Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Let Them Both Grow Together

Everyone, I suspect, has their favorite parables of Jesus. I tend to favor the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and the Parable of the Sheep and Goats. I'm probably not alone in this.

Another favorite parable of mine is the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds. The version from the Gospel of Matthew:
Matthew 13.24-30
Here is another story Jesus told: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. But that night as the workers slept, his enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat, then slipped away. When the crop began to grow and produce grain, the weeds also grew.

The farmer’s workers went to him and said, ‘Sir, the field where you planted that good seed is full of weeds! Where did they come from?’

‘An enemy has done this!’ the farmer exclaimed.

‘Should we pull out the weeds?’ they asked.

‘No,’ he replied, ‘you’ll uproot the wheat if you do. Let both grow together until the harvest. Then I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds, tie them into bundles, and burn them, and to put the wheat in the barn.’”
To be sure, later in the chapter Jesus goes on to discuss the eschatological judgment at the end of the parable. And as I've repeatedly said, I have no problem with God's judgment. It is critical that such judgment exists to have any coherent notion of God's love and justice.

But as with the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, and Jesus's teaching as a whole, I don't think the parable here is about Judgment Day. What Jesus is doing is using judgment--the pathos of God--to illuminate this day, right here and right now. The focus in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats isn't about the ultimate fate of the goats. It is, rather, about what God wants the Kingdom to look like today, in my life and yours. The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is about calling us to the works of mercy.

So what is the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds calling us to? What is the parable trying to say about our behavior today?

I think the answer is found in the question of the workers: "Should we pull out the weeds?"

Should we pull out the weeds?

This question goes to the heart of one of the greatest temptations amongst religious people wanting to serve God: the impulse to sort the good people from the bad people, the saints from the sinners, the church from the world, the saved from the damned.

Churches are full to the brim of this sort of thing. Righteous crusades to weed out the sinners.

But what does the farmer say? The farmer says, Don't get into the weeding business. If you do you'll pull up the good with the bad. Weeds are no good, but weeding? Weeding is worse. So just let the good and the bad live alongside each other. Trust that God will sort it all out in the end. Sorting saints from sinners isn't your job. So let it be.

Wouldn't it be amazing if Christians and churches heeded the farmer's advice?

And let's be clear. The farmer has lost his mind. What farmer doesn't weed? What the workers are suggesting is the right thing to do. From a farming perspective the farmer is an idiot.

Against all logic the farmer says, Leave it alone. Let the weeds and the wheat grow together. On this farm we aren't going to weed.

But isn't this a recipe for disaster? Doesn't God need our help in sorting out the good guys from the bad guys? Doesn't God need Spiritual Minutemen to monitor the borders of the Kingdom?

Apparently not. Our job, it seems, is simply to live alongside each other, wheat and the weeds.

And truth be told, I think a part of the logic here is that we're horrible, often tragically so, in making these distinctions. Who are the real good guys? Who are the real bad guys? Are churches getting this distinction right?

My take: I think the churches get this wrong more often than they get this right. Churches, way more than they'd care to admit, get into the weeding business only to discover that they can't tell the wheat from the weeds.

More, I'd go on to make this provocative claim: To get into the weeding business is what marks you as a weed. Weeding is what makes you one of the bad guys. Exhibit A: The religious authorities of Jesus's day and their exclusion of "tax collectors and sinners." 

Robert Capon in his book Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus has an interesting observation about this parable. Specifically, he notes that the root of the Greek word--aphete--translated as "let" in the command of the farmer ("let both grow together") has two related meanings in the bible. One meaning is the meaning found in the translation above (NLT), the notion of "to permit" or "to allow." But the more common meaning of aphete in the bible is "to suffer" and "to forgive." This is the word Jesus utters from the cross: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

This really amps the meaning of the parable. Rather than weeding the farmer is asking the workers to forgive the weeds, to suffer their existence.

We might say the parable is presenting us with two visions of Kingdom life.

On the one side are the weeding Christians, those wanting to identify, sort out and burn the weeds.

And on the other side are those Christians who live alongside the weeds manifesting forgiveness and patience.

And we do know this: the weeding Christians will have all the best arguments on their side. Weeding, we know, is good farming practice. It's the sensible and right thing to do.

But the logic of forgiving the weeds and allowing them to grow alongside? That's no logic at all.

It's only the foolishness of the cross.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Church as Self-mortification?

I've been thinking recently about church being a spiritual discipline, even a form of self-mortification.

This train of thought began with a statement I made recently while teaching a class at church about church. In talking about what it means to live with a faith community I said: "I know this might sound strange to some of you, but I go to church to intentionally be around people who irritate me."

A few weeks later I was visiting with friends at our church retreat. Our conversation turned to the difficult discipline of church. During that conversation I said: "Church is a form of self-mortification, like fasting. A big part of church is learning to say No to yourself."

Friday, May 4, 2012

A Parable

On the great Day of Judgment all of humanity was called before the Judgment Seat of God. There the angels sorted the people.

On the right side of the Judgment Seat was a small group. These were the elect. The angels moved among them and gave each person a small golden box.

On the left side of the Judgment Seat was a vast multitude, as far as the eye could see. Here were all the others, every person who had ever breathed in God's creation. Men and women, the elderly and children, from every tribe and nation across the eons. Billions upon billions of souls. Like the sands on a seashore. These were the damned.

After the Great Sorting the King Upon the Throne delivered his Judgment. To those on the right he said, "You are the elect, the few I have predestined from the beginning of time to share in my bounty and live in the Holy City. I also have a gift for you. Inside the golden box you hold is this gift, the gift of eternal life. Come into your rest!"

Turning to the vast multitude on his left the King continued, "You are the damned. Although it is in my power to do so, I have chosen not to save you. To bring glory to myself I have chosen to save only these few. So depart, you wicked ones, into the fires I have prepared for you before the beginning of time!"

There was a great and heavy silence in heaven as these terrible words of judgment were uttered.

This stillness was broken when a small, lone figure on the right side of the Judgment Seat stepped forward and away from the elect.

It was a young girl. She moved slowly to the foot of the Throne and there she kneeled. The Heavenly Host held its collective breath.

The girl began to speak with a trembling voice.

"Most Holy God, Lord and King. I have no right to speak to you. No right to make a request. But as I look on the vast multitude of the damned my heart breaks within me. These are the ones you have asked me--for my whole life and with all the strength I have--to love, and serve, and forgive. And I do love them as you have taught me to love them. And there are so, so many. And I also know that I deserve the same punishment that they deserve. Your salvation is a gift freely given and I deserve it no more than any other human being.

So this is my request, Most Awesome King. I ask that my gift be given to one of these. Save one of them rather than me. Please number me among the transgressors. I wish to give my life so that another might live."

And with a trembling hand she set her golden box on the ground before the Throne.

A tremor of joy pulsed through the Heavenly Host as a smile broke out upon the Face of God. And then stepping down from the Throne, where he had been seated quietly watching at his Father's Right Hand, came the Lamb Who Had Been Slain.

The Prince of Heaven came forward and lifted the face of the young girl, the holes in his hands visible to all. The Image of the Invisible God spoke tenderly, with tears in his eyes, "Well done--very, very well done--my good and faithful servant."

And then the Lamb Who Had Been Slain stood and turned to the elect, each clutching at their golden box.

To these the Crucified One declared, "Depart into judgment, you who never knew me."

