Archive for the ‘Culture and Faith’ Category

Jesus First

Posted: September 7, 2017 in Culture and Faith, Things of Faith

daca-rt-jpo-170901_12x5_992As I was perusing my Facebook feed this morning, I came across the following quote from a former colleague and friend:

 “In this time of DACA and immigration, a personal testimony: in a previous appointment I came to know a few illegal male Mexican immigrants who had come to the area seeking work to send money back to their families. They had come to the U.S. seeking to provide for their families. As a husband and a father I understood that. Did I turn them in? Nope. Why?
Because… I am not an American first. I am a Christian first, and from my study of the Gospels over the years, I could not imagine Jesus turning in anyone for the high crime of trying whatever they could to send money back to their families so they can eat. I will not suggest how following Jesus should be an instrument of foreign policy, since the American empire is essentially pagan; but as a follower of Jesus, I will follow Jesus. If I wore a ball cap it would say, “Jesus First.”… and that would mean Jesus is first and foremost for everyone.” (Alan R. Bevere)

To say that this past week has been troubling would be a severe understatement. When I returned to pastoral ministry 15 months ago I published a blog post that talked about the personal nature of this topic. In this country we too often politicize social issues to such an extent that the human factor is removed. Moreover, topics such as “immigration” is framed within a rhetoric of fear in such a way that the subjects concerned are marginalized to the “extreme other.”

What struck me about Alan’s post was that it consisted of the most basic common sense perspective of one claiming a Christian faith. The unfortunate reality for most self-proclaimed Christians in the US is that their faith has been so syncretized with the national religion that it is nearly impossible to separate faith and nationalism. What Alan is getting at is the necessary re-contextualization of North American Christianity in contrast to “powers and principalities,” and in this case the empire.

Any institution that propagates violence and coercion for the benefit of an institutional state can be considered a power or principality. One that has overwhelming power and influence over and against other such states through the framing of a metanarrative which exceptionalizes said state can be considered an empire. It is when we come to the understanding that Christians have always lived within this type of context that they can begin seeing themselves in contrast to it. Regrettably many Christians in the US perceive themselves in such a way that merges their faith identity with their geo-political identity.

This, I believe, is why so many self-proclaimed Christians so easily support a national policy that treats undocumented people in a way that contradicts God’s mandate. Nationalism is so strong that one’s identity is primarily articulated as national identity. Thus, a person’s faith identity is secondary and subordinate to one’s national identity often being tainted in such a way as to cease resembling any connection to Jesus’ teachings.

My Christian faith requires that I identify primarily as a “Jesus follower.” The implications of this is that I am ever bound by his life, teachings, death and resurrection. What this means is that I will always identify with the “other” as I am required to lovingly serve them. Faith in Jesus ultimately means standing in contrast to any such “power or principality” that sets out to exclude, marginalize, evict, or unjustly treat any human being. Like Alan, if I were to wear a hat it would say, “Jesus First,” not out of a desire to push a national policy, but as a reminder and proclamation of my allegiance. This requires one response and that is to love the other regardless of what the law of the land is.

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lightning_hits_treeIt was a sunny day with fluffy white clouds and a small warm breeze. Not long before I had gotten out of the pool, dried off and sat down to catch up on some news. Years ago I would have had a newspaper sitting beside my chair. Today I simply pick up my iPhone and open a news source app. Well yesterday was one of those days. I had been trying to keep up with the news in Palestine and Virginia. I had heard of violent clashes in Ramallah and had been praying for the people there. I had also heard about the protests and counter-protests in Virginia. I was looking for updates.

Sometimes when you have an agenda things don’t go the way you’d hope. No sooner had I started looking at the news and scrolling through the twitter lines a thunderstorm blew in and with a loud crack we lost our internet and satellite television. It was about that time twitter lit up with reports of a car driven into a crowd in Virginia. Images started to come online of the violent scene. Images of an angry crowd. Armed militia dressed in military fatigues and carrying riot shields marching down the street. It was deeply saddening.

With the ever increasing political divide in this country, last Fall I had decided to enter a season of prayer and silence (attempting to use less words). I did not want to contribute to a culture that was so deeply divided that hate was imminent. I have been determined to step away from the sphere of national politics and intentionally work at being a Jesus follower. I am convinced that when my life is most fully rooted in the narrative of the one who laid down his life as an indiscriminate outpouring of love that my responses tend to be more reflective of that.

