Tag Archives: Culture

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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What is Missional Anyways?

In case you have had your head in the sand or just don’t pay attention to the forthcoming titles on publisher sites you probably haven’t heard that my Neo-Anabaptist, and fellow Chicagoans, Dave Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw have a new book coming in March. Check out their video discussion of why they wrote the book (filmed at a McDonald’s of course).

Emergent church guru Tony Jones picked up the video and reflected on the nature of names and how they serve as an umbrella term for a diverse range of folks, many of whom probably wouldn’t be caught dead in the same room with each other.

“I’ve written before about the term “missional.” It bends a lot of ways. It’s a term that basically anyone can use for what ever purpose they want — from a stalwart Southern Baptist neocon like Ed Stetzer to an Anabaptist pacifist like David Fitch. And then you’ve got the neo-Barthian camp like Darrell Guder and John Franke. They’re all “missional,” and so are a dozen church planting networks like TransForm, Forge, and the Parish Collective.”

Tony then offers a kind of rhetorical exercise:

“So here’s a test. Imagine a Christian leader saying this: “I’m not missional.”

There is some truth to the statement. Yet, it also betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of just what is meant by Missional. Even a basic reading of one or two resources would reveal that what is meant by Missional is not just being about the work outside the church. So to actually answer Tony’s rhetorical test- Of course a leader wouldn’t say he or she is not missional, but it also does not mean they get the general assumptions within Missional Theology proper.

A quick glance at the table of contents of Prodigal Christianity reveals just what grounds Missional thinking– “Signpost One: Post-Christendom.” From the early works of Leslie Newbigin, the fundamental perspective of Mission Theology was the Church’s shift in cultural location. While this shift is clearly one still in process, it is evident both from the backlash of the religious right and the recent data on the rise of the nones (those who name no religious affiliation on American Religiosity studies) the church in North America is slipping from its once established cultural pedestal. As I have said in other settings, the logic of American experiment is reaching its logical conclusion. Missional thought, then, isn’t just about getting outside the church doors. Rather it begins with accepting Post-Christendom as a gift for the renewal of radical discipleship.

Unlike “emergent,” which purposefully focused on the questions and conversation, Missional Theology begins with this simple core understanding of the Church’s position within the wider cultural frame. While it indeed is a term that gathers together Presbyterians, Non-Denominational, and Jones’ favorite, Hauerwasian Mafia there is still a core imaginary that reaches across the spectrum. The Church is no longer the spiritual advisor to American culture.

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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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A Materialistic Church: The Missional Corrective to Anabaptism

The standard critique of Anabaptism in its traditional form, and thus extended to its recent recovery, is that it is sectarian. Anabaptist visions of living in an alternative community, with different stories and rituals, is about withdraw from the current world. In fairness to the critique, there are some forms of the tradition that are about withdraw and creating a strong separatist culture with a dominant society. It is said, then, that Anabaptists are disconnected from reality and overly idealistic in thought and practice.

Yet, this need not be the case. In fact, I think that the intersection of Missional thinking and Anabaptism is a right balance of peculiarity and cultural participation. In this video, Michael Frost at the Sentralized conference demonstrates just how fruitful the interaction between the two schools of thought can be. Rather than arguing for a purist community withdrawn from society, Frost talks of the church as a community in exile. Dress in the clothes, enjoy the food and games, develop relationships with others, and yet tell the radical stories, sing the dangerous songs and embody different ways within the dominant culture.

Put another way, the Missional posture takes the Anabaptist community out of the realm of ideal forms and puts it on the ground. The congregation, as the central story telling and ritual place, does not exist in the sweet by and by. Rather, it is local- it is made up of people right where we are, comprised of hopes, fears, questions and needs. It is not isolated from the injustices of the society, nor is it immune to the questions the surrounding culture is asking.

Thus we aren’t talking about ethereal practices, but specific actions. We aren’t just talking about radical songs, but the very things a congregation actually sings. And when we talk of washing feet, we aren’t talking about a sentimental woodcut image but real feet on real people. And when we say we are being the church, it is clearly not the ideal. We are real people, who have goals and yet stumble along the way. We laugh with each other one moment and gossip the next. We serve meals with each other and then work at power grabs in the business meeting. The Missional corrective to Anabaptism reminds us that we are real people with faults and are situated in a wider context from which there is no escape.

