Patheis Ekklesian

My thoughts on and longings for the Church the Una Sancta

On Paczki’s, Fat Tuesday, and Ashes

What’s going on with Packi’s and Mardi Gras?

Today in many grocery stores In Chicago you will find the polish pastry paczki, prominently displayed for sale. Today is of course Paczki Day, or Mardi Gras. If one is from New Orleans the celebration of Mardi Gras isn’t confined to this Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, in Brazil and other Countries this SEASON before Ash Wednesday is known as Carnival. Tomorrow, many Christians of various traditions will begin the season of Lent by receiving ashes on the forehead. This all may appear to be very disjointed and individualized. How does this all fit together? What connects Mardi Gras, the eating of paczkis and receiving of ashes upon the forehead?

A sense one may have from all this is individual indulgence followed by Forty days of individual self-denial. Celebration of life and abundance and the confrontation of mortality and limits. This picture isn’t entirely wrong but it largely misses the point. Carnival, Mardi Gras Ash Wednesday and Lent are all of a piece. We feast and we fast aiming for the same goal. In each we are preparing to receive again the mysteries of the faith of the church.

The dishes of Mardi Gras, are intended to use up items that one won’t be eating in one’s fast. In this way, the feasting of Mardi Gras is a holy act of preparation, so that we might be prepared (through not having in our cupboards empty of the items from which we will be fasting during Lent. Of course, buying the paczki from the grocery store on Fat Tuesday forgets this aspect of our feasting.

Preparing to Receive again the Mysteries of the Faith

Yet even if our feasting doesn’t literally empty our cupboards, we should recall that feasting and celebration of Mardi Gras are as much part of our preparation for Holy Week and Easter as is the fasting of Lent. However, we may observe the Lenten fast Today is part of that practice. Feasting today is part, our observing Lent.

In the liturgy for Ash Wednesday before ash is put upon the forehead and we hear “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We are called to the observation of a holy Lent. What is a holy lent? It is one in which we take up with greater focus the practices fasting, alms giving and other acts of pious act of charity and justice. This all from carnival to Ash Wednesday up to Holy Week is all preparation. A holy Lent is one that prepares us to return to who we became through our baptism, ready to reaffirm those vows of baptism and receive again the mysteries of our faith, “Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again”. A holy lent is preparation is what we do as the Church, members of Christ. None of this is some individualistic celebration and navel gazing upon our individual mortality.

Unfortunately the way we often observe lent reduces it to individual piety, “What will I give up for lent” and we focus on one aspect of the liturgy of Ash Wednesday (“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”) that we forget that this remembrance of mortality is to send us into the arms of Mother Church, the body of Christ, to regain and renew our being as the baptized who are being joined together as the body of Christ, holy stones of the holy temple of God. Our repentance, our fasting, our alms giving all are oriented to this goal or remembering who we are that we may be renewed by the great mysteries of our faith.

We should stop and question the ways we may individualize and separate ourselves off from this corporate feasting and fasting in preparation to receive the mysteries of our very being as the body of Christ. Lent is to return us to ourselves as the Church, the Body of Christ. However, we observe Lent, we are to seek to be more like Christ and to grow more into our Baptism. If we aren’t focused growing father into Christ anticipating and preparing ourselves to renew our baptism and return to the Church, then we aren’t observing a holy Lent. So, do what your community or your spiritual director encourages you to do. Don’t worry if you are doing too little or too much, don’t worry about how strict or lax you are. Focus on being ready for Easter. Whatever you do have as your goal to renew and deepen your sense and understanding of yourself as a member of the Church, our mother.

Examining a practice “Ashes on the Go”

A few years back some priests and ministers experimented with getting Christian liturgy in the streets on Ash Wednesday with Ashes on the Go. I wonder if Ashes on the Go by focusing on the moment most individuated within the liturgy of Ash Wednesday if this fails to communicate the meaning of receiving these ashes in this time of preparation? Given that we already have the tendency to view Lenten disciplines as individualistic private pious acts disconnected from our being called back into the church and back to our baptism, there’s a danger this innovation reinforces individualistic interpretations of Lent and Lenten disciplines.

If Ashes on the Go is just this one moment of the Ash Wednesday liturgy I see “Ashes on the Go” reinforcing an individualistic pious interpretation of the day. How would one communicate the corporate nature of this act without a gathered body of believers? There would need to be some reminder in the liturgy of Ashes on the Go that those who receive the ashes should also be finding and involved with a local body of believers in following through on their having received ashes, some reminder of their baptism and membership in the body of Christ. Otherwise this innovation risks (whether the priest intends this or not) of reinforcing the individualized misinterpretations of Lent and Ashe Wednesday that are prevalent in our treatment of Lenten practices.

Ash Wednesday as an act of becoming church.

Ash Wednesday isn’t about confronting my own mortality, nor an individual penitence. It includes those things, but only as an act of joining with the other members of Christ. It is more importantly a collective entering a time of self-examination and repentance to be prepared to receive again the central mysteries of the faith of the Church.

