Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Back in Kansas City

Months.  I’ve been meaning to write this blog post for months.  We’ve been back in Kansas City since mid-December, living one block north of Independence Avenue and just around the corner from Grace Church of the Nazarene.  I’ve written this blog post many times in my head and even twice on paper but it’s past time to actually post this update.  I’ll give an update on a few different areas to show what life has been like since moving back to Kansas City, USA.

Our Neighborhood
We’re now living in a hundred plus year old house in the “Historic Northeast,” as residents proudly refer to our neighborhood.  It’s a fascinatingly diverse neighborhood.  The houses range from castle-like mansions to boarded up drug houses.  When people immigrate to Kansas City, they usually end up in the Northeast.  For this reason, there are approximately 55 different nationalities represented in our neighborhood.  The different cultures are prominently on display all over the Northeast.  When I subbed at East High School, I heard five different languages being spoken in the hallway before hearing English.  While the Northeast isn’t the roughest part of the city, it still has high crime and poverty rates.  The sirens never stop.  We hear drive-by shootings quite frequently.  While subbing at Northeast Middle School, the kids fearfully told me about white vans that will abduct unsuspecting kids.  Anything left on our front porch is likely to be stolen and many corners are occupied by ladies selling their bodies.  While I’m not scared, I’m often uneasy.  I’m always however, entertained by the colorful characters on Independence Avenue.  While it might seem strange, I’m actually experiencing more culture shock living in Northeast KC than I did living in Palaiseau, France. Our old home in Gardner is about 40 minutes away by car but might as well be across the globe. 

Our Church
We are a part of Grace Church of the Nazarene.  The 90 year old Nazarene congregation is comprised of just a handful of people.  The building however, is used by five other congregations from various places from across the globe.  I enjoy surprising members of the Congolese Congregation by speaking to them in French. 

We haven’t really established a role within the congregation yet, other than being present on Sunday mornings.  I’m not sure what our role will eventually be, but for the time being, we’re trying to support the pastoral family, Joey and Tammy Condon.  Dawson has also become good friends with the Condon’s youngest son. 

We are also a part of a mentoring community from Lees Summit New Beginnings.  It’s a support and training group for people trying to live missionally in their communities.  We have the intention of doing that within our neighborhood, but we haven’t really started it yet. 


Real Estate
After several years of considering it, as a result of hearing of other pastors doing the same thing, I’ve now earned my Real Estate license and have started working out of the Reece Nichols office on the Plaza.  I’m still in the very early stages, but I have signed my first client and held my first couple of Open Houses.  I’m giving Real Estate a shot because the flexibility will allow me to earn some money while doing the ministry things I really enjoy (but don’t get paid for). 

Teaching
When I left Melcher Elementary in the fall of 2011, I had no idea I’d eventually be back in the school.  It was just one day, but when the opportunity to sub in that school arose, I took the one day job.  The day was a disaster, just like all my other days at Melcher, but it was a bit freeing to be able to go back to the place where I’d experienced my one (and hopefully only) nervous breakdown.  I also had the privilege of catching up with some of the wonderful people who work there.

My first actual day of subbing however, was at Satchel Paige Elementary (or Satchel Rage, as another teacher calls it) a school as out-of-control and impoverished as George Melcher.  In fact, I walked into the front office and saw the nameplate of the same lady who had been my principal at Melcher.  I was horrified at the coincidence of running into her on my first day back.  I fully expected her to give me a cold reception, but I actually received the opposite.  I will say though, that it’s very disappointing that they keep shuffling around such an incompetent principal.  It seems like the poor kids in these inner-city schools aren’t worthy of having someone who knows what they’re doing running their schools.  The principal has recently been fired, though, in the middle of the school year.

In fact, Erin is now doing a long-term sub at that school.  She is a second teacher in a room of 30 unruly and disrespectful third graders.  In another interesting coincidence, the teacher she’s working for is actually a Teach For America Corps Member finishing up her first year.  Erin says she does a great job controlling the class, which allows Erin the opportunity to model skills in giving lessons.  The current principal has come out of retirement to lead the school and appears to be doing a great job.  A good principal really can turn around a chaotic school, as evidenced by another rough school in the district, King-Weeks Elementary.

As I’ve subbed around the KC area (several different districts) I’ve been able to observe first-hand all the different schools in the area; high schools, alternative schools, middle schools and elementary schools.  Center School District is, by far, the best public school district in the city.  It’s so great to see poor African-American kids being able to benefit from a good school district.  It sure would be nice if the other districts could follow Central’s example. 

I’ve also had the chance to catch up with former Melcher teachers who are at different schools in the district.  It’s helped me heal some of those old wounds.  Yes, that experience still kind of stings.  What also still strikes a discordant note every time I experience it is seeing the line of kids entering their schools through  a metal detector.   I understand the need, but if you stop and think about how much schools and prisons resemble each other, it’s quite disturbing.  I’ve also been able to catch up with Melcher kids who are now 8th graders scattered across the district.  I’ll eventually write a full post on what that’s been like. 

Our Future
I’m not sure how everything will develop with this new experience of living in inner-city Kansas City.  We’ve both had some good opportunities come our way and it’s just a matter of sifting through them.  We haven’t started doing much ministry or community involvement yet, but things are starting to open up.  We’re just finishing the process of getting our feet underneath us, as we’ve just landed back in the US, but we’re also beginning to look toward the future.  It should be an interesting journey.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Colossians Remixed

The book is now 10 years old, but I finally got around to the theological and ethical masterpiece that has been recommended to me by many different people, "Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire."  The book is a work of historical fiction, the story of a wealthy Roman citizen who is considering giving her life to Christ, which causes her to grapple with the differences between the Caesar's Kingdom (the Roman Empire, which has secured a good life for her) and the Kingdom of Jesus.  While comparing the differences of the two kingdoms, the book works through Paul's letter to the church at Colossi.

Here are some of the notes I took from the book.  Enjoy.

