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A Center of Love


Passage: Luke 10:38-42

Speaker: Rev. Charles Foster Johnson

It is a district privilege for me to preach with the wonderful Royal Lane Baptist Church again. I can feel Ray’s dignified presence and massive pastoral authority with every step inside this beautiful church!  I am grateful for Steve and Harry’s invitation and the opportunity to share some thoughts with you that are animating my own reflection and action concerning the state of public Christian witness in America.

I wish to suggest that the public square can be a place of moral formation. I’m drawn to Cornell West’s famous statement that “justice is love in the public square,” and I wish to call us to be centers of love for the execution of that justice.

I think folks like us focus on the justice part of Professor West’s phrase and train our attention on the powers and principalities at the White House and the Statehouse, while neglecting the church house, the schoolhouse, and our house. Perhaps we don’t give enough energy and action to the love part. Love in the public square. I’d like to share some thoughts that have been chewing on me for some time about how to do God’s will from the center of love established by Christ.

In observing the Greek armies of his day, Aristotle was haunted by one question in particular: what possessed soldiers to march so obediently and courageously to their certain death in military battle?  What produced in these young humans such bravery, obedience and sacrifice? After much study and reflection, he determined that what produces such as ethic of selfless courage, in young men whose emotional maturity was at an incipient stage, was a military that served as a community of moral formation.

Aristotle concluded that humans cannot think their way into ethical behavior but can only act according to a pattern of good practice. Values such as honesty, integrity, humility, sacrifice, obedience, kindness and service are not conveyed intellectually or rhetorically, but only experientially. It is only in the practiced repetition of such behaviors that soldiers instinctively performed heroically.

It is a culture of repeated and disciplined action, within a context of affirming community, that produces moral people. We need, as Micah implores us, to engage in these active verbs, to “love” and to “do” and to “walk.”

There are certain distinctions at work in our respective places of service, whether churches or non-profits or schools or even our protest movements. I wish to see these groups as laboratories of moral formation. The emphasis of such a training ground is communal rather than individual. Self-identity is drawn from the good of the whole group. This is why the localized nature of the neighborhood public school, for example, is essential for this character-building. Or the local church. Or the non-profit agency that serves human need. Or the hospital. Or the academy. The shared space of the neighborhood is a key component of the community. The program of instruction is embodied rather than abstracted. Pedagogy is not only intellectual but is also physical and interactive. Learning happens with the hands as well as with the head. Truth and knowledge are not strictly conceptual, but also concrete. Practice is valued over theory.

Faith communities have been predicated and constructed on this premise. In submitting ourselves to a community of like order, we join a regimen of repeated action that results in social uplift. The incarnation of that which is conceptual and spiritual, in an order of repetitive practice, is the muscle of any faith community. Churches, mosques, and synagogues are not comprised of theologians, or really even of believers or worshipers, but of communicants, those who commune and communicate in an agenda of shared practice. As they convene in the congregation for the activities of their faith, their heads may be somewhere else, but their hands are engaging in physical rituals. This established and repeated system of rituals is what religion is.

A disciple does two things: says what the leader says and does what the leader does. To make a particular metaphorical reference, the disciple “drops his or her nets” and follows. That is, he or she ceases doing the program outside the community, and enters into a different program, the one designed and implemented by the community. It is a process of following, mimicking, shadowing the leader—and each other in the community of disciples.

This is what every single soldier does in basic military training. The program they followed before entering the military ends. The prevailing myth of the young man or woman that they are autonomous over their own life is stripped down through a strict program of repeated actions. In a short time, late adolescent boys and girls become men and women. Not one time in basic training does a commanding officer ask them how they feel or what they think. The emphasis is on practice. Those 16 weeks comprise a definite community of engagement. It is a regimen of moral formation.

Isn’t a gang, however violent, a community of moral formation? Isn’t this the place where young people are mentored, shaped into a pattern of behavior and action?

The civil rights movement, which was the last social justice movement producing sweeping positive change in America, was fueled by local African American churches who taught their members non-violent resistance to systemic oppression. In Sunday School classes and congregations all over the South, people were taught to practice certain actions and behaviors that would enable them to do the unnatural moral thing: not return evil for evil. So, when the dogs were released on them in Selma, and the public humiliation foisted on them in Greensboro, and the hoses turned on them in Birmingham, they exemplified transcendent moral character and embodied an astonishing moral witness only because they had practiced over and over how they would react in such situations. Just like a soldier. Just like a disciple.

If I may use an illustration dear to me as a member of the Martin Luther King Board of Preachers at Morehouse College, Dr. King did not want to preach the night before his death. He was severely depressed, holed up in his room at the Lorraine Hotel, and piled up in bed. The liberal establishment had turned against him because of his poor people’s campaign which challenged the economic inequities of America. The FBI had him under surveillance. The infighting among his inner circle was becoming more acrimonious. He felt like a failure and was utterly exhausted. It was his trusted associate, Ralph Abernathy, that made him get up, get dressed, walk down to the Mason Temple Church of God, and step up into that pulpit. As soon as the preacher approached that sacred desk, his lifetime of repeated practice kicked in. He proceeded to proclaim the profoundly moving message that transformed a nation. He didn’t feel like it. But he did it. Because he was produced by a community of moral formation.

