Almost a month ago, with the help of my coworker, Matt, I slaughtered my first chicken, and it will hopefully be my last. Despite watching Matt kill the first two, I felt I should at least experience it once so as not to disconnect myself from the price of the eating chicken.
The cost came in a chase around the coop, a sneaky grab from behind, a hanging by the legs, and a knife cutting through lovely feathers. It was the moment before the death, when we hung the chicken upside down, that scared me the most. With a wild flapping of the wings, and a crane of the neck, the animal struggled to try and turn right side-up, like a hopelessly dead plant trying to thrust its weak brown leaves towards the sky again.
Once the chicken had given up, the blood running to and from its head, I talked to it, and thanked it, in the Native American tradition, knowing that from its death, I would have life. Holding the chicken’s head in one hand and the knife in the other, I could intimately feel the final seconds of the chicken‘s life.
After doing my part, the chicken hung there from the tree, bleeding out before me. No matter how I tried to talk to him, to comfort him, all he did was hang there more, his eye looking at me, blinking still, his head severed from his body by river of blood. Sometimes, there is bleeding without stop, and all we can do is stand there in horror.
It was last summer, in France, at a monastery called Taizé, when I began to notice my own, relentless, bleeding. For the previous two months, I had been all about the country, working on two organic farms, couch-surfing in big cities near famous art museums, and catching rides with European DJ’s. From picking harmful insects from potato plants, to singing songs by the banks of Notre Dame with French College Students, to losing an 100 dollar train ticket, I had been going, going, going, traveling by myself, noticing the loneliness, even in France.
Taizé is a place with a history of mercy and reconciliation. Founded during World War II, it started as a safe place for Jewish refugees. Now, it hosts up to 5,000 pilgrims a week, most of them young angsty people like me who listen to NPR, work on organic farms, and check their Facebook too often.
Three times a day, visitors of Taizé fill up the long church, all kneeling or sitting in prayer. After all my going that summer, I came to Taizé lonely, fresh off of an international, online break-up. My mind was with my girlfriend, my body was in France, my spirit was in Oregon, and I felt as if I wasn’t going or staying anywhere. Perhaps the best indicator of my condition was the fact that my spiritual director at Taizé told me my break-up was cold, and you know that you’re coming off a bad break-up when a monk tells you it was cold.
One day, I went to the prayer service early and sat in the sanctuary with hardly anyone around me. I kneeled right before the icon of the cross, where Christ still hung. In protestant churches, our crosses are usually empty, reminding us that Christ is risen and victorious. But in Catholic churches, and at Taizé, Christ is still seen on the cross. As I kneeled there in my loneliness, singing Taizé songs, Christ was before me, nailed to the cross, still suffering.
This is what the Protestant understanding of the cross misses: Christ is not a God that is gone and far away, but a God who still suffers with us. While White Protestantism has emphasized the cross as the place where we are saved from our sins, it is perhaps more importantly the place where we are reminded that God is with us in our suffering, that God knows how painful it often is to be human.
As I prayed in one of my darkest hours before the cross, Christ let me see his wounds, bleeding before me as I bled, suffering as I suffered. My cry of, “Where are you God?” seemed loud, until it was drowned out by the scream of Christ, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken you,”
Some of the words we sang at Taizé, as I sat in front of the cross, were words we sang earlier in the service: Stay with me. Remain here with me. Watch and Pray. Because humans did not stay with God in the garden of Gethsemene, God stayed with us. At Taizé, Christ remained with me, watched me, and prayed for me, fulfilling his own prayer that humans could not.
Almost a year later, I found myself at another Taizé gathering, but this time in South Dakota. At this gathering “A Pilgrimage of Trust on Earth”, the Lakota people of the Pine Ridge Indian reservation welcomed the Taizé brothers and people from all over the U.S. to come pray, sing, and eat together.
The place we gathered, Pine Ridge, held great significance, because it a place that has witnessed white oppression and colonization of the native Lakota people. Most famously, Pine Ridge the site of the Massacre at Wounded Knee, where in 1890, U.S Cavalry slaughtered Native women and children, and in 1972, where the U.S. used violence against members of the American Indian movement who were protesting the U.S.’s betrayal of treaties.
One night, as 300 of us sat together in worship, I was again drawn to the Taizé cross sitting at the front of the outdoor sanctuary. Upon land where Lakota people had been restricted, raped, and massacred, sat the image of Christ, his middle eastern skin tone looking much more like the skin of the Lakota than my own. Here, Christ was not only bleeding with the Lakota, Christ was the bleeding Lakota, crucified by the white American empire.
One of these wounded Lakota men was named Don, whose family had survived the massacre. With a walker to support him and his granddaughter at his side, Don led a large group of us up a short hill to the burial site of the Massacre at Wounded Knee. Praying silently, we joined hands, awkwardly creating a giant circle of white people around a sacred Native place. Of course, we’re white, so people are used to us being awkward anyway, acting like we love other cultures, and saying stuff like “I don’t have a culture, I am just white.”
