Thursday, April 24, 2014

7 Points About Christian Love & Same-Sex Orientation

Neither love nor terror makes one blind: indifference makes one blind.
James Baldwin

In recent weeks, I've had a few conversations with sincere Christians who disagree with me over issues of same-sex orientation (marriage, baptism, pastoral ordination, etc) within the church and larger society. These followers of Jesus are committed to "love the sinner, hate the sin" or (the latest) "welcoming but not affirming" positions. So many of these Fundamentalists, Evangelicals, conservative Catholics, Anabaptists, Reformed and Protestant Christians are visibly anguished over the fact that many people label them "intolerant" or "judgmental" or even "unloving" in regards to the "biblical stand" they are taking (a position many of their ilk proudly call "courageous").

And my heart goes out to leaders within denominations who are trying to facilitate these tough, often emotional conversations. Unfortunately, many of these congregations are clinging to "unity" above all else, which almost always means that LGBTQ folks continue to be forced into a position of coping with their second-class status. Again, this denominational adventure is really hard work and I'm glad I'm not a part of it.

Although I have great respect for their commitment to taking the Bible seriously and to holding unpopular political & theological convictions, I'm deeply concerned about any stance towards our gay brothers and lesbian sisters that falls short of anything that is fully inclusive. Here are seven key points that, I think, shouldn't be left out of any conversation about this topic:

First of all, the continued claim that "there is plenty of evidence that very few, if any, are simply born that way" has, in fact, very little evidence. There is now virtually a scientific consensus that boys with same-sex orientation no more choose to like boys than other boys choose to like girls. It is not the result of abuse or perversion. It's natural: just like opposite-sex orientation.

Second, shouldn't the primary scope of Christian marriage be about discipleship & evangelism rather than populating the earth with our own progeny, as many "traditional marriage" proponents claims? The New Testament focus was on adding converts through radical displays of justice & mercy, in word & deed. This is far more important, biblically, than conceiving, birthing & teaching our own children into the kingdom of God (which, by the way, is an ominously important calling for many couples). Furthermore, my own experience with same-sex couples within the church testifies that their sexual orientation in no way limits them from living out a Christian lifestyle of love, humility, service, joy & forgiveness just as well (if not better) than us heteros.

Third, when it comes to Scripture, there, of course, is not a single voice on issues of marriage and sexuality. After all, traditional, biblical marriage connoted a man "possessing" a wife, not much different than how he might own cattle or sheep. However, the New Testament proclaims the ideal: singleness (I Corinthians 7 + the celebate Christ of the Gospels). It's not Adam & Steve, nor is it Adam & Eve. It's Adam. Eve. And Steve. Again, this was urged because, Paul reasoned, it was a lot easier to do the Lord's work alone. It seems as though so many of us married folk have fallen short of this, "burning with passion" to the altar.

Fourth, too often, lustful thoughts, violence, unfaithfulness & adultery are equated with "homosexual behavior," by which they ought to mean the ancient practices of (A) sexual intercourse with prostitutes at the pagan temple or (B) wealthy men having young boys around the house as sex slaves (pederastry) or (C) the humiliating act of sodomizing an enemy combatant after a battle. There was no such thing as committed same-sex monogamous marriage covenants of love & service in the ancient world so we ought to be both critical and careful about what these Greek words in the ancient text actually mean.

Fifth, far too many followers of Jesus who believe gay & lesbian relationships are a sin have turned homosexuality into a hyper-focused test case, a last stand in a culture of relativism. It has been framed as a lifestyle issue by well-meaning Evangelicals, Mennonites & conservative Catholics. Here's my question: are these churches applying the same rigid "biblical" criteria to heteros who have re-married, especially those who have ended previous unions with no-fault divorce? These folks would most certainly be obligated to return to their first marriages before "qualifying" for baptism or ordination. Right? And what about other "clearly unbiblical lifestyles" like wealth hoarding, hatred & violence towards enemies (both real & imagined) and the various anxiety-riddled addictions that 1st world Christians continue to "struggle" with? The hypocrisy is too much to stomach.

Sixth, the oxymoronic "love the sinner, hate the sin" or "welcoming but not affirming" positions fall far short of the biblical call towards hospitality and love of neighbor. It is impossible to "welcome" and, at the same time, not affirm when it comes to questions of gays and lesbians (who are living in same-sex covenantal relationships) being licensed or ordained as our pastors, let alone gays and lesbians (who are living in same-sex covenantal relationships) making the choice to follow Jesus and get baptized into our communities. A "no" answer to either of these very live possibilities would be most certainly unwelcome & unaffirming, overvaluing the sin & undervaluing the "sinner" (of which we all are). This stance falls short of the glory of God.

Lastly, those who just want this issue to "go away" are missing the point of Christian love by a wide margin. Love demands that we journey physically and emotionally with "the other." This is not just an issue. It's not just a trend. And it's not a slippery slope towards more sexual promiscuity (for this, check out your local college or university fraternity). The LGBTQ community has been demonized, marginalized, misunderstood, oppressed, scapegoated, discriminated against, killed & tortured for thousands of years. In the hangover of divine Love celebrated during Easter weekend, churches all over North America ought to crucify any hint of indifference and commit resources (energy, money, time, etc) towards getting to know actual gays & lesbians and to understand the complexity of sexual orientation and how these sexual minorities might not only participate, but lead the Body of Christ into a just & peaceful future.

The Contested Cross

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in us.
2 Corinthians 4:10

…the significance of Christ’s cross must always first be grounded in history: Jesus was executed as a dissident by the Roman Empire. The primary meaning of ‘Jesus died for our sins’ is that he was killed because of sinful humanity…the inevitable consequence of prophetic practice in a world of violence and injustice.
Ched Myers & Elaine Enns, Ambassadors of Reconciliation (2009)

In my last post, just in time for Easter, I homed in on the interpretation of Jesus' death on the cross and what it might mean for people of faith and conscience today. This conversation is important, I believe, because of how much is assumed about what key concepts like "gospel" and "salvation" actually meant (historically) and what they (should) mean today.

My claim--shimmering from the work of scholars from a diversity of Christian traditions: Rene Girard, Ched Myers, Marcus Borg, John Howard Yoder, Jim McClendon, Elsa Tamez, Jon Sobrino, Richard Rohr and others--is that Jesus' death was a result of his prophetic confrontation with the powers-that-be in 1st century Palestine and that this brutal death exposes the violence and scapegoating that proliferate amongst those in power. The cross must move us towards an imitation of this nonviolent prophetic practice.

It also ought to be consistent reminder that human transformation doesn't just happen. It follows the process of death and resurrection, a killing of the destructive copings and patterns have led us to a counterfeit life of anxieties, alienation & addiction.

My piece was posted to the Menno Weekly Review blog and a reader commented:
I get the sense from this article that the “meaning of the cross” on which Jesus died is mostly being presented as a social justice issue. What happened to the main message of the gospel of Christ – that He died willingly so that all sinners who repent and believe in Him will never perish but will live eternally with Him? Also, that Jesus died on the cross, in our place, for the sins that we have committed? (“In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” 1 John 4:9,10).

The "main message of the gospel of Christ" that she defines is actually what most churches and leaders have preached since Emperor Constantine baptized organized Christianity into Empire in the 4th century. It is a message conveniently committed to privatizing and futurizing Christian faith. I write "conveniently" because once the gospel is confined into a separate realm bifurcated from "social justice" or economics/politics, it can maintain a respectable place in the lives of both rich and poor, both privileged and disadvantaged. It doesn't speak to the policies and decisions that lead to these income inequalities and political power gaps. Charity, of course, is praised, but a serious critique of injustice is either sensitively tip-toed around or overtly bemoaned. As Dom Helder Camara famously proclaimed: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

I just want to make two quick points. First of all, as the late "baptist" theologian Jim McClendon wrote, Christianity is itself an essentially contested concept. The main message of Christ is up for grabs. Don't get me wrong: it's not "anything goes." I'm not advocating relativism. Yet, put simply, there are certain aspects of the death of Jesus that Christian communities and leaders will inevitably prioritize & emphasize. An overwhelming supermajority of Christians whom I've encountered commit themselves to the penal-substitutionary model of atonement, as exemplified by the Menno Weekly blog commenter: that He died willingly so that all sinners who repent and believe in Him will never perish but will live eternally with Him. This version of the atonement was made famous in the 20th century by Billy Graham.

