Body of Christ

Having Nothing to Show: Spirituality without Accounts

Jesus said to the twelve, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.
“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”    Mathew 10:7-16

“Freely you have received, freely give.”
I was mulling over this aphorism of Jesus’ from Matthew’s Gospel a couple of days before the Feast of St. Barnabas. Then I found myself at a Mass on that feast and heard the full context of those words. “You received without payment, give without Payment.” The gift economy of this aphorism depends upon the hospitality of others, for others to receive and act within this gift economy. This is not easy; we can easily decide that this only applied to the Apostles during Jesus’ earthly ministry. I’ve lived as though this applies to me as a member of Christ, and a minister of word and sacrament. But now I’m wrestling with having taken Jesus’ words to heart. At times this part of the Gospel asks too much.

In a world where we are told we get only what we earn or take, saying we begin with something not earned, something which can’t be purchased, runs counter to our experience molded by concepts of earnings and profit.

There are costs to following these words. I’m at the end of my rope, uncertain how to evaluate how I’ve spent my life. I have given freely, convinced that I had been given something beyond payment and accounting. Yet, to give without payment is also to not earn. To give freely is to not accumulate: wealth, followers, supporters, congregations, fans. To freely give is to give without strings. The cost is this; giving freely looks a great deal like failure.

I have doubts. Have I given anything at all? This is the problem of being without accounts, of not keeping a ledger. There’s no means to call in debts, because there is no indebtedness. There’s no means to say look how much I have given, because to give freely is to give without account. Is this not complete foolishness? A voice in me accuses: “Did you not set out on this path knowing you could not succeed so, you kept no accounts so then you could avoid facing your own failure.”

“Freely you have received, freely give.”

A part of me says, the cost is too high in a world of ledgers, earnings, accounts, and debt, financial, emotional, psychological and social. I may freely give but others demand an account. I freely give but I still want to accumulate, receive payment for my efforts. I still want my earnings.

I still want to say I will succeed. I want recognition. I want wealth to eventually accumulate to me. Yet, I gave without demand for payment, and so there are no returns.

What this tells me is I’ve yet fully converted. I’ve yet to comprehend and ingest these words “You received without payment, Give without payment.” I’ve yet to learn the love of God Father Son and Holy Spirit, who gives without account, who reaps without sowing, who has wealth without accumulation, who loves without end or return.

When all is given freely there is no return for there was no investment. There’s invitation without RSVP, so that the guests that show up weren’t those invited.

Jesus says all this throughout the Gospels. Through the incarnation and the Cross, God removes the accounts and the ledgers, or proves to us there’s never been a ledger, or accounts, the reality remains that God isn’t keeping accounts. In Christ Jesus, God comes to us and says you have no debt, there are no accounts, no ledgers, only gift. Live accordingly. This is the life of faith, this is the way of the Cross, this is what it means to be a member of the body of Christ. Even so, we create again and again out of the gift, other economies. We bind people and wealth to ourselves in return for what we give. We accumulate people, money, property, debts (financial and social) to ourselves.

Or we do like I have done, give freely while attempting to reserve the right to demand a return on investment, and then become despondent realizing there is no ledger, no accounting, no measure.

Have I succeeded in ministry, and in life? have I failed? I have no idea. I can make no judgment.
What I can say is that I have lived with the conviction that I did freely receive what is beyond accounting. In my life and ministry I’ve sought to freely give. And at this moment all I can say is that my desires and my longings are divided and conflicted. I’ve held back, I’ve kept a ledger so that I could give an account, call in debts, account my earnings and my profits. Yet, now when I open that ledger the pages are blank, I have nothing to show.

What I received I received without account or credit, and I heard the call and gave accordingly. Thus there was nothing to record, nor proof to give, yet I held on to the ledger all the same.
Now I feel the need to keep accounts, and there’s nothing to show.

Is this failure or success I don’t know? There’s no measure. And I’m at a loss.

Signs and wonders of Pentecost as material effects of God’s work on the earth.

If we focus on what is seen, heard, touched and is located on the earth in Luke’s account of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21), we can gain a sense of what are the material effects of the incarnation and the descent of the Spirit. If we’ve encountered the reality of God come in Jesus of Nazareth, the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension, we will have seen it, it will have a material effect.  This material manifestation is oriented towards a goal, that is only understood if we know how to interpret what we are seeing hearing and handling.  These manifestations show God’s work on the earth. God’s work is to restore the relationship between God and God’s creation, to reconcile humanity and God. The purpose of God’s work in the world is relational, and is born out of God’s desire for us and for all creation: the work of God in the earth is aimed towards relationship and love.

Using the above framework, we can look at the manifestations of Pentecost and their interpretations given to us by Luke in his recounting of the Descent of the Spirit on the Church.  First the manifestation and its effect are things that are evident and noticeable. Sound of wind, tongues of fire that are seen, languages spoken.  Those who wanted to discount what was happening couldn’t deny the event they simply gave it another explanation, the drunkenness of the individuals around whom the commotion started. But the manifestations aren’t random either.  Sound of wind, tongues of fire: These are consistent forms of epiphany and theophany that the people of Israel have known and experienced. They aren’t new, remixed yes, entirely new, no.  God manifesting God’s presence through meteorological phenomenon especially wind, and in fire is consistent with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which the celebration of Pentecost marks. The effect of the coming of the Spirit as a continuation of the work of Jesus Christ, does so in continuity with the work of God in human history in people Israel. The manifestation and effect is relational and reconciling, it bridges gaps and breaks down barriers that simply are the case in the world.  Languages and location and identity divide us as human beings, on the Day of Pentecost God uses what divides to bring together, and shows that the intended effect of the incarnation and the passion is to bring together, to reconcile in relationship. Furthermore, Peter in referencing Joel tells us the effect is intended for all no mater one’s social location or identity and the speaking of all languages from all parts o the earth shows that your geographical location doesn’t matter. Yet the descent of the Spirit also doesn’t erase those differences or identities, rather the work of God makes possible relationship and connection where such seems impossible or difficult. Lastly, it shakes up what is considered inevitable, simply set in the nature of the cosmos, or dictated by the powerful.  Peter tells us that what we have seen in the descent of the Holy Spirit is the same as the cosmic powers of Sun and Moon being changed, shaken and upended.