Those who tend toward the idealized portrait of the church, those of the Anabaptist persuasion would do well to take seriously the contextual and cultural awareness that Missional theology brings. As part of that move, it is important for us Neo-Anabaptists and NuDunkers to wrestle significantly with the Incarnation as the defining theological frame for the tradition. By remembering that Christ did not come outside of a time and a place, we can begin to articulate how the vision for the church so central to our thought is not divorced from either. Our faith is, as Peter Rollins and many others say, a materialistic faith. And thus our ecclesiology or theology of the church, must be equally materialistic and embodied.

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What just happened?

Votes have been cast. I am sure tears have been shed just as there have been shouts of victory. Yet, we all woke up today- the world did not end either in the coming of a savior or in the first days of the anti-christ. So we really have to ask- What just happened?

Unfortunately, the politi-tainment machines are still in gear. Now the media will move into the post-mortem of an electoral season that their viewers were first hand observers of for over 18 months. While a retrospective is outside the norm for our 24 hour news cycle, it is an important move. Although I would go about it completely differently. Instead of looking to polls to interpret the meaning of the outcome, I think we should be asking ourselves a different question- “What just happened to us?”

From my experience, I can only say that we have been object of a systematic effort to co-opt our imagination.

In the late weeks of October a number of bloggers, from Catholic to Anabaptist, explored the ideas of “not voting.” In reading both the posts and the comments, it was evident that to even ask the question was enough to draw anxiety and out right anger. It used to be that the question of voting was framed as  “civic responsibility.” Even those who would object to war were voting as a way of participating in the range of American democracy. In using the goods of the civic system, the responsible thing to do was vote. Now, the logic of the Religious Right of the 1980’s, has taken significant hold across the religious spectrum. If one has convictions about the public good, whether related to abortion, poverty, or war, there is a spiritual mandate to contribute one’s voice through a  vote. In many ways, the cast vote is now a prophetic witness. Unfortunately, those who chose not to vote cast their abstinence in the same light- to not vote is to offer a public witness to the debacle of American governance. Both groups then, take the moral high road, invoking a long tradition of prophetic witness while conflating it with the act of voting and its negation.

The reality is that this very divide is a direct product of the political system. We can’t seem to think in shades or in nuance. It is either black or white, red or blue, conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican. The American experiment in democracy is precisely the outgrowth of the modern binary of either/or. To even think there is a range of reasons to not vote, or that one’s conscience to cast a ballot is based on a number of concerns or issues just passes by unnoticed. Either one votes, and is an upstanding Christian and true prophet or one is apostate and in danger of losing one’s soul for not. Never mind the equally judgmental rhetoric that is leveled at those who cast votes, albeit for a different party. Somehow we have arrived to the point where one’s faith and Christian walk is dependent not just on voting, but voting for one candidate or the other.

So what has happened to Christians in the midst of this polarized, binary culture? We fight amongst ourselves. We accuse one of not being for justice and another for not caring about the poor. We base our judgments of people’s faith based on their candidate signs in their yard. We look down the pew with disdain knowing our fellow worshiper has “that guy’s sticker”  on his or her car.” Meanwhile, we expend all our energy on the name calling and excommunicating as more people lose their homes, grow hungry and are killed by nation-state aggression.

What has happened to us in this electoral cycle? Easy. We have become more divided and easily conquered. The ways of the system have effectively neutralized any prophetic witness from the church for decades because we have conflated our faith, our vote, and our voice.

So now what? As I said recently- vote, don’t go vote. Discern your conscience. Then once the high holy day of American Democracy has passed, lets meet in the streets and sit with the poor, wash their feet, give them a meal. Let’s go to the VA and cry with the vets while we bandage their physical and emotional wounds. Let’s all take a single mother into our lives, helping to raise the child and let’s cry with the one who found no other option but to have an abortion. Then, once our whispered voices of votes and non-votes have faded we can embody a true prophetic shout together.

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Inauthentic Me?

