Ecclesiology

Theology of the church

Unbounded Love as Resistance: The Sermon on the Mount (part 1)

There is an extremism in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7, parallel in Luke 6 as the Sermon on the Plain). Many in the history of the church have attempted to soften and or restrict the application of these teachings to certain class. Part of this radicalism, is Jesus Christ getting at the root of Sin and injustice/unrighteousness. This extreme teaching is also, an articulation of Jesus’ ethic, the way of life or being for his body, the Church.

This ethic or way of life is nurtured in the soil of the Torah. The teaching is enriched by going beyond surface adherence of the commands of the Torah, so that one can dig into the richness of the Torah as life. This ethic also has its source in a radicalization of the Love command taught in the Torah: Love of God and neighbor as self. Jesus accepts this Love command as a summary of the Torah. In the sermon on the Mount love of neighbor (if neighbor is taken as someone one knows and with whom one shares an affinity) is radicalized as love of enemy. This radical neighbor love exposes how we justify our failures to live by the Torah and love of neighbor by cordoning ourselves off from certain others. We know this well: treatment of our in group (whatever that might be) stands in stark contrast to our treatment of the out group. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus makes explicit that the way of love Jesus exemplifies and exhorts us towards doesn’t allow us to hate anyone even those who may harm us, that is our enemies.

Jesus’ love ethic and love command has two elements (shown in the parable of the Good Samaritan told in answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?”. The answer to that question is the seeming non-sequitur question “Am I a neighbor?”) One is seeking to be neighbor to all. The other is love of those who do not return my love- love of those who hate me and seek my demise, even death. Thus, If we conceive of love only as sentiment, we make pure nonsense of Jesus’ teaching. This radicalized ethic shows that the basis of love for Jesus isn’t only an emotion but also an action that extends love to all possible persons and circumstances. Jesus’ teaching tells us that what is usually grounded in an emotive response to familiarity and affinity, is deeper and grander than our habitual way of understanding love. Love is more human and more divine than we realize or usually notice.

The Sermon on the Mount or Plain needs to be interpreted from this extreme love ethic that is rooted in the Torah and its summary as Love of God and love of neighbor as self, and radicalized by removal of any limit we might put on love of neighbor. This is accomplished first through focus not on others but the self being a neighbor in any and all circumstances, this focus on self being neighbor and loving from that standpoint is further radicalized as the commandment to love neighbor becomes a command to love one’s enemies.

We turn now to the teaching on “love of enemy, resisting not the evil person and turning the other cheek that occur within in what is often called the antitheses; “You’ve heard it was said…. but I say to you…”. When we look at this section from the perspective of Torah summarized as Love of God and Neighbor as self, we can see this section as rooted in Torah and not it’s rejection. Jesus always has the Torah as the basis of the radicalized way of living and being he leads his disciples into, and moves it towards the extremity of the Torah’s meaning at points almost seeming to enjoin doing the opposite. Except that the Torah is never abandoned, but s clarified trough Jesus’ teaching.

We run into difficulty of hearing Jesus in truth due to some of the ways these three sayings are interpreted.  As often as not these sayings of Christ have been interpreted by powerful and privileged Christians to insist that the poor and the oppressed not upset the status quo, and endure their lot in life. While also being interpreted as not applying to Christians exercising the power of the state. There are interpretations of love of enemies, turning the other cheek and resist not evil all which subject the one suffering evil or oppression to accept the dehumanizing condition in the name of Jesus Christ.

James Cone in his book on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X recounts Martin Luther King Jr’s account of influences of Kings child hood in Atlanta and of the example of his parents as key to his views. one of the incidents Cones recounts from Kings autobiography is an incident of King’s father being pulled over by a police officer when King was a child.  Cone quotes King as saying that the elder King didn’t turn the other cheek but that the elder King insisted on being treated as a “man” and an equal. When the police officer called the elder King “boy” the elder King’s reply was that the younger king in the car with him was a boy but that he was a man. Turning the other cheek in Martin Luther King Jr.’s account is the opposite of standing up and demanding that one’s humanity be recognized in the face of degradation, oppression and injustice.

If this is Jesus intended teaching (accept and don’t stand against dehumanization) then what sense can we make of the Beatitudes (especially if we keep Luke’s and Matthew’s versions together), when what we see in the Beatitudes is the humanizing of those who are being dehumanized. When the Beatitudes are together with the command to love enemies, which obliterates any line that puts another human beyond the pale of human being, then we have a radical stance against dehumanizing any human being whatever they may do or have done, or however monstrous we may view the other. To refuse hate, even to refuse to hate one’s enemy but instead to love them, is a humanizing way of life that has no boundaries.

