by Peter Menkin
|Megan Tan Al Staggs performs “A View From the Underside: The Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer” for the Hall of Philosophy audience The Chautauquan Daily, Chautauqua, New York|
This is another in the ongoing series of interviews with American poets. The Reverend Al Staggs was kind enough to talk more than two and a half hours by phone on three separate occasions in the month of June, 2011. This writer called him at his home in New Mexico USA from his own home office north of San Francisco in Marin County’s Mill Valley. These admirable and seemingly complete conversations covered a variety of topics related to the poet of dissent who was ordained many years ago in the Southern Baptist Church, but after a transforming experience that involved formative work at Harvard University Divinity School, Al Staggs decided he must leave his 24 year career as a parish minister. He began offering and giving performances, a one-man show of courageous historic figures who were known in their time and afterward as either world renown or American renown Christian figures. Some would say, world renown figures.
He has performed these works as a writer of the one man performances, and as a poet of dissent (anti-war poet), The Reverend Al Staggs, who is married with grown children, still holds his ordination. He says this about his relationship today with the Southern Baptist Church. (Though this writer tried to confirm his ordination, he was told by a national figure of that Church that ordinations are bestowed by each individual Church.)
The polity of the SBC is such that you will not likely receive a response from the national body. Baptist churches are fiercely autonomous, one of the hallmarks of Baptist life and identity. I was ordained in 1976 at the First Baptist Church of Huntsville, Texas. Every Baptist church, historically, has the authority to ordain ministers. Ordination is really not the business of the national body as would be the case in other denominations. It is very unlikely that any church would take the trouble of reversing an ordination.
This email is one of those received on the subject of Al Staggs ordination, etc. In another earlier one he writes:
Yes, I am still an ordained Baptist minister and I was ordained by a Southern Baptist church, however, the landscape of Baptist life has changed radically in the last thirty years. My ordination continues to be valid among all Baptists, however, I have taken the prerogative of no longer identifying myself as a “Southern Baptist” minister. I call myself simply a Baptist minister which is more inclusive with reference to non-Southern Baptist Baptists.
In yet another recent email he writes:
I would, however, clarify the fact that I am no longer a Southern Baptist. I remain a Baptist but not one who is in any way officially connected to the Southern Baptist Convention. I have more affinity to those Baptist groups who have left the SBC such as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Alliance of Baptists as well as the American Baptist Convention. The CBF andAllianceare both an outgrowth of the split in the SBC. I hope that this makes sense. Southern Baptists are markedly different from what they were when I first began my service as a minister with that denomination.
On his website, he says:
A few years later he took the step of leaving the pastoral ministry and began a career as a full-time performing artist, adding characterizations of Clarence Jordan, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Thomas Merton and Walter Rauschenbusch to his repertoire of programs. He finds great satisfaction in bringing these notable figures to life and sharing their relevant messages with audiences throughout the world.
1.1. Since your work is a work that I’ve called, Poetry of Dissent, and because you are an anti-war poet, I want to distinguish between the polemical work you do as a writer and your work as poet and artist. This is a blurred line, certainly, though your new book, “What Would Bonheoffer Say?” is more polemic than not. It is a work published by Parson’s Porch Books of Tennessee that helps tell your audience and readers about your oral presentation performance as one man show, so popular in Churches and other spots. Walter Brueggemann says of the book, whose profits go to feed the hungry and the poor, “This is a terrific piece you have done. You invite your audience into big and deep stuff, and it will no doubt be supportive of your oral presentation.” Tell us how your poetry differs from your performance work as a one man actor in a show and the polemical view of the dissenter and anti-war man of conscience? Has it informed, your poetry, by something special in your life, for you tell me it is a result of studies at Harvard University with Harvey Cox and Henry Nouwen?
The way in which the poetry is distinguishable from the plays is that the poetry more directly states my convictions regarding moral and ethical issues. The plays are more indirect. In that venue I am portraying Dietrich Bonheoffer or one of the other characters (Clarence Jordan, Oscar Romero, Walter Rauschenbusch, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Jr., Roger Williams, and William Sloane Coffin). The characters are speaking for their own time and context. The poetry is much more personal as I employ that genre to speak to current issues involving peace and justice concerns.
