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