Faith & Politics

donkeyelephantcrossChurches everywhere need help with faith and politics these days.  On the one hand, partisan perspectives seep into our faith communities without us looking.  There’s really nothing we can do about it.  The animosity between “liberals” and “conservatives” is part of our culture.  (I put them in quotation marks to remind us that these are labels, not people.)   It’s impossible for “independents” and “centrists” to even state their politics without them.  The opposition inherent in partisanship defines how people speak, think, and interpret any political statement or issue.  It’s nearly impossible to navigate faith and politics without it.

Pastors and leaders can try to mitigate the tensions by reminding members to leave politics out of the pews and pulpit.  They can try to keep church a safe place, reminding parishioners that the Gospel is neutral or knows no single party.   And, to some degree, this is partially right.

The Gospel doesn’t align with any one party or political ideology exclusively.  One way to interpret the history of Israel in the bible is to see it through this lens.  Proper worship and faithfulness to God’s covenant can’t be reduced to one form of rule or ruler.  Likewise, to allow God’s Word or will to be reduced to any one party, candidate, or ideology is equally objectionable.  It would amount to idolatry.

The second commandment is clear that we’re allowed no images or representations for God…as if they were God.   The effect of this commandment is far reaching.  For people of faith, there no place the prohibition of images makes more sense than in the realm of politics.   It holds theological truth and wisdom.  No idea, image, or representation of God can replace the mystery of God and humility before faith in a living God.  Reducing proper worship of God to belief in a political party, candidate, or ideology ultimately betray God and the heart of faith.

faithpoliticsscreenshotOn the other hand, no disciple of Jesus can cooperate with the belief that the Gospel is not political.   This is simply wrong scripturally, theologically, and historically.   The Gospel is political and always was.  Christianity has much to repent for in its politics.  But, simply erasing its political dimensions and calling is not acceptable or desirable.  The deep mystery of Christian spirituality and truth of faith in Christ only make sense when understood in political terms.  Faith and politics are something every Christian must wrestle with like Jacob and the angel (Genesis 32:22-31).  Jacob emerged from this wrestling as Israel, the name given to the people of God.  (He was also in a bit of pain.)   Faith cannot escape its relationship with politics, and it shouldn’t try.

There is great temptation in Western Christianity to “spiritualize” faith, which essentially has meant to erase its concrete political, economic, and social meaning.  But, this is nearly impossible.  Terms like “Lord,” “Kingdom of God,” “Prince of Peace,” even “Christ” make little to any sense without understanding them in their historical political context, and understanding them explicitly as political terms.

The term politics is related to polis, which is the ancient Greek term for the city-state.  This is where the term get its meaning for belonging to a people and land, and living under a rule or form of governance.  Western politics is deeply influenced by political concepts that permeate biblical scripture such as the rule of law, sovereignty, and freedom.

The question is not whether Christian faith is political.  Rather, the question is how is it political.  What kind of politics does God require?  What kind of politics does the Gospel make possible?  holy_week How do we interpret the Gospel’s invitation to live under the Lordship of Jesus as our true ruler and King?  How do we interpret scripture regarding the purpose and fulfillment of creation – including all human relationships?  What does Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection as Christ reveal to us regarding the way Christ’s community worships, lives, witnesses, and engages the world around it?   These questions go to the heart of the Gospel and its politics.

Ultimately, answers to these questions are not finally answerable.  What I mean is that these are not abstract questions with answers that are frozen – once and for all – in time.  Rather, these faith questions are essential for any disciple.  Asking them and answering them is a faith-task that is ongoing.

Any church that proclaims Jesus Christ or his community on earth must ask and answer these questions as a simple matter of discipleship.  In addition, Christians must ask them and answer them in the context in which they live their faith.  Political issues surround us, which call for the church’s witness.  The church must live out its own unique politics where it is.  This is the call of the Gospel and Christian discipleship: to be Christ’s community in the world and witness to what God has made possible in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In the end, faith is not separate from politics.  Quite the contrary, they two are intimately related to one another.

Christ’s community is called to cultivate its own politics.  The church’s politics will be unique and related to, but ultimately different from, the world around it.  Why?  The church’s politics are founded on its best understanding of the Gospel.  The Gospel, simply put, is the God’s revelation of love and grace for the world  (this world).  This is the proclamation of the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ.  In him, all can be reborn to see the truth of themselves, what new is life possible, the fulfillment 0f creation and reconciliation of human relationships.   This is the Kingdom of God’s love and justice which the world has yet to fully know.

In addition, the church’s witness of faith draws it into the world of politics.  In other words, God’s love for the world draws Christ’s body today into the world’s political issues.  This includes its partisanship with all its tensions.  Here, the church’s call is to the witness of Christ’s peace and justice in the work for a new humanity.  This means the transformation of human relations and communion with the earth.  In Christ, ethnic and racial differences, differences in station or class, even gender and sexual differences are no longer (Galatians 3:23-29) decisive.  Likewise, partisan differences aren’t either.

What is decisive is the world God has made possible.  For the prophets, just like for Christians, that has everything to do with politics.  If Christian faith means anything today, it will find its expression in human politics.  That’s the call and witness of the Good News.

