Tag Archives: Critique

Bye Bye Christendom

I have tried to avoid much commentary on the presidential election. Quite frankly a lot is being said, and some of it quite good. There is, however, one thing hanging on the tip of my tongue after a week.

I hope this is the last nail in the coffin for American Christendom.

I believe that religious leaders who openly supported a candidate finally drove that nail home. Neither candidate presented a campaign that aligned with any tradition I know of. Trump’s obvious disdain for immigrants, women, the disabled, and blacks, let alone his serial philandering should have been enough. But Clinton had her own problems. I didn’t once hear my progressive peace church friends call out her hawkish approach to international affairs nor her neo-liberal economic policies that created much of the income disparity we see today. (To be fair, I have rarely heard those critiques of Obama who has deported more immigrants than any other president and has turned drone warfare into the newest tool in American Imperialism.) Instead, our religious leaders stepped up behind the nominee of both parties ignoring such glaring inconsistencies. In a way, American Christianity has finally become more identified with the Democratic and Republican parties than it has with the teachings of Jesus. And in so doing, the church has fallen lock step in line with the vision of the American Experiment. It has given up its social vision for humanity to the political mechanisms set in place over two hundred years ago.

After the great wars in Europe, sparked by the fissures of the Reformation, the Founding Fathers sought a path for the new nation that would shift the church from its once significant place in social unity. Having witnessed horrific violence in the name of religion, the early American leadership turned to the new theories of social contract, put forth by Enlightenment philosophers, to design a government that would mediate between the differences naturally a part of every human community. Before the Constitution, religion was literally the binding practices for any society. And in Christendom Europe this was even more the case, such that as new forms of Christianity began to slip the singular bond of the Roman church, violence erupted. Princes and clergy aligned, later in what was called the Peace of Westphalia, to secure local sovereignty. So when the Founding Fathers set to form a new experiment, they did so intentionally breaking the link between Church and governance.

Fast forward two hundred years and the mediating role of the Church in society was nearly replaced by the government. Instead of presenting a holistic social vision based on the teachings of Jesus, the church gave over much of the binding work of a mediating institution to the government. However, in the late twentieth century, particularly with the Eisenhower presidency, politicians began to court religious leaders to legitimize the usurping
role of the government. By the start of the twenty-first century blocks of Christianity were solidly within the camps of one political party or another. Pollsters and politicians alike began categorizing voting blocks, like the evangelical parts of the church, as solely beholden to one party.

Now, in this election these voting blocks followed through with their quest to find their views legitimized by the only mediating institution left in the country. And they did so proclaiming the betrayal of their values by their deafening silence about the inconsistencies in their own candidate.

It is my hope and prayer that in the postmortem review of the 2016 election that Christian leaders will finally see their own duplicity in the quest to keep their party in power. And in so doing, we all will see that the politicians who count on us to vote in particular blocks do so only feigning moral clarity, and are just as interested in political power over others.

When we finally see that, we will come to terms with the glaring contradiction to the example of Christ himself, who sought not power over others but a kind of power that willingly took the servants towel.

It is my prayer, then, that the American Church will finally stop seeking legitimacy from the political process, cease trying to enforce a moral vision for the country through political power, and return to being the church. We will reach out to the marginalized, refusing the racist and classist hierarchy of American culture. We will care for the immigrants as scripture commands regarding the stranger in the land, rejecting the fear mongering of politicians and pundits. We will care for our neighbors, even those most different from us, contrary to the elitism of our capitalist economy that teaches us to see them as people to be out done or threats to our economic security. We will open our homes, share our wealth, and protect the most vulnerbale in the compassionate spirit of Christ, contrary to the divisive nature of our political structures. And we will do all of this, not because we want to enforce a kind of moral vision on the country, but because it is simply our civic duty not as Americans, but as citizens of heaven.

So if you are relieved by outcome of the election, or if you are disheartened, take a moment to consider how your own values were compromised in the casting of your vote. Consider how politicians have co-opted the church for their own gain. And consider how the church has increasingly become irrelevant to an entire generation of young people who see right through the power games and recognize that the church has become just as obsessed with power over others as the worst of politicians. And then, consider how we might all return to the valuable mission of God in the world, where all peoples are made one again in the only true mediating presence of Jesus. And finally, may we let go of Christendom and return to being the church.

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Filed under Ecclesiology, Politics and the Church

Midwife Theologians

When we were expecting out first child we decided to go with a midwife. Actually, there were several midwives in this particular practice. In the course of our many visits we saw each midwife so that we would be familiar with whoever happened to be on call when we arrived at the hospital. 

On the night our son was born the midwife amazed me. My wife had started induction earlier in the day and progress was slow. That night, when hard labor came, the midwife was in our room the whole time. She coached on occasion, and she waited patiently while we did what we could to make it through the contractions. When it was clear that a little more intervention was needed, she stepped right in and confidently guided my wife. 

