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Faith and Social Justice

Featuring Cornel West, Serene Jones & Gary Dorrien

Featuring Cornel West, Serene Jones & Gary Dorrien

http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/07032009/watch.html

We have often written about the so-called “white elephant in the emergent room” (i.e., the way in which so much of the emergent movement has largely evolved among affluent Eurocentric white males), but we haven’t paid as much attention to the white elephants in the progressive room, which are just as apparent.  To be sure, with an influential cast of leading emergents such as Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Shane Claiborne, Peter Rollins, Doug Pagitt, Dan Kimball, Rob Bell, etc., focusing on the white elephant in the emergent room has been easy to do.  However, progressive Christians have been just as apt — if not more so — to substitute paternalistic rhetoric for authenic transformation.  Time and again, affluent North American whites have championed causes of justice and equality, yet when their own privileges and ways of being have been called into question, they’ve been quick to distance themselves from change.

These concerns are readily seen in relationship to the resignation of Dr. Brad Braxton from the pulpit of New York City’s progressive Riverside Church.  For decades, Riverside has been a leading activist and voice for social justice. It represents a community in which Protestant liberalism once flourished.  It has a long history of fighting for civil rights and has been of the frontlines of interfaith dialogue. Martin Luther King Jr. preached his famous sermon against the Vietnam War from the Riverside pulpit.  However, over the last several years, this historic congregation has struggled embodying diversity on its own pews.  While in theory Riverside strives to be a multicultural church, the reality is that they still live with the tension of measuring everything ‘good’ according to the standards of dominant white culture.  The truth of the matter is that white progressives often use rhetoric to stand up for justice, yet at the same time become threatened when such rhetoric demands something of them. Rita Nakashima Brock puts it this way:

Western Christians-conservative, fundamentalist, evangelical, and progressive-share a root problem in addressing racism. They are more concerned with their own goodness than with profound transformation or intense emotional engagement that can survive the inevitable conflicts around difficult issues (unity being key and conflicts being scary and bad). They want people of color who will raise the racism issue to be part of their communities, but not if they are too different and don’t already fit in, or if they actually try to get at the root causes of white privilege and systemic white supremacy.

What happened at Riverside is just a microcosm of the struggle within progressive Christianity as a whole.  Brock seems to think that progressive Protestant liberalism is too deeply tied to historic white privilege in order to offer something profoundly new.  If the vision of progressive Christianity is to be realized, she writes, something new must be birthed:

If Western Christianity finds a new, post-enlightenment, post-colonial, feminist/womanist/mujerista, anti-white supremacy paradigm, it will have the energy needed to carry something else forward. I have caught some glimpses of this outside mainline white churches, but that work is virtually ignored in them. The old paradigms have huge momentum and force, not just in the minds of clergy but also in liturgical materials of hymns, prayers, and texts that embed them deeply in the psyche. We lack the resources, tools, and time to engage the profound transformation required to move beyond our comfort zones and set points.  I think the wrong question of progressive Christianity is “what makes it Christian?” We’ll only know what questions to ask of it when we get a glimpse of the different paradigm.

Progressive Christians from affluent North American (white) backgrounds must always remain open to transformation.  Yet they also need the humility to follow the lead of others, rather than thinking that their particular way of doing things is the norm against which all others should be measured.  As much as progressives talk about the value of difference, we’ve had a mighty difficult time embodying it.

