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.

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Thoughts on Lent and Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, also known as “Fat Tuesday hangover day”, also known as the beginning of the season of Lent. The Gospel reading for today, from the Daily Office Lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14, TNIV)

We’ve all probably heard this passage time and again, and it certainly is a powerful message – the uber-self-righteous Pharisee getting his comeuppance while the humble tax collector is justified. Unfortunately, we often look at it as an example of “works righteousness” versus “faith” and use this parable to justify our own Protestant theology (on the falsehood of viewing ancient Judaism as “works righteousness” that was later corrected by Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings on “grace”, see the opening of my article on Galatians 3:28). We also have this tendency to assume the Pharisee is boasting of his own accomplishments for all to see, though where we get this idea that he’s bragging before other people I have no idea – the text specifically says he stood by himself.

We Americans love underdogs. Odds are, if you cared about the game, you wanted to see the lowly Giants knock the arrogant Patriots off their high horse in the Super Bowl last weekend; however, according to Vegas, if you bet on the game the odds are you bet on the Patriots. One might say we love the idea of the underdog, but when it gets down to brass tacks we want to go with the winner.

We love this parable for much the same reason we love underdogs – and in this case it’s a no-lose situation, because Jesus endorses this underdog. But if we understood this passage better… we might not see it in such black-and-white terms. Jesus’ audience surely would not have.

I think this parable is much better understood not as a contrast between the “works-righteousness” of the Pharisee and the “faith” of the tax collector, but rather between their ritual purity according to the Jewish holiness code. The Pharisee epitomized the utmost purity, and his sect was the most punctilious when it came to observing the law and the traditions they used to “protect” the law. The tax collector was the exact opposite – ancient Jewish literature refers to tax collectors as being no better than Gentiles. Given that they were Jews, and given the extreme importance of kinship relations in the ancient world, this meant not only that the tax collector was cut off from his immediate family but from the national life and his place as a member of the chosen people of God. Not only was the tax collector ritually impure, but he was a traitor to his people, and Jesus’ audience would likely have despised the character the moment Jesus introduced him into the story.

It is no accident that this story comes very shortly before the story of Zaccheus – whom Jesus proclaims “a son of Abraham”, which indicates that he has been brought into the people of God from being no better than a Gentile. His statement that the tax collector was justified essentially carried the same weight and would have been no less scandalous. For Jesus one’s identity is not based on national birth or on adherence to the purity code, but on the right recognition of one’s place before God and recognizing the necessity for mercy and forgiveness, receiving new life from God as a gift that enables one to participate in the world of New Creation, as a member of the family of the redeemed people of God.

This story ends here, but the story of Zaccheus in chapter 19 provides a coda of sorts to the parable – as we all know, Zaccheus pledges to give half his possessions to the poor and to pay back fourfold anyone he has wronged. Zaccheus’ repentance beckons us to look back to the parable and wonder what this tax collector would have done had Jesus continued the story from that point. It is likely that Zaccheus would have bankrupted himself in the quest to make restitution, as basically his entire income would have depended on coercing people out of their money, livestock, produce, property – whatever he could get out of them. If we are to truly see the tax collector in this parable as justified, that is to say made righteous, we ought to assume he would have gone home and done the same. The Greek word translated “justified” means “to be made righteous/just” and implies not only some spiritual state he would attain before God, but a real change in his being that would affect his outward life and daily praxis. Every time it or one of its cognates is used in the New Testament, it carries the connotation of reconciliation on both the “vertical” axis between the person and God and on the “horizontal” axis between the person and other people. As John Howard Yoder says in The Politics of Jesus, it is probably not too much to say that without reconciliation there is no justification (check out his chapter on justification by grace through faith).

We like the easy association with the underdog, but stake our well-being on the one we think is going to win. We identify with the tax collector on the surface, but are we willing to follow this identification through to its conclusion? Today begins the season of Lent, the time of self-reflection, fasting, and penitence during which we prepare to celebrate the Resurrection on Easter Day. Many of us associate Lent with “giving up” something, which becomes a chore to maintain, a burden to bear. I want to suggest an alternative mindset – I suggest that we do not primarily associate Lent with a “giving up”, but with the receiving of a gift – the gift of the Holy Spirit working in us to root out those places where we are not yet conformed to the image of Christ. If the tax collector was to be re-integrated into the people of God, there were many things he would have to do both to demonstrate and to solidify in his own self the new heart he had been given by God in the moment of justification. Old habits would have to be broken, old patterns of consumption discarded, old ways of thinking about people and possessions abandoned. In the same way, if we are to participate more fully in the kingdom of God and to be made more into the image of Christ as his body, we need the same.

