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 6.1

Jeremiah 6I’ve not posted for some time.  But, Jeremiah called me back again.  I needed some time for meditation.

Once I start reading Jeremiah again, I was reminded how scripture continually calls us back.  This morning, I needed to connect to human experiences much older than my own.  I’m picking up my walk with Jeremiah with chapter six (6).

Who hasn’t felt madness listening to American politics?  It doesn’t matter which party or ideology you ascribe to.  The partisan nature of our political scene and the circus that money and media have made of public opinion and national feeling can leave anyone with this sense of grief.  Jeremiah apparently felt that way, too.

To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear?  See, their ears are closed, they cannot listen.  The word of the Lord is to them an object of scorn; they take no pleasure in it.  But, I am full of the wrath of the Lord; I am weary holding it in.  (vs 10-11a)

Most of us hold to our political perspectives with the same fervency Jeremiah did to God’s word and its clarity.  There is a reason why religion and politics equally offend in today’s dominant norms of decency.  Jeremiah’s religious language gives some of us a false sense of difference.  Forget that this is the bible.  Remember that Jesus hadn’t been born yet.  Remember, prophets were mouthpieces for the covenant of God’s people with God.  That is the contract that birthed their nation.  Jeremiah is explicitly talking about his political point of view, which he sees in relief of God’s vision for reality.

For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely.  They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace…[H]ear, o nation, and know O congregation, what will happen…(vs 13-14)

It struck me that the angst and helplessness we feel for the direction and politics of our nation, even communities, is ancient.  It doesn’t matter if you see our foundation as the word of God, the Constitution, universal human rights, or Locke and Rousseau’s social contract.  Who hasn’t grieved over the injustices and corruption they see?  Who hasn’t felt the fear from signs of instability, irrational decisions, and the plight of those powerless to rise up and correct inequities?  I hear this grief from both liberal and conservative.  Each has their definition of injustice.  Each has their definition of rationality.  Each has their definition of inequity.  Each has their scapegoat and theory of inequities.

As a Christian socialist and/or social democrat, I, too, fall on this spectrum.  And, I see the folly of our partisan blame-games.

They are all stubbornly rebellious, going about with slanders…(vs 28a)

In response, Jeremiah offers a strangely prophetic counsel:

Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it an find rest for your souls.

What are those ancient ways?  What, exactly, is this crossroads?  My soul seems to know without argument or passion.  Perhaps, a still small voice might say it this way:

It’s the humble way.  Neither self-righteous nor divided, the good way is neither silent nor partisan.  It is where justice entwines you and I in a common welfare.  It is where peace is waged for the sake of the most vulnerable, among which are each others’ elderly parents and youngest children.  It is where our trust merges in the form of a covenant, in which our wealth and welfare is not in competition, but where the only win is win-win.

I’m reminded of Community of Christ’s Doctrine and Covenants 163:4a-c:

God, the Eternal Creator, weeps for the poor, displaced, mistreated, and diseased of the world because of their unnecessary suffering. Such conditions are not God’s will. Open your ears to hear the pleading of mothers and fathers in all nations who desperately seek a future of hope for their children. Do not turn away from them. For in their welfare resides your welfare.

The earth, lovingly created as an environment for life to flourish, shudders in distress because creation’s natural and living systems are becoming exhausted from carrying the burden of human greed and conflict. Humankind must awaken from its illusion of independence and unrestrained consumption without lasting consequences.

Let the educational and community development endeavors of the church equip people of all ages to carry the ethics of Christ’s peace into all arenas of life. Prepare new generations of disciples to bring fresh vision to bear on the perplexing problems of poverty, disease, war, and environmental deterioration. Their contributions will be multiplied if their hearts are focused on God’s will for creation.

