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

Thursday, December 15, 2016

MRTI Offers Pointless Resolution to Phillips 66.

On December 7, the Presbyterian Mission Agency issued a press release on behalf of the Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) committee of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  Here it is:  They proudly announce that MRTI had “submitted a shareholder resolution to the Phillips 66 Corporation on November 22 urging it to reconsider its investment guidelines as they pertain to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and future projects.”  Well, one might think, “Thank goodness MRTI is on the case!”  

The release then goes on to explain: “At issue with Phillips’ significant investment in the $3.8 billion DAPL project are the environmental and human rights concerns raised by those opposed to the pipeline, including the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.  The pipeline would run near the tribe’s territorial lands and under its waters.”

Then there are a few paragraphs describing what a shareholder resolution is, and so on, followed by some self-righteous, self-congratulatory rhetoric from two members of MRTI, John Hougen and Joseph Kinard.  They point out how splendid it is that we still own stock in this company because now “we know who to talk to” and we can “advocate” with them.  Being in relationship with such companies “creates positive leverage for change.  Kinard even went so far as to compare these efforts favorably with the example of the Lord Jesus, who engaged “people and corporations where they are.”  And Phillips 66 is to be commended because they have been so “willing to engage” with MRTI.

Then we get to read the resolution itself.  It merely asks that the company “prepare a report to shareholders, at reasonable cost and omitting proprietary information, that describes the due diligence process used to identify and address environmental and social risks, including Indigenous rights risk, in reviewing potential acquisitions.”  Then it stipulates what it wants this report to address, mainly that they should say who is responsible for this process, and how they deal with various risks and standards.  They are to indicate whether they have an exit option from the DAPL, and whether they will adjust its policies so this doesn’t happen again.

That’s it.  It does not urge the company “to reconsider” anything.  And this resolution will probably not be addressed until the next shareholders’ meeting sometime in the second quarter of 2017.  That is, before the end of June.

After that all talk about advocating for environmental, human, and tribal rights, and even following Jesus, did we expect the resolution, to be challenging, faithful, prophetic, and specific?  Forget it.  All MRTI is doing is asking the company a few polite questions.  This, apparently, is “engagement.”  It’s about “raising questions.”  We don’t want to jeopardize our relationship, I guess.

Why couldn’t the resolution say: “Phillips 66 will abandon its participation in the Dakota Access Pipeline project”?  Why couldn’t the resolution list the reasons why this project is an assault on God’s creation, deliberately routed around the white people in Bismarck, and thrust into Indigenous land?  Why couldn’t the resolution talk in some specifics about the track record of such pipelines?  Why couldn’t the resolution affirm that we have to leave this oil in the ground for the sake of the planetary climate?

No.  Instead we get: “Which committees, departments and/or managers are responsible for review, oversight and verification?”  Seriously?  

The forces building this pipeline have already announced that they intend to push ahead with this project as soon as they have a friend in the White House.  They’re not going to wait until some shareholders’ meeting.

Then we get to hear from “Rob Fohr, director of the Office of Faith-Based Investing and Corporate Engagement that advises MRTI’s work.”  His contribution is to say that, “We would like to see Phillips 66 lead the way by having the most transparent processes with respect to assessing and disclosing environmental and social risks so that these types of situations can be avoided on future projects.”

Future projects!?  The whole fossil fuel industry is one big environmental and social catastrophe to begin with.  Who cares if Phillips 66 is more transparent with their processes?  How much more transparent can they be?  They’re about making money finding, extracting, transporting, and burning fossil fuels.    

If anything, this press release demonstrates the futility of the MRTI process, and their relationship to this industry in particular.  (Our mission dollars are paying these guys, by the way.)  The General Assembly had a chance to divest from this industry last summer.  MRTI manipulated that process to ensure that we stayed “engaged” with them.  This press release, and the astonishingly ineffective and tepid stockholders’ resolution it promotes, is the result.    

