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

Friday, August 24, 2018

Is Jesus the Only Way?

I recently read a story about a Presbyterian seminary graduate who chose not to become a part of the PCUSA denomination because he thinks that in the PCUSA we don’t affirm Jesus as “the Only Way.”  First of all, all the official documents, statements, and confessions of the PCUSA do make this affirmation.  But his complaint was that there are people in the PCUSA who are uncomfortable with calling Jesus the Only Way, and the denomination does not generally ferret these people out, demand they recant, or boot them for heresy.
The people who have this discomfort are mainly reacting to the bad ways such exclusivist claims were used historically.  That is, the affirmation of Jesus as the Only Way has been used to consign to eternal perdition and torment lots of people who did not "accept Christ” as the church presented him to them.  It has been abused as a tool of domination, exploitation, genocide, torture, and conquest.  Since those heathens are going to hell anyway, we might was well kill them and take their stuff, is the argument.  
Some of us have a problem reconciling that kind of self-righteous, self-serving, arrogant, heartless violence with the actual life and teachings of Jesus.  Jesus does say no one comes to the Father except by him, and that those who do not believe in him are condemned.  But what does it mean to “believe" in him?  Who is he really?
I do affirm that Jesus Christ is indeed the Only Way to life and salvation.  What this means first and foremost is that I have to follow him by living according to his compassion, justice, shalom, healing, acceptance, forgiveness, and joy myself.  It would be hypocritical of me to demand that Jesus be the Only Way for someone else, when I am still working so hard to make him the Only Way for me.  Indeed, the better disciple I am, the more likely someone else will be drawn to follow him as well.  The better disciple I am, the less likely I am to act without compassion or forgiveness.
Secondly, the confession that Jesus is the Only Way, far from making us superior, dominant, privileged, and powerful, means just the opposite.  It is about Jesus Christ, who empties himself to give his life for the life of the world.  He rejects power, wealth, and “success” as defined by the world.  To use his name in the service of the domination and exploitation of the earth and others actually comprehensively rejects him and God. 
Finally, I confess Jesus Christ as the bearer and revealer of the True Humanity in which we all share, consciously or not.  The Name of Jesus is the center of my prayer life and spirituality; I do not discount or water-down its importance.  His name is more than some letters, syllables, and words; it is his essence and life which does indeed live in everyone, a truth that even many Christians are unaware of.  We have to be the Name, not just mouth it.
So when someone smugly huffs about how Jesus is the Only Way, I will agree that this is true.  But “Only” is about Jesus’ Way.  The only purpose of life is following Jesus’ Way of compassion for all, not judgment or condemnation.  His Way is the Only Way because when we do follow Jesus our life together in God’s creation is made more secure and fruitful; in him our life opens up to embrace God’s eternity.  


Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Cross Is Inherently Anti-Rome.

There is a lot going on in the New Testament that is not directly expressed in the actual words of the text.  Recent studies reveal that we have largely ignored or been ignorant of a major aspect of the context of these writings: the Roman Empire.  The Empire casts such a pervasive shadow over the text that we rarely if ever noticed it.  But once we notice it, we realize it is everywhere.
For instance, Paul’s writings don’t seem on the surface to be particularly anti-Rome.  But once we understand that crucifixion was a method of execution mainly if not exclusively reserved for political crimes like treason, sedition, terrorism, and anti-Rome activities.  Everyone would have known this at the time.  The gospel writers may have considered it so obvious as to be not worth mentioning.  This means that people would have understood immediately that any claim that a man crucified by Rome was nevertheless now alive, undercuts Rome’s whole strategy to maintain power.  It meant that their application of ruthless terror had failed, and their will controverted. It meant that, according to the graffiti of the day, “Jesus is Lord!” and therefore Caesar isn’t
This is not something that is readily apparent from the text.  Christian interpretation therefore went in different directions over the centuries, bottoming out in the “penal substitution” interpretation in the 11th century.  
Maybe the message of the cross was “an offense to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23) for reasons different from what we normally assume.  I was always taught that this is because they thought the idea of a suffering and dying god was either abhorrent or crazy.  But it is now not at all clear that they did believe that.  Greek gods could and did die.  There is even evidence from Hebrew tradition surrounding the First Temple that the anointed king represented YHWH, yet could, in some sense, die.

