universal; but unlike the ancients and unlike many today, we in the developed West or at least in its more privileged sections find ourselves in a world in he grip of death but also possessed by the delusion that money, political power, or technical expertise, thinks it could solve the problem of death. If we could just develop the drugs, or buy the care, or understand the genome, or develop the policy, or build the wall, or elect the President, we wouldn’t die. The more fantastic elements of this involve cryogenics and cybernetics; perhaps if all else fails, the rich could freeze and/or download themselves to avoid mortality. This however is all a perverse expression of the realm of death, even in the attempt to escape it.

Death is not a technical problem to solve, it is a theological, a spiritual problem, to confront. 

We rightly struggle against death however, both as the specific threat over a particular life, our own or others, but also as a force that claims to be the true character and meaning of existence. We can and should seek health and longevity for ourselves and others. We rightly oppose the absurdity of gun violence close to home, and warfare further afield, that takes innocent lives prematurely and meaninglessly. Christians do so, not because our struggle is really with death in that immediate and universal sense, from which Jesus only rescued the widow’s son temporarily; for we cannot eradicate death itself as the natural end of human life. Our struggle is rather with death as the principle of existence, as a realm of fear that prevents life being lived fully and freely. 

In time Jesus himself will be taken out of the great city to the place of death and burial, borne on a tide of hatred and fear. For us however that story is not one of mourning but of triumph; and these two stories make the same claim about Jesus, death and life. The claim that life triumphs over death is even bolder than the one in today’s Gospel with which our modern mindsets may struggle, about a story of miraculous resuscitation. We cannot cheat death of those victories over us all. The claim is however that even when death finds us, it has no victory; for we have joined Jesus’s procession of life.

That place and this are places where the crowd following Jesus, among whom we are called to include ourselves, has surged forward through the gates and into the city, and the tide of life has prevailed. We judge this success not from the persistence of mortality but from the persistence of love; from our willingness to proclaim in the city that no death is mightier than this. Our claim is not that we can avoid or deny death, but that life and love are stronger than death; not just that there is life after death, but that if love reigns, then there is life even before death.