At some point in the last few minutes the IV line pulled out of my wife’s hand. At the sight of the blood on her arm I began to panic. But the midwife looked at me with her cool face, and told me everything was fine. She was the epitome of what counselors call a non-axious presence. 

I was reminded of the work of a midwife in a conversation with my theologian, poet friend Dana. We were talking, as we usually do,  about the new energy in pockets of the church and the age old question of what a church bureaucrat is to do with old wineskins and new wine. Maybe this is the time for midwives of the church. Maybe we need those people who recognize the pain, and point to the birth of something new.

Some argue that as institutions and structures begin to crumble there are open places that emerge. These open places are the perfect place for creative and new things to take shape. What is need though, are those persons who can inhabit the fissures and work in the open space. It is a weird mix of being within the structures yet challenging old visions and dreaming new dreams. It is in this middle place of the now and not yet that the midwife is most needed.

We need coaches who know the signs of pain for pain’s sake and pain that births something new.

We need leaders who can discern what that “something new” looks like, even if it is just visible in outlines.

We need pastors who aren’t anxious and can hold the space for conflict and struggle, not taking it personally but offering counsel and guidance when those around are too mired in the structures as they are to see the possibilities. 

And we need compassionate guides who see the failures in the way things are now and can invite others into new modes of faithfulness. 

We need more midwife-theologians.

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Filed under Ecclesiology

Twitter Killed the Theology Star

We all know that video killed the radio star, but what about social media? Has Twitter killed the theology star?

Theology has rarely been “in style” but social media has opened a door onto the once insular conversations. There was a line between popular and academic theology. Now, with Twitter and blogs, emerging academics write for an audience outside of the “guild.” At the same time, writers of varying degrees jump into blogging and tweeting as a part of their promotional strategy. In the publishing economy, this is becoming more and more essential. One’s followers in social media is seen as market potential.

The clear benefit is that an “ivory tower” discipline can begin to step out of the tower and speak so others may hear. Theologians can begin to hear their work in conversation with so many more people beyond their fellow specialists. Too many books are published for the dozen our so colleagues in the field. Just look at the footnotes and you can see a conversation between a few people. Engaging a wider population helps to stretch our vocabulary and style while at the same time inform our thinking in ways that the traditional format of guild journals and academic publishing has not yet done.

Yet, social media is also creating a bit of a different culture that brings with it a number of problems. First, it creates an air of conversation that is really non-existent without intentional cultivation. Few writers have been able to actually engage an audience and keep the conversation constructive in the process. Instead of conversation, trolls and ideological one-upmanship tend to dominate the threads. As we have seen, a number of news outlets and journals have shut down the comment sections of their webpages for that very reason.

For those emerging into the field by the nature of their formal education or in a desire to cultivate a following to support future projects, the conversations often feel like nothing more than self-referential. In academic forums this is fairly typical. It is not uncommon to sit in a conference presentation and listen to question after question from graduate students that are more about their own interests than about the paper just presented. It is kind of like that scene in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon’s character calls out a first year grad student for his pompous recitation of the basic syllabus. “So you must be in this class, wait until next year when you read these books and you will change your mind.” Yet, in social media, such dismissiveness is akin to heresy. The democratizing assumptions in Twitter and Facebook are such that any attempt to “pull rank” is quickly labeled as mean or patronizing.

The effect is a kind of conversational throat clearing. The theologian has to defer to the readers and commentators in a way that often dismisses his or her own research and expertise. There is no room in social media for a true expert or trained practitioner. Instead, in the chaos of comments, he or she must constantly acknowledge the critiques of readers who often have only read the basic introductions to any one theological topic.

In other instances, when the commenter does have some expertise in a field, the conversation quickly focuses on that person’s understanding. In face-to-face conversations, the expectation of collegiality pushes towards connections and development. Yet, in social media the conversation often sounds like someone trying to make everyone else’s project look like their own. Of course there are ways to show the interrelationships between different theological arguments, often through questions. But the tactics and rhetoric are such that there are sentences of preface in order to not sound like a troll or a random critic.

I am beginning to wonder if Twitter and Facebook can ever really support the kind of conversation they seem to capitalize on. All we need to do is look at the number of headlines that basically say “Look at what this person said on the internet, how stupid can they be!” Or, skim the Twitter feed and see how many “gotcha” tweets have been posted in the last 30 minutes. The nature of short, pithy, and decontextualized statements the likes of Tweets and Facebook posts is based in the soundbite culture of our media. While substantive discourse can emerge, such conversation has to be filtered through the noise of trolls, snark, and flat out error. In short, the energy expended in filtering our the static quickly outweighs the benefits of the media itself. The end result is a social media “persona” that is just as one-directional (“Here is what I think on this subject”) as traditional publishing has been for centuries. Either respond to all the comments, or don’t. To filter out the dregs of trolls and off-handed remarks runs the risk of looking too self-concerned.