Thursday, May 3, 2012

As Open as the Outstretched Arms of Christ on the Cross: Moltmann on Open Communion

Last week I posted some thoughts about the practice of open communion. To add to that discussion I'd like to share some of the thoughts of Jurgen Moltmann from his book The Church in the Power of the Spirit (H/T to Tony Jones for making me aware of Moltmann's analysis awhile back).

In the book, after a theological discussion regarding the Lord's Supper, Moltmann discusses how that theology should "unpack" in the concrete practices of the Lord's Supper within the church (pp 258-260).

First, the Lord's Table must be central to the worship experience and the Lord's Supper should be practiced at every gathering: "The fellowship of the table must be central for the assembled congregation, just as much as the proclamation of the gospel...[The congregation] will celebrate this fellowship of the table at all its assemblies."

Second, the practice will be one of open communion:
Because this fellowship comes into being on the basis of Christ's unconditional and prevenient invitation, the fellowship will be an open one. It cannot limit Christ's invitation to its own account. Everyone can participate who wants to participate in the fellowship of Christ. The communion is the answer to Christ's open invitation...

Because of Christ's prevenient and unconditional invitation, the fellowship of the table cannot be restricted to people who are 'faithful to the church', or to the 'inner circle' of the community. For it is not the feast of the particularly righteous, or the people who think that they are particularly devout; it is the feast of the weary and heavy-laden, who have heard the call to refreshment. We must ask ourselves whether baptism and confirmation ought to go on counting as the presuppositions of 'admittance' to the Lord's supper. If we remember that Jesus' meal with tax-collectors and sinners is also present in the Lord's supper, then the open invitation to it should also be carried 'into the highways and byways'. It will then lose its 'mystery' character, but it will not become an ordinary, everyday meal for all that, because the invitation is a call to the fellowship of the crucified one and an invitation in his name to reconciliation with God..."
Earlier, Moltmann sets out the theological rationale for this "open invitation" (pp. 244-246):
...[I]t is the Lord's supper, not something organized by a church or a denomination. The church owes its life to the Lord and its fellowship to his supper, not the other way around. Its invitation goes out to all whom he is sent to invite. If a church were to limit the openness of his invitation of its own accord, it would be turning the Lord's supper into the church's supper and putting its own fellowship at the centre, not fellowship with him. By using the expression 'the Lord's supper' we are therefore stressing the pre-eminence of Christ above his earthly church and are calling in question every denominationally limited 'church supper'...

What is true of theology applies to church discipline as well. The Lord's supper is not the place to practise church discipline; it is first of all the place where the liberating presence of the crucified Lord is celebrated. But in many churches the admission of one person to communion is practically linked with the excommunication of others, so that the Lord's supper is preceded by a 'test' of the individual's worthiness or unworthiness...Christ's original feast of joy is then unfortunately transformed into a meal of repentance where people beat their breasts and gnash their teeth...

Life is more than knowledge about the laws of life; and in the same way the fellowship of Christ and fellowship with one another are more than knowledge about its conditions. The Lord's supper takes place on the basis of an invitation which is as open as the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross. Because he died for the reconciliation of 'the world', the world is invited to reconciliation in the supper. It is not the openness of this invitation, it is the restrictive measures of the churches which have to be justified before the face of the crucified Jesus. But which of us can justify them in his sight? The openness of the crucified Lord's invitation to his supper and his fellowship reaches beyond the frontiers of Christianity; for it is addressed to 'all nations' and to 'tax-collectors and sinners' first of all. Consequently we understand Christ's invitation as being open, not merely to the churches but to the whole world.
Let me pause to say, this is the vision that captures me when I think of open communion. Not to say there aren't other issues on the table, but this theological impulse trumps for me.

Third, as the meal is shared each person will "offer another bread and wine with Christ's words of promise." This brings us into the eschatological nature of the experience.

Fourth, the Supper will be shared with the congregation facing each other, seated around a table if at all possible: "The meal's character of fellowship is brought out when the person performing the liturgy stands behind the altar, so making it a table, and celebrates facing the people. It is demonstrated even more clearly when the congregation sits around a table."

Fifth, when possible, and preferably all the time, the Lord's Supper should be a part of an agape meal where everyone eats together: The Lord's Supper should be followed "by a common meal, and the proclamation of the gospel by a common discussion of people's real needs and the specific tasks of the Christian mission."

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Evil and Evolution: Thoughts on Enns and Smith

In light of my post yesterday about evolution and Genesis and the conversation swirling around Peter Enns's new book The Evolution of Adam I'd like to point you to a review of Enns's book by James K.A. Smith at The Colossian Forum and a response to that review by J.R. Daniel Kirk at his blog Storied Theology.

I don't want to insert myself into that particular conversation, mainly because I don't think I can make much of a contribution in an exchange between two professionals on their own turf. I do, however, want to point you to the conclusion of Dr. Smith's review as it raises some issues I've wrestled with on this blog.

At the end of his review of Enns's book Smith turns to what he considers to be the root problem in trying to reconcile evolutionary history with the Christian faith. Specifically, this problem has less to do with how we read the bible--Should Genesis be read as literal history?--than with the theological problems evolution poses to orthodox theology. The main location of tension, according to Smith, has to do with the problem of evil.

Theologically, the doctrine of the Fall is doing a variety of things according to Smith. Primarily, the doctrine of the Fall makes the claim that humans are universally sinful and in need of a Savior. This is the part of the Fall that Enns focuses on in his book. The question he poses is straightforward: Do we really need to posit a historical Adam to make the claim that humans are universally implicated in sin? Enns's answer, given the Darwinian struggle inherent in evolution ("Nature red in tooth and claw") is that, no, we don't need to posit a historical Adam. Darwinian evolution could stand in for the Fall given that it is a process that would, in an unredeemed state, produce selfish and violent survival machines.

So far, so good. However, Smith goes on to note that the Fall isn't just trying to explain universal sinfulness. In addition to this, Smith argues, the Fall is also trying to explain the origins of evil. Critically, the Fall is making the claim that God is not the source and origin of evil. In this the doctrine of the Fall is a claim about the unmitigated goodness of God. Consequently, if we reject the Fall and claim that God "created" humanity via Darwinian evolution then we are left with the conclusion that God is the origin of evil. According to Smith that is the critical theological issue. The debate isn't about universal sinfulness, it's about the origins of evil and the goodness of God.

Here are the concluding paragraphs from Smith's review where he's making this point:
But it is in this context that I think Enns either misrepresents or misunderstands the historic, orthodox doctrine of the Fall and original sin. He speaks as if the doctrine of original sin was just an account of the cause of our universal human sinfulness (124)—and it is just this sort of causal claim that he thinks is untenable in light of evolutionary evidence for human origins. But Enns thinks we are free to abandon this causal claim associated with original sin and instead simply affirm universal sinful humanness—and hence the need for a Savior, thereby preserving the Gospel. We “must remain open on the ultimate origins of why all humans are born in sin (original sin) while resting content in the observation that all humans are born in sin (sin of origin)” (125).

