If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Monday, March 30, 2009

Edgar Degas House in New Oleans

This past weekend I was having peace and justice meetings in New Orleans. Close to our meeting place I saw the Edgar Degas house on Esplanade Street. I didn't know that the famous French Impressionist painter lived in New Orleans. Sadly, I did poorly in my art history classes in college and wasn't particularly interested in Impressionism as a realist.

Edgar Degas' mother (DeGas), grandmother and the Musson family, Degas' uncle, were from New Orleans. He lived in the house from 1872-3. When the house was first built the grounds covered the whole block. The house was built in 1852 by Benjamin Rodriguez during the development of the Esplanade Ridge neighborhood prior to the Civil War. The Esplanade Ridge was a neighborhood of wealthy Creoles. Thriving affluence brought on a building boom in New Orleans.

Edgar Degas painting Portraits in an Office: The New Orleans Cotton Exchange(above) visualizes a Southern industry that used and abused African-American labor and built Southern wealth (Michel Musson, Degas' uncle, owned seven slaves).

Prior to the Civil War the port of New Orleans was the farmer's only option for selling cotton. The New Orleans Cotton Exchange held a monopoly on the cotton trade. Slave labor brought in the cotton and the wealth. When slavery ended it not only disrupted the cotton industry, but bankrupted many of those who sold the cotton, who worked at the Cotton Exchange.

My visit to New Orleans and the African-American communities most deeply impacted by the levee breaks during hurricane Katrina were stark reminders that the racism within New Orleans, as well as the US in general, continues to benefit the white, wealthy elite and oppress African-Americans who live there. That is my impression and it is not a pretty picture.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Empty as a Blank Wall: a poem by Leo Hartshorn


as a blank wall
as stone silence
screaming of nothingness


a sea of strange faces
sideways glances
unfamiliar patterns


throwing fists at the sky
staring at blank walls
feeding on sadness for dinner


dreams slip through cracks
around the corner another corner
frozen possibilities for winter


floating in a dark universe
cut loose from moorings
without an oar or compass


as a blank wall

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Watchmen: Pop Nihilism or Nietzche meets the Fantastic Four

Yesterday afternoon my wife and I went to the movies to see Watchmen. My wife was repulsed by the violence of the movie. I was hoping that maybe by the end of the movie there might be some redeeming message behind the film's graphic depiction of violence. There was none.

My quick summary of the film, based on Alan Moore's graphic novel, immediately after it was over was that this was Punk philosophy rewriting superhero mythology. Or better yet, Nietzche meets the Fantastic Four. It would be similar to Nietzche creating his own dynamic duo, √úbermensch (Superman)and Dr. Will-to-Power as Marvel comic book characters. And that was the reason that the movie had no redeeming message. It was Nietzche goes Marvel, pop nihilism for cynical, postmodern, comic book (excuse me, graphic novel) fans.

In theWatchmen Alan Moore seeks to deconstruct the whole superhero mythology. The "superheros" of Watchmen are far from the humble, goody-two-shoes superheros of Marvel comics. They are even darker characters than the Dark Knight,. The Comedian (Edward Blake) is no one to laugh at. He is a mysogonistic womanizer, rapist, murderer, and vigilante. Not your typical Marvel comic superhero. In an effort to quell a riot the Comedian takes the opportunity to kill protesters in cold blood. In Vietnam he shoots dead his pregnant girlfriend. For him the human story is just a joke. Armegeddon will be the punchline. Since humans are basically savages, he has no qualms about raping Silk Spectre (Sally Jupiter or Jucspeczyk), a female superhero.

Dr. Manhattan (Jon Osterman), named after the project to develop the first nuclear weapon, is, in my view, a cartoon of Nietzche's √úbermensch and his Will to Power philosophy, as well as symbolic of U.S. nuclear technology and ideology. Dr. Manhattan is humanity turned into amoral superhuman with a dispassionate, Vulvanized, nihilistic worldview, an ethereal blue man with a symbol of the atom on his forehead. His presence, which like nuclear radiation causes cancer, is the deterrent to nuclear conflict between the U.S. and Russia.

Ozymandias (Adrian Veidt), another "superhero," is an incarnation of just war theory and utilitarian ethics blown up to nuclear proportions! His "superhero" is Alexander the Great. He justifies the nuclear destruction of millions of people to create peace for the rest of the surviving world. His plan also sounds freakishly similar to Vulcan morality (e.g., utilitarian ethics): "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."

Rorschach (Walter Kovacs), whose masked face and personality reflect his name, is an abused child of a alcoholic, prostitute mother, a psychologically twisted antihero who exacts vengeance upon other deviants "who deserve it" with sick, brutal, gorey violence. And yet, he and the Comedian are the only ones who do not go along with justifying mass destruction for the "greater good." How ironically absurd! The most immoral characters are in the end the most moral!

Silk Spectre 2 (Laurie Jucspekzyk) and Nite Owl 2 (Dan Dreiburg) seem to be the closest to traditional superheroes. I said "seem." Laurie's father was the Comedian, who raped her "superhero" mother. Like Superman, the Nite Owl 2, who is sexually and otherwise impotent, seems to believe in "truth, justice, and the American way." I'm guessing the "American way" was being enforced when he and Silk Spectre 2 brutally beat up a gang of thugs, who deserve their "justified" wrath.

By showing the superheros not simply as flawed human with "superhuman" abilities, but as deviant, immoral, amoral, and representing the darker side of humanity, Moore seeks to deconstruct the superhero mythology which projects virtues of truth, justice, the American way, and moralisms like "with great power comes great responsibility" (e.g., Spiderman)onto a large screen. He brings superheros down to earth, no, down into the dirt and filth of humanity.

The Watchmen vomits human, and particularly Americanized, violence into the faces of the audience without redemption, not even offering us the myth of redemptive violence as the final solution. "Justified" vengeance (Rorshach), just nuclear war theory, which is an oxymoron, the lesser of two evils and utilitarian ethics (Ozymandias), and even "an eye for an eye" violence (and maybe a broken arm and leg or two or three from Silk Spectre 2 and Nite Owl 2) seem to be critiqued in a very oblique manner in the film. But, in the end all that can be offered as the final solution to the violence of the world, at least as it is presented in the film, is a stalemate of power, which is basically the philosophy of nuclear deterrence. And I am not sure that Moore's intent is to even offer this as a solution to the world's violence.