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 3 – Teaching Peace in the 21st Century: David Cortright, Peace Studies Proposal

Today also began with important practical presentations in peace studies.  David Cortright and Hal Culbertson presented “How to Change the World,” an overview of two courses they teach in the Notre Dame Peace Studies program.  David Cortright spoke on non-violent social change;  Hal Culbertson spoke to us about NGO’s.

David Cortright is a peace scholar and activist.  His books include Gandhi and Beyond: Non-Violence in a New Political Age and Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas.  He is also Director of Policy Studies at Notre Dame; you can catch his blog at http://davidcortright.net.

One of the most interesting and noteworthy items from Cortright’s presentation came from the work of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan.   They are co-authors of the book, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Non-Violent Conflict.  Research by Chenoweth and Stephan concludes that non-violent social change works and is more effective than armed conflict.  Their research argues that non-violent strategies create more stable democratic outcomes.  Their empirical research on non-violent strategies for political and social change marks a decisive development in peace studies as a academic and practical field.  You can learn more about their work in their recent article inthe most recent edition of the online journal, Foreign Affairs.

ngo_logoHal Culbertson’s presentation on NGO’s was plain and helpful.  Many students with professional interests in peace studies will gravitate to NGO’s.  NGO’s seem to be the “go-to” in “making a difference” in the world.  While there are certain advantages and often overlooked disadvantages to NGO’s, Culbertson’s observations and basic outline of the components of an NGO – their theory of change, method and effectiveness of evaluation (outcomes must be measurable!), management structure, and financing – informs a basic understanding of how NGO’s work, how they differ from other public and private institutions, and where NGO’s can go wrong.  Hal Culbertson is the executive director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace studies at Notre Dame.

Our final presentation of the day was a very important session on peace studies as a profession.  Anne Hayner, who works directly with the 1,400+ alumni of the Kroc Institute, shared what career paths in practical peacemaking look like.  Below is a chart created by John Paul Lederach and Katie Mansfield.  A helpful and full explanation of the above chart can be found at http://kroc.nd.edu/strategic-peacebuilding-pathways.  If you have any interest in peace studies as a profession, or believe peace studies is not a “real profession” with manifold professional opportunities, click the link and learn more.

For the rest of the day, Priscilla Eppinger, Tony Chvala-Smith and I worked together on a proposal for an MA in Community, Justice, and Peace through the Community of Christ Seminary.  Our work is still forming, and its results are provisional.  Several factors must come together – resources, marketing, and institutional commitment – to make such a proposal possible.   But, it has begun.  It is both achievable and promising.  The lasting effects of such an MA could be long-lasting for both Community of Christ and Graceland University.   The practical resources for developing, improving, or beginning a peace studies program is a task given to every institutional participant of the Summer Institute for Faculty.    We are among excellent colleagues.  It’s been a privilege to be here and be a part.

More tomorrow.

Day 2 – Teaching Peace in the 21st Century: John Paul Lederach, How Peace? Why Peace?

Day two of the Summer Institute for Faculty has been both rewarding and personally important.  I’ll share a bit why.

The day began with a presentation by John Paul Lederach.  If you’re not familiar with Lederach, he is a among the most well known and respected scholars/practitioners in peace studies.  He’s the author of several influential books:  The Little Book of Conflict TransformationBuilding Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societiesand The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace.   John Paul Lederach graciously accepted the Community of Christ Peace Award in 2000 at our Peace Colloquy.

John Paul Lederach’s presentation was on not on a new topic, but one that is important to the development of peace studies as a field of research and practice.  It’s the transition of “conflict resolution” to “conflict transformation.”   He gave an overview of several conceptual and practical differences between conflict resolution and conflict transformation. What stood out the most was the critique of conflict resolution that led to this change.

