Last week, as we celebrated Brother Martin, we were reminded to be gentle as doves and as wise as serpents. It is true that doves are not the brightest bird at the feeder, but I think the expression gives far too much credit to serpents. While deadly, snakes aren’t that smart.
Take, for example, the classic battle between the cobra and the mongoose, fictionalized and anthropomorphized in Rudyard Kipling’s colonialist classic story collection “The Jungle Book.” In the story “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” he tells of a pet mongoose protecting his family, white and British, of course. The story first came to my attention when I was twelve, in a cartoon adaptation done by Chuck Jones of Looney Tunes fame. Like many experiences of our childhoods, it stuck, and I’ve always noticed when something about mongooses, and that is the correct plural, appears in the Science Times or on a nature program I am watching.
Why does the mongoose win against this deadly snake? The reason turns out to be pretty simple. The cobra repeats the same action in the same way again and again. It lunges and strikes, then lunges and strikes, doing the same old thing the same old way it has always worked for it in the past. This is the way we’ve always done, says the cobra. The mongoose, however, adapts. It times the strikes, then adjusts little by little, so that at some point it is in a position to grab the cobra by the back of the neck. Doing the same old thing results in a big dead snake and a triumphant small mammal.
The geographic range of the 29 species classified as mongooses includes the Near East, and I’d have preferred it if those ancient authors had counseled us to be as smart as a mongoose, but you work with what you’ve got.
Besides, if we need examples of successful adaptation, we can find them throughout scripture, including the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus, adapting the Hebrew faith, and the apostolic missions of Paul, adapting the teachings of Jesus. Take, for example, Paul, who starts his letter to the church at Corinth saying he doesn’t want to make it a battle of personalities, a battle between Paul and Apollos. He even brings Peter and Christ himself into the argument. Then he rhetorically bulldozes the arguments of his opponents in words so clear and so powerful that we still repeat them two thousand years later, smart as a mongoose. Paul adapts the practices of the tribal Hebrew faith in a way that allows Gentile to hear and believe and join the movement.
For far too long we have allowed the teachings of Jesus to be co-opted by entrenched institutions, stagnant institutions. The gospel is full of the word “immediately,” not “they sat around for hours discussing it and made a decision several years later.” Jesus grows a movement by giving people what they want, healing and hope, then demanding what they need, changed hearts, and he did it in only three years. Not a passive supporter of the status quo, when he finally marches into Jerusalem he leads an occupy movement of protesters, he engages in an act of civil disobedience in the Temple, throwing over tables and striking the moneychangers, and they promptly arrest him on trumped up charges and murder him. But he was not defeated. Sorrow in the night, joy in the morning. Rise up as our Savior did, rise up as he did from the waters of baptism, rise up as he did from the grave, rise up as those first disciples did, leaving behind the boats and nets, risking everything for God.
We must be as smart and as brave as a mongoose. We must be strategic, for our resistance is not about partisan politics, it is about human decency and love, about justice and transcendence, about beauty and honoring God, and we do not have time to keep doing the same old thing the same old way, because if you are even slightly awake, you will notice that it stopped working.
Saying “We’re in Blue Hill. We don’t have problems with racism and homophobia and misogyny and Islamophobia” is like sitting in the den and turning up the television because the fire that is raging in the kitchen is too loud. The house is on fire and our faith and the name of Jesus has been sullied by the filthy mouthes that use his name to justify their hatred and greed. We do not need Satan, for the forces of evil are in the booth next to you at Marlintini’s and in the pew next to you here, and in your bathroom mirror.
Women have been under assault in the frat house and in the state house for years, and while they have been systematically defunding programs to protect women, to provide basic health services to women, the gaytriarchy, those privileged white males who have dominated the movement for marriage equality, have said nothing. And when Ben Carson told a Senate committee that he opposed special protections for the LGBT community when you can legally be evicted for being gay in 28 states, the African-American community was silent. And when Freddie Gray was given the rough ride, Eric Garner choked to death, Trayvon Martin gunned down, white middle-class women were at book group. While wealthy and upper-middle class environmentalists have been buying tracts and forming trusts, toxins are dumped on the poor, and a pipelines is routed to insure that spills impact brown bodies, not white bodies.