On this Pentecost, what might we take from all of this?  First, Pentecostal and Charismatic manifestations and signs and wonders aren’t meant to be ends in themselves, without interpretation they are dead ends. Yet, to ridicule or otherwise diminish them is to deny the incarnation. To so ridicule or diminish is to deny that salvation is earthly and material.  The story of God’s activity in the world to reconcile God and God’s creation that begins with Abraham and is brought to fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth.  If we attend to that story we will see that this reconciliation this transformation isn’t an escape from materiality and the earth, but is a deep and profound affirmation of all that God created.   Yet, many of the material conditions of our current worldly existence are at odds with God’s transforming and reconciling work on the earth and in the entire cosmos. The miraculous, or signs and wonders, are manifestations, epiphanies, that are meant to point out how and where God is at work.  We members of Christ’s body, the Church, should be both where these manifestations appear and those who are looking for these theophany. Yet, these epiphanies and theophany aren’t only the miraculous. We should find, in various ways, a transformed and reconciled and transfigured world replacing the world as we know it and find it.

The Church isn’t supposed to be seeking merely the reform of worldly structures and certainly isn’t supposed to be a means of escape from this earthly existence, rather it is to up end the worldly powers whatever name they go by: socialist, communist, capitalist, neoliberal, progressive, conservative, democracy, monarchy, ad infinitum.  God came to earth to transform and redeem and reconcile God’s creation the physical and material created universe, seen and unseen. The signs of the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the signs and wonders that manifested around the early Church and show up again throughout history, show us that God means to transform our material existence.  God’s reconciling work is for the earth, for all creation, for the entire universe. Our very existence is to be transformed, and it happens in time, in history and on earth. Yet, the work of God is also not from history, nor is it historical nor merely material. This is the incarnation, this is the coming of the Spirit, this is the meaning and reality of the Church in germ. Look, listen, be sent into the world so that we may truly see where God is at work and be ourselves individual and corporately sites of God’s reconciling and transfiguring work on earth, upending all world systems.

Excitement and Boredom in the Easter Vigil

Tripp Hudgins and David Hansen argued about boredom and worship on Twitter and in dueling blog posts.  David says boring proclamation is a sin. Tripp sings the praises of boredom.  The dispute started with a Tweet out of UNCO 2016 that wondered why people are more excited about Star Wars than worship.  David says the story of the Gospel and our proclamation of it (David is a Lutheran) should be exciting.  Those who proclaim the story of the Gospel shouldn’t bore us and put us to sleep.  Tripp says we should not try to compete with entertainment for profit that seeks only to capture our attention for a moment. The Church, Gospel, and the liturgy have something “longer” in view – eternity. This exchange begs the question what is “boredom”, what is “excitement” and what is the interplay of the two in our worship?

The above exchange brought up a contradiction I’ve experienced in myself around the Easter Vigil and the memory of my first Easter Vigil, at St. Peter’s Episcopal church in Sand Pedro, California.  I was a sophomore or Junior in college and I had decided to spend the time between Christmas and Pentecost among Episcopalians. My college age Lutheran Pietist self had no means to anticipate what I found in the Vigil, (Who lights a bonfire in the middle of a church to start off a worship service?!).  It all captivated me, the bonfire, the lighting of the paschal candle, the siting in the dark listening to the stories of salvation, the loud acclamation of “Alleluia, Christ is Risen” with all the lights going up.  Nothing in my twenty years of worship had prepared me for the Easter Vigil. I was blown away.  Since that moment I’ve loved the Easter Vigil.  However, recently, the Easter Vigil has felt a little humdrum.

Over the years I’ve participated in various attempts to spice up the Vigil and I’ve enjoyed those creative takes on this liturgy.  However, as I’ve recently come to find the Vigil just a little boring, I’ve wondered if the main motivation behind wanting to spice up the Vigil was the leaders own fear of their own boredom. While, currently I’m bored with the Easter Vigil, I still love it and its various elements. Though, I’m bored with it, it is still truly meaningful.  I’m puzzled about why I no longer experience the same excitement and amazement of that first Easter Vigil and which I have often experienced in subsequent Vigil’s.  I wonder what did St. Peter’s do “right” to make their Easter Vigil so exciting to my college age self?

As I’ve reflected on this and sought to recollect what we did in the Easter Vigil and not just my experience of it, I’ve concluded St. Peter’s did nothing to make their Easter Vigil exciting for my college age self.  When, I force myself to recall, not my astonishment at the unfamiliarity of the service and its dramatic elements but what actually took place in the liturgy, I notice that the service itself was quite boring and unremarkable.  Once you got beyond the dramatic opening of a bonfire lit in doors, it was just a very long service.  The Exsultet was not superbly sung (I have no recollection of it from the service, so I surmise it wasn’t memorable), then we sat in the dark listening to average readers read the requisite stories of salvation.  Nothing special was done, no reading choruses, no dramatic readings or performances, no dances; just the reading of one scripture after the other from the same lectern used each Sunday for the same purpose.  But I ate up, this fairly boring and unremarkable Easter Vigil.

