Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Detroit: Myths & A Modest Proposal

Detroit is today more conundrum than solution. The City of Cars stands as neither "damnation incarnate" nor "salvation-in-the-making," but as sign to be read.
James Perkinson, Messianism Against Christology (2013)

Last Monday morning, I biked through the late Spring humidity to a press conference staged at The Spirit of Detroit, a large 1950s era bronze sculpture of a white male with the symbol of God in his left hand and a small family in his right. Beyond him is etched the ancient words from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians:
The nine men and women hosting the presser were part of The People’s Water Board, an ongoing experiment in grassroots activism in Detroit, a cohort of 22 different peace & justice organizations. These leaders, from the seminary trained to single mothers, spend their free time and resources advocating for the city’s most vulnerable, many of whom have recently had their water shut-off because they are 2 months or $150 behind on their payments. So far, more than 30,000 homes denied water by the city. 30,000 more to come.

While they made their case for a water affordability plan, hordes of white businessmen in suits pretended to be oblivious as they strode past, on their way into the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, named after the first black mayor of Detroit. A security guard and police officer were walking around casually cautious: just in case one of the single mothers got out of hand?

This old fur-trading post-turned-auto-industry-metropolis has been decimated in the past half century as industry fled to the dirty South and Mexico and automation transformed workers into meaninglessness. Hundreds of thousands of black people have been steamrolled by these market-driven decisions made by corporate and government elites. During this same chapter, hordes of white residents transported themselves to the “better life” in the suburbs.

The Myth & Irony of Assistance

The residents of this city of less than 700,000, 40% of whom are surviving below the federal poverty level, are getting pummeled with water bills with rates twice the national average. Yet, Detroit’s mayor and newly minted regional water authority continue to confidently propogate a concisely communicated two-part solution to keep taps flowing: (1) placing residents on a payment-plan that calls for a 10% down payment and (2) calling for struggling residents to apply for funds from foundations set-up for financial assistance.

Unfortunately, these solutions haven’t solved much. The problem is that (A) most residents still cannot afford their monthly bills, let alone start paying down their principal and (B) most residents do not even qualify for financial assistance (a nasty blend of requirements that are difficult to navigate and, in the end, deny too many residents the assistance they desperately need).

According to the rules set up by the foundations behind these funds, in order to qualify for this assistance, applicants must not have had their water shut-off either too recently or too long ago, and their outstanding bill owed to the water department cannot be either above or below certain amounts. There’s a small window of opportunity in this city.

The biggest problem of all, though, is one that is systemic and theological. It turns human beings into beggars by withholding from them a realistic chance of paying for a resource that is not a utility. Water is part of the commons. It is a public trust. God rains on the righteous and the wicked. We all get wet and we all should get to drink. Yet, no one at this press conference was asking for free water.

The irony of this whole debacle is that upwardly mobile white folks have relied heavily on government funds to subsidize their own suburban dreams. The freeways were funded by the federal government, which also cleared out poor and middle-class black neighborhoods to make space for them. Ditto for their GI Bill & FHA-backed home loans, available only to white families through most of the 60s, with racial strategies like restrictive covenants, redlining, fear and intimidation taking it into the 70s and beyond.

Meanwhile, their beloved sports teams play in stadiums and arenas built with precious tax revenue from the city of Detroit. And their water is piped into the suburbs from a Detroit-built infrastructure and sold at wholesale prices—these municipalities then jack up the prices to their residents to raise revenue for their projects. In short, white people from the ‘burbs have been cherry-picking Detroit for decades.

The Real Solution: Affordability

It’s time to reverse the momentum. The city of Detroit could easily provide affordable water at no more than 2.5% of a resident’s income—a standard proclaimed by the federal government (EPA) 40 years ago and passed by Detroit city council a decade ago (but not implemented). A Detroiter who is surviving on a $700 SSI check would pay $17.50 per month for water for her family.

