Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Liberation of Frederick Douglass…and the Bible

I used to attend a Methodist church, in which my master was a class-leader…he could pray at morning, pray at noon, and pray at night; yet he could lash up my poor cousin by his two thumbs, and inflict stripes and blows upon his bare back, till the blood streamed to the ground! All the time quoting scripture, for his authority…
Frederick Douglass, National Anti-Slavery Standard (1841)

When Frederick Douglass ran away from slavery, dressed up as a sailor and boarded a train for freedom with fake papers (undocumented!!!) 186 years ago, it took him 24 hours to get from Baltimore to home base in Rochester. Today, as we officially launch RadicalDiscipleship.Net, we honor Douglass’ underground road trip and, how he utilized the Bible as a radical script to narrate the life of activism he was devoted to.

In addition to his more well-known abolitionist work, Douglass was the only African-American to speak at the women's rights conference at Seneca Falls in 1948, calling for an absolutely revolutionary proposal: full voting rights for all American women. As always, he spoke passionately and clearly:
In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.
He saved his most critical, anti-imperial words, however, for a speech delivered to the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society on July 5, 1852:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
From early on, Douglass learned to read and rehearse the biblical text as his world of language, reflecting on and critiquing not only the horrific nature of slavery, but also “the overwhelming mass of professed Christians in America” who, echoing Matthew 23:24, “strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.”

Douglass reflected the normative African-American biblical reading strategy which, living an oppressed experience, had a biblical perspective “from below.” Douglass could not help but characterize “the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” as the modern-day scribes and Pharisees. His own horrific experience in chattel slavery created a lens to interpret the text: every bit of Christian Scripture screamed for liberation.

Douglass lived in Rochester on and off until 1872 when his house was scorched by arson. He left for D.C. and frequent trips to Europe where he was greeted as a rock star. We must always remember, though, that here in the States, far too many Christian leaders (in both the academy and the church) awkwardly argued against Douglass, quoting the Bible to defend the Confederate “way of life.”
One of Douglass’ contemporaries was Princeton's Charles Hodge, perhaps the most well-known theologian during the mid to late 19th century. Much of his work was devoted to arguing for Princeton to adhere to rigid “biblical inerrancy.”

The Presbyterian Hodge, however, on the issue of slavery, was stuck between “biblical purity” and the fear of taking a side in his own denomination's debate (this, of course, is all too familiar for today’s Presbyterian leaders, especially in the suburbs).

Hodge wrote:
If the present course of the abolitionists is right, then the course of Christ and the apostles was wrong.
He rebuked the biblical reading strategy of the abolitionists as an “attempt to tear the Bible to pieces, or to extort by violent exegesis, a meaning foreign to its obvious sense.”

According to Evangelical historian Gary Dorrien, “[Hodge and his theological predecessors at Princeton] had aspired only to carry on the received doctrines of traditional Reformed orthodoxy, which included the doctrine of infallibility.” When this is the vocation, the seminary, sanctuary and street will never intersect.
In conclusion, I offer two simple historical lessons, borrowed from the proposals of two contemporary (and too-oft overlooked) biblical scholars. African-American Brian Blount’s conclusion in Then the Whisper Put on Flesh (2001) is that Christian communities need to have a “dialogue between spaces that enriches the process of meaning discovery.” Blount’s work analyzed biblical interpretation through the eyes of the African-American slave experience and beckons us to learn how to have biblical-ethical conversations with “the other” in the 21st, transferring the seeking of truth out of the lonesome ivory tower into a place where more voices can be heard.

The work of 5th generation Californian Ched Myers on the Gospel of Mark is quite similiar. In Binding the Strong Man (1988), he claims that all biblical interpretation rooted in the context of the American Empire must seek ‘the perspective of the periphery’ in order to faithfully hear the Word of God for our lives today. This entails listening to readings from the Third World (with their diversity of biblical reading strategies) as well as from the pain and suffering of inter-city America and other pockets of poverty and oppression.

Of course, no historian of biblical interpretation with any integrity can simply peer back into the 19th century and shun Hodge because he failed to seek the perspective of the periphery. Nor can we simply equate the biblical battle over slavery with, say, our present debates over biblical positions on homosexual marriage or the war on terror. However, these two interlocking proposals can give us more wisdom and discernment to uncover where our cultural worlds lead us to unfaithful interpretations in order that the diverse Body of Christ in America might interpret the text a little more faithfully.
On this anniversary of Frederick’s freedom, we lament what Dr. King called the “white moderate” Christian response to so many of the world’s controversial justice issues. Silence, straddling the fence, spiritualizing & personalizing Bible readings all lead to the continuation of the status quo. This is more bad news for all those shut out, locked down & cast aside in our world. Far too many professional religionists—from pastors to seminary professors—refuse to speak truth to power. After all, power is where they get their paychecks. Like Frederick Douglass, may we all be narrated by a text that beckons us into a vocation of liberating the least of these from oppression and abuse.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Proceeding From The Heart

A written homily on Matthew 15:10-28, my final post from Southern California:
We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers From Prison (70 years ago)

Religion gets messy and confusing when we become obsessed with our status before a judging Creator. Are there certain hoops we must jump through in order to be pure, clean & righteous? Is God pissed at us all until we perform the proper transaction, whether prayer or pilgrimage or penance? 500 years of Protestant faith has twisted this concept into even more confusion. We are "justified by faith alone," the Reformers taught the world back in the 16th century and beyond. "Don't try to work your way to Heaven," my Evangelical teachers and pastors taught me during the last couple decades of the 20th century. It's all about receiving grace, they kept assuring me.

But grace is cheap when it is simply flashed as a badge to meet requirements to be in the Presence of the Divine. Instead of the classic Protestant battle pitting "faith" versus "works," in this Gospel episode Jesus schleps away any focus on outwardly ritualistic purity & cleanliness for a mission-oriented commitment to what "proceeds from the heart," a lifestyle void of evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. Twice in Matthew's Gospel Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea's exhortation to "mercy" & an intimacy with God instead of sacrifices and burnt-offerings, classic attempts to curry favor with God over the generations.

Jesus' focus on the heart was not an altar-call of pietistic regime-change, an invitation to make Jesus the personal Lord & Savior of our hearts. Instead, with the help of God's strength, energy & wisdom, he was calling disciples to pledge allegiance to the hard work of getting to the root of our sin. This will take a mixture of mindfulness meditation & meetings, not miracles & magic. Prayer & daily surrender are important, but transformation doesn't just happen. Jesus didn't want to just forgive the symptoms. He yearned for a complete overhaul of the systems.

Jesus knew that humanity would never find real liberation from our sin in a ritual at a religious building. After all, our weakness & waywardness doesn't just wash away, whether through baptism or burnt offerings. We must take inventory of our cyclical pain and the coping mechanisms we've developed from our earliest years, when we picked up habits of the heart that tend to haunt us the rest of our lives.

From my early years, I learned to seek out love & acceptance through athletic and academic achievement. I found notoriety through image & identity on the basketball court. Who I was was based on what others thought of me. My feelings of unworthiness and loneliness were absolved by withdrawing into workouts at the gym. This has morphed into a workaholism and a performance-based lifestyle of tireless accomplishment in ministerial endeavors. I can be embarrassingly competitive and envious of the accomplishment of others. Meanwhile, my feelings are sidelined, speed bumps on the road to my own resume-building. As C.S. Lewis famously diagnosed, I'm "like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea."

Everyone has their own creatively counterfeit response to violations of love & trust: from fight-or-flight to control-or-chaos to grandiosity-or-depression to addiction-or-codependency. This is not premeditated sin, it is a deeply penetrated suffering that becomes very complicated to untangle. All of this "proceeds from the heart" and it is up to us, with the support of community & the structure of spiritual disciplines, to break the cycle of shame & violence. Apathy, indifference, cynicism and justification only lead to more violations of love & trust.

Professional religionists of the 1st century were clinging to the status quo: a system that divided people into sheep and scapegoats entirely based upon the community's definition of purity, a game of "don't touch" involving skin disorders, menstrual cycles, non-kosher foods & unwashed objects. Jesus subverted the rules by placing the focus back on the prophetic, the kind of life that Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah and Isaiah had consistently scripted centuries before. Jesus took it a step further though, beyond the favored nation status of Israel and the ethnocentricity of Jewish pride. Traveling through the modern-day region of Gaza, Jesus found a hero of the faith: a Palestinian woman, begging for her daughter to be dispossessed of the demonic.

Immediately prior to this incident, in the first few verses of Matthew 15, Jesus laid the smack down on these salaried religious experts, proclaiming that Isaiah's text had become fulfilled in them:
This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Jesus offended the scribes and Pharisees by calling them "hypocrites" and then stripping them of their power & privilege, prescribing a washing of hearts, not hands. What happens when we no longer need to go to the church building to get pure? We take it to the streets.

