by Mindy McGarrah Sharp
Have you noticed all the warring sides in contemporary life? I’ve been learning and thinking about borders through profound experiences accompanying seminary students to the US-Mexico border for week-long intensive border theology courses with the BorderLinks organization. I’ve noticed that many students long for the idea of two clear and distinct sides. And once clear that this must exist, students wonder why particular neighbors can’t see that there are two clear, distinct sides.
The first time that students reach their own hand into the border wall – even students who’ve been to this region previously in their lives – the division of sides is clear. Emphasized by visible surveillance of persons, vehicles, drones, cameras, and more, this wall divides and militarizes both sides. Crossing from one side to the other involves a specific process with clear restrictions and protocols.
It doesn’t take long at this contemporary border for the illusion of two sides to break down as we begin to hear many sides of life on the border. And yet, students long for clarity that will make sense of this wall, clarity around right and wrong, legal and illegal, good and bad. My hope as accompanying instructor is to side with human dignity through the many perspectives and voices we hear. There are always more than two sides within any human story.
But then, driving through my middle US America neighborhood exactly twelve days before Easter, I saw the first Easter lawn ornament of the year: A white cross with the words “He is Risen.” It’s too soon. Crossing from Lent to Easter involves a specific process with clear restrictions and protocols.
Even though pastel candy eggs have been appearing in grocery store aisles since Valentine’s Day, the lawn sign is different. Lent is a time of preparation. Unlike advent when we prepare by lighting trees and candles for midwifing a birth, Lent invites life-review, an examination of attachments, hopes, dreams, impediments to freedom, finitude. The dust well before new birth. A 40-day practice of unearthing what’s at stake grounding faith practices. Then the feast.
Why can’t my neighbors see that there are two clear and distinct sides? There is Lent and there is Easter. Staking an Easter proclamation in the land is no Lenten preparation. It’s rather a comment on time, but on the wrong side of time. In the midst of Lent and approaching Holy Week, we are firmly in the before. The liturgical calendar here is clear: Lent before Easter; Easter after Lent.
Ritual practices structure time and space. In today’s passage from Deuteronomy 16:1-8 (see below), ritual practices are carefully placed within specific hours of specific days of specific weeks of the year, unfolding an ordered remembrance to heighten acknowledgment of identity as a people on the way to liberation, feasting and resting only after embodying generational memories of a movement from oppression to freer possibilities. The text outlines clear and distinct markers: unleavened, then leavened bread; night, then day; work, then rest. Paradoxically, the point of ritual, even and especially in its most ordered progression, is to invite blurred boundaries of time and space. Ritual is at once held in a specific time and place even while breaking open time and space to new possibilities. Ritual invites participants into the in-between.
My students’ longing for clear and distinct border policies that make sense of the wall’s life-and-death implications and my own recent lawn-ornament-reactive-yearning for a clear and distinct observance of liturgical ordering of time are both fueled by a deeper yearning for the enduring kind of love the Psalmist speaks of in 118 or the unity in practice hailed in Philippians 2. But, even while held into being by steadfast love and living in a world with incredible potential for unity, we human beings live in the in-between.
Recognizing only two clear and distinct sides dooms our border theologies and liturgical practices to a thin, cheap practice rather than what I hope the Psalmist means by a steadfast enduring love enfleshed in human community. In-between, we humans have to linger in order to remember and review life.
In her book Trauma and Spirit, theologian Shelly Rambo calls readers to linger in the in-between of Holy Saturday. She writes, “the rush to Easter, this anticipatory trajectory, removes the distinctive witness of Holy Saturday” (2010, 64). Likewise, biblical scholar Walter Bruggeman calls us to “…walk the walk from Palm Sunday to Easter through the Thursday arrest and the Friday execution and the long Saturday wait in the void…” (2015, 104). Linger in-between.
Organizers of a recent event at The Riverside Church in New York, entitled “Seven Last Words: Strange Fruit Speaks,” also invite us to the in-between: “As Jesus calls on us to remember his death, so are we to remember the deaths of those ‘crucified’ in our midst. The voices of the executed are crying from the ground, calling us as disciples of Jesus to remember them and advocate for justice. How may we do this?”
Beyond one side or the flip side lives the in-between, that potential space of beautiful uncertainty. Living in-between requires radical practices of remembering and listening to the last words of Jesus: “I thirst”; or neighbor Eric Garner: “I can’t breathe.” This void calls for lingering, questioning, yearning, partnering, reviewing life and death and in-between. Approaching Holy Week, let us linger in the ambiguous in-between void, resisting the allure of walls and other anticipatory trajectories that reduce steadfast love to a simple either-or. How may we seek horizons this day beyond the flip side?
Mindy McGarrah Sharp is Assistant Professor of Pastoral Theology and Ethics
Phillips Theological Seminary and author of Misunderstanding Stories: Toward a Postcolonial Pastoral Theology.
1 O give thanks to the Lord for God is good;
God’s steadfast love endures forever
2 Let Israel say, “God’s steadfast love endures forever.”
1 “Observe the month of A’bib, and keep the passover to the Lord your God; for in the month of Abib the Lord your God brought you out of Egypt by night.
2 You shall offer the passover sacrifice to the Lord your God, from the flock or the herd, at the place which the Lord will choose, to make God’s name dwell there.
3 You shall eat no leavened bread with it; seven days you shall eat it with unleavened bread, the bread of affliction—for you came out of the land of Egypt in hurried flight—that all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt.
4 No leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory for seven days; nor shall any of the flesh which you sacrifice on the evening of the first day remain all night, until morning.
5 You may not offer the passover sacrifice within any of your towns which the Lord your God gives you;
6 but at the place which the Lord your God will choose, to make God’s name dwell in it, there you shall offer the passover sacrifice, in the evening at the going down of the sun, at the time you came out of Egypt.
7 And you shall boil it and eat it at the place which the Lord your God will choose; and in the morning you shall turn and go to your tents.
8 For six days you shall eat unleavened bread; and on the seventh day there shall be a solemn assembly to the Lord your God; you shall do no work on it.
1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy,
2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.
3 Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves.
4 Let each of you look not only to his or her own self interests, but also to the interests of others.
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of humans.
8 And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
9 Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.