Yom Kippur, Forgiveness, and Race

Today’s guest post comes from Sarah Barasch-Hagans who is a queer Jewish woman from St. Louis and a third year rabbi-in-training at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Sarah is also the founder of the Fargesn Media Project and one of the founders of the acclaimed Black Lives Matter Haggadah. Her post shares her perspective on Yom Kippur. It also sheds light on the relationships between atonement and forgiveness as well as looking at how race affects those concepts. You can find more of Sarah’s writings on her blog.

Yom Kippur is the Jewish “Day of Atonement” of fasting and soul searching that seems to come every autumn exactly when we need it. This past week, after a year in which I engaged intensely in challenging accepted ideologies around race and class and power that Ferguson had highlighted in my hometown of St. Louis, Yom Kippur again came right on time. This year, I finally realized how truly countercultural in America is the Jewish approach is to apologizing and forgiving.

American society tends to make apologizing optional for the powerful yet demands forgiveness from the powerless. We have never offered reparations for slavery yet we tout as exemplary the Black families in South Carolina who have forgiven Dylann Roof for mass murdering their relatives while they prayed in church–even though he has expressed no remorse for his evil actions. On the heels of this news, set amidst this year of the rebirth of the Black Civil Rights Movement, it has felt especially important to me clarify the theology of forgiveness in Judaism.

In Judaism, we are not required to forgive those that wrong us. Rather, responsibility rests with the one who has done wrong and is required to atone. Even if we are not forgiven the first time we apologize, we must still attempt to fulfill the commandment by offering atonement three times with sincerity. Especially in cases where we may have sinned repeatedly, demonstrating sincerity arguably requires that we perform actions to show we are on a path to truly changing the behavior we are apologizing for. Only then, only after we have sincerely attempted atonement with the person three times, are we are said to have atoned properly before God.

This theology has serious implications for dialogues on race in our country. I believe that Jewish theology is absolutely clear that the current role of White Americans–Jewish and non-Jewish–is to atone.

Judaism would not demand that individual Black Americans forgive White People or the institutions that uphold racism. If individual Black Americans find peace in forgiveness, that is their choice, but but that is not required. Jewish tradition does have much to say about short term restorative justice and and long term reconciliation and community building, but is a conversation for another day.

We must delay those conversations because they are too comforting. This is our time to avoid the impulse to deflect blame or to try to plan for the future. This moment, this exact season in the Jewish calendar, is when we atone without knowing whether we will ever reach a place of comfort.

This time is for difficult spiritual exercises by those of us who are implicated in sinful cycles. Each of us of all races and genders and class backgrounds and sexualities and ability levels must look honestly at ourselves and our place in oppression, interpersonal and communal, and seek teshuvah–usually translated as atonement but literally meaning “turning.” This is our time of turning towards a path of love and justice. This is our time to exercise faith in turning to a path we may not even be able to imagine. Because until we are absolutely honest about the path we are on, we will never be able to see, much less travel, along the path we seek.

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#BlackLivesMatter and Crucifixion

By: Autumn Elizabeth, Editor in Chief Christ, Interfaith, Christian, BlackLivesMatterI am supposed to be packing my bag for my next big adventure. In a little more than 24 hours I will be moving across an ocean. But I am not packing, my thoughts and prayers are interested in what is happening in the place I am stopping at on my journey. I am speaking of St. Louis, of Ferguson, of U.S. America, and the struggle for justice that is happening there today, and every day.

There are a lot of issues that need exploring on this topic, but I want to take a moment and explore the link between the crucifixion of Jesus and what is happening at this moment in my home country.

With the recent arrests of Johnetta “Netta” Elzie, many of the Millennial Activists United folks, and Cornel West, among other, my mind drifts to my recent trip to the Vatican in Rome.

While I was at the Vatican, I was told that after a terrible fire, early Christians were blamed for this fire and were tortured, burned alive, arrested and crucified by the Roman state. This is of course after Jesus was arrested and killed by the government of the lands in which he was born.

When I see my friends, brave activists, and those who I hold in the deepest gratitude of the spirit, and I see what they endure, the tear gas, the bruises, the beatings and the deaths, I cannot help but recall Matthew 27:30-31:

 They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.

