This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

How Asceticism Embodies Solidarity.

Solidarity and Asceticism.

Asceticism actually has to do with solidarity with the poor and the earth.

In his excellent article in Rick Ufford-Chase’s powerful new book, Faithful Resistance, Aric Clark offers a cogent, if brief, critique of ecclesiastical connectionalism.  In my experience, connectionalism has to do with about keeping congregations subordinate to the corporate higher-ups.  It is almost never about congregations connecting with each other, let alone with their context.  Conectionalism is about why you have to pay your per capita. 

Clark calls for us to replace inbred connectionalism with a solidarity that brings into church leadership people who have usually been overlooked or even excluded.  

“Solidarity requires that I actively identify with you (or work to do so), 
that I stand with you in a way which is personally risky.  
Solidarity is a more thorough Christian virtue.” 

But how do we avoid giving the title of “solidarity” to tokenism, window-dressing, and other superficial, ineffectual, and even cynical strategies?  What does it mean to “identify with” and “stand with” people “in a way that is truly risky”?  Solidarity has to be more than people with privilege deciding to give something away or making room at their table for others, while still maintaining their own status.  How does solidarity avoid becoming merely letting a little more power and resources trickle-down?  How do we get beyond the idea that solidarity is little more than righteous talk

I wonder if we don’t need to personally embody our solidarity by relating it to spiritual practices.  Political advocacy, and even reshaping ecclesiastical structures and procedures — all of which is deeply important — may not go quite far enough.  We may advocate such things from afar without embodying them at all.  We may do these things and not know a change in our heart; we may even perform them resentfully or as a matter of duty or compromise.  

I want solidarity to have the roots and the energy to last
and this only happens through presence and embodiment.  
I suggest that we need to extend our solidarity beyond the boundaries of the church, 
and then base, fund, and express it with the marginalized and the oppressed 
in actual embodied practices.

One of the things mainline Protestants mostly lost as we became the church of the affluent, privileged, and comfortable is a tradition of spiritual practices, sometimes referred to as asceticism.  Many actually view asceticism as a perverse hatred and punishment of the body which should be rejected by mature and rational Christians.  But this is a wild and self-serving misreading of asceticism’s true purpose and value.  

I suggest that asceticism actually has to do with 
solidarity with the poor and the earth.

Practices such as fasting, sabbath-keeping, making pilgrimage, holding vigils, and having physical attitudes for prayer have been central to traditional Christianity precisely because they identify with Jesus Christ, the poor man of Nazareth.  Therefore, they also connect us to the destitute and the earth, as well as our own bodies.  Some spiritual practices find their roots among the defeated Judean exiles in Babylon, where they were ways to maintain their distinct communal identity in the face of rigorous pressure to assimilate to the victors’ dominant culture and economy.  Some spiritual practices still serve to assert independence from the dominant economy of Empire. 

Thus, in asceticism, we identify with the hungry by actually going hungry: we fast.  Some would identify with the poor by deliberately living on a lower income, even minimum wage.  When monastics subject themselves to prison-like conditions, eg. poverty, chastity, and obedience, do they not identify with the imprisoned?  Some of the “new monastics” today — like Shane Claiborne’s Simple Way community in Philadelphia — move into at-risk urban neighborhoods.  Celebrating the Sabbath denies one day in seven to the owners and managers of the economy.  If we divest from harmful industries, and if we support initiatives bringing benefits to minority communities, are we not reflecting the principles the biblical Jubilee?

While she was exiled in Britain, the philosopher, Simone Weil, reduced her intake of food to the ration received by prisoners of the Nazis.  What if we, at least for a time, chose to live like those in Detroit whose water has been cut off?  What if we ate like we dwelled in an urban “food desert”?  What if we took public transportation even when it was really inconvenient and time-consuming, thus identifying with those who can’t afford cars?      

When asceticism means giving up our freedom and declining to use our privilege, 
it is a form of identification with the marginalized.  
When we take on ourselves the risk, the poverty, 
and the pain of disenfranchised and suffering people, 
that is embodied solidarity.

Finally, asceticism is the form that repentance takes.  It is the practical, actual, physical way the “new mind” of Christ emerges within us, which sees and experiences things differently.  We behave our way into believing, says Richard Rohr.  Identifying with the marginalized and deprived through embodied spiritual practices has to be a part of this.  This identifies us with the Lord Jesus as well.     