Meanwhile, because we remain engaged, which is to say, benefiting from having stock in these companies, we, the PCUSA, remains part of the problem.  As partial owners of Phillips 66 we are directly responsible for the abomination of this pipeline.  I was bitterly aware of this fact as I stood with over 500 clergy in prayer against the project.  I was on one side of the barricade, but my denomination and my money was on the other side, with the petrochemical industry.

The press release has the gall to conclude by gratuitously, cynically, and inappropriately quoting out of context Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II, as if the tribe itself endorsed the “constructive engagement” option with these companies.  Archambault and his people have known engagement with these companies mainly in the form of water-cannons, rubber-bullets, and dog cages.

The PCUSA needs to move to a “keep it in the ground” strategy regarding fossil fuels, which will necessarily preclude owning stock in them, since it rejects their very mission.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

People of Faith Unite!

Standing Rock Reflection.1

At Standing Rock, we prayed.  The clergy who showed up were wildly diverse, including nearly all kinds of Christians — Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal — along with leaders from Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and other communities.  And of course, we were all invited by the elders of the Sioux tribe, and led by them in their traditional prayer and worship.  It was a broadly ecumenical and widely interfaith assemblage.
We all prayed together at this barricade across Rt. 1806.  On the other side were uniformed, militarized police, there to guard and escort those constructing an oil pipeline cutting a black scar across the landscape.
The distinction could not have been more stark.  On one side, leaders from the united spiritual traditions of the world.  On the other side, the forces of violence in the name of greed.   First, there is violence against the earth, not just in the pipeline, prone as pipelines are to breaking and poisoning land and water, but in the extractive technologies used to get the oil, and the fact that the whole point is to burn it and aggravate the catastrophic warming of the atmosphere.  Second, there is the violence against the native peoples who have lived on this land for untold generations, and who were promised it in several treaties, which were then casually and cynically broken by the government. 
This is the division in the world today.  Any apparent rivalries between religious traditions is insignificant and irrelevant, compared with the fundamental threat we all face from the regime of wanton destruction in the name of profit that now dominates the planet.  We of different spiritual traditions certainly have our disagreements.  But we have in common a spiritual perspective which understands transcendence, value, beauty, and wholeness in creation.  This is denied by forces which basically reduce creation to “resources” to be exploited in order to make investors rich, with no concern for the degradation of the land, water, air, animals, or people.  
In this conflict, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others are united in prayer with Native peoples on behalf of God’s creation.  The creation binds us together, as does our common faith in a spiritual dimension to life.  The enemies of creation are the enemies of all of us, and of the Creator.  
Christians have already seen their once deadly differences mostly dissolve.  At the very least we allow that we all worship the same Lord Jesus Christ.  The time has now come for Christians to recognize and embrace as well the commonality we share with other faiths.  The various religions of the world have more in common with each other than they have with the funders and builders of pipelines.  Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Native Americans, and Christians are not enemies but allies, on the same side of the barricade, praying together.  The real enemy, the real threat to all spirituality, morality, faith, justice, and life itself, is a rapacious, extractive, predatory economic regime based on greed, gluttony, fear, violence, and hatred. 
This means that an assault on one is an assault on all.  At Standing Rock it is the faith of Native peoples that is being attacked.  But where- and whenever spiritual and religious communities are subjected to unfair regulation or harassment, even by governments, or when churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques are actually attacked and burned, we need to realize that this is aimed at all people of faith.