Unfortunately, that’s just not the case. Because if we don’t have an account of the origin of sin we will end up making God the author of evil—a thesis that has been persistently and strenuously rejected by the orthodox Christian tradition. Enns thinks he can save the Gospel by simply affirming universal human sinfulness without taking a stand on the origin of sin; but that is to fail to recognize that what’s at stake is the goodness of God. If God uses evolutionary processes to create the world and sin is inherent in those processes, then creation is synonymous with fall and God is made the author of sin—which compromises the very goodness of God. And if the goodness of God isn’t central to the Gospel, I don’t know what is. I don’t deny that this is an incredibly thorny issue; and this is not necessarily an apologetic for a “blow-by-blow” understanding of the Fall. I only point out that Enns’ account doesn’t recognize it as an issue. And that is a problem...
If you are a long time reader here you know I've been wrestling with this exact problem for many years. Specifically, given that I largely agree with how Enns reads the bible I have regularly struggled with how certain theological moves morph issues of soteriology into issues of theodicy. Smith has correctly pointed out that this is exactly what Enns has done in his book. Enns has solved the soteriological issues posed by evolution only to have created for himself (and for those who read the bible as he does) a suite of theodicy issues. In noting this I think Smith is exactly right.

So the question now becomes, what are we to do about this?

As I noted in yesterday's post, I don't know if there is anything that can be done about it. Smith is right: if you accept evolution the easy work is soteriological in nature. The harder work has to do with the theodicy questions that get thrown up. In noting this Smith is an excellent diagnostician. And I agree with his diagnosis. The trouble is, what if you find the scientific evidence convincing? Yes, you're going to have to, per Smith's diagnosis, confront the issues of theodicy. But if the scientific evidence is convincing to you, well, this is simply the theological path you have to travel. And, yes, how many travel on from this point may indeed lead them away from orthodox faith. (For example, you might handle the theodicy problems posed by evolution by adopting a process theology position.)

In light of this conundrum, let me conclude with two related thoughts that might split the difference between Enns and Smith.

First, Smith argues that the doctrine of the Fall is an attempt to explain the origins of evil. I disagree. I don't think the doctrine of the Fall is, at root, an explanation for the origin of evil (though it does do some work in this regard). In Genesis evil, in the form of the serpent, predates human sin. And regarding the origins of the serpent, evil and Satan the bible is pretty much silent. 

This silence provides some nice wiggle room for orthodox theology. The silence of the bible on this subject allows orthodox theology to retreat into "mystery" when questions of theodicy get too tough and too pointed. And that's handy.

But as I see it, that doesn't get orthodox theology off the hook. The questions are just as acute as they are for someone like Enns. The questions are just being dodged more artfully.

Enns, by contrast, has a bit of a different problem. Specifically, by getting into mechanisms and origins Enns is being much more specific. And in being so specific he lets the boogieman of theodicy out of the closet. Smith rightly notes this. Enns, being tied to a very specific scenario, can't play the mystery card so easily. But as I see it, Enns shouldn't get dinged on this account. By bringing theodicy to the forefront Enns isn't creating a problem. Rather, Enns is simply drawing attention to a problem that has always been there. A problem, in my opinion, that orthodox theology regularly sweeps under the rug.

This brings me to my second observation. At the end of the day, theodicy doesn't really boil down to the origins of evil. It boils down to this: Why'd God do it in the first place? Why, given how things turned out, did an all-knowing and all-loving God pull the trigger on Creation? Why'd God do it?

No one knows of course. Not Smith. Not Enns. Not me. My point here is simply to note that this is a live and acute question for everybody. So I think it right and proper for Smith to point this out for Enns. But the same question is pointed at orthodox theology and it doesn't have any better answers, just a "mystery" that allows it, often in cowardly ways, to retreat from answering the questions directly.

Theodicy has always been the root problem of Christian theology, orthodox or heterodox. There's no getting around that. The problem is no less acute here than there.

I don't care how you read Genesis.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Genesis and Evolution: Dealing With It

I've been reading a lot on Christian blogs about the subject of Genesis and evolution. A lot of this conversation has been spurred on by the recent publication of Peter Enns's new book The Evolution of Adam. I've been reading, as have many of you, a lot of comment threads where Christians are arguing back and forth. Should we read Genesis differently in light of evolutionary science? Or should we treat that science as provisional (only a "theory") and stick to a literalist reading of Genesis?

I don't have any great wisdom about this debate. Though I have experienced the tensions within the Christian community. For example, a few years ago I had a phone interview with a premiere evangelical university about me possibly applying for an endowed research position focusing on the integration of psychology and Christianity. During the interview with the chair of the search committee we got around to how the topic of evolution was approached on their campus. At one point I asked, "I've always wanted to write a book about the Sermon on the Mount in light of evolutionary psychology. Could I write that book at your school?" The answer, ultimately, was no.

There are two things that make me tired about this debate.

First, I don't see how it's going to get resolved. Like it or not, there are many Christians who have looked at the scientific evidence and have become convinced. So of course, in light of that, they need books like Peter Enns's to rethink how to approach texts like Genesis and Paul's use of Adam in the New Testament. Other Christians might not like that, might think that evolution isn't really a solid deal, but, hey, this conversation isn't for you. You don't have a problem in this particular regard so step away from the bar. Sure, you might express your worries from a distance that there are those within Christianity who are undermining the authority of Scripture. So what's new? More, your worry isn't helping. There are some Christians who, in order to maintain intellectual integrity, are going to need to read the bible a bit differently than you. Deal with it. It's par for the course. I mean, just flip through the Yellow Pages looking at all the churches in your town. Quit being such a whiner.

But on the other side are those friends of mine who are legitimately distressed by any accommodation to Mr. Darwin, particularly if it affects a literal reading of the bible. Not all these friends are scientific illiterates (Did you know that a whirlwind will not assemble a car by blowing through a junkyard?), some make erudite arguments about the provisional nature of science. Still, I find it hard to believe that they don't feel at least a smidge of tension when they look at the evidence or walk through a natural history museum. But then again, I don't expect everyone to see the world like I see it. So I deal with it.

Which brings me to my self-satisfied and schoolmarmish point. Why is everyone personalizing this? Some Christians are going to need books like The Evolution of Adam. Others will not. So why go at each other? The two groups have more in common than not. Because let's be honest, there is an atheist out there looking at both groups saying, "These Christians are crackpots."

I think we go at each other because everyone feels like a victim. The conservatives feel betrayed by the liberals, like we've gone over to the dark side. More, the conservatives don't like being painted as stupid, as theological country-bumpkins. Liberals, by contrast, don't like to be painted as anti-intellectual by secular intellectuals, and the country-bumpkins in the family are, well, just embarrassing. Like the redneck uncle at the family reunion. These people are giving the family a bad name, messing with my image.

So here's where I end up in this debate. If you believe in evolution, cool. You and I will have a lot of talk about. But if you don't believe in evolution, that's cool as well. I don't think you're an idiot and I appreciate you standing up for what you believe in.

At the end of the day, I'm dealing with it.

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Real Issues of Faith

From William Stringfellow's book Free in Obedience:
[T]he people and the things which an ordinary Christian comes into contact from day to day are the primary and most profound issues of his faith and practice...For me, the day to day issues are like these:

--a young, unmarried, pregnant girl--who says she is afraid to confide in either her parents or her minister--comes to see me to find out how her unborn child can be adopted.

--a convict writes to ask if a job might be found for him so that he can be paroled from prison.

--a college student, unable to find summer work, borrows twenty dollars.

--a woman, who has found another man, wants a divorce from her alcoholic husband.

--a Negro is arrested because he protested discrimination in the city.

--a seminarian is discouraged and disillusioned about the churches and thinks he cannot and should not be ordained.

--an addict want to get out of the city to try again to kick his habit.

--a family is about to be dispossessed from their tenement.

--somebody is lonely and just wants to talk.