Why did I find this first Easter Vigil so compelling and exciting, and why do I now find participation in the Easter Vigil boring?  The reasons are layered.  Most obviously, that first Easter Vigil was my first. The liturgy was completely and entirely new for me, nothing in my worship experience before then prepared me for what I found in that liturgy. No one in the parish thought to give the young Lutheran Pietist a heads up on what was going to happen in the liturgy. They just said we do this thing on Holy Saturday, if you are part of the parish this is part of our celebration of Holy Week and Easter.  Also, my boredom is explicable: I’ve now been to 25 vigils in a row. Since that first one I’ve planned and lead a number of them. I know the Easter Vigil inside and out.  Then Easter Vigil was new and unfamiliar, now the Easter Vigil is, for my middle aged self, old hat.

Even so, I do think that St. Peter’s helped contribute to my astonishment and excitement for the Easter Vigil.  Unlike most parishes and congregations (in my experience) that have an Easter Vigil, St Peters had a high ratio of involvement in the liturgical life of the church outside the Sunday worship. The church was packed for the Easter Vigil.  Special liturgies of Lent and Holy Week weren’t for St Peter’s just something for the spiritually fastidious or dramatic few, but were truly liturgies of the whole parish. My first Easter Vigil was compelling and exciting not only because it was new to me but also because the whole gathered local body of St Peter’s parish understood what it was doing and saw it as a key component of the Christian life.  They may not have added any bells and whistles to their liturgical performance but their hearts and minds were attentive to its meaning and importance.  It was truly an act of devotion and worship for the entire parish.

Looking back on that time of sojourn with the parish of St. Peters, they attended to the various liturgical patterns more or less equally. No one service or liturgy was given precedence, rather it all was part of who they were as the body of Christ, no liturgy was just for those certain type of people in the parish. When I recollect, I see there was nothing remarkable nor did they do anything that would stand out to a liturgist or expert on worship.  St Peter’s did nothing to call attention to their faithful participation in the liturgy and festal cycle of the Church year.  No one could write a book on how to do liturgy like they did at St Peters of San Pedro, California.  As I think back it was all basic boring stuff, it was traditional and unremarkable.  Yet it was their faithfulness, and their understanding of the liturgy as central to the spiritual life of the Church that made that Lent and Easter one of the more memorable and exciting seasons of my life in the Church.

Reconciliation and “the disgrace of Egypt”

I recently preached a sermon where I wove together God’s assurance to the Israelites, as they entered Canaan, that the disgrace of Egypt* had been rolled away, with Paul’s reflection on not seeing anyone or anything from a human point of view, with the attitude and space of the father in Jesus’ parable of The Prodigal Son. In this weaving I sought to take into account Willie Jennings’s assertion in The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, that the reading of the story Israel and appropriating of the story of Israel for White Christians is troubled and that we can too readily apply Israel’s story in a way that discounts and erases the story of biological and historical Israel. Yet, the sermon rushed too quickly to a conclusion and was in danger of mimicking the move of White Christianity’s  too easy taking into itself the story of Israel as its native story . This reflection is to reopen a space of contemplation and on going reflection on the themes of the sermon. I wrestled and wrestled with this reading, which is to read Joshua, Corinthians and a parable of Jesus in away that faces that White Christianity claimed for itself the identity of Israel but acted like Egypt and enforced upon Africans the condition of the Israelites in Egypt, as a race, just as Egypt enslaved the Hebrews as a people.  The weaving of these texts seeks to reflect the  trouble  of reading of all these scriptures in our context.

I begin with God’s word to Joshua “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” This word echos and haunts. I want to  hear these texts in ways that bear in mind white supremacy and the legacy of the enslavement of Africans. In so doing another echo was heard that of  Martin Luther King Jr.’s conclusion to his sermon preached the day before he was assassinated.” I’ve been to the mountaintop….and I’ve looked over and seen the Promised land…” White supremacy the enslavement of Africans, Jim Crow, segregation and the struggle for the civil rights of Black folks resonates with the Israelites entering the promised land, finally to be freed from the disgrace and burden of having been enslaved. Yet to hear this resonance and these echoes truly we must also see that we continue to face  today that Black people are still struggling to come out from the burden of having been an enslaved people. This fact is due to structures within this country. I wondered if King also had Joshua 5:9 in his thoughts when he spoke of going to the mountain and seeing into the promised land. I suspect it was. Black people are freed from slavery but not fully freed from the disgrace, the consequences of having been enslaved, due to the White system that itself refuses to confront the necessary continuing effects of having been a society and economy that enslaved Africans. The “disgrace of Egypt” is twofold for American Christianity: the fact of having been enslaved, for black people, and for White Christians it is the fact of having been those who enslaved black people. Christianity in the United States is both Israel and Egypt.