For those in Anabaptists circles, social media gives the feel of community when all that really exists is a connection. We often insert our expectations for high church community where relationships are a significant part of our theology, and assume that these connections give us place to confront or converse. However, community in social media is a rarity, and takes effort to cultivate. Just because you are friends on Facebook or follow someone on Twitter does not give one the capacity to “call out” or for that matter to question. In the end, such questions or comments are just more noise to filter. And when the comment or critique that we think is substantial is filleted with the dregs, it becomes personal or the silence becomes a statement made about the character of the other.

In the first centuries of Christianity, Tertullian famously asked (with a bit of rhetorical irony) “what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem.” Maybe it is time to ask a similar question. What does Twitter have to do with Theology? Maybe it hasn’t killed the theology star, but it is importing expectations into the conversation that may not have been there in other media. Maybe social media in general is creating a false sense of community, giving connections the weight of true relationships. This veneer, however, is quickly shattered when someone does not respond as we think they ought. This is not to say that community cannot be encouraged, or even cultivated on-line, but rather such communities are the outliers, and thus the exception that proves the rule. Building relationships through social media takes just as much effort, if not more given the lack of context and non-verbals, as building them in face-to-face conversation.

So then, the irony should be clear. Here I am writing about the pitfalls of social media on a blog that will be shared through Twitter and Facebook. The question, then, is to you: What of theology in the social media landscape?

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Filed under Theology, Uncategorized

Confessions of a Recovering Progressive

Our Sunday school class just wrapped up a great series. We have asked several persons to share how their mind has or has not changed in the course of their life. When you think about it for a second, it is a huge question! We often think of certainty and belief as something we hold onto. Any change of perspective or understanding is somehow a sign of weakness, or even worse “flip=flopping.” Thanks to the American political culture the idea that we can change or come to a different understanding is now anathema. 

After our first set of conversations I started to wonder how I would answer the question. There are a couple of things that came to mind— how I turned to look at the early church in my studies; how I came to see universalism as a problem and not an opportunity. Those topics, of course, would be enough to comprise a blog post or more (and likely light few fires along the way). 

There has been, however, a general trend in my thinking that encompasses those particular topics. In the fancy fashion of catchy titles, I’ll simply say that “how I changed my mind” can be summed up this way- Confessions of a Recovering Progressive.

Growing up I wouldn’t say I lived in either a conservative or progressive part of the country. However, the general influence of American Evangelicalism was quite pronounced. I was an early participant in after school Bible studies, and even went to See You at the Pole events. At the same time I agued for Christian non-violence and pacifism in the days of the first Gulf War. By high school I came to define myself as socially liberal and biblically conservative- not really knowing the baggage of either term. 

In my senior year I chose to attend a generally progressive college. My friends who knew of Manchester, and heartedly disagreed with what they knew about the school, wished me well by saying: “Don’t let them change you.” Knowing these persons well, I understood this as a fond farewell. But I am sure there are others who hear it as a bit derogatory. In fact, my declaration of a major— Peace Studies— probably did create some concern.

At college, my sense of not fitting the mold continued. I eventually dropped my pursuit of Peace Studies for a variety of reasons, the foremost of which was that I felt my emphasis on religion as the basis for peace making was on the fringe of my fellow students. That isn’t to say that the Manchester Peace Studies lacked a religious foundation, but rather my peers held a typically modern perspective that religious conviction is at the root of most violence. 

Nonetheless, over time I found myself self-identifying as a progressive Christian. I even bought a book or two by John Spong. I was simply running in the crowds that valued a clear sense of being progressive and I had cut my theological chops among them. By the time I entered PhD work, I had even made my position clear as so many did in the early 2000’s— on Facebook. I listed my “Political Views” as progressive. 

Along the way though, I have never really felt too at home in that circle of liberalism. I have often felt at odds with the general assumptions about Modern Liberalism. Here I should say that Liberalism is the dominant perspective of America. The assumptions and ideologies of Liberalism frame our cultural and religious debates from religion and science, politics and faith, to economics and social good. It is the genus for the two political species we call “progressive” and “conservative.” In essence these two camps are arguing with each other as to the best understanding of the liberal perspectives ushered in by the politics and philosophy of modernity (Kant and Descartes, just to name two). Basically, progressives and conservatives are arguing about how to be the best Liberals.

At one point this finally came to a head as I argued with a fellow Brethren theologian about the ways the liberal dichotomy of progressive and conservative impact the debates of the day. He quickly commented that even as I say these things my Facebook profile labeled me within that liberal construct. The chipping away of my progressive credentials had begun, and I deleted my own label. 

Certainly, as many of my blog posts attest, I am not all that liberal. I have found Post-Liberalism to reflect more of where I stand, especially in my critiques of modern assumptions and the false dichotomy of progressive and conservative. In 2012 I posted a piece on the surge of interest in Neo-Anabaptism. There I tried to say that those of us within historic Anbapatist circles that find the emerging camps of Neo’s helpful and interesting are drawn to the Post-Liberal perspectives of thinkers such as Stanley Hauerwas. In a way, I was making my position much more clear, stating plainly that my constant fringe feeling within liberal circles, even before I knew the word Post-Liberal, was indicative of not having the right category. 