The dark thread that runs through the film is nihilism. It's pop nihilism, but nihilism nonetheless. Punk philosophy for the populace. Friedrich Nietszche for the comic book crowd. Anarchism. Cynicism. Deconstructionism. Relativism. Amoralism. Defeatism. Darkness. Bleakness. Violence. Armegeddon. A happy face with blood spattered on it. No God. No hope. The end.

*This article can also be found at: http://www.jesusmanifesto.com/2009/03/the-watchmen-pop-nihilism-or-nietchze-meets-the-fantastic-four/

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Moving Beyond Nonresistance: Matthew 5:38 -48

I was first drawn to the Mennonite Church because of its peace tradition. My pacifist convictions go back to the Vietnam War. When I received my draft notice, at the age of 19, I had to immediately decide if I could kill another human being on behalf of the state. I felt I couldn’t, so I registered as a conscientious objector. I was drafted into the Army, but served as a noncombatant. As a Southern Baptist I later became involved in peace and justice issues because of an understanding of faith that wedded Christian belief with social concerns. In my final ten years as a Southern Baptist you might have found me teaching seminars on world hunger, standing in front of the Naval base in Alameda, California protesting the presence of a nuclear submarine with my two-year-old daughter, Toni, on my shoulders, or reading books on liberation theology. I found kindred spirits with the Mennonite writers I was reading at the time. I also started reading about those radical, nonviolent Anabaptists of the 16th century, through the influence of a baptist theologian, James McClendon, Jr., who was a member of my Southern Baptist congregation in Alameda. I spoke with the former pastor of that same church about becoming a Mennonite. We went to the same seminary and he had become a Mennonite. I felt that the Mennonite Church would provide a tradition compatible with my peace and justice convictions.

So, in 1987, when I became pastor of Houston Mennonite Church, I gathered together some members in the congregation interested in leading our church forward in its peace witness to the community to form a peace committee. It was nearing Christmas and we decided that our first project would be to draw attention to the issue of war toys. Following the lead of such groups as the War Resisters League, we were going to carry signs and hand out leaflets in front of the Toys 'R Us, after we had talked to the management. We were not going to chain ourselves to the doors, disobey any laws, or get ourselves arrested. Well, we were ready to announce our first peace event to our historic peace church one Sunday morning.

No one in the peace group expected to get the reaction we got when we announced our proposed peace action. After the service I was pulled aside by a concerned young adult member, who said that if our peace group protested war toys a number of members would leave the church. They didn't want our church associated with what they saw as negative public actions. It was shock to me. I thought I had become part of a peace church. Eventually, we had to have a conference mediator come in and help us deal with a conflict over peace! I couldn’t believe it: a peace church in a conflict about peacemaking. What an irony!

After sitting through some rather emotionally charged dialogues, I came to the rude awakening that not all Mennonites believe that peace is central to the Anabaptist tradition, let alone the gospel of Jesus Christ. For many of the young Mennonites in my congregation, peace was a very passive and secondary belief. Since becoming Minister of Peace and Justice with the Mennonite Mission Network, I have come a modest estimate that well over half of Mennonites do not consider peace to be essential to the gospel. For many Mennonites peace is primarily about what you don't do. It means you don't use force or go into the military.

The Mennonite peace stance has traditionally been understood as passive non-resistance, that is, you do not resist evil. Passive nonresistance is grounded in a two-kingdom theology, which believes that there are two radically separate kingdoms; the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God. Christians and the church are clearly located in God’s kingdom. And although God can use the state, politics, and society for God’s purposes (Romans 13), these realms are essentially outside God’s kingdom. Two-kingdom theology reinforced early Mennonite isolation from society and its concerns. With this belief in Two-kingdom theology and passive nonresistance Mennonite can, in good conscience, leave the affairs of the world, such as peace and justice, to the state, and focus their concerns upon the church.

Second, passive nonresistance is biblically based upon a particular understanding of Matthew 5:39, which says, in the King James Version, “resist not evil.” I believe this is an erroneous interpretation of Jesus’ teachings. I propose that we reread this classic text from the Sermon on the Mount and consider moving beyond passive non-resistance as a faithful peace witness for our times.

If we examine the passage on non-resistance in the Sermon on the Mount, we will find that Jesus is not advocating being passive at all. Our focal text is the fifth of six "antitheses." Jesus begins with the formula "You have heard that it was said," and then proceeds to give his own radical extension of the law's interpretation. First, Jesus addresses the Judaic law of an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth. This law of reciprocal justice meant that if you poked my eye out, legally I could poke your eye out. If you knocked my tooth out, I too could knock yours right out of your head. Lex talionis or the law of retaliation, found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, and in most ancient societies, may seem a bit brutal for pacifist sensibilities.

And yet, the law of lex talionis was rather a legal means of checking unbridled blood revenge. We see this type of unchecked retaliation in the story of Lamech, who killed a man for striking him and was "avenged seventy-sevenfold" (Genesis 4:23). In other words, you knock out my tooth, I knock your whole head full of teeth off your body. A tooth for tooth was equal retribution. As a law of lex talionis helped to put an end to the escalating cycle of violence.

Jesus teaches his disciples an active nonviolent approach. He bridles the wild impulse for violence even further. "But, I say to you..." Jesus calls us to go beyond the law of equal retribution with the statement "Do not resist evil." What does Jesus mean by these words? Here we find the fountain from which our Anabaptist-Mennonite teaching on non-resistance springs. But, the idea of not resisting evil may fall strangely upon our ears. It raises many questions for us. What does Jesus mean by not resisting evil? Does he mean that we are to let evil have its way without a fight? Does nonresistance mean that a battered wife is just to "turn the other cheek" and allow her husband to beat her senseless? Surely, Jesus didn't mean that. Are we to be the world's doormat, passively allowing the violent and the mean-spirited to walk all over us without the slight bit of resistance? Is the way of peace that Christ is advocating a form of passive non-resistance, that is, humbly doing nothing in response to the abuse, oppression, injustices, and violence that is dished out to us and others within the world?

This passive approach to peace appears to have been the general understanding of non-resistance among Mennonites for centuries. Mennonites have identified themselves as a "nonresistant church." The nonresistance peace approach meant resisting no evil, using no force, being defenseless in the presence of violence, suffering wrong rather than retaliating in violence, and bearing no arms. By the way, do you know why Mennonites wear long sleeves? They don't want to “bare arms!” Ha! The most practical way of maintaining such a passive nonresistant stance was to be the "quiet in the land" isolated off from society and its ills. With Mennonites becoming part of the urban world, a pure nonresistant stance has become extremely difficult to maintain. Still, Guy Hershberger in his classic book War, Peace, and Nonresistance did try to apply passive nonresistance to how we are supposed interact the broader world. Nonresistance has been the predominant Mennonite peace position. Nonresistance has permeated Mennonite attitudes and lifestyles.