  Maybe the offense and folly had more to do with how unwise it was politically to challenge Rome by saying that crucifixion didn’t work in deterring sedition.  Maybe the Jews of the time were offended because, along with being a minority/heretical view of what the Messiah is supposed to do, it also unnecessarily antagonized Rome, with whom the Jews had negotiated a deal for survival.              

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Uzzah Was a Fiduciary.

There’s an obscure story in the Hebrew Bible about a guy named Uzzah.  Uzzah was given the job of escorting the Ark of the Covenant, which was bring carried on an ox-cart into Jerusalem after David conquered the city and made it his capital.  On the uneven road surface the cart was getting jostled around, and, in an act of responsible stewardship to prevent the ark from falling off the cart and possibly smashing on the pavement, Uzzah reaches out his hand to steady it… and God immediately strikes him dead on the spot.
I remember hearing my dad read this story in church when I was a kid.  It flabbergasted and upset me.  Here was Uzzah doing the right thing for the right reason, and getting hammered.  Here was a person being given authority and carrying it out thoughtfully, attentively, carefully, soberly, and reverently, exactly the qualities that I assumed that church was about cultivating in people.  Here was a man protecting what is good an holy from the accidents and liabilities of the world.  And wham!
The story teaches us that we do not protect, manage, control, provide for, or otherwise support God or God’s mission.  It is not our job to shepherd a delicate and vulnerable God through the vicissitudes of a dangerous and unstable world.  God made the world!  We are not called to be responsible for God or God’s mission.  We are not called to build God’s kingdom.  We are called only to get our ego-centric selves out of the way and participate humbly in what God is already doing.  We do not need to worry that it might be God’s purpose to smash the Ark of the Covenant on the pavement in Jerusalem.  If it is, then that is what we need to participate in. 
Under the corrosive regime of Christendom, the church embraced the self-centered, control-freak vocation of Uzzah.  God was treated like our private and personal idol we carried around on our cart pulled by our oxen at our expense, which we had to protect and for which we would receive a great reward if we did.  Our success was when we delivered the cart and its precious contents intact to the next generation so they could do the same.  We called this “responsible stewardship.”  We even have a fancy name for the people charged with this sober task.  We sometime call them “fiduciaries.”
Too often people with this approach adopt an Uzzah-like approach to the church:  they’re trying to protect and support God.  They emote this condescending, patronizing, smug, self-righteous noise about how we need “business acumen” so the church will have a future, and they are just the ones to graciously provide it.  At the same time, the people who are concerned with the actual mission of the church, with discipleship, and with not supporting or profiting from mass, global, murderous evil, get labeled naive and pathetic dupes who just don’t know how the world works, who would not have the luxury of such immature and idealistic views did not their lives depend on the informed and courageous wisdom of the fiduciaries. 
Even worse, people seeking to follow Jesus are called “hypocrites.”  Because if you drive a car, or use plastic, or work on a computer, or drink wine, or “live in a free country,” you are a walking contradiction if you don’t want to invest in the industries that produce these things.  Indeed, you are apparently a misanthrope because you want to "take jobs away” from people who work for these corporations, even if they do damage the earth and its people.  
These days whenever I hear the words “responsible stewardship” I reach for my Bible.  Because I find therein no support for the idea that it is our job to invest the church’s money in whatever industry, no matter how evil its business plan, with only profit in mind.  As if Psalm 119 does not ask to turn our hearts away from gain.  As if Jesus does not repeatedly and consistently preach against wealth, markets, hoarding, and various forms of institutionalized theft.  As if the love of money were not “the root of all evil,” as 1 Timothy says, but the prudent and responsible way to support the church.
Hello!!!?  Does Jesus not say flat out that “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24)?  That seems pretty unambiguous to me.  
However, some appear to imagine that they are, by investing with the sole purpose of making a profit, not, technically “serving” wealth.  They’re not serving it, they’re using it responsibly, is the argument.  Which is semantic nonsense, but it is at least as sincere as Uzzah in their desire to be “helpful,” ie. controlling.  (Richard Rohr suggests that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but control.)  
Jesus’ attitude towards money and wealth is pretty clear: don’t hold on to it, use it for good, share it, give it away to someone who needs it more than you do.  I can maybe see the point to having enough savings for emergencies.  But the practice of investing church resources in the most profitable industries possible no matter how destructive, and then refusing to spend much of it on mission, is contrary to Jesus’ teachings.  