So thanks to my friend and fellow NuDunker Andy, I picked up Nancey Murphy’s book on liberalism and fundamentalism. There I found the exact sentiment I had been experiencing all my life, and had tried to encapsulate by saying I was socially progressive and biblically conservative. In her opening argument Murphy sums it up this way (in paraphrase): To the liberal we sound like fideists, and to the conservatives we sound like relativists. And there it was! I finally saw in print the exact feeling I had in high school and college. Progressivism simply did not have space for the deep sense of faith and tradition I often argue for in my theology. At the same time, conservatism simply did not have room for the pastoral and contextual perspective I often bring to ideological debates. 

So despite my strong critiques of capitalism, the death penalty, and the American warring culture, I am just not a progressive. At the same time, I am not do not think that returning to anything actually is possible or helpful (there are things like patriarchy that I simply do not want to recover). 

Of course, there is a lot more to say about changing my mind. There are a lot of tapes that run in our heads, especially in our political climate where liberalism in both forms defines so much of our language and perspectives. Pressing pause on those tapes, or even playing them backwards, takes time and energy. To do so, is often the source of some personal frustration and draws side glances or outright conflict from others. Yet, I have to say I am a recovering progressive in search of better words, more options, and less antagonism in the ways we understand our world and our discipleship. For now, it is enough to just say I am more at home among those for whom faithfulness is our social capital and not progress, where the politics of the world are but shadow games in light of the Politics of Jesus, and where economic presuppositions are based in mutuality and sharing rather than accumulation of wealth as a sign of success and blessing. 

And in the end, I remain a recovering progressive. 

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Filed under Reflections

The Apophatic Rage and its Problems

It is all the rage among popular theological writers today to make the apophatic turn. Apophatic theology is basically being clear about what we do not know about God, and that our theology needs an “ unsaying” through a negating of the names we use for God. For example, we can say with confidence “God is my rock.” Apophatic theology reminds that we must also say “God is not a rock.”

In the wake of the Emergent Church movement these writers, exemplified in the work of Peter Rollins, have turned to Deconstruction in the mode of Jacques Derrida to raise up the importance of questioning often unquestioned dogma and culturally assumed ideas. Following Rollins’ book, there is a need to turn away from the idolatry of God.

What these followers of Derrida rarely acknowledge is that apophaticism, or negative theology, has historic roots in the Christian tradition itself. Basically, they say nothing new. Their method, however, barely echoes these historic roots. Instead, what Rollins and others present is a mental exercise of negating the terms within theological discourse. For the ancients, this couldn’t be further from the case. Rather, apophaticism was a formative process- an ascetic discipline.

For Pseudo-Dionysius, the early proponent of such a negative theology, there are two modes of talking about God- the naming of God or kataphatic theology, and the corresponding descent of un-naming God or apophatic theology. As Sarah Coakley argues in her recent book God, Sexuality, and the Self, the twin modes of theology were accompanied by the ascetic pursuit of contemplative prayer. In order to speak to God the theologian names God and then must negate those names in order to listen to God. This was far from a practice of theological discourse or thinking, rather it paralleled the reformation of self often called asceticism.

The work of Rollins and others falls into the modern trap of thinking the problem is with the way we think. Instead, I think the early apophatic writers were clear that we need to reform our practices and our thinking. The two are not to be separated. What is more, the apophatic turn- the negation of the names for God- was a means of clearing the ground of the mind in order to hear God in prayer. Simply put, apophaticism wasn’t a philosophical or rhetorical exercise. It was a way of life, based in waiting on God in prayer.

In our time, the seeds of the Enlightenment have taken full root. Coupled with the publishing market place for theology, we are often dealing more with the realm of ideas than we are with practices. Speak the word “theology” and we all assume we are talking about a way of thinking. Yet, as I have highlighted in other posts, these earlier writers were convinced that theology was comprised of practices and thinking. As Evagrius said, “the theologian is one who truly prays.” Theology in this frame is not about publishing books but praying to God. In fact, the very word “orthodoxy” was not about right dogma but about the right praising of God (doxa being the Greek word for praise).

Rollins and others are right in the impulse to reclaim the ancient practice of un-naming God. However, this practice is not a reclamation of Hegel’s full dialectic (thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; antithesis corresponding to the new apophaticism). Nor is it a philosophical approach to writing made popular in the works of Derrida. The ascetic and contemplative of the early proponents of negative theology reveal just how mind focused our theological discourse has become. The contemporary apophatic writers miss the need to silence the world of words that hinder our very prayers.

Of course, I am biased in this assessment. Having read Dionysius and many others it is easy to see the gaps in Rollins’ approach. That is not to dismiss the role his writing plays in popular theology, but rather to name my own hope that his work is an entrance into contemplative tradition of the church. In short, bringing apophatic theology back into common, Protestant theology is not about questioning authority, but recognizing that our prayers are both filled with words and silence in the presence of God.