There is a fundamental division within American Christianity, it is analogous to  the division of Egypt from Israel.  There then is another echo and resonance, though fainter and less distinct.  Paul’s theology of reconciliation and his seeing that enmity between Israel and Gentiles and human enmity with God is resolved in Jesus Christ.  Yet, this Pauline assertion is distorted within White Christianity, as through White supremacy Christianity is now also a source of the enmity.  In appropriating to itself the story of Israel that justified its enslavement of Africans White Christianity became Egypt and is now in relation to Black people mimics the relation between Egypt and Israel. What possible hope is there to be found in this reading? To find the hopei this, we need to hear another promise to Israel : the Nations will one day come to Israel. These nations who will seek Israel out,  include Egypt. Israel will welcome into itself those who formerly had enslaved them.  The Hope then is that In Jesus Christ, this prophetic promise has happened and will happen for historical and biological Israel.**

Here we could rush too quickly to a solution, there is a dangerous moment for us in this hopeful interpretation. Wihtou nuance it will offer hope through reducing the promised land and the rolling away “disgrace of Egypt” to only be about us and our need to get past the continuing effects of slavery. This “hope” then becomes a means to escape our disgrace of the continuing effects of a White system that enslaved black people, rather than being set free through God and God’s work that began among Israel the people of God. This is a tight rope of these insights and application we must  walk. We must both see the meaning of the story for us today and retain its having happened for Israel brought to fulfilment in Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew. The story and the disgrace that was being rolled away is part of Israel’s story and history. The disgrace was rolled away. And neither black people nor white people are Israel, yet both black and white members of the church are joined to Israel through Christ (Willie Jennings).  The problem is that incredibly not only did white Christians appropriate to themselves the identity of Israel they did so in away that obliterated Israel, and then when enslaving Africans not only enslaved other human beings but enslaved and severely oppressed Black members of the body of Christ. In a very twisted turn. In the name of being Israel, Whites created enmity between themselves and all other peoples, while claiming to be proclaiming the Gospel of Reconciliation.

So we have a problem, we (especially White Christians, but White supremacy affects us all in our current system), we want to say , “See it’s all solved let’s just embrace in Christ and continue on.” However, This is to seek reconciliation through a forgetting. Yet in  Paul  speaking of the ministry of Reconciliation, there is a memory of the disgrace of Egypt that Israel suffered. Paul then insists that  Isaiah’s prophesying that the nations will come into Israel isn’t the outworking of human historical processes but is in the in-breaking of God in the Jew Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, our hope isn’t conceived of or seen from the point of view of the flesh (or human point of view NRSV, or Worldly point of view , NIV), but is found in Christ and Israel. Paul seems to indicate that Christians, members of Christ’s body can have this other than human viewpoint.  And we desperately need in our time to no longer see our world and our system with the eyes of the flesh. The opposite of the flesh in this passage in Corinthians  is being in Christ.

What then is it to be in Christ?

There are two things Paul in the Corinthians passage read on the 4th Sunday of Lent highlights ( I don’t believe these things exhaust the meaning or reality of being in Christ):

  1. New creation
  2. The ministry of Reconciliation, being Reconciled to God.

To see from this other than human point of view is to firmly stand in the place of Christ, which is from the point of view of the cosmos transformed and remade.  This space is one that is reconciling old and new, all which is at enmity (even for real and good reasons.) These two things lead nicely into the Parable Jesus tells that we commonly call the parable of the prodigal Son. I suggest that we see this as a parable about the father, and not about the sons. However, this isn’t God the father, rather what is pictured for us in the person of the father in the story is the space of new creation and reconciliation (which is then by extension a picture of God, but this would be of the Trinity and not just God the Father). The father is the world when we are within Christ, and the two sons are pictures of seeing the world and ourselves and others from the point of view of the flesh.

Here is where my sermon collapsed under the pressure of drawing things to a conclusion. This weaving of the texts and their possible meaning for our time and place, as I attempted to draw conclusions from these observations and connections, I continued to lose sight of biological and historical Israel.  In desiring to offer hope I falsely offered a confident step forward.  I’m not confident of the next step. I need to sit in contemplation of the father as image of the promised land and being in Christ, before I can say what that might mean for us now as we continue to wrestle with continuing reality of white supremacy and the outworking of enslavement of Africans by Europeans. I tried to draw this all to a conclusion and how these insights could lead us to a reconciliation that was truly liberative. I attempted to draw some parallels between the two brothers and our human approaches to reconciliation or rectifying enmity between people or between ourselves and others. There perhaps isn’t a one to one correspondence.  I attempted to give an answer I wasn’t ready to give and can’t give.

What I did say and will say now, but without attempting to draw a conclusion of its meaning for us, is that the two brothers do illuminate two ways seeing according the flesh can manifest, shame and self-condemnation, and condemnation of others. Both brothers fail to fully enter into the place of new creation and reconciliation. One stands outside the promised land the other within the promised land still remains self-condemning all the while living in the space of reconciliation but having yet to take it into themselves.

This weaving of these texts above and in the sermon are potentially fruitful but I leave them here to ponder and contemplate. But also, I perhaps alone preaching to a small group of people can’t draw a conclusion, what we do with this reading of these texts needs a broader audience and larger discussion.

Maybe it can begin here.

These are the Scripture texts that are being interpreted in the above essay: 

 

 

 

 

*not to be understood as the modern nation state of Egypt nor its Arab or Copt populations

** For a full account of the necessity of maintaining constantly this double vision of both application of the stories and scriptures of the Hebrew people as both applying to us but only through Jesus of Nazareth (a Jew) and keeping in view both the continuity with the Jewish people and with the Church made up of both Jews and the gentiles as grafted in to the people of God, Israel, C.f Willie Jennings The Christian Imagination: Theology and the origin of race.  This reflection is deeply indebted to the sustained argument in The Christian Imagination.

-Special thanks to Jeremy John for editorial work done on this post

“Racial Tensions” or an affront to the Gospel?: White Christians against Martin Luther King Jr.