Of course, in asceticism, these things are freely chosen, whereas for the poor conditions like this are imposed upon them.  And some of these practices can become excuses for not engaging with actual poor people.  They can even degenerate into masochistic self-flagellation or a competitive endurance.  Our human propensity for sinfulness can corrupt anything.

But, if we are to be a church of Matthew 25, as Rick Ufford-Chase suggests, and if the church is the Body of Christ, then we have to be a church that actually, physically identifies with the poor and suffering at least as much as one that ministers to them.  Christ’s presence is found on both sides of that equation. 


Tuesday, August 2, 2016

What the Bible Means.

We have in the Bible a handbook for liberation, both of human beings and of communities.    
Christians read the Bible through Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word and Wisdom of God (Luke 2:40, 52), through whom all things were made (John 1:3).  If the Bible seems to tell us something in contradiction to what we know about Jesus, then we’re reading it wrong.  He is the touchstone, litmus test, filter, and indicator of Holy Scripture.  Scripture is the Word of God because, and when, it witnesses to Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ life culminates in his crucifixion and resurrection.  In the Roman Empire, crucifixion was reserved exclusively for political offenses: sedition, rebellion, insurrection, and disloyalty to the rulers.  So a faith that actually worships a crucified Palestinian Jew, proclaiming that he did not stay dead but now is alive in a form in which he is beyond Rome’s power, and that he grants that new life to his disciples, is inherently and essentially subversive.  The opposition to all tyranny, or entrenched, consolidated power, is therefore the very core of the Christian message, and it is the main interpretive lens through which we view Scripture.
At the same time, the cross stands for a profound personal and spiritual redemption.  It means we realize our true Selves in union with God by giving up our old, enslaved, ego-centric, false selves.  We do this symbolically in baptism and actually by the life of metanoia/repentance, turning our wills over to Jesus Christ.  The root cause of bad social systems is the tyranny of our unbridled ego, and the fear it spawns in our hearts.       
When you pick up a Bible you have in your hands the key to the emancipation of both yourself and the global community.  We have no more comprehensive and condemning critique of the accumulation of wealth and the concentration of power, in the society and soul, than the Bible. 

1.  The New Testament.

The New Testament tells of Jesus Christ, God’s self-emptying love poured out for creation and people (John 1:1-18; Philippians 2:5-11).  
  1. The gospels reveal Jesus as a counter-cultural figure who comes into the world to overturn the prevailing social and spiritual order.  Mary’s hymn says this quite brazenly (Luke 1:46-55).  Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth is also unambiguous about social reversal (Luke 4:18-19).  His teachings on wealth and power are clear and consistent (Luke 6:20-26, etc., etc.).  During his lifetime, people know Jesus primarily as a libertine healer (Matthew 11:4-6, etc.).  The main point of his ministry, as he states in Mark 1:15, is the realization of the Kingdom of God, which is at once a way of living together in community, and an opening to eternal life.
  2. The rest of the New Testament interprets theologically the meaning of Christ and shows the development of new communities of unity, peace, justice, equality, repentance, and healing in a violent and oppressive world.  It concludes with the Book of Revelation, the ultimate anti-imperialist tract, showing the inevitable implosion of human idolatry and violence, and the triumph of life and shalom as God’s ultimate purpose.
In its revelation of the reality at the heart of everything, Jesus, and therefore the whole of Scripture, is inherently, necessarily, and inevitably apocalyptic.