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Filed under Theology

Will the Real Yoder Please Stand Up

In Anabaptist land the debates around the legacy of John Howard Yoder are heating up. It seems that every Menno or Neo-Anabaptist blogger is wrestling with what to do with Yoder. Even contemporary writers working with Yoder’s theology have to now offer a kind of apologetic for doing so- (See the appendix to Peter C. Blum’s newest book “For a Church to Come”.) Even Mennonite Church USA has called a committee to assess Yoder’s legacy. Funny, since he died sixteen years ago, and the disciplinary process of his conference had concluded the previous year. Is this a new day of Anabaptist Inquisition?

Up front, I have to say I have no skin in this game. I am not a Yoder scholar, nor have I read much more than a couple of his books. I do find him useful in many regards simply because of his publishing. Other theologians know what I am talking about because Yoder jumped into the wider theological discussions of his time.

Second, there is no excuse for his conduct. Neither his social awkwardness or any theological justification that remains in his unpublished papers can convince me of that. Plainly, and flatly, he clearly abused his power and prestige. Even if a case can be made that some of the encounters were consensual, I still believe them to be in error, not just because of my theology of marriage and sexuality, but because any consent is still clouded by his position of power over others- as a teacher and as a noted scholar in the field. Basically, he held the careers of women in the balance based on his assessment. In ethics lingo, he was in a position of undue influence and he abused that position for his own gain.

Lastly, I mourn with the women still traumatized by Yoder and the continued engagement with his work. I stand with them, both in the call to openly discuss the failings of leadership and the unmasking of continued abuse of women by men in power.

At the same time, I hope that Yoder’s most vocal critics can distinguish their theological disagreements from their distaste for his conduct. As I said in a recent comment on Young Anabaptist Radicals, to mask disagreement with Yoder’s thought and influence with a pious ad hominem is to re-use the women he traumatized for other gains. Though this is not sexual abuse, it is abuse by proxy.

So I am hoping for some honesty to enter the conversation. I wish that all of Yoder’s work were available to assess just how his understanding of sex connects to his other published works. I also wish that people who are critical of his work were honest about the nature of their disagreement. If the frustration is with the ubiquity of his scholarship, then say so. If there are disagreements with the theology he outlined, then name the differences. But please, name the differences rather than resorting to the ad hominem of “and his work should be negated by his conduct.”

As I said in my comment on YAR, Hauerwas and McClendon clearly understood the implications of Yoder’s conduct for his writing. Thus, they coached him to submit to the disciplinary process as a living out of his stated convictions about the church and discipleship. That is not to say that his submission to the conference was a calculated political move, but that only in Anabaptist circles is such harmony between ideas and practice so important.

Other theologians are well known for their behavior. Barth had a long time sexual relationship with his assistant. Tillich is also known for his sexual conduct. Others are known for a clear lack of compassion in general. Yet, to say that “thus their work is questionable” matters very little. I certainly have problems with Barth’s theology and the way it is now an industry in itself. Yet, it is disingenuous and lazy to say his extra-marital relationship negates anything he says.

For Anabaptists in general, such an ad hominem has dramatic effects. It is inscribed in us from the first days of discipleship that our life and theology are to match. So to resort to the fallacy has tremendous rhetorical implications. Yet, it seems to me that the equally important value for discernment in community should remind us that we are also to discern our personal motivations.

Just as the women who were traumatized find the continued praise and publication of Yoder’s work to open old wounds, I have to assume that the invocation of their trauma for gains other than healing is equally as painful. So, then, just as many are asking for the real Yoder to stand up, and be known, I hope that the real criticisms of his work will be made known. Standing on the back of these women for political, theological, or other gain seems to put them back into the power play that first began at the hands of Yoder.

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Sect or Community

Bounded vs CenteredSet_ChristIn recent discussions (see here and the discussion here) of Neo-Anabaptism, historical Anabaptism and Radical Pietism, and even Missional theology, one refrain continues to surface: These groups or categories are just still to “old school.” In an age such as ours where pluralism is the norm and distaste for the all things religious, we theologians need to open the doors and sell off the old baggage of “Church.” In a way, such a thesis is a response to the charges of sectarianism leveled at the Radical Reformation traditions. By dumping the baggage in what can easily be identified as one of Phyllis Tickle’s 500 year rummage sale, the hope is that faith will find that the Spirit of God is out and about within wider world. Babylon may turn out to be much different from the heathen culture we have deemed it to be in our holier-than-thou sectarian confines.

This is true- in part. Our sectarian ideologies were simply too naive. To withdraw from the world as if to create the heavenly equivalent in the confines of a pure community simply created communities of control. Defining the stark boundary that should not be crossed by clothing, transportation, worship styles, and even purity codes and creeds missed the scriptural reminder that God is restoring the cosmos to its original intents- reconciling all things, as Paul says in Romans, to God’s self.