Last century, Martin Luther King dreamt that his children would one day "live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." King's Dream is the proper lens through which to read the controversial teachings of Jesus (anyone who is executed on a Roman cross is, by default, "controversial"). Christian witness has everything to do with actually living the Way that Jesus lived and taught. This will take a whole lot of personal responsibility, but also a prophetic reconstruction of policies that privilege certain people over others. When we tread this Path, we will summon the strength to take up the cross.

Today, our families, schools, corporations, governments and faith communities continue to shortchange gays and lesbians, slander people of color, scapegoat immigrants & silence women. Shockingly, the purity codes remain, handed down by those in power and privilege, and too readily received by the rest of us. We have missed the message.

Everyone must be invited to the Table. No one is unclean or impure. In God's Economy, it simply doesn't matter who your Momma is, which side of the border you were born on, how many times you've been to church or what gender you are attracted to. It's about getting saved from the destructive patterns we've taken on and then committing to a life of saving all those enmeshed in the claustrophobic grip of family, social, economic and political systems. It's about ending the suffering that continues to suffocate our neighbors & enemies. Now is not the time to retreat into narcissism. Too many folks are catching hell.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Long Overdue: A Comprehensive & Courageous Immigration Policy

Democracy can only be saved through non-violence, because democracy, so long as it is sustained by violence, cannot provide for or protect the weak. My notion of democracy is that under it the weakest should have the same opportunity as the strongest.

My House Representative, Rep. Darrell Issa (R) is the wealthiest member of Congress, reportedly worth $460 million. Before he was elected in 2000, he started a business called Directed Electronics Incorporated, the eventual maker of the Viper car alarm which has a recording of the Congressman's voice declaring, "Warning: you are too close, this vehicle is protected by Viper." As it turns out, Issa's immigration policies, detailed under the Homeland Security link on his website, both functionally & tragically mirror his famous product. Both are strong-armed, fear-based and expensive arrangements that portray anyone who comes near as the enemy.

But Issa's staffers insist that the Congressman is "for comprehensive immigration reform," and when pressed, that DREAMers, young undocumented immigrants who came to the States mostly before they were old enough to remember, "should absolutely be part of the conversation," as Issa's Director of Immigration Ellen Dargie told me on the phone last week.

This is surprising, given the Congressman's recent letter to President Obama signed by 30 mostly white male GOP House members, calling for the end of DACA, the executive order that allowed young undocumented students & graduates to be "legal" for 2 years with the option to renew (as long as Obama is the President). It is vital for DACA to be repealed, Issa wrote, "to send a clear signal to all individuals that our immigration laws will be enforced." Even though DACA did not apply to arrivals prior to 2007, Issa has blamed the rapid increase of Central American child refugees flooding our southern border on Obama's executive order, enacted by bypassing a highly polarizing & obstructionist House of Reps.

In regards to these Central American child refugees--more than 50,000 since October 2013--Issa is adamant that they are leaving their hometowns for economic opportunity and caught up in what Dargie calls a "new business model" for coyotes & smugglers, who are "getting into the communities" to exploit young people by convincing them that they have a guaranteed life of freedom & opportunity in El Norte.

Issa's analysis, backed by his 4-day trip to Central America to meet with school, religious leaders, mayors and NGOs, contrasts with reports from major American outlets like the New York Times which are consistently reporting bloated gangs & drug cartels recruiting and kidnapping teenagers (and even younger children). As Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez awkwardly proclaimed late last week at a press conference after a 90-minute meeting with Obama at the White House:
Washington must understand that if you have a Central America with violence because of the drug traffic crime, a Central America without opportunities, without growth in the economy, it is going to always be a problem for the United States.
Indeed, coyotes have been wooing young Central Americans for quite some time and their omnipresence should not be schlepped off. But these exploitative actions are symptoms of a systemic injustice that leads to increasing immigration rates: massive cartel-infused violence created by American demand for illegal drugs, in addition to neoliberal deregulation, privatization & free trade policies that have disrupted or destroyed countless Central American communities of small landholders and subsistence farmers, beckoning them north to the factories and fields that will pay them what they now cannot possibly make at home. Ironically, when we dig down to the root of this crisis, we find Issa's social & economic policies fueling the dysfunction.

Darrell Issa, the 60-year-old former military captain, formerly indicted on grand theft auto and concealed weapons charges, bolsters his macho cred by tweeting marine hooahs (#MarineMonday) & puppy photos (#FridayPuppy). Earlier this year, he forcefully adjourned a House Judiciary Committee meeting while Democrat Elijah Cummings began to speak. Basically, the Congressman doesn't really need to face up to anyone who disagrees with his policies, while controlling the message through his offices and conservative media outlets.

So we are caught up in a national moment of highly dysfunctional immigration policy relegated to the status quo by a highly dysfunctional House of Representatives tacking further to the right to cater to Tea Party fear-mongering. Issa represents this state of affairs perfectly. He's the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, fixated on "scandals" like Obamacare, Bengazi, the IRS and executive branch overreach (DACA), sound biting that he cannot go down the road of immigration reform because the President cannot be trusted because he refuses to execute the immigration laws already on the books while proclaiming that, before anything happens, the border must be further militarized.

But the real scandal is that the President has to go it on his own to give young undocumented immigrants the freedom to come out from the shadows and pursue their future with dignity without the looming cloud of ICE around every corner. As it turns out, far too many House members, including plenty of Democrats, are virtually scared to death that "comprehensive" immigration reform might just make it to the floor of the House, an antagonizing point GOP Speaker of the House John Boehner heralded a few months back. A vote that provides any sort of path towards legalization for these 11 million undocumented immigrants will be risky business in regards to the feared backlash arising from nativist neighborhoods of their respective Districts.

It is virtually impossible for constituents like me, who pledge solidarity with young undocumented students and who simply ask for concise, clear answers about what their congressional representative is advocating for, to actually meet with the Congressman. I have simply asked for one thing: a sit-down 15-minute conversation in the District in early August with a group of school district superintendents, principals, teachers, undocumented students, faith leaders with the Congressman himself. After emails and phone calls and delayed (or a complete lack of) responses from Issa's District, press and immigration office(s), my request has been denied. Just a 15-minute sit-down with a dozen education and religious leaders who are deeply concerned about this issue. Seriously, is this the "democracy" we boast of?

Differing convictions about immigration policy are a given. But Issa's stance, despite more compassionate scripting to faith groups, is clearly a Viperized "get the hell away from our country" perspective. The two group of immigrants that he caters to are hi-tech workers ("55,000 visas per year for foreign students receiving advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics") and undocumented children of parents who have been killed in active duty while serving in the U.S. military. This is clearly not "comprehensive." His policy proposals do nothing to alleviate the fear and suffering of millions of undocumented young people and their parents who have filled "low skilled" jobs for cheap wages.

Rep. Issa, and many political leaders of his ilk, get by on immigration policy by dwelling in a land of generalities. Rule #1 is "Don't be specific about what to do with undocumented immigrants." Case in point, his Orange County Register op-ed from March, 2013:
Those who demonstrate the ability to contribute to our society in a meaningful way should have a path forward to guide them, be placed at the end of the legal-immigration line, meet the strict standards established and face a rigorous but fair application process. Those who are migrant workers should be put into a temporary guest-worker program. Those whose presence is not in our national interests should be immediately removed. The top priority should be identifying and removing criminal aliens.
What does this even mean? Nothing in the op-ed refers to a path to citizenship or, specifically, to young undocumented students who came to the States under circumstances beyond their control and choice.

As it is with most U.S. political leaders, Rep. Issa's immigration policies flow with the demographics of his District, California's 49th, home of the Camp Pendleton Marine Base, "good schools," mostly white suburban staples like Evangelical Christian megachurches, beach resorts, fitness centers, microbreweries, Cheesecake Factories and a history of underground and not-so-underground racism. Rep. Issa's constituents and campaign contributors benefit from the Viperization of immigration policy, cloaked in the language of "comprehensive." He come across as tough-as-hell and seem reasonable at the same time. A white suburbanite's dream.

For the Eastern Orthodox Christian Darrell Issa, and all people of faith & conscience, an immigration policy fixated on Viperizing the border falls far short of the divine path of justice and mercy. When Central American children flee violence on the streets of their villages and are apprehended at the U.S. southern border, are we not vividly reminded of the undocumented Mary & Joseph, with their newborn DREAMer Jesus, who flee to imperial Egypt to escape the paranoid & persecuting wrath of Herod? It was a dream from God, not the homeland security policies of Egypt, that eventually led the holy family safely back to their home village. Our prophetic texts concretely and consistently call for the protection of orphans, widows and immigrants: the most vulnerable members of society. These scripts of peace & justice were designed to cast out fear. That's what nonviolent love does.