In Ash Wednesday, we are asked as members of Christ to face how we have both individually and collectively exhibited a failure to live into the call l or baptism and our collective mortality. We are reminded that being a member of Christ isn’t a space of triumphalism nor a celebration of our ability as individuals to bravely face our limits. Rather, it is a space of humility, to again remember we need God and each other, to be what we are called to and that we often forget in a short time, what it means to be the body of Christ, we were initiated into at our baptism.

When we receive ashes, and reflect upon our mortality as an act of corporate repentance and humility, we are called back to who we are as baptized members of Christ Body, the temple of God.

As you feast today, and as you receive ash and begin your Lenten practice tomorrow, let it be focused upon return, renewal and receiving again the mystery of who we are as the church, baptized members of Christ. Then we can know that we are observing a holy lent no matter what we do, or don’t do, as we prepare ourselves to come face to face with the mystery of our Faith.

Building Upon a Foundation: Practicing the Sermon on the Mount

Unbounded Love as Resistance, Part 2.

The sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7) concludes with the parable the wise and foolish builders. The wise builder builds on a rock as the foundation for the house. This builder who builds upon a firm foundation is the one who hears Jesus’ teaching and practices what Jesus teaches. Putting Jesus’ teaching into practice is to build upon a solid foundation.  The apostle Paul in his letters, also uses this image of building upon a foundation, which is Christ. However, we tend to treat the sermon on the mount as a structure that we are to live in and which we must remodel or deconstruct. The parable suggests that practicing Jesus’ teaching is more like building a structure than inhabiting something already in existence. The sermon on the mount provides a foundation for living in a way that builds upon Jesus Christ and Jesus’ teaching.

How is Jesus Christ and the teachings in the sermon on the Mount foundation? Are we building upon this foundation? What does it mean to build upon Jesus and these teachings of Christ.?

Taking Jesus Christ and the Sermon on the Mount as foundation means reading the Sermon on the mount not so much as rules to be applied in all situations, but a teaching that gives us a dynamic life giving way of being. In hearing and studying the sermon on the mount we become familiar with this way of being.

Some aspects of this we won’t go into here: The Sermon on the mount is itself a summary of Jesus’ interpretation of the Torah. Jesus is describing himself in his own teaching, Jesus is the way and fulfillment of the Torah. As the Word made flesh Jesus is the Torah interpreting Torah.

Jesus’ teaching is a whole, not discrete isolated instructions. Only as a whole are they the firm foundation on which to build. Any one saying or teaching isn’t , isolated and discrete, able to stand on its own, rather Jesus’ teachings provide the interlocking basis for life and for our building upon this foundation. Take for instance the teaching of turning the other cheek this instruction is bound up with Jesus teaching on hate and murder, with the charge to love enemies, the charge to not worry, the blessing of those who seek after justice and righteousness etc… Seeing this as foundation and way of being means that every part is part of the other unable to be removed and atomised, and picked over for its supposed utility in following Jesus.

Once we accept Jesus and Jesus’ instruction as foundation, we are not meant to build upon this foundation individually by ourselves. This way of being isn’t an individualistic path anymore then the teachings of Jesus are individual disconnected rules applied by our own wisdom. We are to build upon this foundation with others, namely other baptized members of the Church.

This is Christ’s way of being, the very nature of the church. We can’t answer how we are to live out this way and build upon the foundation individually.  We can do this only as the body of Christ, only in conversation with others, both those who are living and those who have lived upon the foundation out in the past: Like St. Francis and St Clare, St. Benedict, St. Scholastica and the Benedictines, and the first monastics, like St Anthony of Egypt. The lives of the Saints show us how others have lived upon this foundation. This is a spiritual and Eucharistic practice of becoming Christ, it requires regularly taking in Christ and being with other’s who are baptized members of the body of Christ, encouraging each other to practice and build upon Christ and Christ’s teachings.

A note on false prophets and those who teach but don’t live on the foundation Christ:

If you still have misgivings about the Sermon on the mount or some of Jesus’ sayings, because some interpretations of the teaching seem to support the status quo, or oppressors, or the wealthy, remember Jesus warns against those who would twist his words for their own ends. Jesus warns of false prophets and those who would claim to speak for Jesus but do works that have nothing to do with the Jesus or Jesus’ way of being.

Jesus wraps up the Sermon on the Mount with warnings against false prophets and those who say “Lord, Lord” and claimed to do great works in Christ’s name but who don’t do the will of God as found in Jesus’ teachings. The harmful interpretations of the sermon on the mount, come back to these false teachers and false disciples. We are called to watch out for those who distort the foundation or who teach but do not live upon the foundation of Christ. But such misapplication misinterpretation and false teaching doesn’t alter the solid foundation which is Christ. Turn aside from those false prophets, and those who claim knowledge but know nothing of Christ. Do not let them shake your confidence in this foundation and the life-giving way offered by Christ.