A Walk with Jeremiah 5.1

IMG_444149099In Chapter 5 of Jeremiah, the central theme moves from grief to judgment.  There is a sense Israel and Judah are on trial.  The emotions of anguish and anger that seem to drive chapters 1-4 begin to distill to negotiation and reason.  There’s a reason to be angry.  Again, theology – or making sense of God – accompanies makes sense of circumstance.  The Book of Jeremiah was likely compiled while God’s people were already in Babylonian exile, as a witness and memory for the nation.  In other words, it was compiled not in real time but after the fact.  This means, the compilers have to make a sense of the people’s fate.  Jeremiah’s prophecies, in this context, make perfect sense.  He was right. It makes sense that Israel and Judah fell and were plundered because the nation had become corrupt.  Verse 1 comes right out and says it:

“Search its squares and see if you can find one person who acts justly and seeks truth—so that I may pardon Jerusalem….How can I pardon you?  (Vs 1, 7)

The theological thinking of Jeremiah’s time doesn’t differ too much from the logic driving public opinion today.  Who would worship a god that allowed the corrupt, unjust, and willfully arrogant to prosper at the expense of the poor, the disadvantaged, and basic human fairness?  Who would vote for a politician who would do the same? Should those with willful disregard for the law, others, and basic consequences reign unchallenged?  This seems the issue.

“When I fed [your children] to the full, they committed adultery and trooped to the houses of prostitutes.  They were well-fed lusty stallions, each neighing for his neighbor’s wife.”  (vs 7-8)

“They have spoken falsely of the Lord and have said, “He will do nothing.  No evil will come upon us, and we shall not see sword of famine”  (vs 12)

For scoundrels are found among my people; they take over the goods of others.  Like fowlers they set a trap; they catch human beings.  Like a cage full of birds, their houses are full of treachery; therefore they have become great and rich, they have grown fat and sleek. They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy.  Shall I not punish them for these things?”  (vs 26-29a)

Apparently God is neither abusive nor vengeful at this point, at least not in the prophet’s mind.  Israel and Judah can lay their fate at the feet of God.  God has done what was justifiable.  The nation, or at least a critical mass of its people, had become deeply corrupt.  Of course, the tragedy of corruption is that it makes victims at the moment of its inception, regardless of later actions.  This is where God becomes grieved and, as a God of Salvation, must make sense of it all. This is the prophet’s job. Jeremiah testifies of a God that is Holy, even beyond reproach.  But, Israel’s God is not the kind of God to act flagrantly or take advantage of the fact.  At least politically, God’s actions are metered and reasonable.  The prophet opens us up to the logic of it all.

“Shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this?” (vs 29b)

on trial (2)We don’t have to let the question sit there, as if it’s rhetorical.  We can answer it with good theology and our personal perspective.  But, if we judge God harshly, let us also judge ourselves.  Let us judge our nation, its own sense of justice, our own sense of retribution, our own limits of tolerance and intolerance, and do so with the same judgment we judge the God of Jeremiah.  Consider your position on war, the role and use of violence, and the death penalty.  Perhaps, you believe an eye-for-an-eye.  Perhaps, you believe in justice and mercy, basic fairness and compassion.  If so, do not forget its cost.  Otherwise, we risk being just romantics.

A Walk with Jeremiah, 4.1

IMG_443980114I grew up hearing all the concern about the Old Testament’s angry and vengeful God.  This is certainly an important theological question.  Theology should be questioning the nature of God.  With all the emphasis on power and authority among many Christian preachers and believers, the nature of that power and authority is also important to consider.  Who wants to worship a God who threatens you whenever He doesn’t get what he wants?  (This kind of of God is almost always, certainly, a “He.”)

But, if one actually spends time with Old Testament scriptures, one can read the prophet’s encounter with God a different way.  This is the reading I’ve been searching for, and am finding.  Chapter 4 of Jeremiah is a good example of what I mean.

Sometimes, our wrestling with God’s anger is not about wrath or punishment.  It’s about natural or reasonable consequences.  As human beings, no one is so free, so entitled, or so endowed that they are exempt from life’s consequences – earned and unearned.  We reap what we sow.  And, often, we aren’t aware of all that we sow because we are not mindful of how deep our actions shape our world.  Verses 18-19 paint such a picture.  God says,

“Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you, this is your doom; how bitter it is!  It has reached your very heart.”

And, God speaks of himself.

“My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain!  Oh, the walls of my heart!  My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war.”

Israel and Judah are recounting their conquer and invasion.  They are remembering the events that lead up to their exile from the promised land.

griefThis is the question:  After release from Pharaoh, generations in the desert, God’s covenant with us and Solomon’s Temple, how does a nation – a people! – make sense of their own disaster and ruin?  This seems like an everpresent, relevant, and legitimate question.

There is an answer.  In the time of the prophets, the people believed what happened on earth reflected the realities of heaven.  If there was famine, God withheld the rain for a reason.  There was some divine cause.  A relationship was broken.  If there was war, those who occupied the heavens were also at war.  Faithful and more powerful God’s prevail.

What’s going on in heaven when Israel and Judah are conquered?  Prophetic theology provides an explanation.

“For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding.  They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good… Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black; for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.”  (vs 22, 28)

If we read flatly, God is just punishing Israel and Judah.  This is natural to believe because the ancients believed God was the protagonist of history.  God propelled time’s events.  However, if we appreciate that theology makes sense of circumstance, we can appreciate a richer, more relevant and provocative interpretation for us today.  As human beings, no one ever grows so free, so entitled, so powerful, or so endowed that they are exempt from life’s consequences.  Would that be just?   Are some more entitled to grace and fortune that others?  Should we not reap what we sow?  Perhaps, something in Israel and Judah had gone off the rails.  Perhaps, there was injustice, growing inequities, and many people’s hearts were turning away from the Law which taught truth, justice, equity, and peace.

Perhaps talk about an angry God is talk that tries to make sense of all this.  Perhaps it’s an attempt to put reason to what has come to seem unreasonable.  Perhaps the role of the prophet is to find God midst God-forsakenness, social brokenness, and pain.