2.  The Hebrew Scriptures.
  1. Starting with Exodus, the Bible is the story of a band of former slaves, liberated by God from bondage under the greatest empire of the day: Egypt.  The Bible is therefore always written by and for the people at the bottom.  The protagonists are always the losers, the weak, the victims, the outcasts, and the workers.  Here we see the recurring pattern: idolatry leads to injustice which leads to disaster, political, economic, or ecological.  The plagues sent against Pharaoh show God’s creation rebelling against the corrupt and violent human empire.
  2. The “prequel” of Genesis sets the stage by first contradicting the creation myth of another reigning empire — Babylon — and tells the story of a nomadic family.  
  3. The rest of the Torah prescribes a basically leaderless, tribal order where power is diffused and distributed.  There is no king except God, who gives laws to prevent the rise of new Pharaohs.  The economy is regulated to counteract the accumulation of wealth through sabbath and jubilee rules (Leviticus 25).  The priests are not a privileged class, but intentionally landless (Numbers 18:20-24).
  4. The “conquest” of Canaan is an uprising against the oppressive power of elites in city-states.  Judges are charismatic chiefs emerging to deal with specific crises.  Power in Israel is moral and spiritual, ministerial and declarative, and, in its exercise of justice, deeply communal.  
  5. The descent into monarchy is a decidedly retrograde development.  The text hammers king after king for basically imitating Pharaoh and, because of idolatry and injustice, drawing down disaster on the people.  Israel and Judah remain small, client states repeatedly overrun by the armies of powerful empires.  Eventually Israel is destroyed, and Judah is sent into exile, where they develop institutions of resistance.
  6. The prophets preach social justice and reversal.  They oppose the idolatry of State economic-growth deities like Baal, and sharply criticize the injustices perpetrated by the kings and ruling class.  They warn of consequent disasters, and often predict God’s ultimate triumph.
  7. The Psalms can read like complaints of lynching victims.  In all they lift up the glory of God above all human achievements, values, structures, systems, and leaders.  The Psalms redeem the spectrum of human emotion, identifying us with suffering humanity and affirming the healing, liberating God. 
  8. Finally, in the Wisdom books, we see God’s Spirit infusing human hearts, revealing God’s indwelling Presence, offering insights into both practical living (Matthew 11:19) and God’s maternal affection as the force binding and uniting all things.  Wisdom (Greek- Sophia, Hebrew- Hokma), Spirit (Hebrew- Ruach), and Presence (Hebrew- Shekinah) all disclose the feminine dimensions of God, so often suppressed by male rulers.  Wisdom shows us that we already have what we need.  We have no need of leaders, authorities, ruling classes, masters, owners, kings, or strong men.  (Indeed, we find the fullest manifestation of Wisdom in Mary, whose perfect submission gives birth in the world to God.)   
So the Bible is always about redemption and liberation.  On the one hand, it means our rejection of ego-centric, violent, hoarding and perpetration of wealth, privilege, and power, and on the other hand it means our participation in God’s self-emptying love poured into creation.  The Bible reveals that the meaning, goal, and purpose of life is Jesus Christ, who is God’s love shining in the heart of all things.


Thursday, July 21, 2016


Following this reflection on the Assembly I have added shorter comments on specific matters in Appendices. 