Pg. 31, Empires are built on systemic centralizations of power and secured by structures of socioeconomic and military control.  They are religiously legitimated by powerful myths that are rooted in foundational assumptions, and they are sustained by a proliferation of imperial images that captivate the imagination of the population.
Pg. 33, Another way to look at this is to say that in a world of imperial control, in a world that is suffused with the rhetoric, symbolism and images of empire, we need to have appeal to a power, a sovereignty greater than the empire, if we are to have any hope. 
Richard Berger anticipated the commodification of belief in a radically pluralistic society in The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion.  He argued that once culture recognizes the constructed character of reality, religious traditions can no longer be imposed (so say nothing of “assumed”); they must be marketed.  Religion “must be ‘sold’ to a clientele that is no longer constrained to ‘buy.’  The pluralist situation is, above all, a market situation.  In it, the religious institutions become marketing agencies and the religious traditions become consumer commodities.” 
So captivated by the consumerist imagination of the empire, and so immersed in the empire’s self-justifying mythology and rhetoric, we find ourselves unable to fathom the depths of the crisis in which we now live.
Pg. 51, an imaginary conversation between a Christian and a wealthy Roman citizen considering following Christ
“Why, if someone unsympathetic heard you they might think you were suggesting that Caesar isn’t our lord and savior.  They might think you didn’t appreciate the peace and prosperity that Rome brought.  Don’t you see the kind of trouble you could get into with this way of thinking?”
“But that’s the point,” she said, “I don’t believe that Caesar is our savior.  I don’t believe that he has brought peace and prosperity.  And I don’t believe that Caesar is our savior.  I don’t believe that he has brought peace and prosperity.  And I don’t worship him or any of the other gods, any more.”
“And has Caesar given them peace?  No. Only death and destruction, demolishing their cities, enslaving the inhabitants, demanding taxes that drive the small landowners to slavery and revolt…. This is peace by the blood of the sword… This peace is good for you.  And it has been good for me, too.  But it isn’t good for everyone.  This peace divides – it makes the peasants hopeless and the wealthy even wealthier. 
But the peace of Jesus is different.  The peace of Jesus isn’t imposed by violence.”
“You see, what Lydia was telling me was nothing less than treasonous, a threat to the empire.
I was disturbed.  Lydia had offered a challenge to my faith in the empire.  I knew that her story and mine couldn’t both be true.  Either Caesar had brought forgiveness of our sings, fruitfulness and peace through the great victories he had wrought, or Jesus had brought forgiveness of our sins, fruitfulness and peace through his paradoxical victory on a Roman cross.  But this seemed impossible, unimaginable!
It was also clear that Lydia’s story of Jesus could not be happily accommodated by the imperial regime.  Devotion to Jesus was not like the devotion to Isis or Apollo.  These gods and their cults were no threat to the empire.  Actually, such private devotion, it was believed, made one a better citizen and enhanced one’s public duty to the empire.  Jesus, however, created a problem.  His lordship clearly precluded Caesar’s, and the guarded privacy of my conversation with Lydia notwithstanding, it was clear that following Jesus could not be a private matter but would have to be a public faith, transforming public life.”
Pg. 58, In chapter one we stated that empires are 1) built on systemic centralization of power, 2) secured by structures of socioeconomic and military control, 3) religiously legitimized by powerful myths and 4) sustained by a proliferation of imperial images that captive the imagination of the population.
Thus, it is no surprise that for every dollar that is sent in foreign aid to Africa, four are returned in the form of debt-servicing.
Pg. 67, When Israel enters the Promised Land, it faces its greatest challenge not to become like the empire it left behind.  As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that such an empire is very seductive.
It is the prophets who most tellingly deconstruct the imperial distortions of Israel.  The covenant people do not care for aliens, widows and orphans, or the weak and injured (Is. 1:23; 10:2; Jer. 5:27-29; 7:5-7; 22:3-6; Ezek 22:7, 34:1-6, Zech 7:8-14; Mal 3:5).  Failing to practice mercy and justice (Is 5:7; Jer 22:13-17; Hos 12:7-8; Amos 5:7; 6:12; Mic 6:1-12), Israel grinds down the poor and needy (Is 3:14-15; 10:2; 32:7; 58:3, Jer 2:34; Ezek 22:29; Amos 2:6-7; 4:1; 5:11; 8:4-8; cf. Job 24:9-14; Ps 37:14; 109:16).  The people have been engaged in the consumptive practices of empire, filling their land with silver and gold, horses and chariots buying up neighbors’ fields until nothing is left but industrial farms-as-business that kills community (Is 2:7; 5:8).  Moreover, they consistently engage in business deals that exploit the poor (Amos 8:5-6).
Pg. 68, This is a call to be God’s people by bringing shalom and healing on places of brokenness and despair.  And what could be more broken and more in need of healing than the place of oppression, the heart of the empire?
Under the oppressive rule of Babylon and Assyria, the Israelites are still called to build a faithful community and to live subject to a different kind of rule and kingship, one where imperial might and power is used for feeding the hunger of the people and binding up their wounds.
Pg. 70, As Luke tells the story, almost everything Jesus did or said was an implicit challenge to the empire and its way of working in the world…. This is a kingdom where the ruler is enthroned on a cross – the Roman Empire’s instrument of torture – and in such an enthronement winds freedom and life for its people.
Pg. 74, As the parallel passage in Matthew shows, reconciliation is the fruit of this kingdom (Mt. 5:25-26).  This is an ethic in which the generosity of God overcomes the violence and economic exploitation of the empire.  And once they are so overcome and undermined, the empire begins to crumble. 
Pg. 75, Paul tells the Colossians that the gospel of Jesus bears a fruit in their lives that is fundamentally different from the fruit of the empire.  The fruit of this gospel is rooted not in military might and economic oppression but in the practice of justice and sacrificial faithfulness.  This is a gospel that bears fruit “in every good work” of forgiving generosity and therefore undermines the hoarding abundance touted by the empire.
Pg. 90, [On Colossians 1:15-20] So what does Paul do with these cultural myths?  He turns them on their head and replaces Zeus, Caesar, Rome and any other pretender to sovereignty with Christ.  Then he takes it a step further and replaces the body – whether it be the cosmos or the empire – with the church.
And the main use of “powers” is not in reference to spiritual beings but to what Walter Wink calls the “legimitations, sanctions, and permissions that undergird the everyday exercise of power.”
So it isn’t a stretch to say that in the Roman empire, “thrones, dominions, rulers and powers” referred to Rome – to its “ruler” Caesar, on the “throne” established by the gods, to his “dominion” over all the known world, established and maintained by the “power” and might of the empire… It would be impossible for his listeners to hear this list – thrones, dominions, rulers, powers and not have thought of imperial thrones, imperial rule, the emperor and his court, and imperial sanctions and legitimations.
That spiritual dimension has to do with whether these structures of our life are directed by an idolatrous spirit of empire or the Spirit of God in Christ, who created all of these structures of life and before whom they are subject.
You see, when the Christian community abandons discussion of oppressive social structures, there are consequences.  In the first instance, if the Christian voice is absent, then the discussion necessarily goes on without a Christian perspective.  It is not surprising that other worldviews and categories of analysis fill in the void.  And if Christians don’t like those worldviews – whether they be Marxist, anarchist, “green” or whatever – then they really have no right to complain.  After all, these same upset Christians have left the world of oppressive social structures for someone else to worry about.
A lack of attention to the temporal structures of oppression is devastating for the community that follows Jesus.  Berry describes a dualistic church in an imperial context:
“The church has, for the most part, stood silently by while a predatory economy has ravaged the world, destroyed its natural beauty, divided and plundered its human communities and households.  It has flown the flag and chanted the slogans of empire.  It has assumed with the economists that ‘economic forces’ automatically work for good and has assumed with the industrialists and militarists that technology determines history. It has assumed with almost everybody that ‘progress’ is good, that it is good to be modern and up with the times.  It has admired Caesar and comforted him in his depredations and defaults.  But in its de facto alliance with Caesar, Christianity connives directed with the murder of Creation.”
For Paul, rather than “flying the flag of empire,” the church is a community in refusal of the empire which bears the image of another Lord in its daily life.
A split-vision worldview that divides faith from life, church from culture, theology from economics, prayer from politics and worship from everyday work will always render Christian faith irrelevant to broad sociocultural forces.  And that is exactly what the empire wants – a robust, piously engaging private faith that will never transgress the public square.  Allow religion to shape private imagination, but leave the rest of life, the public and dominant imagination, to the empire.  Only as we break through this dualism can the poem (Colossians 1:15-20) be given be given enough space in our lives to liberate our imagination. 
Pg. 96, It is quite another thing to hold a faith that is seditions to the empire.  How do you go about confessing Christ as Lord when everything all around you – all the power structures, the images that dominate your daily life and even the very temporal rhythms of that life – declare the sovereignty, lordship, honor and glory of the empire and its emperor?
This was as vexing a problem for first-century Christians as it is for twenty-first century Christians.
Pg. 110, Again, the foundation of this kingdom is not in the self-righteous exclusion but in the inclusion of forgiveness… But if the rulers and authorities, regimes and empires that so oppress us are to be defeated, they must be defeated not by further violence but by sacrificial love.
“The cross was not the defeat of Christ at the hands of the powers; it was the defeat of the powers at the hands – yes, the bleeding hands – of Christ.” – NT Wright
Turning the empire on its head, the cross becomes the site of the victory march of the victim.
Pg. 114, Only the nonideological, embracing, forgiving and shalom-filled life of a dynamic Christian community formed by the story of Jesus will prove the gospel to be true and render the idolatrous alternatives fundamentally implausible.

