Banned Books, Banned People, Banned God

The Washington D.C. public library system did a fabulous project for Banned Books Month.

They constructed a scavenger hunt for banned books all around the city.

They took books banned by various jurisdictions over the years and put fake covers on them. These covers are plastered with labels that state the grounds for having banned them.

So for example, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye has a cover that says “ANTI-WHITE,” because that is why it was banned in Columbus, Ohio in 1963.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles has a cover that reads “FILTHY TRASHY SEX NOVEL.”

Who wouldn’t want to read that?

It’s a fun project that draws attention to a serious issue. Censorship is alive and well all around the world today.

For centuries regimes, governments and dominant majorities have tried to maintain oppressive statuses quo by controlling what people read and see and hear.

And if they control what we read and see and hear, they can control what we think and do.

It’s very comfortable to place all blame and responsibility for censorship on some far-off blank-faced Big Brother figure we call “The System.”

But a dear clergy friend of mine asked me a painfully insightful question as we talked about the gospel lesson this week.

“Aren’t we censoring our own worlds all the time? Isn’t that what the rich man in the story was doing his whole life?”

It’s true, and it hurts to admit that it’s true.

The poor man named Lazarus in our story from Luke suffers outside the rich man’s gate every day for years, his needs unmet.

And every day for years, the rich man walks past him and does nothing. He lets his eyes skitter over him like so much unremarkable scenery.

And the truth is that I have done the same thing, with panhandlers in the street, with people standing by the side of the road with signs in their hands asking for money or food.

And even though it is more geographically distant, I am doing the same thing when I hear and ignore news reports about Syrian refugees or violence in Sudan or Burma.

Why do we do this?

I’ll tell you why. Because it hurts to see the naked pain of another human being right in front of us. And so we shield ourselves from it.

We hide from the reality of the need—need that we could at least in some small way alleviate.

We censor the poor right out of our lives.

This actually happens in an incredibly literal way every time a city hosts an Olympics or a Super Bowl.

The committee in charge of hosting the event makes plans for moving homeless people off the streets around the sports venues so visitors won’t see them.

Then when the event is over, the extra homeless shelter space is closed and everyone is back out on the street again. This happened in Indianapolis when we hosted the Super Bowl in 2012.

The censorship went so far at the Beijing Olympics that organizers actually built false fronts of clean, beautiful buildings to cover the slums and hide them from view.

Censoring the poor from our lives is a booming industry—look at the gentrification projects in every city in this country.

Where I’m going with this is back to our gospel. At first it seems like a story about the afterlife, and in some ways it is.

But it is also about this life.

Abraham says to the rich man when he wants to get help from Lazarus, “between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”

But that chasm was not created when the rich man and Lazarus died, and it was not created by Abraham or by God.

It was created, one inch at a time, by the rich man every single day he walked past the poor man without acknowledging him, without acknowledging his humanity and his pain.

And we are building our own chasm every day in the same way.

And while I think it’s most important and most difficult to think about this in terms of literal, physical poverty—hunger and illness and homelessness—those aren’t the only types of poverty we ignore.

We censor pain out of our lives in all kinds of ways.

When a friend has had a miscarriage and we can’t bring ourselves to ask how she is or how we can support her.

When a sibling brings up a painful topic and we shut it down with a joke or a deflection.

When we’re always “too busy” to help with a ministry or a project.

And our technology has made us more effective censors than ever.

In wartime throughout American history, the government censored soldiers’ letters home.

They of course were trying to prevent sensitive military information from ending in the wrong hands, but they were also trying to keep the harsh realities of the war front from being widely known on the homefront.

If the mothers and fathers and sweethearts back home really knew the horror of trench warfare in the Civil War or World War I, they might lose enthusiasm for the war effort.

So the chasm between the soldiers and their families widened, and the soldiers found it twice as hard to readjust to civilian life.

Their loved ones had been prevented from understanding their true feelings and experiences, and their suffering was censored right out of the relationship.

This is the kind of damage that censorship does, and when we don’t pay attention to how we’re doing it in our relationships every day, the chasm between us widens.

Our fear of pain, and our fear of our responsibility to address another’s pain, leaves us lonely and isolated and with an emptiness in our own hearts that we don’t understand.

Because we were afraid to face pain, we were effectively afraid to love.

And a life without love will eventually lead us to cry out with the rich man in our story, “I am in agony.”

Just like in the phenomenon of banned books, trying to censor the truth only makes it cry out more loudly than ever.

Banned books are among the most widely read literature in the world.

People want to know: “What is it that the powers-that-be think we are too stupid or too weak or too immoral or too dangerous to read? What are they hiding from?”

And we must ask ourselves the same question.

Why do we believe that we are too stupid or too weak or too selfish to love and to serve and to care?

What are we afraid of? What are we hiding from?

We can keep turning away from poverty and suffering and live our rich comfortable lives.

We can keep covering up the words of lament spoken by the oppressed with heavy black lines that instead of saying, “Censored by the U.S Government,” say, “Censored By the Small and Fearful Heart of the Would-Be Disciple.”

But when we silence the voices of those in need, we silence the voice of the Holy Spirit within us that cries out in answer to their anguish.

Because that is where our fear and denial are ultimately leading.

Our censorship program, like all censorship programs, started small.

We just ignored one panhandler or one chance to attend anti-racism training or one conversation with a parent that needed to happen.

But it grows and intensifies and soon gets out of hand.

In history it led to things like gulags and the Cultural Revolution.

In our spiritual lives, we eventually end up censoring the two most penetrating and painful voices of truth of all: God, and our own souls.

As Thomas Merton said, “To be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy,” and to have God unknown to us through our own censorship is the same.

But as ingrained as our emotional censorship program is, there is a way out.

We can take the same route the D.C. library system did. We can go on a scavenger hunt.

Where are the places in our lives where we are censoring pain, censoring an opportunity to serve, censoring hope?

They will not be hard to find once we start looking.

And we will find, once we start reading the words of truth in our own lives that we used to black out and cover up, that they are powerful, but they are not nearly as scary as they seemed when they were banned.

They in fact will connect us to the very Word of Life itself.

So this Banned Books Month, do more than just read banned books, although I do encourage you to do that.

Read banned people.

Read banned memories and banned possibilities and banned calls to ministry in your life.

Have banned conversations of forgiveness and healing and even necessary conflict.

And most of all, listen to the love being broadcast to you all the time so that you may know that it is the Living God you have banned who wants to know and cherish your uncensored soul.

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