So much of what I do as a poet and as a performing artist is influenced by Latin American liberation theology. Liberation theology has several different streams—the Black, the feminist, the South African—and there’s even a Jewish liberation theology. The central thesis—the basis—is that, according to scripture, God has a preferential option for the poor and oppressed. Matthew 25: 31-46 is the central text and it was also used by Bonhoeffer long before the advent of liberation theology: “As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto me. I was sick and you visited me; I was hungry and you gave me food; I was naked and you clothed me.” That’s a condensed version. At the end of the pericope Jesus makes it clear that the manner in which we treat the downtrodden is the same way we’re treating him. “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me.”
One man performance as Bonhoeffer by Al Staggs
I was a Merrill Fellow at Harvard Divinity School and Harvey Cox was my academic advisor . I took two Latin American Liberation Theology courses with him, and they were the two pivotal courses for me. One was a seminar and one was a class. I wrote a paper titled “A Liberation Theology for North America,” which was the paper that provided a kind of ownership of what I was learning and applying to my own context as a pastor.
That year of study was life-changing, career-changing. I had decided to pursue a vocation as a senior pastor, and my courses at Harvard completely redirected my faith journey. They deepened my faith to more of a concern for social justice and gave me the confidence to jettison a lot of former convictions I had as a conservative Baptist Minister.
It is hard to demarcate—it is conscience informed by faith. A few years prior to the year at Harvard, I began to realize that the issues of applied theology had been ignored in my earlier training as a minister. I started writing poetry at that time. I believed that it is important for a person of faith to give witness to that faith by raising one’s voice to spread the word, to get the news out. That was an essential part of my training as a Christian and a pastor. After a year at Harvard, I still saw that as an important agenda but an agenda with a different twist. That was when I began to see my work as more inclusive than merely the Baptist Church.
One could say that I have abandoned being an evangelist. On the other hand, one could say that I am a “redefined” evangelist. One of my primary concerns, and the preeminent force behind my writing, is to educate, stimulate, and hopefully edify the Christian community as a whole.
The symbol of the Cross is central to everything I believe regarding faith and its application to our time.
Applied to common criminals; a punishment of humiliation,
of excruciating agony, of death; a tragic symbol of the
crime of all time, the crucifixion of the Son of God; epitome
of banishment, relegated to its place outside the gates. The Cross,
the city gates.
Worn by the
in gold, in
Excerpts from Staggs’ performance of Bonheoffer presented in July 2011, upstate New York, USA as reported in The Chautauquan Daily, Chautauqua, New York:
“For the church is really only the church as she exists for others, and it is for that reason I will tell you with great deal of sincerity and conviction: I think the church should sell all of her property and give it to the poor. I am almost disgusted with worship services and liturgies and grand choirs and great music and splendid sermons in the face of the injustice which prevails in our land, for to conduct liturgies and to do worship in the face of this structural evil is blasphemy. And then there are most of the ministers who seem more concerned for their own security, their own station in life, than they do about the plight of the oppressed in our land.”
■“There was another person that year who was to have an even greater impact upon me, and it was the person of Frank Fischer. … I came to the most radical and profound revelation, I do believe, of my entire life. … For the first time in my privileged existence … I began to look at life and history and the interpretation of Scripture … from the perspective of the outcast … of all those who suffer.”
■“Hitler promised us security, and oh, how we worshiped at the god of security, while we allowed the systemic and structural evil of genocide to eat away at our souls like a cancer. And do you think that God is going to hold us guiltless? You see, Christians in Germany face a terrible, terrible dilemma … We either work for the victory of our nation and thereby the destruction of civilization, or we work for the defeat of our very own nation and hopefully preserve civilization.”
■“I have learned the secret of being able to transcend whatever size cell they put me (in). And what is the secret, hmm? It’s remembering — just remembering the experience God has allowed me in my life.”
From the review in the same newspaper firstname.lastname@example.org: “The audience hung on to Staggs’ every word; patrons leaned forward in their seats and chuckled at occasional moments of wry humor, peppering Staggs with questions once his performance ended.”
2. Let’s delve more into the anti-war statement of your poetry, a stance I find unusual as you are still a Baptist minister in the Southern Baptist Church. (See introduction to interview.) I say unusual, for this is a conservative group and not well known for opposing war as dissenting Americans. Your poem, “Talkin’ ‘Bout Jesus,” starts: My goodness, there’s lots of folks/ talkin’ ‘bout Jesus – what would Jesus do, / What he said in the Good Book. / But there’s not much talkin’ ‘bout what Jesus would say/ or what he would do when it comes/ to the burning issues of our day. / Naw, that’s too much of a risk… This is from your book, “A Pilgrim in Rome: Cries of Dissent,” published by Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America in North Carolina. In what way does this work speak of courage, and what is this courage that you speak of to you? Do you try to emulate it, or have you expressed your definition and dramatic sense of this kind of courage in history through your various performance work as artist? Tell us something of your recent two stop tour, and how your poems and your portrayal of Bonheoffer elicit your thoughts and those of your audience on this matter.