Standing in front of the grave marker, Don began to speak, telling us about this holy place. I bring my family here every year, Don says. It’s important that we remember our ancestors. It’s important we remember what happened here, and where we come from.
It’s an honor for another nation to be here, Don said. It’s an honor for another nation to be here, he said again, and he probably said it two more times. Though the very nation he was speaking to was the one that massacred of his ancestors, he was honored for us to be there. Don’s speech was mostly about the honor of hosting guests there, but his last words were this:
“This is what true Christianity is about.” Don understood that true Christianity is about staying—about Jesus request in the Garden of Gethsemene. Stay with me. Remain here with me. Watch and Pray. True Christianity is Christ’s call for us to be with him in his suffering, to be with each other in suffering. Not only did this man commit to staying with us, but also willingly and gratefully allowed us into the wounds of his people, mimicking the actions of Christ towards doubting Thomas.
In John 20, when several of the disciples have seen Jesus after the resurrection, Thomas says “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
Thomas, we can easily say, is in a broken relationship with his community. He doesn’t trust fellow disciples, and he doesn’t trust Jesus.
A week later [Jesus’] disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Thomas returns to a trusting relationship with his community, because Jesus literally lets him touch his wounds. In fact, Jesus not only allows Thomas to touch his wounds, but demands that he do it. Calling Thomas to reconciliation, Jesus moves to a position of vulnerability, believing and trusting that Thomas will stay with him this time.
We, like Thomas, often will not believe or understand human suffering until we see and touch those who have suffered, until those who are suffering repeat to us Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane: Stay with Me. Remain here with me. Watch and Pray. Blessed are those who trust their community, even when they do not see or understand everything in that community.
We should not have to show each other our wounds to build trust, but we often ought to. Because my Lakota friend Don understood this, and because his people understood the suffering of Jesus, Don did what Jesus did to rebuild trust and create community: he let us into the wounds of his people.
Christ tells us that as we treat the least, we treat Jesus. So, if we are too look for Christ, we will see him in the wounded and the oppressed. Quakers have longed believed that Christ is our present teacher, so if the least amongst us are Christ, then the least are also our present teachers.
In the white, evangelical discourse, our impulse is often to go to the wounded, to be sent by God, to help those in need. But that is often not the call of the oppressed, or the voice of Christ. For as much as Jesus has told us to go, he has also taught us to stay, as I experienced before the cross at Taizé.
The world around us is bleeding, and for as long as we suffer, God is still on the cross, suffering with us. The oppressed Jesus amongst us pleads: Stay with me. Remain here with me. Watch and Pray. The oppressed Jesus amongst us commands: Put Your finger in my wounds. Do not doubt, but believe.
Christ is in all of us, but the Christ of the cross is particularly with us in the weak, struggling, and oppressed. We must touch the wounds of the oppressed, not that we may save them, but because they, as Christ, as our present teacher, may save us, teaching us not to doubt, but to believe that God is with us. It is not the powerful with easy lives who understand the faith it takes to endure the wounds of the cross—it is those who have suffered most in our world, who are at the bottom, who can teach us what it means to pick up our crosses and follow Jesus.
Perhaps, once we feel the wounds of Christ in oppressed peoples, we will begin to realize our own. We will begin to learn that we can no longer hide our wounds, but, like many oppressed people who have no choice, must bare our wounds to others in order to survive, in order to heal.
If we know the Christ of the poor and the suffering, we will know his wounds, and that he is not unable to sympathize with our wounds. Christ bleeds with creation, whether that be a dying chicken, a man fresh off a break-up, or a massacred people group. He has let us put our finger in his wound through the wounds of the oppressed, and by his wounds, we are healed.
There is a scene in the play The Whipping Man that describes well what it means for a community to know each other, and to know Christ, in the midst of suffering. After the civil war, a Confederatesoldier, Caleb, returns home, only to find his two former slaves there, Simon and John, whom Caleb and his family had whipped and abused many times. But this time, it is Caleb who is the weak and vulnerable one, unable to walk because of a bullet in his shin.
It is the slaves, however, Simon and John, who have known the suffering of Jesus for most of their lives. To them, God liberating Israel from slavery is God liberating them from slavery. Jesus’ wounds are their wounds. But Caleb, privileged with whiteness, maleness, and power, does not know what it means to suffer as Jesus suffered.
Mercifully, Simon and John decide to help Caleb. They know Caleb’s only hope is the amputation of his leg. Out of love, Simon and John stay with Caleb, and amputate his leg to save his life, unafraid of the gore of such a wound. Because they have been wounded and know the pain of Christ, they help Caleb through his own wound.
In this experience Caleb sees the humanity of his former slaves—he sees he needs them, not as slaves, but as friends, and as teachers, to teach him how to carry his cross. Like Christ, Simon and John had once prayed the words of Christ in Gethsemene: Stay with me, Remain here with me, Watch and pray. Like Christ, no one stayed with them, but they stayed with their oppressor and saved his life. This is true Christianity—not that we remain in abusive or oppressive situations, but that we love the wounded, even when they have wounded us.
[*Drew Miller’s teaching in NFC worship July 7, 2013]