Thursday, January 28, 2016

THE CHURCH'S SUICIDE RECONSIDERED



This week one of our seminary professors shared a blog post by Chris Hedges on The Suicide of the Liberal Church. http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_suicide_of_the_liberal_church_20160124  I like Chris Hedge’s work. His book, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, is an honest account of militarism as a religion. And there is much in his Suicide article that rings true, particularly that the Church is always at risk of selling out to the powers and principalities of the prevailing culture and market. Whether the Church has declined in institutional vitality because of such a sell-out is another question, one that that I am not sure is even helpful to ask. If we are to be faithful to our identity as the Body of Christ, which we recognize because “the Spirit of the Lord is upon (us) upon us because she has anointed (us) to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free,” then we should not do those things because they are good for out bottom line, but because they are what God calls us to do. Our mission is not a marketing strategy. It’s who we are.

My real problem is not really with Hedges’ suggestion that “the liberal church,” by which he means mainline denominations, have committed suicide by being too conservative. I object to his underlying premise. It is that we are fatally flawed by the very fact that we are the Church. He cites Paul Tillich to the effect that all institutions, including the Church, are inherently demonic, and Reinhold Niebuhr who claimed that churches were inherently morally weak while individuals alone have the spine to be moral. Hedges thereby implies that the Church should commit suicide in order to set us each free to live the moral and meaningful lives we would live if we were solitary individuals on desert islands. If I read him wrong I apologize, but if that is not what he is saying, I assure you plenty of people in the Church are.


I have spent long stretches in solitude wrestling with my inner demons. I was quite disappointed to discover that I am every bit as spiritually muddled on my own as in a group. Christianity has known that for a long time. See, The Lives Of The Desert Fathers. The heroic individual I thought I was (because Tillich and Niebuhr told me I was) was invented by Soren Kierkegaard as a philosophical construct in the 19th Century before he died on a Copenhagen street refusing the sacraments of the Church he did not deem moral enough to comfort him. 20th Century thinkers from Tillich and Niebuhr to Neil Diamond extolled that solitary man. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAtwg1BwKek

The problem is: that solitary man does not exist. We do not give birth to ourselves, manufacture our own DNA, speak only to ourselves in our own language, drive on roads we have made, read books we have written. We live in the human milieu. Other people influence us as we influence them. Plato defined “being” as the power to influence others and the capacity to be influenced by them. To separate ourselves from community would in Plato’s’ terms be to destroy our very being. That would be suicide.

We make meaning in relationship. Ubuntu theology says so. See, Reconciliation: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu. http://www.amazon.com/Reconciliation-Ubuntu-Theology-Desmond-Tutu/dp/0829818332/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1454010623&sr=8-1&keywords=ubuntu+theology Object-relations psychoanalysis and systems psychology say so. Aristotle said so. "Man is a political animal." Politics. John Donne said so. "No man is an island." In Democracy In America, Alexis de Tocqueville said our social and political interactions were necessary in order for us to live well and grow into better people. The New Testament says so, particularly in Paul’s metaphor of The Body of Christ.

I confess (with some chagrin) part of what bothers me about the Suicide post is that I want the Church to be intellectually respectable and it embarrasses me when we are 20 years out of date. I want to ask some of our seminary professors and clergy if they have noticed that post-Christendom is passé. We are now living in the post-secular era. Professor Luke Betherton writes of this persuasively in Resurrecting Democracy. http://www.amazon.com/Resurrecting-Democracy-Citizenship-Politics-Cambridge/dp/1107641969/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1454010848&sr=1-1&keywords=resurrecting+democracy It’s time to get with the program of the 21st Century and move on.