The recent PCUSA General Assembly, held in Portland, did some good, wonderful, and remarkable things.  I also experienced some frustration and gained a deeper understanding of some of how a General Assembly, and our denomination, works.  Or not.  
The most important action we took was the final approval of the Belhar Confession.  Composed by a church oppressed by apartheid in South Africa, the Belhar Confession highlights unity within the Body of Christ, and rejects the rejection and segregation of sisters and brothers in the faith.  I see it as a riff on Galatians 3:28, building on our own Confession of 1967 with its theme of reconciliation.  Belhar is a challenging document for our church and situation, especially in this summer, shaped by racism and resistance.  [Read and download the confession at]  
Belhar in some ways set the tone for the whole Assembly, as we proceeded to do things that affirmed what we have confessed, or in some cases, showed that we are not quite living up to Belhar’s promise.
Among the encouraging things to happen at the Assembly was the emergence of a new “face” of our denomination.  We elected two women, one black and one white, to be our co-Moderators — Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston; and we elected our first black Stated Clerk — G. Herbert Nelson.  It is at least powerfully symbolic that we are presenting to the world a leadership team that expresses the inclusive vision of the confession we just adopted, not to mention of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  I hope it does not just turn out to be window dressing, masking the inertia of an institution on life-support.
This was our first Assembly after the final resolution of the sexuality controversies that consumed and paralyzed us for 40 or so years.  The Progressives won that war.  The votes on whatever remains of these issues are now lopsided.  Many conservatives have departed. 
Thus we find ourselves on new and unfamiliar terrain.  At the last Assembly (2014) we fell out over Israel/Palestine, an issue on which Progressives are divided.  That question provided some fireworks this time as well; but I was encouraged to see that the pro-Palestinian arguments generally prevailed again this year.  Perhaps it would have been too dissonant to excuse or rationalize Israeli apartheid after affirming the anti-apartheid Belhar Confession.  Still, we managed to spend time debating whether to commend the Israelis for saying that they do not victimize as many Palestinian children as they used to.   
Without the distraction of matters having to do with LGBT inclusion, we also got to see more of the inner workings of the denominational bureaucracy.  Attending GA is different as a Commissioner.  I have been to many of these meetings as an interested observer; but I haven’t served as a commissioner since 1990.  You don’t really get a sense of how scripted and tightly controlled the proceedings are unless you are inside the blue fence, trying to actually do things.  You think you have power… but mostly you don’t.
I discovered that the GA has its own arcane and complicated rules which officials in Louisville know and work well.  Almost all the commissioners to GA are there for the first or second time in their lives.  This is not their full-time job.  The bureaucracy knows how to manipulate and control what this amorphous and largely clueless body does.  (For my reflection on how they squashed my question about the suppression of the report on the 1001 New Worshiping Community scandal, see Appendix 1, below.)  
I raised a concern about the practice of having motions “to disapprove.”  These kinds of motions are strongly discouraged by Robert’s Rules, supposedly our parliamentary authority.  But the GA does it this way because… as one official helpfully pronounced, the GA does it this way.  Even though it creates a blizzard of unnecessary confusion.  
So, on the overture from our Synod of the Northeast, the assembly voted not to disapprove, and then voted, no kidding, not to approve.  See what I mean?  It finally got referred, since the assembly, given the convoluted procedure, couldn’t figure out what else to do with it.
That overture would have allowed congregations to elect ruling elders to specific tasks that don’t involve serving a term on a local session.  It was an attempt to encourage more younger and non-white ruling elders into our system.  Eventually, it failed because the ACC has no imagination and is also firmly committed to “the way we’ve always done it.”
Probably most obviously egregious (to me, anyway) was the bizarre decision by the leadership of the Environment Committee to allow in their plenary report a 10-minute propaganda presentation by MRTI that undercut and contradicted the decision of the committee!  Clearly, the bureaucracy has too much invested in their own seats at the corporate feed-trough to allow an assembly to approve divestment from the rapacious fossil-fuel industry.  (See Appendix 2, below.)
Anyway, my committee was Peacemaking.  We did manage to affirm BDS (boycotts, divestment, and economic sanctions) as a traditional, historical set of non-violent tools to witness against injustice.  And we approved a long document called “Risking Peace in a Violent World.”  Unfortunately, we retained affirmative language about “Just War.”  (See Appendix 3, below.)
We also preserved the on-line journal, Justice Unbound, which was slated to be cut.  This was kind of a miracle since it is expensive and bucked the general trend against spending money.  I was amazed!  Apparently the Spirit wants this to continue and would not be denied.  
The General Assembly has been conducted under the same basic format, right down to which interest groups have their programmatic meals on which days, for decades.  At this one, I got the sense that the next assembly would be very different.  That is a good thing.
First of all, I have hope that the new Stated Clerk will be able to cut through the inertia in Louisville and move us in new directions.  This was hinted at in comments about our next meeting, in 2018, in St. Louis, and the one after that, in Baltimore.  These two cities have been epicenters of racial conflict recently.  I suspect that the GA as hermetically sealed bubble, protected against local issues, is over.  There is talk of GA as a missional witness for reconciliation in these host cities.  I am hoping for a radically different format, one that reflects the title of Nelson’s recent chapter in a book entitled, Faithful Resistance: “Dismantling the Corporate Church as a Step Toward Liberation.”  
Secondly, the GA in its current format is simply unsustainable on many levels.  Financially, the meeting costs about $3M (that’s $17K per hour).  Spiritually, the whole corporate stockholders’ meeting vibe is light-years from anything Jesus would imagine.  And just in terms of practicality the whole process is cumbersome, often redundant, confusing, exhausting, and frequently pointless.  There is a lot that is just theater and cheerleading.
At the same time, a GA is a wonderful family reunion where connections are made and restored, ideas are shared, memories savored, and plans made.  The highlight of the assembly for me was worship.  We celebrated the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper on every day of plenary, and heard some remarkably good preaching.  And the music was often spectacular.
I thank God and Elizabeth Presbytery for sending me.  I continue to pray for Howard Bryant, whose place I took as Alternate when he, the primary commissioner, was unable to attend due to illness.  And I hope that what we did glorified the living God and advanced the mission of Jesus Christ in the world.

Appendix 1.  The 1001NWC Scandal.

