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.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Praying a Whole New World Into Being

To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name.
Thomas Merton

Prayer from the heart can achieve what nothing else can in the world.
Prayer is a pilgrimage into the deepest recesses of our being. It is being attentive to God's active presence both with us and within us. The 15th century Indian contemplative Kabir wrote that "God is the breath inside the breath." The Apostle Paul quoted the philosopher Epimenides as he sermonized the Athenians: "For in him we live and move and have our being." God is that energy and power and inspiration that we draw upon to live and thrive.
Prayer is the intentional practice of actively marinating in the Love that holds the universe together: the Love defined by the unique blend of Divine compassion, forgiveness and suffering service culminating on the cross of Jesus. This Love is at the very core of our being because that is where God resides. Prayer beckons this Love into our daily lives. Deep breaths in solitude and silence remind us that Love fills our lungs and our life, not only sustaining ourselves but exhaling into subversive acts of compassion, forgiveness and suffering service to others.
Prayer is visualizing a whole New World where greed, hatred and suffering no longer exist. This is what Jesus did when he woke up before dawn and left the house to find a solitary place (Mark 1:35) and it is what he did when he craved solitude to discern God's Will in the final hours before his arrest and execution (Mark 14:36: nonviolent resistance requires clear vision & immense strength of purpose). Like the world-class athlete who stills her body and mind to proactively imagine the upcoming match, pioneers of the New World mindfully cultivate a strategic and creative gameplan. In order to do ordinary things differently, we think through our upcoming day, infusing it with generosity, forgiveness and a disciplined simplicity that transcends corporate consumerism. The New World doesn't just happen. It's not about passively waiting for God's miracle to come. It's about pledging allegiance to the New World and living it into reality.
Prayer is a pause to take inventory of the addictive patterns that autopilot us. My workaholism and achievement orientation keep me from breathing in the Love that fosters growth and nourishment. When I bind my anxiety and the chaos of life by overfunctioning or caretaking or obsessing over the approval of mere acquaintances, I spiral into a netherworld of dehumanization. I become less than the man I was created to be. The pain and woundedness of my past are too haunting to I repress them with a trip to the used bookstore or the gym. Prayer is the process of taking responsibility for my own pain. It is a subversive tactic that allows me to sit with my (real) feelings and refuse to counterfeit myself with trifles.
Prayer is actively pledging solidarity with the wretched of the earth. It is the act of opening our eyes and our hearts wide to the suffering and oppression of the rest of humanity. Prayer is ecological not egological. It enfolds narcissism and indifference and apathy into a passion for turning the world upside down with the Love that created it and remains at the very center of it. This empathy breathes in a hope that will turn weeping into dancing and ensure that the meek will inherit the earth.
Prayer is an expression of gratitude for food, work, relationship, play and justice. It is the sincere overflowing of joy for what Life has bestowed upon us. It is the realization that millions in our world work harder and love better than we do, yet do not have 1/10 of the freedom or resources that we possess. Real gratitude must lead us to groan for a New World to emerge: one that brings hope and healing and happiness to every living creature.
Prayer is a stone thrown into a still pond. It is the ripple effect of Love into a world yearning for healing and redemption. It is yeast...the mustard seed...the light. It is the flap of a butterfly's wings on one continent that can change the weather on another.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Prophetic Road

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him...Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures...When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem...
Luke 24

It is the storyteller who makes us what we are, who creates history. The storyteller creates the memory that the survivors must have - otherwise their surviving would have no meaning.
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1958)

At the end of an online exchange recently, my good friend Trevor asked sincerely, "Tommy, outside of your thought provoking small circle of thinking people (including thinking Christians) you don’t actually believe that most people think about the bible often, do you?" That's an appropriate & challenging question. Especially since so many Christians proudly label their lives "biblical."

If we think about this text (Luke 24) often this week (and next), what might it do in us and to us and through us. How might it serve as a Script for our lives? Here are 5 possibilities:

1. Those of us who audaciously claim belief in a risen Lord must honestly and humbly ask, "When and why are our eyes kept from recognizing what is Real & Transcendent in our midst?" This is especially true, I've experienced, during times of pain, confusion and catastrophe. Our pain cycles perhaps become an obstacle too large to experience Jesus among us. We are locked into solo acts, guided by expectations and roles manufactured and ingrained by social, political and family systems. These powers become idols, claiming the place of God, demanding our full allegiance. Or else. They crucified Jesus then and continue to do so now.

2. Historically, prophetic action tends to end in death. Think: many of the Hebrew prophets, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero and many other leaders who spoke out against the powers that be were killed for their faithful witness to the truth. This canonizes Jesus within this prophetic strand. Earlier in Luke's Gospel, there are other allusions to Jesus as a "prophet," participating in typical prophetic work and calling his disciples to "take up your cross daily and follow me." See also Luke 4 when Jesus preaches a sermon from a text in the prophet Isaiah as his hometown hero status becomes subverted and his fellow Nazarenes are driven to kill him.

