Homecoming or Going-Away Party? Questioning the Rapture through the lens of homelessness

This is the sermon I gave at Patchwork Central’s Sunday evening worship on July 26, 2009. Of course, these texts are not the only ones pertinent to discussion of the so-called “end times,” but 1 Thessalonians in particular is of major importance since it is the text most-often used to discuss “what the Rapture will be like.” Judging by the number of bumper stickers and t-shirts with stupid slogans like “in case of Rapture, this car will be UNMANNED,” it is a matter that is sorely in need of an injection of good, contextually-informed Biblical theology in the popular arena.

As this is the full text of a sermon (approximately 30 minutes in length), it’s considerably longer than my usual entries.

First reading: Isaiah 40:9-11
Second reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

[I started the sermon by recalling a story from my time at Harlaxton, when I spent the better part of an afternoon in Cambridge having dinner with a homeless man named Ian. Rather than try and recall exactly how I told the story on Sunday, here is my description of the event upon returning to Harlaxton that evening.]

Of course, as we all know, homelessness is not just something that happens in England. I remember growing up in Petersburg, a town of considerably smaller size than Evansville, and every few months I would hear advertisements on the radio for programs to benefit Street Relief and other efforts to serve the homeless in Evansville in some way. Now, being from a small town and having never seen a real, live homeless person before it was all a bit of an abstraction for me. It was hard enough for me to just get my head around the notion that there were people out there who didn’t have a stable place to go every night to sleep. Homelessness was something that, for me, only existed on the radio or television, or maybe I would have a teacher mention something about it in class. By the time high school rolled around I had a little better grip on things, having taken a few trips to cities such as Washington D.C. and seen first-hand people whom I knew would be sleeping under the stars that night – and not because they were on a camping trip with friends.

When I moved to Evansville for college I began to get a fuller picture of things, though being a dyed-in-the-wool Reaganite conservative I assumed homeless people, or at least most of them anyway, were there because they wanted to be, or because they were just too lazy to get a real job. Needless to say, since then my thoughts on the matter have changed a bit. I have had a few rather significant interactions with homeless people, like Brian whom I mentioned earlier, a guy named John who used to hang out with us around what is now the art colony, back when it was still Synchronicity, who fancied himself a bit of a traveling preacher for one. He and I used to sit on a bench either on Haynie’s Corner or on Main Street and talk about all kinds of stuff, and boy did he have some good stories to tell. I’ve been a part of the crowd at the Rescue Mission, both during times when I volunteered or coordinated groups that wanted to volunteer, and during times when in fact that was the only place I could afford to eat. I’ve never actually been homeless myself, but there have been at least 3 occasions when I’ve been anywhere from a few weeks to a few days away from not having a place to call home. Perhaps some of you have been in the same boat, eh?

There’s been a lot in the news lately about foreclosures and people not being afford to stay in their homes and all that kind of stuff. Not just people on the lower end of the economic ladder, but increasing numbers from the middle and upper-middle classes as well. No doubt the number of certifiable homeless has increased in the past year, though I have found reliable statistics predictably hard to come by. But even before there was talk of a mortgage crisis, a housing sector crash, Wall Street shenanigans, and the “R-” word (not to mention the “D-” word, which you’ll never hear out of any politician’s mouth unless he’s talking about how we’re not going to have one), the fact of the matter is that somewhere in the neighborhood of 1% of the US population, depending on what studies you cite and which methodologies you accept, went from day to day not knowing if they were going to be able to have a shelter to sleep in that night. That’s around 3 million people, if you’re counting. Continue reading

The “stimulus” and economic assumptions

What seems to get lost in all this shuffle about whether or not the Senate will pass Obama’s economic stimulus package, in what form, and what compromises will have to be made with the House, is that there is absolutely no debate about what form the economy should take. It is simply taken for granted that what is needed is to enact provisions that will spur spending and kickstart once again the cycle of consumer-driven “growth”.

That we call it “growth” masks the real costs of such an economic system: the fact that millions, even billions of people are left by the wayside, their prospects not growing but quite the opposite – growing only in hopelessness, despair, hunger, and the inability to procure for themselves and their loved ones the even basic necessities of life; the increasing strain on an already-sick planet as we poison her air, water, and land in the drive to extract resources to fuel the production of “goods”, the increasing purchase of which will fuel continued “growth”, all driven by the (ought to be clinically) insane belief that a world with finite resources can support infinite, exponential economic growth.