Thursday, July 26, 2018

National Missions.

The church remains subject on many levels to confusion about what it’s mission is.  In the past few decades in the Presbyterian Church, we have seen a division between two understandings.  
One is based on Matthew 28:18-20: “Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”  Some took this to mean “Go out and win souls for Jesus.”

The other focuses on Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus’ long parable of the Last Judgment when nations are assessed according to their service to the needy.  Here’s how it ends:  “‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’  Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”  Some took this to mean “Go out and serve the needy.”

In spite of the obvious fact that the same man says both of these things within a few days, the church has managed to completely miss the point and choose up sides over which one to follow to the exclusion of the other.

But maybe, just maybe, Jesus intends for his church to do both.  Maybe we are to make disciples and serve the needy.  Maybe they are not mutually exclusive, but two sides of the same coin.  Maybe we get people to follow Jesus by serving the needy; maybe we serve the needy by getting people to follow Jesus.  

One of the things both passages have in common is that they concern “the nations.”  In Matthew 28 the nations are the target of Jesus’ mission; in Matthew 25 it is the nations that are judged by their ministry to the needy.  “Nations” (in Greek, ethne) is a term used in the New Testament to refer to the various peoples who had been conquered, subjugated, and colonized by Rome: regional ethnic groups which were repressed by the reigning superpower of the time.   

This undercuts the view that Jesus is not about “politics,” that he was only talking to individuals, which means we have no business extending his teachings into national policy.  Jesus, of course, did not live in a context in which the people had a formal say in government.  Nobody got to vote for the Emperor; Rome was not a democracy.  And certainly he did not start by addressing imperial policy, which would have been pointless and ridiculous.  Yet he is always talking about politics in the sense of how we live and make decisions together.  Jesus gathers communities with specific characteristics like equality, sharing, compassion, welcoming, forgiveness, and healing.  In other words, Jesus advocates the opposite of Roman policy, which was inequality, division, exploitation, and repression. 

So, in Matthew 28 Jesus is saying, in effect, “Go to all these oppressed and exploited peoples and teach them to gather together in alternative communities, to follow my way of service, sharing, and equality.”  And in Matthew 25 he is saying, “In the end, nations will be judged according to how well they implemented my way of service, sharing, and equality towards the needy.”  

In other words, oppressed nations had first to accept their humiliated, conquered, defeated status, and minister then to the victimized and destitute in their own midst.  They had to identify, not with Rome in envy and denial, but they had to see themselves in the needy losers among them.  In this Jesus is just extrapolating on the basic fact of the Hebrew Scriptures, that they were written by and for escaped slaves.  The Bible gives a voice to the lynched, defeated, bereft, and diseased.  If the nations received and adopted Jesus’ teachings and practices, they would thrive and endure.  If they reversed course and sought not to be as strong and violent as Rome, but ministered instead to their own broken siblings, they would have God’s life.  If not, they would burn, as is the sad fate of all societies that do not live by God’s justice.

In light of all this, the mission of the church is focused on discipleship that welcomes and serves, heals and forgives, gathers and sends.  I do not believe we have to choose between conversion to Christianity and merely doing social welfare work.  We have to do both simultaneously.  “Making disciples” does not mean merely getting people to join the church or become Christians; it is to bring people to participate in our work of serving others.  Neither is attending to the needy a spiritually neutral responsibility; it is an expression and reflection of faith in Jesus.  

