Christianity

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.”


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 wasn’t an add on after the U.S.A and the global economic system we inhabit it is in the very structure and foundation of everything we know.

Edited on October 18th, 2016

Listening for the Mind of Christ in Time of Crisis: Do not be afraid, Part 3

12 Meanwhile, when many thousands of the crowd had gathered so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed, and nothing is secret that will not be made known. So then whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms will be proclaimed from the housetops.

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more they can do. But I will warn you whom you should fear: Fear the one who, after the killing, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God. In fact, even the hairs on your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are more valuable than many sparrows.   Gospel of Luke 12:1-7 (NRSV)

Fear is powerful and at times needed. Fear alerts us to danger and prepares our bodies for confronting that danger, either by fighting or fleeing.  Jesus though calls us to not fear those who would have the power to end our life, “…do not be afraid of those who kill the body”. Why might Jesus tell us not to fear such a threat as someone who has the power, opportunity, and means to kill us?

I suggest part of the reason Jesus encourages us to not live in fear even of those who can kill us, can be found in reflection upon the tenor of the GOP national convention in July.  That whole week the GOP and Donald Trump wanted us to be afraid, to be very afraid. We were told to Fear the terrorists, fear the refugees who might be terrorist, fear immigrants and the list of what to fear continued on. One may argue that there’s no need to fear these things. The terrorists aren’t refugees Yet there are those who aren’t controlled by any legitimate government nor represent a nation who seek to harm the U.S. and its standing in the world. There is a real danger, though, not an immediate danger to most of us residing in the U.S. One may even want to counter that it is more realistic to be afraid of a random person carrying a legal firearm than an Islamic Terrorist (who actually kill more Muslims than Americans).  Whether or not what the GOP and Trump wish us to fear is based in any actual potential threat, the effect is still the same: the focus on who or what is feared, a focus that doesn’t allow us pay attention to much else, let alone seeking to find other possible responses than fight or flight. Fear works at its best in instances of immediate threat, in which we can immediately respond in either standing to fight or in getting away. Then the fear and adrenaline can dissipate once the threat is dealt with. But to fear that there are people in the world who may harm or even kill when that threat isn’t imminent keeps us from seeing the larger picture. Fear about generic and non-immediate threats allows us to be manipulated by fear mongering and we begin to fail to make a distinction between actual imminent threat, possible future threat, and plausible but unrealistic threat. We saw this mix of real and unrealistic fear in the GOP convention in July.

Yet, Jesus’s remarks aren’t only set against this jumble of undiscerning fear mongering. For Jesus, the reason not to fear isn’t that the fear is misplaced, but that it is generic and not immediate. When we live in fear even if of a legitimate but not immediate threats our focus is still on the fear and the feared. Jesus, says do not be afraid of some future possibility that there are people in the world who can harm you.

In order to demonstrate this, Jesus goes on to say that if one must be afraid of a possible future bodily threat, then be afraid of God. Jesus isn’t counseling actually fearing God, but if one is going to fear a potential real future threat, God serves as good as anything else to fear, after all, God is much more threatening, and then at least your focus would be on the source of ultimate meaning and of all life. Jesus is pointing us to an awareness and a way of being beyond fight or flight of our fear response.

What is Jesus doing here? I suggest that the reason Jesus says to not be afraid of even legitimate possible future threat is that we know God the creator of the universe who knows us intimately and lovingly knows odd details about us (the numbers of the strands of hair we have on our heads). We are intimately known by and sacred to our creator. So if we are going to fear a legitimate but future potential threat then we should fear God, but if you know God, when you come to know God, you are aware that God is a ridiculous thing to fear. For the members of Christ’s Body, we know something further about this God who knows intimate details about ourselves that we can’t know about ourselves; this one not only cares for us but is joined with us in our humanity and suffers with us. In Jesus of Nazareth God went to the extremities of life even death.  This one who cares and upholds our life also knows what it is to suffer, to be oppressed and abused and knows what it is to die, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ.  This is the God we know and love.

Now this doesn’t tell us what to do in the place of actual imminent threat. But it can and has led many to face and submit to violent death without fear. Yet, it has also led others to flee in the case imminent danger, until it was no longer time to flee the threat. To not be afraid doesn’t mean to be passive and do nothing in the face of a threat. But, it is to be put in the place of discerning beyond fight or flight. It allows us to be critical of all calls to fear something by the powerful (including the call of the Clinton campaign for us to fear a Trump presidency.).