This was the final reflection in a sketch of a  theology of resistance that began with this post: Hope as Virtue and Discipline

Unbounded Love As Resistance: Standing against Sin and Evil, Part 2

Part 1: Love command as interpretive framework for the Sermon on the Mount

Part 2  Love command as Standing against Sin and Evil

A careful reading of Matthew’s version of Jesus’ teaching turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39) reveals a humanizing act both for the one being struck and for the one striking the other. When a right-handed person strikes one on the right cheek, that person has back handed the other.  The back handed strike isn’t what takes place between equals. This isn’t a fist fight. This is an insult, an assertion of superiority over an inferior. Jesus’ instruction to turn the left cheek is to demand to be struck as an equal, or at least to prevent the insult from being repeated. This symbolically says “I’m your equal, I do not accept your terms. I will not strike back but if you wish to strike me again you must punch me like you would your equal.” This is love of enemy, seeing the enemy as human, like you, and insisting that your enemy also recognize your humanity.

Thus, when the elder King confronts the police officer for calling him boy, he was turning the other cheek (see part 1). He refused to be dehumanized by acting on Jesus’ instruction to turn the other cheek. This was a fulfillment of the command to love one’s enemies and inspired an entire generation of African-Americans to do likewise. Clearly, nonresistance to evil is neither acquiescing to, nor acceptance of dehumanization and oppression. Non-resistance of evil is choosing to in the face of evil act from the stand point of radical love. It transforms confrontations between the oppressed and the oppressor by humanizing and equalizing both parties. One who follow’s Jesus’ teaching, refuses to accept a dehumanizing act and simultaneously refuses to react in kind. This is what Jesus means when he speaks of loving our enemies.

This radical love both defines and empowers non-resistance. Non-resistance of evil proclaims, “I will not only treat the oppressor as human, but also with the dignity I demand from, and for all people, because we are all human and therefore all equally deserving of a beloved, dignified humanity.” The very same dignity an oppressor expects for themselves. A Christian response to oppression must invite the oppressor to both see the oppressed as equals and unmask any dehumanizing tactics employed by an oppressor. This approach to Christ’s teaching should inform every action in which a Christian confronts oppression.

In a paradoxical moment of great extremity Dietrich Bonhoeffer admitted that there are instances in confronting injustice, such as his moment in opposition to Hitler, when love of neighbor comes into conflict with love of enemy, e.g. Joining the plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer recognized that in such extremities it might be impossible to maintain the unity of Jesus’ teaching of demanding humanity for all including the evil person. One may be required by Jesus love ethic to fail in loving one’s enemy, when the enemy is an oppressor and love of neighbor demands standing with and for the oppressed. Bonhoeffer did not attempt to explain away Jesus’ connecting hate and murder. The assassination of Hitler (even the attempt of it) lead him for the sake of Christ and the demand of love to violate Jesus love command in the name of love. Bonhoeffer admitted that his participation in the assassination plot was a failure of the demands of love and the Gospel for the sake of love and the Gospel. Bonhoeffer accepted this guilt and threw himself upon the grace of God.

Love of enemy, turning the other cheek, and non-resistance of evil support an ideal of radical love and radical humanization of all people. It also attempts to jar an oppressor out of their inhumanity. This radical love can also lead to an ethical paradox that traps us in the human inability to uphold Jesus radical love ethic. In those moments, the best we can do is embrace our flawed humanity and throw ourselves upon the love and grace of God. Such is the resistance of the disciple of Jesus Christ, member of the church the body of Christ. Some interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount attempt to protect us from the ethical contradictions taking this teaching seriously can lead to. Many interpretations treat Jesus’ teaching as a method of avoiding sin. But Christian monastics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr (as well as many others) show us that the life of the Church isn’t merely the avoidance of Sin, but a direct confrontation of sin which will exposes our human limits as well as our complicity with Sin. This radical confrontation is undertaken in the name of Christ and by the power of the cross so that Sin, injustice, and oppression may be driven out of our minds, our hearts and out of all creation. These are acts of exorcism dependent upon the work of God in Christ Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

Unbounded Love as Resistance Part 1 and 2, is the second part in a three part reflection. The first part is on hope, “Hope as Virtue and Discipline” and the final reflection is “Building Upon a Foundation: Practicing the Sermon on the Mount”  These for blog posts make up a beginning sketch of my theology of resistance.  They are reflections that come out of reflecting on hope and the sermon on the mount with the Oratory of Jesus Christ, Reconciler, between November 2016 and February 2017

On the Edge of Enlightenment: The Epiphany

Even on this day, as when we were waiting for God’s transformation of the world, we can miss the illumination. As often as not the illumination we seek is obvious and at the center while the epiphany we get is on the periphery just out of sight.

The Epiphany comes to us as odd foreigners speaking of an obscure star they saw. These same foreigners visiting an infant with rare gifts.

Enlightenment comes as an ordinary man, by appearance, who comes to the river baptized by a man in camel hair along with everyone else. Then the heavens are opened, Spirit descends, a voice speaks, or was it?

Epiphany is tasting excellent wine suddenly discovered after the momentary crisis of having no wine as the head steward of a wedding feast. But only the servants know what happened, they poured water into jugs and when the drew out the water there was wine. A parlor trick? For a very exclusive audience of servants.

This manifestation is not a sudden clear insight. What is manifest isn’t blindingly and unambiguously clear. It’s not entirely convincing.  It’s queer. Boundaries have been crossed and it takes place out of the way on the borders. It’s in our peripheral vision, and never quite comes into focus.