There have been nonresistant Mennonites with such a tender conscience that they were hesitant to post "No Trespassing Signs" on their property because it might give the appearance of threatening wandering hunters with the force of the law. A Mennonite youth speaker once argued that nonresistant drivers should not retaliate with their high beams when oncoming drivers failed to use their low beams! Passive nonresistance has not only shaped Mennonite lifestyle, historically it has been the dominant understanding of the Mennonite peace position. But, is passive nonresistance what Jesus was teaching his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount?

First, we must understand what Jesus meant by "not resisting evil." The court translators of King James chose to translate for their "loyal subjects" the Greek as "do not resist evil." This was a wonderful translation for royalty who want to quell any idea of resistance to the King's unjust policies! The word translated "resist" is a combination of two words; one meaning "against" and the other meaning "violent rebellion, armed revolt, or sharp dissension." The word in no way advocates being docile or passive.

The context of this word also helps us to interpret what Jesus meant. Jesus has been countering the law of lex talionis, the law of retaliation. Jesus is countering retaliation as a response to evil done to us. A better interpretation might be, "Do not retaliate," "Do not get even" that is, do not "fight fire with fire", blow with blow, violence with violence." Or as Paul put it in Romans 12, "Do not repay anyone evil for evil." Jesus is not presenting the choice of two polarities, either violent opposition or passivity. Rather, Jesus is advocating a third way.

I am indebted to the insights of New Testament scholar Walter Wink for transforming how I read Matthew 5. Jesus says, "If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also." "Well," you say, "that sure sounds like being passive to me." Jesus' words evoke images of having to passively stand there while another person beats the “holy bejesus” out of us! But, note that a blow in a right-handed world would have landed on the opponent's left cheek. What we have here is rather the back-handed slap of insult given by a person of superior status or class to a person of inferior status or class. The blow is intended to humiliate and to put the other person in their "place." This is a strike of insult, not the blow of a fistfight. For a person of lower social position to fight back would have meant suicide. Was a person's only recourse cowering submission? No. Jesus says "offer the other cheek."

He is not proposing that we take on further abuse, nor that we become "passivists." Turning the other cheek is not a sign of weakness, but of moral strength. By offering the other cheek the offended person robs the oppressor of their power to humiliate and dehumanize. It is as if the stricken person says, "Go ahead. Strike again. You have not stolen my dignity. You cannot demean me. I am a human being just like you." In this specific example "turning the other cheek" exposes the act of the offender for what it is---morally deficient.

This approach is akin to what Ghandi, a Hindu highly influenced by Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount, hoped to achieve through satyagraha, or "truth force." Satyagraha is a form of active, nonviolent resistance. By responding nonviolently to the violent actions of their oppressors Ghandi and his followers hoped that the perpetrators of violence might see the ugliness of the violence. It's interesting to note that Ghandi clearly understood Jesus' as teaching nonviolence. He observed; "The only people on earth who do not see Christ and His teachings as nonviolent are Christians." Lewis Murphey, one of Ghandi's biographers, visited his small hut at his ashram. The only picture he saw on the wall was one of Jesus and below it were the words from Ephesians, "He is our peace." Even Ghandi, a Hindu, could see that Jesus was not advocating passive nonresistance to the evildoer. And "turning the other cheek" was more than a simple example of nonretaliation. Jesus is advocating an approach of active nonviolence.

Jesus' second example of nonviolence has to do with responding to the person who takes your coat. He is not referring to a thief who comes at night and steals a coat from your closet or accosts you on the street and somehow yanks it off your body. In Luke the garment is stolen. In Matthew the person is being sued for their garment. In ancient Jewish society when the poorest of the poor had nothing to give in payment for their debts, they would give their garment as collateral. Jewish law strictly required that the garment be returned by the evening. The scene in our text is that of a poor debtor, who is being brought to court by their accuser, in order to squeeze out the last drop of repayment they can, forcing the poor person to literally give "the shirt of their back."

Debt was a burden of the poor in this first century peasant society, resulting from oppressive Roman taxation. When the wealthier landowners became indebted, they would sell their only asset, their land, which went against Jewish tradition. Then, the land would be farmed out to landlords. Jesus often addressed the problem of debts in his parables and even his model prayer. In such an oppressive economic system why would Jesus tell his listeners that if someone sues you for your coat, your outer garment, then give them your cloak, or your inner garment also. Is this advice for the powerless to just give up in the face of injustice? Just hand over everything? Is Jesus advocating passive nonresistance? Or could Jesus be advocating “naked justice” in the courtroom?

Imagine this scene. The wealthy landowner takes the poor, indebted landlord to court to take away his outer garment as an assurance that he will be paid by the poor man. The poor man hands the landowner his outer garment. With nothing left to give, but the shirt off his back, the indebted landlord takes off his undergarment as well, and hands it over to the landowner. Naked justice. What an embarrassment this would be to the landowner. The landowner stands there beet-red with the poor, naked debtor's outer garment in one hand and inner garment in the other.

Nakedness was a taboo in Judaism, as can be seen in the story of Noah' sons discovering him naked. By taking off one’s "under clothes" and offering them also, the unmerciful creditor is exposed as one stripped of compassion and the whole debt system an embarrassment. The poor debtor acknowledges the law, but presses the injustice of the economic system to its logical absurdity.

Could this possibly be the beginning of the church's clown ministry or Christian comedy? Jesus is painting, in clown colors, a very humorous picture. His teaching fits with Jewish tradition. We find a similar approach to insult in the Talmud where it says, "If your neighbor calls you an ass, put a saddle on your back." I wonder if Johann Stander, the radical South African Nationalist businessman, was following this clowning tradition of nonviolence when he removed his trousers in front of the Port Elizabeth city hall in April of 1986 while demonstrating against apartheid.

Sojourner Truth followed this tradition of Matthew 5 during a Democratic gathering in 1858. Pro-slavery Democrats, led by T.W. Strain, questioned whether Sojourner was really a woman, as a challenge to her leadership as a slave woman in the abolitionist movement and to sidetrack the meeting from the real issue of slavery. The pro-slavery Democrats prevented the adjournment of the meeting claiming that she had the voice of a man. Challenging the sexual identity of women leaders was a common ploy of the day, as a way to undercut their rights to speak and lead. The charge against Sojourner polarized the meeting. The pro-slaver group insisted that Sojourner step aside and show her breast to the women in the audience, who could then report on her true gender.