First of all, I need to correct the misconception that I am still a Southern Baptist minister. I have not been a minister in the Southern Baptist Church since 1989.
All of the individuals that I portray exhibited great courage by their steadfastness in the face of obstacles that ran the gamut from severe criticism to outright danger. A noted quote from Bonhoeffer’s writings is “When God calls a person, he bids that person to come and die.” As you know, Bonhoeffer was executed by the Gestapo in 1945. The performing is a part of my attempt to give witness to issues that need to be talked about today—to stimulate both churches and other audiences to begin thinking about the courageous words and deeds of these individuals and their relevance to today’s economic and political climate. I wrote the presentations with the specific intent of provoking people to consider current issues as they relate to peace and justice concerns.
Jesus discussed the importance of giving witness, the importance of bringing in the Kingdom of God. I believe people of faith must have the courage to (1) acknowledge that there is something wrong with the economic and political structure of our world today—the status quo—and (2) endeavor to create an environment that would establish the Kingdom of God here on earth, thereby eradicating injustice and bringing about true peace as opposed to the constant proclivity to war. I concede that there is an aspect of idealism in the term “bringing in the Kingdom of God,” I would also confess to a great deal of impatience with the status quo!
Publicity photo of the anti war poet
grew up in a Southern culture in which the concept of spirituality was traditionally limited to personal piety. But my education and life’s journey have convinced me that when Christians speak of spirituality, there should be a political and economic dimension to that spirituality. One should not consider spirituality as merely personal and relate it only to one’s individual piety.
In regard to the difference between traditional spirituality and that which adds the political and economic dimension, I refer to two texts: (1) William Stringfellow’s book titled “The Politics of Spirituality” and Obery M. Hendricks, Jr.’s book titled “The Politics of Jesus.” As I recall, Stringfellow was Episcopalian. I think Hendricks is a Baptist; he grew up Baptist. He is an African-American professor at New York Theological Seminary.
The term “social gospel” has been attributed to Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918). He believed that the gospel has social implications as well as personal ones and that the dimensions of the social gospel had been neglected historically. To emphasize his point, he gravitated toward this key phrase in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In other words, his understanding of that prayer led him to preach that Jesus’ intent was the inauguration of the Kingdom of heaven on earth.
That concept automatically has radical and revolutionary implications, in any time! So attempting to live life and help shape the world as if the Kingdom of heaven is here on earth puts a follower of Christ in conflict with the status quo.
Much of my poetry is a cry of protest against the status quo. From “The Children of Lazarus”: Those that suffer here should not/ be required to wait until the hereafter/ for the alleviation of their suffering. / And those who possess an abundance/ should either share and work for equity, / or else not look forward/ to anything after this life, except/ that which awaits us all, / judgment. [The last section of p.27, “A Pilgrim in Rome.”] That is the agenda that I see—all of those who name the name of Christ are called to follow, push, speak out, become advocates for the oppressed.
3. I found your poem, “Family Values,” spoke of the poor with concern in a rhetorical fashion that in this writer’s immediate reaction speaks mostly to a fundamentalist or conservative and Baptist kind of audience—as you conceive it. The poem ends: …Think about Mary and Joseph/ trying to find a place to start in the land/ where being poor and transient/ means certain robbery, / not by the criminals in the street/ but by squeaky-clean “good” people/ who have made greed a family value/ and injustice the price of success. In this kind of prophetic statement, and your work has a hallmark of the prophet warning the people and readers and nation America, you assume so many Church people are “squeaky-clean” and that they do not believe they are sinners. Will you explain what you mean by this group you cite, and who they are in the world of organized religion? Will you tell us something of the role of the prophet in the world, even as prophetic poet, and if you fill this role? Has anyone said so?
It might appear that the poem is simply referring to wealthy Christians and/or fundamentalist Christians. But on the second look, one should recognize that this poem is also about structural and systemic evil, which then goes deeper to the matter of the status quo. The economic structure of [American] society is weighted in favor of a minority of its citizens. That would be the tax structures, wages, benefits—that is where one encounters the structural evil. Though it is more benign and also legal, it is nonetheless morally evil.