As an ally, a comrade, a co-conspirator with those fighting for the literal lives of people of color in U.S.America, I cannot ignore the violence that is being perpetrated on those seeking justice, those calling for an end of domination, of racism, of injustice. In the same way I am called to give up earthly comforts to follow Jesus, I am called to give up the illusion that I too have not been steeped in racism, called to not merely observe but to stand with my comrades of color.

Marcus Borg explores the link between the crucifixion of Jesus and the movement to end oppression and domination far better than I ever could.

Jesus was killed. This is one of those facts that everybody knows, but whose significance is often overlooked. He didn’t simply die; he was executed. We as Christians participate in the only major religious tradition whose founder was executed by established authority. And if we ask the historical question, “Why was he killed?” the historical answer is because he was a social prophet and movement initiator, a passionate advocate of God’s justice, and radical critic of the domination system who had attracted a following. If Jesus had been only a mystic, healer, and wisdom teacher, he almost certainly would not have been executed. Rather, he was killed because of his politics – because of his passion for God’s justice.

Jesus fought against the state, the corrupt status quo, and he suffered for it, he was killed for it. As a Christian, I am firstly and most importantly a citizen of the way of Jesus. And as a citizen of such a state I salute everyone working for justice with #BlackLivesMatter. I believe Jesus is with you, I believe you are doing the work of God, and this post is for you.

Ferguson: We Are Praying

Searching Sophia’s Pockets prides itself on being dedicated to global spiritual journeys, and yet today we feel most keenly that both Autumn and Jenni spent years of their respective spiritual journeys in the Saint Louis area, which struggles at this moment with the decision not to indite officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown. 

To honor that part of our journey and to stand in solidarity with everyone affected by the decision, firstly we offer Searching Sophia’s Pockets as a safe space, as always, on the internet. We offer these pages, these posts, these prayers, and their comment sections a as a safe place for conversation, rest, and action.

Secondly, we offer the following prayer, along with the quiet lamentations of our hearts, to the people of Ferguson, Saint Louis, and more broadly to those upon whom our racist systems inflict harm, which is to say, the world.

Dear God,

We are in agony,
crying, aching, but still we are praying.

This is the world we have made,
one where hurt has boiled to the surface,
despite our attempts to deny it.

Give us strength to bear witness to the racist systems that run this world,
to face the realities of oppression with open hearts and minds.

Give us compassion to gather with those who are not like us,
make us united in our common love,
our common search for justice,
and our common desire for peace.

When systems of power rage against us,
help us continue to survive as beacons of love.

Let us not dally in sentimental love,
the easy love that cannot withstand times like these.

Let us show the ferocity of love,
the bravery of love,
love that is not sated with mere words,
but demands living justice for all.

We are afraid, we wish for an easier way,
yet, filled with radical love,
we can stand together against even the greatest injustice,
calling out, in voices clear and united,
Black lives matter!
Amen!
Amen.
Amen.

It’s Your Church Too

10304700_10100837314741541_5443715570065754002_nToday’s post is from Patrick Cousins, who works as a campus minister at Saint Louis University. Patrick grew up outside of New Orleans and spent fifteen years in a Catholic religious order, teaching in high schools in Zimbabwe, Louisiana, and Arizona before moving to St. Louis in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. His post is a beautiful reflection on what LGBTQ people of faith can face and really relates to Autumn’s post about her own experiences with the church as an LGBTQ person. His post is filled with insight, wisdom and hope for LGBTQ people, and really all people of faith.

I have worked as a campus minister at Saint Louis University (a Jesuit university in St. Louis, MO) for a long time, and over the years I have worked with a number of students who have been in the midst of the coming out process. For many of them, religion has been a source of pain, shame, and confusion: churches claim to speak on behalf of God, and therefore too easily claim absolute and unchanging certitude for themselves. But religious communities and traditions can still be places of affirmation and growth. There is still plenty of misunderstanding out there, but more and more, members of religious communities are coming to understand that using appeals to tradition or church history or doctrine to deny other people the ability to form communities and relationships does not further people’s well-being.