So be not afraid, and oppose the powerful, but do not fear them. Don’t focus your attention on such potential threats.  Focus on God and the transformative work of God’s coming kingdom in the world through Jesus Christ.

Part two can be found here and part 1 here

Listening to the Mind of Christ In Time of Crisis: Nothing is Hidden that will not be revealed, Part 2

12 Meanwhile, when many thousands of the crowd had gathered so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed, and nothing is secret that will not be made known. So then whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms will be proclaimed from the housetops.

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more they can do. But I will warn you whom you should fear: Fear the one who, after the killing, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God. In fact, even the hairs on your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are more valuable than many sparrows.   Gospel of Luke 12:1-7 (NRSV)

“Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed.”

This Gospel text came to mind as the succeeding revelations that followed the WikiLeaks DNC e-mail leak, that lead to Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s stepping down as DNC Chair, which revealed the likelihood of Russian Intelligence as the source of the e-mails, and giving a possible glimpse into Russian attempts to influence the current election and possible ties between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.  In this one instance we had a cascading set of revelations of things done in secret (that even people would have rather been kept under wraps). I wondered is there something hopeful in these things coming to light? Depending on your political slant or loyalty one may spin those revelations one way or another, but that isn’t the same as something hopeful being found in the unveiling of secrets.  I wondered, and still am asking is Jesus here talking about a sign of the Kingdom of God?  In contrast to the hypocrisy that acts like yeast hidden in dough, unseen except in its eventual effects. Does the truth of the transforming work of the reign of God in the world simply expose what is hidden?

DNC e-mails and Russian covert operations aren’t the only thing being brought into the open this election, overt White-supremacy and racism has come into the open in the wake of Trumps campaign and rhetoric. Trump’s campaign and rhetoric has made overt white-supremacist feel they can more publicly display their opinions and attitudes. While dangerous and frightening I think this bringing out into the open what we as a culture and society had effectively kept out of sight.  What is hopeful in this is the possibility to also then recognize and bring to light the covert and social acceptable white-supremacy and racism

Overt and Covert White Suppremacy

Above image found in a the Salt Collective Facebook Page post August 8th 2016 p

Part of Socially acceptable white supremacy and racism, is being exposed as in the arena of policing and lethal force use against people of color. Exposure in and of itself doesn’t solve things, it can even worsen situations.  Such is the case of people feeling free to come out in the light and overtly show their White-Supremacy KKK affiliation, etc., creates a less safe environment for POC. The exposure of the DNC e-mails and Russia’s involvement has ratcheted up anti-Russian sentiment and rhetoric and accusations of collaboration and infiltration eerily and frightening analogous to Cold War Anti-Russian and Communist rhetoric and accusation.  Things being brought into the open in and themselves isn’t’ necessarily hopeful.

While things coming to light and into the open that were once hid away and in secret are often frightening and carry danger, there’s also the hope that once exposed change can happen. When overt white supremacy is hidden away it is possibly more difficult to see more covert-white supremacy. When certain things are kept under wraps and hid in a corner where there is no light there’s the possibility for yeast like hypocrisy to invade and lulled into a false sense of security and sense of progress

Due to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s,  overt and some forms of covert white supremacy were through Federal intervention, legislation and legal decisions brought to an end. Along with the ending of de jure white supremacy overt expressions of white supremacy where rightly marginalized and relegated to the privacy of one’s own secretly held opinions. Since overt white supremacy was now taboo and no longer supported by law gave the impression to many of us that white supremacy is merely a matter of attitude and hate, that could be addressed by individualistic transformation, ignoring the way that the de jure elimination of overt White Supremacy didn’t address or change the more covert and structural aspects of White supremacy woven into the very fabric of our nations consciousness, history and legal and political and economic realities. With the ascendancy of Trump giving people permission to express their overt White supremacist has exposed along with the Black Lives Matter movement, the lie that White supremacy is just in the past and simply has to do with personal hate of another person or fear of a group of people.

There is an opportunity in this moment, especially for White members of the body of Christ, to fully acknowledge the depth and breadth of white supremacy in American institutions (including our denominational institutions) and turn aside not only from the overt white supremacy but all forms of it. As these things come to light we can truly repent and let our POC siblings in Christ to tell us how we should respond, and taking their cue rather than attempting to justify ourselves and our attempts to reform the White systems of government, and white religious institutions.  When things are exposed hypocrisy comes to light and there is the opportunity to repent.  Then change, healing injury, and mending what is broken can begin What is hidden away only fester and remain unacknowledged and unchangeable.  This is the hope of Christ’s word’s what you speak in secret will be shouted from the rooftops.  This is often painful, even frightening and far from safe, but it offers the opportunity for true repentance and radical transformational change of the Beloved Community God sent in motion in the life death resurrection and ascension of Christ.