“How do you love America? Don’t say,
“My country, right or wrong.” That’s
like saying, “My grandmother, drunk or
sober”; it doesn’t get you anywhere.
Don’t just salute the flag, and don’t
burn it either. Wash it. Make it
clean. How do you love America? With
the vision and compassion of Christ,
with a transcendent ethic that alone
can fulfill ‘the patrit’s dream that
sees beyond the years, her alabaster
cities gleam undimmed by human tears’
(Katharine Lee Bates). ‘Behold, I make
all things new’, says the Lord. Our
revolutionary forebears seemed to
understand that. They didn’t bestire
themselves to salvage the past. Their
political debate pitted one kind of
future against another kind of future.
They knew people were supposed to die
to an old order and not with the old
order. How ironic that their
descendents should today be crushed by
ancient outmoded structures because we
prefer to be victims than to be
rebels! How ironic that the
descendents of Thomas Jefferson should
make like George III! How ironic that
there’s hardly a youth in the land as
radical adn as reasonable as was Ben
Franklin in his eighties!”
-WSC”How do you love America? Don’t say,
“My country, right or wrong.” That’s
like saying, “My grandmother, drunk or
sober”; it doesn’t get you anywhere.
Don’t just salute the flag, and don’t
burn it either. Wash it. Make it
clean. How do you love America? With
the vision and compassion of Christ,
with a transcendent ethic that alone
can fulfill ‘the patrit’s dream that
sees beyond the years, her alabaster
cities gleam undimmed by human tears’
(Katharine Lee Bates). ‘Behold, I make
all things new’, says the Lord. Our
revolutionary forebears seemed to
understand that. They didn’t bestire
themselves to salvage the past. Their
political debate pitted one kind of
future against another kind of future.
They knew people were supposed to die
to an old order and not with the old
order. How ironic that their
descendents should today be crushed by
ancient outmoded structures because we
prefer to be victims than to be
rebels! How ironic that the
descendents of Thomas Jefferson should
make like George III! How ironic that
there’s hardly a youth in the land as
radical adn as reasonable as was Ben
Franklin in his eighties!”
-WSC”How do you love America? Don’t say,
“My country, right or wrong.” That’s
like saying, “My grandmother, drunk or
sober”; it doesn’t get you anywhere.
Don’t just salute the flag, and don’t
burn it either. Wash it. Make it
clean. How do you love America? With
the vision and compassion of Christ,
with a transcendent ethic that alone
can fulfill ‘the patrit’s dream that
sees beyond the years, her alabaster
cities gleam undimmed by human tears’
(Katharine Lee Bates). ‘Behold, I make
all things new’, says the Lord. Our
revolutionary forebears seemed to
understand that. They didn’t bestire
themselves to salvage the past. Their
political debate pitted one kind of
future against another kind of future.
They knew people were supposed to die
to an old order and not with the old
order. How ironic that their
descendents should today be crushed by
ancient outmoded structures because we
prefer to be victims than to be
rebels! How ironic that the
descendents of Thomas Jefferson should
make like George III! How ironic that
there’s hardly a youth in the land as
radical adn as reasonable as was Ben
Franklin in his eighties!”
-WSC

“There are three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with the world.” -William Sloane Coffin

“How do you love America? Don’t say, ‘My country, right or wrong.’ That’s like saying, ‘My grandmother, drunk or sober’; it doesn’t get you anywhere. Don’t just salute the flag, and don’t burn it either. Wash it. Make it clean. How do you love America? With the vision and compassion of Christ, with a transcendent ethic that alone can fulfill ‘the patriot’s dream that sees beyond the years, her alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears’ (Katherine Lee Bates).  -William Sloane Coffin

“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” -James Baldwin

“The love of one’s country is a splendid thing. But why should love stop at the border?” -Pablo Casals

O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern impassion’d stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

-‘America, the Beautiful’, by Katherine Lee Bates

William Placher

I was saddened to learn today of the death of William Placher, someone who left us many years too soon. While he passed away in December, I just learned the news from a friend.   I’m not even sure how it happened; I just know it was sudden.

William Placher was one of the finest theologians of his generation, and one of my very favorite thinkers. Similar to the prophetic fervor of a Karl Barth or William Sloane Coffin, he connected a passion for justice with the best of neo-orthodox/postliberal thought. In the spirit of ‘a reformed church always reforming‘, he reminded us that — contra the popular ‘neo-Calvinism‘ of today — the best of Christian orthodoxy doesn’t condone, but rather critiques, the kind of homophobia, sexism, racism, and militarism that defines our age. He reminded us that instead of using Christianity as a means of justifying our own prejudices, we should instead encounter the Living Christ that calls all of our prejudices into question. Perhaps most importantly, he cautioned us not to substitute our own idols for a God that he believed transcends all of our finite categorizations, which is a lesson that continues to be very difficult for a progressive like me to learn.

Placher often wrote about the Trinity, believing that it reveals love to be at the very core of all things.  I am grateful for his witness.

“We human persons are always failing to be fully personal,” Placher wrote in The Triune God. “As persons, we are shaped by our relations with other persons. Yet we always deliberately raise barriers or cannot figure out how to overcome the barriers we confront. When those we most love come to die, or in the dementia of old age are no longer able understand what we may most want to say to them, we realize how much there was in our hearts that we never shared with them. When we best articulate our ideas, we cannot escape the feeling that there was something there we never quite captured. When we most rejoice in sharing with someone different from ourselves, difference nevertheless scares us. The doctrine of the Trinity, however, proclaims that true personhood, however impossible its character may be for us to imagine, involves acknowledging real difference in a way that causes not fear but joy.”