Rachel Held Evans has a post on white forgetfulness (She says Christian but she means white Christian) when it comes to our honoring of Martin Luther King Jr.

As we come to the close of this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I won’t focus on the above mentioned forgetfulness but seek to do what Rachel Held Evans suggests but didn’t do, read and examine both King and his opponents, in the letter of the 7 white and one Jewish clergymen and Kings response the  Letter from Birmingham jail.

First I think we should name who these clergy were and their affiliations and not just say 8 clergy.

C. C. J. Carpenter, D.D., LL.D. Bishop of Alabama. Joseph A. Durick, D.D. Auxiliary Bishop, Diocese of Mobile, Birmingham, Rabbi Hilton L. Grafman , Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham, Alabama, Bishop Paul Hardin Bishop of the Alabama-West Florida Conference, Bishop Nolan B. Harmon Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist Church,George M. Murray, D.D., LL.DBishop Coadjutor, Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, Edward V. Ramage Moderator, Synod of the Alabama Presbyterian Church in the United States, Earl Stallings Pastor, First Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama

They represent the mainline denominations Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist. They aren’t local clergy but members of the hierarchies. These are men of authority and power within their denominations not simply rank and file clergy. Seven of these are White Christian clergy and one is a rabbi.  The presence of a rabbi is erased in claiming this letter is simply from eight clergy.  The rabbi’s presence perhaps, makes this letter not only more complex but more troubling.

The letter is brief and holds itself forth as representing reason and good order.   The situation is a “problem” that can be solved through the law, the courts, and reasoned discussion. A faith most whites still hold to strenuously to this day. They speak of racial tensions, and don’t speak directly to the injustices that are the underlying cause of those “racial tensions”. They also speak about outside agitators.  What is striking is how unobjectionable (if one forgets the real conditions of blacks at this time) and contemporary this letter sounds.  The letter makes no attempt at specificity, makes no mention of the actual reality of segregation.  The letter remains on the level of abstraction and generality and never mentioning by name the matter at hand, segregation.  Rather it is just “racial tension” and the need to solve the “racial problem.”  They object to tactics, that don’t fit with their expectations of peace, and law and order.  Even today white folks would rather talk about problems and how to resolve them and are concerned mainly about peace and tension and not real suffering or injustice.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s  reply Letter from Birmingham Jail is lengthy because, in contrast, he deals in specifics and concrete details and the reality of the oppression suffered.  When accused of being an outsider, he not only shows his connections to Birmingham, but shows those who claim to be insiders are really the outsiders, (willfully) ignorant of the actual conditions of those they call to patience.  While the eight clergy speak of law and order and the courts, urging slow incremental change that doesn’t disturb Whites and the status quo,  King speaks as a minister of the Gospel and out of the larger Christian tradition. King aligns himself with Paul. He quotes Aquinas, and shows his identification with Christ.  King doesn’t lash out and lambaste these prominent clergymen who are representatives of their Mainline White denominations, but he demonstrates, by their lack of care and concern for the conditions under which Blacks  suffer, their hypocrisy and abandonment of the Gospel.  He shows them to be moderate defenders of the status quo and not members of Christ. In the end as a preacher of the Gospel Martin Luther King, Jr. calls to repentance.

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day I’m struck by the contemporaneity of the exchange. White Christian denominations and Christians have accepted the success of the civil Rights movement and King’s tactics because they succeeded and are facts, as much as because of any deep belief in their rectitude and Gospel truth.  This is mere acceptance of what has happened and little more, we have yet to embrace the transformation King was after.   We show our acquiescence by doing, as I’m doing here, nodding to this day and the honor we now believe is due to Martin Luther King Jr, as a personage of the past. What we haven’t done, what the denominations haven’t done, is repent.  We elided over the various ways in which in the very least White Christians have stood by as injustices were perpetrated and are perpetrated on Black people and at worst were perpetrated by we White Christians.  We want to embrace King as though we were right all along; as if it was some foreign power that kept us from siding with the suffering of our Black siblings in Christ, and seeing Black people as our fellow human beings.  When there was always only us White folk and no one else.  We weren’t forced or coerced but chose purely and simply a path contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in blatant contradiction to the reality of the Body of Christ.

For Whites, Christian and non-Christian, our celebration of this day will be empty and hypocritical until we admit that King doesn’t belong among our pantheon of heroes.  King isn’t  honored because he is like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and all our other White heroes, but because he is a minister of the Gospel and the truest and greatest American theologian (I must thank James Cone for this insight into King) and not a builder of America.

If Martin Luther King, Jr. calls us to our truest and most just selves as Americans, it is because he was a minister of the Gospel and a prophet of God, Father Son, and Holy Spirit. If we honor him in our pantheon of heroes it can only be because he exceeds them and isn’t really one of them.  He is the only one of our heroes to call us prophetically to repentance.  A call to which White Americans and Christians have yet to fully and truly respond.

In the Letter From Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. is prophetic, in all meanings of the word and set forth a warning and prediction that came true and continues to be true :

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust

We wonder why we are reduced to a shadow of what we once thought ourselves to be. We find ourselves in such a situation as described by King, because we have yet come face to face with what we did, and that we were never who we thought ourselves to be.  If there was true repentance we would cling less to the greatness of White America and its past, and would look to a future in which we as Whites no longer dominate or set the standards by which others must use to gain access to the goods of the world.  Here is the beginning of repentance and our transformation when we accept that those who have most consistently and truly been bearers of the Gospel and who show us Christ are truly those who have been oppressed by us since the founding of this Nation. All else is mere co-option of King and the Civil Rights movement in order to maintain the status quo and continue business as usual, expanded to include those who once served its ends without benefit or reward.