Friday, December 2, 2016

Standing Rock Reflection.2

When I was at Standing Rock, one of the main events was when 500+ clergy gathered around the Sacred Fire for a formal repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery.  This Doctrine is Pope Alexander VI’s 1493 theological rationale for colonialism.  It basically means that the newly discovered continents and their inhabitants were fair game for any kind of predatory exploitation that a Christian nation wanted to exercise.  It is the root reason why companies today think they can do whatever they want with the land and people, especially Native land and people.    
The fact that this pernicious doctrine was promulgated by a Christian leader, adopted by Christian States, rationalized and exploited by Christian churches, and continues to enrich many Christian people is a big problem.  It automatically puts Christians on the side of the petrochemical industry and the government and militarized police they have bought.
The church’s rejection of the Doctrine of Discovery has to be more than making denominational statements and burning pieces of paper.  The same 2016 Presbyterian General Assembly that voted formally to renounce the Doctrine of Discovery, also voted not to divest from the fossil fuel industry.  This means that while I was standing on one side of the barricade blocking highway 1806, my denomination, for all its indignant and righteous words, had its/my money on the other side, with the pipeline builders.  We talk all post-colonialism and anti-imperialism, but our investments continue to underwrite gross injustice and ecological degradation.  Instead of paying attention to the implications of our repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, MRTI chose to cynically manipulate the GA process in the name of Big Oil.  This makes us disgraceful hypocrites.
At some point we as a denomination are going to have to put our money where our mouth is.  Otherwise, all our wonderful talk and inspiring visuals about inclusion and justice will be revealed as little more than window-dressing.


Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Eucharistic Prayer for Advent.

Invitation to the Lord’s Table

This is the holy meal of the future
where we share now
in the life of the One-Who-Is-to-Come,
Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-us.
It is a foretaste of his coming to make all things new.
It is a sign of the way God transforms us from within.
In this sacrament
the One who becomes flesh to dwell among us
becomes our flesh, 
and we become him,
sharing in the divine nature.

This is the Lord’s table.
Our Savior invites those who trust in him
to share in the feast which he has prepared.

Communion Preface

Open our hearts, O God, to your coming.
Broaden our vision to embrace your whole creation.
For at this table we see from the perspective 
of your promised Kingdom of peace,
where violence and inequality are banished,
and all races and nations, families and tongues,
gather in joy.


And so we lift up our hearts, O God,
joining with all your people
of every time and place
in the angels’ song of grateful praise.

Holy, holy, holy….

Eucharistic Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer

God of tomorrow:
daily we pray for the coming of your Kingdom,
when debts are remitted,
wealth redistributed,
reparations made,
and the earth and her people
enjoy a blessed sabbath rest.

You created the universe 
by your overflowing love,
and you declared it all very good.

Your unstoppable love
continued to overflow
until the time came
and you emerged among us
as one of us
in Jesus Christ.
You invite us to place our trust in him
and share in the life of eternity.

As the ultimate expression of love
Jesus gave himself up
to death on a cross
for blasphemy and sedition,
identifying fully with our brokenness and shame.

And your love finally triumphs over death
in his resurrection
revealing our true nature and destiny.
Your love now continues to overflow,
spreading your life over the whole world,
by the power of the Holy Spirit
with, within, among, and around us.  

Send your Spirit, O God, upon us, your people 
whom you call out from the world and gather together,
and upon these holy gifts,
of bread and the cup,
fashioned from the fruits of the Earth,
revealing here and now 
the living and saving Presence of Jesus Christ
with us, within us, around us, and among us.

Let this meal be our medicine,
healing our souls and bodies,
opening our eyes to the truth of your love,
shining in all the world.

O God,
like a mother who will not forget her nursing child,
you love us forever.
And so we are bold to pray in the words Jesus taught us,
saying: Our Father….

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Evergreen Liturgy.

Evergreen Liturgy.

We come to the time of bare trees.
Branches shaking stiffly in the pale air 
and whistling in the cold wind.
The leaves have turned brown and dried up,
falling to the earth,
disintegrating into the soil. 
The trees have gone dormant,
their life hidden within,
waiting for the stronger light of resurrection.
And yet some trees refuse to go into the cold unadorned.
Some trees brazenly shine a continued hope 
into the barren, gray landscape.
Some trees stubbornly stay green
even into the dead of winter.
Some trees refuse to surrender
to a hostile season.
God has placed these trees among us as a sign.
A sign of life.
A memory of warm abundance and joy.
A sign of hope.
An anticipation of spring.
A sign of abiding.
A bold act of resistance.
We call them “evergreen.”

The Light shines in the darkness
and the darkness did not overcome it.
The green persists in the cold
and the cold does not overwhelm it.
The icy darkness of bigotry, vulgarity, hatred, exclusion, and fear
cannot overcome Christ’s warm light of compassion, justice, peace, and welcome.
In the face of a harsh season:
some stay green.
In this season of waiting
as the darkness deepens
as the colors drain from the world
fading into the grays of winter:
We lift up the evergreen.