But Martin Luther King took a different stance. And this leads to my second point. Our interpretation of Jesus' death has implications. Graham's leads to an obsession with getting souls saved from going to hell when you die. King's leads to an all-out commitment to getting people saved from hellish conditions in this life and what it will take to make that happen: "the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear." At this point in the discussion, most sincere and meaningful Christians often seem to point out to me that both Billy Graham & Martin Luther King are needed. All questions of theology aside, I would highly encourage all Christian communities, then, to divvy up their focus, energy & resources on both Graham and King's interpretations of the cross 50/50. Honestly, though, this is far from happening.

Of course, we all want to get at what Jesus, John the Baptist & Paul (and the rest of the NT authors) meant by "gospel." This will take large doses of biblical study, prayer, dialogue and a rigorous research of the brutal history of Western Christianity since Constantine--a tradition that consistently turned a blind eye towards injustice, violence, greed & oppression while concentrating tireless energy and resources on converting people so that they will be assured to "live eternally with Him." And if that's the main message of the gospel of Christ, then that's what you are going to get.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

So Then, What Does It All Mean?

Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
Matthew 28:7-8

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
Colossians 3:1-4

God, we thank you for the inspiration of Jesus. Grant that we will love you with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves, even our enemy neighbors. And we ask you, God, in these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail, to be with us in our going out and our coming in, in our rising up and in our lying down, in our moments of joy and in our moments of sorrow, until the day when there shall be no sunset and no dawn. Amen.
Martin Luther King

If the cross of Jesus means anything worthy of embrace it must be, first and foremost, an absolute scandal. This gruesome tool of torture continues to remind us all that the world is just not fair. Jesus lived an unprecedented life, ruthlessly committed to comforting the afflicted in their pain & punishment and afflicting the comfortable addicted to power, prestige & privilege. Jesus' confrontation with the elites led to his unjust execution. This, ironically, is where salvation must lead. God dwells in the Land of the meek & merciful, the persecuted & peace-loving, those who hunger & thirst for justice so deeply that they are willing to be killed for it.

How can this possibly be "good news?" Only if, at the end of the Game, it leads to resurrection life, unshackling the destruction, death & disease of this world. Jesus' mutilated body pulls back the curtain of power & exposes the injustice and inequality saturating every context & circumstance, prodding us with the ultimate lifestyle question: will we muster the courage & confidence to boldly take up the cross of Jesus? This cross can only be the inevitable result of loving the losers and all those left out. We are the ones who must be in solidarity with the dreamers who have always known indignity and suffering. And we must be the ones who advocate for them with our words, deeds, energy & reputations. Let us not mince words: Jesus was killed because he was political. Like King. Like Romero. Like Gandhi. Their brutal deaths have been seeds buried into the ground, bearing abundant fruit in the global struggle for peace & justice.

The cross saves us by doing Something inside us as well. If God can be truly known in the suffering of the cross, we can be assured that we are not alone as we struggle to liberate ourselves from our own painful patterns and counterfeit copings. Our fears & fantasies, anxieties & anger, rage & resentments all lead us into cul-de-sacs of addiction, abuse, repressed memories and mental illness. Yet, our salvation doesn't just happen. We must carry the cross down our own road to recovery. Rigorous personal inventory. Vulnerable confession. A safe community of support. Therapy. A commitment to spiritual disciplines. These will lead us to the Promised Land. But only if we know, deep in our bones, that there is a force of Love more powerful than anything that haunts us. And there is.

This Love was the final, once-and-for-all scapegoat, taking on the projecting pain and bitterness of the whole world. The cross hangs as a clarion call to stop the blaming & violence: in our homes, on our streets, within our halls of power and all over the online comments section. Only when we see what scapegoating did to the man who lived out unprecedented love & justice--meditating on the precious & brutalized Jesus upon the cross--will we be able to stop crucifying our so-called enemies.

It was also the final, once-and-for-all religious sacrifice. No living thing needs to die in order to have access to the Divine. Every time we share a meal (the bread & the wine) we remember that Love dwells within us & all around us, especially in our darkest and dirtiest moments. We don't need to go to a special building or to a sacred person to experience the forgiveness & grace that abounds for those who pledge allegiance to a critical & compassionate consciousness. We will fail, but we must get back up again. Because God will be there. No matter what.

Let's be clear: this cross is not a divine magic wand that immediately takes away our trials & troubles. It is not a guaranteed ticket, for those who "believe," to go straight to heaven when they die. It was not the ultimate act of violence that appeased a pissed off god. It ought to never be waved around triumphantly as the one right religion, the absolute Truth that all must bow to. These are popular ways of conveniently counterfeiting the vocation of the cross into an easily accessible status that doesn't demand much of anything.

Those of us who testify to a world of unjust crucifixions, but hold on to the active hope of the empty tomb, embrace life "with fear & great joy." Life is a gigantic mystery. We gamble on goodness & truth because we are compelled that there are more divine surprises to come. We go about "setting our minds on things above" (all the things that led Jesus to the cross) because we have hope that there will be a "day when there shall be no sunset and no dawn." For all those living in agony & apathy, let's pray this Day comes soon. Until then, let's bring all of our critical & creative energy to the task of bringing resurrection life to every corner of the globe.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Towel Before The Tomb

[Jesus] got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him...After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—-and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.
John 13:4-5, 12-15

The footwashing ritual invites disciples, then and now, to break through our cultural and psychological barriers to intimacy and learn tenderly to accept one another as we are. Footwashing calls us to reveal a part of ourselves that is usually hidden...To invite people to look at, to wash, to care for our feet is to invite them to accept us as we are.
Wes Howard-Brook, John's Gospel & The Renewal Of The Church (1997)

In each of the four canonical Gospels, Jesus is portrayed in terms of kenosis, or self-emptying. In none of the canonical Gospels is the scandal of the cross removed in favor of the divine glory. In each, the path to glory passes through real suffering. Despite all the diversity concerning the details of Jesus' ministry, the canonical Gospels agree on this fundamental pattern.
Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus (1996)

For those just now tuning in, Western Christianity is in the midst of a massive intramural contest over just what exactly it means to follow Jesus. Fortunately & strategically, Holy Week reminds us of and recalibrates us towards a creative & constructive imitation of Jesus' life of service, sharing & sacrifice. If the various brands of Christianity (from evangelical to ecumenical, from Catholic to Charismatic, from fundamentalist to free thinking) can come together on Thursday and focus our respective energies & resources on acting out the Gospel script (Jesus washing his disciples' feet), we can realistically hope for a more compelling witness to our audacious claim that a redemptive Something pervades our existence.

According to biblical scholar Wes Howard-Brook, the meaning of Jesus' footwashing is deep and layered, but two key implications emerge:
1. Followers of Jesus are exhorted to vulnerability and intimacy within their community. It starts with a personal and communal focus on the dirty work of washing others and the uncomfortable work of being washed by others.

2. The command for priests to wash their feet before they meet God (Exodus 30:19) is extended to all would-be followers of the Way. Everyone has access to the Divine (no longer limited to male professional religionists working in a "sacred" building).
Ultimately, Jesus' scandalous act of footwashing, the day before his torturous murder, infuses his followers with a different kind of mentality altogether. This Christ-consciousness, what biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson calls the "messianic pattern," is the glue that holds together the diversity of the four Gospels, not to mention the rest of the New Testament documents. If Christianity means anything at all, it surely must entail a rugged commitment to a self-donating love of friends & family, even those who betray us.