Finally, it is important to note that the “others” with whom Jesus is most concerned are those who are not regularly served by social institutions.  The nations must have been ignoring “the least of these,” or Jesus would not have brought them up.  Some hurting folks are well-served by our civil institutions already.  We pray for and sympathize with them.  But Jesus calls us to give most of our attention to those others who are not getting help elsewhere.  


Tuesday, July 24, 2018

PCUSA GA 223 + The Last Days.

This Assembly reminds me of the movie, Awakenings.  In that film we see a group of people so mentally ill as to be catatonic and unresponsive.  But due to some new medication, they all wake up and lead normal happy engaged lives… for a short time.  Eventually the medicine stops working and the sink back into their original vegetative state.
The debate on “The Way Forward” was mind-numbingly oppressive, in spite of attempts to make it seem like The Answer to Everything.  As if turning our money over to the purported adults in the room to administer wisely is going to renew and invigorate the whole denomination.  The Way Forward does little more than rearrange the corporate bureaucracy, adding another layer in the process, while taking toys away from the PMA and its board.  (They have still to explain their flushing $2M down the toilet of high priced lawyers for no apparent reason, in the “1001” debacle of 3 years ago, a circumstance which probably more than anything else brought them to this imposition of an ecclesiastical time-out.)
Had there been a real alternative the discussion might have been interesting.  But in a choice between the incompetent PMA and the “new idea” of giving them corporate overlords, the assembly went along with the latter, at least in part out of universal cluelessness and confusion over how this denomination really works.  Or not.

Just as the Lord Jesus says that we may not serve two masters, but must necessarily choose to follow either God or money, this General Assembly is trying to choose between two mutually exclusive “New Ways Forward.”  
One of these ways was in evidence on Tuesday, with the amazing and powerful movement of the Spirit in the march to the jail.  I really thought the new PCUSA was being born there and then.  
But there was always this other putative way “forward,” which is really backward.  That was the drag of gravity and inertia back into a constricted, constipated, complacent, and corporate institution, concerned mainly with nostalgia, quantitative gain, and self-preservation.  
On Thursday, we apparently turned the management of the denomination over to a corporate board of trustees.  This seemed like the only way to solve a protracted and debilitating mess at the top of the bureaucracy.  We are assured that they are only going to allocate resources more efficiently, and that this will set us free to do mission better.  We’ll see.  Fiduciaries tend to focus on profit, in my experience. 
On Friday, however, the Old Way Backward was resoundingly affirmed as the assembly kept a firm grip on its “seat at the table” by retaining its support of, and continuing to profit from, the worst industry on the planet.  Thus it remains the case that the thousands of deaths, the extensive degradation of land, air, and water, the acceleration of destructive climate change, and the radical inequalities, injustices, and disorder that is the essence of the fossil fuel industry’s business plan, remain on us.  
As glorious as it was to be a Presbyterian on Tuesday, it is shameful to be one on Friday.
When this denomination finally folds up and withers with a confused whimper and vanishes into an obscure footnote in church history, let it be known that its ignominious end was guaranteed at 2 pm on June 22, 2018.  For that is when we had the opportunity to turn and follow the Creator, and chose instead to give Jesus the finger and follow the money instead.  We chose the way of the Sadducees, selling our birthright for a seat at their table, and giving a lie to all the now mostly meaningless verbiage of the rest of the meeting.
A lot more ended today.  The once hopeful initiatives like the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and especially the group called Mission Responsibility Through Investment, have lost all credibility.  I remember when these groups were imaginative and radical efforts to bring silenced voices into the conversation.  But now their legacy is the craven and cowardly selling-out to power we saw today.  If it occurs to our new corporate leadership that “adaptive change” means terminating the expensive existence of these impotent entities, that will be fine with me.
In choosing a seat at the table soaked in blood, tears, glacier-melt, and petrochemicals, we have chosen the ideology of lies and scarcity, extraction and colonialism, inequality and extinction over the truth of the gospel.  We have embraced and invested in the Doctrine of Discovery with an enthusiastic vengeance.  
At this point, why should we stop here?  The same arguments we heard today about the fossil fuel industry could be — and indeed once were — made about the tobacco, firearms, and alcohol industries, and companies profiting from the oppression and murder of Palestinians and South Africans.  Why not get ourselves back at those tables while we’re at it?  Indeed, why not invest in pornography, which is apparently really profitable?  Imagine that table!  Since it’s all about the money, why not figure out a way to invest in illegal drug cartels?  
If MRTI et al deign to finally recommend divestment in 2020, it won’t matter.  Their gig is over.
This week we’re talking a lot about “Kindom.”  Apparently, it’s just talk.  In reality we’re with the Empire: Pharaoh, Caesar, and ExxonMobil.