A Walk with Jeremiah 3.1

IMG_443463605If I continue to look through the lens of grief between estranged lovers, Jeremiah chapter 3 reads like a grief process.  There’s anger over betrayal, as well as the bargaining associated with coming to terms with a loss.  The bitterness comes through naming Israel’s and Judah’s whoredom.  Whoredom is the main theme of the chapter.  Jeremiah begins there:

“If a man divorces his wife and she goes from him and becomes another man’s wife, will he return to her?  Would not such a land be greatly polluted?  You have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me?” (vs 1)

Interestingly, the Tanakh adds the nuances of the Masoretic text, the authoritative text Rabbinic Judaism, “Saying, If a man divorces his wife” or “I have to say, if a man divorces his wife.”   This nuance helps remind us that the prophet, speaking for God, is thinking in metaphor.

The metaphor is riddled with patriarchal assumptions, however, and that is disturbing.  It’s not that God isn’t Holy, nor that God should be wholly understandable.  Our relationship with God is not.  The problem is that the patriarchy of the metaphor is so understandable.  Is God really ranting like a schmuck who lost his lover to another man?  Should I hold God to a patriarchal male standard, as if God’s a man’s man who always gets what he wants?  Is God the head of household who should be able to control his woman, his personal possession?  Or, is God lost in grief for the conditions of the people, with little means to express it?  Is the text grasping at ineffable, unspeakable mourning.

The reader has to critically think, listen to the text by dwelling with it, and decide.

God obviously wants reconciliation.

“I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.” (vs 15)

Maybe its a matter of God bearing more of God’s heart.  Maybe Israel’s and Judah’s infidelity to God is a matter of nurturing and ignorance, or lack of understanding.

What’s going on with us when we lose our hearts to lesser things?

No matter the reason or explanation (as if true love often has any), the grief process moves to deeper understanding.  Both God and Israel (along with Judah) are suffering in shame.  The prophet speaks the voices of both God and Israel in chapter 3.

“I thought you would call me, My Father, and would not turn from following me.  Instead, as a faithless wife leaves her husband, so you have been faithless to me.” (vs 19b, 20)

gratitudeThe reality of the situation is also becoming apparent to Israel.

“Let us lie down in our shame, and let our dishonor cover us; for we have sinned against the Lord our God, we and our ancestors, from your youth even to this day; and we have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God.”  (vs 25)

Perhaps the parent-child metaphor is better.  Both father-child relationships and bride-bridegroom relationships are haunted by patriarchal assumptions.  But, the parent-child relationship can be more inclusive, and it explains the relentless presence of grief much better.

Having a child is like having your heart run around outside yourself.

A Walk with Jeremiah, 1.1

IMG_443023954For the next little while, I plan to be reading Jeremiah.  I’m doing it for my own study.  My plan with this blog is simply to post simple reflections based on my reading.  At this point, I don’t plan this to be an in depth academic study, but more impressions and reflections.  At times, I may input commentary information or wonder off in a long thought about something.  But, overall I simply hope to jot down the passages, themes, metaphors, and impressions that come to the surface.  I hope, for someone, the reading is worthwhile.

Chapter 1

The first chapter covers Jeremiah’s call and commission as prophet.  Thinking about it from an experiential point of view, verses 4-5 and 17 stick out.

vs 4-5:  Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

vs 17:  But you, gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you. Do not break down before them, or I will break you before them.

Feel the contrast.  At first, we read of God’s providence and Jeremiah’s call.  There is a sense of fate in Jeremiah’s calling.  “I’ve consecrated you”; “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.”  These sentences parallel lines of Psalm 139.  Read the comforting verses of Psalm 139:13-14

13For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.

These passages early in Jeremiah easily leave me with a feeling that Jeremiah was destined to be God’s prophet and mouthpiece.  He will successfully speak for God to the nations.  God’s intentions give a sense of security and assurance.  But, by the way:  “Don’t break down before them, or I will break you before them.”

Like a gut punch.

Most of us, today, probably want to run to the gentle Santa Claus God we often don’t intend, but inadvertently create with our expectations.  We don’t want to feel uncomfortable when we think of God, or fear God’s presence.  We don’t know what to do with a God who threatens.

This mix of promise and warning, of assurance and terror, seems to characterize all of the prophets.  It’s, as if, a life with God is a life at stake.  Things matter with God, especially when involving the lives of people.  Maybe there’s good reason for God to feel a bit a pressure.  Maybe God’s hearing cries of anguish and suffering, the way Exodus describes.  Maybe God sees injustices that would anger anyone.  Maybe God needs Jeremiah for a reason.

Worlds problemsAll awhile, we take the line out of context – “Don’t break down before them, or I will break you before them.”  Like relentless movie critics, we turn our attention on God’s personal character and judge with our middle-class social expectations.

Instead, I remember my own reactions to what I think are injustice. I remember what I think when I feel indignation, and feel the pressure to make a difference.  Perhaps, circumstances dictate that God needs Jeremiah.  Or, the writer of Jeremiah needs God to make a difference, so s/he invests God with power.  I’m not sure we can know.

But, the mix of warning and promise is familiar.  It’s reminds me of taking life seriously.  When I watch the news today, my own thoughts move from anger to hope.  Maybe, that’s what Jeremiah is dealing with.

Christian Freedom, or Love

This longish post was written after a painful argument with a loved one.  Hurting, I went searching for what love meant in my context.  I felt the need to take care of myself, which may mean ultimately closing myself off to this person.  My soul searching came through this reflection and reminded me about what love is, and what being free to love really means.  That’s true freedom.  And, without God, for me it’d be impossible.

If you want to understand the freedom Christ offers, turn to Galatians 5.

Of course, there is more to a Christian understanding of freedom than one chapter of Paul’s writings.  Paul expounds on freedom in relation to the law much more in Romans.  More importantly, you can’t really understand freedom in Christianity without, first, spending time with the importance of freedom in Judaism.  The Exodus and the prophets’ word to the Jews in exile provide a much-needed backdrop to understand the depth of freedom as a central theme of Old Testament and New Testament theology.  But, taken in one sitting, Galatians 5 provides quite a bit on its own for what freedom in Christ means.  That’s what I write about.