Just when I thought it wasn’t possible to wrap the American flag around the cross any more than we already have, I just heard about the brand-new American Patriot’s Bible.  It pretty much made me want to puke right away.  Here is the publisher’s description:  “THE ONE BIBLE THAT SHOWS HOW ‘A LIGHT FROM ABOVE’ SHAPED OUR NATION. Never has a version of the Bible targeted the spiritual needs of those who love our country more than The American Patriot’s Bible. This extremely unique Bible shows how the history of the United States connects the people and events of the Bible to our lives in a modern world. The story of the United States is wonderfully woven into the teachings of the Bible and includes a beautiful full-color family record section, memorable images from our nation’s history and hundreds of enlightening articles which complement the New King James Version Bible text.”

This must include quite a selective reading of US history.  While there are many wonderful achievements that we can be proud of, we also have to remember that there’s an awful lot of repentance that still yet needs to be done.  As long as we continue to candy-coat our nation’s history, we continue to jeapordize not only our moral integrity but also our future.  As Brian McLaren recently commented:  “When we in the US flatter ourselves with a mythologized national identity — seeing ourselves as the Chosen Nation, as Nature’s Nation, as a Christian Nation, as a Millennial Nation, and as an Innocent Nation — we make it more likely not only that we will behave unjustly, but that we will be ignorant and un-self-aware as we do so…When people tell me that we are or have been a Christian nation, I want to ask, ‘When?’ Was it in the colonial era or during westward expansion, when we began stealing the lands of the Native Americans, making and breaking treaties, killing wantonly, and justifying our actions by the Bible? Was it in the era of slavery or segregation, when again, we used the Bible to justify the unjustifiable? Was it in more recent history, when we dropped the first nuclear bomb and killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, when we overthrew democratically elected governments in the Cold War era, when we plundered the environment without concern for the birds of the air or flowers of the field, or when we sanctioned or turned a blind eye to torture earlier this decade? Was it earlier this week, when I turned on the TV or radio and heard people scapegoating immigrants and gay people and Muslims? … Yes, our founding fathers (and mothers), even those who were Deists and not traditional Christians, drew deeply from their European-Christian history and heritage. Yes, our nation, like every nation has much to be proud of in our heritage, and I’m sure there are elements of Christian virtue to be found in nearly every neighborhood from coast to caost. But no, it would be inaccurate to look at American history and say it consistently and accurately has reflected the ethic of Jesus or even the highest ideals of the Christian religion. I don’t say this to downgrade America, but rather to uphold my belief that the label “Christian” means more than we have understood it to mean … and that in its best sense, a humble, Christian ethic upholds the motto “e pluribus unum” by respecting all people of all religions as neighbors and as equal bearers of the image and love of God. … In fact, I would say that the more we claim America is a Christian nation, the less we uphold the highest ideals of both authentic Christian faith and authentic American democracy.”

Publications like The American Patriot’s Bible draw me to what Rob Bell and Don Golden wrote about in Jesus Wants to Save Christians:  “When the commander in chief of the most powerful armed forces humanity has ever seen quotes the prophet Isaiah from the Bible in celebration of military victory…is this what Isaiah had in mind?” Jesus’ followers are all too often “claiming to be the voice of God, but they are speaking the language of Caesar and using the methods of Rome, and for millions of us it has the stench of Rome.”

Enough already with all the idols!

A nice blog post on all of this (by Greg Boyd) can be found here.

A Tall Order

-a sermon by Emily Bowen-

A Tall Order

John 15:9-17

17 May 2009

Love one another.  Sounds simple enough.  Love one another.  Reflect on that for a moment.  Love one another.  Not so simple, huh?  I have an ongoing debate in my mind over which side of our human nature will win out.  The side that loves or the side that fears?  When I look around at the world, when I watch the news, it seems that much more of what we do is motivated by fear and not by love.  And yet, LOVE is what Jesus commanded.  His commandment clearly says “Love one another as I have loved you.”  And something else I remember hearing over and over in the Bible are the words, “Fear not.”  But these words of reassurance are being drowned out and love falls away as fear takes over.

Every time I preach, there seems to be a phrase that haunts me throughout the week.  This time it was a verse from a hymn has been playing in my head all week, prodding me with its insistence…it is the hymn we will sing for our time of prayer.  It begins by painting a picture of what our earth looks like from space, green and brown and blue and white.  With mountains and plains, rivers and seas.  Without borders that divide nation and race.  And yet, despite such a view from the sky, when seen from the ground, from our own perspective, we are inundated with division, rent asunder by our differences.  The final verse reflects upon Jesus’ commandment to love each other in a world where love is not the first order.  Protecting our own interests is.  And we protect our own interests by flying in the face of what Jesus called us to do.  We dehumanize those who are not like us.  Because by dehumanizing them, we can somehow make it OK to not reach out to them in love, we can make it OK to not follow Jesus’ command when it comes to THOSE people.  But the final verse of this hymn challenges us to remember that Jesus did not put conditions on his commandment.  He didn’t follow up “Love each other” with “Now here’s a list of those who I’m talking about when I say ‘each other’.”  He didn’t qualify love in that way at all.  And I’m thinking it’s because he meant for that love to be extended to all, in a vision of a world knit together in wholeness:

Now we face the unknown future, challenged by the work at hand.

