Seminar at Cornerstone Fest 2009

Once again I am presenting a seminar at the Cornerstone Festival. This one is less focused on theology and politics per se, but the topic could definitely be considered related.

Description: “The (Home)Coming of God: Homemaking as paradigm for postmodern ministry.” Exploring Biblical themes of covenant, land, and exile to articulate a theology of mission in the midst of a “homeless” culture.

My topic is strongly influenced by Brian Walsh and Steven Bouma-Prediger’s Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement, which I consider to be one of the most important books published in the last couple of years.

If you’re going to be at Cornerstone, try and come by! There are a lot of great presenters this year, including Tony Jones and Phyllis Tickle, and a lot of important topics being discussed. Homelessness seems to be kind of a theme, though I promise we didn’t get together beforehand to arrange that!



All things created for God’s pleasure: reflection for Earth Day

Revelation 4:11 can be legitimately translated thusly:

You are worthy, our Lord and God
to receive glory, honor, and dominion
for you created all things.
For your pleasure they came into being
and continue to exist.

Yesterday was Earth Day, a day when many people reflect on the health of the natural world and the relationship between human beings and the planet. Even though awareness of ecological issues is probably higher now than at any time in recent history, as awareness has increased so has the gravity of the situation. Estimated effects of anthropogenic climate change (also known as “global warming”) appear to be heading towards the more extreme end of the potential disasters, with warming feedback loops taking effect more drastically and quickly than previously thought. Studies over the last couple of years have argued (in my opinion persuasively) that increased ocean surface temperatures due to global warming are largely responsible for the increased intensity of hurricane seasons in recent years. The combination of global warming and peak oil scenarios seriously threatens nearly all sectors of the planet’s population, human and nonhuman.

I’ve written before about problems with the economic scheme that requires perpetual growth to stave off collapse and its devastating effects on the ecosphere and human communities. That isn’t new. But I have been remiss in my explorations into the Biblical concepts of creation and new creation and their implications for ecology and economics by neglecting the principle espoused by the above verse: all things exist for God’s pleasure.

In the evangelical circles I’ve frequented much of my adult life the idea that God gets pleasure from our existence, from our dependence on God and our desire to serve, is hardly controversial. I have heard a few dozen sermons on this idea, the idea that God loves me for who I am, and that my life is something about which God is passionate. Ok, so the italics may be a bit much, but I’m sure you get my point. Like other things, the idea of God’s passion and pleasure has been largely presented to me as a matter that affects me as an individual, but anything outside the scope of “me and Jesus” is largely neglected. Loving one’s neighbor is a good thing, but really it’s about my spiritual journey and growth.

Loving one’s neighbor as one’s self is a hugely important concept for Christian faith. It’s the second-greatest commandment, after all! But love of neighbor is not a free-standing command that can be imported easily into any context. While it is a concept found in many different religious and ethical traditions, some of which are not necessarily genetically related, we cannot understand the basis of Jesus’ teaching on this subject unless we grasp deeply the Hebrew notion of creation as done by God’s will and for God’s own pleasure. Indeed, each of our acts towards the Other, be it the human or nonhuman other, must be rooted in this truth: I love the Other because the Other is God’s own creation and her/his/its existence and well-being gives God pleasure.

How much different would our ecological and community lives be if, instead of self-interest, even “enlightened self-interest”, our relations were born from a deep realization that all of creation exists for God’s pleasure? How much more would we seek to honor the Creator and Sustainer of our own being by seeking the best for all beings? I believe a key role for the church in this age is to create real communities where we do not look to other created beings, whether human, vegetable, animal, mineral, or other, to sustain us without being concerned for their own sustenance. This need is particularly acute in this time of crisis, but it is written into the Biblical narrative of creation and new creation. All things are from God, and at most we merely have them on loan. For us, Earth Day should be a day of repentance for the ways we have colluded in the murder of God’s creation, as well as our creation of social, political, and economic systems that oppress, exploit, and murder human beings.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

The Cross and the lynching tree: Good Friday reflection

In God of the Oppressed, one of the most important theological works of the 20th century, James Cone compares the cross of Christ to the lynching tree. When slavery existed lynching was not common because slaves were considered valuable property, but after the end of slavery whites used lynching as a method of asserting dominance. This use of lynching corresponds well with how the Romans utilized crucifixion, which was primarily a punishment for rebellion and other crimes that threatened to undermine the foundations of the Roman social order.

One of the major threads of argument throughout the book is that God is paradoxically presented as the Liberator, who also suffers with his people. In fact, it is precisely when God’s people are faithful even in the context of oppression that God acts to bring liberation. Cone partners the Exodus of Israel from Egypt with the experience of black people in America and deeply challenges our understanding of the crucifixion and its meaning for people today. It is well worth reading, and re-reading, and re-reading again, particularly for people who are white like me who are used to understanding the crucifixion as we have heard it preached, most often by white preachers in the midst of a white-dominated culture.

As my friend Katie pointed out earlier today, “we’re taught that this horrible thing happened called lynching but it was a long time ago and only happened a few times by some Very Bad People who also sometimes put on white robes and burned crosses but of course everyone else knew they were wrong and that’s why it’s all in the past right?” I mean, we had slavery for 300 years, lynchings for another 100, but then about 50 years ago we had a Civil Rights Movement and now everyone is equal and happy, end of story.