John Paul Lederach shared experiences he’d had working as a mediator and conflict resolution specialist. To paraphrase, he’d been often asked, “What Is conflict resolution? Because, if you are interested in just coming to solve our problems and not changing anything, we’re not interested.”  In other words, conflict resolution without attention to the underlying desire for needed changes, changes parties aimed for or already underway, in a conflict situation is not helpful.   Resolution that “fixed” problems by aiming toward agreement or compromise by de-escalating conflict, but changes nothing is inadequate, even undesirable.  Conflicts can be, and are often, productive.  They aim at change.  The shift to conflict transformation aims at processes in which conflict is addressed and the dynamics of change are kept in focus.

John Paul Lederach identifies four areas or kinds of change in his book, The Little Book of Conflict Transformation (linked above).  They are personal change, relational change, structural change, and cultural change.  Peace studies cannot loose sight of this aspect of creative potential in conflict, which is often the aim of conflict. Conflict transformation is controversial for some in peace studies because it appreciates the importance of conflict, even the need for its agitation or escalation, in processes of change.   Without resorting or allowing conflict to transform into violence, the escalation of conflict can be, and often is, a necessary part of justice and peace….or a just peace.

In my second session, I had the opportunity to listen to faculty in the Kroc Institute share the interdisciplinary aspects of peace.   E. Mark Cummings, Professor of Psychology, shared about his research in Northern Ireland on the effects of political violence on children and development.  Atalia Omer, Associate Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peace Studies, shared about her research on the role of religion in shaping ethnic and national identities, and its influence on interpretations of justice and political conflict.  Scott Appleby, Professor of History, shared excellent reflections on the intersection of history and peace studies.  His work in religious fundamentalism and violence is integral work in peace studies.  Sandra Gustafson, Professor of English, shared about her work in the intersection of peace studies and literature.

The most important experience for me today, however, came from personal reflection.   The panel discussions and insightful conversations faced me with personal questions:  “Why peace?  Why peace and justice?  Why peace studies?”   I could write papers and give presentations on these broad questions from my a theological and ethical perspective.  But, why is it a personal call?    The answer may seem obvious.  Yet, when was the last time any of us stopped to ask ourselves if we are committed to peace and justice as a matter of personal conviction, and why?  When was the last time you clarified and articulated why peace is important enough to confront others with it?  Below is a list of my responses:

JesusLionLamb

  1. Human beings are a global family, not discrete individuals.  We belong to each other.  Materially, we are dependent on human activity and the environment.  Human life, therefore, is finally life together, not individual life.  A sustainable peace is a necessary personal and corporate commitment for developing sustainable life and a culture of life together.
  2. Sustainable peace requires justice.  Justice is not simply justice for me and mine, but considers my intimate relationship – personal and impersonal – with others.  Justice begins with the most vulnerable.
  3. Given the world in which we live, we no longer approach individual or corporate life, vocation, and formative education without a conviction for sustainable peace.  Without a commitment to justice and sustainable peace, norms and values devolve to a culture of individual beliefs and behavior acculturated around “me” and “mine.”
  4. Conflicts are good.   They are transformational.  Conflicts are a necessary passage for becoming whole persons, growing in community, and all kinds of learning.  When we resort to violence, all of this suffers. Conflicts devolve every human endeavor to domination and survival rather than the pursuit of truth, wholeness, community, and learning.  Peace makes conflict possible.
  5. Peace, for me, is faith based, faith-driven, and culminates in a life of faith. However, it is not limited to religion and faith. Peace is inclusive, invitational, and universal in scope and human concern.

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.

Jesus’ silence before Pilate, or the politics of madness

As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. 2 Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.” 3 Then the chief priests accused him of many things. 4 Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.”5 But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.  Mark 15:1-5 NRSV

ImageJesus’ silence before Pilate has always puzzled me.  It’s one of the most obscure parts of Jesus’ passion.  Kind of like Jesus, himself, that passage has begged an explanation.