The Epiphany is odd. It is disconcerting, because such an illumination tells us the truly important doesn’t happen at the center: center of power, center of ourselves, center of meaning.

The Epiphany doesn’t give us a place of residence.  The manifestation sends us again on our way.  Our illumination on this day sends us to live unsettled at the boundaries.

What is revealed on Epiphany is a god who embraces the “neither nor” and the “both and”. We are invited to meet one who is neither human nor divine, who is both human and divine.  At this moment, we are invited into this transgression of the order of things. The mixing of creator and created for the sake of love.

If we affirm the doctrines of “incarnation”, “Virgin Birth”, “Trinity”, “Fully God and fully human” and “begotten not made” we should not do so because of their intellectual or philosophical power to convince. Rather we should affirm these dogmas because they give voice to our epiphany, our enlightenment and encounter with God. The Epiphany shows us that these doctrines describe something queer, transgressive. This all though is seen just out of the corner of our eyes.  They point to what we can’t quite grasp but can intuit.  A flash of light, a voice an appearance of a dove.

I invite us to speak of incarnation and virgin birth, and say Jesus of Nazareth is fully divine and fully human.  I invite us to do so not to grasp an insight, but to be embraced by the transgressor of our creaturely limits.  Allow this speech, and this contemplation to take us to the borders. So, we may live with God on the edges, in that place between human and divine. This borderland is the place of the one who was honored by Magi and who enraged the powerful. In this place, we are with the Beloved in whom God is well pleased.  I invite us to come to the Jordan, take up residence on the edge of the empire. It is in the borderland where love was revealed, and God affirmed God’s love and union with human kind and all creation. In this transgression of flesh and divinity we are illumined.


The Veil Over the Holy Nativity

The icon of the Holy Nativity has something that eludes us.  I return, again and again, to its contemplation because it is a rich image but also because it challenges me. I don’t see it completely. The meaning eludes us, there is a veil over the icon.

One layer of this veil is the familiar imagery of Christmas, which smooth’s out the edges, softens the light, ignores the presence of death that lurks in Holy Nativity.  Most images seek to honor this moment through abstraction of the material and fleshly reality the holy nativity inhabits. There is a veil (The “veil” is an allusion to Saint Paul’s usage in 2 Corinthians 3:12-14 ) over this icon and the reality the icon invites us to enter. Because of this veil we are unable to enter Christmas, we turn away from the crack in the world it created.

We look at this icon and we see only a dogmatic claim. VIRGIN BIRTH, screams out at us. Isolated, without context, we hear “Just accept and believe that Mary conceived without intercourse with Joseph.” What is at root of this dogmatism disconnected from a lived and material existence? Why might we only see in this image a dogmatic assertion? Why the fascination with and the rejection of the miraculous? More importantly why do we think the miracle is the point? (side note, it’s not!)

Asking the question of whether a Christian need to believe in the Virgin Birth as Nicholas Kristof does in his interview with Timothy Keller, misses the point. Timothy Keller’s answer that the virgin birth is integral to the Christian thought system, reinforces the veil over the icon of the Holy Nativity (though I agree with his point that the doctrine has meaning). What is this veil? Why the retreat into abstraction and systematic theology and the integrity of belief systems and organizations?  This is so far from the material and physical reality of a virgin birth. Why do we retreat from the holy nativity’s visceral moment? Keller, later in the interview, when talking about the Resurrection, will tell Kristof that these beliefs about Jesus were an offense to the Greek philosophers who couldn’t abide a God bound up in the messiness of the material and fleshly, and yet Keller answers with that same attitude of distance from the messy material world. What Keller presents is a tidy precise sterile world with discrete doctrines that ensure the precise relationships, and the protocol for dealing with God. If doctrine and belief is all you see in the Holy Nativity, then you aren’t seeing.

I think I’ve identified the veil and turning away from this sight. The eyes are veiled for both the one who professes to believe and the one who is skeptical or has abandoned belief. (for my purposes here, I make the distinction between faith and belief. Belief is assent to propositions, faith is about trust and relationship that can be expressed in propositions but whose referent isn’t those propositions.) From what are we shielding our eyes, as we rush to take these  postures.? From what do we veil ourselves, what can’t we bear to look upon in the icon?

Our turning away has been happening for a very long time. All I give at this moment is a quick sketch of this retreat and veiling. I will make some rapid connections of disconnect and retreat. Trump and his Christian supporters have more in common with those who don’t appear in this icon; the client King Herod (see, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s
use of this trope in his Open Letter to King Herod at Red Letter Christians
) and the other religious leaders who know the Torah (the Bible, if you will) and who in differing ways collaborate with the occupation of Judea and Galilee. White Christianity isn’t found in this icon. The “we” if you find this icon unintelligible, is a Christianity of Empire, in service to Babylon the Great (Revelation 17 and 18). The most recent iteration of Babylon is that which inherited the White supremacist system of European colonialism. This sketch of course isn’t convincing (for the case and argument for this sketch one must read Willie James Jennings, James Cone, Harry H. Singleton III, and others).

