Finding a better story

The dominant modes of social, political, and economic discourse in our day may be fragmented, they may seem without coherence, and they may be characterized more by argument than agreement. Indeed, I think even a cursory survey of the ongoing public discussions reveals this to be true. The landscape of public discourse over pretty much every issue is littered with scars, discord, and mines waiting to be found and unleash their deadly fury. But there is one thing almost, if not absolutely every voice that garners a significant hearing in the public ear(s) shares, and that is the foundational story, the ground motive, the “metanarrative” that lies at its root.

This is the myth of the modern age, exemplified by Hobbes’ idea that the “natural state” of humankind was one of war, one against all, with the world as a fundamentally hostile place. Methods of control must be established to provide order where there would be unchecked chaos, control of other people, control of the natural world. The world and other people went from being gifts from God, to be loved accordingly, to being potential agents of discord and danger in need of being put “in their place”.

I do not mean to imply that Hobbes was the founder of this idea, it goes back much further – all the way back to ancient Babylon, Assyria, and Egypt. It is an idea almost as old as the human race. It is embodied in mythologies ancient and modern. Whether it is by a social contract, the “divine right of kings”, or the rulers’ being the “image of God/the gods”, the idea that some agents of humanity are needed to enforce order and fight back the forces of chaos has been around for quite some time.

The proclamation in Genesis 1 that the whole human race is created in the image of God mitigates precisely against this idea. Instead, humans are to co-rule, to mediate God’s presence and love to the whole creation, a story rooted in primal goodness, not primeval violence.

Furthermore, it is as agents of the New Creation that the church is to engage the world. God is coming to make his home with people, with creation. We shall be his people, and he shall be our God. Indeed, God has already come in the person of Jesus, the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us, and now the Spirit is with us as we, as Christ’s body, continue the work he began. It is not that our work brings the kingdom, but because we participate in the divine life we are called to fulfill that purpose given to humankind so long ago – to enable each other and all creation to participate in the life and love that God has for all of us.

As such, we cannot be a people whose imaginations for engaging the world, the political, social, economic, and all other realities, are determined by modes of discourse rooted in a story of primeval violence. Violence does not redeem; rather, it is an aberration, it destroys, it mitigates against working according to the call God has given to us as daughters and sons, heirs of the kingdom and creation.

Let us no longer be subject to the imaginations that have their genesis in violence, but to the divine peace that is at the center of all things and the original heart of creation. As John Howard Yoder said, people who take up their crosses are not countercultural – they are going WITH the grain of the universe, because the universe is fundamentally God’s creation, moving towards the time when the New Heavens and New Earth will be revealed.

So I ask you, dear reader… what does it look like to talk about these things with imaginations rooted in the better story? I welcome thoughts, reflections, and suggestions in the comments.

Shalom,
Jason

The irony of progress

However else it may be defined, it is generally agreed that a (if not the) major feature of modernity is the pervasiveness of the myth of progress. According to the progress myth, progress will be attained in a definite, concrete form as the continuing dialectic (and, in some forms, utopian end) of history if “we allow human reason freely and scientifically to investigate our world. Progress enables us to acquire the technological power necessary to control that world and bring about the ultimate human goal: economic affluence and security” (from Brian Walsh, Subversive Christianity, Seattle, WA: Alta Vista College Press, 1994, pp. 39-40).

While the progress myth has come under fire in the 20th century, it clearly lives on in discourse regarding things like “making the world safe for democracy” and “bringing prosperity to underdeveloped nations”. Economic affluence through free-trade (neoliberal) economics and democratization have become intrinsically linked, and the juxtaposition of the two with neoconservative imperialism is just one example of the horrific possibilities of such a marriage. For exhibit one, see the aftermath of the attempt to turn post-American-conquest-Iraq into a “free trade paradise”, which might have had more to do with the explosion of unrest in the country than any other single factor (see this excellent article by Naomi Klein).

The discourse of progress is alive and well in the speeches of newly-inaugurated President Obama, albeit in some different ways than now former President Bush. The one thing that has certainly not changed, though, is the statement of faith that the United States is in some way a blessed nation charged with a divine mission to be a beacon of freedom, justice, and prosperity to the whole world. Obama drinks deeply from the well of America-the-Promised-Land.

My purpose in this post is not to criticize Obama per se, but I think it’s important to realize that despite the promise of change some things fundamentally have not changed – notably the public presentation of faith in the myth of progress, and faith in America as the driving engine of global progress (though the question is never asked – at what cost?). There is, however, a certain irony in this idolatrous faith.

The great economist John Maynard Keynes once predicted that his grandchildren would be able to experience a life beyond economic necessity. John Dewey believed that the visionary application of science and technology would cause the desert to bloom like a rose. Neither of these conditions has come to pass; indeed, quite the opposite has happened in both cases. Economic anxiety is at its highest point in decades, with the current generation projected to be the first in quite some time (possibly hundreds of years) to not fare, on the whole, better economically than its parent generation. And the former hotbeds of science and technological development, the cities and industrial centers, have become or are fast becoming post-industrial wastelands.