With bodacious wit and wisdom, Sojourner told them that her breast had suckled many a white babe, to the exclusion of her own offspring; that some of those white babies had grown into men and were, in her estimation, more manly than they appeared to be. And as disrobed her breast she asked them quietly if they, too wished to suck! She told them she would show her breast to the whole congregation, not to her shame, but to their shame.

Now, when it comes to Jesus saying “give him your cloak as well,” he is not necessarily telling us that in every legal case expose our bootie to Judge Judy in order to win our case in court. Neither is he teaching us to passively accept injustice. Jesus' advice to "give your cloak also" is a nonviolent act of resistance to injustice that reveals the absurdity of the debt systems and shames those who perpetuate injustice. Jesus has given us a vivid and humorous example of how to expose systems of injustice through creative, nonviolent actions.

Jesus' last example of a nonviolent response has to do with "going the second mile." It has become a common phrase for going beyond what is required of us. "Going the second mile" comes from the practice of forced labor that the Romans could require of their colonial subjects. Soldiers could make Jews carry their burdens for up to a mile. Mile markers could be found along the roadways. Simon of Cyrene was forced into such service when he was compelled to carry Jesus' cross. For a soldier to force a person to carry their pack beyond a mile could result in severe military penalties.

And what is Jesus advise to those forced to carry the soldiers pack for a mile? Noncompliance? Revolt? No. Carry it two miles. This is definitely not passive nonresistance. Imagine the soldier's shock when arriving at the mile marker along the road and the person with the pack says, "I'll carry it for you another mile" and keeps on walking. Now the soldier is wondering, "Is this Jew just being kind? Or is he provoking me? Challenging my strength? Trying to get me in trouble, maybe?" The soldier is thrown of balance by the response and any feelings of superiority he may have had are turned on their head. I can just see the soldier pleading with the disciple, "Aw, come on now, let me have my back pack back!"

Through creative, nonviolent action the oppressed takes back their own dignity and humanity from the one who would rob it from them. Instead of unbridled revenge (Knocking someone’s head off for a lost tooth) the law of lex talionis calls for equal retribution (a tooth for tooth). Jesus takes the law to another level of nonviolence. Not by advocating passive nonresistance (Do nothing and let 'em box your face to a pulp). Jesus teaches us to actively love our enemies and advocates creative nonviolence. Jesus' teachings call us to move beyond passive nonresistance to a more active, creative, nonviolent peacemaking. No longer can a totally passive response to evil, injustice, and violence be considered a truly faithful peace witness.

Thank God, many of our responses to evil have been active responses. We have tried to work for more just living conditions by feeding the hungry, caring for the world's poor, and living simpler lifestyles. But, we are also beginning to learn that peace and justice are inseparable, and that a contemporary understanding of our peace witness may call for more creative, active, nonviolent resistant actions, like the examples that Jesus gave us. We are becoming more politically aware and responsible. Mennonite Central Committee U.S.’s Washington office has keep us informed and politically responsive to issues of peace and justice.

We are seeking creative solutions to legal system of retribution. The Victim/Offender Reconciliation programs try, in some legal cases, to bring together victim and perpetrator to peaceful reconciliation through restorative, instead of retributive justice. We are entering the arena of active, nonviolent resistance. Christian Peacemaker teams are practicing civil disobedience as a form of protest and are entering unarmed into violent political situations to try to negotiate peace. We are moving beyond separating ourselves from the evils of the world, and at the same time responding to evil and violence with nonviolent action.

Believe it or not, Mennonite leaders have been advocating a more active, nonviolent peacemaking stance for over forty years. With rising urbanization and modernization, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, and Civilian Public Service and Mennonite Central Committee workers experiencing a broader cultural world, a more active peace stance began to emerge, not only among Mennonites, but among all Christian groups. A totally passive peace position has become more and more irrelevant, not only to the world, but to Mennonites themselves.

Already in January of 1960 J. R. Burkholder challenged the passive stance of the Mennonite Church concerning demonstrations, the draft, and payment of war taxes. 55 years ago he asked that "the Mennonite church give serious attention to radical protest, direct action if you will, as a part of its evangelistic and prophetic testimony." Some forty years ago the Mennonite Church was already struggling with the issues of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience to laws of the State that were evil or unjust. In 1966, when I was just a senior in high school, former MCC Executive Secretary Orie Miller, expressed the conviction that "Mennonites must find a way of engaging in social protest that will be acceptable to a peace-loving people." Many Mennonites, forty years later, have not yet welcomed this viewpoint.

In a world of increasing violence from wars, gangs, domestic abuse, racism, heterosexism, classism, injustice and poverty, we need an ever-broadening understanding and creative application of Christ's way of peace. Absolute passive nonresistance, that simply avoids doing violence, also avoids any sense of responsibility for our neighbors, who live in the midst of a violent world. This perspective on peace is not only irrelevant, but is not be faithful to the teaching and example of Jesus Christ.

Love will necessarily lead us into, not away, from a world that needs the good news of Christ's peace. Vengeful retaliation and passive nonresistance are not the only ways we have to deal with violence and injustices in the world. There is a third way, the way that Christ has taught us.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Saturday: a poem by Leo Hartshorn

cold gray stone
tomb of death
womb without breath sustaining
draining a mother's tears
a traitor fears
eleven hide
the world outside
to the song
now muted
and still

god is dead
or so they said
it rings truth
stings the soul
a cry echoes
from a piece of splintered wood
it does no good
life pouring out
upon parched earth
the devil laughs at rebirth
hell's jaws open wide
god outside

dark within
angels flown
hope unknown
to women praying
by candlelight
for one sealed in stone
silence drones

Monday, March 9, 2009

Slow the Passing Trees: a poem by Leo Hartshorn

In a boat down a fast-moving creek,
it feels like trees on the bank
are rushing by. What seems to be
changing around us is rather
the speed of our craft
leaving this world---Sufi mystic Jalaluddin Rumi

O Life, slow down the speed of
passing trees and months and years.

In the wake of the boat I see
a child running with abandon in the lemon orchards,
a youth playing wildly on the drums,
a young adult studiously reading books,
a man seriously preaching in a small church,
a middle aged adult sadly packing to move,
an older man wistfully watching his grandson play.