Detroit could place a 25-cent fee on beer & wine sold in restaurants, bars & casinos (breweries selling $5 pints are bubbling up all over the city) and a 50-cent tax on all tickets & parking to concerts & professional sporting events (almost 4.5 million tickets sold annually). If you’ve got $100 to pay for a night of parking, microbrews and baseball, you can fork over a few extra bucks to cover water for the resilient ones of this city. Sure enough, this city does have resources to support those Jesus called “the least of these.”

White suburbanites will moan and wail about how the city is unfairly targeting them. But it is in the interest of all municipalities to strategically tax visitors that come to their city. This is what the city of Anaheim does with its 15% bed tax for all the tourists that flock to Disneyland every year. It’s what Detroit does with their 15% occupancy tax for hotels and casinos.

The chamber of commerce will cynically counter that a tax will cause demand for these products and services to go down and that it will be bad for business and stifle further development (the economic concept of elasticity). But let’s all be honest: Metro Detroiters (read: white suburbanites) love their sports and alcohol too much to let a little excise tax keep them from their guilty pleasures. It turns out we all have our addictions.

If the Spirit of Detroit is truly about liberty, then city leaders will take creative and necessary steps to ensure that all residents will have as basic a human right as flowing water in their homes. Most of these struggling Detroiters hail from families who have stayed and paid and refused to walk away from this blighted and abandoned city when so many others fled. The bottom line: does this city have the political will to take care of its most vulnerable and marginalized residents?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Stringfellonian Lexicon

by bill wylie-kellermann

*See below for a chronological list of Stringfellow's works (corresponding to initials & page numbers at the end of each entry).

Babel…means the means the inversion of language, verbal inflation, libel, rumor, euphemism and coded phrases, rhetorical wantonness, redundancy, hyperbole, such profusion in speech and sound that comprehension is impaired, nonsense, sophistry, jargon, noise, incoherence, a chaos of voices and tongues, falsehood, blasphemy. And, in all of this, babel means violence…By the 1970s in America, successive regimes had been so captivated by babel that babel had become the means of ruling the nation, the principal form of coercion employed by the governing authorities against human beings. EC, p.106-7.

Baptism …is often profoundly misunderstood. It is widely thought to be the sacrament of the unity of the Church. But that is not what baptism is; just as it is not mere membership or initiation ritual. Baptism is the assurance – accepted, enacted, verified, and represented by Christians – of the unity of all humanity in Christ… The oneness of the Church is the example and guarantee of the reconciliation of all humankind to God and of the unity of all humanity and all creation in the life of God. The Church, the baptized society is asked to be the image of all humanity, the one and intimate community of God. ID, p.111.

Blasphemy. In Revelation it denotes wanton and contemptuous usurpation of the very vocation of God, vilification of the Word of God and persecution of life as life originates in the Word of God, preemptive attempt against the sovereignty of the Word of God in this world, brute aggression against human life which confesses or appeals to the Word of God. CO, p. 69.

Charismatic vs. Demonic. I am using these terms, let it be clear immediately, in a generic sense: demonic refers to any, and every, agency of death, in whatever guise or form, however subtle or ingenious, howsoever vested or manifested; charismatic refers to each and every gift, talent, capability and limitation of persons, within the whole body of humankind in this world, as these are bestowed and renewed in the Word of God. As shorthand, with all its imprecision, one might think of the demonic as anything whatever which dehumanizes life for human beings, while the charismatic is that which rehumanizes life for human beings within the context of the whole of fallen Creation.

Christian. A Christian is distinguished by radical esteem for the Incarnation – to use the traditional jargon – by a reverence for the life of God in the whole of Creation, even, and in a sense especially, Creation in the travail of sin. PPF, p.43.

Communion of Saints. I refer, when I use that curious and venerable title, to the entire company of human beings (inclusive of the Church, but transcending time and place and thereby far more ecumenical than the Church has ever been) who have, at any time, prayed and who will, at any time, pray; and whose occupation, for the time being, is intercession for each and every need of the life of this world. As the Communion of Saints anticipates, in its scope and constituency, the full assemblage of created life in the Kingdom of God at the end of time, so prayer emulates the fullness of worship when the Word of God is glorified eternally in the Kingdom. SF, p. 68.

