Ecclesiology

Theology of the church

“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.

The Necessity of White American Christian Repentance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Peculiar Household of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Church, (Sex), Family and Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On a Way Toward an Ecclesial and Trinitarian Exploration of Sexuality and Gender

Since writing this post I’ve written three more posts moving toward an ecclesial and trinitarian understanding of sexuality and gender:

An excursus on Tradition

The Peculiar Household of God an interpretation of the first 14 verses of the Epistle to the Ephesians

Continued thoughts on the Peculiar Household of God

Rowan Williams, in his essay The Body’s Grace , proposes a way forward in thinking about human sexuality that can both hold to the Tradition of the Church and at the same time be open to and affirming of the diversity of human sexuality and gender expression and identity. As I read The Body’s Grace, Williams sees desire and human sexual intimacy as rooted in God’s own desire: “ God’s desire for God” and God’s desire for humanity and creation.  Our sexulaity and our sexual intimacy , or how we view and conduct ourselves as sexual embodied beings, is key to our spiritual development as persons (It is important to note here that celibacy is seen by Williams as a way of being sexual and having sexual intimacy, thus we don’t need to be “sexualy active” to be fully living into our sexual embodiedness.) What I take away from The Body’s Grace  (and this doesn’t exhaust the essay) is that human sexuality and gender expression and identity are bound up in God as Trinity, the Incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, and the actuality of the Ecclesia.

 

In the connection of sexuality to ecclesiology (God’s desire for and being espoused to God’s people) Williams and Traditionalists are making a similar point.  In my own theological reflections on human sexuality and gender identity and inclusion of LGBTQ I’ve generally avoided thinking along the lines of ecclesiology and Trinitarian theology as being directly related to sexuality.  It dawned on me as I read Williams that part of the objection of Traditionalists is their sense that the views of acceptance of LGBTQ abandon the ecclesiological and trinitarian dimensions that can be found in the traditionalist position on marriage.  Another way to say this is that traditionalists often react to a denial that who God is and has revealed God’s self to be has consequences for the meaning of our sexuality and gender.  Further more ,traditionalists also are concerned that we who seek to be open to and affirming of LGBTQ tend to shy away from Trinitarian language (and the specific Name, Father Son and Holy Spirit) and high Christology.

 

Thus the downside of The Body’s Grace is that, although thinking in terms of Trinity, Christology and Ecclesiology, Williams avoids specifically trinitarian language and names. For instances he says “God’s desire for God” rather than the more directly trinitarian (and Johannine) “The Father’s desire for the Son.”  While Williams is clearly aiming at many of the same things traditionalists are aiming at he consistently stops short of explicitly invoking the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the Incarnation.  Though, it is clear to me that the essay is thoroughly grounded in the Trinity and high Christology and high ecclesiology.  Or if the essay isn’t so grounded I find it to be quite solipsistic in its view of God and otherwise nonsensical.

 

However, whether or not I’ve correctly discerned Williams’ intent, through The Body’s Grace I came to see Trinitarian theology, Christology and ecclesiology as rich soil in which to be open to and affirm a diversity of human sexuality and gender expression.  So, I’m seeking to set out from The  Body’s Grace taking up this traditional language and ecclesial way of speaking about our human sexuality, beginning with the marriage of a man to a woman and its use as imaging God’s desire for God’s people and humanity, and move that into a broader understanding of the diversity of human sexuality.

 

Some might object that doing so is too risky. The risk is that taking this all very seriously will simply reinscribe the same patriarchal and heterosexist place in which we’ve already found ourselves.  For others the risk may be in bringing current conceptions of human sexulaity and gender into these orthodox spaces I will have already begun down a path that has departed from the Faith.  I do not deny these risks. However, in embarking on this risky endeavor I’m enacting another aspect of The Body’s Grace, the riskiness of sexual intimacy and true human and divine encounter.  If one believes God is Trinity, Father Son and Holy Spirit,  that Jesus of Nazareth is the incarnation of the Son, The Word of God and that the Church is the locus (though not the full extent ) of God’s liberating transforming work then this must be risked. And I do trust in and rest in all of the above.  After reading The Body’s Grace I feel I can’t but risk this path.

