Empire & Hermeneutics

Posted: February 8, 2017 in Hermeneutics, Things of Faith

In his little book, Faith in the Face of Empire, Mitri Raheb writes regarding hermeneutics, “Interpreting a story is an art that requires much creativity and imagination. It is also a science. It is not an innocent science, but very closely related to empire. The empire wants to control the story-line—its meaning, production, and marketing. It does so consciously and often—far more dangerously—unconsciously” (pg. 23). In less than a weefaith-in-the-face-of-empire-the-bible-through-palestinian-eyesk I will be returning to the land where my faith was born. It is a remarkable place with remarkable people. While some have joked that it is a land filled with stones, it is more accurately a land filled with “living stones.”

Over the course of the last five years or so I have learned through the many stories and experiences of the people of the Holy Land that there is no more vivid truth than that this place is an intersection of converging and conflicting narratives. Unfortunately, we live in a world where the power to tell the story is controlled and monopolized by the governing empires. In the United States, the land of my birth, this has taken place in the ways in which the story of history is taught in public, private and home schools and various media outlets. In each context narrative choices are made and claims are put forth as universal truths. In each case these narratives are told from particular perspectives which have been shaped by the governing agencies that approve or disapprove of each telling. In addition there are individual narrative choices made by those in power in the classroom who then directly tell the narrative from a more nuanced and “personal” perspective regardless of any attempts to be objective (whatever that might mean).

Moreover, because we are children of western civilization and more specifically products of modernity we are consequently left with evaluative dichotomies such as, for example, “cowboys vs. Indians,” “north vs south,” “progressive vs. conservative,” etc. Even within academic contexts (where intellectual freedom is supposed to be evident) an underlining nationalistic narrative usually streams through. It is important to recognize that this is not an organic phenomenon. This is an intentional hermeneutical tactic systemic to the institution of nation states that endeavors to not only control the narratives told but more significantly to shape the corporate consciousness in the efforts to homogenize the identity of the resident population. In the United States this took place through “melting pot” rhetoric and intentional attempts to do away with “hyphenated-Americans” (Durnbaugh, Fruit of the Vine, pg. 416). Incidentally, the nonviolent communities of the Brethren, Mennonites, Quakers, Amish suffered under suppression efforts during both world wars as a result of this.

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Art Gish, 63, an American from Athens, Ohio, member of the Church of the Brethren and Christian Peacemaking Team Thursday Jan 30, 2003 (AP Photo/Nasser Shiyoukhi)

In much the same way, hermeneutical power is wielded around the globe by the empire in the attempt to shape public consciousness. The effort is to erase the “other” narrative in order to attain or sustain power over society. This, however, does not mean that there is no truth telling in the empire’s narrative, only that those truths told are used to place its own narrative in the best possible light to enable the empire’s pursuit of the expansionist goals. The hermeneutical threat that these endeavors pose to the Christian community is that the metanarrative of empire has discovered that “commandeering” the narrative of the Christian religion can have a semi-unifying result under the guise of “Christian nation,” while attempting to divide the Christian metanarrative along cultural and ethnic lines.

The most explicit effects of this can be seen by how the majority of western evangelical Christianity has turned its back on Palestinian Christians by universally accepting and supporting the modern nation state of Israel. The convergence of nationalism, evangelical dispensationalism and Zionism have had devastating effects upon the Christian population in Palestine. The way that the rhetoric of “terrorist” has been widely embraced and universally applied to the population of that region. The socio-political theology behind this convergence contradicts and marginalizes the teachings of Jesus and his sermon on the mount. While for western Christians this may not seem relevant to their experience, the efforts of the empire to delete or obfuscate the “other” narratives is now becoming evident in western society. The temptation is to see this as merely a political controversy. This phenomenon transcends politics; it involves the globalized corporate identity of capitalism and its partner militarism. The nonviolent discipleship of Jesus (Messiah, Son of Man, Son of God, Lamb of God, Immanuel, Redeemer, etc.) followers is more relevant and necessary today than it has been for centuries. The narrative of the “Truth” must be lived and told in such ways that both resist and protest the efforts of the empire. Christians must be diligent in their study and meditation of scripture in the context of humble service to those most vulnerable and oppressed in this world. The hope of God’s kin(g)dom come on Earth as in heaven is nothing more than the liberation of this world from sin and death. What this means is that in the violent throws of the empire, Jesus will be (was, is) victorious through resurrection. The hermeneutical challenge today for western evangelicalism is to find liberation from the universalizing metanarratives of modernity and to re-embrace the “Way, Truth, and Life” of the one who calls them to follow; the one who opens his arms to love even his enemies.