I live in Las Vegas, the capital of American secularity, but even here, I see faith communities proclaiming good news to the poor, release to the captives, and letting the oppressed go free. We joined hands – Catholic, Protestant, Black Church, White Church, Latino Church, Muslim, Jew, and Unitarian – to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, defend the abused, to pass an omnibus anti-trafficking bill, to fund public education, and to extend home health care to double the number of disabled people who can live in their homes instead of institutions. When religion is profaned by violence, it is the faith communities – those “demonic” churches, mosques, and synagogues – who come together to affirm our brotherhood and commitment to peace. How is our bottom line doing? We have always lived on the edge and we are still on the edge – none of those endowments whose shrinking Hedges mourns – never had ‘em; but by and large I’d say we are doing just fine thank you, breathing in and breathing out, putting one foot in front of the other, and doing the work God has given us to do.

I hear too many seminary professors, bishops, and priests whose heads are still stuck in the outmoded individualism of the past, who are out of step with the current decade, who are downright eager to see the Church die. This disturbs me. If there is a suicidal tendency in the Church, it is this collective self-abasing urge to close the doors of our churches to let those heroic individuals each create their own religion and live it out on their own. But individuals create lousy religions to stoke their own egos. The real deal religion that calls us to carry the cross and speak the truth is hammered out in the real world where people – complex, messy, flawed people – join hands to work for the common good. Communion is the sacrament of our common life. Common prayer is pouring out of our common longing. What we long for is the Kingdom of God, which Jesus taught us to seek in the relational space between us. That is why Luke Betherton reminds us, “The cure of souls and the cure of politics are intertwined” and St. John of the Cross taught us that “God has so ordained that we are sanctified through the frail instrumentality of each other.”


Friday, January 15, 2016

THE ANGLICAN COMMUNION UNPACKED: WHAT DID THE PRIMATES DO TO US?

Here is a message from Bishop Curry about the Primates Meeting. https://www.facebook.com/episcopalian/videos/10155010038437925/?pnref=story The best explanation of what transpired this week is in this blog post. http://abmcg.blogspot.com/2016/01/no-episcopal-church-has-not-been.html It is straightforward, coherent, and accurate, but many readers who are unfamiliar with the workings of the Anglican Communion (and that would be most of the world) may need even a bit more context in order to makes sense of it all. I want to help with that. So here goes.

1. The Anglican Communion is a network of 38 Provinces around the world. The Episcopal Church is one of them. We consist of 15 nations. Other Provinces usually consist of only one nation. 

2. The Anglican Communion is not a law making body ruling the Provinces in the sense that the Vatican is such an authority for Roman Catholics. The Provinces are connected to each other by common mission and “bonds of affection.” The authority to make decisions resides in each Province. In The Episcopal Church, most authority resides in dioceses and dioceses regularly entrust most of the authority for daily church life to parishes. So we are connected but not by a dominating central authority. For theological reasons as well as adherence to tradition, such a central dominating authority would not be “the Anglican way.” The previous Archbishop proposed an Anglican Covenant that would have established some limited central authority, but it was soundly defeated by almost all the Provinces. 

3. Membership in the Anglican Communion is determined by connection to the four “Instruments of Communion” or unity. They are:

A. The Archbishop of Canterbury
In order to belong to the Anglican Communion, a Province must be in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Episcopal Chruch is the only church in the United States in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. 

B. The Lambeth Conference
Roughly every decade or so all the Anglican bishops have met for fellowship, Bible study, and theological reflection.

C. The Primates Meeting
From time to time the head bishops of the Provinces gather, as at this week's Primates Meeting.

D. The Anglican Consultative Council (ACC)
This is a board that actually directs the activities of the Anglican Communion. It is somewhat analogous to a parish in which the Archbishop is in the role of rector and the Council is in the role of the vestry.

4. The Anglican Communion is governed principally by the ACC, which appoints some administrative committees to implement its directives. However, the main action of the Anglican Communion is in “networks.” You can learn about the networks at their web site. http://www.anglicancommunion.org I was hoping you could learn about the “committees” that are the point of controversy this week. However, I cannot find anything about the committees on their web site except one committee that administratively implements the policies of the ACC between their sessions. Half of that committee is appointed by the Primates and half by the ACC. That raises the issue that the Primates do not actually have the authority to bar The Episcopal Church from committee positions that are in the jurisdiction of the ACC. However, I predict we will not contest that issue. 