Pg. 115, Empire loves to have a monopoly on truth.
Pg. 130, Remember, from a biblical perspective truth is not a correspondence between ideas and facts.  Truth is embodied in a person.
Pg. 138, And Jesus takes precisely the principalities and powers that placed him on the cross – the idols of militarism, nationalism, racism, technicism, economism – and on that very cross disarms, dethrones, conquers and makes public example of them.  In this power struggle, sacrificial love is victorious precisely by being poured out on a cross, a symbol of imperial violence and control.
Pg. 150, Everyone, we contend, lives out of a metanarrative, everyone meets their life in a grounding worldview that directs their praxis and serves to legitimate that praxis… Pg. 156 We don’t allow the empire to captivate our imagination and set the final term of our praxis in the world, because we can see a kingdom that is an alternative to the empire.
Pg. 155 (Col 3:17) Seeking that which is above is a matter not of becoming heavenly minded but of allowing the liberating rule of Christ to transform every dimension of your life.
Pg. 166 In his 1994 annual report, the president of Campbell’s Soup Company wrote “As I look forward to the future, I shiver with business excitement.  That’s because Campbell’s Soup Company is engaged in a global consumer crusade.  This is a crusade to capture both consumer taste and culinary practice.  There is nothing that Campbell’s would like better than to have more markets of people who will forget how to make soup for themselves and will become dependent on a can.  Or consider this moment of enlightened business ethics from David Glass, CEO and president of Wal-Mart, “Our priorities are that we want to dominate North America first, then South America, and then Asia and then Europe.”  Business development is couched in the language of domination.  This, we contend, is the abusive language of our time.  When “free trade” means corporate sovereignity, “fiscal responsibility” means that the poorest in our society have to put up with even less, “quality of life” means quantity of consumption and the “liberation” of Iraq means the expansion of the Pax Americana, then our language has been debased and deformed into a discourse of deceit that justifies violence…. Pg. 167, Rather, the real abusive language is in the often sanitized ways of talking and thinking that serve to make this culture of death appear normal and acceptable.  Indeed, when the church’s language, in all of its piety, serves to give an air of normality to an idolatrously constructed culture, thereby functioning as a polite cover-up for a comfortable life in the empire, then that language is also abusive. 
Pg. 168, The ethical crisis of Christianity at the turn of the millennium is that Christians, by and large accept the empire as normal.  Here is Wendall Berry’s prophetic appraisal of the church:
“Despite protests to the contrary, modern Christianity has become willy-nilly the religion of the state and economic status quo.  Because it has been so exclusively dedicated to incanting anemic souls into Heaven, it has been made the tool of much earthly villainy.  It has, for the most part, stood silently by while a predatory economy has ravaged the world, destroyed its natural beauty and health, divided and plundered its human communities and households.  It has flown the flag and chanted the slogans of empire.  It has assumed with the economists that “economic forces” automatically work for good and has assumed with the industrialists and militarists that technology determines history.  It has assumed with almost everybody that “progress is good… It has admired Caesar and comforted him in his depredations and faults.  But in its de facto alliance with Caesar, Christianity connives directly in the murder of Creation.”
Pg. 170, As long as we lack the courage to take a stand and remain unrooted in a narrative that would be subversive to the principalities and powers, the empire can remain secure. Kall Lasn puts it this way: “American culture is no longer created by the people… a free, authentic life is no longer possible in America ™ today.  We are being manipulated in the most insidious way.  Our emotions, personalities and core values are under siege from media and cultural forces too complex to decode.  A continuous product message has woven itself into the very fabric of our existence.  Most North Americans now live designer lives – sleep, eat, sit in a car, work, shop, watch TV, sleep again.  I doubt there’s more than a handful of free, spontaneous minutes anywhere in that cycle.  We ourselves have been branded.”
Lasn likens life in what he calls America ™ to a life in a cult in which “we have been recruited into roles and behavior patterns that we did not consciously choose… When a whole population dreams the same dream, empire is triumphant… In the face of the ensnaring sovereignty of the empire, we must submit to a subversively liberating sovereignty.  Our lives must be animated by an alternative narrative, sovereignty and hope.
Pg. 172, Paul’s response is to offer his readers a kingdom in contrast with an empire.  If the problem with empire was idolatry (3:5), then the alternative of the kingdom is the renewal in the image of God (3:10)… In Christ we are restored to our full humanity as God’s stewards of creation and shapers of culture. 
Pg. 174, Paul calls for the community members to “clothe themselves” with certain virtues.  They are called, if you will, to drape themselves, surround themselves, present themselves with and embody the character traits of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness and love.  They are called to be a people rooted in and dedicated to peace, living lives characterized by gratitude, wisdom and worship… In Paul’s vision this community not only abandons the discourse of violence and exclusion that characterizes the empire; it manifests an ethos that embraces the pain of the world, a ‘compassion’, a shared passion, that pays attention to the deepest brokenness of its human and nonhuman neighbors.  This is an ethic of compassion, because the God of Israel revealed in Jesus is a God of compassion who hears his people’s cry and knows their suffering (Ex. 3:7).  Jesus calls his followers to be compassionate just as their Father is compassionate (see Lk 6:36).
Pg. 175, Now Paul says that in this community the ‘peace’ of Christ rules.  In radical contrast to the violent, imperial rule of the Pax Romana, or the economically motivated violence of the Pax Americana (in which people will be ‘liberated’ by military force if the economic well-being of America is threatened), Paul subverts what the empire calls peace by appealing to a peace achieved through a victim of the empire: allow that all-pervasive, cross-shaped peace to rule your life as a communal body.
Pg. 176, We have argued throughout this book that the primary way any imperial culture claims our lives is through the captivity of our imaginations.  Take an average of twenty-six hours of television a week, thousands of brand-name logos a day, an educational system structured to produce law-abiding consumers who always crave more, and dress it all up with a mythology of divine right to world rule, and it is not surprising that the dominant worldview is so deeply internalized in the population – including the church – that it is simply taken to be the only viable, normal and commonsensical way of life.  In the face of such a deeply ingrained worldview, Paul says, “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col 3:16).
Pg. 179, Love cannot remain an abstract idea; it must take on flesh in the embodied life of the Christian community in particular places and at particular times.
Pg. 180, What would a political vision shaped by compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, love and peace look like?  How could we envision a politics of ‘compassion’ that insists on standing with the most vulnerable members of our society?  Would this be a politics of greed that is preoccupied with tax cuts for the richest members of our society and international trade policies that aim for economic growth for its own sake?  Or is the community renewed in the image of God committed to a politics for the “least of these” (Mt 25:40) – for aboriginal peoples, drug addicts, gays, the homeless and the poorest of the poor?
