Our response to the challenges of our time should be centered in the story of the gospel
By L. Gregory Jones
I have been reflecting on two novels, one of which has stayed with me since its publication three decades ago, the other of which I just read a couple of weeks ago. The one I just finished a couple of weeks ago is Apeirogon, by Colum McCann. The word apeirogon in the title refers to a geometric shape with what is said to be a countably infinite number of sides.
That title is revealing for the novel, which is set in the Middle East. It’s a story rooted in a true story, with the actual names contained in the novel of a Palestinian man and an Israeli man who have become friends. I was reading the novel in part because my mother, who died in January of this year, devoted a significant portion of her life and ministry as a lay person to ministry in the Middle East, especially among Palestinians in the West Bank.
Both of these men have lost daughters to the violence in the Middle East. They’ve become friends and they have formed an organization called Combatants for Peace, and they bear witness in a variety of ways, both in real life and in the novel.
The novel is told in a series of fragments, 1,001 of them in total, to allude to 1001 Arabian Nights.
These fragments reveal the complexities of the issues in the Middle East: history, geography, race politics, religion, economics — even sections about migratory birds in the Middle East that I’m sure have deeper symbolic meaning than I was able to grasp. The fragments are about the pain of the history and the realities of the contemporary moment.
And yet, in the midst of that discouragement and even despair, the novel has some extraordinary scenes of hopefulness in the story of these two men who have turned their personal pain of daughters who have died into a powerful witness in an incredible series of ways.
As I read this novel, with its fragments and the infinite number of sides, I was reminded of the difficulties and challenges that we face in 2020. We are in the reality of COVID. The underlying realities of brokenness that we have are being exposed and intensified. The pandemic is accelerating trends that present daunting issues for us all.
And that was before the killing of George Floyd and the protests in recent weeks.
The aftermath of George Floyd’s death took me to Toni Morrison and Beloved, one of the greatest novels ever written. I’ve read it and re-read it. I’ve taught it. Part of the power of that novel is the way in which it acknowledges the brokenness and the history and the legacies of slavery.
Sethe, a freed slave who had suffered horrifically when she was enslaved, had killed her own daughter to avoid being taken back into slavery. The narrator says about Sethe early in the novel, “It was never too early to start the day’s work of beating back the past.” The haunting of the past is palpable.
In a poignant and haunting characterization toward the end of the novel, Paul D is described by the narrator as a freed slave who had a tobacco tin in his chest where his heart used to be, its lid rusted shut.
Paul D says to Sethe: “Sethe, me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. What we need is some kind of tomorrow.”
It’s a haunting word at the close of the story. And in the last two pages of the novel, Sethe is rocking in a chair in her old age and three times there is this phrase: “This is not a story to pass on.”
I’ve thought about that phrase over and over, and I’ve reflected on it being used three times. I think there are at least three different ways in which the phrase could be read. The first is, this is just too horrific a story to keep telling. It’s just too painful. The reality is too raw. A second sense is that this story is too powerful to just pass on, walk by, ignore, try to pretend it never happened. The third is the suggestion to focus on this as not a story. It’s not coherent. It’s not linear. There’s no progress to point toward. And yet, we need to be telling it, even in its fragments.
To allude back to the Colum McCann story about the Middle East, it’s in the fragments that we begin to tell the story and discover hope.
Many discussions of the power of Beloved do not comment on what Toni Morrison chose as the epigraph to the novel. The epigraph is a citation from Paul in Romans 9:25. It’s actually more complicated than that, though, because it’s actually the Apostle Paul in Romans 9 citing a passage from the prophet Hosea: “To those who are not my people, I will call my people; those who are not beloved, I will call beloved.”
Toni Morrison situates the history and the brokenness of our country, the legacy of slavery, the continuation of systemic racism and injustice, all the haunting of the past in all of its complexities — she situates all that nonetheless in the story of God told in Scripture.
It’s not a simple story in Scripture. In some of the more complicated chapters of all of the New Testament, in Romans 9 through 11 Paul is asking a question about what the revelation of God in Christ means for Israel and for Israel’s salvation.
These chapters hearken back to the prophet Hosea and the reversals as a result of Israel’s sin. They suggest that the hope that we can find the tomorrow that Paul D and Sethe are longing for is found in what might be called a scriptural imagination.