I will add to this historical sketch a tableau, a “pastoral image”*, if you will: Christmas on the plantations in the “new world”, slaves and their masters at Christmas. In the celebration of Christmas, the White Christian slave holders would allow slaves a moment of reprieve from their harsh conditions. Some of the conditions of their enslavement were lifted, surveillance was lessened, work load lightened. Some slaves, tasting of this Christmas liberty, grabbed hold of it and fled to freedom. Some managed to gain their liberty at Christmas. There were also slave rebellions at Christmas. (see Christmas and the Resistance to Slavery in the Americas in AAIHS)

This is the veil, the reason of our retreat: White Christians instinctively loosening their grip of oppression, but not understanding that the Holy Nativity stood in opposition to them. The White Christian is nowhere to be found in the icon of the holy nativity. The religious collaborators do not make an appearance in this film. We’ve attempted to make the holy nativity a pastoral image of innocence that White Christianity can’t claim for itself, but must insist upon.

We are some distance from the above tableaux of Christmas on the plantations. Yet, it still reverberates. Babylon and its religious (often devoutly so) collaborators, who can answer the questions when those seeking truth come, and ask “Where is the messiah to be born,” and knowing the scriptures can give the correct answer. Even so, white Christians never come into the Holy Nativity.

Where are we, (by “we” I mean both those who seek to come out of Whiteness (Babylon) and those upon whom Babylon has fed and who cry out “how long” (Revelation 6:9-11)- people of color, who currently cry out “Black lives matter”).

In this icon. At this moment, I think most of us are at the bottom of the icon with Saint Joseph and the midwives. We are either caught in a moment of indecision, uncertain what to make of it all, without answers, full of doubts. We ask with Saint Joseph, has any of this been true, the apparition of angels, the message they delivered. Or we are with the midwives handling the holy as they’ve done year in year out, perhaps not fully aware of who they are handling, and washing, swaddling, protecting through their resistance, (recall the midwives, Shiphorah and Puah in Exodus 1)

The veil hasn’t been lifted, we can’t yet see the center of this icon. Even so, we are drawn into this holy nativity, we are here. We who sit with Saint Joseph this is a very melancholy Christmas. There is much to ponder, and the lies of Satan, and the lure of Babylon must be resisted. We who sit with saint Joseph need to pay attention to the resistance and the strength of the midwives. Yes, we must ponder and reflect, but we must also be drawn into the activity of the midwives who know Christ in the flesh ( 1 John 4:2), who handle and wash and protect and guard God in this vulnerable moment of newness and liberation. But many of us are frozen in Saint Joseph’s melancholy, the veil still hangs over our eyes and we have yet to remove the veil and gaze upon  the light emitting from this icon..

*by using “pastoral image” I’m intentionally referencing Billie Holliday’s reported explanation of the term as used in “Strange Fruit.”


Torn Heavens and Shattered Earth: Advent Vexation

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O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence–as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!  (Isaiah 64:1, 2)

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This is a longing for God to act as God acted in the Israelite exodus from Egypt. “God why don’t you come down and kick some ass as you did with Pharaoh?” Isaiah asks in lament and frustration. This is an Advent frustration and longing. Desperate that the reign of God would manifest and the nations, the powers, that oppress would be brought to their knees, ending oppression. So that injustice would end and justice would flourish.

Isaiah cries out in anger and exasperation, God, come down, tear the skies, act against oppressors; like you did with pharaoh in Egypt, make yourself known like you did at Mount Sinai. God make those things that seem immovable and unshakable tremble and crumble, come like fire that sets dry brush wood aflame, be like fire to a pot of water causing it to boil over. Like brushwood catching fire from a spark to start of a conf20161219_220829lagration. Isaiah wants God to bring it all down.

If we slow down and let Isaiah’s simile take hold for a moment we find in the middle of the grand gesture there’s something small and imperceptible. Brushwood is also used for kindling to start a fire in a hearth that will then boil the pot of water put over the fire in the hearth. The image is domestic – boiling water and the fire in the hearth.
20161219_221041A rolling boil is certainly violent and the flames of a fire will rapidly lick up dry kindling, but it is all contained, and part of our everyday life, easily overlooked.

Isaiah moves form macro, “tear open the heavens” to micro, a boiling pot on a stove. A pot being brought to boil is such a small and everyday thing. Isaiah sees God’s advent in this way as both upending and earth shattering, like brush wood readily catching flame starting a conflagration, and like a pot of water in a hearth about to boil.

In this season of the Holy Nativity we are remembering and celebrating that God did tear the heavens and come down. 20161219_221038God rending the heavens took place in the womb of Mary, and the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. God comes vulnerable like the beginning flame, just after the first strike of the match to kindling. God tears open the heavens and comes down and it was nearly imperceptible like a pot of water about to boil.

The nations, the powers (Rome), did eventually sit up and take notice, though in the long run not always for the good.  Followers of Christ instead of spreading the fire and letting things shake and boil have shored up the structures of the powers and doused the flames leaving many vulnerable and becoming agents of death and oppression.

