Alice Walker writes about the Baemba tribe of South Africa. When a person in that tribe acts irresponsibly or unjustly, he or she is placed in the center of the village, alone and unfettered. All work comes to a stop, and every man, woman and child in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused individual. Then, each person in the tribe speaks to the accused, one at a time. They speak about all the good things the person has done in his or her lifetime. All the person’s positive attributes and good deeds, all the strengths and kindnesses are recited carefully and at length. The tribal ceremony often lasts several days. At the end, the tribal circle is broken, a joyous celebration takes place, and the person is symbolically and literally welcomed back into the tribe.
When I read about this custom, I experienced a rapid waterfall of thoughts
and feelings. I was immediately moved by the deep respect for the individual
this custom demonstrates, and I thought to myself that calling people into their
best selves is surely the most productive way to respond to wrongdoing. Fast
on the heels of that feeling and thought, I had a pang of regret and grief for
the many times I’ve focused on the wrong that’s been done rather
than look for a way to help someone—including me!—be the person
God creates him or her to be. Then my thoughts wandered to the enormous difference
between the Baembas’ approach to wrongdoing and our own laws and customs.
That thought led me to imagine what kind of change it would take for such an
approach to become part of the way we live. My mind played for a while with
the system changes that would be necessary to implement such a positive process.
Then I realized that the power of this process lies not in the way they confront
the accused, but in all the days that come before that event— all those
days when all the people in the village—men, women and children—are
paying attention to the person’s behavior. Paying attention, being attentive,
taking time to notice and appreciate goodness of action at that deep level that
leads to long memory.
The seeds for the Baembas’ response to wrongdoing are planted long before the day when the accused stands inside the circle. The seeds are planted in every day of the person’s life, nurtured by the love each person holds for the other, and it’s at this moment when those seeds, planted by the whole village, bear fruit.
I can imagine that everyone who hears or reads about the Baembas’ response to wrongdoing by one of their neighbors might say, “Well, that sounds just fine, but it sure couldn’t happen here. That’s not the way it works—that’s not the way people are. It just wouldn’t work for us.”
I can imagine any one of us saying that—and I can imagine what people said when Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” I can imagine what they said, because they—we—are still saying it. We may not use the word enemies. Frequently, we prefer to think of those people as they or he or she. We don’t have to name the demon who makes our world a little—or a lot—less comfortable to live in. We know who we mean, and we don’t have to speak their names. We hear Jesus’ words, and there’s a part of us that acknowledges—perhaps a bit grudgingly—that God’s sun does light their days and that God’s rain does fall on them, but another part of us believes, deep, deep down where we keep those unspoken thoughts, that God simply hasn’t yet figured out a way to prevent all those good things from happening to them. That same part of us thinks that if they ever had to stand in the center of the Baemba village circle, the talk wouldn’t last very long.
Loving our enemies— the practical application of the great commandment to love our neighbor as we love ourselves—is perhaps the most difficult part of living our faith. It’s not the way we work. It’s not the way people are. But there it is. We are bound by our baptismal covenant to seek and serve Christ in all persons. All persons, not just the ones we like. To seek and serve Christ in them, not just to tolerate them. And we try. Some days—and some years—are better than others. On those other days, we just keep trying, because we are called to pay attention, to notice, to care for the bit of God that each of us carries with us, that little bit of God that makes each of us holy.
All of our lections on this Sunday before Independence Day are focused on God’s loving kindness to each of us and on our responsibility to show God’s love to the world. Last year, I saw God’s blessing as the connection between the lections and our nation’s birthday. This year, I still see that connection of God’s blessing through the ages, but I also see a connection of impossibilities that gives me hope for our country and hope for our lives in the Body of Christ.
Two hundred and thirty-one years ago, fifty-six men signed the document that is the birth certificate for this nation—the Declaration of Independence. It was not simply the beginning of our country. It was also the beginning of a new way of life—a radical departure from the way life had always been, led by a group of revolutionaries and certainly doomed to failure. Everyone knew it wouldn’t work, that it couldn’t work, that it was against the laws of God and nature. In the face of this impossibility, fifty-six men signed the document which includes the words that can be best understood as the creed of our country, the words that describe the dream—the belief—that guides us: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These are impossible words to live into. The men who signed the declaration didn’t believe that all men were equal. They only thought that they were equal, and women were certainly not even part of the equation, but for two hundred and thirty-one years, we have worked to make these words ring true.
Every year brings us closer to making the dream a reality. The going is slow, and we sometimes despair that we will ever reach the day when justice walks every street and peace lives in every home. Sometimes we despair, but we continue to try, just as we try to live into our covenant, just as we try to be the people God calls us to be.
The good news is that God’s blessing is with us in our struggle.
We are blessed by the God who makes the sun to rise on the evil as well as on the good. We are blessed by the God who sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. We are blessed by the God who knows the secrets of our hearts. We are blessed by the God who knows the evil and the good and the righteous and the unrighteous—in our hearts and in the world. We are blessed by the God who loves us—who yearns and longs for us. We are blessed by the God whose deepest desire is that we show that love to all the world. We are blessed by the God who makes the impossible happen in every day of our lives.
Thanks be to God.
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