Pine, fir, cedar, holly, ivy, juniper, hemlock, 
spruce, cypress, rhododendron.
We give thanks to the Creator
for the witness of the evergreens.

We carry springs and branches to the Communion Table.

God of Life and Light:
you fashioned this Earth in love
and placed among us in nature
reminders of your abiding Presence.
Your life shines through your creation
and every living thing points to you.
Your Word echoes in everything you breathed into being.
So today we lift up in recognition
our sister and brother evergreen trees
whom you place among us
as a reminder
that in your economy
nothing is ever lost.
Life always remains.
Love always wins.
Keep us ever green as well, O God,
ever witnessing to the power of your verdant love
shining in all you have made.


Friday, October 28, 2016

Why the PCUSA Needs More, Not Less, "Death Talk."

Death Talk.

The Stated Clerk of the PCUSA, someone I admire immensely, has suggested that Presbyterians need to cut the “death talk.”  By that I think he means the negative predictions of the imminent demise of the PCUSA.  When we talk like this, I suspect what we mean by “death” is a comprehensive collapse into permanent non-existence.  Death here means extinction or annihilation.  
But I wonder if by insisting on understanding death in this way, we haven’t bought into the secular, materialistic, reductionistic way Modern America thinks.  After all, having lost a sense that there is anything transcending this measurable, quantifiable world, we are consequently a chronically death-fearing, death-denying, and death-avoiding culture.  Has this small-minded paranoia entered the minds of Presbyterians?    
Presbyterians — like other orthodox Christians — are not supposed to understand death in this shallow way.  Our faith tells us, first of all, that in the economy of God nothing is ever lost.  This which means that even if the PCUSA ceases to exist as an institution, the mission of God on Earth continues in other ways.  How many of our PCUSA churches have closed… only to reopen to house congregations of other Christian denominations?  Our demise will be sad for us; but God’s mission will continue.
Even more importantly, we confess that death is not an absolute termination, but really the pathway to transformation and new life.  Jesus says a lot of things like "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:24-25).  Then he goes to the cross and dies… and is resurrected three days later.  The apostle Paul talks about resurrection in terms of a transformation that involves some kind of death (1 Corinthians 15:35-57; 2 Corinthians 4:4-14).  The ritual of baptism illustrates this movement through death to new life (Romans 6:3-23; Colossians 2:12).  Dietrich Bonhoeffer said "When Jesus calls someone he bids them come and die."  Above the entrance to one of the monasteries on Mt. Athos, there is inscribed the motto: “If you die before you die then you won't die when you die.”  Finally, we have that well beloved prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi, in which we hear that: "It is in dying that we are reborn to eternal life.”  The heart of Christianity is that there is only one way to resurrection, and it is through some kind of death.  We have to die in order to live.
As long as we keep holding on to the Christendom model of the Presbyterian Church, that is, as long as that particular, temporally conditioned manifestation of the church does not die, we are like the caterpillar who refuses to enter the chrysalis and die to its old self, allowing its new self to emerge.    
The PCUSA is not going to make it through this extended crisis by mere technical or even adaptive change.  In other words, we cannot adjust or reform our way into a restoration of our cultural relevance.  What we become cannot be the result of our reacting to the perceived needs and desires of our “context.”  We’ve been trying that for half a century.  More repackaging isn’t going to cut it.  
The caterpillar does not adapt to its environment; its metamorphosis is a response to the call of the identity and destiny the Creator has placed within it.  Our future will be the fruit of our renewed engagement with the good news of God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ, which is always radically transformational.  Transformation means becoming who we are.
Therefore, we need more “death talk.”  Because only if we take seriously what we have to give up, relinquish, release, let go of, and even kill in ourselves, will we be open to the emergence of what God has placed within us to do.  Frankly, we remain a denomination colored and flavored by the divisive values of Modernity.  We continue largely unconsciously to privilege particular ethnic, ideological, gender, economic, and class identifications.  These biases are deeply embedded in our polity, liturgics, ecclesiology, and theology.
And change is not going to happen from the top down, because the General Assembly, synods, or even presbyteries advocate for it.  Change is only possible when local congregations and individual disciples start realizing the awesome implications of their baptism, that now all of us are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28), in whom God is scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, and sending the rich away empty (Luke 1:51-53).
In other words, what we need is not to adapt, but a radical, thorough repentance which dies to the old so the new — and original — may emerge. 