Jesus’ retreat to the desert was limited. It was not his whole life and ministry. Rather, such a reorienting withdraw sent him back into the culture of Roman occupied Palestine to answer the questions of faithful living.

Paul, with a foot in both Roman and Hebrew worlds, spoke in two languages, able to see the redemptive work of Christ for both the Jew and the Gentile.

Yet, each of these examples reveals that the redemptive work was done within these cultures and despite these cultures. Jesus didn’t accept all the ways of Rome and Paul did not adopt all the ways of his own Hebrew tradition. There is a sorting that goes on as we live faithfully within the world around us. In spiritual terms, we do some discerning to know if what is before us is of God or something else altogether.

That means we as followers of Christ don’t just sell off all the churchy stuff and jump into the ways of the world. In fact, it is too easy to see around us that things are not as they should be. Scarcity defines our economics to the extent that few have much and the many have very little. Wars dominate the societal visions for control as one country or group finds more and more efficient ways to terrorize and defeat their enemies. And politics, once the quest for the common good, has come to mean nothing other than brinksmanship so that a few may prosper.

Looking at these facets of the “world” should temper any vision that all is good in the land of Babylon.

However, there are places where God is clearly at work. There are times when life is nurtured, people are loved, resources are shared, and peace defines a time. We, as followers of Christ, have the occasion to see these moments for what they are- thin places between heaven and earth; horizons of the world as it is and the coming reign of God.

So we can’t just flee the world, nor can we just say that all is spirit and light. We must “discern the spirits” around us. And where else do we learn to see beneath the veneer but in the formative context of Christian practice. As James K.A. Smith reveals in his book Desiring the Kingdom, we must come to terms with the reality that the practices of the Church and the liturgies of the world are in competition. This is not to draw the stark boundaries of sectarian withdraw, sorting out the Church from the world. Rather, it simply names that we come to recognize God at work in the world through the embodied narratives (liturgies) of the Christian community. For it is there that we hear the shared stories of scripture that witness to the ways of God; share the testimonies of how God has been at work here and now; share a sparse spread of bread and wine as a foretaste of a grand feast; and take part in the needs and joys of each other in the recognition of our interconnected lives. These very practices confront the dominant societal narratives of self-interest, immediate gratification, isolation from and yet power over others. By seeing the contrast between the ways of God in the formative life of the Christian community, we come to look for these signs in our life in the world.

It is in Christian community, not sectarian life, that we come to discern just what God is doing  in, around, and hopefully through us as followers of Christ.

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Deconstructing Violence, Embodying the Kingdom

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“Non-Violence” image courtesy of Flickr.com

In a recent workshop on faith and politics the standard trope about Anabaptism quickly emerged. “We have a moral responsibility within society, and to vote would be to abdicate that responsibility.” The implication was clear- the Anabaptist impulse to withdraw (itself a narrowly defined understanding of the tradition) is a dismissal of that social moral imperative. This presenter then followed it up with the typical casuistry exemplar. With the rise of gun violence in Chicago, a well documented trend, what is the Christian to do? Wouldn’t lobbying for gun reform be the wisest, expedient, and most moral action to take?

Now in the most recent issue of The Christian Century Scott Paeth, associate professor of religion at DePaul University asks in a brief editorial: “What culture of violence?” The subtitle of the article makes his case clear- “Why we shouldn’t blame video games and movies.” If that was not enough to reveal his partisan stripes, his opening summary of the National Rifle Association and concluding remarks about the need for limiting firearms placed him within the political debate. “A more effective approach, I suspect, would be to contain the potential damage done by the confluences of violent media and violent intentions by depriving the fire of its power to burn. This would entail imposing tighter restrictions on the availability of certain kinds of firearms and ammunition” (pg, 12).

The argument leading to this conclusion follows typical modern assumptions about society and progress. As he states plainly, “the data do not support the idea that the consumption of violent media leads to a greater propensity toward violence.” Even more starkly, he says that the evidence “points in the opposite direction” (pg. 11). In support he states rather plainly, “overall violence has declined in the United States over the past five years” (pg. 11).

To be fair, Paeth’s overall caution is worth keeping in mind. The causes of violence are intricate and complicated. Addressing violent games and movies is not sufficient. Issues such as poverty, drugs, and access to weapons play a role in societal violence. What is more, the brief theological observation later in the editorial is equally a part of the conversation for the church: “At the heart of Christian teaching is the realization that we are in some sense fundamentally broken creatures, sinners in need of redemption from a transcendent source” (pg. 12).