In the season of Lent we have the opportunity built right into the church calendar to mediate on the scriptures and ponder our own selves and our relationships, especially our relationships with people and with possessions, and our nature as consumptive beings within this consumer culture. We have the solemn duty to reconsider our communal, social, and political affiliations and activity, to contemplate the ways our economic lifestyles and the ways of thinking, doing, and being we take for granted affect our neighbors, be they our neighbors across the street, our neighbors in Bangladesh, or our neighbors who will possess the earth after we are long gone from it, after our bodies have returned to the dust from which they came. “For remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

If we are to identify with the “underdog” in this passage, it is imperative that we ask God to search us in this time, to ask God to bring to our minds and hearts those ways we yet need to be made like Jesus, and to ask him to show us the habits that need to be destroyed, those things that have power over us that must be broken. We must be prepared to follow Jesus to the point of losing everything, trusting that God will raise us from the dead – and after all, if we really believe in the resurrection, what are we doing piddling around with our insane worry about cell phones, hybrid automobiles, and flush toilets? Christ came so that the dead could be raised and for no other reason. There is no other solution other than that we be put to death with Christ, and raised with him – dead to the world, to social position, to economic affluence, to political power, and alive with Christ the suffering Messiah who turned the violence directed against him around and defeated it, breaking its stranglehold on the world in the process.

Feel free to respond to this post and tell me not only what you are doing for Lent, but how it relates to your own reflective process and the ways you are asking God to seek you, to confront those areas where you have not yet given yourself up to be made into the image of Christ, and give them up and be transformed. Tomorrow or the next day I will post my own answers.

Make poverty history?

“All the time I get emails from socially-aware individuals and organizations asking me to participate in ‘making poverty history’. I don’t believe poverty is necessarily the problem. Yes, it is true that there are millions of people in the world who do not have the means to feed their children or have clean drinking water, who do not have access to the basic essentials of life. But I do not believe poverty is the problem – the affluence of modern, Western society has done more harm to these people than perhaps any other force in the world today. Instead of ‘making poverty history’, I believe we need to make affluence history.” — Aiden Enns, editor/publisher of Geez Magazine, at a seminar at Cornerstone 2007.

Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence

This is one of King’s most important speeches and yet one of his most little-known. Delivered on April 4, 1967, exactly one year to the day before he was assassinated, this speech provides a scathing denunciation of the practices of the American government on the world stage, particularly in Vietnam. King extends his methodology of nonviolent action to the nation-state, famously saying “I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”

We have institutionalized King, making him into an icon of the supposedly American ideals of freedom and justice and neglected to remember his enormously potent critique of America’s very failure to live up to those ideals. He has been turned into some kind of fuzzy saint and placed high in the pantheon of “America’s greatsTM,” a would-be tool for those whose violence he denounced. It is imperative that we drink deeply from King’s critique of the violence of American society and extend it to the present-day situation, to the actions and even very nature of corporations as well as nation-states and revolutionaries, exploring the ways violence breeds violence and a violent reaction destroys our humanity just as surely as does oppression. We must inhabit his vision for reconciliation through loving our enemies. The following story, taken from Walter Wink’s The Powers That Be, demonstrates the depth and revolutionary power of King’s vision through the action of his comrades in the SCLC:

One evening, during the turbulent weeks when Selma, Alabama, was the focal point of the civil rights struggle in the American South, a large crowd of black and white activists was standing outside the Ebenezer Baptist Church, singing to pass the time. Suddenly a funeral home operator from Montgomery took the microphone. He reported that a group of black students demonstrating near the capitol just that afternoon had been surrounded by police on horseback, all escape barred, and cynically commanded to disperse or take the consequences. Then the mounted police waded into the students and beat them at will. Police prevented ambulances from reaching the injured for two hours. Our informant was the driver of one of those ambulances, and afterward he had driven straight to Selma to tell us about it.

The crowd outside the church seethed with rage. Cries went up: “Let’s march!” Behind us, across the street, stood, rank on rank, the Alabama state troopers and the local police forces of Sheriff Jim Clark. The situation was explosive. A young black minister stepped to the microphone and said, “It’s time we sang a song.” He opened with the line, “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly, Lord!” the crowd responded. . . “Do you you love Martin King?” “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!”

Right through the chain of command of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he went, the crowd each time echoing, warming to the song, “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!” Without warning he sang out, “Do you love Jim Clark?” The sheriff?! “Cer-certainly, Lord” came the stunned, halting reply. “Do you love Jim Clark?” “Certainly, Lord” – it was stronger this time. “Do you love Jim Clark?” Now the point had sunk in: “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!”

The Rev. James Bevel then took the mike. We are not just fighting for our rights, he explained, but for the good of the whole society. “It’s not enough to defeat Jim Clark – do you hear me, Jim? – we want you converted. We cannot win by hating our oppressors. We have to love them into changing.”

And Jim Clark did change. Realizing he could not be reelected without the black vote, he began courting black voters and later confessed that he had been wrong in his bias against blacks.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. realized that the vision had to include more than just improving the status of oppressed people – that it includes loving the oppressors and consistently applying the critique of violence to areas beyond our immediate sphere. As globalization increasingly brings us into the living rooms of people in Sri Lanka, China, and Bangladesh (and vice versa), we must become aware of our relationships with them, with the ways our affluent lifestyles do violence to them, and ways we can oppose violence and purveyors of violence while yet showing the love of Christ which transforms the most wretched sinners into beautiful saints.

May we, like Dr. King prays, know the world in which we live and how to be ministers of reconciliation, agents of the Kingdom of God within it.

Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence

by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
April 4, 1967

I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

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“our hands are too full”

I got this from Reflections of a Jazz Theologian:

Saint Augustine once said…

God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive.

Gerald May adds…

If our hands are full, they are full of the things to which we are addicted.  And not only our hands, but also our hearts, minds, and attention are clogged with addiction.  Our addictions fill up the spaces within us, spaces where grace might flow.

Lord have mercy…

May our hands be open during the Advent season to receive the grace God has given and is giving to us, through the coming of the Son and the presence of the Spirit.

Make Something Day

I’m sure by now a lot of people have at least heard of Adbusters‘ “Buy Nothing Day“, a kind of subversive response to the mayhem that is “Black Friday“, the “official” beginning of the holiday shopping season. The Ecclesia Collective takes that initiative one step further with “Make Something Day“. I really like this idea, I think I’m going to start working on some recordings to make into a CD to give away for Christmas gifts (probably with downloads available).

I especially like this idea because it isn’t just a form of passive resistance (which isn’t the intent of Buy Nothing Day, but unfortunately it’s often taken that way), it’s a pro-active attempt to act in a way that counteracts the consumptive tendencies of our culture and seeks to balance them with not just consuming, but contributing. I think Buy Nothing Day is a great thing and I see Make Something Day as entirely continuous with its intent. I just think there is real value in formulating not only a negative account of things but also a positive account – another way of saying, as I do on my “Anarchy” page, that deconstruction is a precursor to an experience of truth. In this case, it is not enough to argue that the consumptive tendencies of our culture are wrong (deconstruction), we must also seek to replace those practices with new ones (reconstruction).

How appropriate, then, that this (de/re)constructive protest action takes place near the beginning of Advent, a time when we celebrate/reflect upon/re-member the coming of the One who makes all things new.

Related link: Make Affluence History, from Geez Magazine.

The Qaddish and the Lord’s Prayer

The Qaddish, named from the Hebrew qadosh, “holy”, is one of the central prayers in Jewish worship. It is very old, going back to pre-Christian times. The Qaddish, in one of its shorter versions (from an ancient Jewish inscription) says:

Magnified and sanctified be his great name in the world He created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom during your life and during your days, and during the life of all the house of Israel, speedily and in the near future. And say Amen.

There are also other variations, including one for Rabbis to pray in their training, ones for funeral and burial rites, and others (the above is actually a half-Qaddish).

As you can see, this is quite similar to the first part of the Lord’s Prayer, and indeed many scholars have called the Lord’s Prayer Jesus’ version of the Qaddish. A more literal translation of the opening to the Lord’s prayer than our liturgical forms tend to utilize is instructive here (actually mine is probably more like the Amplified Bible than anything else):

Our father, the one who is in the heavens,
May your name be sanctified (or made/known as holy);
May your kingdom come (or appear, or come into being),
Your purpose (or will) come into being (or be accomplished, or be done)
Just as in heaven, so also upon the earth.

If Jesus did adopt the Qaddish for his prayer, from where does the rest come, all the stuff about forgiving and daily bread and the like? Scot McKnight, a leading emerging church theologian, proposes a solution in The Jesus Creed.

McKnight refers to Mark 12:28-32 as the “Jesus Creed”, his opening of the Shema to include Leviticus 19:18’s command of loving your neighbor. The Shema (Deut. 6:4-5) was the fundamental text of Jewish monotheism, and devout Jews would recite it twice a day (the Qaddish was also recited multiple times daily along with other prayers). McKnight speculates that Jesus may have had his disciples recite the Shema with Lev. 19:18 added when they prayed. Jesus expanded the fundamental command of Judaism to include not only allegiance to and love of God, but also love of neighbor – the basic duty of life extending both vertically AND horizontally. The inclusion of both love of God and neighbor in the Jesus Creed mirrors the two sections of the Lord’s Prayer, and McKnight argues that Jesus is essentially doing the same thing with the Qaddish that he did with the Shema – expanding it to include dimensions of God’s glory and of his kingdom and also of life together based on love of neighbor in a community dedicated to living God’s kingdom as reality. In other words, as he says, if you love God you pray the first part of the prayer, and if you love your neighbor you pray the second.

Each of the petitions of the Lord’s prayer is subversive and perhaps even revolutionary: God is not distant but he his our Father; it is his name that should be exalted on the earth and not the name of any other ruler or power; for his reign to be fully manifest in this world, displacing the reign of other would-be lords. These fairly jump out at us from the page, but the petitions in the “love your neighbor” section are equally explosive.

To pray for our daily bread echoes the experience of Israel in the wilderness as God provided manna – just enough for each day, with no hoarding possible, no way for anyone to gain greater influence or power through God’s gracious gift. This undermines the nature of an affluent culture by declaring trust in God, not accumulation, as basic to our way of having needs met. To pray to be released from our debts as we release those in debt to us is an outworking of the principle of Jubilee that subverts a society based on debt and unequal economic power relations. To pray to be not lead into temptation but delivered from evil (or the Evil One) stands as a bulwark both against the tendencies of an oppressive society to call those who could to join the oppressors as well as the tendency of the oppressed to undertake violent revolution.

For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, forever and ever. Amen.