Conscience, in the Gospel, as well as in the actual experiences of the early Christians, refers to the new or restored maturity of human life in Christ. A person who becomes a Christian…lives in a new, primary, and rudimentary relationship with others signifying the reconciliation of the whole of life vouchsafed in Jesus Christ. The discernment – about any matter whatever – which is given and exercised in that remarkable relationship is conscience…Put theologically, conscience is the access of the Holy Spirit to human beings in their decisions and actions in daily existence. ST, pp. 99, 102

Constantinian Comity. [The] Accommodation, which has shaped Christendom in the West since the Fourth Century, by which the Church, refuting precedent, acquired a radical vested interest in the established order and became culpably identified with the institutional status quo in culture and society, in economics and politics, in warfare and imperialism, in racism and sexism.(The Witness, September, 1975)… The Constantinian mentality which afflicts the church equivocates contemplation of the judgment of the Word of God. Within the Constantinian ethos, the church even seeks, in the name of the Word of God, to broker compromises of that judgment with princes and presidents, regimes and systems. The capacity of God for anger is gainsaid, though it be in the face of the chaos - the war and hunger and famine and disease and tyranny and injustice - over which the rulers of this age in truth preside. CO, p. 80.

Conversion. The event of becoming a Christian is the event at which human beings utterly and unequivocally confronts the presence and power of death in and over their own existence…During conversion a person has total recall of their history. All that one is and has been, all that one has done, everything that one has said, all whom one has met, every place where one has been, every fragment and facet of one’s own awareness that one has been and is consigned to death, bonded to death, in fact dying. Conversion is the event during which a person finds themself radically and absolutely helpless. In becoming a Christian, a person sees that they are naked, exposed, and transparent in every respect – completely vulnerable…Conversion is an ultimate and radically personal exposure to death, but it is also the ultimate and immediately personal exposure to the power of God overcoming death. Conversion is death in Christ. ID, p. 107f

Death…is so great, so aggressive, so pervasive and so militant a power that the only fitting way to speak of death is similar to the way one speaks of God. Death is the living power and presence in this world which feigns to be God. CAJ,p. 52.

Eschatological…hope, biblically speaking, anticipates an end of time which is simultaneously time’s redemption. That hope neither abolishes nor repudiates time; on the contrary, the eschaton means the moral completion or perfection of time. Moreover, the biblical hope, eschatologically, is no disembodied abstraction, no ethereal notion, no antiworldly vision, but a hope recurrently foreshadowed and empirically witnessed in events taking place now, and all the time, in the common history of persons and nations in this world. EC, p. 44.

Evangelism…in the Gospel of Christ, means the affirmation of the Word of God in the life of each and every human being in relation to all of creation. Evangelism, in the Gospel is an enthusiastic expression of the love that Christ bears for the whole of the world, which is authorized by that same love which the evangelist has himself suffered. CAJ, p. 43. The evangelist merely calls upon the one addressed to recollect his or her own creation in the Word of God, to remember who he or she truly is, to recover one’s on life. Thus evangelism is an act of love by the Church, or by a member of the Church, for the world or some person. Evangelism is the act of proclaiming the presence of the Word of God in the life of another, the act of profoundly affirming that person’s essential identity and being. And such an affirmation given by one to another is love. ID, p. 106.

Fall refers to the profound disorientation, affecting all relationships in the totality of creation, concerning identity, place, connection, purpose, vocation. The subject of the fall is not only the personal realm, in the sense of you or me, but the whole of creation and each and every item of created life. The fall means the reign of chaos throughout creation now, so that even that which is ordained by the ruling powers as “order” is, in truth, chaotic. The fall means the remarkable confusion which all beings – principalities as well as persons – suffer as to who they are and why they exist. The fall means the consignment of all created life, and of the realm of time, to the power of death. PS, p. 38.