However, the leap to advocate for public policy does not necessarily follow. As was evidenced by the presenter who asked what an Anabaptist was to do in the face of rising gun violence in Chicago, the modern imagination is hostage to the politics of the society. Meaningful, and “efficient” engagement with society- the redemption from a transcendent source- is to be found in the legislative debates of partisan politics. Underlying this limited thinking is a kind of exceptionalism, of the progressive kind. Despite mass killings in the 20th and 21st century, and the stunning efficiency (even dehumanizing of) killing, progressives continue to champion the progress of modern society. Not only have the last five years seen drop in violent crime, but the very political system itself is  presented as a sign of humanity’s rising, its capacity to effect societal change. In a moment of Pelagian optimism, Paeth demonstrates this plainly when he says that “as a society, we seem to be getting less violent even as the depiction of violence in media becomes more graphic and realistic” (pgs 11-12).

Indeed, as Paeth says, the causes of such horrific violence- whether in mass shootings or on the part of nations- the causes of violence are legion. To name one facet, whether violent video games or access to firearms or poverty induced crime, is to over simplify. Unfortunately, by taking the legislative position he does, Paeth engages in the same fallacy as the NRA.

In truth, the lobbying option is too easy. Asking a senator to vote one way on a particular piece of legislation requires nothing of us. In terms of discipleship to Christ, such advocacy does nothing for the incarnational witness in the places that need the change the most. In other words, the lobbyist can live in the comfort of affluent K St northwest in Washington DC but never have to confront the actual violence just a few miles away in the northeast quadrant of the city. To legislate weapons of any kind does nothing to address the statistically confirmed indicators of violence- poverty, isolation, and drugs.

To the presenter in the faith and politics workshop- the answer is clear, but not easy. Changing the culture of violence asks us to embody Christ in the places where the violence is happening. Move into the neighborhood. Build relationships. Mentor young people. Invest in local businesses. In other words, live the same self-emptying posture of Jesus himself (Philippians 2). Step down from our affluent isolation, beholden to societal expectations of upward mobility, and live with the people in most need of love and grace. It isn’t new laws that stop the violence. It is real people, in real relationships, that work in Christ-like ways, telling new stories of non-violent redemption and resurrection, sharing food around real tables, and caring for one another that bring to life a new way of Christ-centered peace into our world.

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It’s the guns and our imagination

We are all stunned, spinning in a state shock after the events in Connecticut last Friday. Today, I dropped my own first grader off at school, saying a short prayer as he closed the door and strangely comforted by the police cruiser parked at the corner.

In our dizzying state of disbelief a number of responses have emerged. Some have rallied to stem the tide of firearms, both through legislation and in gun buy back programs. Others, have stood up for increasing the number of weapons in our public spaces through concealed carry permits and even armed teachers in our classrooms. One thing is for certain, each of these and all the responses in-between grow out of the same grief, terror, and unknowing.

I’m not a card carrying member of the NRA, and even long for some tighter restrictions on the number and availability of firearms. As is often said at graduations around the country- there has to be some understanding of the responsibilities that come with rights. So, as I read through the many news stories about the Sandy Hook shooting, I can’t see how new gun legislation would have prevented it. Sure, very few people need a military style, semi-automatic rifle and magazines that carry more than 10 rounds. Yet, if it wasn’t the Bushmaster .223, it could have just as easily been the Glock and Sig which are both as fast and have 10 round clips or even any other rifle that can fire multiple rounds per second.

There seems to be a deeper concern- which some public figures have tried to put their finger on, but have only made matters worse. The question that hovers above the politics of gun control and ownership seems to be more cultural. “What is happening that persons week after week enter our public spaces to kill mass numbers of innocent people?” A week ago, a man entered a mall with a similar weapon and was only slowed down by a jammed round in the gun. The week before that another man went on a similar rampage, this time with a bow and arrow. It doesn’t appear to be the guns, but a culture of violence that shapes our imaginations to find some solace for despair in killing unknown and countless innocent people.

Some pastors have tried to say that it is because America has rejected God. Mike Huckabee and others have tried to say this was the result of taking prayer out of schools. What if, however, it isn’t a matter of what has been taken away, but what has been ever present in our culture for over 10 years- war and war games.

As I have argued in many other posts, we pay very little attention to the things that shape and form us. James K.A. Smith has made this abundantly clear in his book Desiring the Kingdom. There are liturgies in our society, both religious and secular, that shape what we desire and imagine. News cast after news cast show us the costs of war- death tolls, anonymous bombings and unmanned drone strikes, fear and the clouds of war. What is more, an entire generation has grown up on special ops video games that place the person in the first person perspective watching the “enemy” spray blood and die with the pull of a virtual trigger. Even more alarming is the rate at which these games have grown in simulating the reality of gun battles and war.

It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the company which produced the Bushmaster .223 used on Friday has publicly stated that these military style weapons are the weapons of choice for young adults. In these video games, the AR-15, the Sig Sauer, and the Glock are all depicted with stunning realism and can be selected for the game. The rise in these shootings with these weapons is a direct product of imaginations shaped by the war games and television shows that depict them as cool and fun.