For too long, members of  LGBTQ communities have been faced with terrible options when it came to dealing with their religious lives. These terrible options include:

  1.  Hide in plain sight. Religious communities that impose a culture of silence, a “don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of situation, tell LGBTQ people that they can only be loved and welcomed if they wear a mask or simply don’t share their personal lives in community. That is no way to form healthy relationships or build trust.
  2. Deny your own experiences and self-understandings. As the Jesuit priest Tony DeMello says, “When reality comes in contact with a rigidly held belief, reality is usually the loser.” That is, when someone else gets to tell you what is true about you, your experience can easily be dismissed or chopped up to fit their beliefs.
  3. Leave. For too many people coming out means losing their spiritual homes, the rituals and traditions that have been so formative in their lives, and even feeling that God has told them they have no place in the community.

So, what would I like you to know about religious life as a member of  LGBTQ communities?

 

  1. There are a lot of straight allies out there, even in faith traditions that do not support LGBTQ equality. A lot of people are struggling with how to stand with their LGBTQ friends. For some of them, that means leaving their religious communities, but for more of them, that means offering a voice of encouragement and welcome. We don’t always do that like we should – we put a foot in our mouths, we don’t understand your experience, our cowardice overcomes our love and we don’t stand with you like we want to – but we want to make our religious communities and our society a place that makes real the love we talk about on Sundays.
  2. The God I believe in does not want you to lie. Having to pretend to be something you are not is no way to wholeness or well-being. If God knows you in your deepest self, then trying to deny who you are is like hoping God won’t know who you really are, and that seems a little silly to me. Trying to lie to yourself about who you are does not seem like an expression of loving kindess for yourself, either. Knowing and acknowledging yourself in your greatness and smallness and beauty and silliness is part and parcel of allowing yourself to know that God knows and loves you that way too.
  3. It’s your church too. Often enough I hear people say something about how if you are a Catholic and you support same-sex relationships, then you aren’t really Catholic (or whatever other denomination). It can feel like “the church” is really the leadership – the Pope, the pastors, the officials, but your voice and your experience matter too. I don’t fault anyone who no longer feels at home in the tradition they grew up in, and for those who stay, it can still be a challenge, but I know a lot of people who have simply refused to allow someone else to dictate to them whether they are “good enough” or not.
  4. The risk is worth it. I can’t tell you that your religious community won’t let you down. Mine lets me down all the time. But the alternative is worse: presuming that religion can only let you down, that religious people can’t change or will only act on their worst impulses, is a lonely way to go.

I could run through all the Bible verses that get used on either side of the aisle, but you probably know them better than I do. I can tell you about church teachings that have changed, advances that this or that denomination has made in its affirmation of the dignity of LGBTQ people and their relationships, but you already know what is going on; progress is happening, sometimes slowly, but there is still a long way to go for a lot of religions.

Instead, I encourage you to do something that is at the heart of the Jesuit tradition, the driving force behind SLU’s mission: reflect on how you see God active in your life. If God is active in our world, then surely God is active in your daily life, not just in headline-worthy news stories and political decisions, but in how you care for your friends, how you go about your job or your studies, and how you share your gifts with people. Think for a few minutes about how you have seen healing, reconciliation, mindfulness, and encouragement in your daily life. Think about the communities that have fostered that kind of well-being. If you can find a community that energizes you, keeps you engaged in being thoughtful and generous, and helps you to see the activity of God in your daily life, that’s a community worth hanging on to.

Secular Spirituality: Is That a Thing?

Today’s post comes from Hailey Kaufman, who studies philosophy, biology, and religion at Webster University in St. Louis, MO.  Her post advocates for the possibility of  spiritual awakenings of atheistic communities, and she’s not talking conversion here folks! What Hailey offers us is a great deal of wisdom, and love, and intellect, on spirituality for everyone, regardless of their beliefs. You can find more of Hailey’s work on her Tumblr and her personal blog.

Coming from a community of a non-theistic persuasion, I notice a great deal of hostility toward the word “spiritual.” Most atheists with whom I spend my time never use this term, some making a strong attempt to avoid it. Even Tim Minchin, a fantastically intelligent musical comedian, whom I admire for his gift with words, has claimed he is not spiritual at all.

