Camels at Epiphany

Published by Trevor Bechtel on

I’ve mentioned before that one of the things that gives me hope for the new year is the election of Eli Savit as Washtenaw County Prosecutor. I enjoyed spending some time yesterday afternoon watching Eli and his Chief Assistant Prosecutor, Victoria Burton-Harris, being sworn in and attending a reception celebrating this new day in Washtenaw County. Burton-Harris ran as a similarly progressive prosecutor in Wayne County but was not successful in that campaign. We are lucky to have a similarly capable, if not more capable, attorney to serve as Chief Assistant Prosecutor. One of the things that she did whenever she spoke yesterday was to tie the injustices in our criminal justice system to a 400 year journey of oppression of black and brown bodies and to name that she was unapologetic about her support of black liberation. I was also impressed by the parade of older African American women who really didn’t seem to care one wit that Eli had managed to get elected but were definitely there for Victoria. 

It was an afternoon of hope which was a great way to begin 2021. I’ve sat on Savit’s Racial Equity working group this fall, and a part of my work at the University of Michigan now includes managing a dashboard of metrics designed to increase transparency in Washtenaw County’s criminal justice system especially around the racial inequities in the system. So there weren’t necessarily any epiphanies for me in the promises that Savit and Burton-Harris were making. I knew about and at points have contributed to the policies designed to make good on these promises. I did have a brief unpleasant epiphany at the beginning of the investiture though. After a few comments from Trische Duckworth, an advocate for sexual abuse survivors who convened the ceremony, a young woman came up to sing. She began with, “Lift every voice and Sing” which is often referred to as the Black National Anthem, which was great, but then turned to the actual National Anthem as Savit and Burton-Harris and the others gathered around them stood and placed their hands on their hearts and stood at attention. 

I am the type of Mennonite that is capable of tolerating the national anthem, but I don’t remove my hat when it is played before the University of Michigan Women’s Basketball Games that I love to watch. I often think about sitting through it; and sometimes I do. I believe that Savit and Burton-Harris are more committed to reforming the criminal justice system than I am, but I remembered with the force of an epiphany yesterday, that they are doing it for reasons that are deeply committed to a dream of America, rather than the dream that I try to dream, the dream of Jesus’ beloved community, and so I experience some dissonance yesterday, knowing that they were about to announce a bunch of policies that I loved but that right then they were showing allegiance to a state I hold suspect. 

On one hand this is a dissonance I am totally used to; very few elected officials are pacifists, so I don’t expect them to line up with what I believe. If I felt like I could just ignore politics, as is the traditional Mennonite and Brethren approach, this wouldn’t need to affect me, but for a long time now I’ve been convinced that opposing the conservative right in this country is what my faith calls me to. 

But I’ve also started to question the dissonance itself. I will always be a pacifist, but the last few years have been hard on the political exceptionalism common among my type of Mennonites. This exceptionalism holds that the beloved community is one we can actually achieve inside the the politics of the church. Sharing and mutual concern without violence. You can’t force people to believe this kind of community; people have to sign up for it one their own accord. But that doesn’t mean that it is not a real option for how we could structure society. Almost no-one believes this. This idea of community as society is the exception to the rule of of a world governed by violence. It is the root of my dissonance when I see someone I respect show allegiance to a violent state. But more and more I recognize that this opting out of how everyone else does things has a lot in common with Trumpism, which is a very different form of opting out of how everyone else does things. I wonder just how different the sedition of the growing group of republican senators and representatives ready to oppose the will of the electors is from the sedition that I offer in absenting myself from the state’s violence. Eli Savit is ready to orchestrate the state’s threat of violence. I’m excited that it’s him rather than someone else, and I’m happy to help keep track of how he is doing it. Is that enough?

The story of the Magi lies behind these reflections. My original plan had been to talk about how the story of the Magi resists our attempts to domesticate God’s good news. I had been thinking that the story of wise men on camels can’t be located on American soil, at least with the camels. Although almost all of the camels that live today are domesticated, they don’t make any sense in North America and keep the story located in the near or far east, or Australia as it turns out. Camels are great survivors; the few wild camels that live in Mongolia are the only mammals that can drink salt water and derive hydration. I like the reading of the story of the Magi that has them bring a surprising set of gifts from an unexpected place. I like the story of companions as stalwart and persistent as camels to carrying people through hardship.  But then I started to look more carefully at the story and how it’s been told throughout history. 

