“The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” Isaiah 11:7
I have always had a soft spot for the lion in this vision from Isaiah. Eating straw seems like it would be misery if you’re a lion. I wonder what it must it be like to ignore that craving welling up inside you? What must it be like to unlearn the attack instinct that is innate to your body?
I suppose it’s a thing that takes time. All that unlearning of the body’s violence. For lion and the asp and the wolf, it takes time to adjust instinct and appetite, to be near the vulnerable bodies of animals and children without lashing out, without wanting to kill.
This process, of being near another, of figuring out what to do with the claw and the fang, of unlearning violence – in the church we call this repentance. “Repent, for the kingdom of God has drawn near.” The kingdom of God, the kinship of reorientation of what we assumed has made us up all along, the kinship that means undoing the thing we have always known to be true.
Ann felt the weight of the pocketknife in her hand. The tip of the blade emerged from her clenched, shaking fist. She couldn’t take it anymore. That man up there speaking to the city council, his hatred for black bodies, his hatred for her people. She couldn’t take it anymore. With a hot rage fueling her body she rushed forward, ready to stick the blade into CP Eliis’ neck. Fortunately, Ann’s friends saw the knife in her hands and pulled her back into her seat.
CP Eliis was the Grand Cyclops of the chapter of his local North Carolina KKK. He was well known for bringing his racist rants before the council. On this day, he made sure that everyone could see the handgun tucked into his belt buckle.
The 1970s were a tense time for the city that Ann Atwater and CP Ellis called home. Schools throughout the USA were desegregated by federal order in 1964 but took a district court order in 1970 to begin to addressing the changes where they lived.
That city council decided that the process would begin with a series of meetings, public spaces for citizens to talk and, hopefully, to ease tensions around desegregation. They chose two people for the task, two people who represented the two opposite ends of the question around desegregation, two people who could not be more different. They chose two people who hated each other. They chose CP Ellis and Ann Atwater.
Initially both were hesitant. But the Klan convinced CP to join, as a way of representing their voice. Ann signed on shortly after. They came to the first meeting skeptical and angry, ready for a showdown. Instead, they were surprised. CP was surprised to hear the same fear and worries from black mothers about their children’s futures that he heard from white mothers about their children. They were both surprised to discover that people at this meeting had children, both white and black, who attended poorly performing, poorly resourced schools. They were surprised to discover that poverty drew them together, that poverty was what they shared.
And something happened during the planning and implementation of those meetings. Ann and CP learned to undo the hatred they felt for one another. They came to understand that their bodies could be used for something else, that what they always knew about themselves, assumed about another – that all this was slowly unwinding within them.
At the end of their ten days of meetings, Ellis stood up before the group. He took out his Klan card and tore it into pieces. “If schools are going to be better with me tearing this card up, I will do so,” he explained. Ellis went on to be an organizer while Ann worked for the Housing Authority. They continued their friendships for the next thirty years.
Repenting is a kind of unlearning, a giving up so that we are able to find a place in the world that is birthed at Christmas, a world turned upside down. God is making a world and inviting you to be in it. The world God remakes in Isaiah 11 – that’s a world for CP Eliis and for Ann Atwater. We grow up in a hard world, being led to believe that there’s no more to ourselves than fighting our way through chaos and despair. We’ve come to believe violence is all we know of ourselves. All we know is survival, leaning in, pushing ahead, taking care of our own.
But then John the Baptist enters the scene. You can’t miss him. You can’t help but notice him. There’s the smell of sweat and the mildew of the cave, the discomfort of camel skin he wears on his body, the locust in his teeth. He tells us that the thing you always thought you knew – it isn’t true. Instead, what’s true, what’s really true, is the advent of another kingdom. The kingdom is here, John says. It’s already here.
If we want to enter this world, this Isaiah world, the one God promises, we need bodies that make sense in new order of things. Our bodies, fangs and claws, the impulse to strike, to lash out, the impulse to hate – we have to figure out what to do now. The world God intends for you, for us cannot accommodate our violence, our self-destruction. With time we are learning to leave that behind. After baptism, we spend the rest of our lives learning what to do with these bodies.