 

I will begin with a reading of Ephesians along these lines. In doing so I will be looking squarely into (without discarding) “…and God created them male and female…” as well as the gendered and heterosexual images of God’s desire for God’s people.  However, I suggest our starting point be in this regard Paul’s understanding of the mystery of  “ …And for this reason a man shall leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”  What is this mystery why is the marriage of a man and a woman as sacrament? The mystery isn’t’ the union of the two people rather the mystery is what is revealed of Christ and the Church.  But do note that I’m saying this is the beginning.  This is risky and difficult because traditionalists assert it is the beginning, the ending, and the whole story.  I wish to take Paul on his own terms and accept that as revelation and let this trust guide the exploration. This beginning point is to say our sexuality, and sexual and gender identity is an ecclesiological question and thus it is also a christological and Trinitarian question.  So beginning here while accepting the diversity of sexuality and gender identity and expressed as part of our humanity, is then to approach that diversity formed by Orthodox affirmations of God as Father Son and Holy Spirit and of Jesus of Nazareth as the incarnation of the Son.  If you choose to follow this thread this will be a focus for the coming months in Ecclesial Longings.

 

I hope you my readers will engage this journey.  I do not have the end already sketched out, .  You who read this are seeing this exploration in process.  At the beginning of this risky endeavor I have some questions for you my reader:

 

What frightens you about this exploration? What in this exploration is risky for you?

 

What in the above sketch of our journey excites you or pulls at your heart?
Do you have suggestions of books and authors I should be reading and consulting?  Who should be our companions on this way?  I’m especially looking for voices that may be from the margins as well as mainstream voices.  Also, are there commentators on the book of Ephesians that I should be consulting as I take us on this journey?

Fragments of posts in progress

Lately I’ve been posting more at Personal Musings than here.  This space is theological, pastoral, and iconogrpahic.  The three most recent posts at Personal Musings almost fit in this space, yet I felt they were still too bound up in either too bound up in individual opinion, or still too unformed to for solid theological discourse..

What I post here I want to express what is more than just my opinion but is expressive of seeking to  have the Mind of Christ. At the moment this search and desire is my best way to understand what it means to be the Church, the Body of Christ.  My thoughts, emotions, opinions need to be brought into the realm of being part of the body of Christ of living into and growing into the reality of my baptism.  There is much that can get in the way of this pursuit and reality.

In my three most recent posts at Personal Musings I’m exploring what can get in the way of being fully a member of the body of Christ, and how national identity and for the United States how Racism and slavery create huge obstacles for American Christianity to truly exhibit the Mind of Christ.

Today I posted my own discomfort with Patriotism, as well as my love for the U.S. but also its problems for my identity as a member of the Church the Body of Christ, and the affirmation that Jesus is Lord. In many ways we need to acknowledge as American Christians that we often attribute (whether Fundamentalists who say this is a Christian nation, or progressives who see our ideals as being exemplary for the world and adopted the world over) to the U.S. what actually is Christs and the body of Christ the Church.  Much of American sense of its self and its mythology is attributing ecclesioligcal identity to the nation state of the U.S.A.

For American Christians for us to find our way to the mind of Christ we really need to understand how racist ideology that was bound to the justification of European enslavement of Africans is bound up in ecclesiolgical heresy of confusing European and American culture (or Whiteness) with being the Church, the body of Christ.  European culture identified as Christian Culture and America as the City set on the hill, all while justifying enslavement of people deemed inferior because they weren’t European, White, is due to a heretical move.  I begin this thought here with a reflection on attempting to limit American racism to the confederate battle flag and terrorists like Roof.  Yet, policies of the United States government in its expansion into the North American continent was racist and based upon the displacement and genocide of native Americans all the while claiming an ecclesial identity in contradiction to the Mind of Christ.

Then there is the issue of do we obtain the Mind of Christ through Law or in Relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  Yes, this is a recurring theme, and each time we think we have settled it Law raises its ugly head.  I explore a certain pastors comments about imprecatory prayer and his praying against Caitlyn Jenner, in exposing how his teaching treats the psalms as giving us a law rather than as an example of being in relationship to God, and thus how this pastor railing against Jenner shows him to be the hypocrites that bring the woman caught in Adultery before Jesus, and that his commitment to Law and the Scriptures as Law, keeps him from hearing Christ’s words to the crowd and the woman, and thus shows him to be preaching without the Mind of Christ.

What I’m working out is how the current upheavals around the continued oppression of African Americans (specifically by law enforcement and in our legal system) and our conflicts around human sexuality marriage and gender, are also ecclesiolgical, and much of our confusion around this is that American Christianity hasn’t been the church nor exhibited the Mind of Christ for most if not all of its existence.  There is some very deep repentance and renunciation that needs to take place in American Christianity if we are to find our way to being Church again.  Posts I’ve been working on for this space are attempting some articulation of how this is and why.  The three post mentioned above are the prolegomena to what I hope will appear here soon.

The Mystagogy of Easter: According to what Reality Do We Live?