606x336_bonus-pablo2Last week I met with a group of folks who are predisposed to a missional perspective on ministry. Our topic for the day was “What does ministry and mission look like in a Post-Truth Culture?” It is obvious that the current political atmosphere was one of the basis of this topic. First, let me say that this group of women and men all serve in some form of leadership role within their worshiping contexts. There is certainly reason for concern when truth and facts are manipulated and lies become categorically euphemized as “alternative facts.” Secondly, the purpose of the conversation wasn’t about becoming involved in a political debate, but intentionally opening a dialogue concerning ministry in a culture where lying has become mainstream.

For the purpose of this post, I will lay out my argument that Christians have a particular role to play in this context. This situation in which we find ourselves has in fact been developing over several decades. I remember a time in the late nineties when cheating on tests in college was at times rewarded as being innovative problem solving. Deception and lies are as old as time. If this is the case, then what is it about right now that is most troubling? If I were to look at it from the dichotomy of national politics, I would most likely point out the blatant ways in which lies are told to shape a desired “truth.” I would point out the use of “convenient truths” that help to construct perception. For me the temptation is to throw my hands in the air and exclaim with Pilot, “What is truth?”

post-truth-bannerWhat I find most clear is that this “Post-truth” culture is not limited to any political categorization. In fact I see it as the logical progression of Modernity. Philosophically speaking, with modernity came a shift in emphasis to facts that support truth statements. Therefore when Kant proclaimed “Think for yourselves” he was essentially calling on the masses of society to check the facts. Question the authoritative statements made by the church and don’t simply accept them as true. What Postmodernity does is take this simple skepticism to the extreme and call all truth claims into question. In the postmodern world facts change. Where modernity emphasized objectivity and empirical evidences, Postmodernity calls into question all factual claims that support truth statements. Moreover, with Postmodernity comes an extreme emphasis upon human agency and choice to the degree that one now has the ability to choose what reality she wants.

In light of the children of Modernity (capitalism, democracy, etc.) comes the means to create your own personal reality. There is no more emphatic lie than to manipulate stories and facts for the purpose of creating a desired reality. As it is now predominately accepted that perspective shapes perception (see Gadamer, Derrida, etc.), it becomes impossible to make truth claims without attaching the Postmodern qualifier “for me.” Admittedly, all objective truth is interpreted subjectively. Where we have gone wrong is with the desire for truth itself. People now believe that they can create truth by manipulating perception.

Here is my argument. Looking back on the emergence of society’s obsession with fame, one cannot miss the use of lies and deception to create personas that are more spectacle than real. What western culture discovered was that if a person became famous a brand was created that could be used to generate wealth in the media market. A timeless truism is that with wealth comes success and power. Lies are often used to build up a person’s image for practical benefits. However, what has become most striking in western culture is the desire to create reality by means of manipulating facts to create a desired perception. Part of the logic behind this finds its roots in the marketplace as massive campaigns have sought to strike at the hearts of the masses for the purpose of selling them a product. This logic goes as follows: if you tell the lie convincingly consisting of just the right amount of truth; and if you speak it loudly enough; and finally if you speak it enough times it will become the governing reality. In the mind of such logic, perception is everything.