Or maybe not. I don’t know about you, but that is very much how the issue of race in American history was largely presented to me in my school courses. There are bad individuals who are racist, but as a society we’ve moved on and everyone knows it’s wrong. This view, of course, completely ignores the deeply embedded effects of white flight, decades of systematic job discrimination, and rampant cultural appropriation and commercialization just to name a few (not to mention the fact, as Katie also pointed out, of the resurgence in KKK membership since Obama was elected).

For much of my religious life, I’ve been taught that Jesus died on the cross for my sins so that I could go to heaven and spend eternity with God when I die. I was told I was supposed to be good and love people and be nice to them and stuff, because I was grateful to Jesus for having died for my sins so I could go to heaven, but mostly that it was about me, as an individual, having my sins forgiven in a forensic exchange so that I could be whisked away to the otherworldly paradise when I died.

It should go without saying that such a view of the cross has little to say to the realities of systemic injustice that exist today – not only related to race, but also to gender and sexual identity, economic status, geographic location, and other categories. The focus is on individuals, not social realities, and on escaping the realities of life into a magical other-world. If this were really the core of the Christian faith, I might say my radical friends are right in their criticism and rejection of religion. However, Paul offers another explanation of the significance of Christ’s death on the cross.

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross (Colossians 2:13-15, TNIV).

The reference to uncircumcision points to the fact that, before they were brought into the life of Christ, the people were cut off from the covenant community of God’s love. As this passage points out, in Christ sin is cancelled. Our sins, collectively, are nailed to the cross and have died with Christ. But it is not simply the cancellation of the sins of individuals that is meant here. “You” is plural, and refers to the church community. The sin that is defeated here is social, as well as individual. And the last verse testifies that there is much more going on here than a simple forensic transaction by which people enter from a state of spiritual guilt into otherworldly justification: on the cross itself, Christ disarmed the powers and authorities, making a public spectacle over them, and triumphed over them.

The purpose of the Roman cross was to make a spectacle of the victim, to inscribe the victim into the context of Roman domination and so re-inforce the might of the Empire through the rule of Caesar. Paul makes the audacious claim that what has in fact happened is precisely the opposite! The logic of oppression cannot inscribe the logos of God into its narrative. Christ is victorious, but not by operating according to the logic of the powers. Instead, Christ triumphs by allowing all the powers of sin, death, and hell to exhaust their fury on him. He trusted God unto his own death, and in so doing turned the force of evil back upon itself causing its self-destruction.

We must drink deeply from the well of Paul’s theology of the cross, because the cross is the place where the New Community of God’s people gather, the church of God that is liberated from operating according to the logic of oppression. The cross both convicts and acquits us, because in order to be healed by it we must enter into it. It may not be “good news” to learn of the ways we collude with the powers that have been defeated on the cross at first, but it is liberating because in naming the powers we open ourselves to being freed through Christ in order to live according to a more excellent way.

Paul’s argument in the rest of chapter 2 flows directly from the logic of the cross: since we have died with Christ to the forces that rule the world, why do we still live as if we were subject to its law? Because the logic of death could not apprehend the logos of God, neither can it confine us who wear the name of Jesus as our own. The logic of Rome, the logic of slavery, of collusion with and perpetuation of oppressive structures cannot define the way the people who follow the Way of the logos live.

Coming to terms with the concrete ways in which we share in the guilt of the collective sins of our age is painful – it can be no other way, because in many ways the sin goes to the very core of our self-identities, of how we define our personhood. But carrying one’s cross is more than just an exercise program, it is a march to one’s death, and if we are to be raised with Christ we must also be willing to die. The logos of God spoke creation into being, and it speaks us into the New Creation. It speaks to us from the cross, bidding us to come and die, and find that we will truly live.

Privilege-checks are welcome in the comments. It’s only right, after talking about the need to put to death those parts of our identity that depend on the logic of oppression.


Breaking a window is violence?

Hitting someone with a club is violence. Funding projects that destroy local economies and ecosystems is violence. Displacing millions of people in order to ravage the countryside to extract resources and build useless consumer products is violence. Denying refugees right of return and bombing their villages when they defy the injustice is violence. Creating social structures that systematically stifle free expression and the ability to peacefully promote legitimate alternative points of view is violence. Maintaining an economic order in which the only way to hold off collapse is perpetual growth at the expense of a finite resource base, which cannibalizes itself in order to produce growth that is mostly based on the creation of new debt to finance paying off the old debt, while blaming people who bought into the system because they believed what it promised them for its failure is violence.

Breaking a window is a symbol of the shattered illusions of people who are sick and tired, and don’t want to take it anymore. Breaking a window is a message to the monsters whose livelihood depends on murder, displacement, and ecocide that the game is up and the ones who got us into this mess have forfeited their moral authority to be the ones who define a “new world order”. Breaking a window is liberation, a sign of life, not violence that destroys it.

Whether or not it’s tactically a good idea in circumstances such as the G-20 demonstrations is another matter entirely.

In response to this blog.