I would cite such sources as John Shelby Spong and Walter Brueggemann, who provided endorsements for “A Pilgrim in Rome,” and Bill Moyers:
Walter Brueggemann writes, “Al Staggs knows about words and puts them to fresh and suggestive use. He knows about brutality that shows its ugly face in too many places. And he knows about phoniness that supports evil by its default. With his words he conducts guerilla warfare, leaving us unsettled, seeing more clearly than we might wish, inviting us to decide anew. No easy slumbers here!”
John Shelby Spong writes, “Al Staggs writes his poetry with the passion of a prophet. Like Amos of old, he recognizes that divine worship is nothing but human justice being offered to God and that human justice is nothing but divine worship being acted out. His words call religious spokespersons and political leaders who lace their rhetoric with religious phrases alike to acknowledge both their idolatry and their hypocrisy. Read him and weep for what your country has become and for what Christianity is no more.”
Bill Moyers writes, “I read ‘A Pilgrim in Rome’ with great reward. Some of your insights-’the death of a conscience’, ‘those who are being crucified this very day’-are stunning. You are a truth-teller, and I greatly admire you.”
4. When I was in Church the Second Sunday of Pentecost, I thought about your work as prophet both in your performance of historic characters in a one man show, but mostly as poet. The reading we had was this, and I’d like you to comment on the risks of prophecy as poet in a personal way, and as it is in the lives of the historic figures you portray. The quote from the Bible: (Jeremiah 28:5-9) The prophet Jeremiah spoke to the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the LORD; and the prophet Jeremiah said, “Amen! May the LORD do so; may the LORD fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the LORD, and all the exiles. But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the LORD has truly sent the prophet.”
The risk of prophecy is that a person who speaks in that medium will not be popular with a large number of readers. One does not write in this genre to sell books or to be invited to speak at a large number of conferences. The prophetic opinion is at the outset a minority opinion. It is not one that is rendered to solicit a large following.
In Jeremiah the prophet is predicting a coming judgment if the people of God do not change their ways. The prophet says that all forms of religiosity come to nothing if worship is not accompanied by works of justice. Therefore, the prophets would go so far as to say, and Jesus would go so far as to say, that worship without pursuit of justice is blasphemy.
This quote comes from Bonhoeffer’s classic work, Cost of Discipleship: “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace is grace sold on the marketplace like cheap merchandise—grace without price, grace without cost. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ living and incarnate.” Written in the 1930s, that is a benchmark work and is probably his most famous book. In it he derides any understanding of the Christian life as one of mere profession of faith.
5. Readers may want to know more about your relationship with Harvey Cox while you were a student at Harvard Divinity School, when you held a Charles E. Merrill Fellowship with major emphasis in Applied Theology under his direction. Talk to us about this experience that for you was so life changing as an ordained minister in your Church (Southern Baptist), and as a man.
To my surprise, Harvey was a Baptist (American Baptist). He had an uncanny ability to pique the interest of his students. He was also able to merge his great knowledge of scriptures with a view towards applying those truths to politics, economics, and sociology. His field was Applied Theology. I earned my Master of Theology degree in Applied Theology.
Harvey has the ability to analyze the reality in which we live theologically, economically, and politically. He was a very eclectic teacher. So our study of scripture and theology always contained commentaries on the world’s art, economics, political science, philosophy, sociology, and psychology. One has to understand that Harvey was teaching a class on Latin American Liberation Theology. That would be a controversial subject to most people. I can say for certain that it would not be taught in most American seminaries. Liberation theology was, and still is, considered to be slanted toward communism or, at the very least, socialism. To teach that class took courage.
6. What made you leave your work of serving as a pastor for 24 years and taking on the work of a full-time performing artist? This writer finds this kind of transformation and even the formation of change both significant and fascinating to your work in the world.
You have to understand I started preaching at the age of six. Just kidding. I found myself to be restless as a pastor, with a desire to say more about my convictions. In the Baptist Church the policy is such that a minister can be summarily fired for very inconsequential reasons. [Losing your job.] That polity has a tendency to make ministers beholden to the congregation and therefore reluctant to speak to their true convictions.