Love of neighbor, particularly those barely surviving south of our border, demands dignifying policies that actually do something to protect "little ones" caught up in American drug and free trade policies. We have much to learn from our failed experiments in a criminal justice system obsessed with toughness, punishment and vengeance. We need to summon the courage and creativity to advocate for nonviolent, humanitarian & restorative policies that we have always expected from countries, with the "burden" of geographic proximity, to enact for refugees fleeing violence, disease, famine and economic devastation (see Turkey, Jordan, Kenya, etc).

Recent psychological studies have shown strong parallels between how much power a man possesses and how coldhearted he is. This may be true. But a deep democratic movement of ordinary activists who are committed to critical consciousness and compassionate confrontation with Power can work to "comprehensively" end the spiral of violence for our immigrant population. Indeed, we do have a crisis in our system, as Jeffrey Stout in Blessed Are The Organized (2010) diagnosed a few years ago:
To maintain a position of dominance, even the most powerful people in the world rely on the inaction of others and the resignation that lies beneath it. The powerful became powerful by organizing others to work for them and creating incentives for profitably cooperative activity. It appears to be against the interests of the rich and the lucky for everyone else to be similarly well organized. The rich and the lucky benefit from making large-scale democratic reform appear hopeless. Paradoxically, they also benefit from making large-scale change seem easily achievable, for example, by casting a vote every four years for a candidate who promises something called “change.”
This situation can only be overcome by people who commit to activism instead of apathy.

A Viperized Immigration Policy is terrible news for friends like Aida who is working full-time at an assisted living center to pay for nursing school or Ariana, an honors student at UC Riverside. They didn't know they were undocumented until they were a few months away from high school graduation. Aida & Ariana deserve to be advocated for. They shouldn't be placed in the back of some imaginary immigration line. They shouldn't have to pay a fee or a fine to become "legal." They should be just be legal. Period.

If someone has the creativity and business acumen to make hundreds of millions of dollars on a talking car alarm, he most certainly has the energy & resources to give these young people dignity & documentation. If he can't or won't (as appears to be the case), he shouldn't be allowed to get away with hiding behind "comprehensive" and "securing the border." What some cynically call "politics" is really just deception and it must be called out.

Give Rep. Issa a call and tell him to stop hiding behind generalities and Viperized policies, and, as a person of faith, to courageously advocate for our undocumented brothers and sisters. Isn't this what Jesus would do?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Repenting of Homophobia: An Autobiography

The invitation to "turn around" assumes there is something important and precious we have left behind. It is an invitation to deconstruct what is wrong about our way of life and to reconstruct one that is more characterized by justice & mercy.
Ched Myers, Who Will Roll Away The Stone? (1994)

Back in '08, I began a slow journey of repenting of the homophobia that had been instilled in me by Western civilization in general and, more specifically, the sports & Evangelical Christian cultures that most shaped my moral imagination during the "formative" 80s & 90s. Back then, my world was framed by a triumphalistic masculinity.  My Jesus was athletic. And he was kicking ass.  

We wasted the summer away playing "smear the queer" in suburban backyards and verbally interrogating the sexuality of our opponents in games of over-the-line and whiffle ball (after all, only a "fag" can't hit a home run).  We attended a Christian elementary school and actively participated in a Bible Church youth group.  I don't remember hearing my teachers and pastors ever specifically condemn the "gay lifestyle," but I was scripted into a Tradition, a Movement of millions of "faithful" pilgrims making audacious claims about what the Bible says about people that I never really knew, except for maybe a distant aunt or wayward uncle who were "different."  At least I didn't think I knew anyone who lived on that side of the bed.

For much of my college and early adult life, this issue was simply not on the front burner of my stove.  It was stashed away, fermenting in the cellar, alluded to only in dogmatic discussions about what was "clearly biblical." As it turned out, for me and so many members of my cadre, the issue of (homo)sexuality was just that.  An issue.  And issues are rarely anything more than an intellectual position, taken on like osmosis, leading to debates, sometimes ferocious.

But then something strange happened to me on the way to becoming a Tebow-like moral pillar. The sinners must have been praying for me.  Lindsay and I found ourselves sitting on our couch in our living room in Seal Beach with a view of the Pacific dialoguing with Dale & Stacy Fredrickson about the possibilities that the God we were convinced was enfleshed in the Jesus of the Gospels was, above all else, not concerned with what team we played for, but how we played. Sure enough, the moral universe bends towards a vocation of mercy & justice, averse to the games we play that lock certain people into prisons of impurity.

And then seminary happened. And we learned that the Bible was not a manual of self-evident truths & principles to live by, dictated by a Male God, as we had been taught over the previous decades. This inspirational literary collection, instead, was an ongoing conversation among ancient people of faith & conscience who were adamantly striving to make sense of their neck of the world and the Power of Love that they were compelled created & sustained it, permeating everything. Those of us who still take the Bible seriously (instead of literally) know full well that certain Greek & Hebrew words that English Bible translators render "homosexuality" had nothing to do with two people of the same sex loving each other until death do they part.

And then along came Jesus, whose humble life of mercy & unconditional love was bookended with the disgusting manger & the horrifying cross.  Meditate on either of these symbols long enough and we realize that the god made known in Jesus was all about being in solidarity with all those little ones left behind by family, government, culture & religion. This would surely include sexual minorities who, throughout the centuries, have been consistently demonized, misunderstood & scapegoated. No doubt about it, these "sinners" would be dining with Jesus.  

One thing I agree with my brothers and sisters who still pledge allegiance to the "conservative" Male God of American suburbia is that, indeed, Jesus was not about tolerance & acceptance.  Open up the Gospels and all those red letters bleed out a demanding, denouncing discipleship: give everything to the poor, live & eat with a ruthless trust just-one-day-at-a-time, love & forgive your enemies, stop lusting after your friend's wife & SUV.  But not one word uttered about Adam & Steve loving each other in sickness and in health.  

Nothing about Jesus is "anything goes."  Surely, the god mirrored in the Way of Jesus cares deeply about the mystery & thrill of sexuality, a consensual and covenantal gift to humanity.  When it is commoditized & coercive, surely Jesus weeps. Sexual assault, abuse & anguish happen, from time to time, in the Castro or West Hollywood. But we find these in epidemic numbers in the American military, universities & corporate business trips.

Of course, for me, the "issue" of homosexuality finally became enfleshed in real people.  Like our friend Ty, an artist & pastor.  Like Travis, the head volleyball coach I hired while I was the athletic director 10 years ago.  Like Corrine, one of Lindsay's best friends from high school.  Like Michelle, the girl who set most of the curves in my AP classes back in the day.  Like Alex, the all-league soccer player, a brilliant thinker who actively participated in my Economics class last year. These are just some of the mentors, colleagues, friends & students, evangelizing me with their beautiful, graceful & compassionate lives.  I could go on and on and on.   

And this is why the Michael Sam ESPYs last Wednesday was such a seminal moment for tens of millions of young people and old people who have grown up in the grandstands, pews and shadows of two of the main pillars of the American Dream: Sports & Evangelicalism.  The 6'2" 261 pound Michael Sam "came out" into our backyards to play.  And nobody could smear the queer.  He was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year.  More important, he is a authentically crying human being longing for healthy intimacy & acceptance, just like everyone else.  Through Sam, even football coaches, of all people, have come to realize that "gay" is not an issue or a lifestyle choice. Gay put on flesh and dwelt among us athletes & sports fans.

That groaning in the distance is the god who was scapegoated on the cross begging us all to stop the stone-throwing and to rigorously wrestle the planks out of our own eyes.  After all, repenting is quite a lot like what Audre Lorde writes about revolution: it's not a one-time event.  Our understanding of what is Real and the world it stains with Love must spill over from sexual orientation into other chasms of injustice like gender, race & class.  Here and now, we can make the commitment to stop the smear campaign so that people of color, women, the indigenous, the poor & gays and lesbians can pave a clear path to the Divine.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Doing Ordinary Things Differently: Soul Dialogue With Sheldon Good

Sheldon Good is the Employment & Community Outreach Specialist at Community of Hope DC, an organization working to improve the health and quality of life for low-income, homeless, and underserved families and individuals in the District of Columbia. A graduate of Goshen College, the 20-something Good is a Pennsylvanian Mennonite just recently married (05.24.14) to the irenically Texan Catholic Jenn Svetlik. Good is a 7 on the Enneagram, a marathon runner, Allen Iverson fan, avid writer, cook & gardener.