Still the God of all creation summons us with one command:

“Love each other!” Will we do it?  “Love each other!” Wars might cease!
“Love each other!” Justice follows: “Love each other!”  There is peace!”

What is the shape of this love?

When Jesus commands his disciples to love, he expounds on what this love looks like.  In its greatest form, it is exemplified in the laying down of one’s life for one’s friends.  Here, in this Gospel, friendship for Jesus is the ultimate relationship with God and one another.  And yet, friendship seems to be something that has fallen by the wayside in much of theological discussion.  Scholar Gail O’Dell observes that this is due to the fact that “we have emptied “friendship” of its classical meaning. In the ancient world friendship was a key social relationship that could define one’s love for intimate companions who are striving for a common good (a life of virtue, or communion with God), as well as one’s obligations to fellow citizens in a small community. Sacrificing one’s life for one’s friends and being completely transparent with them were part of the ideal of friendship. Today we have reduced friendship to relationships of pleasure (“We celebrate our friends, we eat and drink with friends, we take vacations with friends”) or usefulness (“we are there when a friend is in need”).”  But this is a mere shadow of the friendship Jesus is offering, a mere shadow of the friendship Jesus is asking us to engage in with him and with one another.

Jesus says “abide in my love.  If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.”  Many of you may be aware that while we tend to just use the word “love” to describe different types of love in our own language, there are number of different words for love in the Greek language, words that capture certain types of love, such as “eros” or “philos” or “agape”.  It is this last kind of love which Jesus is talking about in his commandment to the disciples.  As one scholar writes, “agape love is love for people who can’t pay a person back.  It is like grace, a free gift for others which is undeserved or unearned or unmerited.  It is a free gift for those in need.” (Edward Markquart)  This clearly is not a love that is concerned with what we are getting in return.  It is not a love that is focused on our own advancement.  It is a love that is ultimately about the other, the one who is not us.

But does this run with or contrary to human nature?  In some ways, it seems as though we are hard wired to single people out as different or not worthy of our time or as objects of our ridicule.  It starts when we’re little.  There has always been someone who was on the outs, someone who got picked on for being different.  Whether they were slow or dressed weird or had a stutter or walked with jerky movements, they became the butt of jokes.  I remember when I was in kindergarten, not even five years old, we had a halloween parade at school.  I was going to dress as a witch that year.  Because the parade was at the end of the day, when my mom would not be there to help me get ready, she went ahead and did my make-up before I went to school.  So that day I proudly boarded the bus wearing my normal school clothes while sporting a green face.  Something interesting happened when I got to school.  No one would play with me.  The fact that my skin was green, an unusual skin color in Troy, Michigan, was enough to scare away those who had always played with me before.  I was suddenly different and apparently, that meant something not good to my classmates.  It was a very sad day leading up to that costume parade.  Of course, once we put on the costumes, my difference from everyone else melted away and I was no longer the outsider, so my ostracization didn’t last.  And it was lucky for me in my remaining time at Waddles Elementary School that my green skin washed off that night.

So yes, there is definitely an impulse towards fear in our human nature.  But I have also borne witness to the impulse towards love.  In 2001, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ held their General Assembly and General Synod together in Kansas City, MO.  My roommate was getting married that same weekend, so I went to General Assembly/Synod late, but I heard a remarkable story from the youth I went to chaperone from the Indiana-Kentucky Conference.  Perhaps many of you are familiar with Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church out of Topeka, KS.   This church, comprised mostly of Fred Phelps and his family members, has been monitored as a hate group.  Their main focus is on homosexuality, upon which they blame every evil in society.  They consider every hardship that has befallen the American people as retribution for growing tolerance of those who are gay and lesbian.  They have even taken their protests to the funerals of fallen soldiers, which led President Bush to sign into law the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act in May of 2006 and Kansas Governor Kathleen Sibelius to follow suit in April of 2007 by signing into a law a bill establishing a 150-foot no-picketing buffer zone around funerals.  Christians of virtually every denomination have denounced Fred Phelps as a producer of anti-gay propaganda and violence-inspiring hate speech.  Well, back in 2001, they felt that the DOC and the UCC were worthy targets of their protest, and so they set up camp across the street from the convention center, holding up their signs of hate.  My youth were eager to tell me of their encounter with them.  As people walked into the convention center, they couldn’t help but notice the awful signs and the shouts that were being hurled at them, and some just weren’t going to stand for it.  Slowly, but surely, voices of those from our denominations joined together singing, “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, we are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, and we pray that all unity may one day be restored.  And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”  Hand in hand, louder and louder the chorus grew, until the voices of love overpowered the voices of hate.  It was a moment when the members of our denominations answered Jesus’ commandment and chose love.