Next week Part three, “Be not afraid.

And if you missed last week here’s the link to part one An Hypocrisy that is like Yeast

Review of Tom Sine’s Live Like You Give a Damn!

Tom Sine’s Live Like You Give a Damn!:  Join the Change Making Celebration is an introduction to social entrepreneurship and community empowerment for the moribund congregation unaware of these things.  The book is not for anyone already aware and involved.  Sine believes these movements are in differing ways expressions of God’s reign. Yet for a book that wishes to awaken within these congregations the alternative vision of reality of the kingdom of God, there is little critical analysis of what he presents in relation to a concrete theological vision of the reign of God., While I agree with the author a great deal both in the social entrepreneurial field and especially the community empowerment field are signs of the movement of the Spirit and movement towards the reign of God, but at times the author seems to believe that capitalism as such is the engine of God’s work in the world.

I can see that it would have been difficult for the author to balance his desire to encourage congregational engagement with social entrepreneurship and at the same time sustain a certain critique of the underlying system. Again, I’m aware this book wasn’t addressed to me, nor my own concerns.  However, even recognizing this the author seems to equate most any change with the reign of God, thus discerning what may or may not be of God and the spirit and sign of God’s reign in our midst is absent from his vision.

I was particularly encouraged by the authors various accounts of community empowerment.  And what he chose to recount in the realm of social entrepreneurship certainly bodes well for our future, and gives reason for optimism.  Yet, although he spoke of having an alternative vision of the reign of God, Sine is fairly vague about what the reign of God might look like and where it might lead us. Such that in the end the reign of God looks remarkably like reformist neo-liberal capitalism, in which for profit enterprise (now oriented towards making a profit while also working for the common good) and the need for investors who will get a return on their investment, remains the prominent engine for change.  As I see it the Gospel and the reign of God remain a challenge to both social entrepreneurship and community empowerment.  While Sine encourages a great deal of dreaming and expressing our vision for there is little talk about discernment, or any sense that that not all change is necessarily for the better or even that all change even if for the better isn’t necessarily the in breaking of the Beloved Community.  As I read I was seeking some clear articulation of vision of the Gospel and the reign of God, that Sine saw as what should form us as the people of God. The sense I get from the book is more the mind set of a reformist capitalism and that social entrepreneurship should form us as the people of God, because of Sine’s conviction that God was at work in these things (which I think he’s correct, but we only can know that if we have a clear sense of end goal of the reign of God, and some sense of who we are to be as the body of Christ.  I would assert that if we engaged in this sort of discernment the Body of Christ would be in a better position to recognize moments when the Spirit is at work in the world and when the reign of God pops up in the midst of the world.  From the perspective of the Gospel the people of God are called to not seek the benefit of others and change the world for the sake of our own monetary and material benefit rather the Gospel and the reign of God, challenges us to give up these motives, for the benefit of others at times at the cost of our own wealth and benefit.  This requires more than a desire to make a profit and make money in an ethical way, but the abandonment for profit and wealth accumulation.

For the moribund Christian congregation who desires something more but is stuck and unsure how to move forward and let go of past forms of congregational life that no longer makes sense, this book could be a good catalyst for getting out of a moribund rut.  Even for such a congregation the book is only a beginning point.  Yet, the book lacks one needed component, and that is the articulation of the mind of Christ, and vision of the reign of God, that even challenges the good of social entrepreneurship.  If you or your congregation are already aware of various movements of change in the fields social entrepreneurship and community empowerment this book is not for you.  If you or your congregation wish to become aware of these fields and desire some aid in thinking through orienting your congregational life towards such movements this book may serve that purpose and could put a fire into some in the congregation, but it would need to be supplemented with a good resource on the radical nature of the Gospel and some extensive theological reflection on the nature of the kingdom of God. Without these supplements I find Sine and this book caught up to much in a theology of Change that isn’t necessarily an articulation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

New Changemakers
Mustard Seed Associates
Tom Sine interview on the Future of the Church
Tom Sine on Facebook
Tom Sine on Twitter


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Listening for the Mind of Christ in Time of Crisis: An hypocrisy that is like yeast, Part 1

12 Meanwhile, when many thousands of the crowd had gathered so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed, and nothing is secret that will not be made known. So then whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms will be proclaimed from the housetops.