As I was trying to hear and read what was going on, one lightning strike cut me off fromhttps3a2f2fblueprint-api-production-s3-amazonaws-com2fuploads2fcard2fimage2f5623942f3d0a6db5-d0e6-4bff-a60d-3c9aa5693517 the streams of news that was already shaping my opinions. The most immediate response was to pray, “God have mercy!” With the little information I was able to read and the twitter responses I caught and heard reported about politicians, it was clear that this was more than another reflection of political divide. These are the symptoms of a disease that goes much deeper. What we are witnessing is the underbelly of a system that has taken centuries to build and vast fortunes to defend. It is a metastasized cancer on this continent. It is a demonic movement of hate and violence. It sets out to destroy discriminately dividing God’s creation (quite the opposite of Christ’s love).

There is undoubtedly racism that veins through this cancerous culture. Yet the insanity of the violence and hatred that it births transcends racism. In the midst of reading about the events unfolding, I found myself caught up with feelings of anger so deep it was moving me toward hate. This is a cancer that threatens to kill all that is good. It is darkness that sets out to extinguish the light. It is in this context that the followers of Jesus must be present. timthumb-php_

I am well beyond my limits for tolerating voices either denying racism or minimizing its effects. It is especially conspicuous for descendants of northern European peoples who have never experienced the ongoing traumatic effects of chattel slavery (nor the traumatic effects of the holocaust) and systemic white supremacism to make such claims. What has become most disturbing for me is to see people I care about making these comments on social media exposing their lack of self and social reflection. Many of those same folks claim to be Jesus followers, all the while side stepping the truth of complicity. I am convinced that the North American Christian community is incapable of speaking any word regarding racism so long as it refuses to repent (i.e. admit its complicity and inability to fix it). As a middle-aged white man who has been raised with all the privileges afforded that standing, I am thoroughly ashamed of my own voluntary and involuntary complicity to this mess. I am keenly aware that the color of my skin and my gender have afforded me certain privileges. By accepting those privileges I quotevoluntarily participated in the cultural system designed to keep certain people groups in their place. I am also involuntarily complicit as I have no control over my gender or family lineage and yet regardless of the circumstances I have been nonetheless complicit. I suppose the anger I feel finds its roots in this shame. My first instinctual response is to deny or downplay my complicity. My second instinctual response is to point my finger at everyone else. In this way it takes the attention off my own complicity. The one response that is not instinctual is to simply admit it and then turn away from it. This is where I have found peace. Not a passive peace but one that calls me to those places where Jesus would go outside the camp to stand with those who are suffering. The only path that the white church in North America can take is that of repentance. There will be no peace among Christians without it.

My earnest prayer is that the Holy Spirit will open our eyes to our corporate sin and bring us to our knees in repentance. May it be so in the name of Jesus.

 

 

It has been a well-known fact that narratives have been used by empires to control the collective consciousness of the populations they seek to dominate. This has been an ongoing practice that dates back to the earliest of empires and is currently practiced by the conglomerative empire of western civilization and mosd81a56ad40996a0d500f6a706700daf2t directly expressed by its embodiment of the United States. And yet empire cannot be limited to national institutions but has expanded through modernity to include numerous other institutions (or metanarratives) which seek to universalize and centralize their power. As such it is necessary to include the more general institutions of democracy, communism, socialism, capitalism, the marketplace, and even religions. Each of these asserts itself through the telling of stories. These stories often seek to gloss over the injustices incurred for the purpose of further universalizing their claims. Therefore, whether it is dictating its seminal narratives to the exclusion of Native Americans and the stealing of their land, the manipulative retelling of events to justify or lessen the recourse for the stealing of labor through institutionalized chattel slavery, or the violence and war incurred in the name of some god, each of these narratives perpetuate the unjustly oppressive treatment of peoples.

Regarding the church’s collusion in this, it is not only disturbing but alarmingly so how any entity can affect such disruptive changes among the Christian community (within which I identify) that causes its members to empathize with and gravitate towards centers of power regardless of how despotic their actions may be. Instead of toward aligning with the powerless and marginalized as scripture clearly directs the followers of Jesus, many in the church have turned to the empires of this world. This, however, is nothing new.

raphaelLooking back at the third century one easily sees the historical developments that led to the Constantinian paradigm shift in the church. What is often not noticed is how the nuanced interpretations of such events effect the larger perception which eventually changes the trajectory of the community. For instance, many interpret the visions of Constantine as his conversion and therefore the justification for the resulting violence and political manipulation that took place in the following years. This has been a conclusion in spite of Constantine delaying his baptism until just before his death.