Gospel vs. Religion. this Gospel of Jesus Christ ends all religious speculation; demolishes all merely religious ceremonies and sacrifices appeasing unknown gods; destroys every exclusiveness which religion attaches to itself in God's name; attests that the presence of God is not remote, distant, and probably out-of-reach - but here, now, and with us in this world, already. This Gospel means that the very life of God is evident in this world, in this life, because Jesus Christ once participated in the common life of humanity in the history of our world. The Christian faith is distinguished, diametrically, from mere religion, in that religion begins with the proposition that some god exists; Christianity, meanwhile, is rejoicing in God's manifest presence among us…Religion is the attempt to satisfy the curiosity of human beings in this world about God; Jesus Christ is the answer to the human curiosity in this world about what it means to be truly human in this world which God created. PPF, p. 15.

Jerusalem vs. Babylon. What Babylon means theologically and, hence, existentially for all nations or other principalities in the dimensions of fallenness, doom, and death, Jerusalem means to each nation or power in the terms of holiness, redemption, and life. Babylon describes the apocalyptic while Jerusalem embodies the eschatological as these two realities become recognizable in the present, common history of the world…Babylon is concretely exemplified in the nations and the various other principalities – as in the Roman Empire, as in the U.S. A – but Jerusalem is the parable for the Church of Jesus Christ…visibly exemplified as an embassy among the principalities – sometimes secretly, sometimes openly – or as a pioneer community – sometimes latently, sometimes notoriously – or as a prophetic society – sometimes discreetly, sometimes audaciously. And the life of Jerusalem, institutionalized as Christ’s Church (which is never to be uncritically equated with ecclesiastical structures professing the name of the Church) is marvelously dynamic. Constantly changing in her appearance and forms, she is incessantly being rendered new, spontaneous, transcendent, paradoxical, improvisational, radical, ecumenical, free. EC, pp. 48, 50.

Heaven…is not a site in the galaxies any more than “hell” is located in the bowels of the earth. Rather, it is that estate of self-knowledge and reconciliation and hope – that vocation, really; that blessedness – to which every human being and the whole of creation is called to live here in this world, aspires to live here, and by virtue of Christ is enabled to enter upon here. EC, pp. 43-44.

Hell…The recital in the Apostles' Creed, He descended into Hell, has a similar significance: Hell is the realm of death; Hell is when and where the power of death is complete, unconditional, maximum, undisguised, most awesome and awful, unbridled, most terrible, perfected. That Jesus Christ descends into Hell means that as we die (in any sense of the term die) our expectation in death is encounter with the Word of God, which is, so to speak, already there in the midst of death. SF,p. 110.

Hope vs. Optimism. Hope means something quite different from optimism – in fact, hope is virtually the opposite of optimism. That is to say, simply, that optimism refers to the capabilities of principalities and human beings, while hope bespeaks the effort of the Word of God in common history. Moreover, the distinctions signifies that hope includes realism, while realism undermines and refutes optimism. SF, p.95.

Holiness…does not mean that you are any better than anyone else; holiness is not the same as goodness; holiness is not common piety. Holiness is not about pleasing God, even less about appeasing God. Holiness is about enjoying God. Holiness is the integrity of greeting, confessing, honoring, and trusting God's presence in all events and in any event, no matter what, no matter when, no matter where. ID, p.35

Holy Spirit… denotes the living, acting presence and power of the Word of God in the history of this world: the presence and power which lives and acts now in unity and integrity with the works of the Word of God in creation, redemption, and judgment, as well as in solidarity and identification with the advent, birth, ministry, death, descent, resurrection, and Lordship of Jesus Christ in this world. In plain language, the Holy Spirit is the power and presence of God’s Word seen and heard in the world. FO, p.100

OR [The Holy Spirit refers to the Word of God as that Word is hidden in very facet, aspect, event, person, and thing in the life of this world. In Jesus Christ, this indwelling of God’s Word by God’s mercy in God’s own creation which is named the Holy Spirit is exposed for all to behold not only as the promise and hope of salvation but as the unique, decisive, and universal accomplishment of salvation. Christ is possessed, in the whole drama of the work of God in him, of the Holy Spirit, of the power and presence of the Word of God in this world which God made for Godself. FO, p. 100-101.]