After all this, what a20161219_220947re we to say? Did God fail? Was God wrong to abandon the shock and awe of the Exodus and Mount Sinai? Was God wrong to abandon the direct confrontation with the powers as God did with Pharaoh? Was the incarnation, the crucifixion all a mistake? Have we lost God in God rending the heavens and coming down and joining with us? Or have we yet to see the fire spread? Have we yet to see the pot boil? Or is the transformation, the liberation we seek and the shaking of the powers we long for accomplished not through the language and practice of the nations and empire and grasping for power and violence, but some other means?. Does God rend the heavens and come down and show another way, one we have betrayed?

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Hope as Virtue and Discipline: “The arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards Justice.”

What follows is an essay written from my notes for recent Theology on tap for the Oratory of Jesus Christ Reconciler, written after the discussion. another version  was posted on the Oratory’s website.

“The arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards Justice.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used this aphorism in a sermon delivered at Temple Israel in Hollywood.  This is a hopeful image.  The aphorism is a snapshot of hope as virtue and discipline, before we unpack and interpret this aphorism, we need to ask some questions.

What is Hope? Hope can be a slippery thing to lay hold. We may buy a lottery ticket hoping to win the lottery.  A child might hope that she will get a gift that she asked to receive, from her parents. Such hope doesn’t seem to be either virtuous nor does it require any discipline.  The second case approaches more what we mean when we speak of hope as virtue and discipline. In the case of the hope of a child for a gift from their parents, is hoping in someone for something. There is a difference between hoping to win the lottery and hoping to receive something one has asked for at Christmas. The hope of the child is rooted in the loving relationship between the child and their parent. The hoped-for outcome isn’t guaranteed, but it is more likely and is bound up with a relationship.  In this second type of hope what one is hoping in is distinguished from what is hoped for, yet they are bound up together. Even so, the hope of a child for a Christmas gift hasn’t yet brought us to hope that is virtue and discipline

All instances of hope aren’t virtuous. So, we need to ask what is common across various instances of hopefulness.  We then can lay hold of a hope that is something we can call a virtue and about which we can be disciplined. What covers all connotations of hope is that hope looks to a fulfillment; it also lives, now, in anticipation of that fulfillment.

What is hope as virtue and discipline?

Given this sense of hope, what then does it mean for hope to be both a discipline and a virtue? Hope is a virtue and discipline, if what is hoped in is a good that is more than a fleeting desire and more than wishful thinking. Hope that is a virtue is a hope bound up with a movement toward the good, something that through hoping for it we are moved towards our betterment. For hope to be a virtue and discipline requires something to be hoped in and for, which can lead us to something greater than we are now.  Hope, which is a virtue and a discipline, is hope that moves us toward what is hoped for.  Hope as virtue and discipline is anticipation that actively waits for what is hoped for. This sort of hope isn’t passive; it is moving towards a goal or an end.

Hope can be a virtue through hoping in something that moves us towards that which we hope.  Such a hope requires an expansiveness, to borrow Obama’s phrase, it requires an audacity. Simultaneously it requires humility to admit that what is hoped for isn’t yet realized. Hope as virtue and discipline is magnanimous and humble.

The enemy of hope as virtue is presumption. This may find itself in too great a confidence, too much assurance, that at any moment what is hoped for is coming to fruition or fulfillment and completion in that very moment. Thus, it is destructive of hope to use hope as part of a political campaign, as Obama’s campaign did.  This is so, largely because, what we hoped for in Barack Obama wasn’t going to be completely fulfilled by Obama’s administration. Rather a virtuous hopefulness in a political party, or a factional politics, or a politician is in their being able to bring us closer to that which we hope, not for their ability to deliver that for which we hope.  What was hopeful about Obama and his campaign and subsequent presidency was only hopeful to the degree that hope was what propelled Obama, not in his or his administration’s ability to fulfill and deliver that for which we hope.  Thus, to the degree that Obama was hopeful with us and not the object of our hope, then we have a truly hopeful politics, but the moment we hoped in Obama or his administration, we ceased to have hope in a way that is virtue and discipline and which could lead us toward a goal greater than ourselves.

Hope as virtue and discipline needs the humility to admit that in time there is always a remainder of what is hoped for in any movement towards what we hope. For hope as virtue and discipline there needs to be the simultaneous magnanimity of claiming to be able to achieve what is hoped for with a sense that the fullness of what is hoped for can’t be found in any one moment.

What sort of things might we say we hope for in this manner? What is it that we can both be audacious about and about which we can be humble?

Hoping in God and of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

The God revealed to us in the Hebrew Prophets and the divine human Jew Jesus of Nazareth, is a god who is about justice and who defines for us justice as the concern for and right treatment of those who are marginalized, most vulnerable and who are outcasts. Captives, prisoners, widows, orphans, those who can’t easily and financially hold on to property and means of production to provide for their daily lives, food, shelter and clothing.  In the letter from the Apostle James, we are told that true religion is one that has solidarity with the poor and the vulnerable.

Thus, hope for this sort of justice cannot reside simply in some future wished for utopia, that may or may not be achieved, nor something that may or may not be realistic and realizable rather this hope is bound up in the very fabric of the universe and in the source of all that is.