I recently had a great conversation with a young leader in our denomination. This person asked the right question: “Do you feel like you can’t be you since you work with the whole denomination?”

It is the question of a generation.

Authenticity is a big deal today. Are you being true to yourself? Are you being who you say you are, or are you morphing into someone everyone else what you to be? And for many today, inauthenticity is the 8th deadly sin.

To be honest, I am not one to champion authenticity. I might cry foul when someone is politicking me or putting up a front, but I don’t think that being authentic is the remedy. I just don’t think we should start making Authenticity, with a capital A, the newest Cardinal Virtue.

Simply put, sometimes the “me” I want to be isn’t the best me. Or to phrase it another way, there a lot of times I rely on a simple motto: The first thing I thought, not the first thing I said.

See, I can get angry. My frustrations often get the better of me and my repines is not the best side of my personality.

I can jump to judgements without hearing the whole story, or taking the time to understand what is going on.

In a personality survey, I test low in “Rule Consciousness.” Basically, when rules make sense to me, I follow them as best I can. When they seem superfluous or overly legalistic, I tend to work from “Ask forgiveness rather than permission.”

And quite frankly, I am naturally anxious. I get nervous about how I come across. I worry as the expectations mount, and fear failure above most everything else. The end result is that I can easily become paralyzed in my anxiety and fear. The easiest route for me is not to try, or to hide away and avoid the possibility of failure.

If I am being me, then these things come out. And sometimes, the post-modern desire for authenticity says that these come without apologies. I am who I am, and I should be me in any circumstance.

In Christian spirituality this often is categorized under “Being who God created me to be.” Or at least that is the excuse. God has made me an angry, judgmental, expedient, and anxious person. Yet, when I live there, I am not the person I most want to be. In old fashioned churchy language, I sin. I hurt others. I hide rather than witness to God’s work. And I don’t enter the doors God has called through.

Think of Moses as he hears God’s call to return to Egypt as a liberator. “God, I can’t do that … that just isn’t me.” Yet, in the presence of God’s call the true self emerges. Its funny as we read through Moses’ journey from the Sinai to Egypt he makes all the speeches. His “press secretary” Aaron, the one God appointed as Moses’ companion, doesn’t say much. The stuttering shepherd became the eloquent leader.

Our emphasis on Authenticity today has ignored the reality that we each have two selves. There is the me I project and try to maintain, what Thomas Merton often called “the false self.” In the transforming grace of Christ, however, we each discover our “true selves.” We come to know our faults, and yet live into the gifts God has given us for mission.

Unfortunately, I don’t live as my true self all the time. Occasionally the true me surfaces and good things happen, but more often than not I look back and see the parts of me that cause hurt or paralysis. To be sure, the false self can be the one that others try to force onto me. The graced me, the Josh God is helping me to become, fights that projection just as much as the one I create. Yet, authenticity doesn’t get at the True Self. It does not ask me which self I am being true to- the false one, or the one God is leading me towards.

In the light of Christ my aim is to be my True Self, the one I am called to be, not necessarily the one I am.

The better antidote to the vice of inauthenticity is better understood as humility. I am Josh, the some times angry, some times anxious and judgmental. I am the Josh who tries and stumbles and tries again. I am the Josh who has some ideas, but not all the answers. And I am the Josh that needs others to help me see the whole picture. Humility as a virtue says to all those around us that we are who we are, but we are striving towards the “me I want to be.” Humility asks those around us to join that same journey, simply because we are more ourselves when we are with others.

Some might throw up warnings that too much emphasis on “me with others” leads to stifling of my true self. Yet, I think that Rowan Williams says it best in his book Tokens of Trust: “Our peace is what it is because it is a flow of unbroken activity, the constant maintenance of relation and growth as we give into each others’ lives and receive from each other, so that we advance in trust and confidence.” (105).

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If we build it…

At a recent conference a Neo-Anabaptist friend of mine asked why the traditional Anabaptists in the room were so unaware of the missional, post-christendom nature of our faith. It was quite obvious that most of those in the room, especially those over forty, were steeped in the liberal and institutional nature of the Brethren and Mennonites. In fact, often the vocabulary of some of the presenters more often reflected the political perspectives of our wider culture.