Those city centers that have seemingly reversed these trends have done so by engaging the post-industrial economy by expanding the service-sector, increasing the emphasis on consumption, rather than production, and by creating “arts districts” that are little more than microcosms of the consumer economy providing barely-subsistence labor for advertising and other corporate-controlled “creative” enterprises. In the long run, these transitory economic schemes hailed as “new urban developments” are likely to cause more damage than good as the “consumer goods” that must be shipped into these places for consumption by shoppers (who are increasingly less likely to be able to afford them or be inclined to purchase them, given the current economic climate), create their own ripple effect of environmental, as well as labor and other human rights disasters on a global scale.

This is the grand irony of the progress myth: that it promises a glorious future through worshiping the idols of scientism, technicism, and economism, and yet the very fruits of that worship undercut the possibilities of the very future it promises us. Moreover, the problem is far from “just economic”. The dominant economic systems in place have a huge cost in human terms and in terms of damage done to the creation. I do not believe it is a stretch to call the results of the current economic empire ecocide, and possibly also genocide. The fruits of progress have not been increased prosperity; rather they have been turmoil resulting in conflict and “terrorism” (conditions the “war on terror” ironically reinforces), the Damoclean sword of nuclear annihilation hanging over our heads, and the increasing murder of God’s creation, the destruction of earth and depletion of resources, and despoliation of nature. This is a murder in which Christians have often all-too-willingly participated.

The myth of progress in its economic manifestation requires constant growth (and indeed the concrete systems in place supported by the myth will collapse without it – that is the real danger of recession). This requires a planet with finite resources to provide resources for infinite growth, while the profit motive supports increasingly wasteful use of those very resources (think “planned obsolescence”). While the nations of the world have been aware of the environmental crisis for some time, it has increased, not decreased over that time, particularly over the past couple of decades when awareness has drastically increased. This should not surprise us, as “an expansionary economic ethic necessarily destroys the earth.” An economics that “knows nothing of contentment, of ‘enough’, necessarily sacrifices the environment (and especially the environment of others) iin order to satiate its greed. It is powerless to do anything else” (Walsh, p. 43).

Deficit financing and environmental destruction go hand-in-hand – both destroy the prospects of the future. “A progress-oriented, future-facing society is robbing its own grandchildren of a healthy future” (Walsh, p. 44).

In light of this, what can be our response? With the false hope of progress revealed to be empty and destructive, the only solution can be to turn to the God of creation, the God who lovingly formed the earth, to whom all the earth belongs and everything that is in it – to turn from our faith in idols that destroy and do not save, and to prophetically engage the culture with grief and contrition, but also with hope that God will be who God has said he will be, and that God will make good on the promise that all things are being made new (Rev. 21:5). I refer you at this point to the essay linked at the top of this blog entitled “Prophetic” in hopes that it will stimulate your thinking. I’m also still asking the same questions as I was in this piece I wrote over 2 years ago. In light of the need to diagnose our current problem as not just a political, economic, or ecological problem, but primarily as a spiritual problem, one that persists in large part because of the enculturation of the church and its failure to live prophetically, I think it’s appropriate to close this post with the words of the Ash Wednesday collect.

Almighty and merciful God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all who are penitent;
create in us new and contrite hearts,
so that when we turn to you and confess our sins
we may receive your full and perfect forgiveness;

through Jesus Christ our Redeemer
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen.

May God give us imaginations to live prophetically in this time, and in the time that is to come.

Glen Ford on Obama and MLK

Glen Ford is the executive editor of Black Agenda Report. This article hits on a number of points I’ve had swirling about in my head the past several days, which I hope to be able to collect coherently and post soon.

Yes, the article is from Al-Jazeera’s English site. If people can get over that fact and realize that Al-Jazeera is not a “terrorist news channel” (I have actually heard people call it that), they’ll find the quality of commentary and fact-gathering is consistently top-notch and often provides perspective we are SORELY lacking in our American media vacuum.

Excerpt:

When the New York Times describes the emerging Obama administration as “centre-right,” there is not much for an honest progressive to defend – and most African-Americans are progressive on economic issues and questions of war and peace.

Beyond a ritual counting of the president-elect’s African-American appointees, most African-Americans seem oblivious to the political nature of his cabinet, his policy pronouncements and shameful silences.

More likely, they pretend to be oblivious so as not to lose that once-in-a-lifetime feeling that happened when a black man won.

It is not simply that the Obama-ites failed to muster a defence in Harlem or Baltimore or other venues; admittedly, it is difficult to defend the indefensible.

What is most shocking – maddening – is their rejection of any political or moral standard for evaluating the black soon-to-be president.

All that remains is the fact of Obama’s power and the delusion that blacks somehow share in that power.

Ford goes on to say that Obama actually compares more to Lyndon Johnson than to Dr. King, if you must compare him to a political figure from the 1960’s. King realized that a movement for equality and economic uplift of those who are underprivileged cannot co-exist with war, a view most decidedly not shared by Obama.