What happened this week? 

The Primates Meeting is one of the instruments of communion. Six of the Primates threatened to walk out (thereby impairing but not completely breaking communion with the rest of us) unless the Epsicopal Church was sanctioned — the desired sanction being to exclude Bishop Curry from the meeting. The Primates just were not going to do that. But in order to placate the six angry Primates and get them to remain part of the Primates Meeting, a majority of the Primates voted to exclude us from working on committees for three years. So, in terms of our relationship status within the Anglican Communion:

1. We are still in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

2. We attended the last Lambeth Conference and will attend the next one. Some of the Provinces who are angry over women’s ordination and LGBTQ inclusion did not attend the last Lambeth but we did and there is no plan to disinvite us or for us to miss it.

3. We are still part of the Primates Meeting, which was unanimously affirmed by the Primates this week. Even the six angry Primates agreed to that.

4. We are still represented on the ACC. After the Eugene Robinson controversy, the Primates asked us to absent ourselves from the ACC for three years. We did. That was a much bigger deal than being excluded from committees. But we did it. We then returned and carried on as before.

5. Networks are not officially “instruments of communion” but they are where the mission of the Communion is actually carried out so they may matter as much or more than the official instruments of communion. We are still part of the networks. 

6. Partnerships are relationships between dioceses in different provinces. This knits us together even more than networks. Nevada has been and remains in partnership with the Diocese of Santiago, Philippines and the Diocese of Makuene, Kenya.

In the words of Bishop Chilton Knudson of Maryland, "the sky is not falling." This is my reaction to the Primate's action: if being excluded from committees for three years is the price we have to pay for full inclusion of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, it is a price I would pay many times over. If our not serving on committees for three years preserves the bonds of Christian fellowship that constitute the Anglican Communion, I am more than willing to pay the price for that good purpose as well. Our union in Christ does not depend on committees but on our love of God and service to God’s people in common mission. 

We are in the media limelight this week as a result of the Primates’ action. We are receiving cyber hate mail from the anti-religious and the fundamentalists alike. (We are also receiving a great deal of appreciation from unchurched people for our inclusivity.) All this is to be expected and goes with the turf of being the middle way. I do not mind that at all. One thing I am seeing in the media does disturb me. Some Episcopalians have reacted by calling on The Episcopal Church to withdraw funding from the Anglican Communion. I understand the hurt that lies behind such a response. But I am disappointed that we have so utterly failed to teach stewardship. We don’t give or withhold the money God has entrusted to us in order to exercise power or claim status. Our commitment to the Five Marks of Mission is far more important that any pique we feel about not being appointed to committees on a temporary basis. I am confident the Episcopal Church will turn the other cheek and continue to support the Anglican Communion. If any of your people talk of withholding money from Canterbury, please urge them to prayerfully reflect on Philippians 2: 1-17; Luke 23: 34; Colossians 3:13. 

Even in our congregations and dioceses, we continue to deal with the basic problem of people using money and power to enforce their moral perspective. At stake is a fundamental question of the world's ways of wealth/ power versus relationality as as opposing ways we might seek to influence each other. The Church has a duty to show "by word and example" the superiority of the Sermon on the Mount way. We will better lead in the Communion by modeling the way of Jesus extending forgiveness rather than retaliation -- particularly in the context of wealthy Americans using wealth against Provinces that are so poor. I believe the dynamics in the Communion are not really about sexuality. At Lambeth the African bishops demonstrated little interest in the subject. It is actually a protest arising out of a sense of powerlessness, a legacy of Western imperialism. Assertions of wealth/power by us would only deepen that divide and further entrench them.