Jesus Christ’s love ethic is meant to humanize everyone and to eradicate within each of us the desire and need to dehumanize those who threaten us. We will next explore, In part 2, “turning the other cheek” and “resisting not the evil person” from this perspective of Jesus’ ethic as a humanizing way of life, that refuses all forms of dehumanization, and the ways in which this radicalism can lead us into a contradiction that is the very nature of our call as the church to confront (not avoid) Sin and unrighteousness/injustice.

Please leave your thoughts on how you’ve been taught to understand “turn the other Cheek” and “resist not the evil person.” How does viewing Jesus’ teaching from the perspective of a radical interpretation of the Torah from the perspective of love without bounds, including those who seek to harm us, reinforce or challenge interpretations of the sermon on the Mount you believe or have been taught?

Torn Heavens and Shattered Earth: Advent Vexation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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

A Peculiar Household In Ephesians

This is the third post in  On a way Toward an Ecclesial and Trinitarian Exploration of Sexuality and Gender. If you haven’t read that intro or the first post on the Household in Ephesians 1 this post may not make much sense. Go read those first.

Our exploration into the trinitarian and ecclesial dimensions of gender and sexuality, begins with metaphors, images, and analogies of Households, Fathers, Sons and heirs.  In Ephesians Paul begins with the male dominated institution of the household and inheritance in a household.

Already then at the beginning we are on risky ground: we are firmly in the realm of patriarchy.  Yet, there are clues that if we take this as affirming patriarchy and male dominance we may not be paying attention to the ways in which Paul’s use of the concept of the male dominated household, hardly is a one to one correspondence, or intended to shore up the male dominated household.

If one reads this such that because only men inherit (or usually only inherited) from the father in a household that what Paul is saying  that in the ecclesia only men are true inheritors of God, there’s little to support that view in the text itself.  Gender is important here only because it is bound up in the particular economy that Paul uses as an analogy of a divine economy, but the gendered aspect of the household isn’t the salient feature for its analogical use in the first chapter of Ephesians

We are in a difficult place for Father and Son don’t immediately name for us the relationship it names for Paul in Ephesians.  Just as “mother and “daughter” don’t show the relationship Paul here in Ephesians at least is invoking.  The problem is deepened in that we don’t have  a relational economy that fits Paul’s analogical use of the male dominated household of the Roman Empire.  There possibly is no translation for what Paul is describing.  At least in this opening of Ephesians Paul’s use of ‘Father” and “Son” don’t have equivalents in our culture and economy.

We don’t have in the first chapter of Ephesians troubling of gender, nor something gender queer.  But we do have something peculiar.

What we  are left with is something other than our notions of fatherhood and being a son, and our sense of being a parent and child, or mother and daughter.   Here is something peculiar, Paul isn’t saying that God the Father and God the Son are Father and Son because they are like the Father of a Household and the son of a household.  Rather Paul uses an analogy that is suggested by the naming of God he has inherited, Father, Son and Spirit to give us a glimpse into our relationship with God in Jesus Christ and by the Spirit through an analogy that can’t capture what Paul wishes us to experience.

Paul is using the expectations of the Household and inheritance to elucidate the relationship between God the Father and God the Son into which members of the ecclesia are incorporated through the Spirit.

The analogy of the household breaks down as what Paul is seeking to describe bursts the walls of the household and inheritance.  Inheritance in this peculiar household doesn’t happen at death of the Father(as in a human household), but through the death of the Son we become heirs with the Son.  The inheritance isn’t a possession, but full inclusion in the life of God Father, Son and Holy Trinity.

 

“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.

Baptism, Gun Control, and the Power of Death

What is my response as a member of the Body of Christ to gun violence?  Some fellow Christians know definitively what we should do, others know with equal assertion what isn’t the solution.  Are either informed, truly by the mind of Christ the crucified one, God Father Son and Holy Spirit.  Is my response to the question the state and its claimed monopoly on violence, so informed?  The more I sit with the horror of all the violence, what we consider legitimate (Police and military, the power of death wielded by the State) and what we consider illegitimate (the power of death wielded by non-state actors, those we call terrorists), I waver.  How do we end suffering?  Perhaps it is the best to let the state maintain its monopoly, and that will keep others safe, or at least limit suffering and death.  Can the State in wielding the power of death keep death at bay?  Maybe –  probably often, but what does that mean?  Am I, then, entrusting myself to the power of death for my own and others safety?

It is difficult to think well about such things as a White Christian (of whatever political or ideological stripe), in part I think because of the predominance of lynching, but also because we have implicitly or explicitly for the most part accepted certain types of violence as necessary for the maintenance of the secular public order that we also baptize.  Progressive White Christians want to impose a certain logic of violence upon us that continues to reserve the power of death to the state (as long as there isn’t an explicit death penalty) and demand the citizenry maintain a veneer of non-violence, partially enforced by restricting certain means of violence.  The Christian right wants to protect the constitution and a certain amendment of that constitution, and the right for Christians citizens to wield the power of death when necessary against aggressors and possibly against the state if it over reaches its bounds.  Both still bind up the Christian stance with violence, one restricts legitimate violence entirely to the State, the other wishes to extend the realm of legitimate violence to law-abiding citizens.