Full text of the article

Quotes from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Every year on Martin Luther King, Jr. day I like to try to call attention to some of the writings and statements of Dr. King that illustrate the more radical side of his person and work than we usually get on this day with its endless replays of the “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s not that the speech is deficient, but the sad truth seems to be that we have so emphasized King as a “nice guy” with a dream that people will “be nice to each other” that we have lost track of how radical a figure he really was, how dangerous he was to unjust power structures, and the precise reasons why he became so influential in his time. While comparisons between King and Jesus have definitely been overdone in some circles, what we’ve done to King is not entirely different from what we’ve done to Jesus in that regard.

This year’s celebration of Dr. King is particularly poignant, as it comes one day before the inauguration of the first African-American president, Barack Obama. While I must say I am disturbed by what seems to me can only be described as a “messianic fervor” surrounding Obama’s becoming president, it would be amiss to not recognize the monumental significance of the event when less than half a century ago, in the lifetimes of many people who are with us today, it was a significant event for black Americans to even vote in many parts of the country (let alone run for a major office!). Obama himself is not the fulfillment of King’s dream, despite the rhetoric I’ve heard coming fast and loose from many lips and pens over the past few days, but his becoming president still in many ways has to be seen as a watershed moment in American race relations.

This year I want to post some quotes from King’s influential “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, as well as a link to the full text. This letter, written in April 1963, outlined the basis of King’s belief that people must strive for justice in the streets, as well as in the courts, in response to a piece by eight white clergy that accused “outsiders” of “instigating” demonstrations that undermined law and order. The authors of the piece, entitled “A Call For Unity”, recognized that injustice existed but deplored the demonstrations and argued that justice should be sought through the legal system, not in defiance of it.

In the spirit of my belief that power rarely concedes without struggle and must be challenged on all fronts, whether in the streets, the courts, the press, or wherever else it may be found, here are some quotes from King’s “Letter”.

…I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Full text from the University of Pennsylvania

Work and school

So I now only have one job – I’m working at the local CBS affiliate, which also runs a local low-power station. The job with the state didn’t work out. Ok, everyone who knew that was coming, go ahead and raise your hands. 😉

Since I’m down to one job I’ve gone ahead and registered for classes in the spring. I’m HOPING to finish the MA in Liberal Studies this spring. I think it would be really good for me to finish it.

For a number of reasons, I’m also submitting an application to Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. I would still love to go to Toronto if it could work out, but I’m not sure it’s the best place for me. For one, Toronto is friggin’ expensive in terms of cost of living. Elkhart is very comparable to Evansville. For another, if I go to AMBS my significant other (who might become my other half this summer if things work out) would be able to come with me (if things do work out in that way) because there’s a branch of the college at which she’s studying nursing in Elkhart. That would be pretty nice, to not be separated from my potential wife by hundreds of miles. And finally, and possibly most importantly, I still have strong thoughts that the context of education for ministry might be the best place to pursue further theological education. They’re doing some really great things up in Toronto, and it is conceivable that we might end up there when it comes time to work on my doctorate, but if I get accepted to AMBS and get enough funding to make it work I think I’ll probably go there. The current plan would be to go into the M.Div program, with a concentration in theological studies, theology and ethics. I’m also going to inquire about the possibility of writing a thesis, as my ultimate purpose is to continue in academics as opposed to entering the professional ministry (though I’m open to that plan being changed).

Since I only have one job now, I’m hoping to update this blog with at least one substantial post per week. I’m sorry I’ve neglected it, this has been an excellent outlet for developing my thoughts on a number of issues, and I’ve missed having that avenue to express myself.

Thank you for hanging with me on the journey. Shalom!
Jason

Check out a friend’s blog

Anarchist Reverend is run by Shay, an internet friend of mine who is a third-year student at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Shay is a married transsexual man and, among other things, is planning to discuss issues related to trans and theology. I’m really looking forward to seeing what he comes up with, as this is an area with which I have very little familiarity.

I have to ask that if you do go to his site you treat him with respect. He does not intend to spend the bulk of his time making arguments for transsexuality in a Christian context; rather, he assumes it as a part of his identity. Please don’t go to his site from this link to argue about whether or not it’s “appropriate” to be trans and Christian. I do believe he has resources to recommend if you have questions about it, so check it out. Since I’m not very familiar with this area I have to admit I don’t have my theological ducks in a row with regards to trans and theology matters – but I believe strongly that every person is created in God’s image and therefore that image demands that we treat the person with dignity and respect. Part of that for me is taking a person’s self-identity at face value, instead of thinking that s/he should be something other than how s/he presents her/his self to me. The formation of identity is a complex process that is (I believe) never fully completed as long as one is alive, and it is something that first and foremost occurs in relationship between God and the person.

In my interaction with him, I have found Shay to be most articulate and thoughtful, as well as passionate about the relationship between his faith and his identity. I hope you will be enriched by hearing his thoughts.

Shalom,
Jason