O Life, slow the passing trees,
the speed of the boat
that is leaving this world.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Mixed Metaphors: a sermon on Hosea 1:1-8; 11:1-4

The cover story of the August 9, 2004 edition of Newsweek magazine featured what they called “the new infidelity.” Now, can someone tell me just what’s so new about infidelity? The article told the stories of married women who commit adultery. With more women in the workplace, over scheduled lives, easy access on the internet, and inattentive husbands, more women are now cheating in their marriages. Studies seem to indicate that the rate of adultery for married women is now approaching that of men. What an accomplishment! Unfaithfulness is becoming an equal opportunity destroyer of marriages.

Stories of unfaithful women can be found not only in the pages of Newsweek, but they appear frequently in the pages of the Bible, particularly among the prophetic writings. The adulterous woman is a central metaphor in the book of Hosea. This prophet from the Northern Kingdom of Israel used the metaphor of marriage to talk about the relationship between God and Israel. Hosea’s prophetic speech occurred in the eighth-century B.C.E, a time of political maneuvering in Israel. Israel’s ruling elite forged foreign alliances and engaged in commercial “intercourse” for her economic prosperity. Agribusiness was booming. The export of grain, wine, and oil benefited Israel’s wealthy ruling class, while they “lusted after” more tilled land for producing cash crops. And guess who got the short end of the stick. The rich got richer and the poor…Well, you know how that tired old story goes. Bad foreign policy, business monopolies, benefits for the wealthy, the poor left to fend for themselves.

You sure don’t see that sort of thing today, do you! In essence, Israel was serving Baal, the god of commerce, who symbolized the alliance of the prosperous, oppressive state and unfaithful religion. Israel’s foreign allies became her “lovers.” Israel’s unfaithfulness to God had to do with the male ruling elite’s “illicit” relationship with these foreign alliances, her unjust domestic policies, all tied up and legitimized by the religion of Baal.

The metaphor of marriage seemed to be a most appropriate rhetorical device for the prophet to talk about the divine/human relationship. It was so appropriate that, according to Hosea, God told the prophet to go and marry a promiscuous wife. How odd of God! Hosea, you go out there and get yourself a loose woman, by God. Marry an adulterous woman? The marriage is doomed from the start! Not only that. Hosea, have yourself some “children of promiscuity.” Scandalous! Why marry a promiscuous woman? Because the land has been unfaithful to God. This command by God was so scandalous to the Jewish philosopher Maimonides that he interpreted the book of Hosea as a vision and not something that really happened.

Others would come to interpret this divine command to Hosea as being after-the-fact, that is, Hosea is to marry a woman who will become unfaithful. Some biblical scholars call Hosea’s marriage a “symbolic action.” Some of us common folk just call it plain nuts! In any case, Hosea’s marriage to Gomer was to be a symbol of God’s relationship to Israel. Whatever way you may want to interpret God’s command, one thing’s for sure. Those prophets did a bunch of crazy stuff in the name of God. And Hosea was no exception. Marrying a promiscuous woman as a symbol of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God? Now, that takes the cake, the wedding cake at that!

First, let’s look at this marriage on the positive side. It does have potential, metaphorically speaking. The metaphor of marriage in Hosea is an emotionally powerful image the people could identify with. It served as a dynamic metaphor for illustrating God’s intimate relationship with Israel. God and Israel were interconnected in a covenant relationship. The marriage metaphor movingly illustrated a wide range of issues in this divine/human relationship; love, jealousy, fidelity, unfaithfulness, punishment, and reconciliation. The marital bond of love, commitment, and obedience are like the divine/human relationship. With this metaphor the people could feel the agony of God as a betrayed husband and know deeply their unfaithful actions.

Not only that, the metaphor was used to address the underlying truth of real oppressive foreign policies and economic injustices that benefited the male ruling hierarchy of Israel. Hosea castigated Israel’s wealthy ruling class by depicting them collectively as a promiscuous woman, unfaithful to her spouse. The purpose of Hosea’s marriage metaphor is a call to justice and God’s desire for faithfulness.

We can appreciate the thrust of Hosea’s message, while at the same time recognizing some crucial limitations and problems with such a mixed up metaphor. For starters, from our contemporary point of view, one of the problems with Hosea’s marriage metaphor for us is that it is based upon a dominant/submissive view of marriage. Although it was to be a loving intimate relationship, marriage was not co-equal. The culture of Israel was patriarchal. The male was dominant in all arenas of life, especially marriage. The female, daughter and wife, were considered the property of the man, father or husband. Strangely enough, the view that women are male property is still symbolically re-enacted in some contemporary marriage ceremonies when the father “gives away” the bride to the husband as in a legal transfer of property. As property the female’s sexuality was supposed to be under the control of the ruling male. Therefore, female promiscuity brought particular shame to the male, which would call for drastic measures against the woman.

There was even a provision in the Mosaic law, known as the Sotah, for jealous husbands to put their wives to a test to see if they were being unfaithful (Numbers 5); an ordeal worst than those lie detector tests given to suspected spouses on the Maury Povich Show. The test went something like this. The couple goes to the preacher. The preacher says to the wife, “Here, drink this Drano. If you haven’t been sleepin’ around, it won’t harm your insides. And if you have been, on top of being sterilized I will curse you, for good measure. What if the husband’s suspicions were unfounded? We’ll, who can blame a jealous husband. And…of course, there was no such test of fidelity for husbands.

So, although the patriarchal marital relationship of a superior to an inferior may have been swallowed easily by Hosea’s audience, it may sit on our stomach’s about as smoothly as that priest’s potion. Understanding the context of marriage in the ancient world, the marriage metaphor may work for some as a way to reveal a superior God in a personal relationship with inferior humans, but I suspect the implications of this metaphor might cramp the style of many women…and men, in this congregation a bit.

Another way to state the problem with the marriage metaphor is to say that for us today it is just plain sexist. The male/Hosea symbolizes a faithful God. The female/Gomer symbolizes unfaithful Israel. Blameless male. Sinful female. Hey, that metaphor could just as easily have been turned the other way around, someone might say. Well, if it were that easy, why don’t we ever find in the Bible Israel depicted as a promiscuous male? Woman as harlot is a metaphor found throughout the Bible, especially in prophets like Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.

One of the worst implications of this marital metaphor in Hosea concerns where it finally leads us; to a deadly end, metaphorically speaking. In an ancient, male-dominated culture, where women are property with little or no power, how do you imagine God’s judgment upon Israel’s injustice using a marriage metaphor? Well, one way is to use images of sexual violence. The marital metaphor reaches its lowest point in a number of passages within the prophetic writings, for example the second chapter of Hosea. If I had these verses read during worship today, mothers would have had to cover the ears of their children. A few women and men might have blushed.