I hesitate to even post this, for I can claim no exemption.  Yet, I speak knowing I’m just beginning, that this is only a beginning.  We must somehow begin without attempting to justify our Whiteness, and make it clean by our own works.

Things have come a long way and there is yet a long way to go.

We can’t get there by seeking preserve Whiteness and the current order.

The Necessity of White American Christian Repentance

 At Personal musings I wrote a sober (perhaps depressing) account of our situation as citizens of the U.S.A, as a country and nation that is racist, has committed genocide and war crimes as it has attempted to bring its ideal of democracy and freedom across a contentment and as a beacon of democracy to the world.  I contended there, that any good such a nation produces is always already mixed with its evil. The Nation State and its citizenry are stuck in this impossible bind even as that people might seek to disentangle and only live into its good ideal, but the ideal is suspect.

For the U.S. this has a theological and ecclesiological dimension. I will suggest here (and this post isn’t the place to flesh this out fully, rather this is a sketch that maybe some would like to help flesh out), that part of what we are seeing still working itself out in our streets, in our policing and criminal justice system and our politics, is a working out of an heretical misapplication of the qualities and the purpose of the Body of Christ to a nation state.

Theologically what I described, in the other post, could be summed up by the theological concept of original sin.  Human failure and evil have powerful and continuing effect upon generation after generation of the original act.  Human good of its own can’t cancel out or redeem human evil and failure. At best, from the perspective of mere human action, what we can  hope for is a mixture that might be accented upon human goodness.  But any human goodness is always already tainted by human failure and human evil.  The solution is in two parts: one is repentance, a change of heart and mind and which is opening up to the second part of the solution is that which God ultimately did in Jesus of Nazareth, as the crucified one.

However, for white Christians in the United States this theological account runs aground as a way forward.  The reason for this is ecclesiology, or an ecclesiological heresy. This too is twofold: There is the identification of the United States, America, with images and role of the Church, the People of God, Israel, the Body of Christ.  The U.S. as America is a “City set upon a hill” to be a light to the nations.  At the same time Whites, those of European descent, think of themselves as Whites as the People of God entrusted to bring the truth, civilization and salvation to people of color.  These two misappropriations of ecclesial distinctive to a nation and a race create the divisions and racial segregation we continue to see in American Christian Religion.

Part of the mythology of the United States is the heretical appropriation of the purposes and reality of the Body of Christ to a particular Race , Whites, and a particular Nation State, the U.S.A, under the name “America”.  The mythological greatness of the United States and its role in the world is founded upon this appropriation of the role of the Church the Body of Christ by this Nation State.

While one dimension of this was something Europeans had already begun as Race and Whiteness were invented.  However, White American Christians took it further and identified it with the state formed out of the rebellion from the British Empire, “America”.

One can argue that White Christians then bear a particular burden for what we see today in our streets and justice system.

The hopeful response to all of this, the bad theology, the misapplication of some special role for the United States as America in bringing democracy and enlightenment to the world, is the repentance of White American Christians, which should include the renunciation of the mythology of “America”

This repentance and renunciation of this heresy of American exceptionalism, of bringing the light of freedom and democracy to the world, a light to the nations, can lead to further repentance both in regards to slavery but also in regards to the genocide of Native Americans.  White Christians need to stop appealing to the American mythology, recant any claim to exceptionalism for the United States, and seek to first be identified not as Christians but as members of the Church the Body of Christ.  Such a repentance and renunciation and subsequent affirmation would be one source hope in our time.

The Peculiar Household of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit

This reflection is a riff on Ephesians 1:1-14, and is the first post in a series of blog posts whose introduction  can be found here

Ephesians shows us what has been revealed about God’s will. Paul is an apostle within this will of God.  God’s will is that we are in Jesus Christ, joined with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The nature of these relationships is part of the revelation of God’s will. Ephesians conceives of these relations through the analogy of the household.

God is addressed as our Father in the opening verses of Ephesians, yet this “fatherhood” isn’t generic nor due to our being created by God (God as creator at this moment isn’t in view) Rather the Father is father due to the Father’s relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ.  God the Father (our Father) is father of the Lord Jesus Christ.  it is through our relationship to Jesus Christ the Son, that God the Father is our father.

The relation that  is “natural” in God, between Father and Son with the Holy Spirit is in terms of the Father’s relationship to humanity is God’s choice and desire for us.  This is God’s will that we are joined with the Son and thus are, by the Father’s choice, adopted Sons.  Sons here means both those united with and in Jesus Christ, and heirs of the household of God.  We as adopted have an inheritance through the Holy Spirit who is the guarantee of this relationship we have in and through the Son, Jesus Christ.

We may find this masculine language troubling.  We may find ourselves reifying the masculinity of this language and even attributing such reification to the author of Ephesians. Yet , “Paul” makes use of the  household, which in the culture of the time, was always a household of a father whose heir would be the son of the father.  However, we should see (and I think are intended to see) that this household and paternity of God are strange and peculiar.

The peculiarity is that we don’t have only one son.  Adoption for the sake of gaining an heir would have been somewhat commonplace for the time and culture, but the Father’s household doesn’t have only one heir.  All in the household are heirs, sons. We are brought into this peculiar household of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit as sons, being joined to and with the Son.  We are guaranteed this position as sons through and in the Holy Spirit, which seals the inheritance and is through whom we have as the guarantee that we are heirs who will inherit.