On the night of his arrest & torture, Jesus stripped down and washed the feet of every one of his followers (even those of his betrayer), providing an example of humility and service for the ages. After all, 1st century Palestinian society was enmeshed in a hierarchical & patriarchal ordering of social, political & economic relationships. Everyone clearly knew their place in society, with Caesar at the very top. Conventional wisdom would have had the disciples (or hired servants) extending the hospitality to Jesus, being the elderly male, the master & teacher in the room. But Jesus flipped the script and set the standard for what ought to be emulated after his death.

Ironically, Jesus' downward mobility is "good news" in an gratuitously unequal North American culture obsessed with status, power & image. The key to faithful appropriation of Jesus' example, though, is an understanding of social power, and who has it in any given context. According to Elaine Enns & Ched Myers, in the second volume of Ambassadors of Reconciliation (2009), it is all about "our willingness & ability to apprehend critically how power is distributed in our own households and communities, in the specific political scenarios we wish to engage, and in the broader society in which we live and work."

As a white heterosexual male, I have been literally born into power & privilege. Jesus' water basin calls me to consistently recognize this and to stand down, so that the voices, talents & gifts of others may be offered towards the beautification & redemption of the world. This critical analysis (known as "social mapping") will take intentionality, time, effort & energy. It doesn't just happen. As always, this discipline requires both personal inventory & prophetic imagination. It calls me to daily examen my own motivation & maneuvering and calls me to downgrade the degrees I've "earned" & the propped-up identities I cherish. But it also challenges me to expose & confront the ways that systems discriminate based on gender, race, class & sexual orientation.

Before Jesus sat down & offered the symbols of his body & blood poured out in love for the sake of the world, he erased the unwritten power rules of his day, becoming the lowly slave. We must not forget that the filthy water came before the wafer & the wine. And we must walk the path of Holy Week in order: Holy Thursday comes before Good Friday & Easter Sunday. Before the triumph of the tomb, our lives must bear witness, in word & deed, to the towel & the torture. As Martin Luther King reminded his fellow Christian brothers & sisters over and over 50 years ago, "The cross we bear precedes the crown we wear."

Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Clear Choice


When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” ’ They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting...
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

Mark 11:1-11

On the very first Palm Sunday sometime around 30AD, Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea, paraded into Jerusalem from the westside, traveling about 60 miles from his palace on the shores of the Mediteranean. This procession touted the glorious Roman Empire and its 'Son of God,' Caesar Tiberius, who was the 'Savior' and 'Lord,' bringing 'peace' to the entire world. According to biblical scholars Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan, this military cavalry represented the domination system, 'the way things were,' with its political power & economic exploitation, legitimated through the organized religion of the Temple cult.

Mark's Gospel highlights Jesus' 'triumphal entry' as a staged event. Starting from the Mount of Olives and riding on a donkey colt [Zech 14:1-4; 9:9-10], Jesus vividly embodies these apocalyptic scenes to the those who first heard the Gospel story in its entirety sometime around 70AD. Jesus and his motley crew of peasants reflected the rebel groups that classically threatened to seize the Temple and overthrow the powermongering establishment. But this was a nonviolent demonstration emphasizing the humility and servanthood of those who pledged citizenship to the reign of God...not Caesar.

The way of Caesar was what the Empire represented to the world: a false sense of peace and justice. It was a dominating system of competition, violence, coercion, celebrity worship, economic inequality and patriarchialism. Ingrained in this system was the need 'to show them who is boss.' Leaders and rulers made it known who was running the show. It was assumed and accepted by pretty much everyone. As we sometimes say about our world "it's just the way things are."

Jesus' way opened the eyes of blind disciples to Caesar's illusions and lies. Jesus invited his followers into God's Reign of peace and justice: poor peasants were fed, the sick and lame were healed, women and children were given status, and disciples were called to imitate Jesus life of suffering service, compassion and humility. Jesus came to criticize and energize Israel's ways. Jesus' social nonconformist way came with a price: the cross. All of Jesus' disciples are called to radical obedience...all the way to death.

Jesus from Gaililee came all the way to Jerusalem for two reasons: a confrontation with the powers-that-be and for his death-and-resurrection. These were a cause-and-effect. Those in places of power seek out ways to destroy those who stir the pot and threaten their privilged status. If we view these events through the nonviolent campaigns of Martin Luther King and Gandhi, we can better understand what was at stake and what led to his assasination. We find new life when we commit our lives to Something we are willing to actually die for.

We are confronted with the prodding question of discipleship: will we join Jesus along the way...all the way to Jerusalem...to the awkward confrontation with oppressive establishment structures and laws...to the demands of the privileged elites...to drop the baggage of privilege & entitlement that so many of us were born with...to view life through the perspective of the periphery...to the cross? Do we have the discernment, courage and energy to join Jesus' procession in every area of life: in our relationships, jobs, spending habits, leisure time and public policy debates?

According to biblical scholar Ched Myers, the Gospel of Mark was written to prod 1st century listeners into a clear cut life choice. This Story continues to make demands. In the end, will we be the ones who pledge allegiance to Caesar's scarcity-infused domination system or Jesus' sharing-suffering-serving-humbling-compassionate reign? We can't ride both of these. We must choose: Pilate's horse or Jesus' ass.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Re-Patterning Our Lives

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—-indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh; you are in the spirit, since the spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of dikaiosyne. If the spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his spirit that dwells in you.
Romans 8:6-11

...the argument of Romans revolves around the question of which rule is truly righteous and which gospel has the power to make the world truly peaceful.
Robert Jewett, Romans (2007)

The Apostle Paul writes this letter to a network of house churches pledging allegiance to Jesus in the capital city of the Roman Empire sometime in the 50s, two decades after the death and resurrection of their Leader. This small chunk from the 8th chapter is embedded right in the middle of the lengthy letter that has been cherished by Protestant Christians for the past 500 years. For all of us who first came to view Jesus through an Evangelical lens, Romans is focused on sinners becoming "justified," which surely must mean "just if I never sinned" so that we can go to heaven when we die. At least, this was how the sincere leaders at Campus Crusade for Christ broke it all down to me using their 4 Spiritual Laws two decades ago.

Over the course of the past 50 years, many scholars have been questioning the accuracy of this interpretation. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid-20th century, the world has learned much about the ancient world. As N.T. Wright consistently says, "We have learned more about 1st century Palestinian Judaism in the last 50 years than we knew in the first 1950 years combined."

Krister Stendahl, a Lutheran pastor and Harvard professor, wrote a legendary article in the 1960s entitled "Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West" that proposed that every time Paul uses "justification" or "righteousness" (it's the same Greek word: dikaiosyne) in Romans and Galatians he is referring to how it is that Gentiles can become part of God's People (as opposed to how an individual can be made righteous before an angry and/or perfect God). Stendahl, who had the original Greek text of the entire book of Romans memorized, courageously offered a reading of Paul that means far more than relieving my guilt, a clean slate to save my soul.

Perhaps, then, the main point of Romans was really about how God was determined to save the population of Caesar's Empire by calling them to pledge allegiance to a different kind of citizenship altogether. God was putting the world to rights through a People committed to an alternative lifestyle, energized and inspired and guided by the spirit of Jesus, who lived out the Way of life and peace so radically that those power hungry leaders with a god-complex ("hostile to God") had to kill him.

This Divine Conspiracy is what salvation is all about. God came to this world incognito, hiding in the body of a Jewish peasant who taught a complete re-pattering of our lives. Paul bluntly universalizes the diagnosis: we are naturally patterned into the "flesh" (Greek sarkos) throughout our early lives because we must somehow cope with the lack of love, trust & safety all around us. This takes many, many forms, whether fight or flight, controlling or chaotic. This leads us down various roads of addiction, projection, obsessing & catastrophizing. It can also lead us to cling to in-group identity in the form of nationalism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, celebrity worship & the scapegoating of the poor.