When Martin Luther King Jr. affirms the aphorism “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”, he isn’t affirming some generic hope, but making a faith statement about the one has aimed the bow and the arrow is on target.  This is faith in the God who is revealed to us in the Hebrew prophets and in Jesus of Nazareth. That is Martin Luther King Jr. isn’t in that moment talking as a politician of a political party nor as a patriot of a certain nation state, but as a member of the people of God, Israel, the Church. He is speaking as a preacher and a prophet.

The above aphorism. isn’t a hope in humanity’s ability to progress based in humanity alone, but is a hope in God’s work in history.

Hope, then in its activist form, is seeking to act in accordance with this goal. This is what makes hope a discipline.  The virtue of living in conformity with the long arc of the universe bent towards justice, is to live in a certain way. Hoping in this manner is especially a discipline when a present moment seems at odds with what is hoped for. As a Rabbi friend says “it is to act as if”.

The difficulty and the virtue of hope is that some aspects of the current moment will appear to be an argument against having hope.  If hope is merely wishful thinking, if we can’t say truthfully that in some sense justice, wholeness, true life isn’t the goal isn’t the direction of things, then no living as if will counter what immediately appears.

Hope that is a virtue and can be a discipline is to have hope in something that is true beyond a certain instance. It is to hope in something that is true about our deepest selves and the entire universe and of human being.  Different philosophies and Spiritualties may give different reasons for it being there or exactly how to describe it but it must be an affirmation that our goal forms us into our truest selves.  Simultaneously it must also affirm that this goal is beyond any one of us or any moment. The fulfillment of this hope is beyond us but partly realized in us in moments even if not yet landing its mark in time.

This is the prologue to Unbounded Love as Resistance (Part 1)

Works consulted in writing this essay:

King, Martin Luther, Jr.  Sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood , February 25,1965 http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlktempleisraelhollywood.htm . Last accessed 11/25/

Pieper, Josef, Faith Hope Love, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1997, pp 87-138

Repentance as the Path to Decolonization: Confessing my family’s role in Manifest Destiny

Recently I ran across an interview with Ann Coulter on the View. In that interview Coulter made a claim that her family wasn’t originally immigrants but were settlers. While I disagree with how Coulter uses this assertion, the truth is that during the period of U.S. expansion and conquest White Europeans were settlers of that expansion and conquest.  My Swedish immigrant great great grandparents and great grandparents settled land recently taken from the original native inhabitants. For Coulter, this reality is a badge of honor, for me it is a reality to lament and with which to wrestle as I must face what it means to be White benefiting from conquest.

Coulter is one extreme example of the lack of grief among White people I wrote about here. This lack of grief or lack of tears is a spiritual problem, it is symptomatic of a failure to repent. For the Desert ammas and abbas, tears are tied to repentance and salvation. Daniel Jose Camacho recently asked what would it look like for Euro-American Christians  to repent of the Doctrine of Discovery. He defines the doctrine of discovery thus:

“… was a Christian invention which justified dispossessing indigenous peoples of their land, parceling it out among emerging nation-states, and turning it into private property for settlers. In this framework, Indigenous peoples are left with either extermination or assimilation.”

Camacho suggests two ways for Euro-American Christians to repent 1) through a radical rethinking of relationship to land and indigenous claims to sovereignty. 2)abandon the Eurocentrism of Modern Christian mission. I add to this that Euro-American (White) Christians need to grieve and lament our support and participation in the Doctrine of Discovery. We find this difficult if impossible to do because our Whiteness as Euro-American is rooted and entwined with the Doctrine of Discovery. In order to grieve and lament, Euro-Americans need to uproot and disentangle from the White Doctrine of Discover through naming the ways we have participated in whiteness and this doctrine.

Here is my beginning of this naming. My great great grandparents who came from Sweden and settled in what is now Minnesota, they weren’t immigrants but were settlers. The Native American nations had recently been driven further west and placed into reservations. The U.S. Government was parceling that land out cheap. In Sweden, Swedes were recruited as settlers through ads in newspapers and elsewhere promising idyllic conditions in the United States of America. I don’t know how influenced my great great grandparents were by those ads, but family stories told us that back in Sweden they were very poor on land that hardly produced enough to eat, they came in hopes that life would be better and they were used to settle lands of conquest.

As far as I Know we didn’t ask why the land was so abundant and so cheap. For reasons unclear my great grandfather didn’t keep or didn’t inherit the land his father first settled.  At the turn of the 20th Century my family was drawn to California with incentives from the railroad company to settle land along its rail lines in the central valley of California, once again cheap land.  Family story goes that the railroad failed to tell the settlers (and thus my great grandfather) that the central valley was desert.

Family stories of our immigration to the U.S. and settling in Minnesota and then California, never questioned why the land was available.  The stories simply assumed the Doctrine of Discovery. What our family stories did focus on was the pain and struggle of assimilation. We did assimilate. Here’s another thing we never asked: why we eventually could assimilate. The answer is that as Europeans we were White.

We ethnic Europeans were molded into White people through the U.S. Government bringing us over to settle its lands of conquest from the Native Americans.  Our being from Europe (Norther Europe even better) was the necessary raw material. We lost a great deal, possibly even our souls, but we gained wealth and power. We didn’t necessarily individually gain great wealth or great power, but we became citizens of the greatest power in the world, the heir of European empires and colonialism. We were rewarded for our assimilation and cooperation through the United States becoming a world power, outstripping its colonial competitors and former sovereign.

