The Exodus

I found this poem this morning, in the Twitter feed of Rev. Jordan Haynie Ware, an Episcopal priest in the diocese of Fort Worth, Texas (who, as an aside, wrote a really cool book, The Ultimate Quest, which explains the Liturgy and theology of the Episcopal Church in terms of Star Wars and Dungeons & Dragons, which could not possibly be more in my wheel-house).  The poem is by Dave Barnhart, a United Methodist Church pastor in Birmingham, Alabama.

The poem has haunted me all day--I can't get it out of my mind.  It says in the clearest possible way the things I was trying to say in my post from last week about how things have changed.  Rev. Barnhart zeroes in on something that I think many of us haven't really had the courage to say, but we need to say in these days--as he says in the poem "I have seen your christ, and he is my antichrist."  There is a fear, a reasonable fear, of becoming every bit as judgmental and narrow and performatively-apocalyptic as the post zealous conservative fundamentalists, and so we naturally tend toward soft-peddling our divisions.  But, there is a time for conciliation and there is a time for prophecy, and it seems more and more like we are in a time when prophecy is the medicine we need.

I was also haunted by the last two stanzas.  I've talked before about "evacuation theologies" in the Christian context, but there is no more robust evacuation theology ever devised than that of the ancient Egyptians.  The Hebrew people in Exodus were cogs in a great cultural and economic and theological machine that had as its ultimate endpoint in the afterlife (for some, of course)--the Salvation Industrial Complex.  The very bodies and lives of the Israelites served as the lubricant that kept the machine turning.  And, as Barnhart mentions, the Israelites turned their backs on the life in favor of a mysterious deity in the desert wilderness, preferring the radical uncertainty of freedom to the comfortable chains of the machine.

Many of us feel like we are wandering.  Maybe that's OK.  Maybe it is the time to wander, like the Israelites, through the wilderness for a while.  As a man once said, in a story I am sure Rev. Ware knows well, "not all those who wander are lost."

The Exodus

  by Dave Barnhart


I have seen your religion, and I hate it.
I have heard your doctrine, and I loathe it.
Take away your empty praise songs,
your vacuous worshiptainment.
Your mouth is full of religious words,
but your proverbs are salted manure.

“The sick deserve to be sick.
The poor deserve to be poor.
The rich deserve to be rich.
The imprisoned deserve to be imprisoned.”
Because you never saw him sick, or poor, or in prison.

“If he had followed police instructions,
if he had minded the company he keeps,
he would not have been killed,”
You say in the hearing
of a man hanging on a cross
between two thieves.

“People who live good lives
do not have pre-existing conditions,” you say,
carving these words over the hospital door:
“Who sinned, this man or his parents,
that he was born blind?”

“It is the church’s job, not the government’s,”
say you fat sheep,
defending your fat shepherds,
shoving and butting with shoulders and horns,
while you foul the water,
grass,
and air,
and scatter the hungry sheep.

You watch the melting glaciers and say to the waves of the sea,
“this far shall you come, and no farther,”
as if your will could change the weather,
as if your will could be done in the heavens as it is on this earth,
as if you could drill the sky the way you drill the soil.

In your telling,
in the story of the starving of the five thousand,
there are not twelve baskets collected of left-over food;
In your story, God’s abundance becomes scarcity,
and the crowds devour each other.
“Send them into the villages to buy food,”
and let the Invisible Hand’s miracle of the free market sort them out,
the worthy from the unworthy,
while you eat the two loaves and five pieces of bread
volunteered by a child.
These ungrateful poor,
the welfare queens
with their anchor babies,
stop before your disciples’ raised palms;
they hear you say,
“The Master cannot be bothered to bless your children.”

You see Hannah drunk,
and you jail her for fetal endangerment.

Like Haman, you hide behind the skirts of the king;
you make laws and pay bribes
that allow vigilante violence
and private discrimination
against those you hate,
sheltering underneath plausible deniability.
“It’s not a Muslim ban,” you say one day.
“It’s about religious liberty,” you say another.

This Bible you wave, this word you claim,
it is sharper than any two-edged sword.
You wield it poorly; it slices you on the backstroke.
You know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.
You tie up heavy yokes for others
whose burdens you do not bear,
but you will not lift a finger to help them.
To some you say, “Do not marry, but burn.”
You lock them out of the kingdom of God.
You cross sea and land for your missionary work,
and teach others to be as hateful as you.

Your kingdom is not the public park of Zechariah,
where children play in the streets
and old men and women lean on their canes for very age.
It is not the land where every fearless household
has its own vine and fig tree,
their own means of production and shade for their rest.
It is not the land where everyone has a home.
Your kingdom is the one with gates,
where homeless beggars have their sores licked by dogs,
where people who have the audacity to grow old
pay a premium for their insolence.
Like Ahab, you covet all the vines, all the fig trees,
letting your domain stretch as far as your eye can see,
adding house to house and field to field
until, in your gentrified land
there is room for no one but you and yours.
Like Pharaoh, you call those who refuse you “Lazy, lazy.”
You build walls, and walls, and walls, and walls,
and you stuff your ears to the sound of protest songs
that will shake those walls down.

I have seen your christ, and he is my antichrist.
He is the herald of a violent god,
a god of fertility but not fruitfulness,
a god of embryos but not emancipation, pro-birth and anti-life,
a god of war and retribution but not of justice,
a god of order but not of peace,
a god of might but not of mercy,
a god of marriage but not of love,
a god of sex but not of pleasure,
a god of platitudes but not of wisdom,
a god of work but not of sabbath,
a god who demands sacrifice from the poor but luxury and reward for Pharaoh.

Your religion is the religion of pyramids pointed heavenwards,
towers built to reach the heavens.
Supported by their flat base, built by slave labor,
they are stable monuments to wealth and death.
You fill their secret rooms with gold so that
in the afterlife,
you may cross to paradise
on the backs of the oppressed,
and live in forgetful pleasure for eternity.
Your gilded gospel is rusty ruin.

You are why the ancient Hebrews
seldom talked about an afterlife,
weary as they were of working
for Egypt’s dead heaven.
Your idols and your religion
are why those slaves left the yoke of heaven,
the land of binding,
for a wide wilderness,
for a nameless, faceless God
who told them they—even they—
were made in God’s image.
You are why your churches are empty
of those who love and believe in freedom.
You are why the Gentiles blaspheme the name of God.
You are the reason for the Exodus.

And if you pursue, may God throw you into the sea.
And the horse you rode in on.

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