A ripe manifestation of "the flesh" was recently detailed by Pope Francis who caught many comfortable North Americans off-guard with his courageous critique of capitalist consumption:
To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.
The thrill of the marketplace ultimately leads to a deadening of the deepest parts of us. Only an intense focus on our pain & copings will free us from the bonds of indifference. In an earlier letter to another community living trying to live counter-culturally in the Roman Empire, Paul adamantly prescribed the most drastic of measures:
And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:24)
We must kill these patterns (90 times in a row!) in order for the Way of the Spirit to be myelinated into our heads and hearts. This will take a lot of time & effort. Only a rigorous discipline of both personal inventory and prophetic imagination will do. As the late Edwin Friedman proclaimed in the first line of his book Failure Of Nerve:
The colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change.
As we work to bear the fruit of the Spirit--love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control--in our lives and in our world, may we be reminded of the challenge that the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has given his Christian brothers and sisters:
If you do not really look at Jesus' life, you cannot see the way. If you only satisfy yourself with praising a name, even the name of Jesus, it is not practicing the life of Jesus. We must practice living deeply, loving, and acting with charity if we wish to truly honor Jesus...The living Christ is the Christ of Love who is always generating love, moment after moment. When the church manifests understanding, tolerance, and loving-kindness, Jesus is there. Christians have to help Jesus Christ be manifested by their way of life, showing those around them that love, understanding, and tolerance are possible.
Indeed, the spirit of Jesus comes alive in communities that strategically re-pattern themselves into clusters who have the audacity to actually attempt to live the radical way that Jesus did. We do this imperfectly. We fall and fail. By God's grace and mercy, we get up and try again. Let's stop living with any vision of Christian faith that justifies (by either spiritualizing or futurizing) the dehumanizing copings so typical of life in Empire.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Light It Up

At one time y'all were in darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Walk the path of life as children of light—-for the fruit of the light is found in all that is goodness and justice and truth. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Do not partner with the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead work to expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,
‘Sleeper, awake!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.’

Ephesians 5:8-14

Before the truth sets you free, it tends to make you miserable.
Richard Rohr

The letter to the Ephesians was written sometime between 80-110CE, decades after the death of the Apostle Paul. As was common in antiquity, it was written by someone claiming the Pauline tradition, penned in the style of the Apostle Paul. This was not considered plagiarism, but instead, was a way for a community to honor a leader by advancing the Cause.

Biblical scholars believe the same to be true about the second half of the book of Isaiah, written a couple of centuries after the original prophet Isaiah. It has a slightly different style and substance from the first few dozen chapters, reflecting the current events on the ground. Many scholars believe that Ephesians itself become a "circular" letter, passed along to different communities around the Eastern Mediterranean and, eventually, it became part of the New Testament in the late 2nd century.

Ephesians was written to Gentile followers of Jesus who were slowly learning the ways of the God of the Hebrew Bible who, they believed, became enfleshed in Jesus, a Jewish peasant from the small town of Nazareth who confronted empire decades earlier...and was crucified for it. Like the risen Jesus, these Gentiles awoke to a new life that sprouted mature practices of grace, compassion, forgiveness and generosity in a society that worshipped unpredictable gods (including the Emperor Caesar himself) characterized by their adolescent ways of revenge, violence, hedonism and hoarding. In short, these Gentiles needed to get saved, and their new found faith (Greek pistis: trust/allegiance) in Jesus led them out of the destructive patterns society had taught them.

Those of us experimenting with 12-step meetings, group processes and personal inventory models have become compelled that the biblical concept of "salvation" is nothing more than a rigorous lifestyle of active recovery from various addictions. Over the course of our lifespan, we all develop harmful copings to deal with the inevitable pain brought on by the dysfunction of our family, social, economic & political systems. These addictive patterns are subtle, cunning, baffling and powerful. It is like groping around in perpetual darkness, sleepwalking through life. This is insanity (Einstein on insanity: "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results"). It is, quite literally, a living hell.

The author of Ephesians exhorts readers to vulnerably shine the light on their own pain cycles, exposing the ways we blame or shame & obsessively control or escape all of our triggering situations. This leads to all sorts of scapegoating, name-calling, projecting, trivializing, catastrophizing & fearmongering. In committed, authentic & disciplined communities, we can garner the courage to speak the truth about our lives so that we can find the wisdom, discernment and strength to re-enter our peace cycles, where we find an abundance of love and security and trust. But facing the truth about ourselves, consistently & concretely, requires humility & vulnerability & the removal of our precious copings. As Father Rohr admits, it tends to be miserable.

Of course, the road to salvation must run through both personal and political terrain. Our manna & mercy lifestyle (in both word and deed) ought to be an exposé on the hidden & hoarding patterns of violence & injustice in our world. We are the ones called to shine the light on our widespread racism hidden by proud proclamations of our black President and the overwhelming popularity of Lebron & Beyoncé. We are the ones called to excavate the hunger, homelessness & heartache cultivated by the hangover of unrestrained capitalism (the market will always have its "losers"). We are the ones commissioned to track the schizophrenic climate caused by our unquenched thirst for profits and consumption.

Indeed, our pursuit of goodness and justice and truth will be sustained by both personal inventory and prophetic imagination. We can consistently practice resurrection in our heads, our hearts & all over our habitats. The stone has been rolled away from the tomb & the light shines in. We can wake up from our deathly ways, walk out into freedom and work on exposing all copings & corruption that keep every living thing locked out of experiencing Life. May we find conviction & courage for this task. After all, it often leads to crucifixion.

Monday, March 24, 2014

It's About Time

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’
John 4:5-10

The deprivation we subject ourselves to by fasting pales in comparison to the pain endured by immigrants who watch helplessly as their government destroys their families. For too long, Members of Congress have allowed this suffering in order to shield themselves from political risk. Their inaction is as foolish as it is cruel.
Eliseo Medina

Yesterday marked the anniversary (in 1942) of the start of forced internment (by the U.S. government) of all those of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast during World War II. This grave injustice stands as a reminder of the demonic force of racism that has scarred our nation's history.

Yesterday, churches all over the United States (and the world) read from the Lenten script of the Gospel passage describing Jesus' visit with the Samaritan woman at the well. This episode calls followers of Jesus to break boundaries and build bridges with those suffering under the yoke of racial and gender oppression.

Yesterday, more than 11 million workers & students living in the United States remain "undocumented," surviving in the shadows without status. All people of faith & conscience have the opportunity to seize this moment, inspired by the lessons of history and the mystery of the sacred Text we seek to embody. Justice calls us to demand that our national leaders extend status & dignity to our brothers & sisters who differ from us only on the basis of where they were born.

Today, let's elevate the dialogue & call upon our leaders to do what is right. As always, this isn't just "political." And it's not simply a "human rights" issue. This is personal. Some of my friends and students (current & former) make up the ranks of the "undocumented." They are the Samaritans of our day and as we rest at the well in the midst of our tired day, may we be in solidarity with them all.

Today, I called Representative Darrel Issa's (R) office to urge him to support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the United States. The staffer who answered the phone spoke from a script that (vaguely) implied that the Congressman supported immigration reform, but refused to answer whether or not he would support a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented while referring to them as "aliens." I respectfully asked that he prayerfully & specifically consider a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented and that Rep. Issa's office stop referring to my friends as "aliens..."

...and on Wednesday, let us continue our weekly 24-hour fast with Eliseo Medinez and the Fast For Families campaign.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Going Public With Jesus

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
John 3:1-17

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.
Upton Sinclair

This weekend, the Lenten journey transitions us towards the Gospel of John, animating us with the most famous passage in all of Scripture ("For God so loved the world…"), a scene with oft-quoted words & a rarely examined context. The two episodes in John's Gospel which immediately precede Nicodemus' appointment with Jesus are (1) the miraculous water-to-wine wedding in Cana & (2) the over-turning-of-tables in the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus is performing a strange combination of signs, both comforting & confronting, both joy to the humble and a jolt to the hustlers!

