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

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Quote for the Day

Here's a great quote from Carl McColman's blog:

My own experience in a variety of contexts suggests that the number one problem, the most common source of resistance to both evangelization and spiritual growth in Christian terms, is the angry, punishing father-god of patriarchal oppression. It is something of a mystery to me that this God concept, so foreign to the actual contents of the gospel and Jesus’ picture of his Abba, should be assumed by so many to be what in fact Christianity offers, and the degree to which it remains embedded in Christian literature and art. Furthermore, I find this problematic image deeply infecting all “brands” of Christianity, from the most anti-ecclesial charismatic/evangelical to Catholic to liberal. I do not mean they all deliberately teach it, but rather that all are somehow infected by it, one way or another, indeed have embraced it, even in rejection of it. Many have abandoned or rejected Christianity because their affective and intellectual development has rendered this notion of God intolerable, and they do not know and indeed often cannot imagine that Christianity has something else to offer. Intellectual conversion will mean, as Shug says to Celie inThe Color Purple, first, you gotta get that angry old white man out of your head. It will then mean finding truer images of God in the tradition itself. For most of us this will obviously also include some psychological sorting out of our own family/childhood issues.

— Robert Davis Hughes III, Beloved Dust:
Tides of the Spirit in the Christian Life

Conflict of interest?

Why we are in decline. Reason #584.

Presbyterians seem to be particularly allergic to what we like to see as conflicts of interest. We get nervous if the people involved in making a decision have something at stake in that decision. We have this apparent bias towards “objectivity,” believing that the people best equipped to make a decision are those who have nothing to gain or lose. We feel that they are more likely to make a better decision since they won’t be swayed by their own self-interest.
I suspect that this approach is rooted in the doctrine of total depravity, which we inherit from some elements of the Reformed tradition. Everyone is perverted by sin and will have a natural bias towards their own self-interest. In decision-making, they will do what benefits them personally and not care about what is best for the whole group, let alone the mission of the church.

To reinforce this allergy we look at the examples of corrupt judges and politicians. And of course there are plenty of examples from the church as well. It’s not like it doesn’t happen that people pervert the system by their own self-interest.

Thus we seem to have this attitude that church groups should be as neutral as possible, kind of like juries in our judicial system. Any interested connection to the parties actually involved in a decision is considered suspect.

We have ignored two problems with this way of thinking and acting. 1) There is no such thing as objectivity. Objectivity is a false myth of modernity. Just because people may not have a visible personal stake in a matter doesn’t make them objective and unbiased. They undoubtedly have personal stakes in some of the issues and personalities involved. They come from somewhere; they have accumulated baggage/wisdom which will be applied in this case. Our bias towards supposed objectivity is itself a huge bias that blinds decision-making groups to the interests they do have. Often these interests are in caution, inertia, precedent, and so forth, which means that committees often have a bias towards the status quo.

2) What is the wisdom in asking people to make a decision who don’t know or perhaps even care about it? This is what can happen when we exclude stakeholders at the outset. Often what happens here is that the group, not having any interest or passion in the matter, refer to the advice of staff people, who have their own agendas.

We see this in the church all the time, and it is a recipe for paralysis. We become legalists who stick to the letter of the law, because it is easier and seems safer than taking a risk on something new and different. And by all means let’s bracket and exclude the people who care the most about something

I am having less and less of a problem with allowing those who are interested, passionate, invested, and excited about something to be involved in the decisions affecting it. Who else? These are the folks who are going to implement the decisions. Why not include them systematically in the decision-making process?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Fair and Balanced?