These represent, in my life, the real issues of faith, just as the daily happenings in your life, whatever they may be, are the real issues of faith for you. The real issues of faith for the Church have to do not so much with the nature and structure of the ecclesiastical institutions as with illegitimate childbirth, or imprisonment, or with the problems of those who are unemployed, broke, estranged, persecuted, possessed, or harassed by the premonition of death. The real issues of faith have to do with the everyday needs of [people] in the world and with the care for and service of those needs, whatever they may be, for which the Church exists.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Open Communion as Peace Making

One of the great locations of diversity among Christian traditions is in the practice of open versus closed communion. In closed communion only the faithful members of the church, however that is defined, are invited to participate in the Lord's Supper. Outsiders, even if confessing Christians, are not welcome to participate. By contrast, in traditions practicing open communion anyone in attendance is welcomed to the Lord's Table.

My tradition practices open communion. If you are in attendance at a Church of Christ worship service you are welcome to partake of communion.

(A bit of clarification. In more sectarian Churches of Christ the operating assumption is that baptized believers in the Church of Christ are really the ones who are supposed to take communion when the trays are passed. Still, this is an assumption rather than an explicit command. I've never seen a CoC communion service where visitors were told not to participate. In the more ecumenical CoC the practice is pretty straight up open communion with "everyone is welcome to the table" being a common meme.)

While there is great debate as to which practice is proper--open or closed?--I think the best theological reasons are in favor of open communion. Some of these reasons I discuss in Unclean. But let me mention one other powerful reason in favor of open communion.

Culturally and historically in many parts of the world, and in the Middle East in particular, it was and is assumed that you are to never act violently against someone with whom you've broken bread. To break bread with someone wasn't and isn't a casual affair. To break bread signals solidarity, a deep commitment that cannot be treated lightly. We might say that eating together forms a sort of covenant relationship between the two parties.

In short, eating together is a form of peace-making. By contrast, refusing to eat with someone signals hostility with the possibility of future violence still a live option. Given this, in many parts of the world people are prohibited from eating with enemies. Because if you eat with them you can't kill them.

In light of all this, there is a strong association between the Lord's Supper and peace-making. To break bread with others is a declaration of solidarity and non-violence. That the wall of hostility has been broken down in the shared meal of communion. The threat of future violence between the parties has been take away.

This, I think, is a powerful argument in favor of open communion. By welcoming everyone to the Lord's Table and breaking bread with them there we are engaging in acts of reconciliation. More, if we remember the cultural backdrop about eating and non-violence we find the Lord's Supper to be the ministry of reconciliation. The Lord's Supper isn't a ritual. It's a sociological intervention. The fact that Christians by and large have missed this point is due to the fact that we've not been aware of the cultural assumption that we are to live at peace with those with whom we've broken bread.

And if that's the case, we should break bread with anyone and everyone in the world. Just like Jesus.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Slavery of Death: Part 31, Doxological Gratitude

Final post in this series. There is, no doubt, much more to be said. Thanks so much for the encouragement and insightful comments throughout the series. You've convinced me that I should try to pull all this into book form. I'll keep you posted.
What might be the big take home point of this series? Perhaps this: We are enslaved to death because our identities are formed--consciously and unconsciously--by death. We have death-centered and death-saturated identities. This means that our identity is driven--consciously and unconsciously--by anxiety, an anxiety that causes us to turn inward and pull back from others. It's this anxiety that produces sin. It is a slavery to the fear of death.

To be sure, most of us don't live with this fear of death in day to day awareness. We don't seem particularly gripped by death anxiety (though some of us are). What we tend to do is repress death anxiety with self-esteem projects, living to succeed and have a meaningful life according to the value system of our culture. It's this hero project--whether we are succeeding, failing or just treading water relative to others--that dominates our conscious lives. Our anxiety shifts to and fuels these projects. Thus, our slavery to death largely manifests itself through what psychologists call sublimation.

Consequently, a sign that we've been emancipated from the fear of death is when we get to the point where we become indifferent to the anxieties inherent in how our culture pursues self-esteem, how our culture defines winners and losers, successes and failures. Like St. Paul, we begin to "die" to this way of forming an identity, an identity fueled by a fear of death, considering this lifeway as loss.

When I get to this place I find myself free to love others. With the anxiety draining away I'm no longer evaluating others in relation to myself, assessing the degree to which they threaten me or diminish me. I stop being envious, jealous, and rivalrous. I stop feeling ashamed, self-loathing, and small--the morbid manifestations of jealousy, envy, and rivalry. More, given that I've become disinterested in the way my culture defines the good life I can be non-anxious and hospitable to outgroup members. Thus the biblical formulation that perfect love casts out fear. We cannot open ourselves to others if we are anxious and afraid, if our identities are orbiting around a fear of death.

But how are we to purge our identities of this anxiety, particularly if much of it is unconscious and outside of awareness? Practically speaking, how are we to "die to the self"?

Again, I think the root issue involves our identity. We need to find a way to organize our identity around life rather than death, to create an identity that is no longer driven by anxiety but by gratitude, peace, love and joy.

How do I place joy at the center of my identity, how do I "drive out fear"?

I'd like to return to the analysis of Arthur McGill discussed earlier in this series. Recall that McGill argued that death controls us when we have an identity based upon possession, where I try, in an effort to fend off death (with resources or self-esteem) to control, own, possess, rule over and dominate some bit of reality. To become a petty tyrant protecting my home, neighborhood, reputation, status, nation, and ego from the attacks, threats, and encroachments of others. And the thing to note here is how the great anxiety underneath it all--all this prickly and neurotic defending of our ego and turf--is a fear of loss and diminishment, a fear of someone taking something away from me. A fear of death.

How are we to overcome this sort of identity, an anxiety-riddled identity driven to possess in order to cope with the fear of death?

McGill takes his cue from looking at the way Jesus formed his identity in the gospels:
In the New Testament portrayal of Jesus, nothing is more striking than the lack of interest in Jesus' own personality. His teachings and miracles, the response of the crowd and the hostility of the authorities, his dying and his resurrection--these are not read as windows in Jesus' own experience, feelings, insights, and growth. In other words, the center of Jesus' reality is not within Jesus himself. Everything that happens to him, everything that is done by him, including his death, is displaced to another context and is thereby reinterpreted. However, this portrayal is understood to be a true reflection of Jesus' own way of existing. He himself does not live out of himself. He lives, so to speak, from beyond himself. Jesus does not confront his followers as a center which reveals himself. He confronts them as always revealing what is beyond him. In that sense Jesus lives what I call an ecstatic identity.

In all the early testimony to Jesus, this particular characteristic is identified with the fact that Jesus knows that his reality comes from God...Jesus never has his own being; he is continually receiving it...He is only as one who keeps receiving himself from God.
In the ecstatic identity of Jesus we find an identity that is not orbiting death. Jesus cannot lose or be dispossessed of his identity because Jesus doesn't own or possess his identity in the first place. Jesus is always receiving his identity. His identity is experienced as gift and joy. In the words of James Alison, Jesus is living as if death were not. Following Jesus Christians are called to die to the self, to consider it loss, so that they can participate in the ecstatic identity of Jesus, living out of the same joy and freedom to love. McGill describing this:
[B]ecause I no longer live by virtue of the reality which I possess, which I hold, which I master and keep at my disposal, I am free to share myself and all my possession with others. Above all...I can be honest with others. I can be open before them. I do not have to draw a line to mark the boundaries of my reality where I place a sign which says "Keep Out." I do not have to conceal my being behind a wall in order to keep it mine and to prevent others from taking it from me. Since I never have myself, I can never be dispossessed of myself. In short, in all my relations with other people I am freed from the anxiety of having always to keep possession of my own reality in order to be.
For McGill, the experience of the ecstatic identity is the experience of the resurrection, right here and right now: "the resurrection is ecstatic identity, not possessed identity."