Enter Nicodemus: a man of privilege & power, a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council appointed by Rome to keep the Palestinian masses in order, exacting tribute from poor peasants resulting in loss of land & starvation. He visits Jesus at night, afraid to be seen with him. Jesus responds to his flattery, not with expected honor, but with a challenge: to be born anothen (the Greek: could be interpreted "again" or "from above"). Nicodemus avoids the issue by taking Jesus call for "rebirth" literally (but not seriously)!

Jesus' real challenge to Nico is for him to be "born of water & spirit:" to be inducted into a whole new Movement (baptism) & to embrace a God totally free to bring unexpected newness (breaking from the status quo that folks in power tend to cling to). Indeed, the original hearers of John's Gospel in 80CE, the Jews-for-Jesus Movement that emerged in the decades after Jesus' death & resurrection, believed that Jesus died on a cross ("so must the Son of Man be lifted up") for a two-fold reason: to end the centuries-old system of "sacred violence" (the Temple: killing innocent animals to appease God) and provide a model of self-sacrificial love for all God's children (later in John: there's no great love than this--to lie down your life for your friends!).

Remember, the first audiences of the Gospel of John, in the late 1st century, would have always listened to the reading of the Gospel in its entirety (a little bit shorter than a modern-day feature-length movie). Sure enough, a few chapters after this episode (John 7:32-50), Nico is publicly speaking out for the status quo, keeping his personal views to himself, as his fellow Pharisees question whether he might be one of them (the scandalous Jesus followers). As biblical scholar Wes Howard-Brook writes, Nicodemus "wants to have his cake and eat it too: to believe in Jesus privately without paying the price publicly."

What could this episode mean for those of us who are committed to imaginatively living out this Script in real time? What are the issues that we, perhaps, "believe" in, but are afraid to proclaim publicly, for fear of being dismissed socially, losing our respectability? Again, Howard-Brook offers 3 examples of Nicodemus for our contemporary context:

(1) A politician secretly sympathetic to an activist cause but concerned w/reelection and loss of fund-raising sources

(2) A professional comfortable w/ the wealth and success of his/her position but privately critical of organizational policy/practice

(3) A church minister supportive of "new" teachings (pro gay marriage? anti-capitalist?) but concerned w/ loss of institutional authority/status

Should we work for change within the System or commit our time, energy & resources towards dismantling the System altogether? This is a live choice for all of us compelled that Jesus did, in fact, come "in order that the world might be saved through him." Eternal life starts now. And it comes with some life decisions that inevitably lead to social ostracism, family tension & the down-grading of socio-economic privilege. This is what happens when our private, personal relationship with Jesus becomes public, political & incongruent with how Life has been experienced thus far.

*For more of Wes Howard-Brook's work see this.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Our Greatest Temptations

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Matthew 4:1-11

...it would be fitting and symbolic that ships from all over the world, entering the Golden Gate, would first see Indian land, and thus be reminded of the true history of this nation. This tiny island would be a symbol of the great lands once ruled by free and noble Indians.
Indians of All Nations, The Alcatraz Proclamation to the Great White Father and His People (March 9, 1964)

On this date exactly 50 years ago, citing an 1868 treaty which empowered Native American peoples to claim surplus federal land, five Sioux activists occupied & took possession of Alcatraz Island less than one year after the notorious federal prison closed down after decades of complaints over high costs and the flushing of sewage into San Francisco Bay. These indigenous prophets envisioned a transformation of the island into a cultural center & university. They were apprehended and removed after only 4 hours, mostly dismissed by empire dwellers as typically "crazy Indians."

But after centuries of abuse from the government and then apathy from the American people, shouldn't the Original Americans have claim to this land? And, with History as Reminder, shouldn't white suburban settlers (like us) be ripe for repentance, a "turning" away from land grabs and a "turning" towards gifting back what was and is rightfully theirs? On this anniversary, the lectionary shimmers with an episode that prophetically calls followers of Jesus to consider what it originally meant to be God's children.

After Jesus is baptized into the Heavenly Movement ("the kingdom of heaven") and inaugurated as its undisputed leader (a voice from heaven declaring him "the Beloved Son"), he embraces the spiritual discipline of fasting...for 40 days and 40 nights (an echo of Noah's journey of global purification?) in the wilderness (an echo of Israel's exodus journey?). His confrontation with Satan reveals a series of three illusions about what it means to be a people committing to be "salt" & "light" for the world (Matthew 5). Notice the contest over biblical interpretation ("it is written"). As it turns out, everyone wants to quote Scripture to justify their own agenda, whether it is rooted in the American Dream or the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Satanic agenda is as follows:

1. Commanding stones to become loaves of bread (economic hoarding)
2. Jumping off the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem (religious stunts)
3. Controlling and colonizing the globe (political patriotism)


This agenda is contrasted with the simple prayer that Jesus will soon teach his disciples (Matthew 6):

1. Give us this day our daily bread (living simply so that we can all simply live")
2. May God's kingdom come (not a shoo-in for my soul to get to Heaven but a shoe on the soles of all feet)
3. May God's name alone be holy (for America to bless God and not the other way around)


Forty years after the death & resurrection of their leader, Matthew's wilderness temptation story summoned a network of communities pledging allegiance to the Jesus-inspired Heavenly Movement to reject, resist & repent of the fully ingrained principles & practices of empire. The Gospel reached back into the Hebrew Bible to offer a challenging choice: Exodus or Egypt. It called them out of empire and back to the wilderness where they unlearned the road of hoarding & hurry and learned the way of manna & mercy. As Brazilian theologian Rubem Alves writes, these disciples participated in a counter culture:

The early Christian community was…an underground counter culture. The reason it was so ruthlessly persecuted was because the dominant powers perceived it as a basically dysfunctional and subversive social reality. The values it wanted to realize and live out implied in the long run the abolition of the very foundations of the Roman Empire.
Today, all over the United States, small clusters of citizens of the Heavenly Movement continue to be prodded into a lifestyle that confronts the political, economic & religious illusions of the American Dream. Like Martin Luther King's well-known dream for the U.S., Jesus' dream for human liberation threatened those for whom society privileged. The status quo dies hard and both of these men were murdered as a consequence.

Today, the American Empire spends billions on farm subsidies, providing the entire globe with cheap corn for all the processed food we are becoming addicted to. Today, millions of Americans flock to churches that cater messages about an all-sovereign God who guarantees heaven and provides for luxuries on earth. Today, our hearts & heads are filled with patriotic symbols (from the flag to the F-15 flyover to the first pitch after the National Anthem) that beckon us all to pledge ultimate allegiance to country. These 3 messianic mechanisms motivate the masses. Jesus rejected all 3. So should we.

Like the short-lived Sioux takeover of Alcatraz 50 years ago, Jesus' wilderness wandering functions as a call for all God's children to reclaim our roots and to strategically practice a restoration of that Original vocation. The Satanic force always presses us all to be in the majority, to join the masses no matter how much it veers off-course. The minority report is always an option, however in convenient and uncomfortable. Both the Sioux of San Francisco Bay & Jesus of Nazareth threatened conventional wisdom. Will we follow their lead?

*I am greatly indebted to the biblical scholarship of Ched Myers utilized in this post.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The UNKingdom is Here

The most public and prolific examples of Christianity in our world today are in opposition to our ideals.
Mark Van Steenwyk, The UNkingdom of God (2013)

If we rendered unto God all the things that belong to God, there would be nothing left for Caesar.
Dorothy Day, on Mark 12:13-17

Yesterday afternoon, after the rare Southern California rain subsided, I went for a run down to Doheny Beach, formerly known as Killer Dana (before the Powers-that-be constructed a jetty for a recreational harbor back in the 60s). During my 30 minute sweat, I encountered two sets of couples, that I think offer a parable for two juxtaposed brands of Christianity on offer in USAmerica today. First, a man and woman in their 20s, perfect stride & all geared out in lycra, came flying by me on the street, talking about the New York City Marathon in conversational English. Sleek, strong, sexy and virile, they represent mainstream Catholic and Evangelical offerings that cater to middle-class respectability and pious spirituality. They follow a Jesus who saves souls, but has little to say about socio-political oppression & economic injustice (except perhaps when it comes to confronting sexuality that threatens "traditional" forms).