Perhaps you’ve always imagined repentance as getting your act together, as changing your ways, as behaving. What if repentance is God unmaking all the things you believed about yourself – unmaking the lie that you are inherently selfish, that humans are endlessly cruel, that you must kill or be killed, if you have to get ahead? What if repentance is your body being remade for a world to come, one in which there is no predator or prey, a dream of God’s own making?
It is striking that, when the Pharisees come to John for baptism he calls them a brood of vipers. They cannot imagine a world in which they change sides, go from predator to prey. They was a world where they continue utilizing the weapons of piety and purity. A brood, a mess of anger and poison, lashing out and stinging. How different from the image we see in Isaiah, where a toddler can put her hand into a nest of snakes for play. What the Pharisees cannot comprehend is that baptism will be their undoing. Baptism will mean finding a new way to be in their bodies, but a life that will make them defenseless, vulnerable to outsiders, vulnerable in the world.
That’s what happens in baptism. We’re initiated into a life of making sense of this new body, of life as a lion who no longer uses its teeth, of seeing how God is unmaking the cravings for blood, of showing us how to follow after little children who were once our prey. Baptism is showing each other how to live this absurd life. In baptism we are the new creation, living in the old creation.
CP Ellis learned this after that fateful day he tore up his Klan card. He became defenseless. He lives a hard life, out of place in Ann’s church and out of place among middle-class whites who opposed integration. Once a fierce leader, he was now left to make a life with this new body, a defenseless body in a world made for talons and spears.
It took a long time for CP to find his way into his new life. It took a long time to undo those old ways, to let the baptism of that friendship with Ann–to let that decision for a new life–become something good. Eventually CP found his way into an integrated trade union. But he was shunned from every family reunion and never found a church that he could call home.
When CP died, Ann Atwater was the first to arrive at the funeral. Sitting in the first row, the funeral director reminded her that she was sitting in the section reserved for family. “I’m his sister,” she replied.
I know this: We are never reborn into this world alone. That’s why we have baptisms surrounded by our church family. That’s why we gather together when someone says that she’s ready, ready to repent, ready to start figuring out what to do with this body, both old and new at the same time.
This was the struggle of CP Ellis’ life, figuring out what it means to be new in an old world. There’s this story that’s one of my favorites about CP and Ann. When it came time for the first community meeting, CP met Ann in the parking lot. He opened his trunk to show her the .32 caliber revolver he’d covered in blankets. “I come prepared,” he told her.
Ann turned to CP, looking him in the eye, standing toe to toe. She pointed at the gun and said, “CP, that’s your God.” Then from under her arm she pulled out a heavy Bible. She held it up to his face. “This is mine,” she continued. “We’ll see which one is stronger.”
As it turned out, Ann’s was stronger. Ann’s Gospel is what found its way to CP, told him to repent, showed him how to undo that story of violence he’d been told about himself. And while I almost always hear that story us uplifting and hopefully, today, here before John the Baptist it’s also unnerving. The strength of Ann’s Gospel is that it set CP down in a world where he could no longer use his gun, and where he could no longer make a life amongst people who weaponized the violence of hatred and racism. This Gospel separated CP from everything he knew and loved – his work, his community, his church, his friends, his family.
This is the way prepared for us by John the Baptist, the life we’re welcomed into in baptism. And if there is comfort here perhaps it is this – we are in good company. Because this is the world God was born into, God who set up house among, as one of us. God entered the world helplessly and defenselessly. God entered a world of turmoil and pain and chaos and fear. God, who came to us a child of poverty, born with nothing, sheltered in a cave. Our baptism makes us like him, like this Jesus, this incarnate God.
It will take time, this repentance. It will take time to unlearn all we have known. We’ll need to be patient with one another, to help each other along the way. We’ll need to recognize that we’re all in a process of unlearning, that what we began in repentance with baptism will take a lifetime of undoing, a lifetime of becoming.