OR [names the faithfulness of God to God’s own creation. Biblically, the Holy Spirit means the militant presence of the Word of God inhering in the life of the whole of creation. Biblically, the Holy Spirit is the Word of God at work both historically and existentially, acting incessantly and pervasively to renew the integrity of life in this world… It was - it is - the biblical saga of the Word of God as Agitator, as the Holy Spirit, that assures me that wheresoever human conscience is alive and active, that is a sign of the saving vitality of the Word of God in history, here and now. PS, p.18]

Loneliness… is the specific apprehension of a person of his or her own death in relation to the impending death of all persons and all things… Loneliness does not deny or negate the existence of lives other that the life of the one who is lonely, but loneliness vividly anticipates the death of such other lives that they are of no sustenance or comfort to the life and being of the one who suffers loneliness. Loneliness is the most caustic, drastic, and fundamental repudiation of God. Loneliness is the most elementary expression of original sin. There is no one who does not know loneliness. Yet there is no one who is alone. ID, p. 24-25

Lordship of Christ. This is not, as is sometimes erroneously supposed, a title designating the divinity of Christ; it, rather, explicitly explains the humanity of Jesus as the one who epitomizes the restoration of dominion over the rest of creation vested in human life by the sovereignty of the Word of God during the epoch of the fall. Jesus Christ as Lord signifies the renewed vocation of human life in reconciliation with the rest of creation. CO, p. 31.

Mourning vs. Grief. I understand grief to be the total experience of loss, anger, outrage, fear, regret, melancholy, abandonment, temptation, bereftness, helplessness suffered privately, within one's self, in response to the happening of death. By distinction and contrast, I comprehend mourning as the liturgies of recollection, memorial, affection, honor, gratitude, confession, empathy, intercession, meditation, anticipation for the life of the one who is dead. Empirically, in the reality of someone's death, and in the aftermath of it, grief and mourning are, of course, jumbled. It is, I think, part of the healing of mourning to sort out and identify the one from the other. SF, p.22.

Prayer…is nothing you do, prayer is someone you are. Prayer is not about doing, but being. Prayer is about being alone in God’s presence. Prayer is being so alone that God is the only witness to your existence. The secret of prayer is God affirming your life. ID, p. 31….More definitively, prayer is not personal in the sense of a private transaction occurring in a void, disconnected with everyone and everything else, but it is so personal that it reveals (I have chosen this verb conscientiously) every connection with everyone and everything else in the whole of Creation throughout time. A person in the estate of prayer is identified in relation to Alpha and Omega - in relationship to the inception of everything and to the fulfillment of everything (cf. Romans 1:20, I Corinthians 12:12-13, Revelations 22:12). In prayer, the initiative belongs to the Word of God, acting to identify, or to reiterate the identity of, the one who prays. SF, pp. 67-8.

Preaching vs.Prophetism. [The preacher’s] task is the responsible utterance of the Word of God within the congregation – so that the Word may be acknowledged and admired there, and so that those who gather as the congregation may be identified by the Word of God in their corporate life as the body of Christ, and so that they may be so enlightened by the Word of God in the congregation that they will become sensitive to and perceptive of the …Word in the common life of the world in which their various ministries as lay people take place. But it is out in the world, not within the congregation, that the prophetic task is exercised. The prophet is characteristically not priest and preacher, but lay person. The task is to represent and expose the word of God in the world, and particularly in the posture of the Word which stands over against the world’s existence and the world’s disregard of and arrogance toward the Word of God. And sometimes this task is to declare and convey the Word of God as it stands against the worldliness of the Church. PPF, p. 52.

Principalities. The realities to which the biblical terms "principalities and powers" refer are quite familiar to modern society, though they may be called by different names. What the Bible calls "principalities and powers" are called in contemporary language "ideologies", "institutions," and "images." A principality, whatever its particular form and variety, is a living reality, distinguishable from human and other organic life. It is not made or instituted by human beings, but, as with humans and all creation, made by God for God's own pleasure… Like all people and all things, the angelic powers and principalities are fallen and are become demonic powers. "Demonic" does not mean evil; the word refers rather to death, to fallenness…To put it another way, that dominion which human beings receive from God over the rest of creation (including their dominion over the principalities) is lost to them in the fall and, as it were, reversed, so that now the principalities exercise dominion over human beings and claim in their own names and for themselves idolatrous worship from human beings. FO, pp. 52, 62, 63.