I had already developed my gift for performing since I had been performing as a comedian since high school. I perform more than 50 comedic interpretations. They are comedians, politicians and actors, such as Robin Williams, Red Foxx, Red Skelton, Paul Lynde, Jonathan Winters, Bill Clinton, the two George Bushes, etc. The idea of portraying people of courage in recent history occurred to me and became more interesting the more I thought about it. It turned out to be a fairly easy transition from comedy to the more serious, dramatic portrayals.
I cannot cite any one playwright who singularly influenced my work. I had watched Hal Holbrook’s portrayal of Mark Twain and thought he did a good job of bringing Mark Twain to life, so that was probably the most inspiring work for me performance-wise. I performed in Bertholt Brecht’s “The Three Penny Opera” in college (I was Mac the Knife) and that theatrical experience influenced me greatly in later life.
7. What lines or works from your poetry, and from your performance work come to mind when you reflect on that you’ve been writing and publishing works related to the themes of peace and justice throughout your career as pastor and performer and poet? Speak a little about your reasons for these choices in a manner that illuminates their prophetic voice, and what our readers can do to better understand the prophetic voice.
The voice that I have found is one that I feel is more of a dissenting voice protesting the status quo and Christianity’s comfort with the status quo. It’s a call for the church in general to speak and act as an advocate for those who are disenfranchised. The poem “Legitimation” is a good example of what I mean by the prophetic. In this poem there is a picture of ‘comfortable’ Christians who are doing their good duties, obeying the laws, adhering to their religion. But they are living in the context of structural injustice that disenfranchises far too many people. There is a paradox there. I utilize paradoxes a great deal in my poetry.
I was greatly influenced by Ernesto Cardenal, a Nicaraguan poet and priest who also served as minister of culture under the Sandinista regime. He occupied a conspicuous place in a fairly socialistic and Marxist government. His most famous work is “Zero Hour,” published by New Directions of New York City. Another of his books is “Apocalypse and other Poems” by the same publisher. Cardenal depicted the life of the poor and the oppressed and wrote about the conditions of pre-revolutionary Nicaragua under Somoza’s long and brutal regime, which the United States supported through occupations of Marines during the last one hundred years.
From an email from Al Staggs regarding an exerpt from a poem by Cardenal:
The poet Al Staggs
The attached is part of one of Cardenal’s poems. I failed to mention that James Russell Lowell’s work has also been greatly influential to my writing. Here is the first stanza of his noted Once to Every Man and Nation:
Once to every man and nation,
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with false-hood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision,
Offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever,
‘Twixt that darkness and that light.
Cardenal’s poetry was both lyrical and prophetic. It has a certain beauty because he describes the beauty of the Nicaraguan landscape—of its people and land and the plight of the poor. He was born in 1925 and studied in New York with Ezra Pound. In 2005 he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature. He won the Peace Abbey Courage Award in 1990.
[The Reverend Al Staggs’ poem:]
No one fired a shot
or committed an evil deed.
No hateful words were spoken.
People were still
taking care of their families,
civic duties, work.
They remained religious.
From kind, generous, responsible,
can come the most insidious evil-
the evil of silence,
of pretending to know little,
of supporting injustice
with their votes.
No right of theirs was taken,
no job of theirs was lost,
no child of theirs went hungry.
Their health care was secure.
Their taxes covered by
their wealth was secured.
Sitting in their holy, hallowed
halls of worship,
hiding from the horrors
sustained by their
passive, sinful silence.
8. Young people who are interested in poetry will find your special and even unique, courageous viewpoints in poetry of value in their own studies and efforts. Speak to us some in a way that helps instruct young people in their earlier years, even in their early college years, on how they may develop a more prophetic voice in their own poetry.
[As mentioned in the introduction of this interview, Al Staggs and this writer spoke by phone over three separate days, about an hour each time. Al sent an email to me after the second hour of interview, and this is what he wanted to add:]
I’m delighted that these two pieces can be of assistance. Tomorrow, as we deal with question eight, I’m thinking of talking about the necessity of finding one’s own voice. You can use what I’m speaking about from this email.
It is very important to find one’s own voice and one’s own style. In discovering one’s particular style, one will seek out persons whose style is inspirational and worthy of emulation. The poets who influenced me were Langston Hughes and Ernesto Cardenal. I admired and enjoyed Hughes’ use of images and Cardenal’s use of paradoxes. For me, writing poetry is an attempt to capture my deepest emotions and feelings as well as my passions which include anger and sentiments.