If this is so, how are we to cultivate an ecstatic identity?

I like the recommendation of David Kelsey who suggests that the heart of what he calls the eccentric identity (similar to McGill's ecstatic identity in that the eccentric identity is centered "outside" of the self) is doxological gratitude.

Empirically speaking, this makes sense. We know that gratitude is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, predictors of happiness. To feel grateful is to experience life as a gift, as an experience of grace and joy. This experience of gift is at the heart of the ecstatic/eccentric identity.

But this goes beyond positive psychology. The gratitude is doxological, experienced as worship and expressed within worship.

Why is that important?

While helpful, mere gratitude, what you might find recommended within positive psychology self-help books, doesn't go deep enough to root out the satanic core of the self-esteem project, the way we become beholden to the principalities and powers. At its heart, worship relativises those powers and calls them into question. Worship exposes the self-esteem project as vanity, as an idol of self-glorification. Thus, the resurrection identity is inherently religious as it must function as a prophetic critique with the Word of God speaking against the idols of this present darkness.

And we must remember, as discussed in this series, that what we take to be "God" is more often than not a cultural idol, the religious projection of the self-esteem project, the angel of death in disguise. Even "God" must be subject to prophetic critique. We are aware that religious people killed Jesus.

But the root of this is simply the idea that doxological gratitude, by experiencing life as gift, dispels the anxious need to cling and clutch onto resources and self-esteem. In dispelling fear this posture facilitates love, an opening outward of the self toward others, because giving and self-sacrifice are no longer experienced as threat, loss, or diminishment. If life is gift then sharing life becomes possible, particularly when supported by the koinonia of the community as discussed in the last post. 

So this is one positive way forward in forming a resurrection identity--doxological gratitude.

And now here at the end, perhaps it is startling--or even a let down?--to find that we must construct an identity around prayer and worship. But then again, is this really a new insight? Have not the saints, mystics and contemplatives always preached this? Did not Jesus form his own identity in just this manner?

So my hope in all this, if you've taken this journey with me, is that we come to see doxological gratitude in a wholly new and radical light. Doxological gratitude as a means, an intervention even, to overcome the fear of death. A route to liberating an identity enslaved to anxiety. A practice of dying to self so that perfect love can cast out fear. A way of allowing Christ to destroy the works of the devil in our lives so that we, who have been enslaved to the fear of death all our lives, may experience peace, joy and life.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


A few years ago my church, the Highland Church of Christ, inherited a small, older church building in a poor part of town. The building had belonged to a church that shut its doors due to declining membership.

Highland renamed the building Freedom Fellowship and started hosting praise nights on the weekend. A small but faithful following soon grew with a lot of the Freedom community made up of low income and special needs populations. The church now worships every Wednesday night and they still host a monthly praise night on a Saturday. Meals are served before all the worship services.

I started going to Freedom in the fall and it's now my favorite place to worship. I really look forward to Wednesday evenings.

Worship at Freedom can look a bit, well, free. It's a small church with about 60 of us in attendance. There is a praise band. And during the worship it's not uncommon to have people swaying, dancing, or going up and down the aisles waving streamers. You can bring your tambourine. And pretty much everyone raises their hands with lots of "Amen's!" and "Praise the Lord's!" It's not Charismatic. It's just free and uninhibited. People just do what they want. And if you want to go up and down the aisle with a streamer, you go up and down the aisle with a streamer.

Me? Where do I fit in?

I'm not a hand raiser. I don't shout Amen. I may be the most inhibited person in attendance. But my heart soars when I'm there. The joy around me is infectious.

More, I go to Freedom because the people there aren't like me. Most are poor. Many are emotionally and intellectually handicapped. Some are homeless. Many struggle with addictions of various sorts. But I love the way these people worship.

Another thing I like about Freedom: One of the church leaders and I have a running conversation (and he might have this conversation with more than just me). A few months ago he came up to me and asked, "Richard, do you know why we come to church?" "Why?" "So God can kick us in the ass." Every week it's a variation on that theme. "Richard, did God kick you in the ass today?"

I smile and say yes.

A couple of weeks ago the leaders of Freedom asked if I might preach to the church after the praise time. There was a little anxiety on their part. Many speakers have floundered at Freedom. They just didn't know how to connect with a low income and mentally challenged audience. I was a bit worried about this myself, but my time teaching in the local prison has helped. My speaking repertoire has been expanding: I can speak to academicians, college freshmen, maximum security inmates and now, at Freedom, the poor.

Speaking of preaching to the poor, I'd always been troubled by this passage in the gospels:
Matthew 11.1-5
After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee.

When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.
I'd always felt that the poor were getting a bum deal in this text. The lame get to walk. The blind get their sight restored. The deaf get to hear. The dead, and this seems sort of like a big deal, are raised to life again.

And what do the poor get?

A good sermon.

That seemed kind of lame.

Well, it did until I started worshiping with the poor and listening to and sharing the gospel with the poor. Because when you do that you see what Jesus was talking about.

Many of the people at Freedom are at the absolute bottom of society. And they know it. But in the midst of worship and during the proclamation of the gospel they are transformed. They become citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. They are infused with an incandescent dignity that they cannot find in the soul crushing meritocracy of American life. There is a reason they pull out the streamers and the tambourines. During worship at Freedom the Spirit of God moves and tells those in attendance--tells me--that we are precious, wanted and loved. That we are not waste, trash, or failures. That we are human beings.

So I've come to see what Jesus was talking about. I've seen the gospel proclaimed to the poor. And it's a beautiful thing.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Whores: A Meditation on Gender and the Bible

In a recent post I wrote about my leading a study on the book of Revelation at a local prison. In that post I discussed how one of the themes of Revelation is the contrast between two cities--Babylon and the New Jerusalem--and how the pastoral aim of Revelation is to call the people of God to "come out" from Babylon.

In this post I'd like to think a bit about one of the problems regarding how this contrast is made in Revelation. Specifically, one of the metaphors used to contrast Babylon and New Jerusalem is a Whore/Bride contrast. In Revelation Babylon is cast as a whore:
Revelation 17.1-5
One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits by many waters. With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.”

Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The name written on her forehead was a mystery:

By contrast, New Jerusalem is compared to a virginal bride:
Revelation 21.1-2
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
For those aware of feminist scholarship, you'll quickly see how the writer of Revelation is using the Madonna/Whore typology. This typology expresses the ambivalent nature of male feelings regarding female sexuality. On the one hand, the male sexual fantasy is to have a woman who is sexually uninhibited and insatiable. The female actresses in pornography portray this fantasy, a female who is sexually aggressive and can't get enough sex.This--the Whore--is the sexual fantasy of most if not the vast majority of males.

The ambivalence comes from the fact that while most males fantasize about having sex with the Whore--the sexually uninhibited and insatiable female--they don't want to be married to such a woman. When it comes to marriage men want the Madonna, the virginal and faithful bride.

There is a large literature exploring this Madonna/Whore dynamic and it sits behind many of the mixed and confusing messages the culture sends to women about "what men want." It also explains the switcheroo a lot of Christian women face after they get married. Christian women are to be the Madonna prior to marriage, vigilantly safeguarding their virginal purity. But then, after marriage, Christian women are to make a smooth and quick transition to being the Whore in the bedroom. And if she fails to make this transition adequately she can be blamed for not fulfilling her sexual obligations to her husband.