Further, this is a servant politics that is characterized by humility because it seeks to serve the humble, not the haughty.  Rather than enacting policy that makes our nation “great or our town a “world-class city,” this politics serves “the least of these.”  Perhaps this will mean shifting the agenda away from amassing economic power to addressing the scandal of child poverty, or away from focusing on national security to forming refugee and immigration policies suffused with hospitality.
Pg. 181, In a politics that is addicted to the quick fix, it would seem that patience is not a political virtue.  But it is a Christian one.  Christians can be patient about righting the world’s wrongs (though still passionate about justice!) because we know that the establishment of the just society – what the book of Revelation calls the New Jerusalem – and the healing of the earth are not finally in our hands but God’s.  We long to see Christ revealed, and we live our political lives anticipating his kingdom, but we can do so with patience.  Ours is a political vision for the long haul, not preoccupied with power or the quick fix.
Pg. 182, What all of this is about is love.  A politics rooted in love is not the sentimentality of warm feelings in the political arena.  Rather, love takes on political shape in justice.  Justice as the political face of love is never impartial but is always biased.  In the kind of biblical faith that occasions Paul’s understanding of love, justice is always suspicious of the powerful and biased toward the powerless. Justice is first and foremost directed toward the orphan, widow and stranger precisely because these people lack the economic and political power to defend themselves.  Love shapes the very content of Justice.  God’s love takes sides with the most vulnerable, the most oppressed.  Therefore a Christian political praxis of love seeks justice for those who are the most marginalized, the most oppressed and downtrodden.  While an idolatrous culture of greed is always willing to allow the powerless to be oppressed by the powerful and will always tolerate homelessness, disease and violence amongst the disfranchised, and an ever-growing income gap between the rich and the poor, a Christian community of love will strive to bring justice to those at the bottom of society.  Love, Paul says, “binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col 3:14).  Love unifies and love heals.  In a society that has gaping wounds in its social fabric, the Christian community, through its example and its societal and political witness, is called to be an agent of reconciliation and justice.
Pg. 182, A war-mongering empire should find no support from a community that worships the Prince of Peace.  Stanley Hauerwas reminds us that “a nation at war has no time for the poor, no space to worry about the extraordinary inequities that constitute this society or about those parts of the world ravaged by hunger and genocide.  Everything – civil liberties, due process, the protection of the law – must be subordinated to the one great moral enterprise of winning the unending war against terrorism.  Not if the peace of Christ rules in your hearts!  Then everything – whatever we do in word or deed – is directed to a politics of peacemaking.  ‘Everything!’  Whether it be protesting the war, refusing to serve, withholding taxes, going to the enemy country to stand as a witness for peace, engaging in civil disobedience, supporting the victims or boycotting the corporate players in the military industrial complex, everything a Christian community does in a time of imperial war should be directed to peace.
Pg. 183, What was the Roman empire up to when it provided legitimation of its regime by means of the imperial cult?  And what other role do civic events such as Independence Day, the State of the Union Address and Remembrance Day, together with reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “God Bless America” (these are ‘hymns,’ remember!) have but to provide a moment of ritual that gives religious legitimation to the American empire?  But these are not the worship events of the Christian community!  In our worship we tell and retell another story than that of the republic, hear another word proclaimed, eat an alternative meal of remembrance, pledge allegiance to another sovereign, and sing hymns, psalms and spiritual songs that set our imaginations free for another way of life, another politics… In a context in which patriotism has become an idolatry of nation, yes, we are saying that Christians are not called to patriotism.  The Bible never calls us to be patriotic to the empire.
Pg. 185, (in reference to Romans 13) Public officials who misuse their authority must face up to that misuse in public.  Paul honors those magistrates precisely by calling them to task.  And because he believes that their authority is not ultimately rooted in the authority of the emperor but instituted by God, Paul demands that they exercise their authority in a way that demonstrates that they really are servants of God.
Now we suggest that this sheds some light on the matter of subjection to political and legal authorities.  Rather than read this text as providing carte blanche legitimation for any regime, regardless of how idolatrous and oppressive it might be, we suggest that Paul is actually limiting the authority of the state.  The state is a servant of God for our good.  It has no legitimacy or authority in and of itself, apart from subjection to the rule of God.  And when the state clearly abrogates its responsibility to do good, when it acts against the will of God, then the Christian community has a responsibility to call it back to its rightful duty and even to engage in civil disobedience (see Acts 12:6-23).  The state has no authority to do evil….
Pg. 185, In the first place, we need to take seriously the context in which Romans 13:1-7 occurs.  This teaching can’t be isolated from what Paul is saying in the surrounding passage.  It is preceded by a radical call against conformity to this age (12:1-2), within a context of persecution at the hands of the empire in 12:9-21.  It is followed by a call to “owe no one anything, except to love one another (13:8).  In the midst of this clear context of nonconformity, persecution and call to love not only the community but also one’s enemies, Paul’s comments about the state have ambiguous overtones.  It was, after all, the state that had persecuted the Roman believers and caused their suffering.
In the second place, the violent nature of the state is underlined by references to “fear” and to the state’s bearing of the sword.  Paul emphasizes that the state should be obeyed because of the fear of wrath (13:5), a fear that is underlined in 13:7: “Pay to all what is due them – taxes to whom taxes are due” (our translation).  Note that we have translated the greek word “phobos” as ‘fear’ to show that this is the same word that is used in verses 3-4.  The use of the language of fear in relation to the state, along with the mention of the sword, heightens the ambiguity of the passage.  On the one hand Paul is echoing Jewish sources such as Philo who use the language of fear in describing both the brutality of rulers and the need to be obedient out of expediency; on the other, he is using language that is “quite out of place with the contemporary propaganda of the empire” that touted Nero as a ruler who engaged in no bloodshed and no wielding of the sword.
As Neil Elliot puts it; “’Honor’ may be due the authorities  - at least some of them  - but so, given the reality of the Roman sword, is fear… Given the reality of Roman rule, one may ‘do good’ and hope for the best (13:2); but under the circumstances, open resistance cannot be contemplated, so long as the authorities wield the sword (13:4).” What sounds to our ears like a completely straightforward call to obey governing authorities, especially when read out of the context in which this instruction was given, has overtones of persecution, fear and bloodshed for the community reading this letter.  Romans 13:1-7 is not a call to blind obedience to the state but to prudent action; its very vocabulary hints that this particular authority is not living up to its God-given calling.  In a nutshell, Paul is saying, “Be careful.”