I think Jesus’ silence is obscure for most Americans because it’s hard to relate to.   Americans are passionate about defending their rights.  We feel entitled before both state and law because deep in our psyche is a disgust for government.   In the passion, Pilate symbolizes such government.  Jesus is our hero because he stands silent before the powers of tyranny and ultimately overcomes them.    His victory is cosmic and his silence at trial is stoic.   We don’t question that someone had to die to free us because this is part of our belief in revolutionary freedom.  Jesus stands to die defiant before the powers.  The power of God overcomes the power of Rome, and we win.   This is Mel Gibson’s Hollywood hero, the American Jesus.

We have a hard time imagining that Jerusalem’s leaders or the jeering crowd could be us.  We drown those ideas in anti-Jewishness.  The political failures of Jesus trial have nothing to do with us.  It’s just one of those nasty moments of wrong belief and bad government.   Jesus’ win, however, has everything to do with America.  The hero’s silence is not his weakness, but a sign of his strength.  We can’t imagine Jesus either hopeless or helpless.  That would be heretically unchristian or un-American.

There are enormous problems with this interpretation of Jesus’ silence at trial.   My main problem with is that it conveniently ignores way too much, and fills Jesus’ silence with cultural assumptions that say more about American Christianity than Jesus or what the Gospel writers likely intended.

Jesus’ silence doesn’t explain why Pilate gets caught in the middle.  It doesn’t explain his confusion over Jesus’ crime.  It doesn’t explain why Jerusalem’s leaders kowtow to Rome and why they insist that Pilate eliminate Jesus for them.  It doesn’t explain why the crowd wants Barabbas over Jesus.   It doesn’t explain why Jesus doesn’t cry out to defend himself.  The teacher could’ve shared a parable or proverb to point out the absurdity of the crowd’s judgment and his situation, as he had done many times before.  He could have at least apologized to Pilate for putting him in this awkward position of spilling what seemed to be innocent blood (Matthew 27:19).   But, he doesn’t.  Jesus acts helpless, and says nothing.

ImageThere’s a better way to interpret Jesus’ silence, one that is more relevant.  Considering the politics surrounding Jesus’ trial is fruitful because they mirror our own.   Jesus’ entire trip to Jerusalem is dripping in politics.  Everything leading up to Jesus’ trial:  Jerusalem’s leaders trapping Jesus and taking him to Pilate, Pilate’s questions about being a King, the crowd’s calling for is execution, especially Jesus’ sentence and punishment, all find their significance in the political realm.  Capital punishment, particularly death by crucifixion, is an explicitly political form of control and punishment for Rome.    Jesus isn’t silent because he’s defiant, stoic or a hero.   Jesus may be silent because he has to be.  There are at least two reasons.

First, Jesus’ silence lets Pilate incriminate himself.  Empires justify themselves on violence.  They remain empires because they keep a monopoly on violence.   Jesus’ silence meant Pilate had to make a decision to fulfill his duty as Rome’s governor or release him as a matter of conscience.  Pilate doesn’t see what Jesus has done wrong.  (Mark 15:14)

The American version of Jesus’ trial is partly right.  In the passion, Pilate does represent the power of government.  But, not just government, he represents empire and all earthly power and justice.  The gospels depict Pilate as conflicted.  He tries to compromise and have Jesus flogged.  But, the crowd insists on crucifying Jesus.   They’d rather free Barabbas, a thief and rabble rouser, than face the possibility that Jesus is the messiah.  Popular opinion and group think wins out over conscience, and Pilate relents.   Empire executes its function.  Rome crucifies Jesus.  Pax Romana destroys the shalom of God.

Perhaps, the same is true of Pax Americana.

Second, Jesus is silent in the face of Pilate’s questions because God is defenseless against human foibles.  It’s hard to imagine God defenseless against humans.  But, Jesus is.  The problem is that most Christians understanding of God’s power is wrapped in worldly fantasies of power – supernatural power, instrumental power, military power, personal power.   All revolve around the idea of the will, control, and self-determination.  Jesus offers a different picture of God’s power, one not at all like these.