Poetry should be evocative. In this medium one is not attempting to explain but to move the reader. I call it soul to soul communication.
Peter, I hope this will provide some helpful thoughts as you begin putting the finishing touches on our interviews.
For me, poetry must be evocative. For me, it avoids explaining too much. I call it soul-to-soul communication.
It is also important to get in touch with one’s feelings, as we used to say in clinical pastoral education. Writing poetry is very much connected to one’s deepest emotions—anger, joy—not just what one thinks, but also what one feels. It is both an intellectual exercise and an emotional exercise. One needs to explore how one feels about things. I discovered that concept during my year of clinical education, 1976-77. Prior to that time I had found it difficult to acknowledge my feelings and emotions.
9. Thank you for our time together in this interview. Please take a moment to think if I have missed asking you anything, and add a comment or statement of your choice and making, if you like.
Thank you for inviting me to participate in your Poets’ Series, Peter. I greatly enjoyed visiting with you.
PRAYER FOR COURAGE AND INSIGHT
Lord, release us from our self-imposed prisons
of limited vision-
Open the doors of our tiny, damp cells
and flood our lives with your light and warmth.
Free us from the need to remain in the narrow
confines of our small physical, emotional and spiritual space.
Give me courage to leave the security
of my familiar habits and petty concerns and anxieties
to walk into the frightening, challenging corridors of the future.
Lord, we are so afraid of today and tomorrow.
It is much easier for us to rehearse the past
and thus repeat it in all its familiarity.
Unlock the shackles of our minds and hearts
and help us to see the possibility of a life of challenge,
service, compassion, love and self-sacrifice.
Help us, Lord, to not hold back because of fear or uncertainty.
Liberate us, O God, to daily fight the urge to accept
our self-imposed sentence as life’s victims.
Save us, O God, from the urge to create an image of you
and your will from the false misguided views
that we harbor in our imperfect knowledge of you.
Speak to us, trouble us, save us from the slavish tendency
to remain in bondage to those fears that keep us from trusting you
and the purpose you have for all your daughters and sons.
Our prayer and our desire is to experience your life,
love and joy this day and every day of our lives.
REFLECTIONS ON AN EMPTY TOMB
The Easters pass
and the stories of empty tombs
and a risen Savior are told with fervor
from a million pulpits
but the tragedy of the Cross remains
for God’s creation travails under the
strain of her humanity-
for if Jesus is found among
the beggars, the prisoners,
the orphaned, the hungry,
the homeless, the abused,
the penniless, the overworked,
then Christ still suffers on the Cross.
There can be no complete Resurrection
until we are all resurrected-
until we are all liberated.
Just as there can be no freedom
for any person until it is real for every person.
How cheaply we do celebrate the Easter story
with each passing year
while mouths go unfed and while
abusers keep on abusing their victims.
How dare we experience the ecstacy
of our sublime liturgies
while hell continues to rail on God’s helpless children.
What in Hell is going on?
What in Heaven is going on?
History is still unfolding and still ringing in our ears-
I wait, I hope, I hurt and I hope.
And Time was given to me
like a treasure,
wrapped in thousands of tiny packages.
Only when their number dwindled
did I realize their true worth.
Time had been graciously given to me-
and I only regret I had not
given myself more fully in return.
It does become discomforting to know,
to become aware
that the ways things are,
the reality we live,
are not as a result of our own creation.
The reality of our lives
is based upon economics.
Our theology, our philosophy are predicated
upon the principle of buying and selling.
We live for a time as children,
innocent of the pull of avarice
and all that will be demanded of us
when we come of age to get ahead.
So from the time we take leave of home
until we return home following retirement,
we work, we toil to make ends meet.
The idol, the god we serve is the currency
that gives us a roof over our heads,
the means of transportation
and a lifestyle of comfort for ourselves
and our families.
In this reality we are defined
by how much we’re “worth”,
that is, to say, how much we own
in goods and dollars.
It is, in the final analysis,
the Economy which dictates our lives
and our sense of Reality.
PRAYER FOR THE CHILDREN
(In honor of the legacy of Walter Rauschenbusch)
we acknowledge in this moment
that we are all your children,
without regard to creed,
race, nationality or faith orientation.
And we also acknowledge
your special concern for the
impoverished, the oppressed,
the hungry, the infirmed
children, both here in our nation
and the millions throughout the earth.