Pg. 186, When the state functions as an empire, when it bears an uncanny resemblance to Babylon, then “seeking the welfare” of the state requires shaping an alternative community that practices an alternative politics (Jer 29:7).  Our discussion of Colossians 3 was an attempt to broadly sketch out what that kind of politics might look like in our present context.  If the empire is war-mongering, then the Christian community is called to be a witness for peace. If there is racial oppression in the empire, then a community that believes there is neither Jew nor Arab, black or white, Hispanic or Asian, because Christ is all and in all, will lay down its life for the sake of racial justice.  If women and racial minorities receive unfair treatment in the marketplace and the public square, then the church calls for, and demonstrates, equal opportunity.  If homelessness and hunger are on the rise in our society, then a community suffused with kindness builds housing, feeds the hungry and then gets busy addressing the root causes of that homelessness and hunger.  If the empire enacts social policy that leaves the poor destitute, establishes trade policy that legitimates unfair trade practices, and passes environmental law that allows global warming to go unchecked, species to go extinct at alarming rates, and our waterways to become chemical sewage dumps, then a Christian politics of compassion, kindness and meekness both lobbies for alternative policies and attempts to live in a way that is consistent with these foundational Christian virtues.
Pg. 188, So we need to think long and hard about our investments.  Perhaps a credit union or a local bank with social conscience will provide a viable alternative to large charter banks... we tend to think the ration should be at least two to one: for every dollar we invest in retirement savings, two dollars should be given away to an agency that will serve the poor… Maybe we need to reconsider the local supermarket as the source of our food…. Our point is that food is deeply political, and we need to pay attention to where our food comes from and what is in it… There are also community-supported agriculture programs, in which urban folk make a contract to buy the produce of a particular farmer, who then delivers the produce throughout the season as crops come ripe.
Pg. 196, Our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy. It is flinging God’s gifts into His face, as if they were of no worth beyond that assigned to them by our destruction of them.
Pg. 199, We can probably tell as much about the real spirituality and the real spirituality and the real worldview of a people by looking at the cars they drive, the food they consume, the gadgets that fill their homes and the garbage they throw out as we can by listening to the songs they sing and the prayers they pray… An otherworldy spirituality that is preoccupied with “me and Jesus,” and escaping from this world into heavenly bliss, will never engender the kind of ecological ethos we are here suggesting.  Moreover, an individualistic spirituality will inevitably legimate an ecologically disastrous lifestyle.
Paul would not recognize such worship as having anything do with the gospel that he proclaimed.  Indeed, in light of our discussions of Paul’s rhetorical attack on the “ensnaring philosophy” of Colossians 2, we could easily imagine him addressing contemporary evangelical spirituality in the same tone.  If your worship serves to give you an ecstatic experience of personal relationship with Jesus without challenging you to see more deeply the way Jesus comes to reconcile all things in creation – including your ecological practices – then Paul would have a hard time recognizing it as a response to the gospel that he proclaimed “to EVERY creature under heaven” (Col 1:23).
Pg. 200, Paul’s ethic in the third chapter of Colossians is rooted in the narrative of Christ – died, buried, risen ascended and coming again.  This is not a narrative that imposes a series of absolutes to oppress us; it is a story of liberation from an empire that would take captive our imagination while it rapes and plunders the earth.  This is not a violent, metanarrative of exploitation of the earth.  This is a story of restored relationships, a love story that calls forth an alternative community characterized by compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, love, peace, gratitude and wisdom.  This is a story of creational restoration, a renewal to full humanness, in the image of the Creator.  This is a community in which the word of Christ dwells richly.  This is a community that is shaped as a countercultural force through the subversive worship of a subversive Lord.
Pg. 206, In this letter, Paul appeals not primarily to the ancient philosophers, nor to the edicts of the emperor, but to the ancient stories of Israel.  Those stories describe how, in the shadow of the empire, Israel was called to form an alternative covenant community rooted in the Torah of a God who freed the slave, loves the refugee and cares for the widow and the orphan.  As that community was called to be holy, so we are called saints, the holy ones.
The Kingdom of Jesus is just such a covenant community… In our Scriptures, forgiveness of sin and redemption from slavery are always at the heart of God’s dealing with the covenant people.  In the community of God called together to bear his image, such forgiveness and redemption were to be most obviously evident in the forgiving of debt and freeing from slavery.
Pg. 209, For those who do not have ears to hear, for those who do not know the story, either of Israel or of Jesus, this advice seems innocent enough.  It appears to uphold the status quo while advising tolerance.  But for those who know the story, the clues are there, the allusions are made, and the hidden meaning is understood.  For those with ears to hear, the message is clear: this is a God who proclaims a different kingdom from the ensnaring oppression of the empire, a God who frees slaves and calls for his followers to do likewise.