EY: I was pleasantly not-surprised to read your email a couple of weeks ago: "Given the protests over the past two years, we are boycotting the World Cup, in solidarity with poor and vulnerable people in Brazil and beyond. We also aren't really into soccer."

What went into this decision and how's it going?

SG: While I may not be the world's biggest soccer fan, I am a huge sports fan. I've never boycotted a professional sports event before.

I decided to boycott the World Cup after learning about how outraged Brazilians have become regarding the government's decision to spend $14 billion on a soccer tournament while millions of Brazilians lack basic services. Myriad of strikes and protests in major cities across the country have included homeless people, subway workers, and airport workers. The day World Cup action began, as 600,000+ visitors were making their pilgrimage to the pitch, stadiums, airports, and transport systems weren't even finished.

So far, I've had to decline multiple viewing party invitations. When the U.S. played Germany I watched for about five minutes because my coworkers were providing pizza.

EY: I haven't totally boycotted, but I do make it a spiritual practice to root for historically colonized teams over conquistadors. Basically, I root against (mostly) white teams. US versus Belgium? I was "rooting" (while not watching) for Belgium because the overall (per capita) quality of their beer is far better than what Americans have to offer.

Can't a case be made, though, for boycotting ALL of our professional sporting events since most (if not all) of the cities who have teams have subsidized stadiums with taxpayer money and heavily gentrified neighborhoods, displacing hundreds & thousands of poor people?

SG: This boycott is not about me. I wouldn't be boycotting the World Cup if local people had not engaged in protests and strikes. I see my boycott as a way of being in solidarity with Brazilians in their quest for justice. It is true that taxpayer-subsidized stadiums are constructed all across the U.S. and lead to economic displacement and neighborhood gentrification. In Sao Paulo, where the World Cup kicked off, subway and overland train workers went on strike for higher wages, forcing commuters onto overcrowded buses and into cars. This produced a 125-mile backup. I'm not aware of anything near this scale happening in response to a sporting event in the U.S.

EY: Let's shift from sports to a topic a bit closer to home: marriage. As a newlywed, what are you discovering about what it means for a radical disciple of Jesus to be a husband?

SG: I'm no expert on marriage, seeing as I've only been married for a little over a month. What I'm discovering daily through marriage is that Jesus' call to live a life of humility, faithfulness, and peace applies not only in our public (political) lives but also in our private (covenanted) relationships. I'm learning the importance of taking consistent personal inventory. What makes me irritable? What makes me jealous? What makes me lonely? What makes me grateful? What makes me energized? Ultimately, what allows me, and my partner, to flourish?

Miroslav Volf, a Croatian theologian and public intellectual who teaches at Yale Divinity School, has written extensively on the topic of human flourishing. Volf says there are two key components to flourish as a human being: leading life well and life going well. So human flourishing has both active and passive dimensions. As a husband, I am learning that a covenant relationship allows me to flourish more fully, to practice radical discipleship, to become the person I am called to be.

I am trying to reflect on what it means to value and practice humility, faithfulness, and peace in the context of a covenant relationship. It can at times feel intimidating for me to be a husband, like I don't want to fail or hurt my wife in any way. This leads me to sometimes retreat, shut down, and not share my thoughts and feelings out of fear that I will hurt my wife. But what I'm realizing is that closing myself off is what can hurt our relationship, not humbly, honestly, and openly sharing my thoughts and feelings. So I'm learning to lean in to my emotions more and to share them with my wife, even and especially when that feels difficult. This, I believe, is part of what it means for me to flourish as a radical disciple of Jesus who's learning how to be a husband.

EY: I really resonate with your compulsion to retreat, shut down and not share thoughts/feelings out of fear our hurting your spouse. This has been a major struggle for me in the past decade of marriage to Lindsay. I still have amateur status when it comes to identifying and sharing my feelings. I'm emotionally still an adolescent. For decades, I lived with the wrong-headed notion that emotions were just speed bumps on the road to achievement and success, at work, in ministry, with athletics and even, ironically, in relationship. T.S. Eliot wrote that "our lives are mostly an evasion of ourselves."

This, I've experienced & observed, is a major challenge for radical Christian disciples who believe that a prophetic imagination requires the bulk of our time, energy, thought and resources to be poured into prayer, research, activism and a variety of good deeds. Personal inventory, as you note, must be at the forefront of all these endeavors. Marriage is quite a laboratory for discipleship experimentation. I simple cannot wiggle out of all my sin & weakness (as Paul laments in Romans 7), no matter how much I creatively try to closet my False Self.

SG: Indeed!!

Thomas Merton: "To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects ... is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of the activist ... kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful."

EY: How does the radical disciple go about eating? How does the follower of Jesus eat differently than nominally "Christian?"

SG: Eating, along with breathing, thinking, and sleeping, is one of the most basic human functions. Although integral to our survival and well-being, we're generally not very mindful of these sacred acts. Too often we passively place ourselves on autopilot, ignoring what makes us uniquely human. In fact, I just read in the Washington Post about a study where people chose to be shocked by electricity rather than just sit alone and do nothing but think. In other words: people, especially men, the study found, hate being alone with their thoughts so much that they'd prefer to be in pain.

Eating is a sacred act. Jesus didn't just want his disciples to encounter him through the Eucharist, but through daily acts of mindful table fellowship. For those of us with a certain financial stability, eating is not just a sacred act, but a moral act. When discussing questions of "how to eat well," I often turn to the topic of food security.

The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as existing “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”. Food security includes questions about economics and incentive systems, food distribution, nutrition and health, agricultural practices, and power and politics. Keep in mind the most basic, yet integral fact when discussing anything related to food: Enough food is produced worldwide to feed all 7 billion of us. However, nearly 1 billion of us are suffering from chronic hunger today.

For me, one of the most fundamental ways I act as a radical follower of Jesus is to eat a mostly vegetarian diet. There are a myriad of reasons why I and others chose this lifestyle, some of which are personal preference, others of which are acts of solidarity. There's a lot we don't know. It may sound surprising, but a full range of necessary nutrients for humans has yet to be identified by scientists. However, what we do know is that vegetarians have roughly half the food-related carbon footprint of meat eaters. Vegans are lower yet.

Food production is responsible for about 25 percent of the greenhouse-gas emissions heating up our Earth, and meat has a much large climate footprint than fruits and vegetables. But in addition to eating mostly plants, eating local is just as important. Consider how much carbon we would keep out of our atmosphere if we ate more food from our farmers market than from South America and Asia. Author and activist Michael Pollan's bestselling book "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto" contained an audacious, yet simple, maxim for how to eat well: eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

What kind of society could we create if morning, noon, and night we had the prophetic imagination to alter our most fundamental act of consumption in such a way that valued our personal wellness as well as that of the common good?

EY: Despite his sexual/power dysfunction, the work of John Yoder challenged me to think differently about the Eucharist. Yoder expanded and deepened it for me, bringing it to my personal meal decisions and pressing me into more systemic engagement with industrial food production and the politics of hunger. The world has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed, as Brother Gandhi reminded the world 7 decades ago. He was just following the radical actions of Jesus who shared simple-yet-abundant meals with the unclean, impure sinners and called his followers, the night before he was assassinated to do the same--and to remember him every time we do it. I really believe that one aspect of the Eucharist is what Mark Bittman addressed in his last NY Times column, challenging the social consciousness of "foodies:"
The qualities that characterize good food vary within a narrow range. Good food is real, it’s healthy, it’s produced sustainably, it’s fair and it’s affordable. Maybe it’s prepared at home, though if communal kitchens or restaurants can deliver those qualities, I’m all for that.
Like you, my vegetarianism is pure discipleship. They are totally interrelated. My call to follow Jesus requires me to think critically about the foods I'm buying. Where was this grown and harvested? What was the carbon footprint to deliver it to my plate? What chemicals were involved in the growth and packaging of this "food?" Were the workers paid (at the very least) a living wage? How much water was used to bring this to my plate? Etc, etc, etc? We could go on and on. And we must. If Meister Eckhardt was right, then what we eat REALLY matters (more than ever) in the world today: In this life, we are to become heaven so that God might find a home here.

Last topic: physical exercise. As a committed radical disciple, I believe in taking care of the storehouse of the Spirit of God and I feel God's presence during and after hard workouts, especially long runs. The endorphins kick in and there is a natural rush of gratitude for the body and determination I've been given. And it is all a Gift. And it connects me with the Creator and the beauty and wild of Nature. But, I think, as a 3 on the Enneagram (the achiever) I've always felt the tension of "getting my workout in." I can get quite obsessive with lifting weights 4 times per week and running 5-6 times per week. The illusions & lies flood me: I am only as good as my last workout. There are body image issues as well that lock me into a mental prison.