My hope is that now that they are coming for your Downton Abbey, we might finally get some action, for they have promised to defund the National Endowment for the Arts and to privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Yesterday was a start, as our women marched demanding the protection of female bodies, whether they be brown or white, Christian or Muslim or Atheist, young and healthy, disabled, or old. We must adapt as people who speak for a God who demands justice, who does not belong to one race, does not belong to men. We must adapt as a church, as wise as a mongoose, for we do have an agenda. We will not normalize white supremacy. We will not tolerate hatred. We will not stand by while our planet is destroyed. If standing on the side of love, if standing on the side of justice, if standing on the side of this amazing divine creation we call home is too political, you have called the wrong pastor.
We owe an apology to those who are over 80, for they are old enough to remember when this last happened and we let it happen again on our watch. While we have been the stupid serpent, the mongoose has quietly taken over almost every state house in the nation and changed the rules. While Bernie Bros were attending rallies with thousands, the local legislative seat went to an angry man who was obsessed with mythical voter fraud and would vote for any piece of legislation the Koch Brothers and ALEC sent his way. We have to be smarter than this if we are to do the work of Jesus, we must speak up like Paul, even when we risk getting run out of town, as happened to Paul more than once.
We must speak truth, even when it makes us uncomfortable, for I do not care what party you claim or what you call yourself, when you support a racist homophobe for Attorney General of the United States, you are no moderate.
We must speak up when those with power ignore and discredit the will of the people, whether it is rank-choice voting or the end of the failed policy of marijuana prohibition, whether it is happening in Augusta, or it is our friend Jim in Blue Hill’s town hall.
We must pick up Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” and the “Indivisible” guide written by former Congressional staff members that explains how anti-government extremists were able to wield disproportionate influence on Congress. We must be smart and adaptable, mongooses standing against an army of serpents.
We must remember the words of those who gave their lives in the struggle for justice and love, lost their lives standing up against those who wrapped their Jesus in a flag, those who used scripture to justify their racism, their sexism, standing up against those who capitulated in the face of evil
“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness, and pride of power, and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear. Christianity adjusts itself too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more than they are doing now.” These words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pastor and theologian, who watched as good Christians allowed the Nazis to build their killing machine, learning their craft by first killing the disabled.
“What marks the genuine church is when the word, burning like the word of the prophets, proclaims and denounces: proclaims to the people God’s wonders to be believed and venerated, and denounces the sins of those who oppose God’s reign, so that they may tear those sins out of their hearts, out of their societies, out of their laws – out of the structures that oppress, that imprison, that violate the rights of God and of humanity. This is the hard service of the word.” Archbishop Oscar Romero, gunned down by a US funded paramilitary.
We must remember the words of those still in the trenches.
“No single law — no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society. But that can’t be an excuse for inaction.” The first member of the United Church of Christ to be elected President of the United States, Barack Obama.
“There is no time in scripture when God comes to the rescue in the absence of human agency.
We are ALWAYS required to participate in our own liberation. Someone even helped carry the cross.
So after the prayer meeting…get your butt in gear.” The Rev. Tracy Blackmon, local church minister, acting Executive Minister for Justice and Witness for the United Church of Christ.
What would Paul’s words sound like today? “I belong to the Democratic Party,” or “I belong to the Heritage Trust,” or “I belong to the Alt Right, to white supremacy,” or “I belong to America,” as you wave your flag, white-washing the evils in our own story, as you slap stickers on your bumper. Like Paul, I belong only to Christ, and him crucified. But he rose up. And I am calling you to rise up. Rise up from your boats and follow.
Jesus is where he told us he would be. Jesus is mocked when a man with cerebral palsy is mocked. Jesus loses control of his own body, has a crown of thorns placed on his head, when a woman is told that she cannot control her own body. Jesus is crucified once again when a black man is murdered during a routine traffic stop.
Smart as a mongoose, we must learn and adapt and organize. We must listen and learn from our denomination, from what other churches are doing, must send people to association, conference and national events that will bring back ideas, must bring people here that have good ideas and are doing good work, that have a track record of success, not because we are called to fill the pews but because we are called to fill the streets, to fill the world, with justice-making disciples, and that is going to require some new thinking.
We must listen, even when it is uncomfortable, to the Black Lives Matter movement, to the First Peoples of this continent, to the Dreamers, for they will call us out for the ways we have used and reinforced our own racial and economic privilege.
And when it seems like to much, we will sing the old hymns, take a night off and laugh with friends, lift the cup or take a toke. Then we will get up and go out.
We must believe that love wins, that love always wins. In the words of Brother Martin, “right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”