When I was in Boston in the mid-1980's we had a presbytery meeting in which the relevant committee made a presentation concerning the wars then ravaging Central America. Their presentation was sharply critical of U.S. policy, which at that time was supporting brutal dictators and death squads. After this talk someone at the meeting stood up and complained that the presbytery was not being even-handed or balanced. They pointed out that only one “side” of this matter was presented, and that we had heard nothing from the other point of view.
My question at that point was whether we were really supposed to invite a representative of the contras to address us and give us this other side. Is the church required to give equal time to murderers, terrorists, torturers, and other purveyors of wanton violence? Are we even supposed to hear from the U.S. government so they can explain their policies?
This question continues to emerge when the church is thought to be one-sided in its approach to social and political issues. The church takes a stand. But then those who disagree with that stand complain that the other side was not heard or addressed.
My question is: What other side? Since when is the church supposed to be even-handed and balanced? Did Jesus exhibit this kind of balance? Of course not. Do the prophets allow equal time for those who favor idolatry and injustice? No.
If a group is invited to speak to Christians about climate change, are we somehow also bound to hear as well from the “dominionist” perspective, or to engage someone paid by Exxon to give us their propaganda? If Christians express concern about a particular oppressed group and seek to assist them, are we supposed to hear from their tormentors as well? Are we to allow someone to suggest that there perhaps some good reason for the violence being done to people? Are we even to support “Christians” in any acts of violence against others? Or Protestants against Catholics? Is there any conceivable oppressed and abused group of people whom we do not stand with in solidarity and support, in Jesus’ name, no matter who is doing violence to them?
Jesus did not care about labels or even one’s past life. He healed and saved people because of their pain and disease, period. It didn’t matter to Jesus whether one was a Roman Centurion, a tax collector, a prostitute, a Pharisee, a Jew, a Samaritan, a Syrophoenecian, or any other category of person. He healed them just the same on the basis of their suffering.
He did not listen to the other side. He did not listen to any voices that might have suggested that this or that suffering person deserved it, brought it on themselves, or wasn’t really suffering. He certainly never suggested that a person deserved to suffer because the person afflicting them had himself suffered grievous harm in the past.
Neither should we. God and Jesus are not fair and balanced. They are wildly biased towards the afflicted. No matter who they are or who is afflicting them.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Cheap grace vs. works righteousness

I think the church is always faced with a tension between two poles.  On the one hand there is cheap grace.  On the other there is works righteousness.
Cheap grace is when we dispense God’s grace with no expectation that it will change lives, and certainly no requirement that behavior be altered because of it.  It simply blesses, accepts, and forgives.  Grace is everything; works mean nothing.  
Works righteousness is when we say that God’s grace is what we earn by our good works.  Our good works are everything, and God’s grace is the reward.
Both of these are toxic ideas leading to disastrous practices with catastrophic results.  
On the one hand we have the spectacle of people worshiping in church on Sunday, and driving trains to Auschwitz on Monday.  There is a total disconnect between what we say we believe and what we do.  It does not occur to us that these ought to be in relationship.  
On the other hand, we have people burning themselves out dreaming up things to do supposedly to deserve God’s favor, when this is impossible.  The worst of works righteousness is when the works aren’t even particularly meaningful, such as the mindless repetition of rote prayers or ritual actions.  But if we think we will save ourselves by our own initiative and actions, we are mistaken.
Protestantism has always, since Luther, been particularly allergic to works righteousness.  But as Bonhoeffer pointed out, this has made cheap grace a dangerous liability.  It is our natural tendency to think so highly of grace that we forget how costly it is.  
Cheap grace flourished under Christendom.  It was very convenient to hear about God’s grace and receive it.  It would have been very inconvenient, not to mention economically, politically, socially, and militarily unacceptable to hear that grace was supposed to change your behavior at all.
Works righteousness also flourished under Christendom, as a way to control people.  (I have often wondered how a faith that supposedly celebrated “grace alone” ended up contributing to the “Protestant work ethic.”
As Christendom crumbles, it occurs to me that if I had to choose between these two extremes (even though neither is truly faithful), I would have to say that works righteousness is the lesser of the two dangers.  I will more gladly be accused of advocating works righteousness.  At least then there is a possibility of faith intersecting with real life.  But if it were demonstrated that I preached cheap grace I would reevaluate my ministry.
Either way, healing is necessary.  Grace needs to be preached... but in such a way that it transforms lives and changes behavior, alters lifestyle and shifts commitments.  And works need to be advocated and accomplished... as a result of the grace of God at work in our lives.  Without works, grace is empty and unrealized.  Without grace, works can become a mindless and destructive activism with no root in God’s living Word.    

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

TYMUR Theology

There is, though, a form of Christianity far worse than just being a fan of Jesus.  There is the practice of using Jesus as an emblem or mascot or figurehead to justify your own agenda, even when that agenda is utterly contrary to everything Jesus was about.  This makes the image of  “Jesus,” detached from the actual teachings, life, and ministry of Jesus, into an idol.  

Like the infamous (and unsolved) Tylenol murders of 1982 (the FBI code name for which is TYMURS), this form of Christianity uses the name of Jesus on the outside of the bottle, but inside the capsules has been placed a deadly poison.  We accept something calling itself “Jesus,” but instead of the life he lived as attested in the gospels, we find ourselves poisoned by this toxic mix of nationalism, militarism, violence, fear, anger, greed, bigotry, exclusion, and rabid self-righteousness.  

The tragedy is that many people assume that this murderous and hateful concoction that oozes out of the capsules labeled “Jesus” really is what Jesus is about.  This is how Christianity is experienced by a large part of the world.  It is a Christianity that has nothing to do with Jesus, and everything to do with propping up, maintaining, justifying, and spreading the values of Empire.  It is a container with "Jesus," on the label, but refilled with something deadly.   