Of course, for Paul, real freedom begins in Christ.  It begins in Christ’s relationship to the law.

Paul’s understanding of the law and Christ is among the most important themes in Christian theology, especially Protestant theology.  Paul first talks about this in Galatians 5.  Paul is writing to a group of early Christian converts who apparently adopted or began teaching that you need circumcision to become a disciple of Jesus Christ.  To know Paul is to know that Paul vehemently opposes this.  Moreover, his opposition to it is central to understanding Christianity for Paul.

Understanding the tension between Christ and the law is necessary to rightly interpret Paul’s opposition of flesh and spirit which follow.  From these tensions rise life in the Spirit and Christian freedom.  What makes Paul’s message so enduring and relevant today is that he knows “the flesh” can not only enslave us by consuming our heart’s desires.  The selfishness of “the flesh,” for Paul, can also consume religion.

For Paul, freedom begins in liberating us from the requirements of any outward law.  Paul’s point comes together in verses 1, 3, and 5.

For freedom Christ has set us free… I testify to every person who lets themselves be circumcised that they are obliged to obey the entire law…[but] in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.

Here is the kernel of the whole chapter.  Paul is writing to a community of the earliest Christian converts.  Unlike Paul, many early evangelists of Christ’s message taught that to accept the good news and follow Christ, one first be circumcised.  After all, Jesus was a Jew.

For Paul, circumcision entwines someone in the whole of the law and its requirements.  Circumcision is the outward sign of the Abrahamic covenant, from which everything follows.  This meant Gentiles had to submit to circumcision and observe the law in order to receive and follow Christ.  Paul is a Pharisee, a devout Jew.  Ironically, he sees this as completely backwards.  It’s even opposed to Christ and the good news he brings.  For Paul, Christ liberates us to something else – life in love for others and the Spirit.  This is what Paul seeks to single out and life high above all else.

Freedom in Christ does not point to ourselves, whether it’s our own justification, selfish wants, or self-righteousness.  This is where Paul’s judgment on the fruits of the law is so total and profound.  The 613 laws of the Torah were never intended to self-aggrandize the Jews or the individuals who followed them.  Quite the opposite:  The law pointed to honoring and remembering God in all things.  The Law taught to a life of disciplined devotion and humility, self-restraint and sacrifice (literally and otherwise), hospitality to the stranger and love of neighbor.  It is these fruits of following the law that Paul wants to recover.   However, the logic and purpose of the law had become something else.

What Paul could not allow was any self-justification or self-righteousness before God and neighbor.  Nothing could be more antithetical to Christ and what Christ had done.  But, this is precisely what the law had become, especially by separating the righteous and sinner.   If separation and self-righteousness had become the essence of the law, Christ had totally overcome it for Paul.   For Paul, in Christ, Love of God and neighbor became the one overarching gospel that relegated and overcame all others requirements.  This Spirit testified to it.

Verses 4 and 5 make Paul’s judgment of the law clear.  He writes,

“You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.”

Clearly, righteousness no longer comes from the law for Paul.   It comes from grace, through Christ, and by the Spirit.

Faith, therefore, points someone’s trust beyond the law, beyond any justification or self-righteousness that can be outwardly judged or self-expressed.  Faith is required because in Christ, there is freedom.  Love is the eternal law.  Paul reminds us of the original purpose of the law in verses 13 and 14.  He says,

“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become servant to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Any selfish use of the law for justification or self-righteousness is a perversion.  Love is the whole law, its requirement and commandment.  Outward fulfillment of the law can lead to self-righteousness.  The separation of self-righteousness does not justify.

By distinguishing the law and Christ, Paul theologizes the opposition of flesh and the Spirit.  The opposition of flesh and Spirit is the next step to understanding the freedom Christ offers.  But, it is easily misunderstood and misconstrued.

GalatiansThe Spirit opposes the flesh in the same way Christ frees us to move beyond justification of the law.  If God’s law can become a tool of separation, self-justification and self-righteousness, then it is no better than any other selfish work or way of life.  In such a community, the love between self and neighbor is distorted and grace-less.  This is what happens with religion becomes self-righteous or a religion of separation and justification.  Only life in the Spirit frees us from this kind of life to love God, self, and neighbor.  God in Christ reveals to us what love and self and neighbor really is.  This was the intention of the law and the message of the prophets.  It is now fulfilled in Christ.

As a matter of illustration, Paul goes on to provide a list of works of the flesh.  It’s a list of rather negative stuff.  What qualifies everything on the list is not that they are all sensuous, bodily, or break some religious moral rule.   Rather, every work of the flesh Paul lists is selfish or self-indulgent.  Works of the flesh serve immediate desires, our selfish reactions, and outward judgments of ourselves and others.  Paul suggests that these are not where the Kingdom of God is at.

In contrast, Paul also provides a list of fruits of the Spirit.  They include love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  What is obvious about this list is that everything on it moves us beyond our immediate wants, reactions, and outward judgments.  Moreover, these fruits are cultivated by loving ourselves and others.

What’s most profound about this list – from a religious standpoint – is these things are good beyond any law or requirement.  These fruits are good in and of themselves.  Paul is explicit:  “There’s no law against these things.”  This is life in Spirit.  We are free from any need for self-justification, religious requirement or constraint.  Life in the Spirit is possible because of God’s grace.  This is what we see in Christ.

This life is the freedom Christ offers.