Yesterday, one non-Episcopal social media commenter, observed that now the Episcopal Church will know how LGBTQ people have felt for years as they were excluded from family gatherings and social fellowship. That comment stays with me. Any sense of exclusion we straight Episcopalians may feel pales by comparison to what our LGBTQ brothers and sisters have long endured. This small token of ostracism should teach us compassion for them and deepen our resolve to extend healing through full inclusion. The calling of this moment is to grow our compassion. 

Sunday, December 27, 2015

TO SHOW GOD'S LOVE ARIGHT: THE NATURE OF CHRISTIAN POWER


Will you join me for a little Bible Study? The Bible is truly a rich and amazing book. When we dig just a bit beneath the surface, it says some surprising things. In this case it will tell us something usually overlooked about Christmas that, if noticed, can reshape our sense of the Christian life.

Our family recently gathered on a Florida beach to say the prayers of Thanksgiving for the Birth of a Child (BCP 439).  We were celebrating our new grandson Matthew. The service began with his 7-year-old brother, Daniel, reading Luke 18: 15-17, the story of people bringing babies to be blessed by Jesus, the disciples sending them away, and Jesus saying, “No! Let them come!” The text ends,

Whoever will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child
will never enter it.”

I have looked and looked and cannot find an English translation that is not ambiguous. A Greek-reading friend tells me it is ambiguous in the original Greek. Did Jesus mean that in order to enter the Kingdom of God, we must “receive the Kingdom as a child would receive it” or did he mean that we must  “receive the Kingdom as we would receive a child”? We usually take it to mean the former (childlike faith) but the context of a dispute over how we welcome children would suggest the latter. How we receive children is what it’s all about.

How does receiving a fragile child relate to receiving the Kingdom of God, the reign of divine power? Power and childhood seem utterly opposite. But look at the lesson from Isaiah for Christmas Eve – another text where I suspect we miss the meaning – Isaiah 9: 2-7. It begins with a promise of breaking “the rod of the oppressor.” But this isn’t just the overthrow of one gang of thugs by another, as usually happens in the politics of the domination system. Instead of politics as usual, when God intervenes, war and domination are themselves vanquished. “For the boots of the trampling warriors and the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.” This is not a violent overthrow but rather the overthrow of violence itself. If violence is not the means of overthrowing violence --  if as Dr. King said, “Darkness cannot drive away darkness” -- then how shall this come to pass? Isaiah answers:

            “For a child has been born for us
                        a child has been given to us.
             Authority rests upon his shoulders
                        And he is named
            Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
                        Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

The kicker here is that the verbs are present tense. It is not that the child will grow up someday, wield a sword, overthrow Assyria, Babylon, Rome, or the oppressor of the day,  and establish his dominion. It is that a child is already vested with authority and honored as the Prince of Peace. A kind of power resides in the child as a child. Some early Madonna-and-Child icons express this authority of the divine child by showing the baby Jesus wearing a crown.  This is a wildly paradoxical text. What can possibly be going on in these two lessons?

Isaiah and Luke are showing us how God exercises power. It is not in our ordinary human way.

My ways are not your ways, says the Lord, nor my thoughts your thoughts
.--  Isaiah 55: 8

God’s power is not like earthly power.  It is really quite the opposite. We will go into the difference in due course, but first we need to address the whole question of power. Frederick Nietzsche launched the most powerful philosophical attack of all time on Christianity. What he despised about Christians is that we were pusillanimous, weak, mousey – that we made a religious virtue out of mousiness. As we practice the faith, we sometimes live up to Nietzsche’s description.  A social media clergy friend recently went on a rant against broad-based community organizing to improve our common life because he had discovered it involved the building of power to effect positive change.  Christians, he insisted, should have nothing to do with power – thereby proving Nietzsche’s point.  Another clergy person on social media thought it was presumptuous for people to forgive each other because we have no right to claim such power (even though Christ commanded us to do so.) However, if we check our Bible we read that:

            God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power . . . .2 Timothy 1: 7