How do you experience your marathon training and racing as an aspect of your discipleship?

SG: My journey with running began in spring 2006 as a freshman at Goshen College. I was on the men's tennis team, but largely dissatisfied with the results of my individual play. I was on scholarship, was under-performing, and stressed. I needed an "outlet" from the daily grind and pressure of collegiate athletics, so I started running, going out for two or three miles once or twice a week. I hated it. Absolutely hated it. Now, I'm the son of one of the most gifted athletes I know: my mother. She's been running my entire life, and ran up until the day before she gave birth to me. I grew up going to her races and could never figure out why she and the thousands of other people in these races would want to run mile after mile, for fun. And when I started trying it the spring of my freshman year in college, I still hand't figured it out.

Slowly but surely, however, I began to enjoy it. By my junior year I was running year around, and by my senior year I told myself for the first time that I loved running. I loved it a lot more than collegiate tennis, though I finished out my four-year career. Since 2009 I've run multiple half marathons and marathons. So what happened? How did I come to love something I used to hate? Why did I enjoy a sport that's used as punishment in other sports?

The longer, the harder, the farther, the faster I ran, the more I learned about myself. I learned about my body: how to care for muscles I didn't know existed, how to fuel and hydrate properly, how to use the proper stride rate, how to breathe efficiently. I learned about my mind: how to slow my hyperactive thoughts, how to get pumped up, how to convince myself I could do a little bit more. I learned about my soul: how to reflect on the previous day and anticipate the upcoming one, how to pray while exercising, how to detect the presence of the Spirit in the movements of my emotions. That last one is perhaps the biggest blessing of running for me, and the spiritual exercise -- no pun intended -- that most intrigues and challenges me.

One of the most fundamental maxims running has taught me is that every one of us is stronger than we think we are. Scott Jurek, arguably the best ultra-long-distance runners in the world who happens to be vegan, put it this way in his book "Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness":
Every single one of us possesses the strength to attempt something he/she isn't sure he/she can accomplish. It can be running a mile, or a 10K race, or 100 miles. It can be changing a career, losing 5 pounds, or telling someone you love her or him.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Walter Wink: A Life of Personal Inventory & Prophetic Imagination is my spiritual blindness that is the greatest impediment to my scholarship.
Walter Wink, Just Jesus: My Struggle To Become Human (2014)

This summer has produced a couple of controversial Supreme Court rulings on the separation of church & state from 6 Catholics & 3 Jews. Of course, most folks don't believe that faith (or ethnicity or gender or life experience) has anything to do with the way justices rule on cases, especially when they rule in ways that are congruent with our own convictions. But, indeed, the unique nature of who they are affects the way they comprehend and rule on the cases that come before them, as Fordham University law professor Thane Rosenbaum adamantly proclaims:
Try as they might to claim judicial independence, justices are still the products of where they came from and who they were before going onto the bench. Why do you want robed robots? Why aren’t we more honest that you are where you come from? The robe doesn’t shield you from that consolidated history.
Indeed, convenient pleas of objectivity consistently cloak decisions of our highest court, but perhaps even more dubiously, it provides cover for the interpretation of our sacred texts, by pastors, theologians and biblical scholars alike. No matter how loud someone screams, "It's just what the Bible says!", how we live inevitably colors how we see the text. Powerful vested interests, deep fears, deep unresolved hurts, family expectations, peer pressure, economic opportunity and social ideology all participate in the interpretive process. What we've lived through paints what becomes the Word of God, no matter how scientific or spiritual we claim our readings are.

The late Walter Wink, perhaps earlier and more humbly than any Christian leader in North America, addressed this sensitive & mostly overlooked state of affairs and this theme is the heartbeat of his final work, persevering to complete it in the final years of his struggle with dementia. The posthumously published Jesus Jesus: My Struggle To Become Human (2014) provides a rare, raw look into the psyche and struggles of this bible scholar and activist and the outcomes & implications of the interpretations that were harvested from his authentically human terrain.

Wink's Texas upbringing cultivated an obsession with perfection, straining to garner the approval of his father, who once sentenced him to a night in an outdoor "brig" when he was only nine-years-old. Eventually, life leads Wink to come to grips with his own repressed feelings (for eight years, he commits to carrying around a "feelings journal" to identify and document the pain welling up in inside him) and foibles, finding a God in Scripture, modeled in the life and teachings of Jesus, who yearns for all of us to become more HUMAN:
The goal of life, then, is not to become something we are not--divine--but to become what we truly are--human. We are not required to become divine: flawless, perfect, without blemish. We are invited simply to become human, which means growing through our sins and mistakes, learning by trial and error, being redeemed over and over from sin and compulsive behavior, becoming ourselves, scars and all. Is it not the case that the deepest reaches of our humanity are born of our wounds, even through our sins?
A vital biblical image, for Wink, is the phrase "the Son of Man," found almost exclusively in Ezekiel and in the synoptic Gospels. This, and not "Son of God," was Jesus' self-proclaimed title, shimmering the prophet Ezekiel who was also commanded to eradicate the theological lies and illusions, about both God & humanity, that caused Israel to steer off course. Winks uncovers an empowered humanity in the paralytic healing of Mark 2:
God transcendent is God immanent in the human being. Jesus does not contemplate a God outside the universe intervening to heal the paralytic, but as a power which can be evoked in the sick person himself: 'your faith has made you whole.' If through Jesus they had been put in touch with the human being within them, no wonder they had such collective self-confidence and indomitable courage. These lowly disciples of Jesus are authorized with a power that equals or exceeds that of the priesthood.
For Wink, the notion of God, and everything else there is, is actuated within an integral worldview. God is not solely contained in sacred books or buildings or the biographies of religious experts, but is everywhere and within everything. Everything interpenetrates everything else, as the early 20th century naturalist John Muir posited, "When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world." Prayer, therefore, is not calling upon God on a throne, high in the heavens, but both visualization & invitation of how we might respond to the access of the Transcendent in and all around us:
Because we are already related, and we are one body in God, God's healing power is already there and here. Our prayer is simply a matter of opening the situation to God.
The decades that Wink poured into interpreting "the principalities and powers" of the New Testament focused on both the outer, physical manifestation and the inner spirituality of the institutions that order our world: from families to corporations to governments to faith communities. People often talk about a "darkness" they can tangibly feel when they experience a corporate culture or family ethos.

Some of Wink's most vibrant, and most popular, exegetical work stems from and fortifies his cred as a card-carrying "practitioner of active nonviolence." His early participation in the civil rights movement, traveling with other Union Theological Seminary students to visit the imprisoned Martin Luther King in Alabama in the 50s and returning for the dynamic & dangerous Selma march in '65, and his later work to abdicate apartheid in South Africa in the 80s, were informed by & influenced his interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. Wink was compelled that these teachings of Jesus were strategies for oppressed people to seize the moral initiative in the socio-political struggles of every era. He used historical research to buttress his prophetic imagination. On Jesus' controversial & most-often-misunderstood command to "turn the other cheek":
...what we are dealing with here is unmistakenly an insult, not a fistfight. The intention is not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her 'place'...A backhand slap, then, was the normal way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves, husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews...fighting back and retaliating would be suicide...The only normal response would be cowering in submission.
Wink worked all this out in biblical workshops and role-playing. Turning the cheek would give the oppressor two choices: (1) a close-fisted punch with the right hand (only equals exchanged blows) and (2) standing awkwardly with a thumb up their ass. This is nonviolence as a the ultimate weapon in the fight for justice. But for Wink, it was not necessarily about effective strategies for winning the fight. There was something deeper, more personal happening:
Even if nonviolent action does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor, it does affect those committed to it.
In the decades to come, Wink will be given more credit for his exhaustive work on the nature of interpreting Scripture in order to be audaciously performed in both personal & public settings. His trenchant critique of "biblical objectivity" (in 1973) led to the denial of tenure at Union Seminary and his exegetical work on homosexuality (in 1979) was, no doubt, the source of wide-eyed disapproval from the status quo. But Wink pressed on, never one to let public opinion to put a damper on a day filled with scholarship and activism.

More than anything, in Just Jesus, Wink is a model for (mostly white) males (like me) in leadership who have been seductively been taught by a patriarchal culture to hide feelings, weaknesses and fears behind their achievements and credentials. Wink's unique authenticity takes steps towards what bell hooks pinpoints as a key aspect of the vocation of manhood in America: "to regain the space of openheartedness and emotional expressiveness" that the Powers (the church, the military, the marketplace, the entertainment media) have all but erased in men. Indeed, this book is a space for this kind of healing.