Moments later, I hoofed past a middle-aged woman in a wheelchair pulling her three-legged dog on a leash. I shit you not, the hairy tripod was on the move! Confined to the sidewalk, yet inspiring to observe, this pair animates the minority report of 21st century Christian America: an anarchist following of the prophetic Jesus, prodded to protest the power, possessions and privilege hoarded by elites and those middle-class folks Howard Zinn famously called "the guards of the System." In his recently released The UNkingdom of God: Embracing the Subversive Power of Repentance (2013), Mark Van Steenwyk, armed only with the weapons of vision, virtue & vulnerability, outlines this oft overlooked Way of Empire-subverting Christianity. For Van Steenwyk, it is more than a portrayal. It is a practice.

A native of Western Minnesota who grew up in the throes of fundamentalist Pentecostalism, Van Steenwyk has been experimenting with this underdog, anti-imperialist faith witness for the past dozen years. He writes about what he has experienced. Citing the likes of Dorothy Day, Dorothee Soelle, Irenaus, Meister Eckhart, virtually unknown 15th century Anabaptists and plenty of others, he seeks to defend his bold claim:
I believe that the dominant form of Christianity, as understood by the majority of Christians throughout the ages, is inherently oppressive and will inevitably lead to empire. There are, of course, expressions of Christianity that resist imperialism. But a Christianity that is willing to use the sword will always nurture empire.
This isn't just a post-Occupy-30-something trying to make up a version of Christian faith that jibes with the edgy and organic activism that has made headlines and introduced the language of the 99% into the mainstream. This is real theological work. But even better, it's readable and relatable.

A self-proclaimed gummy bear and karaoke addict, openly admitting his own socially awkward tendencies, Van Steenwyk makes anarchism amenable to everyone from the seminary trained to the single mom. Tackling controversial material that would make Sarah Palin & Billy Graham break out in hives, he makes an awfully compelling case for a non-hierarchical, non-imperial Christian faith "from below."

A real strength of UNkingdom is how Van Steenwyk turns Christian community into a laboratory, experimenting with simple-yet-demanding practices that lend the label "radical." This historic strand of prophetic faith confronts empire around every corner, yet healing from racism, nationalism, sexism, heteronormativity and the destructive effects of free market fundamentalism doesn't just happen. In a chapter title "Encountering A Feral God," he provides three actions that anyone can participate in:
(1) Experimenting with God: challenging us to read the Gospels seriously, calling out justifications we make and demanding actions steps that mirror the life of Jesus
(2) Embracing our creatureliness: we are part of Creation and we take inventory of our relationship with food, "honoring the whole process from soil to kitchen to plate to stomach
(3) Silence: emptying our mind of all the ideas we have about God and everything else so that we can listen to what is Real
Van Steenwyk opens up readers to reject the quest for certainty and to embrace an authentic faith that emphasizes the mystery of God and the value of humility and simplicity in our quest to intimately experience this wild Transcendence.

Van Steenwyk is at his best, though, when he puts Western Christianity on trial.
Why is it that when critics point out the ugly story of Christian dominion, so many Christians argue that those example aren't real Christianity? That when self-described Christians commit genocide, oppress the poor, subjugate women or simply act wickedly, they aren't real Christians; their actions have nothing to do with their alleged faith. And so, successive generations of Christians can avoid responsibility. We can distance ourselves from the sins of the past without having to examine whether or not the same genocidal/racist/sexist/classist tendencies are embedded within the fabric of our own Christianity.
And he goes deep, diagnosing American Christianity as a mass movement of shame-avoiders. This denial is a pre-requisite for those following an American Dream. But, for those baptized into the UNkingdom of God, shame is the vital building block of a compelling faith in 21st century North America:
Feeling shame is an invitation to repentance. It is a recognition that something is wrong that manifests as self-anger. If we can open up space to examine that shame, talk about that shame and confess that shame, we are on the path of repentance. And when we collectively repent as our response to collective shame, we are on the path to revolution.
And this revolution, as Audre Lorde once proclaimed, "is not a one time event." It is both a posture and a set of practices that form the UNkingdom of God to confront the American Dream with its "fruits of imperialism": formal education, wealthy, entrepreneurial skills, etc.

In the end, Van Steenwyk's incisive work has cred, not only because it is backed by biblical scholarship and historic witness, but because he is credibly living into it. His family lives at the Mennonite Worker "house of hospitality" in Minneapolis, creatively displaying the New Life that fellow Christian rebel Clarence Jordan claimed was our ultimate call:
The good news of the resurrection of Jesus is not that we shall die and go home to be with him, but that he has risen and comes home with us, bringing all his hungry, naked, thirsty, sick prisoner brothers with him.
Like the three-legged dog of Capistrano Beach, anarchist communities are hurrying and hobbling their way towards Jesus. Mark Van Steenwyk's UNkingdom is a practical primer for so many of us who have become jaded with the sleek, sexy & sanctimonious forms of establishment Christian faith. Truly, this mustard seed Movement, if more accessible to those burned out and burdened by the baggage of their Christian upbringing, will grow into a tree where all of us radicals, mystics, prophets & revolutionaries can come and perch on its branches. Mark Van Steenwyk's UNkingdom is a terrific contribution towards this goal.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Prophetic Trek Up The Mountain

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Matthew 17:1-9

The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.
Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (1978)

This is the 2nd time Jesus climbs the mountain in Matthew's Gospel. The 1st time, Jesus calls his disciples to a more tenacious following of the Law of Moses: "you have heard it said, but I say to you..." (Mt 5-7). This time, Jesus and his closest advisors (Peter, James, John) are joined by Moses himself, along with the prophet Elijah, who is introduced earlier in Matthew's Gospel as being played out in the tragically short life of John the Baptist (Mt 11:14), as well as a rumor going around Israel that Jesus himself is Elijah come-back-to-earth (Mt 16:14). The Moses/Elijah motif locates Jesus in the continuing story of God's redemption of the world & recalls his earlier proclamation that God is fulfilling both the Law (Moses) & the Prophets (Elijah) through his own life and teaching.

Immediately preceding this trek up the mountain, Jesus delivers the bad news to his disciples that he, quite soon, he will "undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed." Peter will have none of it, rebuking Jesus that this is no way to be a king. Jesus rebukes back, calling Peter "Satan," and telling his disciples that they all, like him, must be willing to die for their convictions. As the late theologian James McClendon told his seminary students over and over: "There should have been 13 crosses (on Good Friday)."

Jesus' death wish is enunciated in this 2nd trek up the mountain as Jesus takes on the apocalyptic appearance and dress of the ancient martyrs (see Revelation 3, 4 & 6). This bleached white robe and heavenly glimmer reflect all those who lost their lives in their courageous confrontation with empire.

Like Moses on Sinai (Exodus 34:29-35), the glow-in-the-dark Jesus is overshadowed by a bright cloud with a triumphant voice (Exodus 24). These words, directed at the 3 disciples, echo the exact same heavenly proclamation at Jesus' baptism (Mt 3:17), a citing of one of the Suffering Servant episodes in Isaiah 42 & the messianic song in Psalm 2: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased..." Jesus is a different kind of leader for a different kind of Movement: he is the Servant King. His reign is going to look a lot different than Caesar's. These disciples better listen up.

The disciples, scared shitless lying on the ground in fetal position, are healed by Jesus' "touch," just like so many others (lepers, blind men, the hemorrhaging woman, etc) in Matthew's Gospel. This salvation comes only by listening to the Voice that calls us to listen to Jesus' teaching, which Matthew's Gospel places in five different sections throughout the Gospel (again, subverting the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, known as the "book of Moses").

As the somber, shell-shocked disciples saunter down the mountain, Jesus reminds them (yet again!) "that Elijah (John the Baptist) has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands." This is to be expected with every prophetic ministry.

