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

Thursday, June 21, 2018

PSUSA General Assembly 223 + Day Four.

Day Four.

There may come a time when people look back and try to discern the exact day when the Presbyterian Church (USA), like the Lost Son in Jesus’ parable, came to itself, and turned its face towards the household of God, and began the journey home.  June 19, 2018, could be that day.  For that was when 800 participants in a PCUSA General Assembly took to the streets and delivered 47 thousand dollars to people languishing in the local jail awaiting bail.  Having attended about 10 General Assemblies, I can say that something like this was almost unimaginable before yesterday.  We never engaged with the city hosting us.  Indeed, four years ago, it was not until we got back home that we learned about the water crisis in Detroit, which was going on while the General Assembly was meeting in that city!
It was an astonishing and exhilarating experience to be with so many Presbyterians engaged in a direct action like this.  I have been in many demonstrations over the decades, but never in one that was so explicitly Presbyterian.  My dad attended the March on Washington in 1963 and heard Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech live.  I could not help thinking how proud he would have been to see engaged Presbyterians.
This is a different denomination than the one I was ordained into in 1981.  Heck, it’s a different denomination from last Thursday.

The day began with a Bible Study time, this time by Professor Naj Nedella: “The Imperial Paradox and the Kindom of God in Matthew’s Gospel.”  He started with a focus on Herod’s banquet in Matthew 14, which ends with the beheading of John the Baptizer.  John’s crime was the criticism of economic injustice and preaching a repentance that turned away from the practices of empire.  Empire demands, in spite of its own propaganda, a two tiered system in which the mass of people at the bottom support the comfort and privilege of the few people at the top.  In order for wealth to accrue there has to be war and poverty in the colonies.  This is the imperial paradox.  These economic structures were sanctioned and sanctified by the gods.
In Matthew 15, Jesus presents a different kind of banquet in feeding 5000 people on a hillside, in deliberate contrast with Herod’s banquet.  Jesus goes into the wilderness — John’s base — and inherits the same anti-imperialist agenda.
Later in the chapter, Jesus has his encounter with a Canaanite woman in which he initially responds from a zero-sum worldview, mimicking the exclusive, racist views of his own people.  Against the Roman strategy of pitting oppressed groups against each other for “scarce” resources, It is the woman herself who witnesses to the gospel of sharing that Jesus himself is enacting in the feeding events which happen both before and after this encounter.
So against false and oppressive scarcity, Jesus redefines family, saying “Yes, ma’am” to this “enemy” woman.  The bread in these stories stands for Jesus’ mission, which culminates in chapter 26 with the institution of the eucharist.

The luncheon sponsored by Presbyterians for Earth Care featured an address by Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, who heads the PCUSA Washington Office.  He talked about the “Reclaiming Jesus” statement from a group of Christian leaders, as well as the Poor People’s Campaign now happening across the country.  To follow Jesus means participating in his healing, teaching, and preaching ministry.  Both the Hebrew Bible in Exodus and the New Testament with Jesus started as poor peoples’ campaigns.

Then we marched.  Nearly a thousand Presbyterians took to the streets and walked about a mile to the jail where we gave money to folks who will use it to pay the bail of people awaiting trial.  The cash bail system is a brick in the wall of oppression of poor people.  These people are picked up on various misdemeanors and left to languish in jail for a long time for want of bail money.  They lose their jobs; their families suffer; and the conditions in the “work house” to which they are sent are horrendous.  
But the real miracle is that this happened at all.   



Wednesday, June 20, 2018

PCUSA General Assembly 223 + Day Three

Day Three.

General Assembly on Monday began with Bible Study, led by Deborah Krause, a professor at Eden Seminary, here in St. Louis.  She presented a “monumental” reading of Mark’s gospel, which means it takes into account the Roman strategy of nailing their colonialism in place by establishing stone monuments in public places.  Such monuments, like arches, were spatial declarations of Rome’s power.  They intentional told conquered peoples they were defeated losers who dare not challenge Rome.
This adds meaning to Paul’s words in Romans 12:1-2, “Do not be pressed down,” “but be transformed.”  In other words, do not become a brick in the system.  The heart of the NT is resistance of Roman rule.  
Krause used Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’ term, “kindom,” to talk about the alternative structure to the Empire presented in Jesus’ ministry.  Mark’s gospel is a virtual memorial to the life of Jesus, showing his movements and his interrogations of different spaces.  This begins with the house/household, which he consistently calls people out of.  Jesus’ ministry is centered in the streets, in the midst of the crowds of ordinary people.  
Finally, Krause identified the same imperialistic use of monuments even here in St. Louis.  The monumental Gateway Arch, which sticks conquest and genocide in the face of the Native peoples whose land was stolen, and the downtown Courthouse framed by the arch, which is the site of the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that African Americans had no legal standing.  These two monuments basically yell white supremacy at defeated and oppressed people.
Jesus forms a different kind of community, one of equality, healing, and justice.

I went to the luncheon sponsored by the Israel Palestine Mission Network, which talked about the colonialism of Israel against the indigenous people there.  Non-Jews form a majority of the population in the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, yet Israel controls 93% of the land.  Thus the Palestinians today are in a position analogous to that of the people living in the same area in the time of Jesus: they are conquered and colonized, ruled over by a minority.  The only permanent solution to the protracted crisis in the Middle East is respect for the rights of all.  Which is to say, kindom instead of kingdom.