Philip Yancy in his book What’s So Amazing about Grace?writes about a definition of love that Mother Teresa gave at a National Prayer Breakfast “… Rolled out in a wheelchair, the frail, eighty-three-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate needed help to stand up. A special platform had been positioned to allow her to see over the podium. Even so, hunched over, four-feet-six-inches tall, she could barely reach the microphone.  She spoke clearly and slowly with a thick accent in a voice that nonetheless managed to fill the auditorium.  Mother Teresa said that America has become a selfish nation, in danger of losing the proper meaning of love: “giving until it hurts.”” [p. 244]

Yancy continues, “I had never heard love defined like that before. We talk about love as the warm feelings inside when we are with a special person – or even thinking about that person…We talk about loving a car or some other object, meaning that we really like it, or really want it, or we spend all our extra time working on it. We often think of love as getting or having . It is a feeling I have or want to get. It is a person I get. It is an object I have or want to get.  However, Mother Teresa says that love is giving – giving until it hurts. That’s what Jesus does. In fact, he not only gives until it hurts; he will continue giving until he dies. That’s how much pain he will suffer on behalf of those he loves. That’s also the lifestyle that Mother Teresa lived.”

So what is the lifestyle we live?  Too often it seems like our lifestyle is loving to get, not loving to give.  Which brings me back to that debate I have so often in my head.  Which side of our human nature will win out?  Which is stronger, the impulse to fear or the impulse to love?  At times it really seems like the impulse to fear is stronger, but then, maybe that’s why Jesus gave us the commandment to love.  Because I don’t think Jesus was about taking the easy way out.  His commandment is a tall order and Jesus knew that.  But the mere fact that he gave it as a commandment means he must have also known that it was possible.  That we do have it within ourselves to banish fear and choose love.  That despite evidence to the contrary, our human nature can incline itself toward love.  The way may not be easy, but that does not mean it is impossible.  Jesus calls us friends.  So let us place our faith in him and respond to his command: Love one another.

Postmergent?

Our world has become so full of posts- (postmodern, post-evangelical, post-colonial, post-denominational, post-structural, etc. etc. etc.) that I often find myself agreeing with Phyllis Tickle: we know where we’ve been, but we have no idea where we’re going!  As tired as I am of all these posts- (they might have meant something more had they not become so fashionable and trendy), the emergent conversation appears to be experiencing a post of its own, and it’s increasingly difficult to avoid.

Over the past few years, conversations on the emerging church have shifted from the periphery of North American church culture to the point of occupying a significant—if not substantial—place within it.  Very few ecclesial structures, whether evangelical or mainline, have remained wholly unaffected by the emergent conversation, so much so that the popular vernacular being used to describe the emerging church is shifting.  Instead of tirelessly trying to define what constitutes “The Emerging Church,” participants are becoming much more interested in describing its effect.  In other words, the emphasis isn’t placed nearly as much on questions like “What is the Emerging Church?” as it is on questions like “What kind of emergence is currently taking place?”  There is a recognition that the emerging conversation—or should we say the great emergence?—isn’t a separate movement unto itself, but is part of a larger cultural shift affecting North American Christianity as a whole.  It seems that the emergent movement—if such a thing even exists—isn’t some entity ‘out there,’ but is part and parcel of the shifts occuring within the broader context of North American Christianity.  If emergent is sooooo yesterday, as we’re led to believe, perhaps a postmergent perspective is in order?

On the one hand, I’m quite pleased that the mainline denominations which I love so much have finally engaged the emergent conversation.  Yet it also makes me worried.  After all, one of the best traits of the emergent movement has been its ‘deconstruction’ of established church culture, and its prophetic role has offered necessary challenges to ecclesial structures.  So I wonder:  If the emergence is finding its place within established church culture and ecclesial structures, will that lead it to lose its prophetic edge?  If so, I believe that one of the most important elements of the oh-so-yesterday emergent conversation will be lost.  As Peter Rollins reminded listeners at Greenbelt ’08, one of the most effective ways that the institutional church found to silence St. Francis’  protest was to give him a place within it.

For me, the question is this:  How do we welcome the great emergence without losing emergent’s prophetic role?