But this peculiarity doesn’t end in this multiplicity of heirs and sons (whether male or female, Jew or Greek, bond or free, to remember for a moment Galatians).  It continues as it up ends ‘natural” process of inheritance.  IN the household of God the Father, inheritance comes through the actions of a living father, not a dead father.  And also the adoption comes through the Son (anticipating what is about to be said later on in Ephesians), specifically through the death of the Son and his coming to life again.  It is the passion of Christ  is the means of our adoption as sons.

We are brought into the Household of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, by God’s willing our identification with Christ which is our adoption as Sons through receiving the Holy Spirit who seals us as wills, and is who is given to us as the guarantee of our inheritance as adopted sons.  This all may seem to masculine, do women become men in this view? (some in the history of Christianity have come to this conclusion?) We shouldn’t cling to tightly to this identity as sons, for we will find that gender and roles that are played can be a bit fluid in this household.

For the moment, we should see here that the Household of God is about an economy of relationships, that in part can be spoken of in terms of the Relationship of God the Father with God the Son, and we speak of God as our Father because through the Holy Spirit we are joined to Jesus Christ the Son and in that union with Christ we are adopted and made sons, that is heirs.  Yet we inherit, not through the death of the Father but but the Fathers being ever living and our life. And even more peculiar our adoption is made possible by the death and subsequent exaltation of the Son.  Oddly enough in the household of God we inherit only through the ongoing life of the Father, yet we are adopted as sons through the death of the Son.

The plan or economy of the household of God, is a peculiar economy, and it is the economy of a relation that is God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, into which we are joined through faith in Jesus Christ.  As we follow “Paul’s” reflection on this household, the peculiarity and strangeness of this economy (plan) and relationship will only grow and multiply.

Re-imagining the Tradition in the face of White Distortions

Transmission of the Tradition and incorporating new groups and peoples into the Body of Christ is a complex process. The second chapter of Ephesians uses a number of mixed metaphors in giving an account of this process, which is ultimately bringing together Jew and Gentile as the church, a living temple.  This process builds a temple of those who weren’t citizens of Israel with those who are citizens.  This building is founded upon the apostles and prophets, but the building is ongoing as the Temple/people of God grows (an organic living building), through the continual addition of peoples.  What Ephesians doesn’t have in view is how human participation might facilitate or muck up this process.  Raymond Aldred’s presentation for NPTS Symposium 2015, Race and Racism, on indigenous reimagining of repentance and conversion, in part demonstrates how the process described in Ephesians was distorted for indigenous peoples.  Aldred’s reimagining I suggest offers a way for the indigenous and any group oppressed by White distortions of the Tradition, embrace the reality of God building the church by incorporating new people into Israel, the Church the Body of Christ.

Aldred’s paper didn’t have in view the ecclesiology of Ephesians, but was attempting an account of repentance, which values indigenous spirituality and experience as able to provide a deepening of Christian theological concepts.  Through valuing of indigenous spirituality and experience and reimagining repentance Aldred liberates the concept from White distortions of repentance and conversion. However given the oppressive distortion of the concepts of conversion and repentance by white Europeans,  I suggest that Aldred’s project is made possible through the divine act of building the Church throughout time and with all peoples as describe in Ephesians.

Aldred offered a reinterpretation and reimagining of repentance for indigenous, specifically Cree, Canadians.  He reinterprets repentance as a decision to turn and embrace the life Creator has provided, have sorrow for a lost identify rejecting the shame put upon indigenous people, and taking responsibility to work towards healing all relationships.  He argues that this reinterpretation fits with traditional and Biblical definitions of repentance that can be summarized as a contrite turning from, sin essential for conversion, and for living out of the day to day Christian life.

A substantial portion of Aldred’s paper gives the historical (some very recent) reasons why this reinterpretation is necessary. When the Newcomers came, these Europeans presented to the indigenous populations an equation of Whiteness and Christianity.   The Newcomers teaching on repentance and conversion was to teach an absolute rejection of indigenous culture based upon the absolute identification of European and Christian.  To my ears Aldred’s indigenous reimagining seems more a retrieval of the true meaning of repentance and conversion and a rejection of the heretical idea that Europeans were the Church, the people of God.  His approach to retrieving repentance for both First Nations and Newcomers, suggests a method for a retrieval of the Tradition after White ideological distortion of the tradition.

Aldred’s “method” in the paper could be stated this way (though he doesn’t so summarize nor even acknowledge a method): Identify what is the Tradition of the Church that was received by the Europeans, Identify the distortion(s) of that Tradition by Whites in their encounter and oppression of those who aren’t white (in this instance the indigenous populations of North America) the reimagining of the traditional categories through retrieval of the Tradition which is also an enculturated expression,  and thus rescues the Tradition from White oppressive distortion.

Ray Aldred’s approach suggests a need to reexamine how we conceive and talk about transmission of the Tradition of the Church through the age of European conquest and colonialism. We often speak of European interpretations of the Tradition as legitimate enculturation that becomes oppressive or illegitimate upon transmitting to other cultures and peoples the Tradition as enculturated by Europeans.  However, what Aldred’s limited account shows is that the situation we find in European colonialism isn’t merely a failure to allow enculturation of the Tradition among those who aren’t European, but a distortion of the received Tradition by the ideology of White Supremacy.

What is this distortion?  In the attempt to assimilate indigenous into Newcomer culture and society, Christianity was used to condemn indigenous culture and lift up Whiteness.  Repentance and conversion is explicitly and at times intentionally distorted for both indigenous and Europeans, through the claim that repentance involves turning away from the entirety of indigenous culture and conversion then is seen as becoming European. As I’ve said being Christian and being White became synonymous.