As a metaphor of God’s punishment of Israel, Hosea, who is the victim of Gomer’s infidelity, will not recognize her as his wife. He will shame her, strip her of her vulgar clothes, publicly expose her nakedness, and kill her with thirst, just to name a few things. If that were not enough, after all those violent threats Hosea, again like God with Israel, will woo Gomer back and give her gifts of grain, wine, and oil. Some violence, then make up. At this point in Hosea metaphor and reality get mixed up. Whether metaphor or reality, where have we heard of this kind of behavior before? Walk into any women’s shelter and talk to a battered wife. That’s how she will describe the pattern of her husband’s behavior. To say the least, the marriage metaphor has its limits in addressing the unfaithfulness or injustices of Israel.

Yes, that may be true, but in the book of Hosea we are dealing with a metaphor, not real women. This is just vivid, poetic language. Seventeenth-century mystic poet John Donne used images of sexual assault in a well known sonnet:

Batter my heart, three person’d God; for you
As yet but knock, breath, shine, and seek to mend.
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall I be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Isn’t Hosea’s marital image mere metaphor, poetic language? What’s important is the message behind the metaphor. That’s partly true. The marriage metaphor was a powerful rhetorical devise for communicating the truth to the people and culture in which it was spoken. But, we must recognize the negative consequences of such images when trying to communicate God’s desire for justice. Metaphors can mix up our message. Imagine this scene. A father comes into the living room, puts his hands on his hips, and with furrowed brow he sternly lectures his son: “Son, you must stop this fighting in school. Your teachers are trying to attack your problems with every weapon they have. Your mother and I are battling it out to make a good home for you. Your older sister is busy helping in the war on drugs. So, we just can’t have you fighting in school anymore!” Metaphors can mix up the message.

Metaphors matter, particularly when they’re intended to image God or call us to do justice. Language can mend or mar. As kids did any of us really believe in our heart of hearts that sing-song saying “Sticks and stones will break my bones…”? Words can wound, even words from sacred texts. What might words, such as those in the second chapter of Hosea, do to real women battered and abused, who live with the daily threat of violence? What might be the impact of the words of genocide and the taking of the land of the Canaanites as God’s command when communicated to Native Americans or Palestinians? Words can become weapons.

What about a white slave owner reading the biblical admonition “slaves obey your masters” to his servants on a Southern plantation? Texts can enslave. What about words like “women should keep silent in the churches,” whether from sacred text or bishop decree, pronounced to women and men in Lancaster conference? Do they cause silence? Are there not other sacred words in those same texts that say to women you are born again, new creatures, heirs of God, co-workers, deacons, ministers, gifted by the Spirit, baptized into Christ, where there is no longer male nor female? Mixing metaphors can be deadly potion.

Philosopher Martin Heidegger said that language is the “house of our being.” It is where we live and move and are shaped as human beings. Words are a lens through which we see the world. Language is not mere words. Rhetoric reflects reality. Behind the sexist language in the Bible are real wives subjected to the power of their husbands. Behind the language of sexual violence were real stories, or as Phyllis Trible calls them “texts of terror, like Jephthah’s daughter, burned as an offering by her father because he made a rash vow or the Levite’s concubine, raped by strangers then sliced and diced into twelve pieces by her master, to represent the twelve tribes of Israel or…no, that’s enough. You see, metaphors matter. They mirror and mold reality.

Our language today is still used in sexist, violent ways. Just one example, women are devalued and degraded, humiliated and violated, metaphorically speaking, in popular music---rap and rock, heavy metal and punk, supported by recording companies that also make the profits. Dehumanizing women is part of the economics of pop culture. Some dare call it “poetic license.” Where does this language come from? Behind these wounding words is a culture of terror where each year as many women are beaten to death as those killed in the World Trade Center bombings. Sticks and stones…fists and guns …can kill. Words not only reflect, but create an environment and legitimize a fractured culture.

Just as pacifists question the violence of the Bible in the light of the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus, so we need to question some biblical images of women. We can learn to understand the culture out of which these metaphors arose, while seeking to grapple with the divine message they try to communicate. Speaking metaphorically, we can approach the Bible like Jacob, the Old Testament character who wrestled with an angel at the River Jabbok. As Christian men and women we can learn to wrestle with the biblical texts, so that we might, in the end, receive their blessing, even though we may walk away from some texts with a limp.

Reading the Bible is a moral and political act. How we read, interpret, and apply biblical texts can be life-giving or death-dealing. For these sacred texts can shape or misshape us as believing communities and how we live and practice our relationship with God. How we image God is a significant act. And we should always remember that whatever metaphor we use of God is limited. Hosea himself reminds us of this (11:9), where it says:

I am God and not a man, holy in your midst, and I do not come to destroy.

God is not a god of death and destruction. God is loving and compassionate. God is like Jesus, the living metaphor of God, who said, “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly.” This does not mean there is no place to speak of God’s judgment upon unfaithfulness and idolatry, sin and injustice. Hosea tried to do that with the marriage metaphor. But, the metaphor has serious limitations and dangerous implications. Every metaphor we use to speak of God is limited and fragmented. Knowing that God is far beyond the language and metaphors we use to speak of God, we can approach our sacred texts not only with a discerning eye, but with an eye open for language and images that are healing, nurturing, and life-giving.

Maybe our eyes will fall upon alternative, nurturing images of God, like the one in the eleventh chapter of Hosea. Imagine God as a mother and Israel as her child. She loves her child dearly. She would give her life for her beloved. She called her son out of slavery in Egypt. She gave her child a home in which to grow. As her son turned into a teenager he became rebellious. His life was in grave danger by those he associates with. He turned his back on his mother. Yet, she was the one who taught her son to walk and held him in her loving arms. She was the one who healed him when he fell and scraped his knees and took him to the doctor when he was ill. Though her umbilical cord was long ago severed, she was still connected to her child by threads of love and kindness. She was one of those mothers who lifted up her child and placed her warm cheek next to his. As a mother she bent down and nursed him. O, how can this mother give up on her child? Her heart aches for her son. Her compassion grows more warm and tender with each day. How can she be angry with her dearest child? She cannot bear to think of his destruction. Can you imagine God’s love for us being like this mother? But, since women are not just mothers, this metaphor has its limitations. What about God as a lover, friend, bakerwoman, Sophia-wisdom, rock, fire, or wind? Many nurturing, liberating, creative human metaphors are needed to speak of the Mystery we call God.