I sat in as an observer to the committee concerned with environment, mainly because I was sent to the assembly as an official advocate for an overture that Palisades Presbytery concurred with.
  • I was frustrated by the argument that since we unavoidably use fossil fuels, it is hypocritical to advocate removing our money from the industry that produces them.  But the issue before the General Assembly was not a carbon-free lifestyle, but simply a matter of where we invest our money.  We can use fossil fuels, and still not want to support or benefit from this industry financially.
  • The speaker from MRTI (Mission Responsibility Through Investment, a group that oversees our work with the companies we have investments with) talked about a “bold new plan” she called “game changing…” but then she affirmed staying engaged in a conversation with these companies.  The most we’ve been able to squeeze out of years of conversation with these companies are vague promises to someday consider changing their language.  A bold new plan that would actually get them to change their behavior is not on the table.
  • I can understand the resistance to divestment from a group like MRTI.  It would remove them from corporate board rooms and diminish their influence.  But in rejecting divestment for a second consecutive assembly, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy once again demonstrated its own irrelevance and lack of vision in favor of institutional loyalty.  Indeed, the entire PMA loses credibility and reveals itself to be invested in a Christendom model of “engagement” with secular principalities and powers.  ACSWP is supposed to be on the side of justice.  They have become so thoroughly establishment as to be basically useless.  I read their stuff, shrug, roll my eyes, and move on. 
It occurs to me that Robert’s Rules is inherently contrary to the kindom focus of Christianity.  Robert’s has an inherent adversariality and drive towards win-lose decisions that spawns, highlights, and exacerbates differences in privilege.  It drives towards an inequality that is contrary to the kindom vision.


PCUSA General Assembly 223 + Day Two.

Day Two.

On Sunday, a group of us went to worship at Third Presbyterian Church, on the outskirts of St. Louis.  The choir was fantastic and led almost the whole service.  There was an excellent and inspiring sermon on the Good Samaritan story by Rev. Portis.  I had a wonderful and lively time with this growing African American congregation!  It gave me hope.
Referencing in his talk Liz Theoharis’ presentation from yesterday on poverty, Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson called for transformation in the way we function on many levels.  Of the four qualities we hope God inspires in people as they are ordained — energy, intelligence, imagination, and love — Nelson indicated that love is the most important… but we are weakest in the area of imagination.  Imagination is where we could us the most significant growth.  He called for a church that cultivates a "sanctified imagination,” that is able to think in different ways.  Instead of being wedded to our often crumbling, increasingly empty, but overly beloved buildings, our congregations need to address the deep and crushing needs in local communities.
Nelson is right about imagination.  Too many churches have none.  Instead of imagination we have a crippling nostalgia as an expression of the denial, anger, bargaining, and depression stages of grief.  Too many Presbyterians want things to be the way they were, which pushes out of their consciousness any imagination about they way God wants us to be in the future.
But we are beginning to get glimpses of a new future for the PCUSA.  Things only imagined a few years ago are beginning to be realized.      

Speaking of imagination, among the issues facing the General Assembly this year are some groups set up to peer into the future and start reorganizing new ways of doing mission.  In Presbyterian fashion, and as perhaps an indicator of part of the problem, we turned this over to not one but three different entities: Vision 2020, the All Agency Review, and The Way Forward Commission.  Each deals with different but related things, from casting a general vision, to restructuring the denominational bureaucracy.
This is often couched in hyperbolic language, as we try to psych ourselves up for this or that vision and change.  So: “The way is clear, all we need do is arise and walk.  The survival of our denomination is at stake!”  And: we are “Stepping boldly into the new epoch!”
Let’s not go overboard here.  This is largely a bureaucratic structural rearrangement.  There is nothing “adaptive” about it.  That doesn’t mean the recommendations of these groups are not needed and helpful.  Sometimes technical change works.  And I hope that their work does at least keep us afloat and more or less together while real transformation happens.

 Theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz came up with the brilliant word, “kindom,” to reimagine the word kingdom as really referring in the NT to an alternative structure to the Empire. Perhaps the most important word at this General Assembly is “kindom.”  It is a reimagining of “kingdom,” which is a translation of the Greek NT word, basileia.  The NT uses basileia in an ironic and oppositional way against the pervasive and oppressive power of Rome, the secular basileia of the time.  The gospel community presented itself as an alternative basileia or an alternative basileia, or kingdom.  Jesus himself uses the word to describe the central focus of his ministry, the Kingdom of God.  It is a new, oppositional order of relationships and community, giving us a totally different kind of social organization.  Where Caesar’s kingdom was centralized, top-down, extractive, exploitative, and oppressive, the new kingdom proclaimed by Jesus has all of us as equals under God, with an economy of sharing and justice rooted in inclusion, forgiveness, and non-violence.
Unfortunately, the church has misunderstood kingdom language for most of its history as if it blessed and authorized the very power structures and rulers Jesus rejects (and which crucified him).  I guess irony and oppositional language is hard to maintain over generations under the pressure of wealth and power.
Anyway, at this General Assembly, the approach is to use the English word kingdom, removing the g in the middle, which leaves “kindom.”  Kin, of course, is an old English word for family relationships.  Kindom, then, expresses a social order characterized by equality and sharing, as in a family, under one divine Parent.  And it presents this as the alternative to kingdom.  Kindom is the anti-kingdom that Jesus declares and establishes.  Kindom is what the NT means by using the word basileia against the earthly kingdoms that were agents of oppression and violence.