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

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.

Monday, June 18, 2018

PCUSA General Assembly 223 + Day One

Day One.

The highlight of today’s activity at the General Assembly happened at the beginning of the day with a talk by Rev. Liz Theoharis.  Theoharis is the the author of Always With Us?  What Jesus Really Said About the Poor.  She now serves as co-chair with Rev. William Barber II of The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. 
Theoharis spoke with understated dignity as she rattled off horrendous and tragic statistic after statistic concerning the situation of poor people in our country today.  This is epitomized by the current administration’s godless and inhumane policy of forcibly separating parents and children at the border… and then, adding blasphemy to injury, claiming to be following the Bible in committing such an atrocity.  Theoharis wondered allowed what Bible these people are reading.  She skimmed over the social justice emphasis that emerges throughout the Scriptures, from Genesis and Deuteronomy, to Jesus and Paul.  
She brought the good news of the amazing — and wildly underreported — witness being made by poor people and their supporters all over our country in the past few weeks.  She and some of the other people on the stage with her have recently been jailed in protests, experiencing deliberately difficult conditions. 
Poor people are subjected to a variety of catch-22 dilemmas, like when they cut off (or severely overcharge for) your family’s water, and then come to take your children away because you have no water.  So public school teachers specifically instruct children not to tell them if they have water in their homes because the teachers are legally bound to report it.  See how this works?  She mentioned several people whom she knows who lost loved ones to completely preventable and treatable diseases, simply because health care in our country is unaffordable to many.  
There are 140M poor people in America, 75% of whom are women and children.  Fifty percent of the children in this country are poor.  And so on.  None of this is right or moral
Not to have anger over this is to be a soulless trafficker in human misery.
Theoharis was “proud to be PCUSA” because the denomination has exhibited such a commitment to social justice.  It is certainly a plus for us to have her in such a position, next to Barber, whom many consider to be the most important African American leader since Martin Luther King.  
Commenting on her book, she said that “God hates poverty and has commanded us to end it.”  It is not God, but our own “charity” and hypocrisy that ensure that poverty will always be with us.   

I am getting tired of the “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” language clearly being used instead of Trinitarian language.  The triune God does indeed create, redeem, and sustain all things.  But there is no division of labor in the Godhead, as if only the first hypostasis of the Trinity creates.  On the contrary, the Word and Spirit participate in the work of creation.  The same goes for God’s redeeming and sustaining.  These are things accomplished by the triune God, and should not be delegated to only one hypostasis.  The Trinity is one of the central affirmations of Christianity.  It is basically a way of talking about how God is inherently love and relational.  The distinctions within the Trinity have to do with the character of the relationships between them, not the jobs they supposedly do as individuals.  Everything God does, God does as Trinity.  It’s not an assembly line.  

Our Moderatorial elections continue to be spectacles of self-promotion.  At this point this is just part of being a church in American culture, I suppose.  I don’t think we know how to do it any other way.  In my view, wanting this job should automatically disqualify someone from getting it.  As it stands, we have candidates running little “campaigns” for it; “offering themselves” is the least offensive way to spin this.  
A lot of our practice here is based on what I suspect is a misunderstanding of the idea of a “call.”  In a culture as individualistic as ours, we have this fantasy that a call is something that comes directly from God to an individual, in isolation from their community.  Actually, a true call needs not just be ratified or validated by the community somewhere down the line, but needs to come in and through the community from the start.  God’s call is horizontal; it comes through others.  Its “verticality" is communal, it descends, like the Spirit in Acts 2, on all gathered together.  Anyone who imagines God is speaking to them directly and apart from the community probably needs a reality check.  I wish we had a tradition of allowing the Moderator to somehow emerge from the body itself, by the power of the Spirit, without people deciding to put themselves forward.  But to Americans such a concept is almost beyond imagination.
Another thing we are developing is the practice of having “Co-Moderators.”  On the one hand, this mitigates any personality cult focused on a single individual.  It also spreads out the workload in what is now a two-year responsibility.  It is an example of our willingness to do something imaginative and different.
On the other hand, the practice can sour into a kind of “ticket-balancing,” as Moderatorial candidates seek more votes by teaming up with someone from a different demographic.  This kind of scheming can cut both ways.  That is, a worthy candidate may be brought down by their partner.  Voting for a team can also dilute the message and focus that we have when dealing with single candidates.  It remains to be seen how this plays out.    
How can we talk about white privilege and racism without ever using the word repentance?  The answer has to be more than simply conversation and education.  What would repentance look like?