This practice is something we inherit from Christendom, which basically projected a false picture of Jesus whom it claimed to worship and follow.  In reality this “Jesus” was often a facade behind which stood the principalities and powers of, at first, imperial Rome.  As history wore on, different secular orders used the same tactic.  But they all have in common the use of Jesus’ name and image to justify acts and policies and ways of thinking that are radically contrary to what Jesus himself was actually about.

One example of this sort of thing happening today is found in the recent article in Harper’s Magazine called “Jesus Killed Mohammad.”

Here, journalist Jeff Sharlet chronicles the rise of evangelical “Christians” in the U. S. military. It becomes clear that, whatever these people believe, it has nothing to do with the Jesus Christ who is attested in the Scriptures.  They justify war, torture, conquest, bullying, and other things clearly out of the range of WJWD.  They have apparently made it an acceptable practice of bait Muslims in Iraq by spouting the motto, “Jesus Killed Mohammad!” (you can almost hear the infantile refrain, nyah-nyah-na-nyah-nyah) on their vehicles and spray-painting crosses on the walls of mosques.  

Christendom was always “Christianity with a fake Jesus,” and these military fanatics are merely a contemporary manifestation of a vile tendency that has a long history.  The Crusades and the Inquisition are the best known instances of this.  .

Christian faith is only maintained in its integrity by the persistent fact that we do still have the gospels.  And occasionally people bother to read them and listen to them... rather than use them in other ways — weapon, doorstop, credentialing device, litmus test, doctrinal checklist, etc.  

(This is why I have zero patience with people like Bart Ehrman, who make it their business to undermine the authority and integrity of the gospels.  Such projects may actually give aid and comfort to those who would utilize the gospels in their own projects of violence and bigotry.  I can think of lots of people who would love to hear that they may cherry-pick the parts of the gospels they like, and dismiss the rest.)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Fan or Follower?

In her talk to the recent Emerging Church conference in Albuquerque, Alicia Torres-Fleming mentioned the difference between being a follower of Jesus and a fan.  A fan is someone who sits on the sidelines and roots for someone's success.  A fan of Jesus would be someone who is enthusiastic about Jesus, but who is mainly a spectator in actual Christian living.  Fans “follow,” but only in the sense of watching and keeping informed.  We can be fans of particular musicians by enjoying and advocating their music.  We can be fans of a sports team by watching and rooting for them.  There is often an element of psychological transference that is going on with fans.  We attach our hopes and dreams, even our self-image, to this other figure whom we then sort of live through.  There is a vacarious element here as well: the figure of whom we are fans is the one who works, produces, struggles, and accomplishes the victory or the performance.  Fans only observe, participating at best by being encouraging.  But there is always some distance. 
A follower, in the sense of a disciple, is different from a fan.  A follower literally follows.  That is, they go where the leader goes, they learn to do what the leader does, they actually take steps to live the life of the one whom they are following.  
It is one thing to be a Christian in the sense of rooting for Christianity or for Jesus, while still sitting comfortably at home maintaining a conventional existence.  That is a fan.  It is another thing altogether to leave home and take up the life Jesus lived.  That is a disciple or follower.
Torres-Fleming was challenging and encouraging people to move from being mere fans of Jesus, to engaging in actual discipleship of Jesus.  Discipleship is something that must be done with one’s body, not just with words and thinking.  It walks in the same steps as Jesus. 
In her life it involved leaving a good job in downtown Manhattan, and going back to the ghetto in the Bronx to work with the poor.  In the life of Shane Claiborne, another speaker at the conference, it meant living in community in the inner city.  Others may understand Jesus’ call in different ways.  But in every case it must express what we know about Jesus’ own life.  He lived in community.  He walked lightly on the Earth.  He lived in extreme simplicity, poverty, and frugality.  He followed the way of non-violence.  He healed people and cast out demons.  He taught about God’s love.  He embodied forgiveness and acceptance.  He placed himself among the outcast and rejected.  He rejected the values of the religious, political and economic establishment.  And he sacrificed his own life for others.  
We can admire Jesus for all this, but if our admiration does not become real in our actually living like he lived, we just stay fans.  A disciple is one who actually takes on those characteristics of Jesus’ life and lives them.  A fan might place a WWJD? bumper-sticker on their car.  A disciple actually looks at their life, asks “What would Jesus do?”  Then, in the power of the Spirit, takes the crucial step of changing their thoughts, words, and actions to reflect what Jesus would do.