In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus enters the village of Bethany and the home of his friends Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. In order for us to understand what I think Luke is getting at in this sweet anecdote in the life of Jesus, we have to know how a “home” and a “house” was defined in Jesus’ day. Think less like an individual structure of husband, wife, and 2.3 children, and more in terms of a communal arrangements of multiple families, extended families, and economic activity. The Greek word for home or household is oikia or oikos from which we get our term oikonome, which we transliterate as “economy.”

I think we are correct in interpreting this immortal story as a caution against the distraction that can deter us from the Love of Christ in our lives. Martha is immersed in the “many things” of food preparation, while Mary is focused on the “one thing needful.” But, I don’t think that is the entire moral and spiritual point here. Jesus has called together a community of moral formation in the village of Bethany and he doesn’t want Martha to miss it. Jesus is calling Martha out of her gender-indicated role of food preparer and asking her to follow her sister—mimic her sister—in the disciple-forming activity taking place at the table: saying what Jesus said, doing what Jesus did. Jesus wants Martha to join the communal center of love, with others, so that she can have their example and be example to them. Witness and be a witness to the Love of God.

I hope I am not being too idealistic in thinking that we can import some of this sensibility into our own congregations, classrooms, and contexts.

First, we must recover local civic virtue as a provision of the common good, locally owned, provided and operated. The leader best equipped to shape folks is the one closest to them—like a father, mother, grandmother, grandfather. The notion that national corporations know how to teach our fellow citizens better than you do is sheer nuts. The consolidation and nationalization and privatization of authority essentially is a money-driven disease of disruption.

Second, get rid of abstracted concepts of authority disassociated from the embodied, communal, and local life of our neighbors. This is Gnosticism, and it has wreaked havoc on our kids, demoralized out leaders, and stripped our professions of their moral dimensions. It is wrong and must stop now.

Third, refund and restore community programs of athletic involvement, aesthetic expression, vocational exploration, and military enlistment that have been eliminated by our disembodied and gnostic hyper-individualism. Establish cohorts of character formation. Football, basketball, baseball, golf, swimming, volleyball, soccer, debate, speech, chess, science, drama, theatre, dance, art, music, band, ROTC, music clubs, social circles, book clubs, Girl Scouts, Rotary, AA, and on and on and on. Not only in schools, but also in adult lives, let us join with community and business partners to establish guilds of training in culinary arts, automobile mechanics, computer technology, carpentry, plumbing, electrical contracting and masonry.

Such programs enable us to discover our natural abilities and talents. They teach obedience to the authority of a coach. They instill values of discipline, order, compassion, respect, solidarity, teamwork, leadership, grit, creativity. They construct the mentor/mentee relationship so essential to the character of human and the texture of human interaction. They enable us to become part of something bigger than they are.

This is what Jesus is calling Martha to—become something much bigger than she could ever imagine as a first century marginalized woman bound to her gender stereotype.

In the partnerships with the civic, faith and business communities, a civic responsibility and engagement will be cultivated that restores American citizenship to a place of importance. Put voting booths in every public school so that teachers can exercise their duty to vote—and do so in a visible fashion for our children.

In these laboratories of moral formation, truth is “caught” more than it is “taught.” This method of what Soren Kierkegaard called “indirect communication” conveys the profoundest and loftiest notions that govern human behavior.

Of course, I believe the local congregation can be the community resource center for these partnerships, always in submission to the authority of the local superintendent and principal, and always in deference and adherence to religious liberty and church/state separation. This is our message and mission at Pastors for Children as we are now in seven states—Texas, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Florida, and North Carolina—and will soon plant in a dozen other states. God-willing, we will soon be in all fifty states fighting privatization and advancing quality public education for all American children.

Our children who exhibit severe social and emotional dysfunctions did not make up those behaviors. They learned them. These destructive patterns were modeled for them. We can surely provide them “a more excellent way,” but it will require a massive recommitment to universal experiential and embodied education, rooted in a community of learning with a profound moral dimension, provided and protected by a secure public trust that will have bravely repudiated the tragic attempt to turn education into a commodity traded on an open market.

When Renoir was old, he was stricken with crippling arthritis. His hand became grotesquely twisted fists. He no longer had the dexterity of fingers and wrists that allowed him to ply his brilliant craft. But he was born to paint. So, when he could no longer hold the paintbrush, he had his assistants strap the paintbrushes to his gnarled hands so that he could practice, practice, practice. He loved to paint anemones. He created hundreds and hundreds of canvasses of this colorful flower. And, the last journal entry he dictated to his assistant was this: “I have finally learned how to paint anemones.”

How do we become fully human? We practice. In a community of love. An oikos. A household. A church. A school. Love in action.

A center of love.