Now admittedly there are current assumptions that are read into these events that affect one’s interpretation, such as “baptism does not equal conversion or salvation.” This is a typical belief held by most Protestants. Ironically this has allowed them the ability to side with Catholicism’s affirmation of Constantine as the first Christian emperor. This occurs by tying the conversion of Constantine to his initial visions. On the other hand, the typical Anabaptist belief is that Constantine didn’t convert but only seized the opportunity to take power and use a fledgling religion to change the religious landscape of the church by syncretizing it with the empire (admittedly these are oversimplifications of these perspectives).

This illustration demonstrates how depending upon which tradition you embrace determines how you will interpret this pivotal event in history. And it is in the interpretive telling and retelling of these events that attempts to control the dominant narrative. In the end whoever rules the region, their telling of and interpretations of the events will be prevail. The one who holds the most power is able to tell the story louder and more often thus silencing the hetero-narratives. What is interesting in this is that each of the tellings express some form of the truth. Each, however, over generalize, edit, and emphasize, thus misshaping the actual events into mythological narratives that push their perspectives forward.

I’ve been wondering most recently as to the hermeneutical effects of a narrative telling that acknowledges the subversive nature of Constantine’s attempts to manipulate the Christian church while also allowing for his conversion late in life when he was baptized? For the Anabaptist tradition and those who follow along these lines theologically it would require them to rethink the extent of Constantine’s role in this paradigm shift and allow for the wisdom of the church leaders in discerning whether he was ready for baptism or not. A question likely asked would be, for example, “Has Constantine converted sufficiently to the ways of Christ enough to be baptized into the faith?” From almost 2 millennia away it is easy to pass judgment upon the church elders’ decision to accept him into baptism, but the details regarding his catechism and conversion are not adequately available to us. Therefore we are left to either accept the wisdom or make speculative judgments.

This matters significantly regarding hermeneutical questions in this context. Hermeneutics has everything to do with the questions we ask regarding a narrative as well as the judgments with which we conclude. Judgments are inevitable and there is always some degree of speculation when such great distances of time are involved. Even when studying the biblical text, interpreters make speculative judgments regarding the narrative. The question is whether the contemporary reader will adequately learn the context of the narrative allowing said reader to limit the judgments in scope. Additionally, there is the question of trust in the interpretive process also. When does the reader apply a healthy level of skepticism and when is it appropriate to trust the narrative of the community? These questions require judgments to be made.

IMG_0369If we shift this conversation back to the more contemporary context of the church in the United States, what we discover is that those in power are maneuvering to control the narratives. There are obvious attempts to silence the hetero-narratives by means of providing numerous spurious claims with no supporting evidence. Moreover, some in the church have confused the US political ideological conversation as an adequate framework to express the faith based convictions of Christianity. Moreover, in the zealous attempt to legislate those convictions they have compromised their faith by partnering with the empire becoming complicit in injustice. The basis of this movement, I believe, is the confusion of the empire (or empires of this world) with the kingdom of God. There necessarily can be no alliance between the two. Jesus taught in his sermon that a person cannot serve two masters. Unfortunately, in the process of making these alliances, some in the church have positioned themselves as enemies of their brothers and sisters in the faith.

The point of all this is that in the midst of the competitive tellings of these narratives, it appears that some Christians have chosen sides. The proverbial elephant in the room is that large swaths of the Christian church in North America (and perhaps Europe) have become apostate abandoning the “gospel” teachings of their founder, prophet and their God. The compromises made have put the church on a path that leads away from the cross and into the arms of those responsible for crucifixion. Instead of plodding the via Delarosa bearing their crosses on this way, many in the Christian community have chosen the gilded streets and ornate halls of power. Regardless of how the story is spun and the narrative manipulated, the “Truth” remains the same. And his teachings provide ample information to make plain how the events are unfolding. May God have mercy on the church, but not at the expense of justice for the least and most vulnerable in this world.

spin-doctorA few weeks back 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 society. This situation in which we find ourselves has in fact been developing over several decades. I remember a time in the late maxresdefault90’s when cheating on tests in college was at times rewarded as being innovative problem solving. People lying on job applications was rewarded as being creative. 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?”
What 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. Some claims that society affirmed as factual fifty years ago, regardless of being simply theoretical in nature, are now recognized as being in error. The perception then is that in the postmodern world facts change. Where modernity emphasized objectivity and empirical evidences, Postmodernity calls into question all factual claims that support truth statements based upon these perceptions. 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, truth, or even facts 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. This phenomenon reached its pinnacle in the nineties during the Clinton administration as the sitting president then frantically 535190b95c52e00fc716274e7b3d5316-cfsought to defend himself from a political onslaught. Thus the term “spin” became the term choice as society sought to reframe events to their own liking. 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 (as well as facts) 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.

Unfortunately, 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 one 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.