ImageJesus is defenselessness against our sin and human foibles.  And, this isn’t the first contradiction Jesus’ silence before Pilate exposes.  The contradictions intensifying through Jesus’ trial eventually rupture.  They rupture upon Jesus’ public and humiliating death.   But, the madness of contradictions revealed in Jesus trial and death begin in the empty void of Jesus’ silence before his accuser.  In his silence, the insanity of the whole situation begins to set in.

Jesus is innocent, but he’ll die.

The crowd condemns Jesus, but they won’t be guilty of killing him.

Pilate doesn’t know Jesus or his crime, but he authorizes his death.

Jesus came to save, but he cannot or will not save himself.

The death of God happens in Jerusalem, the city named of God’s reign and peace.

In the face of death, the Son of God says nothing.

Facing the Son’s death, God stands by and does nothing.

Nothing makes sense.  None of this intended.  The whole is absurd.

Jesus’ silence strips the sin of his world and ours completely naked, unabashed and unadorned.  The rage of madness and its contradictions must work themselves out.  After all, they are our – not God’s – creation.

This interpretation of Jesus’ silence fits better with Paul’s idea that Jesus really does lay both sin and his evil age bare.  He transforms it, and changes everything.  But, it’s still hard to imagine anyone staying quiet at a trial like that.   It’s still hard to imagine Jesus not defending himself or saying anything.   Any American would have.  At least, Jesus could have injected some reason for the insanity of it all.   He could have decried himself a victim to the crowd, or defended himself against others’ accusations as he did several times before when he spoke against the scribes and Pharisees in Galilee.  Any of these would have made more sense.  But, in Jerusalem before Pilate, he says nothing.  “You say so,” is all he says to Pilate.  Why?

Jesus, at least, shared something in common with those he was teaching and preaching.  As fellow Jews, they were his kinfolk.   They were all children of Abraham, who share a history and covenant with YHWH.  Jesus also shared a love and reverence for God’s revelation, the Law, with the lawyers and Pharisees.  But, when it came to defending himself against a world that didn’t know him and wouldn’t hear him, there was nothing to say.  Perhaps, it was futile, even pointless.  There was nothing to say because there was nothing he could say.

If Jesus would have answered that he was the messiah, he would have admitted himself as “King of the Jews” in the eyes of the crowd and Jewish leaders.   There was no other king than the ruler installed by Rome approved.  This would have condemned Jesus under Roman Law.  Pilate would not have been guilty of betraying his conscience.

If Jesus would’ve denied he was “King of the Jews,” he would have denied he was the messiah Israel longed for.   He would have admitted to being just another itinerant teacher or insurrectionist against the empire.  This would have only intensified the situation with confusion if he would have defended himself or told the truth.  His silence, instead, drew out the truth of the situation.  Jesus didn’t need to give an account for himself because it really came down to what the crowd and Pilate thought, or accepted.   “Who do you say that I am?”

In Jesus, God was on trial.  He was defenseless because God has no defense.

I think many of us can relate to Jesus’ situation.   True, we can’t relate to being accused of being a King and we can’t relate to facing crucifixion.  But, I think almost all of us can relate to the politics of his situation.  We can relate to the futility and despair of a situation in which it’s impossible to say anything.   We can relate to what it’s like to be helpless in the face of what others think.   That’s the situation Jesus faced answering Pilate’s questions.  It’s also the political climate of the U.S.

ImageIn a democracy, being able to speak freely and reason together is essential.   Our democracy is not simply a majority rule.  What makes modern democracy different from ancient democracy is its foundation on reason and belief in rational society.  It’s built on the idea that the reason that makes freedom and universal rights possible, also distributes opportunity and authority rationally.   The most important thing we can do in a democracy is talk about how we should govern and be governed.   For democracy to work, we have to talk about politics – rights, laws, and civil responsibility.   We also have to talk about religion, if religion is going to shape our moral fabric, civic virtues, and sense of responsibility.  If reason and political discussion break down, democracy grinds to a halt.  Political processes are channeled off to the privileged.  The freedom we take for granted is taken from us and usurped by those who govern.  This is the America I live in, and it’s difficult to see how the political discourse our democracy needs will get better.