Coulter is correct, we Europeans who came to the U.S. were settlers occupying land of conquest serving the Manifest Destiny (the U.S. take on the Doctrine of Discovery) of the United States. This isn’t a badge of honor but it is something to lament and grieve. Yes, we were used as we sought to escape poverty and starvation and at first we were mostly unable to assent to our role in the Doctrine of Discovery. However, now we, in various ways, are defending it tooth and nail. What we Euro-Americans (Whites) decedents of settlers must do is repudiate, repent, and shed tears for our part in the United States conquest and expansion that robed indigenous people of their land.

Feeling Safe and Secure without Grief or Lament

Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria. Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away. – Amos 6:1a, 4-7

The above passage is the Hebrew Scripture reading  for today (Sunday September 25th, 2016, proper 21)  according to the Revised Common Lectionary. As I prepared the sermon today I could not shake that this word of Amos’ could be addressed to White Christians (and White people in general). The response to police shootings repeatedly shows a general inability by many white people to grieve for the loss of life. Rather, in general the attitude of whites is to immediately turn to questioning the actions of the victim of the shooting. I didn’t preach on this, but this leads me to wonder what is the source of our inability (as White people) to grieve, to lament, to weep with Black folks? Why is it that if you are White ones first response to a Police shooting of a black person isn’t lament and grief but defense and justification?

Part of the problem is the story we tell ourselves about America and its moral and ideological superiority, and its destiny on the world stage. This story we tell ourselves is why the action of refusing to stand for the national anthem, by Kaepernick and others following him, elicits such an angry response.  The anthem and the flag (and pledge of allegiance) are the central sacred objects of this story.  To suggest, as Kaepernick’s protest suggests, that racism and white supremacy is at the core of our mythology and that it taints the sacred objects of our civil religion shakes the security of those who are secure in the conviction of  the innate goodness and rightness of America: its institutions, mythology, and civil religion. White Americans are, not surprisingly, offended by the suggestion that what we hold sacred isn’t so holy.

(If you are a person of color who sees something useful in the American mythology for bringing about the remedy to your continued oppression and unequal treatment, I’m not criticizing your use of that mythology for your own ends. I’m speaking of how the mythology also works against liberation among white Christians, and whites generally.)

Because of our clinging to this narrative of American destiny as guardians of liberty, if we grieve it isn’t necessarily  over the injustice, oppression, and pain, but is over our loss of innocence and  feeling secure in our goodness.

The difficulty Whites have with truly grieving for and with the victims of police murder and violence is due to the depths and extent of racism and white supremacy. White supremacy is entangled within the philosophies, ideologies, and faith we’ve been taught to revere.  To admit that racism is still a problem, to admit that our system is still (even after Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement) racist and white supremacist shakes us to our core. It is difficult to understand how we haven’t reformed racism out of our system, therefore the problem can’t be with the system, it can’t be the police so it must be the victim of police violence.

But this is where the mythology works against seeing the truth. We can’t accept that Francis Scott Key as a slaveholder didn’t have African-Americans in mind as citizens of “land of the Free and home of the Brave”. This is the problem : those that instituted our sacred institutions and mythology and ideology had themselves in mind and people like them and not people of color.

For White Christians what stands in the way of grief is the causes of the division between white and black, white and people of color in  American Christianity. We often talk about the White and Black Church as if that separation of Christianity into white and black was some accident enforced upon the church by some external force. Worse still we talk about the black church forming without recognizing that the Black church formed because white Christians refused to worship with and ordain Black Christians. Whites left the black Christians or forced them out, not the other way around. Denominations that are White or predominantly White today have yet to really face and renounce what created them.

When white people choose to remember their immigrant origins, we tend not to recall that we are here in part due to deliberate quota’s that favored Europeans over other immigrant groups. We don’t think about the huge swath of land now owned by white people who were European immigrants isn’t an accident of amoral and natural forces of history but due to U.S. Government policy with the full cooperation and consent of White Christianity, It was due to the deliberate policy of the  U.S. government toward Native American people, and recruitment of poor Europeans to settle land taken from Native Americans as they were rounded up on small tracks of unwanted land.

In order to grieve what is happening in our streets requires no longer sitting securely in our comfort and safe place of America: no longer sitting comfortable in the belief that we are slowly progressing away from ignorance into enlightenment. We aren’t’ here because people didn’t know better back then.  No! Whites and White Christians seared their conscience and then created reasoned justifications to support a system that was to their benefit.

I’ve written subsequently about how my immigrant Swedish family through our settling Wisconsin and California play into what I’m talking about above. But even this second blog post is just beginning to tease out the depths of our racist system, what lies behind the persistence of systemic racism in spite of reforms and the reformers. What I believe is that this all persists because it is in the very structure of our society, it wasn’t that Racism and White supremacy was an add on after the U.S.A and the global economic system we inhabit came into existence, rather it is in the very structure and foundation of everything we know.

Edited on October 18th, 2016