There are many healing and nurturing, loving and compassionate metaphors in our sacred texts. Each has its limitations. Even marriage can serve as a life-giving metaphor for how we can understand our relationship to God. In one Midrash, a textual commentary written by Jewish Rabbis, there is a story of a king and a noble woman which speaks of God’s relationship to Israel. The king and noble woman are to be married. Each plans to bring precious gems to offer each other for the wedding covenant. The woman happens to lose her gem. She searches everywhere for her prized jewel so that she may bring to the relationship something precious, something she can share out of love for her partner. The king takes his gem away so as not to dominate their relationship with his gift alone. Finally, she comes across her lost gem. The king and the noble woman bring their gems together. The king makes a decree that a crown shall be made from both gems and it shall be placed on the head of the noble lady. The rabbi’s comments continue…”In a like manner God too has set up two gems, namely loving kindness and mercy…Israel lost theirs…So, God took away His…and after Israel restored theirs, God has given his back. And God will say, “Let both gems be made into a crown and placed on the head of Israel.”

This is the loving and compassionate God who desires to finally say to you and me, male and female, flawed and unfaithful though we may be:

I will marry you forever:
I will marry you with righteousness and justice,
And with goodness and mercy.
I will marry you with faithfulness,
And you shall know I am your God.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

My Soul at Sunset: a poem by Leo Hartshorn

dull as a worn pencil
my spirit this morning

tired as a miner at day's end
my body this noonday

blank as a sheet of paper
my mind this afternoon

dim as a burned out wick
my soul this evening

the yellow orb treks across
the dome of sky
marking my moods

I end the day in shadows
like the landscape at sunset

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Fox and the Hen: a sermon on Luke 13:31-35

Aesop's fables are classic children’s stories. The stories use animals as their subjects to teach moral truths. Remember the story of the tortoise and the hare? What about the mouse and the snail or the wolf and the crane? Aesop’s animals teach children truths about life. There are other writers who have used animals to communicate more complex truths to adults. George Orwell's Animal Farm uses pigs and barnyard animals to talk about totalitarianism. Walter Wangerin, Jr., a writer and pastor, uses animals to deal with the age-old struggle between good and evil in The Book of the Dun Cow. Believe it or not, in the thirteenth chapter of Luke, Jesus uses two animals as metaphors to teach us moral truth---a fox and a hen.

Our story begins with Herod trying to drive Jesus from his territory through threats and intimidation. The Pharisees, for some unknown reason, come to Jesus and tell him that Herod is out to kill him. Maybe Herod thought Jesus was John the Baptist come back from the grave to hunt him down. Hearing of Herod's intimidation Jesus calls Herod a "fox."

A fox is known to be sly, crafty, and cunning. Herod was sly and cunning in his ethical and political life. Behind a public facade of concern he acted with evil and deceitful intent. His pretense of religious sensitivity was betrayed by bankrupt morals. As a predator, Herod fed off the lives of the oppressed people he ruled. He used his power to threaten and subjugate. But, Herod was really a petty fox, afraid of those who publicly raised questions about his actions or who opposed his self-serving ambitions.

In his political life Herod was a sly ol’ fox. As ruler of the area of Galilee, his cunning is displayed by how he tried to avoid offending the sensibilities of the Jews, while at the same time we see his true colors as he builds Tiberias on the site of a graveyard, which Jews considered unclean. We notice his prowling eyes as he divorces his Nabatean wife and marries Herodias, the wife of his half-brother. This sham of a marriage wakes the prophetic voice of farmer John the Baptist, who cries out and points a finger at the sneaky fox. It may be out of fear that John might lead the people in a revolution that led the fox to show his sharp teeth and have John beheaded.

The lion, not the fox, is the king of beasts. In Rome the proverb was, "Today, when people are at home they tend to think of themselves as lions, but in public they are just foxes." In public Herod is a fox. And to Jesus, Herod is more of a fox than a lion. Jesus publicly defies the fox's intimidating death threats with the message that he won't cower before the fox's gleaming, sharp teeth, but will continue on with his mission of casting out the forces of evil and offering healing to the sick. Jesus' real threat isn't in Rome, but in Jerusalem, where they wring the necks of prophets. To Jesus, Herod is a sly, insignificant, little fox---no one to fear.

Maybe you've seen the sly fox prowling around the hen house. You may have caught a glimpse of the fox in sly ways political leaders howl about freedom or concern for the poor, but conceal their real intents and pull the wool over the people’s eyes with cunning words. Or maybe you have spotted that sly ol’fox instructing the roosters of the church who try to maintain their power and manipulate the system to make everything go their way. The world of the fox is cruel, cold, calculated, and compassionless. In order to escape the teeth of this cunning predator we need to name the fox, as Jesus did, and seek a place of refuge from his cruel and cunning ways.

Where does one go for protection against the fox? Jerusalem was once a safe chicken coup, a haven from the enemies of God's people. Sadly, to many of the prophets, Jerusalem had become the symbol of a people under God's judgment. The social order was unjust. The city had itself become a carnivorous animal, feeding on the weak. The prophets who came to Jerusalem with the message of God’s reign were chewed up and spit out. There was a pattern of the people rejecting the liberating and emancipating word of God that came through the voices of the prophets. So, Jesus, who was bringing the message of liberation and the dawning of God's reign, lamented over the city of Jerusalem. Jesus cried out:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood, but you would not.

A hen? Jesus a hen? I would much prefer a feisty rooster. A rooster don’t take no guff from nobody. Just go into a hen house and try to take some eggs when a rooster’s around. You’ll find out where you are in the pecking order! And a rooster don’t wait for you to make the first move. Roosters knew about “the preemptive first strike” long before our present political leaders. Besides, a rooster has sharp spikes on the back of his feet. He can defend himself and his flock, like Herod, the fox. Like Jerusalem, that ancient military stronghold. Like the United States, a superpower with egg crates full of weapons of mass destruction just waiting to hatch. Jesus, don’t you mean you’re a rooster, who defends his territory like a Wild West cowboy with spurs on his heels? Surely, you’re not a hen! A female chicken?