Day 4 – Teaching Peace in the 21st Century: Peace Programs, Promotion, and A CofC Proposal

Today, we began with presentations by Ernesto Verdeja and Susan St. Ville.   Ernesto is the Director of the Undergraduate program in Peace Studies here at the University of Notre Dame.  Susan is Director of the MA in Peace Studies Program.  Both were helpful for navigating curricular questions and educational objectives of Peace Studies programs.

A significant difference between graduate and undergraduate programs in Peace Studies at Kroc is attention to methodology.  Peace Studies is interdisciplinary, which means that methodologies specific to a variety of disciplines – political science, social sciences, history, as well as qualitative and quantitative research methods – inform the discipline and shape the knowledge of peace studies.  In addition to its interdisciplinary nature, peace studies equally values practice.   Peace studies aims at effective practice for peace as well as is informed by practice for its theory.  Reflective practice, informed by pragmatism and developed by Donald Schon, is one important method for peace studies for practitioners at the graduate level.

In the afternoon, I spent time in a session learning more about the Catholic Peacebuilding Network (CPN).  Jerry Powers, Coordinator of CPN, led the session.
CPN is a network of academics and practitioners who seek to enhance the Catholic church’s unique role in peace building in the world.  Leading projects and coordinating conferences, CPN enables a rich network of global academic, financial, and ecclesial resources to address conflict and peacebuilding in troubled parts of the world.  The church’s unique capacity to affect peacebuilding at multiple levels – locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally – makes it an important tool for peacebuilding.  In addition to the practical, CPN also develops the church’s theology and ethics of peace.   I was very interested in a recent publication that Jerry helped edit, Peacebuilding: Catholic Theology, Ethics, and Practice, which included essays from among the finest Catholic scholars.

Temple (lg)At the end of the day, Priscilla Eppinger presented our (Priscilla’s, Tony Chvala-Smith’s, and myself) work product from the week.   It is a working proposal for a Masters in Community, Justice, and Peace available through the Community of Christ Seminary.   The vision of the program integrates our strengths: a foundation in scripture and theology, study in theory and practice of peace studies, along with content in areas of practical peacebuilding and justice-making in an online format.  While its clear that several factors must come together to make such a degree possible, the aim of our work is response to the call to “equip people of all ages to carry the ethics of Christ’s peace into all arenas of life.”  (Doctrine & Covenants 163:4c)  This week with the scholars/practitioners at the Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies at Notre Dame and United States Institute of Peace has been integral for providing the guidance, relationships, and expertise to craft this possibility and see it possible.  We are certainly not alone in this calling and must join those already at work in the field.

Thanks to both Graceland University and Community of Christ for making this week for Priscilla, Tony, and myself possible.

Day 1 – Notre Dame: Teaching Peace in the 21st Century, Summer Institute for Faculty

Today was my first day at the Teaching Peace in the 21st Century, Summer Institute for Faculty hosted at the Hesburgh Center for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.  Our host is George A. Lopez, who is Professor of Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute and Vice President and Director of the Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington, D.C.   I’m hear with Community of Christ Seminary faculty, Priscilla Eppinger and Tony Chvala-Smith.

The purpose of our visit is to learn.  President of Community of Christ, Steve Veazey, met George A. Lopez at the US Institute of Peace, who invited us to participate.  The Community of Christ is called to peace.  Its Temple in Independence is dedicated to the pursuit of peace, reconciliation, and healing of the spirit.  Our visit is exploratory, to seek opportunities for connections and learn from scholars from others Peace Studies programs, to cultivate ideas and perspective about possible peace studies curriculum for Community of Christ Seminary and Graceland.

Today was orientation and introductions.  George Lopez gave two helpful presentations introduction to Peace Studies as an interdisciplinary and changing field of study, education, and action.   After dinner, we received a presentation on the History and Changing Themes of Peace Studies.  Both presentations offered practical advise and an outline of key components for developing Peace Studies programs, from undergraduate minors to masters level.

My goal is to chronicle key insights from the day.  Below are three things that I think stuck out as both insightful and critical areas for me/us to consider.

1. In developing a Peace Studies program or curriculum, integrate both your institution’s identity and mission.  Be able to express to students, administrators, and faculty what Peace Studies is, what the program’s purpose is, and why it reflects (or is essential) to your institution’s overall mission and educational goals.   Connecting your program to your institution’s mission and community is important.

2. Identify the academic niche your program offers.  Peace Studies is a challenging, interdisciplinary, and changing field of study.  It must include research, educational, and action-oriented components.  What is unique about your programs’ approach, emphases, and/or understanding of peace studies?

3. Take advantage of your faculty’s interests and strengths.   Because peace studies is a large interdisciplinary field, it is often difficult to find a focus.  But, it also means an entire university can be deployed in research, teaching, and developing aspects of peace studies at your college/university.  How do the sciences, economics, literature, and religious studies shape or contribute to peace studies at your institution?  How can your program take advantage of your faculty’s research and teaching interests?

Throughout our exploratory session tonight, I thought consistently about two things.  First was what Community of Christ offers the global and interdisciplinary search for peace?  What does Community of Christ theology, tradition, or perspective offer the global peace movement and our approach to peace?  Second, I thought about Graceland’s values:  learning, wholeness, and community.   To me, these values have always been more than a list.  They share an interrelated perspective on Graceland’s approach to education, formation and service to others.   Learning, wholeness, and community all increase with each other.  The more we learn, the more we integrate with others and become a whole person.

I’m looking forward to tomorrow and more time spent with the Kroc Institute faculty and faculty from other peace programs across the country and world.  We have an international gathering, here.

the authority of scripture, or how not to read it

I’m teaching Restoration Scripture* this semester at Graceland University.   When I teach this class, I spend more time thinking about the role of scripture in normal life more than I usually do .