Ultimately, Christians scripted by this "transfiguration" episode in Matthew have a choice this weekend: will we expend our time, energy & resources on worshipping the radiant Jesus or on following his rugged Way to the cross? Unfortunately, far too many North American churches, through song & sermon, will obsess about the former and sideline the latter. The very first Christians were called members of "the Way" because confessing that 'Jesus is Lord' meant dangerously pledging allegiance to a lifestyle of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable...all the Way to the cross.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Acid Test Of Christianity

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:38-48

The first principle of nonviolent action is that of noncooperation with everything humiliating.
Gandhi

Regardless of nationality, all men are brothers. God is "our Father who art in heaven." The commandment "Thou shalt not kill" is unconditional and inexorable...The lowly Nazarene taught us the doctrine of non-resistance, and so convinced was he of the soundness of that doctrine that he sealed his belief with death on the cross. When human law conflicts with Divine law, my duty is clear. Conscience, my infallible guide, impels me to tell you that prison, death, or both, are infinitely preferable to joining any branch of the Army.
Ben Salmon (1889-1932)
.......................................

ac-id test (n): a decisive test that establishes the worth or credibility of something

The world-famous Gandhi, the Indian Hindu nonviolent revolutionary, read this Script every morning of his adult life. The lesser-known Ben Salmon, the only American Catholic conscientious objector imprisoned during WWI, leaned heavily on this teaching of Jesus in his 200-page manifesto written right after 135 days of force-feeding during his self-imposed hunger strike. Walter Wink, the late Union Theological Seminary professor who devoted two decades of his life to scholarship on the "principalities and powers" language of the New Testament, called Jesus' scandalous teaching on nonviolence & enemy love "the acid test of Christianity": the legitimacy of any follower of Jesus should be judged entirely on how well they obey this command.

Jesus' Sermon on the Mount was taught to marginalized masses searching for a compelling way to fight for dignity, humanity & opportunity. These folks were overtaxed, scapegoated & demonized by the Roman Empire and the "client kings" of Jerusalem whose policies were justified by the whole Temple apparatus (obediently go to church, pay your taxes & God will reward you and the Nation). They had very little hope in a dynamic & liberating future because their national history was precisely the opposite of white America's: they had been repeatedly conquered by neighboring empires from Assyria to Persia to Babylonia to Rome.

In this particular portion of the Sermon, Jesus articulated three scenarios quite familiar to the original hearers of the Gospel of Matthew sometime around 75CE. First, in a right-handed culture (one would only use the left hand for "unclean" activities like wiping one's ass), to be struck "on the right cheek" would only be possible with a back-handed slap, a painfully common practice of abuse used to show who's charge. Men would back-hand women (not the other way around). Bosses would back-hand workers (not the other way around).

The second example comes from a court scene where wealthy lenders would sue poor peasants who could not pay back their mortgage debts (loss of land ownership was mostly due to overtaxation). Only the poorest of the poor would have only their cloaks to give up as collateral. And this practice was strictly limited to the daylight hours, as the Law required that they be returned to the indebted laborers for warmth at night (Exodus 22; Deuteronomy 24).

The last example mirrors the military-industrial-complex of 1st century Palestine. Roman soldiers would lug 80 pound packs long distances and would consistently & forcibly enlist common folk to carry them. The Law required that soldiers limit each commoner to one mile of heavy labor.

In this undignified & dehumanized atmosphere, Jesus offers would-be disciples "a third way" that would transcend the dualistic & painful cycles of fight-or-flight & blame-or-shame copings. Like a mix between Nelson Mandela & Stephen Colbert, Jesus creatively relied upon courage & laughter to demand dignity for the afflicted. Only these imaginatively transformative practices can break the cycle of violence and usher disciples into subversive & salvific peace cycles. But we must know the real context of the biblical witness in order to get the joke and break the cycle.

In the first scenario, Jesus exhorts his followers to "turn the other cheek" (the left), making it so that the oppressor could only use his fist to punch (instead of slap with the back of the hand), thus turning both the abuser & abused into equals (this symbolism was vital in an honor-shame culture). This is not a command to "just lay down" and let your abuser have his way. It is an in-your-face recovery of humanity.

Then, Jesus urges his followers not only to give up their cloaks to their sue-happy lenders, but to give them their underwear too! This would leave them butt naked in a court of law, a scandalous thought in an honor-shame culture where the disrobing would bring shame upon the ones who looked at the naked debtor! And, indeed, what is more shameful: full-frontal nudity in a public place or the rich getting richer off the backs of homeless, poor peasants who need their cloaks to stay warm at night in the open air? This was precisely the symbolic message of the Prophet Isaiah when he traveled around Israel naked & barefoot for more than 3 years (Isaiah 20), "exposing" the injustice and cruelty of the socio-economic system that worked for elites…but no one else.

Lastly, Jesus calls upon his followers to carry the heavy packs one more mile, creating a comical and confusing situation for Roman soldiers. They would be forced to ask repeatedly to get their own possessions back from lowly peasants who demanded to break the law and keep walking, thus seizing the initiative and taking back the power of choice.

In short, at the core of Jesus' program for life is NOT an apolitical, passive acceptance of power relations, but a crafty pacifism that seeks transformation. Even better, the Gandhian (& US Civil Rights Movement) concept of nonviolent direct action, addressing the oppression of our unique contexts with creative confrontation, most clearly fleshes out what Jesus was getting at with his own campaign. As Martin Luther King wrote from jail in 1963:
We who in engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.

However, the only motivation that Jesus gives for these audacious practices of love & forgiveness is that we ought to strive to mirror the Maker. In the end, it's not about "what works," but about our pledge of allegiance to be like God, providing heat, light, water & food for both the oppressed & the oppressors in our world. Everyone deserves dignity, no matter what. This is what it means to be teleos (unfortunately translated as "perfect" in our English Bibles), a "whole", "complete" force of Love, just like the Heavenly Father.

The real biblical challenge is translating Jesus' teaching on the Mount for 1st World Christians (mostly white, upper-middle-class Americans) who enjoy the privileges of oppressive systems (think about the Chinese slave labor that produces our mobile phones or the massive American economic growth created by the production of weapons, war & the drive for more fossil fuels). The Gospel of Matthew was written to communities of Jesus followers with far less power, privilege and possessions than North American suburban dwellers.

As always, Jesus' teachings call us to both personal inventory & prophetic imagination. Where might we be implicated in policies & practices that "bitch slap" the "least of these" (Mt 25:16-31), that overwhelm them with debt and that burden them with the task lugging heavy loads? And do we have the courage & creativity to pledge solidarity--in word & deed, with our time, energy & resources--with all those who are shut in, locked down and cast out?
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Epilogue: Meditate on Wink's concise description of Jesus' 3rd Way:

-Seize the moral initiative
-Find a creative alternative to violence
-Assert your own humanity and dignity as a person
-Meet force with ridicule or humor
-Break the cycle of humiliation
-Refuse to submit to or to accept the inferior position
-Expose the injustice of the system
-Take control of the power dynamic
-Shame the oppressor into repentance
-Stand your ground
-Make the Powers make decisions for which they are not prepared
-Recognize your own power
-Be willing to suffer rather than retaliate
-Force the oppressor to see you in a new light
-Deprive the oppressor of a situation where a show of force is effective
-Be willing to undergo the penalty of breaking unjust laws
-Die to fear of the old order and its rules
-Seek the oppressor's transformation

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Go Fish

Matthew 4:12-23 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” 17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the Heavenly Empire has come near.” 18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. 23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
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How might this ancient text become an animated Script for us?

1. This episode reminds us that God's love and salvation flow to everyone. We are all chosen. "Gentiles" are stand-ins for those with different ethnicities, nationalities, disabilities, belief systems & sexual orientations than our own. After all, everyone experiences darkness, locked into patterns of poverty, boredom, sickness and/or addiction, overwhelmed by the family systems, social mores & economic policies that govern our world. Only a divine Light can leads us out.