(For the first in this Easter mystagogy series see The Doubt of Thomas the Twin)

Mystagogy for the Third Week of Easter: The Meaning of God’s Union with Humanity

We are encouraged in the texts for the third Sunday of Easter to revel in the joyful astonishment of the Resurrection and to ecstatically contemplate the amazing work of God in Jesus of Nazareth. In the Gospel of Luke we continue to hear of that first Easter day, with the Twelve and the disciples of Jesus in that upper room.

Now that we have passed through the waters of baptism and have died and been risen with Christ, in the Easter Vigil, we see two things:  1) Christ’s death and resurrection is an amazing thing and is contrary to what we intuit and expect from Scripture and 2) it is what God had always set out to do and has been part of God’s revelation and what the witnesses to this revelation have consistently been saying.  Jesus of Nazareth is the fulfillment of the Scriptures and Hebrew prophets.  Moses, the writings and prophets all anticipated what is unexpected and astounding.

These two things show us that only after the incarnation passion and resurrection can we then read the Scriptures in the fullness of God’s self-revelation, and through this new reading and renewed understanding, enter God’s saving and loving work in the cosmos for all time.  If we look and interpret the world and the Scriptures from outside this vantage point of Jesus of Nazareth we see a very different world and hear a different word. We read a different text.

This is a source of the joy and awe of the Resurrection: without the Resurrection and prior to the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, the universe and the human condition makes sense but leads one to only death and futility (“vanity”).  While this understanding leads the Church to affirm God’s revelation in the particularity of the people of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, this biological identity isn’t a guarantee of hearing God’s revelation. The church also affirms that human reflection and contemplation on divinity and the cosmos has encountered something of God. Yet thsi all needs a consummation and completion accomplished by God.  God’s theophanies and self-revelation to the particular people of Israel and human seeking to know and understanding the divine share a similarity in these understandings of God are only completed or fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the incarnation of God.

There is a further mystery: the fullness of God found in Jesus Christ doesn’t impart new knowledge , rather the fullness of God in Jesus Christ becomes a way to see all knowledge, and previous understandings of God.

The mystery we wrestle with now after – after Jesus’ Resurrection and ascension, after the coming of the Holy Spirit, after our baptism- is that after is often much like before.

What makes the difference? 

This is our awe. Nothing is erased, not even the suffering of God the Son. Rather it is all taken up into God, and thus sin and our separation are transformed.  What makes the difference is only the incarnation of God the Son as Jesus of Nazareth. We live either in the awareness of this reality or the reality of the universe before the incarnation, before the union of God and humanity and all creation.  We can see the world and in seeing experience the world in very radically different ways, one of true liberation or one of bondage and futile struggle.

This is the meaning of the Resurrection, there is a new way to be in the universe, and there is a new way of being for all of creation.  The created, physical, and human order is now united to God – reconciled to God.  The logic of this way of being is life that has passed through and overcome death and futility.

We can still be blind to this reality.  We can still fail to understand and see that God, in Jesus of Nazareth, accomplished a new thing. But if we commit to the path of theosis, to living in the Resurrection, we live in the age to come and no longer need to be bound to the age that was and is now passing away, but is still here bound to sin and death.

Cultural Identity and Expression in Worship

My Covenant Colleague Josef Rasheed‘s recent post about worship and cultural identity beautifully and gracefully articulates the role cultural expression plays in worship as well as its dynamic complexity.  However, I am aware a white pastor saying some of the same things would come off very differently (this isn’t a complaint, there are very legitimate reasons why Whites can’t speak in exactly this way about heritage and cultural identity and worship).  But I wish here to reflect on cultural identity, worship, and contemporaneity in dialogue with Rasheed’s post looking for that place of meeting he articulates so well in his conclusion, which I’d argue is beyond cultural identity or worship as expression, but union in Christ and the Body, the church.

Rasheed’s post has me asking what is my heritage (this is my word not Rasheed’s), what is my cultural identity?  As White this question is full of pitfalls, traps, and possible wrong turns.  Where as Rasheed’s cultural identity and heritage may be labyrinthine (he says it has taken many turns, and he has found it in unexpected moments) as White, for me to speak of cultural identity is mazelike.  Taking a turn may not lead to the way out, can lead to dead ends.  As White I can get lost in this talk of heritage and cultural identity.   Claiming my cultural identify as Swedish or German can simply fall into the realm of facade and kitsch, or worse kitsch as hyper identity. Even this hand wringing over what is my cultural identity is one of those pitfalls: cultural identity, heritage, and the like are what those exotic others have, I’m just White, the default, the measure.  In this pitfall we, who are without “cultural identity”, borrow, appreciate, and identify with what isn’t ours (this can happen in worship in multicultural congregations and worship).  The flip side of that is to attempt to guard against all that isn’t White, to bewail the loss of this or that, that the youth are into other people’s music or culture, etc.