Restoration Scripture is an upper division undergraduate course.  For most students it’s their first disciplined introduction to Community of Christ scripture.  I don’t approach this class with one view or one approach to scripture.  Instead, I try to help students develop an integrated view that I have developed through my own years of study and practical experience in ministry.  My approach is not wholly different than other approaches to scripture.  I’m very critical of antagonistic “either/or” approaches to scripture that pit faith against modern critical methods of interpretation.  God’s Word is never just on the page or in the words.  Nor are scriptures just ancient documents or devotional materials.  Scripture are more.

I teach Restoration Scripture in a way that brings knowledge about scripture together with critical thinking about truth and authority.  I attempt to help students think critically about scripture, yet have respect for its tradition.  The point is to develop a creative openness to scripture.  I believe my approach fits well with Community of Christ’s Statement on Scripture.   It’s a relational approach in which students combine critical thinking and respect for its purpose as a communal authority.  This allows scripture to become a tool with which to think, imagine, feel, and learn the Spirit at work in the church and its sacred writings, present day and in the past.  It takes more time, effort, and discipline to think about scripture this way.  But, it is also what connects scripture with lived-life in community with others in an intellectually honest and life-giving way.

In the class, we confront the problem of scriptural authority.  We deal with it in a practical way.   This is particularly important in Community of Christ, which has unique scriptures as well as a strong position about the human role in creating and interpreting scripture.  Putting practical questions first, we start by asking the implicit question, “What is scripture good for?”  This question is important because many young adults simply haven’t developed an understanding of scripture outside their personal exposure (or lack of exposure) to it.  Like us, they see how too many Christians obsess over religion and scriptural authority in a way that alienates others. Christianity that worships the authority of scripture has alienated many of us from what it means to be Christian.  The humble call to walk and learn from the person and work of Jesus is quickly lost.  This is even truer of young adults in my experience.

Turned on to other mediums, many young adults don’t concern themselves with religion or the authority of scripture. So much focus on authority has given religion a bad name.  Thanks to media, extremism and violence control our image of religion today.   Such extremism is tied up in certain approaches to scripture.

In response, I want to get back to a more sensible and pragmatic understandings of sacred writings.  In the end scripture is not about literal authority, worshiping words, metaphysical secrets, or purely personal devotion.  Scripture caries more weight that any one of our personal opinions because scripture concerns itself with ultimate questions and endures through time.   Scriptures shape history and are about community.  It is about lived-life with others, our relationship with what’s ultimately important, and the enduring nature of those relationships.  For that reason alone, scripture is important.  Scripture can also bring us into a relationship to God.  Considering how to approach scripture is important to relating to these things in deep and life-giving way.

bible-silentThe problem is that most Christians get way too caught up in the “what” of scripture.   More fundamentalist and conservative Christians do it by overemphasizing the literal word and authority of the Bible.  Liberal Christians and pan-religious folk do it when they dispense with scripture by labeling it as personal devotional material, simply stories and moral teaching, or irrelevant historical documents.    When “what scripture is” becomes more important than what scripture points to, the “who” of scripture is eclipsed.  The message and purpose of scripture are lost.

The “what” of scripture is almost always wrapped up in questions about its authority,    Authority, of course, is the relentless modern question.   The impetus of our modern world was to free persons from every form of historical authority in order to free the human subject to make their own history.   Religion, in particular, had to be overcome in order to raise up a free world of reason and self-determination.   As a result, both conservative and progressive politics and religion concerns themselves with issues of authority.

The birth of Christian fundamentalism in the 19th century was as a reaction to modern society.   Its belief in the absolute authority of scripture, its literal approach, and unquestioned faith in the truth-power of words still influence Christianity today,   This obsession over authority also shapes liberal Christians and contemporary approaches to religion today.   Ironically, this relentless questioning of authority has led to authority everywhere.  Today, the individual is told relentlessly that s/he is the final authority.   Every opinion and perspective must be respected.  It’s the doctrine of our self-fulfilling consumer-oriented world.  In practice, many of us feel anxiety, out of control, isolated, and search for a deeper sense of relationship and community.  Scripture actually speaks to this search in a compelling and novel way.

I’m not the first to say that the constant assertions about the bible’s authority over science, personal opinion, and “man’s truth” are tiresome.  They are centuries old and weather worn.  They’ve passed the edge into absurdity.   It’s no mystery that churches formed around this approach to authority reflect this very description: closed-off, oppositional, and advocates of absurdity.

The future of scripture will grow out of a fuller understanding of its past.   Interestingly, Restoration Scripture lends itself well to this approach. Community of Christ has an open canon of scripture that evolves.  (Other traditions also have an evolving understanding of scripture and its interpretation; its the canonization of new scriptural material that makes the Community of Christ unique.)  With all the traps and dangers of having an open canon of scripture, it also has its advantages.  The same traps and dangers that come with an open canon also illuminate the all-to-human processes from which the scriptures come. Because of historical proximity, the emergence of Restoration scripture helps us appreciate how scripture emerges as crystalizations of collective (and collected) human experience.  They do not drop out of the sky or emerge pristine out of an arc or from the ground.  Scriptures are products of divine-human encounter.  They are a human endeavor.  They come out of the circumstances that created them and carried them to us.  And, they testify of God’s activity midst human experience in ultimate proportions.   “God,” in scripture, is a sign and object of ultimate meaning.

When we read scripture, we commune with the dead.  We glean their wisdom and read their witness of ultimate concern in their lives.  In scripture, diverse voices and circumstances come together to convey a semblance of God’s active presence in the mess and mystery of life.   They are stories and life-lessons of survival, life’s search for meaning, the waxing and waning of civilizations, war and peace, and life and death.  All come to us through scripture.