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

How Spiral Dynamics Unpacks This Election

Spiral Dynamics is a theory that humans and societies grow by stages, each stage more inclusive than the last.  The stages are identified by more or less arbitrarily assigned colors.  Most of the people in America today relate to one of three main stages: blue, which values law, loyalty, conformity, and national identity; orange, which values reason, technical proficiency, and objectivity; and green, which values community, liberty, equality, and solidarity.  

Each stage sees itself as the pinnacle of human development.  People in these stages tend to view people in more inclusive stages as weak, compromised, and idealistic.  They also look at those in less inclusive stages as superstitious savages.  (There are at least two more inclusive stages than these three -- yellow and turquoise -- but few people see from these perspectives right now so they are not politically relevant.  Yet.)    

In our political life we have two main parties.  The Republicans tend to be blue to orange.  In fact this distinction is the major fault line in the party.  The blue people, many of whom have been mobilized by Trump, are about nationalism, tradition, adhering to the rules, and holding to the way things used to be.  The orange people are the free traders, the technocrats, the establishment.  What we are seeing in this election is a veritable war between the blue Republicans and the orange Republicans.

The Democrats tend to be orange to green.  The orange Democrats are the establishment figures like the Clintons.  The green Democrats are about social, economic, and eco justice, and they gather around Bernie Sanders.    

America is basically an orange country, founded on modernist, scientific principles.  I offer a guess that 65 percent of Americans are at the orange stage.  A united orange party would be hard to beat.  Up until now, the vast orange center has been split between the two parties.  They may differ on details, but orange Democrats and orange Republicans share the same basic, pragmatic worldview.  The Republicans have managed to drag along the blue people by feeding them rhetoric about patriotism, guns, and wedge social issues like abortion and Gay rights.  But the orange leadership doesn't really care about these things.  They're all about globalization and making money.   This year we are seeing the revolt of the blues against this hypocrisy.  That's why Trump's people have at least as much ire towards other Republicans as they have towards Democrats.  

I have heard a quip that Republicans fear their (blue) base while Democrats hate theirs (which is green).  Orange Republicans fear their base because they might do what this year they are doing: rebelling.  Blue Republicans see orange Republicans as traitors.  Orange Democrats hate green Democrats because they see them as irrational, sentimental, idealist, idiots who threaten to undermine the rational, pragmatic, incremental progress being made by the leadership.  To orange Democrats, green Democrats are vague and unrealistic.  Cheating to beat them is easy and necessary.

I believe Hillary Clinton will win because she appeals to more of orange than Trump does.  Trump has all but kicked orange out of the party, which is suicide.  

The question then becomes What happens next?  

One possibility is a major realignment, which I predict will fall along the lines of these colors.  Trump's people will form basically blue party of American Values, or something, and advocate for law and order, traditional morality, strong defense, and an affirmation of Anglo privilege.  There are signs that Clinton is reaching out to disgruntled orange Republicans, many of who are tired of appeasing the retrograde blue barbarians of Trump and the Tea Party.  She could work with them to form a National Unity party of orange, all about free trade, Wall Street, growth, and pragmatism.  If she does, the green Democrats will likely feel betrayed and abandoned (they already do), and possibly bolt to form their own Peace and Justice party.  Could we move into 2020 with a three party system? 

If we did, the centrist orange party would dominate.  But only for a while.  (Until the emergence of yellow.  But that's a whole new conversation because yellow is the first integral stage that doesn't reject former stages but sees their value, and doesn't fear new more inclusive stages, but anticipates and nurtures them.)

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.