            For the Kingdom of God is not in word but in power. 1 Corinthians 4: 20

            But truly I am filled with power by the Sprit of the Lord, and of justice
            and of might.    Micah 3: 8

            Now when the multitudes saw (the healing miracle) they marveled
that God had given such power to men. Matthew 9: 8

To them he gave the power  to become sons of God.  John 1: 13

            You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. Act 1: 8

The Bible is repeatedly and emphatically clear that Christians are invested with the power of God to do God’s will in God’s world. When we confirm a Christian we pray, “ . . .  empower her for your service.” That power goes back to our very creation. Here I must borrow from our pagan brother, Plato, who defined “being” as “the power to affect others or be affected by them.”[i] That definition remains widely accepted in philosophy today.  We exist, we have our being, by virtue of our ability to be in relationship with others, influencing and being influenced by them. God gave us our being, with its attendant power, and said, “It is good.”

The confusion arises from the exercise of two dramatically different (one might even say diametrically opposed) kinds of power: dominating power and relational power.

Biblical scholar Walter Wink traced dominating power back to the rise of the nation state in antiquity.[ii] He said the religious foundation of the domination system  was the Sumerian creation myth, The Enuma Elish, and made a persuasive case that Genesis was written to repudiate that view of God and the world. Church historian Karen Armstrong agrees, attributing dominating power to the first  nation states as a system for an agrarian society.[iii] Biblical scholars like Walter Wink and N T Wright are clear that Jesus’ message was about overcoming sin and the domination system with the paradoxical, ironic, mischievous, non-violent relational power of love. [iv]

One Sunday recently, I saw a group of young adults standing on a corner at the intersection of two narrow streets. They were having a happy, fun conversation. On the street beside them,  cars were stopped at a red light. When the light turned green, the driver of the second car in line did not think the driver of the first car was moving fast enough, so he blew his horn insistently. The young man on the corner whose back was to the street turned and waived  cordially, saying “Hi-i-i-i!” as if it had been a greeting. Point made.

Jesus showed us and taught us the exercise of relational power, the art of influencing others thorugh care, compassion, respect, appreciation. Take the list of attributes of love cited by Paul in I Corinthians 13 for a good introduction to the meaning of relational power. Take the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the prototype of it.

Many people resist God because they think of God as a patriarch exercising dominating power in the world and aspiring to dominate them and their lives. On the contrary, the ancient Christian understanding of God is that God is, in God’s very being, in God’s very nature, relational – not dominating. God does not want to control us. God’s very nature would make that domination as distasteful to God as it would be to us. God wants lovers, not puppets. So God seeks to draw us by love. Hence God comes, not as a dominating conqueror, not as Attila, but as Jesus. Thus an anonymous poet in the 16th Century wrote:

                        To show God’s love aright
                        She bore for us a Savior
                        When half-spent was the night.[v]

The Kingdom of God is not like an earthly Kingdom with armies, weapons, high walls and dungeons. It is a Kingdom of Love – or if that word is too sentimental, a Kingdom of mutuality in which we all have power to affect one another for good, to build each other up – and God happens in that relational space. God is a field (in the sense of modern physics) in which such relationships can flourish.

The Kingdom of God does not overpower us like a military force. It charms us like a child in its cradle. That is why Jesus says we enter the Kingdom of God by our welcome of the vulnerable and our willingess to be vulnerable ourselves. We enter the Kingdom by submitting to the power of love. Hence God manifests at Christmas as a baby in a stable.

            Our God, heaven cannot hold him
            Nor Earth sustain . . . .
            (But) in the bleak midwinter
            A stable place sufficed
            The Lord God Incarnate
            Jesus Christ.[vi]






[i] Plato, The Sophist
[ii] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be
[iii] Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood
[iv] N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God
[v] Anonymous, Lo How A Rose E’er Blooming
[vi] Christina Rossetti, In The Bleak Midwinter (1872)