In this discussion the Bible is often used to shore up one’s opinion. Of course the Bible is full of violence, and even God makes use of violence and the power of death, to coerce and carry out certain ends (e.g. the Exodus from Egypt). My theological account will look to scriptures and God’s self-revelation but my beginning point won’t be the Bible and my position isn’t Biblical.  That way too lies a dead-end.

How then do we address our violence theologically and as a member of the Body of Christ?  Here I’m pulling punches, as I’ve, in that phrase, already countered a claim that the state may have upon my person as it’s citizen. I’m pointing us also to a liturgical rite.

This reflection begins at Baptism, and thus a renunciation as well as an affirmation.  A liturgical act and not the Bible is my beginning point. Of course Scripture and what God says about the act of baptism is what gives that act meaning.  Baptism takes us from one realm to another from one allegiance to another.  To be one with Christ is to renounce sin death and the devil.  Yet much of Christian history seems to contradict this as Christendom attempted to make room for death in the members of Christ that served the state (or were the state, as emperor or king).   We give little attention to a particular detail of the biography of the first Christian Emperor, Saint only became a member of the body of Christ until just before his death. He remained a catechumen his whole life, only receiving baptism upon his death bed.  This was a frowned upon but common practice at the time.  I’ve no proof of this, but I’ve wondered if that wasn’t a most honest move by Saint Constantine: As a baptized Christians he would have compromised the vows of his baptism had he wielded the power of death as the state.  These days we are well versed in the compromises of a legalized and imperial Christianity and how Christians have sought to find a meeting between the coercive power of the state and the Church, a name for that compromise is Christendom.

I mention all the above to point out that we shouldn’t be too confident of our conclusions.  Yet, at the same time there are hints that Baptism shows us that what we consider necessary for the maintenance of the state and of the common good isn’t readily compatible with being a member of Christ’s body the Church.

Where we begin makes all the difference. If we begin with the Bible, we can look to the formation of the people of Israel as they were delivered from bondage and Egypt and established in the land of Israel, and Biblically assume that a certain violence is legitimate and necessary.  But we won’t necessarily answer where the line of legitimate violence is drawn in a democracy like ours.  I’m arguing though that seeking Biblical sanction of legitimate violence isn’t seeking the mind of Christ, nor is it seeking the stance of one who is a member of Christ’s Body, through baptism.  My actions and thinking  in relation to the state and our democracy isn’t about my being a U.S. Citizen but only in my being a Baptized member of the body of Christ.  This is a radical claim.  However, I believe like the early Christians that the best citizen of the world and its states is one whose identity isn’t bound up with that state or nation but is entirely given over to Christ and the Holy Trinity, Father Son and Holy Spirit.

As one whose identity is Christ, whose body is claimed by the cross and the name Father Son and Holy spirit, I’m no longer beholden to the state and to the power of death and its logic.  While God, it is reported in the Scriptures, made use of the power of death and the logic of the state’s monopoly of that power, God’s ultimate revelation shows God’s own renunciation of that power.  God, Father Son and Holy Spirit in the incarnation of the Son in Jesus of Nazareth suffers the legitimate violence of the State, instead of  coming to wield that power.  This is the way of Christ and of the Church.

Thus, my response to our current debate over guns and gun violence is to say that as a member of Christ’s body one is no longer given over to the power of death but freed from the power of death.  Thus, neither defense of gun ownership nor shoring up the states monopoly of violence is the appropriate response or stance of the Church.  In some sense the Cross of Christ shows there’s no such thing as “legitimate” violence or wielding of the power of death.  Though, we may have to concede that to limit the destructive evil of those given over to the power of death, some may need to wield violence and the power of death, but in doing so one is in sin and in violation of one’s baptism ( this is my interpretation and application of Bonhoeffer’s reflection on the plot to assassinate Hitler; doing so was to participate in sin, but one took responsibility for that sin, as it would end a greater evil.  Though the  just end cant’t redeem the sinful act of taking a life).

As such as a citizen of Christ I’d urge, a simultaneous limiting of that state’s violence first in disarming the police while also removing military style weaponry from the possession of ordinary citizens.  Also, This would require a more Christ like culture of policing, one where the safety of the police officer isn’t paramount. Rather we would come to see policing as deeply self-sacrificial, even to the point of willingness to suffer death for the other and for peace on our streets.  This would be a radically different view of policing something that could hardly be viewed as simply a dangerous job.  It would need to be a true calling where one would enter it knowing one may not retire alive.  We wouldn’t train officers to self-protect, but to lay down their lives.  If the state was willing to limit its wielding of violence and the power of death, then so should its citizenry.  I would work with my fellow Christians progressive and conservative towards such a limit of the power of death in our world.