But again, I don't want to get into all this right now.

What I want to get into is why women are associated with whores when, in point of fact, women aren't very much like whores at all.

Historically, and even today, prostitution isn't about sexual insatiability. Prostitution for women is about economics. Women don't turn to prostitution because they can't get enough sex. Women turn to prostitution, when they aren't forced into it, because they need to eat and pay the bills.

Men, by contrast, do pursue prostitutes for pleasure. That is, whoring is being driven by an insatiable sexual appetite--but it's the appetite of of males, not females.

Generally speaking, women aren't very promiscuous. Males, by contrast, are extraordinarily slutty. And if that's the case, then why are women rather than men called sluts?

A psychological study in this regard. A group of researchers had attractive assistants approach men and women of the opposite sex on a college campus. After a few minutes of chit chat the assistant would sexually proposition the student. The question was, what percent of women would agree to have sex with an attractive man after a few minutes of conversation? And what percent of men would agree to have sex with an attractive woman after a few minutes of conversation?

Seventy-five percent of the males agreed to have sex. The women?

Zero percent.

Generally speaking, women are choosy and discriminating when it comes to sex. Men not so much.

In short, from an empirical standpoint men are the whores.

And if that's the case, why are women always cast as whores, even in the bible, as the sexually insatiable ones?

It is a product of Freudian projection. Throughout history, religiously conservative males have had to confront one of the greatest sources of their moral failure: the male libido. The male libido--the fact that men are sluts--is a sore spot of any male community wanting to pursue purity and holiness. And what has happened, by and large, is that rather than admit that males struggle mightily in the sexual realm, males have externalized the blame and projected their libido onto women. Rather than blaming themselves for sexual sin males have, throughout history, blamed women for being temptresses. The Whore was created to be the scapegoat to preserve male self-righteousness. Rather than turning inward, in personal and collective repentance, men could blame women, blame the whores, for their sexual and moral failures. It's not our fault, the men say, it's the whore's fault.

Examples of this sort of projection are too numerous to list. Christian campuses and youth group talks are full of this sort of stuff.

But let me bring this back to whores and brides in Revelation. Given the problematic nature of this metaphor, how are we to approach these images in the bible?

I'll tell you what I do. For me, I don't read the Whore as a woman. I read it as the Freudian projection it is. The Whore is the male libido projected onto women.

More simply, when I see the Whore in Revelation I don't see a woman.

I see a man.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Sane Ones

I've written about Adolf Eichmann and the banality of evil before on this blog. I recently came across a powerful essay by Thomas Merton entitled "A Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann" in his book Raids on the Unspeakable. Some selections from the essay:
One of the most disturbing facts that came out in the Eichmann trial was that a psychiatrist examined him and pronounced him perfectly sane. I do not doubt it at all, and that is precisely why I find it disturbing.

If all the Nazis had been psychotics, as some of their leaders probably were, their appalling cruelty would have been in some sense easier to understand. It is much worse to consider this calm, "well-balanced," unperturbed official conscientiously going about his desk work, his administrative job which happened to be the supervision of mass murder. He was thoughtful, orderly, unimaginative. He had a profound respect for system, for law and order. He was obedient, loyal, a faithful officer of a great state. He served his government very well...It all comes under the heading of duty, self-sacrifice, and obedience. Eichmann was devoted to duty, and proud of his job.

The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous.

It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons and will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared. What makes us so sure, after all, that the danger comes from a psychotic getting into a position to fire the first shot in a nuclear war? Psychotics will be suspect. The sane ones will keep them far from the button. No one suspects the sane, and the sane ones will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adjusted reasons, for firing the shot. They will be obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of command. And because of their sanity they will have no qualms at all...

We can no longer assume that because a man is "sane" he is therefore in his "right mind." The whole concept of sanity in a society where spiritual values have lost their meaning is itself meaningless...

And so I ask myself: what is the meaning of a concept of sanity that excludes love, considers it irrelevant, and destroys our capacity to love other human beings, to respond to their needs and their sufferings, to recognize them also as persons, to apprehend their pain as one's own? Evidently this is not necessary for "sanity" at all...

...The worst error is to imagine that a Christian must try to be "sane" like everybody else, that we belong in our kind of society.

Friday, April 20, 2012

There is a Time for Everything

Driving back with a van full of students from our conference in Oklahoma last week we spent some time talking about God and faith. These are good times. The best times to be a college professor. Hanging out with students and talking about life.

At one point I shared how I read this famous passage from Ecclesiastes:
Ecclesiastes 3.1-8 (KJV)
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
No doubt there are some hermeneutical issues to be resolved in this passage. How do you read "a time to kill" and "a time to hate" in light of the Sermon on the Mount? (My take is that Christians shift all this language to the spiritual realm where our "battle is not against flesh and blood.")

Those issues aside, here's how I read this text. I think it's a call to being present, engaged and mindful. In this my reading finds some convergences with Buddhism.

There is a time for everything. And whatever you are doing right now that is the time for that. So be present in that moment. Don't be in a different time. Don't be ruminating on the past or worrying about the future. Don't live in guilt, regret or shame. Don't live with worry, fear and apprehension. Live into the moment. The time is right now.

There is a time to tuck your kids in at night. When it's that time be present. Do that well and fully.

There is a time (in my life) to teach a class. When it's that time I should do that work to the best of my ability.

There is a time to drink a cup of coffee with a friend or loved one. When it's that time I should savor the moment and not be picking up my iPhone to check my email.

There is a time for everything.

And when it's that time be there and nowhere else.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Connection is a Symptom Not a Cure

Awhile back I wrote a few posts about the spiritual aspects of mobile connectivity. The series was entitled "The Angel of the iPhone" and can be found on the sidebar. In light of that series let me point you to Sherry Turkle's recently posted TED talk. I found the talk, by turns, both scary and sad.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Algorithms of Salvation

During Passion Week leading up to Easter there was a lot of discussion on religion blogs about the nature of the atonement. What exactly happened in the death of Jesus? Tony Jones had a good series on the subject leading up to Easter.

Here are some of my thoughts on this topic.

It think it's clear in the biblical narrative that there was some sort of "blockage" between God and humanity. We generally call this blockage "sin," though I think that is overly simplistic. Regardless, on our own humanity could not bridge the gap. So God, in Christ, makes a sacrifice on our behalf in an act of loving self-donation. This sacrifice is "atoning." That is, in the sacrifice of Jesus God and humanity are reconciled.

The most important aspect of all this is how the sacrifice at the heart of Christianity is a grand reversal of paganism. In paganism humans made sacrifices to appease a wrathful god. But in Christianity it is God who makes the sacrifice. Humans call out for blood--"Crucify! Crucify!"--and God hands Jesus over to appease us. The significance of this reversal cannot be overstated. In Christianity God is handed over to humans in an act of sacrifice. In Christianity God is killed. God isn't demanding the sacrifice. God is the sacrifice.

This is why the crucifixion is considered to be an act of love. The cross represents the self-donation of God, God being given to us, God suffering on our behalf. And this act of self-giving signals that the rift between God and humanity has been eradicated. In the gift of Jesus God reaches out and grabs hold of us.

This, as best as I can describe it, is the meaning of the atonement. And most Christians, liberal or conservative, would likely agree with my description.

So from where does the controversy come?