2a. Ultimately, it's not just about how often we think about the Bible. It's how we think about the Bible. A prophetic interpretation of the Script is warranted. The Greek word dei ("Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things...") in verse 26 is better translated "Was it not inevitable..." This interpretation, backed by solid literary & historical work, has profound implications. Instead of Jesus' death primarily being "necessary" to appease an angry God or as a sacrifice that wipes away the stain of sin so we can all go to heaven when we die, the cross calls us to consider the gritty reality of our real world: what people in power & prestige do to people of faith & conscience committed to prophetic work. Consider these sound bites from Christian theologians:
Ched Myers: …the significance of Christ’s cross must always first be grounded in history: Jesus was executed as a dissident by the Roman Empire. The primary meaning of ‘Jesus died for our sins’ is that he was killed because of sinful humanity…the inevitable consequence of prophetic practice in a world of violence and injustice.

Stanley Hauerwas: Jesus’ death was not a mistake but what was to be expected of a violent world which does not believe that this is God’s world.

And Richard Rohr's beautiful portrayal of the overlooked spiritual discipline of gazing: I believe we are invited to gaze upon the image of the crucified to soften our hearts toward God, and to know that God’s heart has always been softened toward us, even and most especially in our suffering. This softens us toward ourselves and all others who suffer.
This is a more compelling and challenging Way.

3. Speaking of spiritual disciplines, notice how this text animates the common meal ("When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.") and Bible study (Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures."). These are offered as consistent practices for us to coherently experience the risen Christ: we recognize and remember Jesus and something happens deep within us ("our hearts burning within us"). The earliest Christians didn't "take communion" as a wafer & wine in a set-aside religious service. They ate a simple meal together, sharing the love of Jesus through food and conversation. And they read the Hebrew Scriptures through a prophetic lens, keeping the focus on how God prioritizes the weak & the vulnerable in our world. Just like Jesus did.

4. The risen Jesus, experienced in solidarity with other people of faith and conscience, gives us hope and courage to return to the site of pain and injustice: Jerusalem. We must go back and engage with the places where imperial power continues to terrorize. We can be liberated from our tendencies towards evasion, denial, apathy & indifference. But we must also go back to the places of our own individual pain and woundedness as well. Jesus gives us the power and the grace to experience this healing, to address the source of our destructive & addictive copings. As always, Jesus calls us to the challenging & confrontational work of both personal inventory (a whole new mentality) and prophetic imagination (a whole new world).

5. Lastly, we must recognize and prioritize a reading "from below." This simply cannot be overstated. True biblical study reads from the same place as the very first readers of Luke's Gospel: oppressed religious minorities with low socio-economic status and no political power (in Luke 6, Jesus called "blessed" the poor, the hungry, those who weep & those who are excluded & defamed because of their prophetic way-of-life). They were survivors. And this Story transformed their identity and vocation into one of trust, hope & humility. American followers of Jesus, by default, read from the perspective of the triumphant opposing team: Caesar, Pilate and the rich young ruler. After all, we benefit greatly from imperial policies that extract resources & exploit labor all over the globe. This story scripts us into arrogance & entitlement.

We must somehow figure out how to be in true solidarity with these disciples on the road to Emmaus. Most importantly, the challenge for us is to possess the desire and discipline to take this Story with us wherever we go. If this Story doesn't guide us and shape us, various counterfeit stories--taught by the media, the military and the market that breed addiction, abuse & anxiety--most certainly will. And so, the question continues to haunt us: you don’t actually believe that most people think about the bible often, do you?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Exposing The Face Of Racism

When we think of racism we think of Governor Wallace of Alabama blocking the schoolhouse door; we think of water hoses, lynchings, racial epithets, and "whites only" signs. These images make it easy to forget that many wonderful, goodhearted white people who were generous to others, respectful of their neighbors, and even kind to their black maids, gardeners, or shoe shiners--and wished them well--nevertheless went to the polls and voted for racial segregation...Our understanding of racism is therefore shaped by the most extreme expressions of individual bigotry, not by the way in which it functions naturally, almost invisibly (and sometimes with genuinely benign intent), when it is embedded in the structure of a social system.
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (2010)

All our silences in the face of racist assault are acts of complicity. What does our rage at injustice mean if it can be silenced, erased by individual material comfort?
bell hooks, Killing Rage: Ending Racism (1995)

Talking about racism in America is like trying to have a sincere conversation with teenagers about driving while texting. They actually think it's everyone else's problem. Surely, they rationalize, they are multi-taskers who can do both perfectly well at the same time. But as far as their parents are concerned, well that's where real issue is, right?