All of this is of course bound up in failing to recognize, at the outset, that part of the heritage of White and European is the oppression of people of color in the process of creating White identity.  It should not be surprising that some of us take refuge in either the worship styles of “contemporary” or “traditional”(really what is familiar from our childhood).

What leads down some of these winding dead ends for Whites is to limit conversation of worship to that one hour (and for Whites it usually is exactly an hour) of worship on a Sunday morning.  When Rasheed talks about worship expressions outside of the Sunday worship service, his example is the funeral.  This resonates with me yet,  I remember in seminary we were taught that we may need to insist to our (White) congregations that funerals were worship.  If it is difficult to talk about worship and cultural identity as whites its in part because everything is so contained, things don’t bleed into each other.  Either worship is an isolated thing with it’s own sets of rules and music and “culture” or it must be seamless with the current culture of the individuals who show up to the worship service.

Through my goth identity I have opted for what is contemporaneous, a cultural identity without heritage. Though Goth now has a history, and may be forming a tradition of sorts. I’ve never been one who felt the need for this my pop culture identity to be expressed in worship.

In college I often spent time with an Armenian friend’s family at Easter.  There was food Middle Eastern and Mediterranean, a wonderful feast, and there was music.  Armenian Apostolic services are chanted and there is no instrumentation, the music sung outside of church and the chant are quite different. Yet in the family celebration was continuous with the Divine Liturgy. The two celebrations were one, yet neither reflected nor reproduced the other.  This resonated with me because I remembered such seamless but differentiated celebrations on the feast days in the Swedish Evangelical Covenant Church of my childhood. By the time I was in college that cultural expression of worship (of the congregation in which I, my mother, and grandfather had all been raised) was a memory.  In the several thousand member church with multiple services and a contemporary worship service with rock band, worship was just another discrete thing I did in a week .  Neither “traditional ” nor “contemporary” worship appealed to a “sub-culture” an identity I was forming around alternative and goth music. Whether we sang traditional hymns or the latest worship song neither were current expressions of my identity.

I have long been drawn to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox worship.  This began when at 8 and 9 when I encountered the Cathedrals of Europe as places of mystery and awe.  Part of the draw is some worshipful connection to my Swedish and German cultural identity. Yet it is a bit complex, as it also alienates me from that cultural identity since most directly that identity is Lutheran and not Catholic.  In some sense often what draws me in worship is a sense of deep historical and cultural connection, liturgies and songs passed down through European Christianity from the Mediterranean. Chant Gregorian and Eastern also relate to childhood encounter of the European cathedral.  Though, I have difficulty except in a most vague and abstract way accounting for chant as an expression of my cultural identity.  To some degree connecting to this ancient worship expression fits with family stories of immigration that also seek to keep some historical and familial memory of Sweden or Germany alive in the foreign context of the U.S.

Where does this meandering in the midst of worship, expression and cultural identity lead?  In part Rasheed and I are talking about recognition and reception. Rasheed recognizes the Body of Chirst  in people singing a hymn in the Bahamas in worship in the Congo: the recognition comes both in discovering something familiar in what was initially thought to be unfamiliar and in finding one’s place in what was simply unknown.  In  the cathedrals in Europe, in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox worship I too find familiarity in what seem unfamiliar and my place in what is unknown.  Our recognitions are bound up in our cultural identities but not entirely accounted for by them: As Rasheed concluded “I was no longer American. They were no longer African. It is moments like these where the cultural expressions which are embedded in the soul of my people say Yes! We are God’s children, privileged to worship Him in Spirit and in Truth.”

In these various worship expressions reflective of various cultures we encounter more than our own or others cultural identity in recognizing and receiving that which forms us into the Body of Christ. One may say that another cultural identity is to be formed out of these cultural expressions.  It is then possible that we may discern what forms us and does this work of formation, of knitting us into the living Temple, Christ’s body.

Here I’m brought back to all the pitfalls of saying these things as a White person. Whites have tended to assume that our way of doing things was God’s.  Through White ideology Europeans ceased to be those gathered with others from other nations and people but those to whom others were gathered.  When this heresy goes unrecognized it distorts the ability to recognize and receive, it undermines our ability to come to know the forms of the Body of Christ.

This is turning into the first in series of posts exploring worship, liturgy, culture and the roles of formation and expression in worship that forms us into the Body of Christ. There are two more posts in this unexpected and emerging series: here and here. The connection to these three posts isn’t at the moment self evident.  In part the series is about linking these up. LEK 3/13/15