Scripture is also a particular kind of literature.  It is literature that personifies God.   In scripture, God is personified because God and human beings constantly interact.  They fight, deny, adore, return, struggle with and depend deeply on God.  God is strangely present and beyond these entanglements.  God is wily and faithful, powerful and vulnerable.  God is vengeful and gracious.  God is the beginning and the end, whose name is simply “I am.”  (Exodus 3:14)  This God communes with human beings and  is terribly interested in our lives and welfare.  God persistently reaches out to us at great personal expense.

When we approach scripture with narrow personal interests or uncritical assumptions about its authority and content, so much gets lost.   Any reader can slip right past the message within scripture, finding only what they set out to find. This is how we approach restaurants and government – expecting to get what we’re promised and what we want.    But approaching scripture this way avoids a deeper relationship.  I avoids questions about who it comes from, to whom it testifies, and who it’s for.  So much of what scripture is comes from our relationship with it.

Practically, scripture contains wisdom of the ancients and a living message for today.   The ancient church is always also us and not us.  The faith community that practices reading and discerning scripture together will be shaped by its message.  Reading scripture together is a particular experience that shapes a common memory and a community.    This living memory is lived and repeated in the sacraments and rituals that shape the community.  This approach to scripture gets much closer to its purpose and message.   Jacob wrestled with God; I wrestle with God.  Jesus was baptized; I was baptized.   The disciples broke bread and drank in Jesus; we break bread and drink in Jesus.   Job suffered and searched for meaning; we suffer and search for meaning.   Israel longed for a messiah; we do, too.

jesus gift bagsConsumer culture tends to make us think that religious resources are actually spiritual consumer goods.   This, too, influences how we see the authority of scripture.    Consuming scripture goes beyond using scripture as personal devotional material.   Scripture becomes only good for “what I get out of it” and “what it means to me.”    This diminishes the community-shaping power of scripture.   But, it can also lead to abusing it.    When scripture is a consumer good, it’s authority is in what I can get out of it.   In an anxious world, we have all seen alarmists and charlatans use scripture to propagate fear, manipulate persons, and create false security.   Used as a consumer good, the ultimate nature of the human problems and difficulties addressed in scripture can become a weapon.   Consumer culture does not cultivate a relationship with scripture or shape the kind of community its message conveys.

Practical wisdom leads to an understanding of scripture that liberates us from extreme and uninformed approaches.   What is scripture good for?  It’s good for reading.  It’s good for reading in community with others.  The authority of scripture is not in literal truth or infallibility.  Nor is the authority of scripture limited to what you or I can get out of it for our own benefit.  The authority of scripture lies in our ability to encounter, grasp, and be changed by its message.  In scripture, diverse voices and circumstances come together to convey God’s active presence in the mess and mystery of life.   The stories, testimonies, and life-lessons of survival, our search for meaning, the waxing and waning of civilizations, war and peace, and life and death all come to us through scripture.   Reading it together forms relationships and a common memory of stories, life-lessons, and language to express the meaning and mystery of life – which otherwise is nearly impossible for us to express.  Read this way, scriptures do not exert authority.  Their authority is evident.

*  Restoration Scripture is an undergraduate course that targets Community of Christ students at Graceland University.  The class covers historical setting, development, and interpretative approaches to the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible.

The Cross, or Why We Need It

ImageOne of the most awkward silences in liberal Christianity is its relative silence on the cross.   Far too many of us avoid discussing the cross, the meaning of the cross, and how sin shapes our lives.

What’s fascinating is how little both sin and the cross come up, even when progressive Christians passionately speak of peace & justice.   It is difficult to impossible to understand the path to peace, and the work of justice, the nature of oppression or consequences of poverty without reckoning with sin, the meaning of sin, and the death of God in our world.

Christians committed to seeing God in creation, other religions, the arts, and human experience might consider the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, written in a letter from prison less than a year before his death by the Nazi’s.  It is dated July 16, 1944.

Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison)

One of the reasons liberal Christians struggle to talk adequately about sin and the cross is the loud voice of American Evangelicalism.  Evangelicalism in America projects a well-known and well-funded salvation formula.  It is fear-based, triumphalist, and relies on our culture’s rampant individualism, self-interest, and personal choice.

The traditional evangelical message drowns the cross in bloody images.  It narrows sin to rhetoric about Jesus’ gracious death for our personal salvation.  The greatest tragedy of this message is its violent theology and contorted invitation:  “God so loved you and me that he sent his son to death.  Don’t you want to be one of God’s children, too?”

Another problem is that this message assumes God’s complete control over human life and the effects of sin in the world.   It presents the power of God in absolute categories: God’s unqualified love for us, God’s absolute control over human life, over-and-against our hopeless and irredeemable human depravity.   The “good news” of the Evangelical formula begins with certain bad news:  In sin, there’s no way out.  The threat of hell makes the bad news both personal and emotional.  Then, the invitation to salvation follows.

ImageWe must believe the story of Jesus behind the formula to receive salvation.  But, the whole transaction is in the abstract.  The story explains our dependence on God for grace in order to overcome our abysmal sin.  Yet, the whole transaction is based in a metaphysical drama.  There is an unpaid debt that everybody (and we personally) hold with God.  God is demanding and has an unappeasable sense of justice.  So, God sacrifices his son to appease himself.   Somehow, that’s grace.  If we personally believe this  backstory then the transaction is secured; hell is averted.  The heaven we imagine is also ours, albeit after death.

I have a problem with this transaction.  But, the best response to the story is not to reject it out of hand.  Certainly, a formulaic transaction that meets both our own and God’s self-interest has deep-seated problems.  Not the least is its spiritualization of American self-interest in one’s own personal salvation.   But, the story conveys both a witness and wisdom from the ancients.  There is theology to mine from this story, and it is a gift.