Even the language of recession bears witness to our idolatrous worship of progress, for is not recessing the very opposite of advance, of progressing? It would do us good to see the current economic crisis as just that – an eco-nomic crisis. The most common definition of “crisis” in the common parlance, is something like this (from Mirriam Webster’s online dictionary): “an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending… a situation that has reached a critical phase”. As instructive as this definition may be in so many ways, there is another definition of “crisis” to which I wish to point your attention: “the turning point for better or worse in an acute disease or fever”.

If the economic system currently accepted by the Western powers is causing the entire planet to become sick, then perhaps the best language to use regarding it is not the language of progress and prosperity, but of disease and illness. Consumer-driven corporate capitalism might better be understood as a pathogen, a disease-causing agent that is draining the life of our home, the earth itself. The current economic crisis provides an opportunity for reflection and action to possibly break (at least some of) the power presently-existing economic structures hold over our lives, the life of the earth, and the lives of humankind.

Furthermore, even the word eco-nomic is significant. Eco is derived from the Greek oikos, meaning “household” or “home”, and nomic from nomos, or law. Eco-nomics, then, is the ordering of the home, running the household. While we moderns have so often limited economic discussion to the performance of markets and its effects to factors that can be reduced to matters of cents (and dollars, euros, yen, etc.), it doesn’t make any sense to limit discourse on the economy to these things. Perhaps we like them because they’re more easily quantifiable, or perhaps it’s because it hides from us those things we do not wish to face head-on: the plight of those who are systematically disempowered and impoverished by the “advancing” global economy, and the pain we ought to feel if only we were in touch with the voices of the earth and its other, nonhuman inhabitants. Let us instead seek to formulate an eco-nomics that will enable us to more rightly order our life together in our home, as inhabitants of earth and of the particular communities in which we dwell.

The eco-nomic crisis has the potential to be a turning point in our understanding of how we relate to our home and how we order our existence within it. Christians in particular, who believe the earth to be the creation of God and a gift into which we have been placed by our loving Creator bear a particularly acute responsibility to enable oppressed voices to be heard. This is no less true for the voices of the nonhuman creation than it is for the voices of people of color, women, GLBT/Q, and others who have suffered exclusion and oppression at the hands of the discourse of power and its embodiment in socio-politico-economic structures. For the church, the current crisis provides a golden opportunity for prophetic engagement, for sensing the heart of God and communicating truth in the now, and not only that but also for putting flesh on prophecy – creating economic relationships within the church to serve as a witness and a model to the world that we can live in ways that are more faithful to our nature as created beings in relation to God, to each other, and to the land, water, and air – a holistic eco-nomics with a trajectory towards health, not disease.

May your basilea come, your will be done – just as in heaven, so also let it be upon the earth. Amen.

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.

Christ, the universal/particular, and Eucharist

One of my Livejournal friends asked this question on her journal:

Can I ever see from a non-western, non-American viewpoint to have only a “Christian” worldview? Oh, to receive truth from revelation and not only through analyzing the world through my lens. I wish I could be objective of my own self. My housemate said yesterday, “we all contextualize Christianity.” And the thought bothered and challenged me. Is it possible to get around that? Is there anyway to know truth despite interpretation… I must believe there is to have faith at all. I guess that is the role of revelation.

I made a short comment on her entry, but felt the question deserves a more thorough treatment than what I was able to give there.

My answer is no, there is no such thing as a “Christian” worldview that does not take any cues from cultural contexts, that is objective and independent of our individual and socially-constructed lenses – and this is a good thing! In the modern, Western world, people have long tried to find a rationally necessary, unassailable foundation on which to build a framework for knowledge that does not depend on cultural lenses or individual perspectives. The thought has been something like “if we can only get back to the one truth that defines all truths” then we will either create utopia (or something close enough) or otherwise gain irrefutable knowledge that reduces the whole world to a matter of propositions, rather like solving a math problem.

The problem is that over and over again those things which were purportedly universal have been demonstrated to be contingent and cultural. All knowledge seems to depend on making a foundational assumption that cannot be proved, regardless of what field one studies. The so-called knowledge of progress at the turn of the century was exposed as Euro-centric imperialism as colonial empires shattered and “scientific” regimes proved more barbaric than any tribal society – making the 20th century the most violent in the entire known history of humankind. The supposed universal turned out to be largely Western white, male-dominant, capitalist, etc., and wholly contingent upon human actions and decision making over the course of recent history, and usually calculated to benefit the few at the expense of the many. This is not to say that all of Western culture is morally bankrupt, but it needs to be seen for what it is without hiding its particular nature and its failures. The quest for universal knowledge needs to be called out by its name, “hubris”, and if not discarded in favor of a celebration of particularity and contingency then at least undertaken with MUCH greater humility.