The controversy comes when people try to describe the machinery and mechanisms at work behind scenes. The most common machinery in conservative Protestant circles is penal substitutionary atonement. According to this machinery God is compelled to punish a sinful humanity. God requires a blood sacrifice, the death of the sinner. But wanting to save us God kills Jesus as a replacement.

The problem I have with this particular machinery and machinery generally is that God is not free. The act of self-donation is compulsory and, thus, not a free act of love. God must punish a sinful humanity. God has to have a blood sacrifice. God can't forgive without a death.

It's these must's, can't's, and have to's, that are the problem. They signal that God is no longer God, that a theological system--the machinery--is above God and that God must follow the rules of the game. These rules compel God to do this or that or block God from doing this or that.

In these theological systems God has to follow, like a computer program, an algorithm of salvation. But the question arises, if God has to execute the program who wrote the computer code? If God wrote the code then God doesn't have to do anything. God doesn't have to kill or punish. God can do whatever God wants to do to save or forgive. God is God and doesn't have to follow an algorithm of salvation. God's the programmer, not the program.

This, it seems to me, is the root problem. The grand strokes of atonement are largely agreed upon. God loves us and make a sacrifice to save us. The trouble comes when we posit some mechanism of atonement--an algorithm of salvation-- and then insist that God must follow the program. By doing so we make the cross an act of compulsion rather than an act of love. More, when we insist that God must be in obedience to an algorithm of salvation we engage in an act of idolatry. And idolatry is sin.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Violence and Holy Ground

In my book Unclean I discuss how purity psychology regulates the divinity dimension. If you've not read Unclean, the psychologist Richard Shweder has suggested that three main moral codes regulate human experience. One of them is the divinity code which is experienced as movement along a vertical dimension. As we move higher on this dimension we experience sacredness and holiness. As we move lower on this dimension we experience degradation, spiritual pollution and defilement.

We need the divinity dimension to have an experience of the sacred. However, my worry in Unclean is when this experience is used to exclude or harm others. My analysis in the book is that Jesus addresses this situation by conflating the sacred with acts of inclusion. When Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners in Matthew 9 he says to the Pharisees, who are standing on the outside in an act of self-quarantine, that God desires "mercy, not sacrifice." The act of mercy and embrace becomes the sacred space. And the act of exclusion becomes the source of pollution and defilement.

I was thinking about the conflation of harm, violence, care and the sacred last week. I was in Oklahoma City for a conference. One morning I walked over to the Oklahoma City National Memorial that honors and remembers those killed in the Oklahoma City bombing.

Obviously, this is a sacred space. The grounds are high on the divinity dimension. People here are quiet and reflective. Being boisterous, littering or spitting on the ground would be highly insulting. This place is holy, set apart for special care and veneration.

As I pondered this, how various peoples set apart sacred spaces, it struck me how often these places are associated with violence. The memorial in Oklahoma City is holy because 168 people were tragically killed there. And beyond that violence the memorial and museum also honors the first responders and those who worked to recover the dead. These are acts of care.

To be sure, the sacred doesn't always overlap with locations of harm, violence and care. This is a point nicely made by Jonathan Haidt in his new book The Righteous Mind. However, reflecting in Oklahoma City last week I was struck by how often we converge upon Jesus's conflation. Places become holy when the ground becomes tragically blood-soaked. That violence moves us toward the demonic and we want, in response, to move in the opposite direction, to redeem the space and lift it toward the heavens.

We seek to embrace those who were satanically excluded to stand on holy ground.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Slavery of Death: Part 30, The Loving Economy of the Kingdom of God

To this point in the series our focus has been almost exclusively psychological, about the way a fear of death shapes our identity and then how that fear-based identity causes failures of love. But before ending this series we should say something about the church and its role in helping us overcome a fear of death and facilitating acts of love.

Again, the relationship between fear and failures of love has to do with the fact that love often involves a diminishment of the self. Fearing this diminishment we become focused on self-preservation or the neurotic pursuit of self-esteem. We don't give to others because we fear we won't have enough for ourselves--enough money, energy, or time. We don't take the last place at the table because we fear being small, unnoticed and insignificant in the face of death. We resist death, then, by inserting either resources or a heroic identity between ourselves and death. Each produces sin. The buffer of resources makes us selfish and stingy. The buffer of self-esteem makes us rivalrous, prideful and violent. Rivalrous toward ingroup members doing better than we are. Prideful toward ingroup members doing worse than we are. And violent toward outgroup members who question the gods and values that support our heroic self-esteem project.

Obviously, selfish, envious, prideful, and violent people are going to have a hard time loving others. Such are the psychological and behavioral expressions of a life enslaved to the fear of death. Resurrection, therefore, is victory over this fear in the concrete expression of love toward others. Resurrection is the willingness to undergo a diminishment of the self and the ego to give life to others. Resurrection is perfect love casting out fear.

In light of all this it's reasonable to ask about sustainability. Can an isolated individual sustain this sort of lifestyle? At some point, as a consequence of this lifestyle of sacrificial giving, will not our situation and self become so diminished that we start to become the person in need? At what point along this continuum of diminishment and kenosis (emptying) should I stop and draw the line? In one of the more provocative parts of Unclean I discuss the nature of boundaries, how we set limits on the demands from others to provide for times of self-care, self-rehabilitation, and self-refreshment. A boundary is the point where we start to say No to others and Yes to the self.

The Christian tradition provides no clear consensus on where these boundaries should be set or if they should be set at all. What is clear is that the saints have tended to set these boundaries in more "extreme" locations relative to the mass of Christians. In short, though I offer no specific recommendations as to how to manage all this, I think it clear that the saints and the gospels prophetically encourage us to adjust our current boundaries, to say Yes more to others and No more to the self. It's the journey of learning to love more and more that seems most critical rather than someone like me setting some rule-bound or rigid standards of self-renunciation. Though I'm not sure how far we should go in some ultimate or absolute sense, I am fairly certain that most of us can do more. That's what I'm asking us all to consider.

However, these questions about sustainability become a bit less acute if we shift focus away from individuals toward the community. We aren't being asked to love sacrificially all by ourselves. God isn't asking us to be a Christian version of Atlas, holding up the whole world by our love alone. Rather, God is asking us to participate in a community that mutually practices sacrificial love. I love others while these same others are loving me in return. The issue of sustainability is problematic when we think of love flowing in a single direction, out of me and into you. If that's the only thing going on, yes, I'll soon be empty. I'll be quickly used up. But if you are pouring back into me, if love is flowing in both directions, then I'm less worried about my tank running dry.

This is why Christian love is less about sacrifice than it is about economy. Something is indeed sacrificed, there is a hurtle of fear to clear, but on the other side abundant life is found within the koinonia of the Kingdom. These are the dynamics that Jesus was describing in Mark 10:
Mark 10.17-31
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Jesus asks the Rich Young Ruler for something radical, to sell it all and give it to the poor. Not surprisingly, the young man gives in to the fear of death. I know this because I know what would be going through my mind if I was standing in his shoes. And, truth be told, we are all standing in his shoes. We know the fear and anxiety he is facing.

So we think Jesus is asking the man to make a sacrifice. But Jesus doesn't see it that way. According to Jesus if the man is able to overcome his fear and lose his life there will be an abundance awaiting him in the life of the Kingdom. Jesus isn't asking the young man to give it all away to starve to death as a homeless person. Jesus is asking him to participate in the Jubilee of God's Kingdom economy.