Just Jesus is an easy-to-read (most "chapters" are between 1-3 pages) primer on significant seasons of Wink's life, his controversial convictions and interpretations, his struggle with dementia and fear of dying, and most importantly, a biographical expose on just how much vulnerability has been vacant from the realm of expertise. Wink's greatest gift was (and is) his bold proclamation that the depth of his life affected the quality and outcome of his scholarship. When it comes to texts (whether newspaper articles or novels, travel logs or theological treatises), knowing the life of the interpreter makes a world of sense of the interpretations themselves. Like everything else, they don't just fall from heaven.
A prayer of Walter Wink's from his trilogy on the The Powers--Naming the Powers (1984), Unmasking the Powers (1986), Engaging the Powers (1992)--exposing the "myth of redemptive violence" that has saturated our society:
God, help me to refuse ever to accept evil; by your Spirit empower me to work for change precisely where and how you call me; and free me from thinking I have to do everything.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Re-Scripting Our Origins

Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil...And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die...But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes...
Genesis 2:9,16-17; 3:4-6

In any case, it is clear that interpretation is not finished, but is an endless, open-ended project for those who take the text seriously and authoritatively.
Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction To The Old Testament: The Canon & Christian Imagination (2003)

...the Genesis narrative, which preserved and adapted ancient traditions of memory, represents the world's first literature of resistance to the social and ecological disaster we now call civilization.
Ched Myers, "From Garden To Tower" in Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry (2013)

The ominous spectacle of climate catastrophe brings with it a predictable variety of responses, from overwhelmed hysteria to intensified activism to apathetic shruggery. Now that former Bush Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson has weighed in, comparing it to the now-obvious signs of the global financial crisis back in 2008, we absolutely know that the industrialized dreams of humanity long ago overreached and our children we are going to suffer the consequences for it. One study after another after another comes out every month telling us it is actually worse that we ever imagined.

A few months back, I read an interesting interview with George Monbiot in Orion Magazine. Monbiot, the English author & political activist, focuses on environmental and indigenous issues and is releasing a new work in the States later this year with the sexy title Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding. Here's just one of his responses that shimmered for me:

That, in a way, is the hardest thing of all—to stop believing that, without our help, everything’s going to go horribly wrong. I think in many ways we still suffer from the biblical myth of dominion where we see ourselves as the guardians or the stewards of the planet, whereas I think it does best when we have as little influence as we can get away with.

For people of faith & conscience, those of us who are absolutely convinced that real spirituality yearns for personal inventory, social analysis & prophetic action, Monbiot's diagnosis is vital, taking us back to the first few pages of the Bible, our sacred origin Story. For too long, we "civilized" humans have convinced ourselves that we are "called" to be in charge of the rest of Creation. We have taken that agenda and read it into our sacred texts. Perhaps we need to get the hell out of the way so that "other" species can, once again, survive and thrive.

The cultural critic and author Daniel Quinn storied the world two decades ago with his classic Ishmael (1992), an analysis of the original Leaver societies (indigenous, hunting-gathering tribes that have been around for 3,000,000 years) and the Taker (sedentary agriculture societies since about 8,000BCE) civilizations that have steamrolled them since. Quinn turns our conventional wisdom (what he calls "Mother Culture") on her head:

The story the Takers have been enacting here for the past ten thousand years is not only disastrous for mankind and for the world, it's fundamentally unhealthy and unsatisfying. It's a megalomaniac's fantasy, and enacting it has given the Takers a culture riddled with greed, cruelty, mental illness, crime and drug addiction.

Yet, the Story of civilization has always been supported by Christians through a rigorous quoting of the Bible. We have all been led down the road of Taker ideology by being convinced that the earth was made for humanity, and not the other way around. This is directly opposed to the mentality the prophetic "Leaver" Chief Seattle modeled for us more than a century ago, "Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” We humans, as it turns out, are just one tiny cog in the wheel of Life.

The difference between Seattle and So Many Civilized Christian Leaders is that mainstream (or "imperial") Christianity, the brand of faith with the loudest coughers & largest coffers, has consistently and adamantly advocated flawed convictions about both humanity and the Bible. All people, they claim, are inherently wicked, stained with an "original sin." Our only hope, they claim, is in a other-worldly heaven. Until then, the "saved" and "enlightened" (blessed by God!) must take the bull by the horns and be in control of the destiny of the world. The history of civilization has thrown many diverse forms of this ideology at us, along the way.

The Bible, they claim, is divinely written, a sacred, magical text designed to be an "inerrant" life-manual of timeless truths, self-evidently read. This has left interpretation to the experts, mostly white heterosexual males with connections to power and privilege, mostly delivering their "biblical" messages from suburban ghettos. Meanwhile, secular and "liberal" religious leaders scoff at the whole affair, mostly throwing out the proverbial Bible with the bath water.

What if, perhaps, the problem hasn't actually been with individual sinners or sacred scripts, but instead with the way that sinners read sacred scripts? Perhaps the book of Genesis was written, instead, to be what biblical scholar Ched Myers calls "an ancient warning tale" about what happens when humanity does whatever it takes to possess god-like powers and wisdom, the sanctified ends always justifying the sinful means. This, in fact, is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that the "civilized" have been eating from since "Day One." But day one was really a good 3 million years into the experiment of Earth as a home for homo sapiens.

But this all starts with not-so-subtle Sunday morning sermonizing, according to Myers:

This drama has long been read in our churches as a theological morality play about obedience, freedom, power and/or sex. But it can also be understood as an archetypal explanation of the 'break' in human consciousness that inaugurated our long history of alienation from the creation. In this reading, the 'forbidden fruit' symbolizes the ancient human conceit that we, by employing our ingenuity, our technology, and our social organization, can improve on a world pronounced 'good' by Creator, but apparently not good enough for us.

Adam & Eve get booted from the Garden when they diverge from indigenous ways of caring, sharing and bearing witness to a Mother Earth that grows enough for everyone, all on Her own. Then the controlling Cain (the agriculturalist) kills the care-free Abel (the nomadic herder). Quinn even has the audacity to speculate that Cain may represent the "civilized" Caucasians to the north driving out the wilderness wandering "tribes" of Israel. After all, white people have been crusading, conquering and clearing out indigenous "savages" for millennia.

If the Bible is instead a collection of diverse texts--some awkwardly securing the power arrangements of the status quo and some prophetically calling godly people to protect and provide for the poorest and most precious among us (including the Land)--then our interpretations have implications. These two voices emerge from our Bible readings to form what Wes Howard-Brook, in Come Out My People (2010), calls the religion of empire ("a human invention used to justify and legitimate attitudes and behaviors that provide blessing and abundance for some at the expense of others.") and the religion of creation ("the experience of and ongoing relationship with the Creator God, leading to a covenantal bond between that God and God's people, for the blessing and abundance of all people and all creation.").

Our choice between these two fundamental options has severe consequences.

As Howard-Brook writes, the Bible "gathers together witnesses to a passionate, historical argument over what it means to be 'God's People.'"For prophetic Christians (radical disciples) like me, the dark-skinned, simple-living Jesus of the Gospels is the litmus test of texts (in both the Hebrew Bible & the New Testament) that inspirationally serve either as warnings of power-grabbing & privilege-clinging (to be repented & resisted) or as wonders of an ancient & future hope of egalitarian life-giving (to be embodied & enacted).

The battle over the Bible must continue today with a clear focus on the implications of interpretations. We all bring an agenda to the Script, no matter how loud we scream "objective" or "neutral" or "historical context." We must read carefully and critically, constantly taking inventory on the road that various readings lead us. And establishment readings of Scripture have taken us down roads of silence, justification and overt campaigning for what bell hooks summarizes as imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

Our present predicament, arrogantly or ignorantly denied by oil tycoons and church leaders alike, has been scripted by interpreters of the Bible who have placed a priority on controlling and cashing in on the Land around them. What's commoditized desperately needs to be scrutinized. It's time we made a shift towards Bible studies that value the wild, indigenous ways that had effectively sustained all species of life for millions of years. Anything less would be uncivilized.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Democracy Still Matters

To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that which shows what it might become. America -- this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of 'no' into the 'yes' -- needs citizens who love it enough to re-imagine and re-make it.
Cornel West

A decade ago, urgently written during an escalating "war on terror," a warrantless surveillance program and two gigantic tax breaks for the wealthy, Cornel West's Democracy Matters: Winning The Fight Against Imperialism emerged as a manifesto for people of faith and conscience in the post-9/11 North American context. West, then a professor at Princeton and quickly becoming the most popular American public intellectual, highlighted three anti-democratic dogmas threatening to devour American society: free-market fundamentalism, escalating authoritarianism and aggressive militarism. Democracy Matters, 10 years later, in a world of whistleblowers and whittling budgets, is more important than ever.