Prior to the assembly, I was asked to make a Commissioner Resolution regarding the scandal over the “1001 New Worshiping Communities" that broke in 2015.  1001 NWC is one of the brightest and most positive things our denomination is doing.  This disaster was a tremendous morale-draining buzz-kill. The program was hugely highlighted at the GA in 2014; this time it was barely mentioned, probably to squash unwanted questions about it.  Like mine.
Very briefly, as I understand it, four denominational officials set up an illicit, independent corporation to plant churches, receiving $100K in funding from the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA).  This was against our rules.  Once this was pointed out, the money was returned and the offending parties reprimanded.  This might have been the end of it.    
However, the PMA found it necessary to spend around $1M (!) on lawyers to produce a report about the whole thing that no one is allowed to see.  As the General Assembly is technically the PMA’s boss, some of us thought a more comprehensive accounting should be given of this mess.  A million dollars is, after all, a lot of mission money to hand over to attorneys for a secret report.  (Especially when we would hear repeatedly at the assembly about how strapped for cash the PMA is and how we nothing we do should have “financial implications.”)  
My request was parliamentarily squashed with rationale based on false information.  Clearly if the PMA doesn’t want its boss, the GA, to know something, it has ways of making sure the GA will not know it.  I was informed I could not ask any more questions about this.
I taught polity last January at Princeton Seminary.  I told my students that GA is the ultimate earthly authority in the church.  I was wrong.  The GA is powerless in the face of the orgy of butt-covering, manipulation, and infighting that characterizes the Louisville curia.
In hindsight, it would have been better if some presbyteries had demanded a response.  Such overtures are much harder to suppress than mere Commissioner Resolutions.  But I don’t think the results would have changed.
However, it should sober us to know that the PMA can squander a million dollars on lawyers without any accountability at all.

Appendix 2.  God and Money.  

The video that MRTI was permitted to show basically told us that fossil fuel companies are not nearly as bad as they used to be, due to the beneficial pressure they receive from MRTI.  As if they should be rewarded because now they at least talk sometimes in a way that sounds like they do care about mitigating their pillaging of the Earth, even though their actions indicate no such thing.  (Kind of like the Israelis assuring us they don’t kill as many Palestinian children.)
That’s how Constructive Engagement works.  Try to imagine Jesus negotiating with Pilate, Herod, and Caiaphas.  Pilate would claim that the crucifixion rate is actually down, and Jesus would… what, congratulate him?  In my Bible, Jesus throws the merchants out of the Temple; he doesn’t constructively engage with them to get them to be slightly less exploitative.  Of course, Jesus doesn’t get a cut of the profits of the commercialized Temple either, which is exactly my point.  
The PCUSA continues to imagine that we can in fact serve both God and money, something Jesus insists doesn’t happen.  It is very obvious which we have chosen to follow.  Now we get to stay “engaged” with forces like the Koch brothers and Exxon, and disengaged from the planet, people, and communities that suffer at the hands of this industry.  So, apparently,  the principles of Belhar, placing us on the side of the destitute, the poor, the wronged, the downtrodden, and people in any form of suffering and need, are suspended when it comes to what we do with our money.  When it comes to money, the denomination chooses to stay on the side of “all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others” (Belhar).
Oh, and someone should explain to me the theological rationale for holding what is best for my employer above the mission of Christ’s church.  I don’t get that at all.  Since when do Nestle, Caterpillar, and Exxon come before Jesus?  A company “provides jobs” making bricks for Pharaoh, and their interests are held above the gospel?  Really? 

Appendix 3.  “Just War.”  

There is, of course, no such thing as a just war, except in theory.  Maybe there are situations of such unambiguous aggression (like the 1939 Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland, maybe) that a war of resistance is morally justified.  But the requirements for a Just War are so strict and demanding that we find few examples of such a thing ever actually happening.  That doesn’t stop unscrupulous politicians (or the squad of military chaplains our committee pointlessly had to hear from) from claiming that the wars they perpetrate are just, necessary, and good.  All warmongers proclaim their wars to be just!  Just War is thus a rhetorical smokescreen that leaders invoke whenever they want to make war.  The only thing we can learn from the Just War tradition is that it is a lie.  To approve of Just War is tantamount to approving of war generally.  Which is what we, in effect, did.
So, having affirmed ecocide with our decision to continue to underwrite oil and coal companies, we moved on to affirm war.  Clearly, this is a denomination that still imagines itself to be part of the Establishment and an unofficial arm of the State.