What bothers me is I can tell that he is. Look at his poem “Storm” in which he revels about the vastness and beauty of the corporeal world:

Isn’t this enough? Just this world? Just this beautiful, complex, wonderfully unfathomable, natural world? How does it so fail to hold our attention that we have to diminish it with the invention of cheap, manmade myths and monsters?…I am a tiny, insignificant, ignorant bit of carbon. I have one life, and it is short, and unimportant, but thanks to recent scientific advances, I get to live twice as long as my great, great, great, great uncleses and auntses. Twice as long to live this life of mine.

The last portion of “Storm” is a spirited piece of writing. Minchin obviously feels a deep connection with something larger than he is. Whether or not his worldview involves “spirits” certainly does not dilute that fact that he feels spirited about his existence.

I want to argue that the spiritual life is something every human deserves. It is a practice, a way of being, that should be pursued regardless of one’s belief in gods or the supernatural.

Writers and speakers like Pierre Hadot and Alain de Botton have argued the need for spiritual guidance and exercises even outside the realm of religion. Hadot writes that according to a  Stoic-Platonic view of therapy, the spiritual exercise can be one of an array of practices. Attention (presence in the current moment), meditation (putting information into context with the big picture), intellectual endeavors (reading, writing, listening, research), and self-improvement activities are all, according to Hadot, ways to embrace one’s own spirituality.

De Botton argues that an atheism that simply rejects supernatural claims and stops there is “too easy.” The rejection should be just the beginning on a path to a more fulfilling, spiritual life. He suggests ways the secular world can “steal” from religious traditions in order to make the secular world more welcoming to spirituality – that is, more welcoming to ideas and exercises that enliven us at our very core.

De Botton holds that secularism should not be synonymous with stolidity. I would go so far as to argue that a fulfilled secular life cannot be without its spiritual moments. Think of the feeling you get when you lie out on a moonless night and survey the Milky Way above you. Think of the last time you felt a sense of awe, a stirring feeling in your gut that you’ve just witnessed something deeply important. Mysterium tremendum: a profound terror of the large and mysterious; mysterium fascinosum: a profound fascination with the large and mysterious.

These are not emotions reserved for the religious, nor should they be, and perhaps we should encourage them more actively in the secular realm. As complexly thinking and feeling animals, we each need a way to become orientated to our inner and outer environments, and that is precisely what spirituality is. A pupil of Epicurus, quoted by Hadot, puts the sense of the spiritual potently:

The walls of the world open out, I see action going on throughout the whole world…Thereupon from all these things a sort of divine delight gets hold upon me and a shuddering, because nature thus by your power has been so manifestly laid open and unveiled in every part.

Beginning My Journey as a Youth Mentor

Today’s guest post if from Brendan Tedford. In addition to his work life, Brendan volunteers as a leader of a youth group for 6th-12th graders at Webster Groves Christian Church in Saint Louis, Missouri. Today Brendan shares some words of wisdom he gained as he has started his journey as a youth mentor.

I wanted to write a few words about what it means to begin my journey as I become a Youth Leader. I sat with it for a while not knowing what I was going to say about it. I am currently one of the youth leaders over at Webster Groves Christian Church in St. Louis, MO. We are a group made of youth from 3 different churches. I used to be a youth in the group from 2002-2007, during my time in the 6th-12th grades. Then, in the fall of 2012, I came back to begin a new journey as a mentor.

Only a few months later, in the spring of 2013, the Associate Minister of Webster Groves Christian Church announced that she was leaving to work at another church. Not too long after that the Associate Minister of one of the other churches that made up our group announced that he was leaving as was another one of the other adult mentors.

Suddenly it was just me, the lone mentor, for the upcoming fall, in which I had a total of 10 youth. When I heard about the changes in mentors, I was speechless. For the first time I was nervous about being a mentor. The journey seemed to have changed a lot.

The first thing that I thought was “How do I make this easier for these youth, and how do I help them?” It was a little unnerving having to figure out what the fall was going to look like for these youth.

I prayed only once through the entire process of starting this difficult year because everything just fell into place after my prayer. I guess you could say that my prayers were heard. I had to construct a new team of mentors and we had to construct a new program, it wasn’t the easiest thing but we did it. I did it because I love these youth & that helps guide me because I want to make this the best thing I could ever make it for them.

