Earlier this year, I spoke in Chapel to the 11th and 12th graders about the Episcopal Church and social justice. I opened with a story about how I was first introduced to the ancient Polynesian way of greeting another person.
It was my first year living in Hawaii, and I attended a Sunday service at St. John’s by the Sea, a small historic Episcopal Church in a sleepy, seaside town far from the bustling and harried city of Honolulu. The congregation was predominantly native Hawaiian, and every prayer and song, even the sermon, were in Hawaiian.
On that particular Sunday, the community was celebrating the feast day of Queen Lili‘uokalani, the last sovereign of the Kalakaua dynasty before the Hawaiian islands were annexed by the United States. The Church was also hosting a group of students from a Maori school in New Zealand. The students were there for a week, attending the 2014 World Indigenous People’s Conference at the local community college.
Following the service, all present were invited to attend a celebratory meal to honor the queen and to welcome the Maori group. Throughout the celebration, Father Malcolm Chun made his way around the room, greeting each of the Maori visitors in an intimate and deeply moving way - a ritual in which two people acknowledge one another by touching foreheads and noses and inhaling at the same time.
I later learned that this way of greeting one another has its roots in ancient Polynesian culture. It is a sacred act of honoring the breath of life in the other person, of acknowledging that we all share the same breath. The ritual affirms the spiritual connection between two people, and the presence of the Divine in the other person.
I was also told that when the white missionaries and plantation owners set foot on the islands, and greeted the native Hawaiians by extending their hands for a handshake (instead of acknowledging the breath of life in the other), the Hawaiian people believed that these foreigners must not have the breath of life in them. That is where the word Haole comes from - Ha means “breath of life” and ole means “without.” Haole literally means “without the breath of life.”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how easy it is these days - when horrifying images of racial violence dominate our newsfeeds, and our nation’s collective cries and peaceful protests demanding an end to 400 years of systemic racism and white supremacy are met with tear gas and rubber bullets - to forget that we all share the same breath, that we are each created in the image of God and reflections of the Divine presence. We have forgotten that there is something sacred and holy and beloved about each of us.
Ed Bacon, an Episcopal Priest who served at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena for many years, and the author of "The Eight Habits of Love," says that our faith calls us to see and treat ourselves and one another as “beloved.” In a 2016 sermon titled Living Our Lives Through the Lens of the Beloved, he spoke of “putting on the lens of the beloved.” To do this, he said, we must understand love on four levels: personally, interpersonally, institutionally and culturally.
Personally, we are called to love ourselves - to practice self-love, self-care, self-compassion.
Interpersonally, we are called to love one another with the same radical love that God loves us. Quoting Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Bacon reminds us that “in every moment something sacred is at stake.” In any interaction or encounter we have with another person, something sacred is at stake. We can affirm the beloved in the other person, or we can deny it. We can choose love, or we can choose hate. We can choose compassion, or we can harden our hearts. We can choose forgiveness, or we can be merciless. We can choose to recognize the breath of life in one another, or we can deny the other person’s humanity.
Institutionally and culturally, Bacon says we are called to “examine our policies and cultural norms to see if they are revealing belovedness.” Love on the level of society, he says, looks like justice, and that is why the Episcopal Church is always bringing awareness to everything that does not communicate the belovedness of others.
If the work of the beloved is fundamental to the call of faith, I wonder what this work looks like now in these times of racial violence. In answering this question, I commend to you the words of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Michael Curry. In a recent Washington Post article titled “As a black man, I understand the anger in our streets. But we must still choose love,” he states that as a nation we have strayed far from the path of love. He recounts what love does not look like: “Love does not look like one man’s knee on another man’s neck, crushing the God-given life out of him. Love does not look like the harm being caused by some police or some protesters in our cities. Love does not look like the silence and complicity of too many of us, who wish more for tranquility than justice.”
So, what does love look like then? Love, Curry says, looks like “channeling our holy rage into concrete, productive and powerful action.”
Love looks like calling our elected officials to demand justice; engaging in the sacred act of peaceful protest; donating to organizations that are working to end racial violence and injustice; voting to elect leaders who will protect the rights and ensure the safety of our black and brown sisters and brothers; making space for voices that have been silenced; and talking about race in our classrooms, chapel, faculty meetings, student meetings and homes. Love looks like renewing our commitment to racial reconciliation, justice and truth-telling. If you are a white person, it means doing the uncomfortable work of learning more about the legacy of slavery and your privilege. It means repenting of one’s own silence and indifference. As people of faith, it means reclaiming the liberating and life giving message of scripture from those who want to use the Christian faith for partisan political purposes.
Next year, our community will continue to explore the Prophet Micah’s directive to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly. We will focus specifically on the work of justice, and particularly on the work of racial reconciliation, justice, truth-telling and healing.
This work is daunting. It will be hard. It will be uncomfortable. It will take infinite hope, infinite courage, and infinite love. We owe it to our sisters and brothers who have endured centuries of agony and suffering.
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief.
Do justly, now. Love kindness, now. Walk humbly, now.
You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.
- Rabbi Tarfon, 70 CE