Pg. 212, Sure looks like slavery to us.  What names would we name?  Well, just take a look at the tag in the clothing that you are wearing.  If that article of clothing was produced in what was just called an Economic Processing Zone, then the odds are pretty good that you can name the brand of clothing you are wearing, as a slave trader.  And all of us who purchase these goods are thereby complicit in slavery.
But that’s just the point.  They are slaves.  Every time we step into a Wal-Mart or Niketown or Gap or Winners and exclaim over the great deal we can get on an article of clothing or how trendy we now look, we’ve made sweatshop workers our slaves.  Every time we buy coffee that isn’t shade grown and fairly traded, we’ve made those coffee producers and their children into our slaves.  Every time we have purchased a product – any product – that says Made in China, or Indonesia, or the Philippines, or Sri Lanka, it is pretty likely that we have made someone our slave. 
But we have no choice about buying products made in these places.  Some things can be bought only from these companies!  Buying some of these products is inevitable.
The language of inevitability is the language of empire.  Whenever we hear, “We have no choice,” our ears should perk up.  It is precisely the strategy of the empire to take our imagination captive so that we think we have no choice.  When a certain lifestyle seems to be inescapable, you need to realize that you are imprisoned.
Pg. 214, But maybe you can’t afford to pay more for clothes that are locally or fairly made.  Perhaps you will simply decide to have fewer clothes as a result.  Or perhaps you will decide that if you are going to end up wearing sweatshop-produced clothing, then at least you will do it in a way that will serve the poor locally by making your purchases at secondhand shops.  That way, a local charity benefits from your purchase.
Our point is that when there are options available – whether various consumer choices or lobbying – to decide not to do anything at all is itself a choice.  The Gospels call it the wide and easy path.  But we can choose another path.  There are ways to proclaim and enact Paul’s word of release to slaves, women and children.
Pg. 217, Rather than instilling in them [our children] a desire to get to the top, to move up, we want to encourage our children to develop a sense of calling and service, including an awareness that this may require a process of downward mobility, a decision not to strive for the top but to care for those who are on the bottom… We hope that our children will not need to secede from the empire, because they were never captive to it.
Pg. 218, To be wise is to be able to make connections between the food you eat, the store where it was purchased, the transportation systems that brought that food, the land where it was produced and the people who produced it.
Pg. 224, [a fictional trial of the lady mentioned above, Nympha, a wealthy woman who converted to Christianity and renounced the empire, she is accused based upon the finding of the poem of Colossians 1:15-20)” Caesar has brought peace?  Let’s look at the peace brought by your Caesar.  Let’s take as an example Galilee, the homeland of Jesus.  All the Jewish people want to do is live in peace in their own land, free to follow their ancestral laws, with a king from their own people and a high priest from the priestly line.  And the Romans continually beat them down, imposing rulers who oppress them and impoverish them.  When they rebel they are ruthlessly cut down, their cities burned and their children enslaved.  This is how Rome keeps peace by military might and violent force.  They make a desolation and call it peace.
“Their favorite symbol for peace is the cross, on which they condemn those who resist their rule to an excruciating death.  This is the peace they bring.  This is the peace that killed Jesus.”
There was a shocked silence, “You don’t mean to tell me,” said Trolius, “that this Jesus you worship was killed as a political rebel!”
“Yes, I do,” I said.  “And though that death, by taking the evil of Rome and the evil of the universe upon himself, he exhausted it and brought a peace and a reconciliation deeper than any peace Caesar can even dream of.  By emptying himself in love, he reconciled all things, in heaven, on earth, everything in the Roman empire and beyond, between all of creation and all of you and God.  That is the kind of peace Jesus brought through the blood of a Roman cross.”
“Enough!”  It was Lucius again.  “I say that not only have we heard enough from this woman’s own mouth to condemn her; we have also seen how the actions of her household and community fundamentally challenge the empire and all it stands for.  There is now no doubt in my mind that she stands guilty as charged, and all those who confess Jesus with her.”
Pg. 226, Bringing the cosmic claims about Christ to bear on the lives of the Colossian community, in their struggles and their stories, Paul personalizes and localizes the “and he” of the poem by writing, “And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he was now reconciled” (1:21-22).  The counterimperial vision of cosmic reconciliation in Christ is the vision that has transformed this community into a subversive body politic, counter to the empire.  This metanarrative of creational reconciliation through the blood of a Roman cross – a story that radically contests the imperial metanarrative of violence and oppression – reshapes and reconstitutes this community as citizens of the kingdom rather than subjects of the empire.
Pg. 229, If, as Paul asserts throughout his letters, we are called to share in the sufferings of Christ, and if such suffering is for the sake of the body of Christ, where does that leave a Christian community that seems to avoid any sort of suffering?  Where does it leave those of us whose lives seem to be blessed by the empire rather than threatened by it?  Where does it leave those of us whose blessings seem to actually be dependent on the oppression of our brothers and sisters elsewhere?
The hope of glory therefore is a hope in which the Colossian Christians will once again be full image-bearers of God.  The mystery the Messiah reveals is that this full image-bearing of God, this glory, will be found among both Gentiles and Jews, breaking down the ethnic divisions that have led to one people’s continued oppression of another.
Pg. 232, Perhaps we need to overhear Paul’s admonition to Archippus and apply it to ourselves as Christians living at home in the imperial realities of the Pax Americana.  We are called to proclaim and embody the gospel of a crucified Messiah.  This gospel challenges the principalities and powers of our own age.  This gospel proclaims that reconciliation and peace come not through the power of unilateral military force but through the blood of the cross.  And such a reconciliation is manifest in a community that is renewed in the image of Jesus, a community that shares in the suffering of Jesus in its attempts to bring peace to the social, economic, political, racial and ethnic divisions that sin has caused in the world.  In proclaiming and living that gospel, this community will begin to take on the suffering of those who have been oppressed throughout the ages at the hands of the empire.  In taking on that suffering, the Christian community will truly enact peace by sharing in Christ’s afflictions.  This is the call and the challenge with which Paul ends Colossians.  And the letter of Colossians does not function as Scripture in the life of the church if this call is not heard and responded to by the church today.