That is to say, as we live in the complexities of God’s journey with Israel, the incarnation and life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and its meaning for the ways in which Gentiles can be grafted into Israel’s story, we begin to discover the power of what God can do and is doing in the world. It points us toward the heart of the gospel — the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus — in a way that calls us to tell the story in the fragments of our brokenness and our sin in a way that bears witness to the faithfulness of the Reign of God.
This calls us as Christians especially to be people of Easter hope and Pentecostal power. It calls us to center our lives in the gospel that calls us also in this time, particularly for Christians, to confession and repentance.
The protests that have been marking our streets and our lives in so many ways are a manifestation of centuries-long racism and injustice, complicated by a global pandemic that has created frustration and isolation, economic consequences, and mental health challenges, as well as disparities in justice. People and communities of color have suffered disproportionately in terms of the disease itself, as well as economic and other health-related issues.
This moment that we are living in now calls us to reflection, to self-examination, to repentance, and to new forms of action.
I’m calling our community to a time of witness, study and self-examination for all of the ways in which we as people of faith, as Christians, need to reckon with the history of our country and our communities and to engage in new forms of witness that would look at the intersecting realities. It’s not only a question of police brutality or racist attitudes, it’s also about the intersecting realities and the ways in which they continue to haunt and impact us.
This time calls us also to reflect on the ways in which we form pastoral leaders, to pay more attention to the role of mentoring from people who are practitioners and out in the field. We must have a deeper understanding of the role that the church can play in helping communities thrive, and that all people can thrive in those communities.
We need healthy congregations and gifted pastors serving as catalysts, conveners, and curators of gospel wisdom of that Easter hope and that Pentecostal power.
Even before the pandemic, even before the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and even before the other horrific actions that have happened in the last few months, I had a clear sense that we needed to exercise new patterns of leadership, to strengthen the things we’re good at, to overcome weaknesses, to repent of problems from our past, and to find new ways of being faithful. That’s been intensified and accelerated.
During the Spanish flu pandemic a century ago, William Preston Few, president of Trinity College, went to see philanthropist James B. Duke. Few needed funding to keep Trinity College afloat. He asked for help, and Duke wrote some checks to help keep it surviving. In the course of the conversations, the question turned from survival to something much larger. What was the calling of higher education in the 20th century? In their conversations, Few and Duke began to realize that what had gotten Trinity College “here” wouldn’t get it “there.” What’s gotten us here won’t get us there. Those conversations became the groundwork for what became Duke University. I think we’re at a similar inflection point in our current history.
The reality of this inflection point means that whether it’s COVID, systemic racism, economic disruption and the loss of jobs, or the need to rethink the future of work and dignity and communities, what has gotten us here won’t get us there.
The good news, which I suspect was true for James B. Duke and William Preston Few back in 1919 and 1920 as it is for us, is that we are centered in God’s work in Christ as we remember the witness of early Methodists, and more remotely of the early Christians, to the surprise that entered into the world by the good news of Easter hope, the power of the resurrection. The descent of the Holy Spirit gives us a hope that we can lean into by centering ourselves afresh in God’s work, in Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
What implications does that have for new ways in which we need to be offering education, coming alongside people digitally? What new patterns of witness do we need to be engaged in to help us understand the intersecting realities of health, education, race, economics, and all the conditions that go into helping all God’s children flourish in the community? How do we need to reform and renew the kind of education that we provide to focus on being more centered in Christ in order to enable the kind of witness and the kind of integrity that our world is yearning for in terms of moral, spiritual, political, and economic leadership?
We’re still focused on what the implications of the pandemic are: How often can we be on campus in the fall, and what form will our courses take? At the same time, though, I think that this is the real question for us: How do we lean into a broader and bolder future that God is calling us to so that we will be positioned for this to be the church’s time to step forward and bear a much stronger, more faithful witness to the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ?
Remember Paul D’s words to Sethe: “We got more yesterday than anybody. What we need is some kind of tomorrow.” My first thought is the scriptural reference to God being the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. I think of the power of Easter as the good news, which redeems us from a broken past and promises new life — not only tomorrow in the Reign of God, but also new life and power to live today.
L. Gregory Jones is the dean and Ruth W. and A. Morris Williams Distinguished Professor of Theology and Christian Ministry at Duke Divinity School