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more they can do. But I will warn you whom you should fear: Fear the one who, after the killing, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God. In fact, even the hairs on your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are more valuable than many sparrows.   Gospel of Luke 12:1-7 (NRSV)

Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy”. We can too easily dismiss the Pharisees. The Pharisees were seeking the renewal of the people of God, and in comparison, to the likes of the Herodians they took the high road. The ideals of the Pharisees were closely aligned with that of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ metaphor of hypocrisy being like yeast indicates that we are to be on our guard for what is hidden and isn’t obvious.  The hypocrisy of the Pharisees is something that is subtle and unseen except ultimately in its effect.

The hypocrisy of the GOP and the Religious right has been brought to light.  The choice of Donald Trump with so many republican and religious leaders stumbling around to get behind him, when for years the GOP and the Religious Right have talked of the personal and moral character of candidates for high office criticizing at times their opponents for not being such persons of character.  The GOP’s hypocrisy is easy to see it has leavened the whole loaf, but we must be on guard for hypocrisy before the dough starts to rise. In the case of the GOP and its presidential candidate this election, the dough has risen!

A subtle yet largely unnoticed hypocrisy is already needed into the dough of U.S. history.  For his own hypocritical ends Donald Trump has used this hypocrisy in attempts to justify restrictions on Muslim immigrants and   tracking Muslim U.S. citizens by appeal to the use of concentration camps of Japanese during WWII along with the restrictions and surveillance of Germans and Italians during WWII by FDR’s administration.

The administration of FDR with the approval of the U.S Supreme Court in prosecuting war for “Freedom” and human rights, without cause robbed Japanese Americans of their freedom and violated their human rights.  We compound and perpetuate this hypocrisy by attempting to justify or explain away the hypocrisy by excusing it or claiming they didn’t know better at that time.  We let our guard down when we for the sake of our ideals and our mythos of America pretend that the U.S. Government and a great number o its citizens have hypocritically held to its own ideals.  We further compound this when we do not admit that the seeds of this hypocrisy, are needed into the dough of our national life from the moment of our revolution and founding.  As the founders of this nation wrote and spoke eloquently of Freedom they were also slave holders or those who in some way benefited from slavery or at least tacitly approved of the enslavement of Africans. To be on our guard for the the yeast of hypocrisy is to be conscious of this radical hypocrisy at the founding of the United States.

At the Democratic Convention where we at last have a woman for presidential candidate of a major party, we also extolled how we are the greatest nation in the world surpassing all others yet, ignoring a failing that doesn’t fit with our national aspirational narrative of being a leader of the nations, of being out in front.  Women have been at the helm of Government in nations all over the world, in growing numbers over the years, since at least the 1980’s.  On this we haven’t been a leader in the world nor in line with America being the best and greatest.  In not looking closely at ourselves and the narrative we use here is another place where hypocrisy can slip in.  We aren’t even the only nation to have the aspirations to freedom and democracy and equality.  France too has it’s mythology and believes itself to be a beacon in the world to freedom and democracy, after all “LIberte, Egalite, Fraternite” is its national moto.  We should be on guard for way our positive and aspirational story of America has this leaven already within it.

What this means for us as member of Christ and citizens of the U.S. is to be aware of the ways in which hypocrisy can invade and appear even in our desire for the moral high ground.  Especially if that moral high ground is identified with a particular nation and when those aspirations are also human aspirations shared beyond the boundaries of the nation.  We may even say that the leaven of the Pharisees was precisely; in this area:  They were good people devoted to Gods law and ensuring that the people of Israel stay true even under a harsh occupation when the occupier sought to dissuade their unique devotion to their god and customs (because it excluded paying fealty to the occupier’s ways and God.) Even thought there was much good in what they did, Jesus calls them out for their hypocrisy.  Good motives even seeking the Good of your group doesn’t prevent the yeast of hypocrisy.

To be on guard in this manner means not resting in party religious or national loyalties. To be on guard means to be attuned and open to God’s work of building up the Beloved Community which transcends and transgresses national and other boundaries we draw and write and put up.  To be on guard in this way is both positive and negative.  We are to be aware of where the reign of God is popping up and to be aware of the ways in which simply resting in our sense of Good or being part of the right group can lead to a hypocrisy that can choke out.  member of the body of Chris be on your guard hypocrisy is rampant it is in us, it is in the stories we tell ourselves.

In the next two weeks I will continue with this reflection on these words of Christ, part two “Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed…” and part three “…do not be afraid …”

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.