Indeed, addressing race in America is still at an adolescent stage. This whole media spectacle of the Old Racists: The Cliven Bundy Story, and its well-timed sequel, The Donald Sterling Story, unveils quite nicely the convenience of projecting all our anger and hatred at "racist" individuals in an dramatically un-post-racial society. White suburbanites take cover by pointing to the isolated examples of what they speculate as "real racism" that continues to plague America long after Martin & Malcolm. But this isn't where all the dead bodies are buried.

De facto racism soaks our prisons, schools, job interviews, loan applications & university application processes. For instance, the population of U.S. prisons (state & federal combined) is made up of almost 50% African-American while blacks make up only 4.4% of the next incoming class at UCLA (African-Americans constitute about 12% of the total U.S. population). And, of course, when many white Americans hear these statistics, they immediately reveal their own ingrained racism by blurting out things like, "Well, they commit most of the crimes don't they?" or "Well, they don't possess the work ethic of whites & Asians" (etc).

Currently, the idea is totally ingrained that, in American society, black & brown people (somehow) have just as much opportunity as white people--to stay healthy, to become educated, to live in a house, to get a job that pays a living wage, to have a little bit of leisure time to enjoy the gifts God has provided--just as long as they work hard and "do the right thing."

This might just be the biggest farce on the American landscape today. After kidnapping them from their continent and enslaving them in a new world for centuries, white folks, since the 19th century, have patched together all sorts of strategies--from institutionalizing segregation to inventing suburbia--to keep our power & privilege over all people of color. Most of this has been subtle & even subconscious, but the point is that African-Americans & Latinos continue to be held back by precisely the lack of opportunities that white people, by and large, so proudly proclaim.

It's time for white people to move from a myopic focus on symptoms to a serious engagement with systems. We must take the time and energy to form a critical consciousness. Eduardo Porter had a fantastic piece in the New York Times yesterday, covering America's bloated prison system. There are many complex reasons for the overwhelming growth over the past 4 decades and it's worth reading twice. Sure enough, race rears her ugly head:
Bruce Western of Harvard suggests a specific American motivation, which sprang to some degree from the victories of the civil rights movement.

“The crime debate was racialized to an important degree,” Professor Western told me. “The anxieties white voters felt were not just about crime but about fundamental social changes going on in American society.”

Today, a little under half the state and federal prison population is black. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that a black boy born in 2001 had a 32.2 percent chance of doing time behind bars.
Deeply ingrained fear has been a significant factor driving policy decisions to build more prisons and lock people of color away. This fear has led to what Michelle Alexander has compellingly chronicled "the new Jim Crow." This fear, as bell hooks wrote two decades ago in Killing Rage, masks the shameful entitlement we white folks experience on the North American continent: our contemporary times white belief in black inferiority is most often registered by the assertion of power. Yet that power is often obscured by white focus on fear. The fear whites direct at blacks is rooted in the racist assumption that the darker race is inherently deprived, dangerous, and willing to obtain what they desire by any means necessary. Since it is assumed that whenever fear is present one is less powerful, cultivating in whites fear of blacks is a useful neo-colonial strategy as it obscures the reality that whites do much more harm to blacks daily than vice versa.
As a white male, this sad legacy of racism is deeply personal. My grandfather, although I never "knew" him, financially contributed and campaigned for George Wallace in the 1960s. My own father was silent on issues of race, but other adult role models (otherwise nice, prosperous, fun-loving white men) were not, using the "N-word," telling racial jokes and scapegoating black and brown folks for their socio-economic plight. These men were good neighbors on their suburban streets, not social degenerates like Donald Sterling (as Bill Simmons wrote yesterday: "200-plus pounds of the worst greed Southern California could offer"). Ultimately, I was raised in a culture (South Orange County, CA) of white privilege & entitlement. It was an inertia that literally forced me into false beliefs about white supremacy. It's taken years of work. And it will take more.

But there's no use harping on our elders. We must take personal inventory so that we can have a prophetic imagination.

Yesterday (April 30), was the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "Why I am Opposed To the War in Vietnam" sermon at Riverside Church in New York. Scripting from the Good Samaritan episode of Luke's Gospel, he calls all of us committed to his vision of the "beloved community" to more than just charity work:
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be changed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar.
If we really want to be good neighbors, we've got to move beyond symptoms and address the whole System: the complex interplay of all our social, economic, political & family policies and traditions. When we try to convince ourselves that our country consists of isolated racists, even the Supreme Court can justify voter-approved bans on affirmative action & an overturning of race-based voting protections (as they have done in recent weeks). Racism doesn't just exist in the minds of old, crotchety, greedy white NBA basketball team owners. It's in our water and we're all drinking from it. In order to purify our Land, we've got to address the real source of the pain and privilege that divide us.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

7 Points About Christian Love & Same-Sex Orientation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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