Dust and Breath


From Brian Bantum’s The Death of Race: Building a New Christianity in a Racial World: “The relationship of Adam and Eve to the land is not simply one of stewardship, of ruling over. Every time they tended a tree, dug a ditch, or plucked fruit from a tree they were reminded that they were not so different than that dirt or that tree. In a racial world, colonizers believed that the world existed to be subdued, that there were creatures so different from human beings that they should be packed onto boats or herded into pens. But the misperception was twofold. The colonizers thought life could be created and determined, but ignored just how fragile their lives were, just how much like the trees or the squirrels they were. We are all dust and breath.”




From Brian Bantum’s The Death of Race: Building a New Christianity in a Racial World: “In the creation of humanity we see what is most fundamental to being created like God, that we are different from one another and that we are made to be with another. Our bodies are what make this difference and our love for one another possible, incarnate. The body is love. The creation story is a sign that we were created to be with God and with others. These two creatures that are formed from primordial chaos, formed and breathed into being, beautiful signs of how difference and likeness are tangled together, that we are ground and God, flesh and Spirit, male and female—and that these differences are what make it possible for us to be like God. But perhaps most of all, this creation story is a story that reveals what it means to be free, to be a unique creature in this world, and that being free is not a kind of sovereignty, but rather a profound exercise of love. Retracing our beginnings is a kind of resistance. It’s a way of renaming what is beautiful about our bodies and our lives so that we can see more truthfully what dehumanizes us, and what God hopes for us. If race is a story that becomes manifest in our bodies and lives, different stories must be told and embodied to resist the deathly consequences of this racial story.”


Spiritual Activists: Five Lessons for Today

By Rev. Karen Brau

On Saturday, April 8, Rev. Karen Brau gave the second talk in a four part series, “Spirit and Action: Learning from Howard Thurman.”  The presentation was sponsored by the McClendon Scholar in Residence Program at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and was held at Luther Place Memorial Church.  Below are notes from that presentation.

Rev. Brau focused on lessons from Howard Thurman’s teaching that she said were directly relevant for those who work for justice today.  She gave specific examples of insights and practices that enable us to draw on the spiritual/mystical tradition that Thurman wrote and talked about.  She discussed Thurman’s emphasis on a direct experience of God and how it can sustain us, quoting Thurman’s example of people who were enslaved and told they were worthless and yet they discovered God on the inside and knew they were of worth.

Rev. Brau explained that when Howard Thurman went to India and met Gandhi, he was asked by Gandhi to sing a spiritual.  Thurman obliged by singing “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” and she used that as an example of how important spirituals are for tapping the religious experience. She then paused her presentation to invite Jeremy Grenhart, director of music at Luther Place, and four students from Howard University to sing several spirituals.

After the musical presentation, she summarized five specific lessons from Howard Thurman for today’s spiritual activists:

1)    Engage Spirituals—Music, especially music that is rooted in deep suffering, can help open us up to an experience of God.  In many ways, “spirituals are miracles” which can transform how we see things. Rev. Brau urged all of us to engage with spirituals on a regular basis and be open to what they can reveal.

2)    Articulate Hells—It is important to tell the truth about the suffering and evil we see around us.  Thurman talks about hell being “fear, deception and hate” and we certainly regularly see examples of all of those.  In particular, our politics seems more and more characterized by these indicators of hell and we need to be aware of and acknowledge that.  Rev. Brau also pointed out that the title of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon that he was to preach the Sunday after he was killed was “Why America May Go to Hell.”

3)    Love, Love, Love—There are many way in which Thurman expresses the power of love, and we need to hear his message that love is the greatest expression of the spiritual experience.  We need to focus on this type of love and practice it as regularly and fully as we can.

4)    Engage Inner Life Practice—Rev. Brau talked about various practices Thurman and other mystics have used to develop a rich inner life.  In particular, she talked about the simple power of silent prayer, reflection and meditation.  She gave an example of a “breath prayer” which can be used to calm and focus the spirit and then stopped talking and asked everyone to engage in that prayer for three minutes.  After three minutes of silence, she again spoke to the group and pointed out how regular time nurturing the inner life is so crucial.

5)    Be Mystic Activists—Rev. Brau reminded us of the challenges we face, especially in this political environment, and urged us all to be as active as possible.  She said we need to draw upon our spiritual resources and be bold in responding to the injustices we see around us.  We also need to stay in touch with other “mystic activists” to support and encourage each other.

Rev. Brau closed her presentation by summarizing these five lessons and then once again calling on the musicians who presented two more spirituals.  After the music, there was a time of brief silence and then a discussion between participants and Rev. Brau.



From Brian Bantum’s The Death of Race: Building a New Christianity in a Racial World: “The heart of Christian confession is that God abhors the deaths we are subjected to. Scripture is the testament to God’s continual desire for us to be alive, to love and be loved, to be with God and with one another. In our deluded sense of independence God reminds us of our essential relationality. In our exile or imprisonment God comes near. In the midst of our violation of others’ bodies, bodies made in the image of God, God becomes like us, makes bodied life a part of God’s own life. For lives repeatedly alienated through a thousand little comments or rendered invisible by society, God sees and names and touches. In the midst of these the incarnation is God’s Word to us that our bodies were made to be free and to love.”


The Body of Jesus


From Brian Bantum’s The Death of Race: Building a New Christianity in a Racial World: “In America, Jesus is only occasionally the center of Christian identity, especially for those who seem to utter his name so often. Too often, Christian identity in America is more about bodies governed by a racial ideal in the guise of a so-called Christianity. Race is more determinative for our lives than being a Christian. Race shapes who marries who, where we live and cannot live, who is more likely to be seen as guilty or innocent, who shapes our prospects for education or health. Race permeates our existence in this country. This story is not simply about a few bad apples or an abstract notion of sin. This is about a Christian story that has not accounted for the body of Jesus or the bodies of those who believe.”




From Thich Nhat Hanh’s Good Citizens: Creating Enlightened Society: “When we water the seeds of mindfulness through practice, happiness will appear. The other morning when I opened my water tap to wash my face, I felt my fingers as they were in touch with the water. I felt that the water was very fresh. The water had either come from a very deep source in the earth or from high mountains, and it was connected to the water tap in my room. Outside it was very cold, so the water inside was also very cold, and when I wet my eyes it was so refreshing, like the Buddha’s teaching. Whenever I brush my teeth I do so aware that I am free from all agitation, worries, and projects. I dwell peacefully, freely, happily in the present moment, in touch with what is positive, like the cool fresh water. My eyes are still in good condition and my legs still let me walk. I’m very happy.”


Holy Saturday


From my sermon entitled, Holy Saturday Faith: “In a recent book on theology and trauma, theologian Shelly Rambo challenges the traditional paradigm of redemption that moves from death to life without remainder – that is, it moves in a linear fashion towards victory over death, evil, suffering and glosses over the way death continues or remains in the midst of life. There is, for trauma victims in particular, a mixed experience of death and life. Rambo observes how the traditional framework for redemption tends to tell people to “get over it” or move on and, for trauma victims, that is just not possible. For some, death continues to impinge amid life, and there is no clean break between them. For some it is just not clear how “all things work together for good” as stated in our morning lesson from Romans. Scars remain — “I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body” says Paul.”