Democracy Matters is a reminder to us all that the Republicans--proclaimers of the gospel of small government except when it depends upon big government to subsidize church leaders, ban recreational drugs, sanctify "traditional marriage," deport immigrants and militarize the globe--do not have a monopoly on anti-democratic dogmas. Indeed, in the age of Obama, with Gitmo still open for business, Edward Snowden on the run and a proliferation of drone strikes abroad and deportations on the home front, both parties are indicted in a system that remains, after centuries, allergic to genuine democratic sensibilities. As Jeffrey Stout, a close colleague of West's at Princeton, proclaims in his Obama-era Blessed Are The Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America (2012):
…democracy isn’t dead, but only because it was never really alive. Our ancestors claimed to have a democratic republic, but what they really had was a system for exploiting slaves, women, and other disadvantaged groups while setting up equally effective mechanisms for dominating the peoples of Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America.
What side of history we are on is a question for the present, learned from the past. Dr. West prods the reader with what is really at stake and whether we are going to participate in the ideal of democracy for all or imperialist dreams. No matter how we slice it, we are either activists or inactivists.

For those of us radical disciples engaged in the struggle for church renewal and social reform, West's 5th chapter, entitled "The Crisis Of Christian Identity In America" ought to be a script re-read and rehearsed annually. It is a clear and concise analysis of the deep tension between what he calls "Constantinian" and "Prophetic" options of North American Christianity.

Drawing on the label utilized by the late Mennonite theologian & Notre Dame professor John Howard Yoder and popularized by Duke Divinity School's Stanley Hauerwas, Constantinian Christians build on the legacy of 4th century Roman emperor Constantine who strategically incorporated Christianity into his imperial program, giving Christianity unprecedented legitimacy and respectability, but as West laments "robbed it of the prophetic fervor of Jesus." As the contemporary Franciscan priest Richard Rohr explains:
Most of Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence, simplicity, downward mobility, forgiveness of enemies & inclusivity, has had no strong effect on the entire history of Christianity, except on those few in every generation & every denomination who do the full journey.
Or according to the anarchist French philosopher Jacques Ellul:
History bears witness that in generation after generation there has been a highly respected social class (that of priests) whose task is to make Christianity the very opposite of what it really is.
Modern day Constantinians aren't just "conservative." They are part of a 100 generation legacy of "believers" whose focus on a personal relationship with Jesus and a guaranteed eternal salvation in heaven leave them content living with the socio-political status quo, perhaps with a little bit of charity and paternalism sprinkled on. These American Christians are deeply sincere, West notes, but they are caught up in a movement that justifies and supports empire:
Their understanding of American history is thin and their grasp of Christian history is spotty, which leaves them vulnerable to manipulation by Christian leaders and misinformation by imperial rulers.
In the past 40 years, partly as a reaction to the civil rights gains of the 60s, far too many white Evangelical suburban churches and organizations have become caught up (somewhat ignorantly) in a political movement that Nobel prize economist Paul Krugman described last week as “an interlocking set of institutions and alliances that won elections by stoking cultural and racial anxiety but used these victories mainly to push an elitist economic agenda, meanwhile providing a support network for political and ideological loyalists.”

Abortion, gay marriage & "religious liberty" have been consistently used as "biblical" wedges used to fear-monger electoral participation from passionate Evangelicals & Catholics masses. Once in office, politicians place priorities on economic policy-making that leap-frogs poor and middle-class folks for the corporate interests that overwhelmingly fund the PACs and Super-PACs that got them into power. The 1st century Jesus of the Gospels who was sent to his execution after he overturned the tables of the monied-class has been replaced by his 21st century followers who have become obsessed with a theological and political playbook diametrically opposed to the teachings and lifestyle of their Messiah.

The tight-knit coalition of church, business and government leaders, what Yoder called "the Constintinian concubinage," is pervasive in upwardly mobile (mostly) white suburban churches. After all, who do we think funds the building projects? All we have to do is follow the money. Of course, West doesn't so much have a problem with the buildings, but with the theology that is consistently preached inside them, inherently justifying the privileged lifestyles of congregants by remaining silent on the systemic crises that bell hooks summarizes as "imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy."

Prophetic Christians, on the other hand, are those with a bias towards the bottom. They place a priority on both prayers and policies that protect and provide for the most vulnerable in the world. This American Christian tradition has been highlighted by the abolitionists, the women's suffragists, the trade union movement and the civil rights freedom riders. It is the legacy of Walter Rauschenbusch, Dorothy Day, Phil & Daniel Berrigan, William Sloan Coffin, MLK, David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Benjamin Mays & Howard Thurman.

This must be a tradition, according to West, where "imperial realities are acknowledged and prophetic legacies are revitalized." But West's work is realistic and cries out for a resurrection of an adamantly Christian commitment to truth-telling in this contest over the soul of America:
The movement led by Martin Luther King--the legacy of which has been hijacked by imperial Christians--forged the most subtle and significant democratic Christian identity of modern times. And it now lies in ruins. Can prophetic Christians make its dry bones live again?
To be sure, prophetic Christian communities, defying the right-left "culture war" narrated by mainstream media, are hard to find on the North American landscape. They lack corporate money & access to mainstream (corporate-sponsored) media and most upwardly-mobile professionals reject this faith option for the respectability of Constantinian options that fill the suburbs. To add insult to impoverishment, prophetic Christians consistently take unpopular stands on socio-political issues, exposing the racism of the American criminal justice system, rallying against the fear-based economic agenda of U.S. military aggression, documenting the deception of trickle-down tax policy and free trade initiatives while standing in solidarity with all those who suffer through housing, health care and hunger issues. The prophetic Christianity narrated in Democracy Matters is performed courageously by the Open Door Community of Atlanta, the Beloved Community Center of Greensboro, the Wilderness Way of Portland, Spiritus Christi Catholic of Rochester, the Romero House of Toronto, Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries of Southern California, the Alternative Seminary of Philly, Jonah House of Baltimore, St. Peter's Episcopal of Detroit and the various Catholic Worker cells of hospitality all over North America, in addition to plenty of other covert operations in the most surprising of locales.

A decade before Democracy Matters was published, the activist and bible scholar Ched Myers wrote Who Will Roll Away The Stone? Discipleship Queries For First World Christians (1994), the on-the-ground theological sequel (for the imperial context) to his Binding The Strong Man: A Political Reading Of Mark's Story of Jesus (1988). In the introduction to Who Will Roll, Myers proposes 4 main reasons why so many of us are prone to "seek refuge in political ambivalence":
1. As we continue to experience worldly comfort and privilege, we become more and more insulated from those for whom ‘the system’ does not work.
2. We assume that our socio-political structures are the lesser of evils and, unfortunately, cannot think of a better alternative.
3. We figure the contemporary political issues are too complicated for the church to deal with.
4. Christian leaders have struck an ideological bargain with secular capitalism, authority over the public sphere to the State in hopes of retaining a modicum of authority over the private sphere.
These forces are very difficult to identify, let alone tame. It will take a whole lot of rigorous personal inventory to have the kind of prophetic imagination that these times call for. No matter what, as West scripts in Democracy Matters, seeking refuge in political ambivalence is unfaithful to the way of Jesus who was executed for his consistent and creative confrontation with the socio-political forces of 1st century Palestinian Judaism.

West's commitment to the legacy of Martin Luther King is tremendously commendable and his courageous critique of the Obama Administration is a gift and a model for prophetic Christian communities. Now more than ever, Democracy Matters deserves to be read by Christian leaders and laity alike and it ought to be required reading in seminaries, which notoriously lack social analysis.

My wife and I first read Democracy Matters, by hearing it on audio book on a road trip to Berkeley 5 summers ago. West's apocalyptic voice cajoled and challenged us, unveiling the nihilistic forces that dehumanize and denigrate too many vulnerable souls in our world. This summer, whatever your destination, make room for West's Democracy Matters in your suitcase. I must warn you though: you won't come home the same.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014


Life is this simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time. This is not just a nice story or a fable, it is true.
Thomas Merton

Over the past decade, I’ve come to believe three basic things about Life. First, there is Something in the universe far bigger than the sum of its parts. This Reality, this Transcendence, sustains us and guides us in ways more mysterious than anything we can fathom. This Divine impulse breathes through everything, even in the darkest and most painful moments of our lives. It consistently reminds us that we are not alone. That everything that exists is uniquely & strategically created and beloved. Even though, at times, we do not recognize the whisper of God, it is always there. All too often, we are distracted or in denial or just dealing with the intensity of our woundedness in all sorts of counterfeit ways. When we move from intuition towards intentionality, we can pursue a deeper connection with hope, grace and love. When we do this, Something happens to us.