In short, Jesus isn't asking us to love the world all by ourselves. That's not sustainable. Jesus is asking us to participate in communities of love, what he calls the Kingdom of God. Within these communities I will undergo diminishment on your behalf but I am soon filled and rehabilitated by others. I sacrifice to find abundance waiting for me on the other side. That is the vision of church.
Acts 4.32-34
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
At this point you are no doubt wondering: I've never see a church like this. I haven't either, but I've seen people get close. I think of monastic and intentional communities, new and old. I think of churches and small groups within churches who assist each other, often financially, in times of need. True, churches can be self-absorbed, image-driven and consumeristic. But at her best the church rallies to those in need. Even if it's just showing up on the doorstep with a casserole. In these moments the church is living into the resurrection, drawing closer to the koinonia Jesus envisions in Mark 10 and experienced in the early days of the Jesus movement.

Again, the goal of this series isn't to offer concrete recommendations for individual or church life. I'm trying to explain dynamics. And having dissected the slavery of death in the hearts of individuals we find in this post similar dynamics at the heart of church life. Jesus is not asking us to love the world as isolated individuals. The call is to participate in communities of self-giving love. Either way, the fear of death is the enemy. A church comprised of fearful individuals is going to be unable to trust each other to the point of loving self-sacrifice. In such a church each member is expected to be self-sufficient and self-sustaining, making no demands upon others. But that's not a church, that's a club. It's a community affiliating around common interests rather than a community based upon love.

In short, church requires risk, the risk always involved in love, the risk of loss and disminishment. The risk of death. If I allow myself to fall will you catch me? The church who can overcome their fear and allow themselves to fall into each others arms will be those who are emancipated from the slavery of death and who will begin to find the abundance of Jubilee in the loving economy of the Kingdom of God.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Unclean Theology

For those interested in discussing, unpacking or pushing back on the ideas I discuss in Unclean, particularly in relation to the praxis of the missional church, let me point you to a open conversation going on at the blog Unclean Theology. The very talented hosts and discussants of the blog are getting the ball rolling out in front of Streaming (June 18-20) where I'll be in dialog with Walter Brueggemann and other missional church leaders about the book.

If you've read Unclean or are considering reading it and would like to unpack its implications for church life and missional communities jump into the conversation going on over at Unclean Theology.

Just wash your hands before you show up over there...

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Living in Babylon: Reading Revelation in Prison

As regular readers know, I've been posting from time to time about my experiences leading a bible study in a local prison. One recurring theme in these posts is how different the bible sounds on the inside of a prison as compared to the outside.

I'm currently leading the class in a study of the book Revelation and I've again been struck by the change in the sound of this book.

We all know that Revelation is a very violent and blood-soaked book. Consequently, when we studied this book at my church last fall a lot of people expressed dismay. The violence of the book didn't sit well with our empathic, liberal sensitivities. Revelation in one of those embarrassments found within the pages of the bible.

What to do with all that blood and violence in the book?

Non-violent readings of Revelation look to Chapters 4-5 in the fusion of the Throne and the Lamb. Chapter 4 is dominated by the image of the Throne, a symbol of the Rule of God. The imagery is all about power. However, in Chapter 5 this is all thrown for a loop when we encounter the One who is standing on the Throne:
Revelation 5.1-6
Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne...
The Lamb Who Was Slain--the Agnus Dei--is how God rules, how God expresses and exerts God's power. God's power is sacrificial and self-giving love. The Lamb Who Was Slain expresses the Rule of God in our world and the next.

If you want to see the power of God in the world you point to Jesus on the cross.

With this understanding we read the blood and violence of Revelation through the cross. The War of the Lamb isn't violent. The War of the Lamb is fought by fighting, resisting and witnessing non-violently. This non-violent, martyrological note is sounded throughout Revelation. For example, the "sword" of the Lamb is truth, witness and testimony. The sword of the Lamb comes from his mouth:
Revelation 1.16; 2.12, 16; 19.15, 21
In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.
“To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.
Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.
The rest were killed with the sword coming out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh.
It's not surprising, given this imagery, that when Pilate and Jesus have a conversation about power (Does Pilate have the power to kill Jesus?) they end up talking about truth.

Following the Lamb into battle the faithful wage war with the non-violent methods of the Lamb:
Revelation 12,7-12
Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:

“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Messiah.
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down.
They triumphed over him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death.
Therefore rejoice, you heavens
and you who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
because the devil has gone down to you!
He is filled with fury,
because he knows that his time is short.”
The faithful triumph over evil "by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony." Testimony is the weapon. And like Jesus, the faithful remain non-violent to the point of death.

These are some of the hermeneutical keys for those wanting to read Revelation non-violently. Like with most things in the bible, the key move is Christological--reading everything through the sacrificial and self-giving love of Jesus on the cross. So when you think of God's power and rule remember the conflation of Throne and Lamb in Revelation 4-5.

Still, the imagery of Revelation is pretty over the top. Which brings me to reading the book in prison.

The great pastoral objective of Revelation might be best captured in Chapter 18 in the call for the People of the Lamb to come out from Babylon:
Revelation 18.1-4a
After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven. He had great authority, and the earth was illuminated by his splendor. With a mighty voice he shouted:

“‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!’
She has become a dwelling for demons
and a haunt for every impure spirit,
a haunt for every unclean bird,
a haunt for every unclean and detestable animal.
For all the nations have drunk
the maddening wine of her adulteries.
The kings of the earth committed adultery with her,
and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.”

Then I heard another voice from heaven say:

“‘Come out of her, my people.’
so that you will not share in her sins...
"Come out of her, my people." That's the heart of Revelation. That's why the book was written, to communicate that message. The book is about two rival cities, Babylon and the New Jerusalem. And the encouragement to the churches is to "come out" from Babylon to live under the Rule of the Lamb as citizens of the New Jerusalem. Despite appearances Babylon stands under God's judgment and those who are non-violently faithful to the Lamb will be vindicated in the end.

As I see it, the main trouble with reading Revelation as people of wealth, status and privilege is that we don't have much of a problem with Babylon. We're doing quite well in Babylon, thank you very much. Consequently, the prophetic indictment and cry to "come out" leaves us cold. We wonder, why is the author of Revelation so desperately angry?

Well, he's angry because he's screaming at a bunch of spiritual zombies. People who have become blind to the webs of oppression, immorality and violence that have entangled them and support their way of life.

Do you know who weeps first over Babylon in Chapter 18? Kings and merchants. Military power and marketplaces.
Revelation 18.9-13
“When the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury see the smoke of her burning, they will weep and mourn over her. Terrified at her torment, they will stand far off and cry:

“‘Woe! Woe to you, great city,
you mighty city of Babylon!
In one hour your doom has come!’

“The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore—cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and human beings sold as slaves.
The trouble is, as Americans, we benefit so much from American power--military and economic--that we can't see the sins of Babylon. So the prophetic indignation of Revelation just sails right over our heads. "That book is crazy," we say.

And Babylon rolls on...

But inside a prison it all sounds very different. Inside a prison the violence of Babylon is raw and exposed. The violence and economies of prison life are a microcosm of the larger world, Babylon distilled. Consequently, the men in my bible study are constantly tempted to give in to that violence and economy. The choices are stark and clear. Babylon or New Jerusalem? Lamb or Beast?

In prison they feel the Beast. They know very well what Revelation is talking about.

Inside the prison the call of Revelation rings loud and clear. The call to "come out" is felt within the gut. The life and death choice is acute. Prison inmates get the book of Revelation because they get Babylon. They fight against it every second of every day.

Us? Not so much.

And Babylon rolls on...
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