One little but bright light at the General Assembly is that we are now firmly with the Palestinians.  Even something that could be controversial, like the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, was affirmed with such a large majority in committee that it was passed in plenary on the Consent Agenda.  When many on the committee departed for the march on Tuesday, the remaining members managed to insert words critical of Hamas in a resolution on Gaza.  On Friday the plenary resoundingly removed them and made it clear that the massacres of civilians in the permanent siege of Gaza are entirely Israel’s responsibility.  The pro-Israeli lobby doesn’t even bother with us anymore.  
Four short years ago in Detroit this was armageddon.  Today, it’s over.  It was not easy to get here.  MRTI stood in the way for years on this as well, defending the profitability of check-points and the torturing of children.  But we can, apparently, oppose colonialism and apartheid.  So there is that hope.  That we can on occasion follow Jesus, eventually.

Finally, after arguing and fighting over sex for half a century, this denomination has also reached a consensus on that.  Two years ago, when support for same-sex marriage blew through the plenary with a substantial majority, it was clear that we were in a new place.  Votes on these issues used to be hard-fought and razor-thin.
Of course, this happened because the right wing largely departed in many local property battles.  
The question is now what?  In Detroit and Portland it seemed like the next fault line was going to be Israel-Palestine, an issue that split the left.  This year, not so much.
We are a denomination in which most churches are small, but most members are in large churches.  Look for the corporate leadership to ally with bigger, richer congregations.  (Frank Spencer, the President of the Board of Pensions, referencing his preface to the new book by former Stated Clerk, Gradye Parsons, practically proclaimed this strategy as he channelled Steve Jobs in his talk early in the week, after we all dined on steak and salmon.)  
So, I anticipate a wave of small church closures, with the assets going to support the already rich ones.  Expect a wave of mergers, making churches and presbyteries large enough to support corporate staffing models and make hefty per capita payments.  The vision (I guess) is of vibrant large churches as regional hubs of mission.
My fear is that this vision is another manifestation of The Old Way Backward, as we try to resuscitate the corpse of the Christendom model.  For some of us this was exemplified by the Big Presbyterian Church on the Green we still see situated in many towns.  Spencer draws a broad swath from Washington DC to Dallas, insisting that this is the region we need to cultivate since it is growing and people there still go to church.  If this is anything more faithful than mindless and sterile nostalgia for the glory days of the PCUS I will be surprised.
  What this model will do to our diversity is anyone’s guess.  But there is no alternative vision right now.  And we have seen at this assembly what happens when only one solution is presented to a problem.
(But then perhaps there is hope in the multicultural stew that may be beginning to bubble in the Northeast….)              

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Jesus Prayer Finally Shows Up in a Presbyterian Resource.

The new edition of the Book of Common Worship came out a few weeks ago.  On page 448 of the “Daily Prayer” edition is a paragraph called “Contemplative Prayer.”  Here we find the brief text of the classic Jesus Prayer, followed by a succinct history and explanation.

Thus finally emerges, more or less officially, into the Reformed tradition a core practice of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, one that has the power to transform individuals and the whole church.

The Jesus Prayer, in its most common form, has 12 words (in English):  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” 

I have personally used this prayer regularly in my own spiritual life since I discovered it about 40 years ago.  It has been my mantra, my refuge, my lifeline, and my bedrock.  It is the home in which I rest, especially when everything around me is disintegrating.  It is my castle.

There are times now that my mind will clear of the extraneous detritus and chatter, and I will discover the prayer already there, flowing on in some subterranean level of my soul, like a clear stream.  Its flow reassures me of its, and therefore my, ultimate connection to the Sea of God’s infinite compassion.