Over the last five years, the best conversations I’ve had about politics and religion have been on Facebook.  Perhaps, this seems idiotic.  I don’t think it’s the norm.  But, if you find Facebook friends who read generously, think critically, and respond thoughtfully, Facebook can be an excellent medium for exchanging ideas and political discussion.    Facebook allows you to think about what you want to say before you say it.  It allows you to edit yourself before you “speak.”  You can’t interrupt others, and you can use links to cite your information.   Like most online forums, all this mitigates some of the difficulties of discussing difficult topics.  Social media can be an excellent medium for sharing perspectives and thoughtful debate if it’s conducted with care, discipline, and respect for your interlocutor and subject.

But, that’s exactly what’s become impossible.

While the internet and social media have created new possibilities and democratic space for thoughtful and invested dialogue, it has also become a platform for infotainment, conspiracy, and reactionism.  Well-funded media routinely sell distrust, contrarianism, and self-righteousness to us.   The internet has become the jeering crowd, but its pointing its fingers at everybody.  All of this has changed the nature of the internet and political discourse.  We’ve allowed American freedom to be reduced to self-interest.  We’ve allowed political discussions to become mainly divisive, toxic, and cynical.  Inject religion into any discussion that matters, and it seems to only get worse.

ImageThe politics of madness – universal self-righteousness, conspiracy, and reactionism – have become America’s political norm.  How many of us have been on Facebook, Twitter, or email and shared an honest or heartfelt perspective on current events, only to be met with emotional reaction or hostility?   No questions, no request for clarification, no attempt to understand – only offense and reaction.  Maybe you tried to reconcile or provide an explanation.  Maybe you tried to reach understanding by being open to their point of view, only to have your words came back to you empty.   We’ve let personal opinion, a sense of victimhood, and emotional reaction to stand unquestioned.  Any attempt at common ground or rational discussion is quickly torpedoed.  In a democracy, this is madness.

We can watch the news or listen to AM radio to appreciate where this widespread attitude comes from.   Self-righteousness, “us and them,” and the feeling of being attacked have become the easiest political situation to understand.  So, it is where most politics go.    Infotainment and poison politics has grown America’s capacity for feeling offended to debilitating levels.  Political self-righteous and commentary have become an industry.   It’s all become self-generating.  In both social and commercial media, it’s hard to imagine anything different.

I try to imagine God or Jesus speaking up in in this context, and the politics surrounding Jesus’ trial become very vivid.

Too many of us live in the fantasy that the truth, the real truth, will be self-evident.  Whomever has it and speaks it will silence the competition.  This is the fantasy that Jesus’ trial exposes.  In fact, the opposite is true.  In reality, the truth of any situation is fragile.  It’s easily drowned out or silenced.

I recently posted something political on Facebook.  Someone I appreciate and respect responded.   What I posted offended them.  The topic was not new to us, but my choice of words was an affront to them this time.  I tried to clarify myself, but I realized I was making it worse.  My words came back empty.  I lost control over determining what my own words meant.

I’m not god and I don’t see the world from a vantage point that makes me superior to everyone else.  But, academically, I knew my point of view on this issue was valid.   Two posts into this Facebook conversation, however, I realized my mix of topic and words were too loaded.  No response was going to convey what I wanted.   The politics surrounding this issue were too divisive.   It didn’t matter how much my political and religious convictions intersected on this issue.   The politics rendered my words useless.  I should’ve stayed silent.