Providence. Perhaps that is the clue to the biblical context of providence: grace. Perhaps we err or become confused about what providence means because we dwell upon only some particular event, an occasional occurrence that seems outstanding; we tend to think of the providential as rare and exceptional; we make selections, among all the things that happen to us,calling some matters of providence and treating the rest as having nothing to do with providence. Perhaps there just is no discrimination at all, in the concern of God for this life in this world, beyond one happening and another. Perhaps everything is providential. If everything is providential, then providence means the constant and continual renewal of God’s grace in all situations for everyone throughout time…If everthing is providential, then the issue in living is the patience and ingenuity of God’s grace, and human beings need never live bereft of hope. SB, 121.

Racism… is not an evil in human hearts or minds, racism is a principality, a demonic power, a representative image, an embodiment of death, over which human beings have little or no control, but which works its awful influence over their lives. This is the power with which Jesus Christ was confronted and which, at great and sufficient cost, he overcame. The Witness, February 21, 1963, p.14

Resurrection. To become and be a beneficiary of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ means to live here and now in a way that upholds and honors the sovereignty of the Word of God in this life in this world, and that trusts the Judgment of the Word of God in history. That means freedom now from all conformities to death, freedom now from fear of the power of death, freedom now from the bondage of idolatry to death, freedom now to live in hope while awaiting the Judgment. SF,p.113.

Resurrection v. Immortality. The most radical confusion about afterdeath, however, has to do with the transliteration of the resurrection as some idea of immortality… In my view, immortality, essentially, is no more than an elaborate synonym for remembrance of the dead, though there are attached to it multifarious notions of spiritual and/or material survival of death. Resurrection, however, refers to the transcendence of the power of death, and of the fear or thrall of the power of death, here and now, in this life, in this world. Resurrection, thus, has to do with life, and indeed, the fulfillment of life, before death… Where confusion reigns and the distinction between resurrection and immortality is lost or suppressed, it is common to find people, frantic in their embrace of one or another versions of survival after death, rejecting life in this world, including, typically, the gift of their own lives. SF, pp.138-39.

Sanctification. I mean the endeavor by which a person is sanctified or rendered holy. The endeavor is not one of the person so affected but, quite the contrary, is an effort of the Word of God, which elects the one made holy and which, I believe, offers similar election freely to every person… Thus sanctification refers to the activity of the historic Word of God renewing human life (and all of created life) in the midst of the era of the fall, or during the present darkness, in which the power of death apparently reigns. [It] designates the essential condition of a person who confesses that he or she has suffered the renewal of his or her being, or selfhood, in the Word of God and is restored to wholeness as a human being. While there is an implication, in being holy, of incessant repentance, there is no implication of perfection or of any superior moral status. Among humans, holiness may involve a relatively more profound experience of being human, but it does not indicate as such the exceptional or the extraordinary. To the contrary, holy connotes the holistic in human life and, in that connection, the normal, the typical, the ordinary, the generic, the exemplary. PS, p. 30.

Sin…is not essentially the mistaken, inadvertent, or deliberate choice of evil by human beings, but the pride into which they fall in associating their own self-interests with the will of God. Sin is the denunciation of the freedom of God to judge humans as it pleases God to judge them. Sin is the displacement of God’s will with one’s own will. Sin is the radical confusion as to whether God or the human being is morally sovereign in history. ID, p. 20

State… names the functional paraphernalia of political authority in a nation, which claims and exercises violence, within a nation. The precedence of the State hierarchically among the principalities is related to the jurisdiction asserted by the State over other institutions and powers within a nation. Practically it is symbolized by the police power, taxation, licensing, regulation of corporate organization and activity, the military forces, and the like. The paramountcy of the State among the demonic powers is probably most readily recognized in tyrannical regimes, ancient or modern. EC, p. 109.