Whenever people ask me about how I can work with teenagers or something similar to that effect, my response is, I don’t feel like an adult half of the time anyway…I feel like an older brother to these kids and I love them as if they were my own younger brothers and sisters. It wasn’t too long ago that I was a teenager myself since I am only 25 now. I believe that having been a youth in this group and being only 8 years older than most of them, helps me connect to them.

Being a mentor and teaching faith is not an easy thing for me to do, it wasn’t easy to begin and it certainly wasn’t easy to begin this year. It has been quite a journey, but someone once told me to never ignore my own faith journey as I help these youth, because, in a lot of ways, I’m walking the journey with them.

Prison Performing Arts in the Spare Change Spotlight

Today, we introduce another great organization that could use your spare change. Prison Performing Arts fuses creativity and service in a way that reaches beyond individual creativity towards a larger sense of wisdom and love. 

Prison Performing Arts is a 21-year-old, multi-discipline, literacy and performing arts program that serves incarcerated adults and children. In Saint Louis, Missouri, U.S.A, Prison Performing Arts works with incarcerated people to write poems, perform Shakespeare and much more.

The work of Prison Performing Arts is the embodiment of creativity infused with service, community and spirit.  But don’t take our word for it. Below you will find the poem of Marcia, which was taken from the inspiring Prison Performing Arts blog, and tomorrow Dr. Margot Sempreora will share her journey working as a teacher with Prison Performing Arts. Financial donations can be made through the Prison Performing Arts website or by mail and you can contact them directly to become involved in person if you live in the Saint Louis area.

“Sound Advice” 
By: Marcia

Aim high
Follow your arrow
wherever it points
Sing your heart out
Love who you love
no matter what
Do what the hell you want to do
since everyone will have their
opinion either way.
Push the envelope
all the way to the addressee
Don’t let judgmental people
or your own inhibitions
throw you off track
Make lots of noise
Kiss lots of boys
or kiss lots of girls if that’s what you like
but love yourself
because it’s better to be hated for
who you are than loved for who you are not.

Breath and Spirit

Today’s post is from Hailey Kaufman. Hailey is a student of  philosophy, biology, and religion at Webster University in St. Louis, MO, where she also organizes the school’s secular student group, encourages interfaith dialogue, and furthers scientific understanding. You can find more of her work on Tumblr and on her personal blog

What are the origins of the word “spirit”? Middle English borrowed it from the Old French word espirit, which could have referred to a variety of things but overall expressed the life essence, the vibrancy of life or something resembling life. Espirit comes from the Latin spiritus, which means breath.

Breath. Let’s think about that for a second. At its heart, to be spiritual means to exchange a life-giving wind with something, in some way. Breath is a fundamental constituent of a living being. When we breathe, we exchange particles with the world around us. To breathe is to ingest one thing for ourselves while chemically changing it into something else, then releasing it back. It’s cyclical, simple but powerful at the same time.

One of my religious studies professors once pointed out to me the resemblance some holy words have to the act of breathing. Amen, a kind of exhale to a prayer. Ra, the Egyptian sun god. Yahweh is a powerful word, so mighty that saying it has historically been taboo.

Think of the way we use the concept of breath in everyday language. We might say something about which we are passionate “breathes life” into us. When we feel existentially stressed or cramped, we say we need to “take a breather” or find “room to breathe” To return to our senses during a panicky moment, we “take a deep breath.”

This all indicates that for us, breath is to some extent associated with a much-needed sense of peace. Whether that peace comes in the form of relaxing us during our suffering, or whether it comes when we feel a connection to something meaningful, the principle is the same: breath is an orienting force, something that stills our worries and brings us into homeostasis.

Gods, prayers, angels, ghosts, fairies, alternative medicine…none of these things are necessary for a sense of spirituality. What is necessary is breath. What fills us with spirit can be anything that leaves us feeling tremendously small yet linked to a larger picture, like a knot in a net. There’s a fire in the heart that stirs us as that breath passes through. Spirituality is nothing more than that fire, and it burns somewhere in all of us.

Where Do I Go From Here?