I tried to think of a reply to either save the conversation or recover my point from this person’s interpretation.   But, I eventually realized I was being obsessive.  There was nothing I could say.  It was my problem.  I had to accept the futility of the discussion.  I couldn’t concede my perspective and stay true to myself.  Yet, I couldn’t accept the other person’s reaction because they were reaction to something I didn’t say.   It was all lost in interpretation.  I wanted vindication or validation for my situation, and got neither.  There was nothing more I could do.  Anything I would say was meaningless.

I’m not saying I was like Jesus.  The stakes aren’t even close to the same.  I was not accepting damnation and facing crucifixion.  But, I think my situation, like Jesus’, was futile.  Words became meaningless.  “You say so,” was all either of us could say.   There was nothing either Jesus or I could utter to escape our situation or save it from its politics, madness, and tragedy.   Telling the truth or defending ourselves would only make things worse.  Words became empty, meaningless.

Jesus wasn’t being a hero.  No messiah wants to die.  There was no rational argument he could make to explain the situation to Pilate or Jerusalem’s leaders.   There were no words Jesus could defend himself with.   Only silence could express his helplessness and expose the insanity of what was happening.   It wasn’t Jesus’ silence that condemned him.   Pilate did.  The crowd did.  Jesus experienced something almost all of us experience:  literally, damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  It’s the madness of a hopeless situation.

Most can also relate to my situation on Facebook.  Maybe you avoid these situations altogether.   It’s where our democracy has headed, and it’s deeply scary to me.  I don’t think the political situation Jesus was in is much different than our own.

When self-righteousness rule both personal and public opinion…

When the politics devolve to “us against them”…

When hope is lost in a cycle of defensive reactions…

When words fail us and madness sets in…

We want what we reject, and we reject what we want.  Order is kept with violence and its victim(s) are rendered wordless.  This was the politics of Jesus’ situation.  His only hope was for someone to accept responsibility for the brokenness and severity of the situation.   But, neither the crowd nor Pilate was willing to.  So, Jesus was left defenseless.

And, it could happen all over again.  This is what America’s political environment has come to.

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.

On Race (and Racism) in America

It’s been over two months since I’ve posted.  My family and I have been out of town.  A lot has happened this summer.

Our summer was busy traveling from youth camps to family camps and a family vacation.  We saw family out of state as well as took a long awaited trip, the one I kept putting off because I was in graduate school.  I promised Margo that I would go on any vacation she planned.  It was the least I could do to thank her for supporting me through doctoral studies.  The trip she planned was in our family van, pulling our camper trailer.  It was a two-week road trip to Yellowstone.

From Chicago across Wisconsin to Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Idaho.  We traveled through 10 states in all.   We saw the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, Yellowstone Park, and the Grand Tetons.  There was incredible beauty, much of which is documented on Facebook.   But among the memories I made is an epiphany driving through the West.  At some point in South Dakota, something I knew in fact became profoundly real to me.  It changed how I view myself and America in light of driving through American history.

Driving across the highways that crisscrossed the prairies of the Oregon trail, by Reservations and Native American roadside exhibits, by battle sites of Americans’ drive West, I began to think about race and the fact of my whiteness really sank in.    The epiphany, something I already knew but gained new meaning for me, was this:  There is  no such thing as a white-skinned American in terms of America’s indigenous history.   I was driving across vast lands populated by First Nations peoples and thousands of bison just 150 years ago.   I was struck by how much I felt a stranger there.   I became very self-aware about our being a white American family, with two kids, in a van towing a trailer.  I thought about this against the memories of the Native peoples that once inhabited there.   Thinking about the all-American road trip we were on became a little much for me.   It was as if the Spirit of history spoke through the land to me.  From the central America to the Alaskan Inuit, America is a land of dark-skinned peoples.  I, the white man and his family, am the stranger here.  Measured in millenia, I was.

Race is difficult to talk about for Americans.  As an American with white skin, I find most white Americans deeply resist, or outright protest, any real talk about race.   Yet, to refuse to talk about race severely limits our ability to understand history.  It can even make it impossible.