Against the dismal view of human nature in this salvation formula, many Christians believe human beings are essentially good.    Individually, this may be true.  However, history paints a picture of collective human life that perennially descends into epic violence, power struggles, and unnecessary injustice.   The story of our sin and the cross speaks directly to this history.

Individuals may be generally good, fair, and generous.   But, zoom out and consider the global economic and political structures that shape human relationships, and a more difficult picture of human life appears.   The disparity of human conditions, inequality of power and life’s resources, and the suffering of masses while a few benefit paints a tangled world.   In our society of abundance, oppression far and near reflects the emptiness, struggle, and longing we often suppress in ourselves.

As individuals we might hold to the belief that we are born good, but sin is inextricably embedded in the structures of our world.  The economic and political relations that make up the world, materially and spiritually, make this so. Sin is relevant because we are inescapably in relationship with each other and every other human being.  Globalizing economic and political realities ensure this.  Even those who’ve gone before us and will come after are affected by our spiritual and material relations.  The cross holds the truth about God in this web of human history.  The unnecessary deaths of poverty and genocide, our dependence on economic luxuries and a lucrative weapon’s industry, and our need for wealth shape a world where sin and the effects of sin hold sway.  Even our definition of freedom, which often stands behind our political and economic arrangements, enmeshes us in sin. As long as freedom means freedom from responsibility for others and the world we create, sin twists freedom into human indifference.

Only a God who knows the suffering of such indifference can save us from our want for that kind of freedom.

Metaphysical answers and narcissistic guilt distract too many Christians from deeper considerations of the material relations of our world and spiritual realities of our shared life.  The ancient world, like our modern one, was a world of empire.  Empires persist, then like now, on an order enforced with violence.  They were sustained through economies driven by disparity and exploitation, as well as power relationships in which power was distributed by privileged access.  Whether Pax Romana or American Freedom, the promises of empire are never universally fulfilled or equitable.  Power & privilege define peace, what is just, and who receives justice.  Some conform and cooperate to thrive, other to survive.  Others challenge and resist the spiritual and material order.  The cross is a potent and public reminder of what happens to those who disturb the peace of empire or challenge power.

In Jesus, God was and is inextricably entwined in this world.  In this world, individual sins are inseparable from structured sin.  The fate of God in our world is told in Jesus’ story.  The awaited messiah, Word of God made flesh, came to bring God’s reign without weapons or worldly power.  But, God in Jesus was “pushed out of the world on to the cross.”

Many Christians, like me, live privileged and abundant lives.   My education, healthcare, legal protections, and economic access are privileges.  It is not that I don’t “deserve” them.  Rather, they are privileges by definition that not everyone enjoys them.  Many of us are shielded from the material conditions and political realities of others who afford us our privileges.  In America, freedom also means we can drown our perceptions in a world of media, personal desires, and accomplishments that reinforce our belief that we are innocent, free, self-made individuals.   Such are the doctrines of classical liberalism (both “liberal” and “conservative” varieties) and consumerism.     Sin and the cross deeply challenge people like me to consider whether my sense of innocence, personal freedom, and individuality are God’s gift to me or a result of history – a history of conquest, empire, and enforced peace.

The nagging questions of Christian faith are unpopular in an opulent age like ours:   “What is sin?”, “Do we need salvation?”, “Why the cross?”, “Did Jesus have to die?”  Regardless whether I see my life of privileges as the gift of God or the gift of empire, this life is my inheritance.  What is my responsibility?  Should others share in my life’s abundance?

Many Christians dodge the cross and Evangelical salvation formula by emphasizing the Good News revealed in the life of Jesus.  Emphasizing the miraculous life and ministry of Jesus, instead of focusing on the “good news” of his bloody death, is important.  It bears critical insights.  Certainly, Jesus’ promise of eternal life is not simply afterlife; it is now.  Luke is clear: the Kingdom is within us; it is in our midst.  (Luke 17:21) In our lives, we do meet the Christ of the gospels.  We certainly meet a living God alive in the life of Jesus Christ.  Discipleship means believing upon him.

ImageBut, on the cross we also see God crowded out of this world.  The cross is God’s death.   The cross is not an indictment against the Jews.   It is a prophetic message to all of God’s people in every time, particularly Christians.  Christians profess they have ears to hear the story of Jesus.  Jesus’ cross is the naked truth about the peace and promises of life together under empire.  It reveals worldly power in its naked structures of exclusion, abandonment, and death.   The cross reminds us that we live in a world where God’s justice has yet to reign.   The blood of Jesus is the blood of every forced and unnecessary death.  The blood of Jesus is the suffering let from every false choice the world gives:  Jesus or Barabbas, empire or chaos, you or me.  The cross is the story of every victim, prophet, teacher, and martyr who seeks eternal life here and God’s Kingdom now.  Jesus’ blood is the blood of the poor and impoverished that flows in silence in the noise of consumer culture.  It is also the blood of those who rise in protest, only to be put down by force of those who reign.

The cross stands against our culture of individual isolation, personal privilege, and limitless consumption.  It also stands against religion shaped by our culture: its personal salvation formulas, self-interested transactions, and overinvestment individual will.  The cross is a symbol that disturbs our conscience.   On the cross, Jesus is both God and flesh.   His death is the death of every person.   (Consider II Corinthians 5:14)

Eventually, all – even God – come to the cross.   Some come as victims.  Some come as casual observers.  Some come awakened from their isolation and innocence.  Others come as the soldiers and servants of empire.   We come not because we are individually guilty or to blame, but because we cannot make a new world alone and need a way beyond sin and death.    Jesus lifted up the invitation, “Take up your cross and follow me.” (See Matthew 10:38, 16:24; Luke 14:27; John 21:19)  Without knowing the sin and cross in our lives, resurrection loses is meaning.