Pg. 29, “Wait a minute,” someone is bound to say, “Capitalism is about capital, it’s about money.  Religion is about faith.”  Well, we’re not so sure that capitalism isn’t ultimately a matter of faith.

Pg. 34 You see, the danger of wanting a god, without being willing to allow this god to speak in a voice that is radically other to our own voice, is that the god we end up with is like any other consumer product we take off the shelf.  We would never be accountable before such a god, precisely because we never allow this god a voice that would actually call us to account… Rather, it would be an idol.  And before idols like this the empire has nothing to fear, because ultimately such idols – such gods – are  in the service of the empire. 
Pg. 35, The tragic events of September 11 cannot be fully understood apart from the dynamics of empire….  So what happened on September 11?  In a stroke of perverse, conteremperial genius, America was attacked at the site of its socioeconomic and military control.  The World Trade Center and the Pentagon were, of course, the perfect targets.  This attack went to the systemic center of American culture – its economic control and military power.  But just as important, these were targets of profound symbolic significance.  These institutions are at the heart of the powerful myth that legitimates the empire identified with America.  As Benjamin Barber puts it, this was an “astonishing assault on the temple of free enterprise in New York City and the cathedral of American military might in Washington, DC.
Pgs. 71, Again and again the two are linked; fertility and fruitfulness in the land on one hand, and peace the other, and peace and security on the other, are rooted in rejection of the militaristic consumerism of the empire and the social and economic practices that support it.


Pg. 94, Because we have been so preoccupied with “incanting anemic souls into heaven” as Wendell Berry puts it, we have missed the fact that this poem envisions nothing less than the reconciliation of all creation.  If “all things” are created in, through and for Christ – even the thrones, dominions, rulers an d powers – and “all things” are reconciled through the blood of the cross, then the power of this good news must permeate all of life.


Pg. 99, Worldviews-turned-ideologies present their view of the world as simply the way the world is  They are world “views” that function so well that it is forgotten that they are “views.”
Pg. 108, In this story Israel is called to be a “priestly kingdom and a hold nation” (Ex. 19:6) not so it could be a regime of truth that exists for the exclusion of others but in order to play a role in the restoration of the whole human race… If this drama has the redemption of all creation as its focus, then any violent, ideological, self-justifying ownership of the story – either by nationalistic Jews or by sectarian and self-righteous Christians – brings the story to a dramatic dead end that has missed the creationally redemptive point.
Pg. 154, Praxis has everything to do with ‘sovereignty.’  What or who is sovereign in life?  What is it that matters the most?  What provides both a bedrock for our life – a sense of ultimacy – and an orientation?


Monday, September 22, 2014

Radical Compassion

I just finished a book by a Jesuit priest who has spent his life working among the urban poor, Gary Smith.  You can read about him here.