Our prayer is for the ability
to see all the wounded children
of this earth,
with eyes of compassion,
just as Jesus saw them,
to literally ‘suffer with’
those who are victimized
by the forces of structural evil.
We confess our own complicity,
our complacency, our apathy
with a world that produces
so great a disparity as now exists
between those of us
who are privileged
and those whose lives are
constantly in peril
for lack of their days’ manna.
We ask forgiveness
because we realize our profession
and our beliefs
are not always matched by practice,
the practice of justice,
the practice of peace.
We ask for courage
to do the deeds,
to take the steps
that will truly make the world
where we put aside
the idols of power,
the idols of empire,
the idols of militarism,
the idols of world supremacy,
the idols of greed.
And as we pray,
we also acknowledge
your abundant Grace that is
offered to all of your children.
May our lives be lived as an
expression of our gratitude
of that unconditional love
as we love unconditionally
all the children of the world.
BIRTH OF A KINGDOM?
If only I could remember
what the birth of that child,
the baby Jesus,
born two thousand years ago,
really means to me, to all of us
who annually commemorate his birth.
That child was born
in the context of poverty –
a refugee, an immigrant.
Marked for a most radical
mission to challenge the powers
of both religion and state,
that child would subsequently be
victimized by both.
His mother provided a glimpse of his
radical purpose by uttering that the rich
shall be brought low and the poor lifted up.
And what could that mean today
in this nation of the super-rich
with the vast number of impoverished?
I’m caring less for all of the traditional
trappings of the season of Christmas,
and I yearn to catch sight of something more
to be associated with the birth of Jesus.
I’d prefer to think of the Christmas season
as a new promise of the coming of the Kingdom of God
on earth as it is in heaven.
The baby was and still is the promise of a new order,
not just a symbol of a religious or cultural celebration.
A new order is needed – an order that confronts
our own powers of religion and state.
The baby Jesus is a reminder that Kingdom Work
is ongoing, unfinished and waiting,
in our own time, to find fulfillment.
A work in progress of recent making by the writer Al Staggs
I’m sending a piece I wrote for my Martin Luther King, Jr. presentation. The performance is called Awakening the Dream. I wrote this with the idea of King’s spirit returning to our time and making observations about our present context. I have received very positive responses for this work. It is unique because the way the way the speech is designed; it is confronting our present reality.
The next time you go to church and sit in the pew, take a good long look at the cross at the front of your sanctuary. It will remind you that Jesus took sides, he took our side politically. That cross says loud and clear that our lord does not align himself with nations who oppress their citizens.
In the last thirty or so years I’ve observed, to my horror, vast numbers of pastors and
church members sanctioning one political party as the party of moral values. I do not stand here today to endorse any political party, but rather to emphasize the necessity for Christians to stand for all moral values, and particularly the principle of justice.
We need once again to hear the prophets chide, scold and warn the people of God, that all of our religiosity is empty and blasphemous if justice does not prevail.
We who call ourselves Christians, especially American Christians, have some serious soul-searching to do. I’m convinced that we Christians are disproportionately accountable to God for our unjust behavior, much more so than atheists, agnostics or people from other religious orientations. We need to be reminded of what our Lord said at the conclusion of his Sermon on the Mount when he said:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my father who is in heaven. 22Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evil doers!’
We need to remember that the God we praise each Sunday has indeed, as the Liberationists and the great martyr, Archbishop Oscar Romero remind us that God does most certainly have a preferential option for the poor and oppressed.
Piosity without peacemaking is meaningless.
Promoting family values without pursuing justice for all is hypocrisy.
Orthodoxy without orthopraxis is dead – it is faith without works.
Worship without working for justice is tantamount to blasphemy.
To pray to God, to speak of God, to sing to God and not get out and change the world for God is to use God’s name in vain.
To be a witness does not just mean talking to someone about Jesus, it means giving witness to one’s faith in the social, political and economic spheres of our own time.
Excerpt from The Reverend Al Staggs preface to his book, “What Would Bonheoffer Say?” A statement on formation and transition. Note that poet and performer Al Staggs did not lose faith, or his faith. He grew in a new way, in transformation.
I am a white male who grew up in segregated Arkansas and received a master’s degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. For twenty years I was a minister in various Southern Baptist churches. Therefore, the second question I am most frequently asked is how a person with my background became interested in the issues of peace and justice in general and in Dietrich Bonheoffer in particular.