Certainly, the availability and open access to such firearms should be questioned. At the same time we should be asking just what things within our culture actively shape our hearts and minds to imagine such radical forms of violence. Our kids no longer play “Cowboys” with finger pistols but sit in front of true to life images of guns and violence. The jump, then, from game to reality increasingly narrows so that pushing a game control button and pulling a real trigger are not dissimilar.

In full disclosure, no news of this particular shooter playing such games has been reported. I am rather pointing to the things within our culture which make imagining a mass shooting possible. We should be actively questioning such realism as entertainment. And we should be finding ways to breakdown the isolation, social abuse, and fear that create a matrix with our violently shaped imaginations and make possible such acts.

As a people, we are no longer desensitized to acts of violence. We are shaped to imagine them with shocking realism.

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The Impact of the Gaze

After the summer of 2011 I began using a phrase to describe the way I understand the church. In the midst of our extended denominational conversation about sexuality we intentionally gathered the responses from the local hearings that were taking place. Far from statistically sound, the information gathered did provide an interesting picture of the denomination as it thought about the question. The committee that reported back noted that about 2/3rds of the church existed right about in the middle while 1/3 was divided between either end of the spectrum. Students of any trend would say that such a range of opinions would match what is known as the bell curve- the center populated by two thirds of the population and the ends tailing off in either direction. Leading up to the report, some said that there was no bell curve among the Brethren, and that two thirds in some way opposed opening the question regarding sexuality. To be sure, this is true. When the curve is assessed from the perspective of opening the question, there is a more than 50% + 1 who would oppose the question. But that does not mean that all are in agreement with the reasoning why. When I walked away from the report in 2011, I quickly latched onto another reality. There is a church in the middle of the poles. There is a church in the middle who has yet to be convinced by the heightened rhetoric of the extremes.

Of course there were some who quickly replied that I was trying to take a middle road on an issue that there could be no middle road- that justice or purity would tolerate no middle ground. But that was to prove the case even more- the ends of the spectrum have too handily defined the conversation.

The Middle Church, or the 2/3rds who chose church unity, have yet to be convinced by the extremes. And we, as the leaders of the church have yet to ask the question that gets at the heart of the middle ground.

Take for instance what happens when you cut an apple. Any kid is fascinated when an apple is cut and the star of seeds appears in the center. But if the adult is cutting on the easier angle- with the natural feet of the apple steadying the fruit for a bisecting cut from the stem- the magic star vanishes. In other words, how you cut defines the picture that emerges. In the scientific lingo of the Heisenberg principle, our very gaze impacts the outcome.

In the case of our heated debates about sexuality, gender, and politics we are cutting on the angle that may be the easiest but reveals an unconvincing image. What if another approach or angle is available, but we lack the imagination to turn it over? What if the ends of the spectrum have so captured our thoughts that we can’t see the forest for the trees?

Recently, it was said that the political climate of the US isn’t dividing the church, and that even without the binary rhetoric of the Democrats and Republicans the church would divide based on competing theologies. That maybe so, but I am not convinced that the middle church isn’t asking a completely different question than the so-called poles, even within the realms proper to the church.

And that is just it. For all the talk of the polarization of our culture, both in and out of the church, there are usually only two options. In the jargon of post-structuralism that is called a binary- an either/or. Better stated, we are constantly presented with a false dichotomy.

In the past six weeks I have been apart of four different arguments that were stuck in the world of binaries. The problems, as those in the argument saw it, were that either one is Catholic or Anabaptist, Academic or Lay, Voting or Not-Voting, Naive or Just. Thankfully, in just about each of these, it became clear that the binary was bull.

Whether or not one is schooled in the esoteric world of post-structuralism, it doesn’t take long before something smells afoul when the rhetoric employs the words “either” and “or”. The more I encounter the either/or arguments the more I realize there is a whole group of people in the middle longing for a different question all together. Two things have made that clear to me in the same six weeks.

As the editor of this blog, I took some heat for publishing a post asking if voting was the virtuous act that so many claim it to be. Some clearly were angry that the question was even asked, while others pressed for a more balanced, if not binary series- a pro and con kind of conversation. I was amazed at the post I received the day of the election. While the two postings argued for different actions, the intent and nuance in the middle was strikingly similar. The concerns that emerged from this intersection of the two posts sounded very similar and yet, the call to action was different. In the end, the question about voting didn’t seem all that heated since the two sets of writers clearly were talking the same language.

The second event is still in process. As a group of us Brethren theologians have gathered privately, it has become clear that a new mode of conversation is needed. Shaped by a new medium of discourse, we are asking theological and practical question, in a clearly conversational way. In other words, social media is redefining the very modes of theological discourse. As one of these NuDunkers put it, we are looking for ways to be practical and theoretical, concerned about people and passionate about ideas, pastoral and academic. The trick is clear, those binary thinkers around us want us to be either/or. Are you NuDunkers gonna offer anything of substance? Subtext: Are you going to gather the liberals or conservatives.

Short answer: No, we are cutting the apple another way. We are looking for the star and not the poles.

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