It was a moving book that brought me to tears a few times and convicted me as well.  As usual, here are some notes from the book, "Radical Compassion:  Finding Christ in the Heart of the Poor."

Pg. 4
I write this book so that the reader will have a better understanding of the poor.  I write it, too, to keep out in front of me a fundamental chord in my song: that the church, when it becomes poor and internalizes the suffering of the poor, understands compassion and the demands of justice.  The just and compassionate church becomes the incarnation of the heart and song of Christ.

Pg. 24
There is something wrong.  The reality of homelessness, inadequate housing, and the lack of affordable housing is a national disgrace.  This reality undermines the life and dignity of so many of our brothers and sisters who lack a decent place to live.  It destroys lives and families.  The crime of homelessness is not that people live in filthy camps under bridges, or that families sleep illegally in their cars, or that the homeless and the near homeless panhandle.  The crime is that homelessness exists.  And the reason people are homeless or that people pay three-fourths of their income on housing is that there is not adequate affordable housing.  It’s nuts.  How can a city countenance the development of off-the-charts-expensive condos and allow housing for the poor to diminish?  How can politicians back tax cuts when the infrastructure of affordable housing is falling apart?

Pg. 31
When I observe our culture’s treatment of those who suffer mental illness, I have alternate feelings of shame and anger.  I am ashamed of a culture where people are discarded and neglected like trash, where helpless human beings are routinely discharged into a hostile community.  And I am angry that this culture makes weapons defense, big-business interests, and opulence its priorities, while allowing its mental health system to be powered by a minimalism of care.  Mental health programs are, in my experience, understaffed and underfunded, and mental health workers – for the most part, dedicated and caring human beings – are swamped with caseloads that diminish time for individualized support.  It is madness within madness. 
Pg. 55
First of all and last of all and most of all, we are into a relationship with Jesus.  It is a relationship that changes our lives.  His dreams and passions have become ours.  He makes sense of our life and our commitments in a world that thinks what we are doing is naiveté at best and folly at worst.  He has turned our world upside down.

Pg. 57
Jesuit Jon Sobrino was a housemate of the six slain Jesuits but was in Thailand when the murders too place.  He wrote, “A poor Church is, by its very nature, more compassionate, and a compassionate Church, is by its very nature, poorer.
Among the poor, we learn to internalize their suffering, and we are transformed into the heart of Christ.  We adopt a viewpoint that forever passionately directs our behavior.  Sobrino said: “Our compassion is a very specific form of love: love in practice, which arises when one is confronted with the unjustly inflicted suffering of others and acts to eliminate it for no other motive than the very existence of that suffering – and without being able to offer any excuse for not doing so.”
The poor teach us to be truth tellers: to speak to what must be done to transform oppressive structures even as we are meeting individual needs.  The poor teach us of compassion:  to feel another’s heartache even as we are creating concrete practices of relief.  The poor teach us to embark on the sacred search for indignation: to discover our anger in the face of the greed, malice, and human indifference that give birth to suffering and to speak to it.  Now, we must yell about it.  As Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero rebuked his government, “If you strike my people, you strike me.” 
Pg. 72
Roe died last night in the Foster Hotel.  Forty-three.  His death was probably a result of his chronic alcoholism – he had a seizure that led him to choke to death on his own vomit.
He was an introvert who kept his distance from everyone, yet whom everyone liked.  He was good, thoughtful and kind.  People were at ease around him. But he had this soul-wrenching pain, too, a pain that hurled him into dark cynicism and, periodically, into raging bouts of drinking.  His nervous system was under attack to much from the drinking that he constantly lived under the shadow of seizures.  He lived also with the inner ghost of Vietnam, which he referred to as his “psychic black hole,” an experience that he would talk about only with me, and only in his most communicative days.  Whatever happened in that war left him emotionally scarred.  Not an uncommon story for most Nam vets.  Many, like Roe, stuffed memories inside themselves.  It was like burying too many corpses just below the surface of the ground; eventually all that awful poison would eat its way out.  When the poison of Roe’s buried memories leaked out, it led to another attack of self-destructive behavior.

Pg. 97
Among the poor, the church learns to be indignant at the sight of discarded human beings, and it is taughtto passionately challenge systems and structures that produce such human beings.  It is one thing to practice charity, to give a poor person some bread or to treat the same person with respect.  It is quite another thing to challenge a system in which people are hungry, in which some can be so rich and many are poor.  As Cardinal Sin of the Philippines once said, “Love without justice is balony.”

Pg. 120
Sometimes the church, out of its duty to advocate for the poor who are incarcerated, must take stands that run at right angles to the methods of the state, whether it is fighting for proper diets or challenging abusive policies… The imprisoned are the poorest of the poor.  If the heart of God is to e found anywhere, it is to be found in the hole.

Pg. 173
I was asked by one of our staff persons, who is gay, if I would consider officiating at the annual Memorial Day service that the gay community holds down at Riverfront Park in a designated are overlooking the Williamette River.  I agreed to do the service, thinking how ironic it was that I should be doing it – given my latent homophobia.  As a priest, of course, I knew I should be there with these men and women.  As a child of our homophobic culture, I had mixed emotions.
For most of my life I had my own versions of the stereotypical prejudices toward homosexuality, a result of the usual macho-guy baggage.  I told dirty jokes, made snorting observations of gay couples (“Look at those fags”), and was indifferent to the theological and existential questions of gay men and women.  Questions may be the wrong word; how about agony?  In my guy-talk world, Jesuit and otherwise, I had a repulsion for any kind of romantic relationship that was not clearly defined as heterosexual.
I am not sure at what poing my attitude began to change; it could have been the result of any number of things: the close friendships I had formed with a couple of gay men and women, the long talks with gay Jesuits, the acquaintance of street people who struggled to understand themselves as homosexual.  Whatever the catalyst, I came to find it less and less possible to relate to my gay friends on the basis of past viewpoints, I was unwilling to be seduced by homophobic attitudes.  So, as I joined the crowd at Riverfront Park on Memorial Day, I was conscious of both my history and my care and appreciation for the brothers and sisters who had asked me to be there.