In contrast to the fox, Jesus offers himself to the people of Jerusalem as a mother hen. Now, I’m fully aware that it may be hard for some of us to imagine Jesus as a mother, let alone as a hen! This story is beginning to sound more like Alice in Wonderland than an Aesop fable. But, hear me out. In a study entitled Jesus as Mother Caroline Bynum shows how many 12th century Cistercian monks and nuns spoke of Jesus as “our Mother.” It was a way they sought to communicate the intimacy, compassion, and comfort of Christ, as well as the maternal role of leaders within the Christian community. St. Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury, among many others, spoke freely of Jesus as our mother when he said:

But you, Jesus, good Lord, are you not also a mother? Are you not that mother who, like a hen, collects her chicks under her wings? Truly master, you are a mother. For what others have conceived and given birth to, they have received from you...It is then you, above all, Lord God, who are mother.

Jesus drew this maternal image from his own Jewish tradition. In the apocryphal book of II Esdras (1:28-30) God addresses God's people in words that sound strangely familiar:

You have not as it were forsaken me, but your own selves, saith the Lord. Thus says the Almighty Lord, have I not prayed you as a father his sons, as a mother her daughters, and a nurse her young babes. That ye would be my people, and I would be your God; that ye would be my children, and I should be your father? I gathered you together, as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings.

Jesus describes his own ministry of salvation, compassion, and protection like that of a mother hen. Jesus knew God to be like a mother hen, who gathers her children under her warm wings. Could he have remembered the Psalmist's words?: Take pity on me, God, take pity upon me, in you my soul takes shelter/I take shelter in the shadow of your wings? (Psalm 57:1) Did Jesus remember how Boaz said to Ruth about caring for Naomi: May the Lord recompense you for what you have done and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge? (Ruth 2:12) In harmony with God's motherly purposes of protection, care, and salvation, Jesus is telling us that he is like a mother hen, who seeks to gather together his people into a redeemed community under the compassionate wings of God. But then, how sad it is to hear Jesus lament..."but you would not."

Will we gather together under God's motherly wings? God seeks to gather us under her protective wings, as a mother hen gathers her chicks. God wants a relationship with us that is as personal and intimate as that of a mother to her children. It is God's desire to gather us together under her protective wings, when it seems that the destructive forces of our lives circle over our heads or when our enemy, the fox, tries to prey upon us. God wants to gather us under her wings when we grieve, when we're anxious, or when we need the warmth of God's accepting presence.

Will we allow God to spread her wings over us? Or will we turn to the fox, who claims we will be secure through power, violence, and control? Gathering under God’s wings is a vulnerable place to be. You can’t strike back. Even so, not striking back doesn’t mean you’re a chicken. It does mean you don’t rely upon the power and weapons of this world to protect you. It makes me think of Tom Fox, CPT reservist whose life was given in gathering people under the wings of God’s peace. His sacrifice makes me think of Jesus, our mother hen, who gathered us together under his cross.

There was once a young Nigerian boy named Olu who had a pet white chicken. They became great friends and inseparable companions. One day the hen disappeared and Olu cried and cried. Then after three weeks the white hen returned to the compound with seven beautiful white chicks. The Nigerian boy was overjoyed. The mother took very good care of her chicks. One day late in the dry season the older boys set a ring of fire to the bush area outside the village. Everyone stood outside the ring as the fire burned toward the center. The purpose was to drive little animals such as rabbits and small antelopes out of the circle. Then the waiting cutlasses claimed their prey. When the slaughter and the fire were over, Olu and his friends walked through the smoldering embers. The boy noticed a heap of charred feathers and smelled burned flesh. It looked like the remains of a bird that had not escaped from the fire. Then Olu realized in horror. It was his beloved friend the white hen all black and burned to death. But then came the sounds of chicks. The mother hen had covered them with her body and they were still alive and well. The mother had given her life for her children. She died that they may live."

Will we gather under the vulnerable wings of Christ? Will we be a mothering church that offers her body and blood for the world? Together under the wings of Christ we live by vulnerable power of the cross as we face a world full of foxes.

The reign of God is like a fox and a hen. There wasn't a day that passed that the sly fox wouldn't circle the hen house, just to see if he might catch some tasty morsel to eat. The hen always knew when the fox was nearby, even when he tried to hide behind the trees. His furry tail would always stick out. Whenever the fox came close to the hen house, the hen would cluck real loud and her chicks would gather safely under her unfurled wings. She stood her ground challenging the fox to come closer. You see, from a distance the fluffed up hen looked a lot larger than she really was, with all those chicks under her. And the fox wasn't ready for any real challenge. He wanted an easy meal. So, every time the fox saw that chicken with her wings outstretched he would tuck his tail between his legs and run.

But one day the fox got word from some dirty bird that the hen wasn't as big as he thought. There were chicks gathered under her wings! So the fox quietly tiptoed near the hen house. Suddenly the hen spotted the fox coming closer than he had ever been before. She cackled out to her chicks, calling them to gather. Now, remember she was a chicken and not a rooster. She had no sharp talons like stilettos or pecking power, like the rooster, to fight off the fox. All she could do was fluff up her wings, sit on her chicks, and face the fangs of the fox. She could place herself between the fox and her chicks and hope that her body would satisfy the appetite of the fox and he would leave the chicks alone.

All of a sudden there was a lot of loud cackling and clucking and flapping wings. The chicks ran. When all the noise stopped the chicks looked around and saw they were all alone. All that was left were some scattered feathers and drops of blood on the barnyard dirt. "Maybe she’s not dead. Maybe our mother will return soon," the little chicks wishfully thought. Several days went by, but there was no sign of their mother's return. She must be dead. Some animals in the barnyard said that after three days some of the chicks saw their mother walking around the barnyard. The chicks still felt her presence.

The fox kept coming around the chicken coup. The chicks regularly saw him sneaking behind the trees and prowling around the hen house. They always felt threatened and intimidated by his presence. So, one day when it felt like the fox was getting close enough for his breath to ruffle their feathers, they gathered together in a circle and whispered to each other a plan that would out-fox the fox.

When the fox came by the hen house the next day, he rubbed his eyes in disbelief. For in the middle of the barnyard he saw a huge hen with wings outstretched ready to challenge him. Could that mother hen he once had for dinner have come back to life? Fearing the sight of this formidable foe, the fox turned tail and ran off into the woods. Was it really the hen that he saw? Maybe. It sure looked like her. But if that ol' fox would have gotten closer, he would have seen that it was really her chicks, all gathered up together in a heap, along with some sparrows and crows they invited. They all had their little wings spread out together, forming with their own little bodies the image of their mother, the hen.

Let the little chicks who have ears to hear, hear what the mother hen says to her brood.