Second, when we do this, Something happens through us, too. This Something beckons us to a life of serving others. We can feel it deep within us. Our best times are not in convenience & comfort, but instead when our hearts are softened and compassion fills us up. We sacrifice and suffer for the sake of others and it brings meaning and fulfillment to our lives. Narcissism, apathy and indifference all vanish. At least for a little while. This will take determined & disciplined inner work. Only a rigorous personal inventory can identify the pain that spirals out of control and holds us back from really seeing others for who they are: human beings who are hurrying and hobbling through life. Just like us.

Lastly, this Something prods us to move beyond caring for individuals & families towards a more systematic engagement with suffering humanity. When we are in solidarity with poor, oppressed, marginalized and abused people, we start asking questions: why is this happening? When we do this hard work of social analysis, we form a critical consciousness. We come to a realization that there is more to life than just me and my little world. We pop our suburban bubble. We recognize that there are crises everywhere. This sparks us to work for change. It leads us into the uncomfortable, awkward, highly emotional realm of politics & economics. Social Justice. It also demands that we expose the ways that organized, institutional religion continues to support and sustain systems of injustice.

These three chords can’t stand alone. They weave themselves into a holistic spirituality that connects the dots to everything. In our current global situation, consumer capitalism has become an omnipotent force, affecting everyone and everything. The specific policies that stem from free-market fundamentalism have widened the income inequality gap, accelerated the climate crisis and have triggered a torrential downpour of anxiety, alienation & addiction.

Masses of people living in the global north, mistakenly, seek salvation through (over)consumption, stifling the ability to experience Something deeper in the universe. Our attention deficit is frenzied and chaotic. It is difficult to stop, notice, breathe, play & pray. There are choices. Everywhere.

The goods we cherish come from corporations who exploit labor all over the globe. Our phones are produced by people working long hours for $1-2 per hour. Our off-season tomatoes are picked by poorly-paid & maltreated workers rounded up all over Sinaloa, Mexico, living in decrepit conditions. This state of affairs demands our willingness to consistently and creatively love our neighbors, both foreign & domestic. We are implicated in our economic choices, our election votes, our campaign contributions, our public stances…and our silence.

Unconstrained capitalism necessitates poverty and massive resource extraction from Land all over the planet. As long as middle class and wealthy people in the global north demand affordable lattes and luggage, the landscape of the Earth will be altered & abused. As Gandhi prophetically proclaimed: “The world has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed.” Only a sustainable and simple lifestyle can support the world’s population. This Something challenges us to live out the Manna mentality, to live gratefully for the daily bread on our plates. But it also means that we must be the ones who change the rules of the Game on behalf of the very least of these. Because the rules have changed before. And they can be changed again. And Something wants us to do it.

Loving God, loving our neighbors (and enemies) & working for the redemption of the world (“on earth as it is in heaven”) become the three-fold path of a non self-indulgent spirituality that is deeply committed to serving the less privileged in the world, and advocating for those most heavily targeted by our destructive lifestyles and exploitive imaginations. We look to Jesus (the human form of Something) as inspiration for contemplation & compassion, but also for a creative & consistent confrontation with the social, political & economic systems that order society & oppress those who are shut in, locked down and cast out.

This is what it means to be faithful today. This is what it means to be human.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Future of Church

It is incumbent on the community of faith to discern and name the crisis and to distinguish, as clearly as it possibly can, between truth and error, even between life and death.
Bill Wylie-Kellermann, Seasons of Faith & Conscience: Kairos, Confession, Liturgy (1991)

Much has been made about the declining church participation of the Millennial Generation. Scientific surveys, studies and solutions have all been offered to bring them back to the fold. The real question, however, for people of faith & conscience committed to the struggle for church renewal & fundamental social change, is not why they have supposedly left or even how we can get them to come back. Our time, energy & resources should be focused on how we ought to live to be a faithful and compelling witness to what is Real & Transcendent. To what Dr. King called "the Beloved Community" and what Jesus called "the Heavenly Reign."

I write as a longtime follower of Jesus (this year, I celebrate my 30-year anniversary of commitment to "the Way") and, particularly, one who, at middle-age, had grown jaded with the conservative Evangelicalism of my youth. I have wrestled with Christian faith--through prayer, passionate dialogue, reading, writing & formal seminary education--and come out the other side to embrace an Anabaptist faith that daringly offers the nonviolent cross instead of the patriotic flag, the identity & vocation of church community instead of ingrained ethnic heritage & family patterns and discipleship to Jesus' teaching instead of the American dream of upward mobility.

What initially compelled me and converted me to the 500-year Anabaptist Christian tradition was its historic focus on living out the way of Jesus simply & sacrificially, no matter what the price. The Anabaptists have existentially known the social & political tension of what Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder described as "doing ordinary things differently." Ultimately, the price of social non-conformity has been death, imprisonment, social rejection & scapegoating. This task continues to be the challenge of a church's "relevancy" during the coming-of-age of the Millennial Generation.

The definitive series of crises and catastrophes that we must name, engage and confront faithfully is best summarized, I believe, consistently in the writings of African-American literary giant bell hooks: imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. This global Situation has largely been justified & supported by 1st World Christian churches who have focused on a spiritualized & futurized faith located in the heart and lived out in performance-driven, spectatorship models of church ministry divorced from socio-political realities. It has, by and large, become Dr. King's nightmare:
The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.

Millennials are, quite frankly, just as apathetic, cynical, indifferent & distracted as every other generation and privileged upwardly mobile (sub)urban (mostly)white young people will continue to follow the same cycle as their parents and grandparents, joining respectable, "Bible-believing," infotainment-oriented churches that do not confront the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that ruthlessly defines our context. We not only owe it to the next generation of Jesus followers, we owe it to our-Gen-X-and-Baby-Boomer-selves to live out a faith that disturbs & disrupts a status quo which continues to be a meager existence for multitudes.

Sure, we can tweet and text and use other kinds of technology to communicate the radical message of Jesus to a younger audience. We can also fully affirm the God-given dignity of gays and lesbians who worship & serve in our communities. Additionally, we can emphasize the vital need for transparency, therapy & 12-step style meetings to heal from our dysfunctional family systems and the counterfeit coping mechanisms that we've been patterned into. After all, Millennials are crying out for authenticity and stability from their elders. But our focus must be cosmic, not cosmetic. Systematic, not symptomatic.

A decade ago, my Fuller Seminary professor Nancey Murphy outlined an Anabaptist faith that was uniquely positioned to transcend the will-to-power that Nietzsche exposed as deeply interwoven into the human condition. Murphy highlighted four Anabaptist distinctives: separation-of-church-and-state, nonviolence, revolutionary subordination & simple living. Following Murphy, I propose that Anabaptist communities all over North America (re)commit to these distinctives specifically, as both constructive and confrontational practices that overtly engage with the ongoing catastrophe of imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

We Anabaptists have an opportunity to be both prophetic & pastoral to the Millennial generation. And the fact is that the economic Game simply isn't working for the next generation. Skyrocketing student debt, outsourced jobs, intensifying income inequality & the industrialized effects of climate change will plague the youngest among us the most. But this crisis is an opportunity for Millennials to be saved from the American default narrative of upward mobility via the market & the military. The hope is that, if Millennials can't win, then they will divert and subvert "conventional wisdom" and become saved and healed in their commitment to sustainable convictions and practices.

Christian churches (whether Anabaptist, Reformed, Evangelical or Catholic) that directly confront the disaster of American imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy with creative & constructive laboratories of separation-of-church-and-state, nonviolence, revolutionary subordination & simple living will not be large & culturally powerful. They will, however, be islands of refuge in a sea of Empire. They will be holdouts of hope, continuing to participate with what the very best of the Anabaptist Christian tradition has consistently practiced.

The Anabaptist distinctives will expose the myth of a Christian nation, emphasizing a radical discipleship movement that is voluntary & challenging, always placing value on the freedom to obey God without state help or hindrance (separation-of-church-and-state). It will seek truth through dialogue, opening the floor to all voices. Peace will be a series of processes and practices, dedicated to the dignity of everyone (nonviolence). It will participate with all people of faith and conscience in imaginative experiments of social justice (revolutionary subordination). Lastly, participants in this movement will have no need to defend our economic privilege, placing us into a legitimate position to actively advocate for policies that benefit our neighbors, foreign and domestic (simple living).

People of fervent faith and critical consciousness hold out hope that the intentionality of radical discipleship communities will intersect with the intuition of the Millennial generation. In the coming decade, the youthful and energetic will come to know, more and more, that indifference or ignorance or cynicism towards the crisis of imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy is unsustainable, destructive, unloving & unChristian. No doubt, this work will be challenging. But there are model faith communities dotted all over North America that have been heavenly laboratories experimenting in hellish circumstances for decades. Let's follow their lead and do this together.