Race is so much more than skin color and racism is not mere personal prejudice.   Americans did not discover race in the 1960’s and swiftly eradicate racism by the civil rights movement.   Far from it.   Race is a logic-structure that shapes America and all periods of American history.   We still live in shadow of race today.   Many Americans believe race is simply a matter of politics, but it is much more.  Race is historically deeply influenced by 19th century science.

The differences between the “races” were empirically verifiable to 19th century scientists, in a time when colonialism assisted science and its quest to catalog and categorize the entire world, including human beings.   Influenced by Darwinian science, race helped early science shape the logic of evolutionary development in Western history.  European scientists, of course with consent of their governments and philosophers, viewed white-skinned Europeans as the highest point of natural development.    They thought white Europeans were the most developed in terms of cognition, use of reason, instrumental use of nature, culture and self-government, as well as physical features.  If you pay close attention to images of beauty, power, and desirability today, the effects of this racial logic is still recognizable.

As I drove across the West, I couldn’t help but think about the history of how I got there – how I was able to drive freely (and so quickly!) across the vast western prairie to the Rockies.  I traveled in relative comfort compared to early Americans, who traveled under tremendous risk for months.   I thought about the violent history revealed in the story of the land.  I thought about how the image of America became both white and middle-class in little over a century.    Race played a decisive role in a violent and tragic history.

I, now, live on the southside of Chicago.  Here, I am the racial minority.  Chicago is a racially segregated city.   While there is a large population of African Americans in Chicago, Chicago’s southside (Sox country!) is historically black.   More African-Americans live in Atlanta than Chicago (as I recall from a recent NPR program).   Nevertheless, Chicago is still, arguably, the black capital of America by many measures.  It is the home of Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam, Jet magazine and Ebony.   The neighborhood I live in on the southside is a pocket of wild diversity because the University of Chicago and five mainline seminaries attract a wide array of people.  Still, as a southsider, almost all the professionals I see  are African American: my dentist, doctors, pharmacist, insurance man, and veterinarian.    I am not naive enough to believe I know what it means to be a racial minority.   In fact, I am a racial minority here because it is my choice to live here.   I live, shop, and worship on the southside of Chicago.  But, I am also reminded how much my race is a decisive factor of me being here.   It shapes my choice to live here or not.

One thing I don’t hear from the Right, and only a little of from the Left, is how much race is an enduring reality in America.  Politically and economically, America remains deeply shaped by race and racism.   Despite our election of America’s first black President, the current recession is partially defined by high national unemployment rates that reflect the changing state and nature of our economy.  These unemployment rates resemble what unemployment has been for African American men and other racial minorities for decades.   Why wasn’t America in a crisis, then?    Exactly, whose America is in crisis?     When we say “America,” whose America do we mean?

I believe the current rage against government and the ideological campaigns to reclaim America can also be considered in light of race.  Again, race is much more than skin color.  Liberals are blamed for rewriting American history because intellectual honesty requires that we accept the phenomenon of “winner’s history.”  This is the fact that history is written by the winners and is shaped by that perspective.  In America, the winners can still be racially defined.   While Obama is labeled a Muslim (something much less believable if Obama was white), “his” government is being blamed for economic decay and taking away American freedoms.  I can’t help but wonder how race shapes these politics?    Whose America is under threat of being lost?

I don’t believe America can talk about “recovery” without talking about race.    In addition, if Americans are ever going to share a sense of history, we must begin to acknowledge racism and the enduring perspective of race.  As I drove across America’s countryside, I realized there was no white-skinned American before Europeans claimed America for themselves.   Listening to politics today, the debate about who claims America lingers on.   After 300 years of slavery, the conquer of First Nation peoples, annexing parts of Mexico, immigration debates and ongoing economic disparity between races in America’s cities and countryside, Americans will continue to struggle about race and racism because it goes to the heart of who we are.