The question helped name just why I was a bit disheartened. The answer, however, is neither comforting nor easy.

Like many Christian traditions, the years following World War II were significant for the Anabaptists. Church buildings were built to accommodate increasing attendance and organizational structures grew to reflect the surrounding secular institutions. To be fair, these structures were created in order to gather and expand the local ministries of the congregations. By gathering resources and energy, these denominations could leverage their energy and funds to greater effect than could a single congregation. The effect, however, was to institutionalize what had initially begun as a movement.

It was not long until these institutions began to look more and more like other mainline denominational structures. Endowments were created, office buildings were constructed, and governance soon took over the original intent of facilitation. The Christendom model of buildings and programs soon took firm root.

Entering the contentious years of the 60’s and 70’s these historical peace churches encountered a new phenomenon. Their witness for non-violence soon spoke to a whole segment of American culture. Rather like the building based model of church growth so common in Christendom, this was an ideological outreach, albeit more passive in form. As people began looking for faith communities that spoke of peace, they found the Mennonites and the Brethren. The denominations themselves needed to do very little to entice these seekers, or in more traditional language, to evangelize. Instead, the people found us.

With this influx, however, came the Enlightenment Liberalism that the early movements tried to counter. Instead of seeing peace-making as an outgrowth of Christian formation, it became the mode of conduct. Peace was in many ways unhinged from discipleship. Soon the language of liberalism began to co-opt what had been a unique vocabulary of the movement. Justice, peace-making, and mutual aid started to look a lot more like the pacifism and altruism of secularism. There soon was little to distinguish Anabaptist theology from the ideologies of the wider cultural of American Liberalism.

To be fair, this was not just a flip of the switch. We did not become like the culture or other Christendom traditions over night. It was a long process of engagement, conversation, and attempts to speak faithfully in a particular time.

The result however, is common across the other mainline traditions. Denominational structures are in significant decline. The numbers of people in the pews is shrinking and thus the capital to support such large bureaucracies is waning. And just like the rest of America, the church finds its language and practices increasingly defined by the partisan politics of the 24 hour news cycle. Our communities reflect more the political party of choice than the traditions from which they emerged.

Despite this dire portrait, there is something to be said for the Anabaptist traditions. At their very roots these churches were movements of discipleship, structures and institutions followed. Our mainline cousins, on the other hand were birthed in the magisterial days when bureaucracies, secular and ecclesial, intentionally looked very similar. The bishops and diocese were patterned after provinces and governors. Christendom shaped both civil and church practices for these denominations.

For us as Anabaptists we need not look very far into our tradition to readapt to a Post-Christendom culture. We don’t need to assume that people are attracted to our buildings but reclaim a way of life as our witness. We don’t need to passively speak of peace, but adopt the ways of reconciliation that were a part of a life of discipleship.

Though my Neo-Anabaptist friend and I were a bit dismayed at the remnants of Christendom Liberalism, we need not dwell there. As our institutions decline and as the fallacy of our wedding of the Enlightenment and tradition is revealed, the resources and practices are at finger’s length. Turning toward communal formation and expectations for individual discipleship provide us the tools to reclaim our movement and missional nature. If we live it, people will come.

 

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Help, I am Being Repressed!

That classic line from Monty Python’s Holy Grail should be the new mantra for much of American Christianity. Progressives shout it at the screens of TVs and computers full of televangelists and pundits promoting another reading of the Gospel, while conservatives shout it at messages of tolerance from secular liberals.

No where has this been more evident than in the two recent debates regarding religious freedom and free speech. First, the US Catholic bishops played the repression trump card in the wake of the Health and Human Services decision to mandate insurance converge for birth control. Second, and most recently, conservative Christians flocked to a certain chicken vending establishment to stand up for the CEO whose statements about same-sex marriage ignited a media (and social media) firestorm.

Without comment on either of these specific instances, I have to wonder when American Christians became the most persecuted faith on the planet. Most recent studies of faith in the United States show that Christians are still the majority with just over 60% of the population. In addition, Christian leaders still exercise a great deal of influence in our cultural debates. In comparison to many countries around the world, where the practice of Christianity is often met with death either by militias or governments, we in the US have it easy. So when a company might lose a million in profits, or if I am offended at some media personality challenging Christian thought or practice, it is simply beyond reason to assume someone is being persecuted.