It is no accident that the Greek word translated “to comprehend” in John 1:5 is more often rendered “to overcome” or more literally “to seize”. That which is known can be manipulated and appropriated, left devoid of mystery and assimilated into the technopolistic order that seeks to make everything “efficient” and “orderly”. If Christianity could be seen objectively, that is as an object, then that object could be grasped at, controlled. The gift of salvation would become something other than what it is, a gift – it would be made into a technique, a process, a “sure thing”. Not surprisingly then, there is a venerable cottage industry related to training apologists and evangelists in the right steps to win an argument or a conversion and pastors to write nice, neat 5-point sermons on how to clean up your life because that’s what Jesus is supposed to do for us. The inscrutable doctrines of Incarnation and Trinity; the unfathomable recapitulation where God becomes human and takes humankind up into the divine embrace, enabling us to join the perichoresis, the joyful, eternal dance of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the mystical communion of saints and the full presence of Christ “where two or three are gathered” in his name – these mysteries and more are at the heart of the faith, and they strenuously resist being analyzed, compartmentalized, and objectified.

Even the mighty God himself did not come to us as a totalizing force to conquer our puny established orders and dominate our particulars in his overarching, glorious reign. Rather, the reign of God celebrates the local and includes a place for contextualized understandings in the kingdom. Revelation 5:9 proclaims that Christ has bought people from every tribe, language, people, and nation. Beginning in 7:9 a great end-time worship service is depicted, more numerous than could be counted, again from every tribe, language, people, and nation. The clear implication is that these redeemed people worship God as they are, as people from different ethnic groups, different language groups. There is no indication that they have been culturally conformed to some universal standard, in the way McWorld globalization threatens to bring the whole world under the rubric of corporate consumer capitalism. Jesus lived as a particular man, with a particular vocation (builder/carpenter), in a particular place (Galilee), at a particular time (the early 1st century AD), living under a particular imperial regime (Rome), and dealing with a particular oppressive religious reality (the Jerusalem Temple system and its vassal high priests). This Jesus embodies a reality that transcends his place in history, but it transcends it from his place.

The Kingdom isn’t some “timeless universal” that imposes itself upon and over our local situations, plowing us into its furrows and stuffing our localities into its rucksack. Instead God breaks into our human reality in all its contingent, contextual nature through the Incarnation of Jesus and in the ongoing indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the church -the body that is universal and yet has myriad expressions in places with wildly different customs, cuisines, and communal expressions.

No knowledge is universal, just like no human political system is universal. Only the Body of Christ is universal among institutions of this world – that’s the basic meaning of the Greek katholikos, which is transliterated as “catholic”. But it is not a universality that trumps the local; rather, it is a universality that only exists in its local expressions. There is a long line of thought in the church, going back to the ancient fathers, proclaiming that when Eucharist is celebrated and the congregation gathers to re-member Christ, there is present the whole body of Christ. It isn’t just a little bit of Jesus that is present in the bread and wine of communion, but the whole Christ in all his cosmic nature. Likewise, the gathering of believers that celebrates Eucharist is not just a local expression of the church. Through partaking in the bread and wine which is the whole Christ, the whole body is present – the local expression of the church can rightfully be called the whole church, as the apostles and early fathers called local churches, because the whole Christ is present and the whole church is joined in the celebration of Christ’s victory over the powers and principalities and over the forces of sin and death in our lives and in the whole world.

God’s image that is restored in Christ and the church is too grand to be limited to only one perspective, even one supposedly “universal” perspective (which is really a particular perspective with delusions of grandeur). Instead we must give up our pretensions to God-like-ness and inhabit the world as God’s image through our Scotch-Irish-English American-ness, our Nigerian-ness, our Pashtun-ness, and so on. The catholic depends on the local and is constantly transformed by it as the particular participates in the universal, all held together by the Spirit.

It is a great mystery – “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Tyranny of the present, the progress myth, and Christian eschatology

Absolution Revolution has moved! You can find this post at http://absolutionrevolution.com/blog/2006/08/28/tyranny-of-the-present-the-progress-myth-and-christian-eschatology/