My introduction to Dietrich Bonheoffer came rather late in my educational and theological journey; in the spring of 1983 I had the privilege of continuing my theological education at Harvard Divinity School under the auspices of the Charles R. Merrill Fellowship. As a Fellow of Harvard I had the opportunity to attend any classes of my choice within the Harvard system, with the exception of those offered by the medical school. In addition, Merrill Fellows were given the option of choosing their theological advisor among the distinguished faculty of the School of Divinity.
During the year prior to my fellowship, I had read articles and books concerning the advent of a new theological system called “Latin American Liberation Theology.” A course by this title was offered in the spring semester at Harvard Divinity School under the direction of the Divinity School’s most noted professor, Harvey Cox. Professor Cox, whom I would choose to serve as my advisor, was skillful in helping his students understand the basis of Liberation thought. It was through a combination of reading the remarkable texts on the Theology of Liberation, Cox’s scintillating lectures, and my own interaction with this world-renowned professor that I began to take a new look at my Southern Baptist legacy, my identity as a white male growing up in the South. I also began to reconsider my presuppositions about what the Bible was saying to me and to my world.
The Bible, which had become so familiar to me as a result of years of Sunday school, Vacation Bible School, and seminary training, suddenly began to take on a radical new meaning for me. The prophets from the Hebrew Bible had been there all along announcing God’s impatience with systems and cultures of injustice. As I reviewed the Gospels, I was shocked at the radical teachings that had been completely ignored or glossed over in my own religious education. Why had I never before heard Matthew 25:31-46? I could not recall ever hearing a single sermon based upon this powerful and important text. Wasn’t this a pivotal concept in the teaching of Jesus as to his level of identification with the poor and oppressed of the world?
I then took a new look at the Gospel of Luke and saw for the first time the preponderance of teachings regarding the rich and the poor. Where had all of this been hiding during all of my years as a Baptist and a student at a Baptist college and seminary? The Bible was suddenly a radical, even revolutionary text that seemed threatening to the status quo with which I was so well acquainted. Even in the familiar Magnificat in Luke there was a sense of the revolutionary in the advent of the Kingdom of God. Suddenly, with the help of Liberation Theologians, I was beginning to see the biblical account of the birth of Jesus and Mary’s announcement in an entirely different manner.
Sometime during ther spring of 1983, a light was turned on for me and a whole new understanding of my southern Bible Belt culture, with its religious conservatism, was revealed to me. I had always assumed that I was especially favored in God’s sight as I was white, male, American, and a “saved” Baptist. What I had assumed was that I possessed the truth of God’s Word in my life since I had always given assent to the absolute truthfulness and reliability of the scriptures. After my exposure to Liberation Theology and the teaching and guidance of Harvey Cox, it dawned on me that there was a new way of looking at both the world and the scriptures. What I began to feel during that spring was that there was a need within me to undergo still another kind of conversion. What I needed was to see who I was in relation to other groups and classes of people and to learn to listen to other kinds of people in order to help change the systems of injustice that have existed for generations.
Studying the life of Dietrich Bonheoffer helped me to see and understand that a person who has historically represented a privileged and oppressive class could do something that is liberating for other people, for those who are oppressed. Here was a theological giant, notable among church leaders throughout the world and thoroughly ensconced in a culture of privilege and academia, who sacrificed those privileges in order to speak and act on behalf of those who were not as fortunate. Dietrich Bonheoffer became an example to me of how one might be able to live out the challenges posed by the theologians and church leaders of Latin American Liberation Theology. I had been discovering new truths in my reading of the Liberationists but had been unable to discover how I might apply these new truths. Bonheoffer became my guide.
It is rather strange that what I have discovered about myself in the last several years is that I am still a conservative Baptist from Arkansas whom at a very early age felt a call to ministry and mission. That early conviction is still within me. What has changed is that there is now a different expression of that conviction. The focus and beliefs of this new conviction would be viewed in the eyes of many as being “liberal” in nature. There is a statement attributed to the late T.B. Maston, a longtime distinguished professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, which is pertinent at this point. Mastern said, “be conservative in your interpretation of scripture and be liberal in your application.”
In my characterization of Clarence Jordan, I interpret his written views as follows: “I’m convinced that Jesus was a raging liberal. Yes, he was a raging, sold-out, thoroughgoing liberal ‘Cause you don’t get put on no cross for being a conservative!” These are my sentiments exactly. I am a liberal who is conservative in my view of scripture.
This interview-article appeared originally Church of England Newspaper, London.