truth-300x200Unfortunately, this is where we are as a society. So the question (at least in my mind) is what is the role of a Jesus follower in such a culture as this? Going back to the conversation of those leaders, what seemed most important was to be representative of “the Truth.” And how does on be such a representative? In spite of the overwhelming obstacles this culture is providing, being a faithful presence, practicing simplicity, and especially emphasizing Jesus’ teaching to “let your yes be yes and your no be no.” But this in itself is not enough. It is not enough to merely speak out when words no longer hold meaning. I am convinced that those who confess that they follow Jesus are essentially called to live according to the truth. What this means is that as a disciple conforms to the teachings of Jesus (particularly the Sermon on the Mount), that disciple’s life will essentially become a living embodiment of the Truth. Therefore a faithful presence is nothing more than living a life that is consistent with the belief claims that the disciple makes. It requires an intentional focus upon the one who claims to be truth. The response must be one where the disciple rolls up the shirt sleeves and begins the difficult work of serving the widows, orphans and aliens in the community. It means that it is time to go to work becoming the truth that our neighbors and world desperately need. In a culture where words have lost their meaning, more is required.

Words of the Day

Posted: December 7, 2016 in Culture and Faith, Things of Faith

While I have not been known to be a sesquipedalian, I am somewhat of a lexophile. Over the past several months of living in the alter-universe where, truth is detached from reality and created by opinionated perceptions distortedmanurehero into a perverted sense of the present, I had to smile at the way in which Pope Francis addressed the emerging post-truth culture. He cannot be accused of euphemizing his judgments.  His analysis of the current context he summed up with two words, “coprophilia” and “coprophagia.” A wonderfully colorful characterization of consumerism and news media. Apparently this was not the first time he had used these terms. However, it was the first time that I heard him use them.

The imagery these two terms conjure are graphically appropriate at a time when the populous is so voraciously devouring news (obviously this term no longer means what it used to) that it is out-pacing the media’s insatiable appetite to report anything (truth has no meaning here) that meets the tastes of consumers. What seems strikingly obvious is that this is but the natural result of a capitalist and consumerist oriented culture. How is it that we are surprised by these developments? What seems almost comical to me is the way in which of the (half or un)truths are being spread by those within a community who are said to worship the one who claims to be the “Truth.” The irony is as deep as the pile of feces being loved and consumed. How is it that we have moved from standing with Jesus and truth-telling to standing with Pilot asking “what is truth?”

truth-and-liesThe immediate problem (as I see it within the United States) predates this election cycle finding its roots in the early Twentieth Century as industrial and religious leaders became partners in the cultural experiment of creating the national religion of Christian Libertarianism.[1] This national religion sought to shape and create a culture in which capitalism, constitutionalism, and a spattering of religious (Judeo-Christian) values were mixed together with exceptionalism. This, however, is only part of the story. The immediate counterpart to this liberal conservativism is liberal progressivism which also shares a smattering of exceptionalism, religious (social) values, constitutionalism and capitalism. Interestingly enough both sides share an unhealthy affection for militarism. They are two sides of the same coin. In as much as they are different, they share many of the same fundamental values

Regardless of which side one identifies with, the underlying rhetoric used is that of fear. The language used has reached apocalyptic levels exalting the stakes so high as if the ultimate hope lies in an a political process or system. I’m not saying that organization and institutions are unnecessary or unimportant, but simply they are not the source of Christian hope. They do not hold the future and they are not what a follower of Jesus is to swear allegiance to. What has happened is that we have become so enmeshed in this culture and so much hyperbole has been used to push political agendas that the evangelical community has become consumers of half-truth and falsity. Like the pop-culture, the evangelical community finds itself asking, “What is truth?” I think it’s time to step away from the dung hill and find something more nutritious to consume. We all know the old adage “You are what you eat . . .”

[1] Kevin M. Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. (Basic Books: New York, 2015).

jobfair-660x330About five months ago when I returned to full-time ministry in a local congregation I wrote a post discussing the lessons I learned while working in the corporate world. In my previous post I addressed (for the most part) the ways in which the church has brought the market into the church treating pastors as employees. Moreover, the church (institution) has even begun treating membership numbers (as well as giving amounts) as the bottom line by which to evaluate the success of ministry. This is not to say that numbers are not important, but that they should not be treated (and interpreted) in the same way as the market uses them. Essentially I focused upon the church as institution and the congregation’s contribution to this ecclesiological move. In this post I will be looking at some of the lessons I learned from the other side.