How does this distortion happen?  This is more than enculturation.  This is an identification of the People of God with being European and White.  This is a subtle but drastic move from enculturation to actual heresy, a misapplication of the understanding of The Church as the people of God and continuation of the Work of God begun with the people of Israel.  To fully trace out this movement is, of course, beyond the scope of this post.  However, prior to this distortion as new peoples were incorporated into the church and received the Tradition it was acknowledged that any people had witness of God in their own culture.  While there were demonic elements in each culture (primarily identified with idols of the god’s of any particular people) as a people converted to Christ and were joined with the people of God the church, there was a process in which the witness of God to people was sought out in the culture.  This process often was fraught with conflict, a well-known example of this is the bringing in the insights of Greek philosophy into the Church and Tradition, opposed by Tertullian by his famous phrase “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem.”

For the Church and the Tradition this process has a twofold necessity.  First the Church and the Tradition it transmits is in continuity with the People of Israel. Paul speaks of this with the metaphor of cultivation in which a branches from one tree are grafted into another tree. Israel is the cultivated domestic olive tree, into which all other people are grafted into through faith in Christ.  Second, while the Church is the continuation of the people of Israel as the people of God, the people of God are no longer a racial, or ethnic or national identity, but a coming together of all peoples through incorporation in Christ.  In this view, no longer can any particular nation, people or race claim to have a special relationship to God based on such identity, only being in Christ makes us members of the Israel of God.  This process was interrupted and distorted by an identification of White and European with being the people of God, the new Israel.

By this misappropriation for themselves of the designation of the New Israel to a particular people, the White race, Europeans, no longer could transmit the Tradition, nor be agents of incorporation into the body of Christ. Thus, reinterpretation, reimagining and retrieval along the lines of Aldred’s reimagining of repentance for indigenous and newcomers in Canada is need across the board if we are to regain some semblance of church and Tradition as Whites.  In part this means accepting that God has been at work, in spite of heresy incorporating peoples into Christ, and aspects of the Tradition have been received even when there is such distortion and great heresy.

Church, (Sex), Family and Tradition

This is an interlude in the series of blog posts on Ecclesiology and human sexuality begun here.

Peter J Leithart recent essay at First Things Sex and Tradition, illustrates my frustration with much conservative thought on sex, sexuality and the family:  it clings tenaciously to Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysics to critique modern and contemporary metaphysics and does so in defense of monogamy and family.  My difficulty has several facets.  First before St Thomas Aquinas achieved his synthesis of Aristotle and the Tradition of the Church, Aristotle wasn’t seen as an obvious friend of the Tradition.  Second there is the assumption that merely because there are current philosophies and understandings of science that challenge the Tradition, there is no possibility of dialog or analogous Thomistic synthesis between the Tradition and current knowledge and theory.  Third, is that there is the consistent failure to reflect on that in the Church’s history celibacy/virginity was the preferred state and not marriage and biological family.

The Church didn’t reject marriage, family, and sex, but in my reading of the Tradition it doesn’t seem to be as enamored of marriage and family as Modern and contemporary conservative expressions of the tradition are.

In regard to the church and its tradition. Leithart’s conclusion that family is the space that Tradition happens is an odd claim if one looks at the history of the Church.  First, if we take up Irenaeus of Lyon, the place of tradition is the gathered people of God around a bishop,  family isn’t in view at all.  While people with families are certainly participants in this process of passing on the Tradition but it is the Bishop that is the locus of tradition.  Also, the monastic tradition of the church has been transmitted for centuries by celibates, without the aid of family or procreation.  Generally it was familial relations that have often threatened the transmission of the tradition when dioceses and monastic foundations became part of familial inheritance.  If we look at the history of the church monogamous marriage and the biological family wasn’t seen as the locus or seen as necessary for the transmission of the Tradition of the Church and its faith.

This isn’t meant to deny that family can be a place of receiving from the past and even of receiving the faith and the Tradition of the Church.  I’m deeply grateful for my family and its long history of faith, and many of my friends have also so received the Tradition as passed through their family.  However, I would argue that my family was able to pass on the faith to me because it didn’t consider itself to be the locus of tradition and the faith, but rather regarded the people of God, the Church, as that space where I could receive the faith.  My family gave up its primacy in my life and brought me to the gathered people of God, the Church and its sacraments.  At a month old, I was Baptized and joined with people to whom I wasn’t related, and even those to whom I was related in the gathered people of God I first knew them as members of the church and only later in life realized that they were also my second and third cousins.  First, and foremost we were in Christ, members of the household of God, secondarily we were biological family.  For the church, it isn’t biological and familial inheritance that is the locus of the tradition, rather family can become a means for passing on the faith when it brings itself and its children to the people of God as the locus of belonging and reception of the Tradition not based on familial ties and biological descent and inheritance but new birth, which is from God and not human will.

One doesn’t need to have children within a monogamous marriage to understand or have tradition, and certainly the Tradition of the Church is not localized in the biological family unit.  When the biological family dies to itself and makes its union with Christ its primary identity then family is taken up into Christ and can join in being the locus of the transmission of the faith, but it is so because it relativizes biological birth by the spiritual birth of Baptism.  The people of God, created by God’s will and not procreation, is the only locus of the Tradition of the Church.

This study on sexuality and gender through the lense of ecclesiology and the Trinity continues with two posts on Paul’s analogy of the household of God in Epesians one: first post an interpretive riff, second post focusing on the peculiarity of the theme.