Today’s post on loss comes from Jessica Nichole, MA PLPC, who is a Pediatric and Adolescent counselor in the St. Louis area.  She writes about the kind of losses that are part of daily life, and how accepting them might be the wisest thing any of us can do.

When we speak of loss, often the first thing that comes to mind is the death of a loved one. However, we experience loss on a daily basis. With each choice you make, you face the loss of the possibilities that another choice offered you. Sometimes the consequences of choices are more apparent than others.  Sometimes, the only way is to lose.

Winter is always a challenge for me, and this year was no different. I lost an important person to me, lost an important job, and lost myself for a while.

In working to finish my masters degree in counseling, I found an internship site that was a blessing. It was a challenge, it was long hours and hard work, and I loved every minute of it. I was given an opportunity to be a part of people’s lives, and introduced to a team that I was honored to be included in. But, all good things must come to an end, and my internship finished this past winter. It should have been a happy moment. I was graduating with my masters’ degree in counseling. Isn’t that an accomplishment? But it all felt so…unfinished. Empty.

I tried begging, pleading, anything short of bribery to be allowed to stay on the team, but alas there were no open positions. I had to leave the first team that felt like home. I found myself working more hours at my other job, but lacking in any kind of satisfaction.  On top of that, my partner and I were struggling, and I had no insight into why. I kept asking myself and everyone around me the same question: “Where do I go from here?”

I just existed for a time. A cycle of despair, sadness, and denial; struggling to exist in the old roles I used to play. My relationship with my partner continued to decline, one of my close friends was no longer a part of my life in the way that I was used to them being there, and I was stuck at my dead end job doing the same thing I’ve been doing for years. So, what’s a girl to do?

I took a shower. A long hot shower in the dark.  This is where I have always done my best thinking, and it’s my go-to coping skill (counselor in training, remember?) when I struggle.  And boy, was I struggling.  I stood there, thinking about the same question that I had been asking everyone else, “where do I go from here?” and clarity came.

I need to let go.

I needed to let go of the future I imagined at my internship site. It was gone, I had already lost it, I just refused to acknowledge it. I needed to let go to the future path of my friendship that I had envisioned, the nature of the relationship had changed; holding onto it was only harming myself. I needed to let go of the relationship that I expected to have with my partner; having unrealistic expectations was doing nothing but poisoning my mind.

Letting go isn’t about being helpless, its about asking for help. It’s giving life over to the path that you may not be able to see. Faith, in a manner of speaking, that what’s in store for you is greater than what you’re desperately trying to cling to. I’ve always believed that things happen for a reason, and letting go was creating the freedom to things to take the path that was in store for me.

The more I attempted to cling to my imagined control over these situations, the more immobilized I felt. Making the conscious decision to let go, I began searching for new jobs and setting up interviews. I reached out to my friend and was honest about what I was feeling and how I was looking forward to the new directions our friendship could take. I was more honest with my partner than I had been in years, and it resulted in a stronger bond than ever before. Acknowledging my losses allowed me to gain new insight and new directions.  My internship site called me. Wouldn’t you know, as soon as I let go, a position opened up that they needed me to fill ASAP.

Daughter Grief

Today’s post is the first from our submission request for posts on loss.  Seanna Tucker, is a freelance writer and blogger living in St. Louis. Here she shares a poem on her personal loss, which was originally posted on her tumblr. Enjoy and don’t forget  to submit your thoughts, words and pictures about loss.

53
You always told me
It would be your 50’s
And something toxic
Like cancer

You either prepared me
Or jinxed me

Grief comes in spurts
Like geisers
From your home state

Huge shuttering sobs
I seek shelter
Find temporary salvation
In occasional laughter
And old pictures

Then I’m Mt. St. Helens
Bound to burst again
Long overdue

When I find old ticket stubs
Father-Daughter Movie Dates
Things you saved

Things I saved
Old voicemails starting
“Hey Baby Girl” or “Darlin’”
In that southern and yet Californian
Drawl that could only be yours

Things I didn’t know
You saved
old Wedding pictures
From a failed marriage
With your daughter’s Mother

Handwritten notes from a
10-year-old one-time
step-daughter
My sister

I could fill
The Library at Alexandria
with what I didn’t – don’t – know

It’d be filled with
things that are lost
And I would sit on top