2. Likewise, Jesus' invitation to "follow" is extended to everyone, even smelly fishermen with strange Galilean accents. We are called out of allegiance to Empire (Rome and her client rulers controlled the fishing trade through strict regulation & taxation) and our powerful family expectations and obligations into a subversive citizenship to the Heavenly Empire and a new family of brothers & sisters committed to peculiar Divine duties and desires. When we follow conventional wisdom and common sense--or patriotism and patrilineal passions--instead of the convictions of Jesus, we get caught in the imperial net that leads to the shadow of death. Ultimately, we, like the disciples, are called to follow Jesus up the Mount to a new way of life that leads to loving our enemies, a disciplined intimacy with our spouses, sharing our possessions and a commitment to simple trust in a world of anxiety.

3. Jesus, the Jewish rabbi, pursues his followers. This flips the script on what was expected in 1st century Palestinian Judaism, where followers would seek out and find their rabbi. Jesus reflects a God who is determined to find active participants in the fulfillment of the Divine Dream of redemption for every Living thing on earth. Over and over and over again, God's Spirit subtly presses upon our hearts and minds, beckoning us to join in on the Conspiracy to plant seeds of love and peace in the most ordinary and awkward places. There is no try-out or application. We are already accepted & commissioned. God's Grace goes before us and picks us up whenever we cave in to our copings or become paralyzed by our patterns. We enlist, not in order to earn Love, but because this Love compels us to pass it on.

4. The daunting vocation of fishing for people continues to challenges us. Jesus' movement to obliterate fear, anxiety, pain, injustice and hate needs people of faith & conscience who will put their physical & financial assets on the line. We must re-animate "evangelism" away from the Evangelicals who have counterfeited it into a question concerning eternal destinations. As the 13th century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, "In this life, we are to become heaven so that God might find a home here." Let's organize.

5. Back to the beginning: Jesus' campaign is launched on the back of John the Baptizer, whose disruptive voice caused the powers to arrest him. Like John, we, too, are called to live prophetically in the face of injustice. Where might we be called to proclaim the truth in inconvenient places? On behalf of the undocumented. The unemployed. The maltreated. The abused. In our churches, in the marketplace, in the halls of government, in the media and in our living rooms.

All of this is much-needed good news today, just as it always has been.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Detroit

And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
Matthew 4:19-20

Life is pure adventure, and the sooner we realize that, the quicker we will be able to treat life as art.
Maya Angelou

After much spirited dialogue & spiritual direction, Lindsay and I have discerned a move to Detroit after the current school year is over. I will be retiring from teaching high school and we will dive into new Work. We’ve felt something stirring in our hearts for quite some time now. We’ve known that a change in vocation and location is imminent and finally we set out on a 75-day roadtrip this past summer to meet Christian pastors and activists who are following Jesus into soup kitchens and intentional communities and protests. These prophetic communities have pledged themselves to spiritual disciplines (prayer, Scripture study, song, meal-sharing, etc), but also have been committed to a ruthless solidarity with the poor and marginalized…no matter what the cost. These are some of the most interesting people we've ever met: treasuring both the prayer closet and political activism, proclaiming a God who is most clearly known in the dual vocation of confronting the hoarders of power, privilege & possessions while comforting the masses whom they exploit.

When we visited Detroit in early July, we met people like Jim Perkinson & Lily Mendoza who are seminary professors and political activists. He is a 60-something white dude who committed himself to African-American culture four decades ago and writes theologically about white supremacy (he got his PhD from University of Chicago Divinity School) and other urban theological challenges. He is a well-known spoken word artist in the city. Lily, a native of the Philippines, is the master of intercultural and indigenous studies. She earned her PhD at Arizona State and teaches at Oakland University in the Detroit suburbs. They live in Black Bottom, a historic African-American neighborhood decimated by the construction of the freeways in the 60s.

We also met Bill Wylie-Kellermann and the members of the Jeanie-Wylie Community on Larkins Street, in West Detroit. Bill is a long-time United Methodist pastor, author & nonviolent community activist in the city. He did his theological work at Union Seminary with Walter Wink and William Stringfellow and coined the phrase “public liturgy,” a compelling concept that spills theology & worship out of the sanctuary & seminary and into the streets. The Jeanie-Wylie community is a network of households on Larkins Street that gathers for meals, prayer, Scripture study, urban gardening and community organizing.

Before our road trip, our journey into “Movement Christianity” had been largely facilitated by a lot of reading (and writing) and dialogue with our cherished mentors Ched Myers & Elaine Enns of Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries in Oak View, CA. These post-seminary years (since 2008) have been intensified by more learning and discerning. Reading the works of Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, Elsa Tamez, James Cone, Jon Sobrino, Cornel West, Wes Howard-Brook, Walter Wink and, of course, Myers/Enns have opened our eyes to a radical (from the Latin meaning “roots”) form of Christian discipleship engaged not only with the redemption of our selves, but also the social, economic and political systems that determine the winners & losers of our world.

Meanwhile, we have felt a tension in our souls. No doubt, after 17 years of teaching adolescents subjects like Economics, AP World History & American Government, I have a deep respect for how vital and challenging the teaching vocation is. This semester, I have 150 students in my classes. They bring a lot of energy & diversity into my room: a dizzying blend of apathy, anxiety, attitude and amazement. I continue to love the art of teaching and the relationships I make with these students and, some days, I can literally feel the breath of God coming out of my mouth as I speak. Many days though, I feel a bit flat and overwhelmed with the enormity of the Task.

I transitioned into teaching and coaching immediately after I graduated from the University of Kansas in 1996. I was 22 years old—still an adolescent myself. I was thrilled & honored to come back to the high school I graduated from in ’92: Capistrano Valley HS. I got to coach with Brian Mulligan, a man whose unique blend of professionalism & playfulness has had a huge influence on my work with young people. I eventually got to be the Athletic Director and then Social Science department chair, in addition to coaching a variety of sports and hosting lunch-time workout sessions in the weight room.

Being a 3 on the Enneagram personality typing (“The Achiever”), I’ve spent my “free” time participating in a wide array of Christian ministry endeavors. In short, I've been busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. Over the past 7 years, during our slow exodus out of the popular conservative Evangelicalism of South Orange County, I’ve had the great pleasure of working as a “free agent” pastor: mentoring & counseling young adults, advocating for young undocumented DREAMers (a “people’s prayer breakfast,” legislative visits, rallies/protests, etc), blogging at EasyYolk, hosting married couples groups, giving occasional sermons & talks to churches and non-profits, performing wedding ceremonies and I even officiated the funeral of my college basketball coach, the legendary Bill Mulligan. These adventures have combined with “my day job” to amount to consistent 60-80 hour weeks.

No doubt, it’s been a labor of love. But it has been laborious. I’m tired, but also I’m a bit terrified of what my identity will be in this next season of life. There are plenty of question marks about the year that awaits us, but there are some periods and exclamation points too: more reading & writing, more political organizing & advocacy, more solidarity with the poor & marginalized, more time being mentored. I’m also looking forward to joining Lindsay in more pyscho-educational work with married couples. The more we get to do this, the more I am humbled by my own painful patterns & counterfeit copings.

We hear Detroit calling us to participate in a different kind of Campaign. This Divine whisper has been beckoning us to drop our frayed nets and familiar networks. We have felt this sacred, subtle call during this season of life, and have stuttered and staggered away from making a change. We are finally ready to leave what is secure & safe for a strange land afar. Change, as always, will bring challenges which will create change in our selves. Detroit will, indeed, be a laboratory for transformation. As we work for a whole new world it will work Something ever new in us. Our hope is that this socio-economic downward mobility will infuse a deeper sensitivity to the left out & the lost of our society.

We, in no way, are looking to save the city or even come bearing solutions (we wouldn’t even know where to start). We are looking to learn and be led. We are pledging, initially, a year to this work in Detroit. At the end of next summer, we may feel God percolating us to stay in Motown. Or, perhaps, we will feel a Gust blowing us elsewhere. We eagerly anticipate the coming months of preparation and covet your prayers & support. Thank you for being on this Journey with us.