The contrasts between corporate America and the church are undeniable in so many ways that I am often astounded by efforts made by pastors and clergy to compare them in a way that unwittingly expresses a desire to be treated as such. In conversations with pastors I have heard comparisons of the position of pastor in the congregation to be like a CEO. I was once told point blank that I needed to “dress for success” in church ministry. What is especially alarming in all this is the extent to which this syncretism is taking place and that church leaders are instigating it.

As I worked my job for two years as an operations manager with some account manager responsibilities, I learned what it really means when the business motto is that the client is always right (regardless of how wrong they might be). The numerical bottom line is paramount and the company pulls out all stops to protect the revenue stream that begins with the customer. I shouldn’t even need to begin making the argument of how wrong it is to bring this approach into the church. But what I learned most was that even in my prior ministry context, in spite of protesting such syncretism, I indeed became enamored by the bottom line mentality. With this form of reasoning pastors often measure the success of their “career” as pastors by the numerical bottom line.

When this model is adopted, it is a slippery slope to where the pastor begins seeing herself as a successful business person who is deserving of a “salary” comparative to the (numerical) success of the church. Moreover it doesn’t take long for attitudes to begin shifting away from ministry focus to employment focus in which there is expectation for comparative compensation for hours worked. As if it were a company workplace it becomes easy for the pastor to then begin counting hours worked doing “church business.” This is one consequential implication I was trying to warn about when I stated, “What I have ironically experienced in the Anabaptist/Pietist tradition is the full attempt to articulate the relationship between congregation and the pastor using the business language of employer/employee.” Indeed this is an unfortunate irony that leads to behavior and attitudes that are quite unlike what would be considered a biblical and spiritual calling (pastoral and congregational attitudes of entitlement, tendencies toward monetary legalism, etc.).

2016-05-19-1463647608-1254725-businessMy simple argument is that for the benefit of the church and the role pastors serve in the church, the pastoral calling should never be considered a career or employment. There are three (perhaps more) reasons that I think this. First, the standard of qualification for a career or some form of employment is based upon previous personal accomplishments and accolades. The implications of this is that if a person can write up a good enough resume (or profile) that includes particular accomplishments with a noted numerical bottom line result, then that person would be more attractive and more likely to be “hired.” The tendency here is to minimize a spiritual discernment process to being essentially a time to scour through numerous resumes and profiles to pick the most attractive one. The qualifications are understood to be education and accomplishment centered. The underlying result of this is to begin believing that anyone can be trained to be a pastor.

Secondly, this will inevitably result with the pastor claiming responsibility for congregational performance either positively or negatively. The consequence here is double edged. I have seen pastors who have taken responsibility for the great successes of their congregations providing fodder to build a false sense of self. I have also seen pastors leave the ministry because they have taken on the responsibility for failures of the church. At this point I need to qualify this also. In as much as there are occasions where responsibility predominately lies with the pastor. It is never that simple. Pastors are part of the church. Therefore the congregation necessarily always shares in that responsibility, whether negatively or positively.

Finally, and most significantly it changes the fundamental understanding of the role and call of ministry for the church. Rather than the emphasis being upon the role of the Spirit gifting the individual in the context of a congregation and that congregation discerning those gifts and calling them out, the emphasis is changed to human accomplishment. Once again the consequential belief is “if we can send them to seminary, then we can train them and in teach them the necessary skills to be a career pastor.” The theological and spiritual implications are devastating to the church and to the pastors alike.

Perhaps, instead of bringing the market into the church, the church should begin looking at pastoral ministry more like missionary service in which the church commits financial support so that the ministry to which the believer is called can perform that ministry on behalf of and for the church. Instead of approaching pastoral ministry as hiring an employee from “outside of us,” maybe we should begin with a spiritual and relational model derived from scripture. I don’t know for sure, but something inside of me thinks that might be a more suitable approach (note sarcasm).

Another lesson I learned over those two years is that if the church becomes the market place it will cease being the “the presence of Jesus.” I am more convinced than ever that this world doesn’t need another business (whether entertainment or marketplace). It desperately needs the church to be the church, shining with the love of God for the world.