State vs. Nation. In the Bible where the State is designated as a principality of particular dignity or apparent superiority, the historical realities to which allusions are made are authoritarian or totalitarian (Rev. 13:18). In such a regime any substantive distinctions between the principality of the nation and the principality of the State are lost. The ethos of the nation is absorbed into the apparatus of authority. Or, to put it a bit differently, the spirit and tradition of the nation are abolished by the administration of the State or displaced by a fabricated version of tradition furnished by the State. For all practical purposes, in a totalitarianism, the nation and the State become merged. By contrast (though, from a human point of view, it be a very relative matter) in nonauthoritarian societies, the distinguishable but related principalities of the nation and the State remain separated to the extent that the identity and character of the nation are embodied in tradition and inheritance, sometimes expressed constitutionally, or sometimes as common law. This represents and attempts some restraint or discipline upon the exercise of authority and the functioning of the State. EC, pp. 109-10.

Technocracy. The political development of technology has produced a form of government which virtually abolished that familiar tension by its destruction of human rights, its coercion of human life, its domination of human beings; in short, by its undoing of that part of the constitutional fabric which values human life in society. Technology has installed a counter-revolutionary regime- a technocratic totalitarianism- which has set aside, if not literally overturned, the inherited constitutional institutions thereby creating a vested ruling authority outside the law and beyond accountability to people. ID, p. 90.

Theology is dissimilar from both philosophy and religion: theology is not speculative, on the one hand, theology is not self-justifying, on the other, and theology is not so eminent as to be aloof from life as it is, as are those other two exercises. Theology is concerned with the implication of the Word of God in the world’s common life. In this context, it must be recognized and affirmed that everyone, if they reflect upon the event of their own life in this world, is a theologian. It is only in this sense that I tolerate being sometimes called a theologian myself…SB, p. 21.

Vocation… is the name of the awareness of [the] significance of one’s own biography. To have a vocation or to be called in Christ means to discern the coincidence of the Word of God with one's own selfhood, in one's own being, in its most specific, thorough, unique, and conscientious sense. SF, p. 21. Persons and principalities, all the creatures, all realities or elements of creation are named by the Word of God. Each is beneficiary of an identity, capacity, purpose, and place in conjunction with that of everyone and everything else. In other words, in creation, vocation issues from the Word of God. Still more precisely, in the biblical description of creation, the vocation of God becomes definitive of the vocation of human life and that of institutions and nations and other creatures and of all things whatever. CO, p. 29.

Word of God. I intend this to be understood as a name. Thereby, I refer not only to the Bible as the Word of God, but, simultaneously to the Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, and, also, to the Word of God militant in the life of the world as the Holy Spirit, and, further, to the Word of God inhering in the whole of creation. CO, p. 14.


1962 A Private and Public Faith (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans). PPF

1963 Instead of Death (New York City: Seabury Press). (see 1967)

1964 My People is the Enemy (New York City: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.). MPE

1964 Free in Obedience (New York City: Seabury Press). FO

1966 Dissenter in a Great Society (New York City: Holt, Rinehart and Winston). DGS

1967 The Bishop Pike Affair (New York City: Harper & Row, Publishers). BPA

1967 Count It All Joy (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company). CAJ

1969 Imposters of God: Inquiries into Favorite Idols (Washington, D.C.: Witness Books). IG

1970 A Second Birthday (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc.). SB

1971 Suspect Tenderness: The Ethics of the Berrigan Witness (NYC: Holt, Rinehart and Winston). ST

1973 An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (Waco, TX: Word, Inc.). EC

1976 The Death and Life of Bishop Pike (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc.). DL

1976 Instead of Death - 2nd edition (New York City: The Seabury Press). ID

1977 Conscience and Obedience (Waco, TX: Word Books, Publisher). CO

1982 A Simplicity of Faith: My Experience in Mourning (Nashville: Abingdon). SF

1984 The Politics of Spirituality (Louisville:The Westminster Press). PS

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Liberation of Frederick Douglass…and the Bible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Proceeding From The Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Long Overdue: A Comprehensive & Courageous Immigration Policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Repenting of Homophobia: An Autobiography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Doing Ordinary Things Differently: Soul Dialogue With Sheldon Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SG: Indeed!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 12, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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