maundy-thursday-backgrounds-3This morning I began to intentionally set my mind on the special service my congregation will have this evening. Every Thursday before Easter Sunday we celebrate what we call Lovefeast & Communion. Essentially this is a time to gather for self-examination (confession & assurance of forgiveness), feetwashing, a simple meal around the table together, and finally the Eucharist. This sacred event serves as one of those liturgical practices in the church that reorders our life together in relationship to God through Jesus.

The examination is nothing more than our realization and admittance of our inability to see, hear and live in the way that Jesus taught. It is both a confession of our failures as well as a profession of our faith in Jesus. What this time does is to tenderize our hearts (our desires) in preparation for re-formation. In terms of worship, we are posturing ourselves in submission to God in preparation to give and receive the love and care that exalts Jesus.

Having surrendered ourselves to the reality of our finite and flawed existence in the presence of infinite perfection we take up the towel and basin. There are two points in this part of the ceremony that require more reflection. John 13 begins with Jesus preparing to demonstrate the full extent of his love to his disciples. Now this is meant to be interpreted two ways. One that in the event around the table this will be expressed. And secondly the ultimate expression of this love occurs in his glorification on the cross. Now I’m convinced that we cannot understand the latter interpretation unless we get the former. Often times, chapter 13 is simply interpreted as Jesus providing an example of humble service. I have even heard it used as a means of describing servant leadership. While there may be some aspect of these expressed within this passage, more significantly it represents a living parable of life together as disciples. Jesus is pouring out his love through an act that symbolically washes away sin. There is a definite connection between this cleansing and the cleansing of baptism. However, while baptism primarily attends to the vertical relationship between the Creator and the creation, feetwashing provides the symbol of cleansing of communal brokenness. It is necessary to sit vulnerably open to being washed (confession) by sisters and brothers as well as washing (forgiving) the feet of sisters and brothers. In the church this act is sealed with an embrace (a holy kiss in some congregations) expressing the unity that reconciliation brings.

Once the feet have been washed then the brothers and sisters are prepared to sit at theshutterstock_44110603 table and share a simple meal at which they break bread together. This meal not only looks back reflecting upon the last supper, but more significantly looks ahead to the table of the wedding feast of the Lamb. In contrast this is a simple meal (not a literal feast) that is shared remembering that we are living in a world where not everyone has food to eat. It sorrowfully acknowledges those currently suffering, but doing so with full gratitude for the table set before them to share the necessities of life.

Finally, while seated around the table, the brothers and sisters take the bread in their hands, break it together and confess in unison that the bread they break is the body of Christ broken for them. In much the same way, following a blessing they take a cup and with a similar confession drink from the cup. This is followed by a song and a benediction after which some leave to their homes and some remain to clean up.

What I find so significant about this sacred time is that in the mimetic exercise of this drama my “heart” is in some way re-formed. It is not merely an intellectual change of mind. I can experience that by reading a well formed argument. It is far more in that it to some degree transforms my life, my posture, my desire, my attitude. In ways that escape words, I sense that my life becomes a little bit more like that of Jesus. In his little book, Shaped by the Word, Richard Mulholland describes how religious icons are created in a way that moves the mind from the intellect to the affective part of the brain. In this way it changes the perception of the individual in such way as to move beyond trying to control the text to being shaped by it. In much the same way this symbol is iconographic in that it requires us to transition out of the left side of our brain that examines and analyzes to the affective side that becomes open to the formative experience of participation. While my Anabaptist sensibilities resist this terminology, I am convinced that in this way this symbol is sacramental disseminating the loving grace of our Lord Jesus upon the community transforming the current context into the eschatological hoped for community—even if only for a moment.

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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.

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.