The prayer is not magic.  It will not protect and preserve one from all confusion or harm.  It hasn’t done that for me, at any rate.  My mortal existence still has many characteristics of a train wreck.  But the prayer sort of functions like the reminder and hope that Jesus gives in the second phrase of each beatitude.  That is where we hear, balancing and blessing the losses and the offerings, about the comforts and rewards of God’s Kingdom.

The prayer is ultimately about mercy.  Not in the sense of a retribution withheld, though there is that, God knows.  But this is more the mercy that spreads like a safety net beneath us all, the outflow of compassion that holds the world in a strong embrace, the divine love at the heart of all things.  

Most importantly, it is not a prayer of lack or scarcity.  It does not ask for something we do not have.  But it asks that I rest in the Truth of a love that is already here and everywhere, but which I usually don’t see.

Finally, the prayer is a repetition of the Name of Jesus.  The shortest version of the prayer is simply that, “Jesus.”  He is the One who embodies and expresses God’s love, pouring it into our hearts by the Spirit.  We are praying for his Presence to awaken within us as our true selves.  We are praying to become who we really and most deeply are, finding our True Humanity in him by his Name.

So, here it is, Presbyterians.  The Jesus Prayer.  It’s the almost absurdly uncomplicated doorway to Life.  Use it.      

Friday, June 29, 2018

PCUSA General Assembly 223 + Day Five.

Day Five.

I got up early on Wednesday to attend the Peace Breakfast, an event which has been happening at GA for decades.  No one really knows how long.  The Peace Fellowship has been around since 1944, though.  I have attended this one every time I have been to GA.  When I started I would sometimes note that I was the youngest person in the room… and I was like 40 something.
This morning I was among the oldest, not just because I have aged, but the room was packed with people in their 20s and 30s.  It was full of good energy, faithful intelligence, brave imagination, and profound love.  What used to be a sleepy, aging, pacifist ghetto, is now near the center of our denominational life.
We gave an award to Rev. Abby Mohaupt, a young pastor who leads a group called Fossil Free PCUSA.  And we heard an incandescent barn-burner of a sermon from former co-Moderator Rev. Denise Anderson.
As her preaching was washing over and through us, it occurred to me that this is what it must have been like in the first century church, with preachers and “prophets” railing against Roman oppression and offering the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the redemptive answer of God to the suffering of the people.  The earliest church, of course, had no New Testament, no set theology, and no detailed doctrinal consensus.  They wouldn’t even have had much Scripture at all.  What they had was the good news of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah who had been executed for sedition by Rome, who nevertheless did not stay dead, but continued to live in and among his disciples by God’s Spirit.  This is the core message the church had.  This is how the church grew.  
But if people are not sharing a common bad experience of the predatory and extractive Empire, if indeed people are enjoying privilege and power in that Empire, such a message is not going to inspire hope, but fear: fear of losing the status, stability, safety, and security that accompany loyalty to the Empire.  
The Lord Jesus would have us identify with the members of the oppressed ethne, the nations conquered by Rome.  If we don’t understand ourselves to be among the disenfranchised, defeated, disinherited, discredited, and discarded, the gospel is not going to make much sense to us.  We would have to invent a different gospel, one that privileges the wealthy and powerful, and can be pressed into service in the name of social stability and enforcing the economic and political status quo.       