In Matthew we have very little; there are three gifts–gold, frankincense, and myrrh, brought by Magi who followed the star from the east. We can make a compelling argument that these are Zoroastrian priests. Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest continuously practiced religions and it is still active today in Iraq and Iran, and the observation of the stars was an important part of the Magi’s work. Throughout the Bible there is an opposition of the Jewish God who reveals Godself through the word to other gods who reveal themselves through the stars, the moon, or other forms of magic. Having these priests honor Jesus, and having them thwart Herod the emperor’s plans gives authenticity to both Jesus as an important religious figure and sets up a unity of religious or wise opposition to state power. 

But that’s all there is in Matthew. The camels and the kings come from the Isaiah passage that we read today.   When we think of three kings we are extrapolating from the three gifts. When we think of camels we are interpolating from Isaiah, and clumsily, because kings would have rode on the much more comfortable horses. Throughout Christian tradition post biblical writers have found this a compelling, and convenient, story to expand. So we later receive names (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar), ages (20, 40 and 60), and locations (Europe, Asia and Africa).  The three kings become representative of all of humanity (well all male humanity at least). They are depicted as white in writing into the 8th century and in art into the 13th century. At first some Black attendants are added to Melchior’s retinue, and then he himself becomes Black more and more frequently in the 14th century and beyond. Part of this is because Europe was becoming more diverse at this time as Black Africans increasingly lived there or were at least known about. But part of it was also because the African slave trade had begun in earnest. Depicting one of the three kings as Black (and usually the youngest king who was often guided by the older kings) served the purposes of a ruling elite in Europe who also wanted the whole world to bow down to them. Melchior was not just depicted as Black but also in increasingly exotic ways, flamboyant clothes, riding on an elephant.

The larger context of Isaiah 60 is also consumed with the idea that other people should bow down to us. Written after the Israelites return to the promised land, freed from Babylon by the benevolent Persian Emperor Cyrus, Isaiah here tells the story of the world bowing down to Israel’s God with streams of camels extending as far as the eye can see. Rather than criticizing the political machinations that exiled Israel in the first place, or bemoaning the political machinations that lead to their return from exile, here Isaiah celebrates the idea of political machinations this time directing them towards the worship of God. 

Reading Isaiah 60 feels like watching Eli Savit hold his hand over his heart while the American national anthem plays. Everything else has been reformed, returned, realigned, reappropriated readjusted, but the dream is still the dream of empire, bombs bursting in air, our flag still being there. 

Do we have another option?

The traditional Mennonite and Brethren answer is valuable here. Yes we want to say. We have that option. It might not be the option for every problem, but we know how to resist empire. We don’t know how to rule, but we know how to resist ruling. 

I want to recognize that I know that I’m being unreasonably critical here. Standing in attention at the anthem is not that bad.  The kind of purity that it would takes to satisfy a preacher’s sermon gaze is not a purity I’m advocating here. 

Is it enough to be humble about what we know and open to what we don’t?

It is possible to read the visit of the Magi this way. These were priests willing to to investigate what they didn’t know, eager enough that they consult with Herod, but wise enough that they leave without telling him they’ve been successful. How do we think about the history of the Magi without making their belief less than our own? 

We can celebrate their journey without needing them to convert to our religion. 

We can celebrate their difference without needing it to support our superiority.

We can celebrate their ingenuity without reducing it to a testament to our God’s power. 

This sermon is supposed to introduce a series of reflections on reconciliation. It feels difficult to do that on January 3rd, knowing that January 5th with the senate runoffs in Georgia is just two days away and that January 6th with the congressional acceptance of the electoral college vote is just three days away. It’s going to be another big week of furthering division. Elected leaders are going to openly argue in favor of sedition. The election in Georgia is going to be contested regardless of the outcome. We will continue to careen towards January 20th anxious about what might happen. The twelve days of Christmas are also about political division and the inevitable spike in the pandemic from people who were held and continue to hold unsafe gatherings. 

I don’t know if you think that these themes are about reconciliation or not, but one thing that I like about reconciliation is that it is a broader topic than some we could choose to engage after everything that happened to us as a church, a community, a city, a county and a country in 2020. Reconciliation is about both retelling and relearning our history and the stories that animate us and those around us to find some common approach that moves us forward together. 

My hope is that reconciliation comes towards us as an epiphany in this new year. I hope that we will be surprised by new ways of getting along with people we agree with and people we don’t agree with. We need a huge amount of healing in our society and political dialogue and I hope we find it. I hope that we can all be humble as we move forward, not following a star perhaps, but perhaps something else we might be surprised by. I hope we have companions as stalwart and persistent as camels to carry us through. 

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