Aside from the social and cultural realities, Christians before the conversion of Constantine, or even later the coronation of Charlemagne by the Pope, assumed that confessing Jesus was equal to significant persecution. Each of the martyr stories exemplify a radical posture of acceptance of, even submission to, a culture other than the Church. Each one knew the possibilities and yet faith in Christ was more compelling than the gladiators and lions.

In Luke 14 Jesus speaks to his followers about the cost of discipleship. “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost.” (Luke 14:28, RSV) In a context where faith is unfathomable or is outright rejected, our question should not be; “How can I change the culture, what kind of political stand can I make;” but “What will this cost me, and am I ready to pay whatever loss might come?”

The American experiment has created a context in which we have not had to weigh the cost of following Jesus. We have long been able to be both Christian and American without any threat or possibility of persecution. In the conservative and progressive camps of modern Christianity the knee jerk reaction is often the same. Take a stand, rally likeminded voters, or picket the latest monster to sway public and legal opinion in our favor. Both of these groups still assume a kind of Christendom mentality in which the state and the faith are similar enough to prevent any kind of challenge. All that is needed is a good publicity campaign and a solid reference to the First Amendment in order to avoid true persecution.

So which mantra will it be? “Help, I am being repressed!” or “Count well the cost.”

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The “Spiritual but Not Religious” Fallacy

Two books have recently been published that have made much of the moniker “Spiritual but Not Religious.” The idea, often highlighted in studies of religiosity in North America, is that persons find themselves to have spiritual components of their lives but have little desire to participate in so-called institutional religion. These two books, “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening” by Diana Butler-Bass and “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” by Ross Douthat, seek to understand the recent and steep decline of American religious life. Of course, as the titles suggest, the two offer two very different takes on the statistical data. Butler-Bass seeks to embrace the rise of “Spiritual but Not Religious” by noting the critiques of Church as we have come to understand it. In a way, she indicts the churches of America saying that we have not fully lived into our current realities as a society. Douthat, on the other hand, indicts American culture, saying that these moves away from Church are more akin to heresies.

Both writers, in their own ways, are trying to understand and speak into the emerging realities of religion in America. In fact, these two work with similar sets of data which show that the Institution of the Church in its various forms is now a hurdle to faith rather than a road into a deepening an maturing spirituality. It has been no secret that Mainline Protestantism has declined steadily for decades. Yet, now into the second decade of the 21st century, even so-called the mega-churches of evangelicalism are seeing a drop in attendance and affinity. At the same time, the statistical category of “Nones”- those who do not identify with any institutional category- has doubled in just 10 years.

I must admit that I find myself drawn to the work of both Butler-Bass and Douthat. At the same time I am critical of both. First, I appreciate the exhortation to pay attention to the religious landscape data. I also find Douthat’s description of communal testing of inward revelation significant and right on. Yet, I have one thing to say in response to both writers and to American “Nones”- There is no such thing as “Spiritual but Not Religious.”

It may sound overly critical and limiting to some, but I am not a fan of the idea at all. In fact, the idea that one’s spiritual life and one’s religious practices can be distinguished and even dichotomized is a product of Modernity. To take Douthat’s language, it is the prime heresy of the American church. Rather, much of christian history has made pretty clear that what we DO is intrinsic to who we ARE and what we BELIEVE.

Behavioral psychologists have told us for some time that we most often live ourselves into new ways of thinking rather than think ourselves into new ways of behaving. The modern way of thinking has so privileged the mind that we have completely overlooked how we are shaped by the things we say and do. It simply seems too coercive or authoritarian to say that our actions can somehow trump the heights of our reasoning capacities. It is just too much hocus-pocus to think that our sub or pre-conscious minds can be shaped and modeled without our conscious awareness.

Of course, I am saying this as  a white male church bureaucrat, and many readers will say that I am rejecting “Spiritual not Religious” from a position of power or influence. To be sure, I am not saying that the institutional church has the market on spirituality. The last think I am interested in is propping up another institution for its own sake. There is obviously enough to be changed or excised from the ways we have created “Church.” Rather, I am critiquing a naive characterization of religion in modern times.