The highlight of the afternoon plenary session was the beginning of the long process to include Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” in our Book of Confessions.  We want to place such courageous words at the core of our identity, and this is a very good thing.  We had the obligatory debate about whether this is formally a confession or something else, and whether it should be in a different category, but still in the book.  I heard no argument against including it somewhere and somehow.  In the end, they left it up to the regular process we invoke for such documents, which is careful and lengthy.
One of the frustrating things about General Assembly is the propensity for making grandiose pronunciamentos about the issues of the day, which sound really good, but have very little traction in our actual life.  At worst, they purport to instruct the government about what to do, while ignoring the fact that the church itself continues to do the very same things.  (Plus, the government, especially the current one, is long past caring what we think about anything.)  
Today the assembly approved high-sounding words once again rejecting The Doctrine of Discovery, the 15th century declaration by one of the worst Popes ever about how Europeans could carve up the newly discovered lands in the Western Hemisphere as they saw fit.  The Doctrine continues to be legal precedent in the USA, which should surprise no one.  The Doctrine of Discovery is truly execrable and evil; rejecting it is something we should have done centuries ago.  But it didn’t even occur to us until recently.  
I doubt if we are fully aware of the consequences of rejecting it.  We will see this tomorrow when the assembly will affirm its actual participation in the Doctrine by a rather large majority.  So we reject it verbally, but we are fine with continuing to propagate it and especially profit from it. 
We are failing to realize the pervasiveness of The Doctrine of Discovery as the very foundation of our whole nation and economy.  Like true Protestants, we assume that because we say something we have actually done something.    
What about land stolen from Native peoples?  What about the resources within and under that land?  This has to be more than simply proclaiming that the Doctrine was a Bad Thing.  We continue to enjoy the benefits, and others continue to suffer the liabilities, of this legal atrocity.  This assembly will have opportunity to put some teeth in its rejection of this Doctrine.  It will fail to do so.  It will take the money instead.


Thursday, June 28, 2018

Christians and the Law.

Recently I have been involved in some conversations about law.  Some folks are of the opinion that somehow our national laws are above mere politics.  They should therefore be enforced as vigorously and pitilessly as possible.  This is particularly the case when the laws are aimed at people they hate and fear, like immigrants and refugees today.

In defense of this rather high view of law, they will attempt to drag in the Bible on their side, as if the Bible were all about our duty to obey and rigorously enforce the laws of the State.   The passages usually cited in this argument are Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17.  Some seem to believe that ripping these passages out of context and injecting them into a discussion automatically terminates all disagreement.  As if God has now spoken conclusively and categorically, and now we have no choice but to submit.

But context is important.  In fact, context often determines meaning.  The actual situation in which words are uttered or written matters.  To ignore the historical context is to unconsciously impose the reader’s own context on the text.  

In the 1st century, the church was a tiny, oppressed community trying to survive in a hostile empire.  Christians refused to worship the Roman emperor, which made their movement inherently and necessarily illegal to begin with.  The kind of advice the apostles give in passages like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 is that followers of Jesus should not make unnecessary waves that would make the authorities to take notice of and come down on them.  (Just like the parents of African American boys have to teach them to be particularly respectful and cooperative in any encounter with police.)  It is more a matter of acting as if the State were doing its job of maintaining order and justice, even when it isn’t. 

So these passages do not in any way legitimize Roman law or authority that at the time was engaging in active persecution of the church, a persecution which would dramatically intensify in the next couple of centuries.  They certainly should not be taken to mean that Christians must disobey Jesus' explicit teachings in order to obey Roman law.  That would have been to make Jesus subject to the State.  It would have been the death of the church.  That would be to reject the sacrifice of countless martyrs who refused to obey the laws of evil powers.  The idea that the apostles would have us keep every law promulgated by the State, no matter how destructive or wrong, is therefore ridiculous.  Indeed, the very men who wrote this advice for the church, Peter and Paul, were also both, like Jesus himself, executed by the State for being incorrigible law breakers.

Should Christians in the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany have submitted to those legally constituted authorities and participated in the evil they were doing?  Should Christians renounce their faith in countries where Christianity is against the law?  Should obedience to the laws of any State take precedence in the life of a disciple over the teachings of Jesus?  Of course not.  

When the State makes and enforces laws that transgress God’s law, revealed in Jesus Christ, Christians have an obligation to resist and even break those laws, accepting the consequences for doing so.  When the State concocts laws contrary to God’s will, and then enforces them with mindless ferocity, Christians are called upon to side with Jesus, who sides with the oppressed victims of such laws.

Passages like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 do not demand that Christians compromise their discipleship in order to uphold State law.  Rather, they call upon the State to live up to God’s vision of peace, and become worthy of people’s obedience. 

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.