Two myths of religion are prevalent in our time- one from the perspective of those within a religious tradition already and the second from those who are running away from the institution. The first is exemplified by the evangelical mantra “I am not religious, I just love Jesus.” The recent viral video, Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus, struck this chord and resonated with many church goers. The second perspective takes up a different perspective. From this point of view religion is not so much antiquated or irrelevant rituals but is an institutional hurdle to true spiritual connection. Here, the modern skepticism of powers and structures defines the ways we view any institution, including organized religion.

These two perspectives have similar problems. First, they privilege the individual to the point of a naive solipsism. That is to say that both forms of Spiritual but Not Religious collapse what is spiritual into the lowest common denominator- the individual. Thus, the individual becomes the sole arbiter of what it means to have a spiritual experience. “I have heard God and I know it, and I do not need another to tell me anything about it.” Or, more creatively, “I pick and choose the religious ideas from a variety of traditions so that they match my own preconceived ideas of what the world is and who I am within it.” Again, both of these positions assume that spirituality or faith is about ideas or concepts. What is more, they reject any claim other persons or communities might place on us by taking part fully in a traditioned community. It is easier to cherry pick what already makes sense without embodying the fullness of anyone religion. The common element in either case is that the individual is a kind of blank slate, untouched by religious ideas and practices and can thus better navigate the mystical side of life alone.

From this assessment we can see one other modern fallacy emerge- namely that what is spiritual is interior to the individual and what is religious is external. Again, we have the ideas/institutional and individual/communal dichotomies at work. But on top of this binaries the modern imaginary has assumed that what is “spiritual” is more emotional in nature and thus can only be a part of the individual person. This clearly overlooks the group emotivism, or effervescence that happens in corporate settings or in shared experiences. The result is an isolated sense of what it means to have a connection to some transcendent world, one that is ultimately lonely and without companionship to help understand and give language to what has been experienced.

The Christian tradition has often challenged such thin and individualistic conceptions of spirituality. The very incarnation of Jesus flies in the face of any kind of gnostic sensibility that our spiritual selves can be divorced from our bodies. In all the gospel narratives, healing and transformation comes through material actions- spit and mud applied to blind eyes, jugs of water transformed into good wine, and decades of infirmity over come with a touch. What is more, the Church has always tested individual experiences within the corporate understanding- Peter’s visions on the rooftop and experiences of the Spirit at Cornelius’ house, and Saul’s ecstatic vision of Christ on the road given meaning through the ministry of Ananias. In effect, there are very few times, if any, when someone has stepped up and said emphatically “God told me…”. In fact, for much of our history, such a statement of hubris and individualism was a sure way to be rebuked or denounced all together.

All of this is to say that faith and spirituality, at least from the Christian perspective, has been embodied, communal, and practiced. There is no distinction between outer and inner, and in fact the Christian logic seems to say that the interior work we do has dramatic material implications. What is more, faith is not something that happens in isolation. Hence no one person is an island, for it is in community that I learn the language to understand my experiences and have the occasion to test the inner movements of the Spirit. Lastly, the Christian logic has often revealed that the things we do matter. Whether it is in the sacraments, wherein actions and words effect transformation in the bread and wine or the waters of baptism, or that our way of living reflects our convictions and beliefs, the Christian tradition has equally balanced ethics and faith, doing and believing.

To be sure, the “Spiritual but Not Relgious” nomenclature is a cultural phenomenon. Douthat is right, however, when he uses the vocabulary of heresy, for this cultural phenomenon is making inroads into the Christian tradition. When Christians incorporate the idea into the ways of discipleship, the end result is an the incorporation of distinctly non-Christian concepts of individuality and interiority that are foreign to the faith. At the same time, Butler-Bass is right that religious “Nones” have something to teach us as members of the Body of Christ. These statistical categories reveal to us that we have failed. The cultural around us is increasingly saying that our ways of infighting, our power plays within the wider culture, and our hypocritical morality are enough to drive even the most sympathetic seeker away. We have much to learn from the data, yet we also have much to say to culture that encourages the fallacy of the “Spiritual but not Religious” logic.

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