Lenten Reflections: liberation and the suffering Christ

One of the most enriching things about traveling to El Salvador last month was to experience liberation theology in practice. I was introduced to this theology like many seminary students–primarily through academic literature and lively class discussions. Some of my fellow classmates resonated with people like Elsa Tamez and Gustavo Gutierrez. I was in this category. Others were quick to scrutinize potential theological shortcomings. While these sorts of theoretical approaches definitely have their merits, I think it’s invaluable to see theology lived out. Theology must never be handled at a distance, no matter how comforting it may seem to find refuge behind a book. What exactly does it mean in the here-and-now that God is a God who suffers? What does justice for the oppressed mean for a war-torn country or cities filled with vast disparity? These kinds of questions will keep you up at night if you truly come to wrestle with them.

One of the most distinctive parts of liberation theology is its Christology. This part is something I have meditated on recently during this Lenten season. Christ is someone who suffers. Jesus was oppressed–from living in the context of Roman colonization to being crucified as a criminal. We read in John’s gospel of Jesus as a God who sheds tears at the death of a beloved friend. Philippians 2 tells us how the kenosis and self-sacrificial love of our Jesus flips the entire world upside down. Jesus suffers and this is a key foundation for doing theology with liberation in mind.

Memorial Rose Garden at UCA

Memorial Rose Garden at UCA

I witnessed this Christology put into practice in El Salvador. The pastors and leaders we met throughout throughout our trip understood Jesus as near to these places of suffering. I particularly remember visiting the Martyrs Museum at the University of Central America. Six Jesuit priests and two women were were assassinated at the university during the civil war by government forces. I do not think I will ever be able to forget the graphic photographs we saw during our visit. I remember immediately thinking that this killing was absolutely demonic. These priests were martyrs. One of the books found in a pool of blood following the assassination was Moltmann’s Crucified God. Seeing this stained book on display at the museum really impacted me. I cannot find the words to express how truly symbolic this display was. It seemed to express the lives of each one of these martyrs.

Things are tough in El Salvador, despite the end of the war. The people have been literally beaten and torn, opportunity is often systematically restricted, and the nation’s civil war included some of the most horrendous instances of violence. Through the passion of Christ, however, we see the heart of God. Yes we are bruised, but Jesus was bruised too. By realizing this we can see how God is closely connected with the poor and powerless.

I have a pastor friend who will frequently end his prayers in worship with this: “In the name of Jesus we pray, in his life, death, and resurrection. Amen.” I have adopted this practice in my ministry too. My friend has explained that as Christians, we are a people who are to embody the life of Christ. This is not limited to the triumphant Christ on Easter morning. We ought to also be deeply connected with the passion narrative–both the crucifixion and life of Christ as well. I believe this pastoral insight directly relates to the theology of liberation. Of course we confess the reality of Easter morning. God picks up the broken pieces and renews and restores creation. In the same breath, however, we must also be a Good Friday people. As we integrate the suffering Christ into our lives we realize the heart God has for the least of these. I think this is what liberation theology is all about.

Lenten Reflections: Jesus weeps

Kenotic Christology was kind of a controversial topic at Baylor. I remember discussing it in several classes, both in the Philosophy and Religion departments. C. Stephen Evans had actually edited a book on the theology and was really quite knowledgeable about the self-emptying of God. I say this was controversial because many of my fellow classmates were oddly uncomfortable to think of God as entirely human. God emptying Godself? God experiencing depletion? This really did cause a stir. Many of us could not really shake our westernized theological foundation. Immutability somehow contradicted kenosis.

I’ve heard it said while Europe emphasized the humanity of Christ, we in America tend to overemphasize his divinity. We don’t like that Jesus feels pain. Even though we might theoretically claim adherence to the orthodox doctrine of the incarnation, we still somehow manage to denigrate the body and prize the spirit–dualism at its finest.

The story of Lazarus appears in this year’s cycle of the lectionary for this next Sunday. John 11:1-45 is a lengthy and dramatic passage. Below is an excerpt from a recent sermon of mine for grad school:

We rarely see Jesus as the man with cuts on his hands from a hard day’s work as a carpenter. We rarely see the tiresome wrinkles on his face from walking for miles on end with his disciples. We rarely see the Jesus with a parched throat from teaching and healing masses of people. Too often would we rather think of Jesus clothed in white robes. But Christ feels emotion. I think this truth is really important for us to grasp today.

We usually wince at the thought of God feeling pain. I think we’re obviously missing a huge part of the scandalous incarnation if we gloss over this. The “Jesus began to weep” sentence in verse 35 is commonly regarded as the shortest verse of the bible–nothing more. We are then eager to see Lazarus raised and have everything (supposedly) restored back to normal. But what does it mean that Jesus cried?

capitalistic charity, World Vision, and the widow’s offering

Each Wednesday morning I meet with a weekly small group. A friend of mine there is really passionate about outreach. He doesn’t work for the church or any sort of non-profit, but you can tell that this is one of the major things he cares about. With just about everyone he meets, he will encourage them to get involved in something local and in something global. If you ask him, this isn’t limited to writing a check to a ministry. There’s more to it. Get involved means regularly working with, praying for, and providing non-monetary support too. I really respect and admire my friend for his boldness in encouraging others to put their faith into practice in an inside-out sort of way.

This approach is really hard for us to embrace. Most of the time we think in dollars and cents. It’s difficult to establish a relationship with an organization. We are hesitant at the vulnerability, extra time, and potential changes we might make to how we live life. Of course organizations do need money, but too often I feel as though we use this practice to construct a dissonant barrier between us and the homeless woman, the PTSD veteran, or the malnourished inner-city child. Charity work solely arises out of our own financial generosity, right?

I think it’s interesting to examine the temper of varying Christian groups in response to sensational headline news. The biggest issue in recent years has of course been with homosexuality–Chick-fil-a, Prop. 8, Frank Schaefer, DOMA, etc. This issue sells. Earlier this week, there was once again a stir from the news that World Vision decided to allow gay, married couples in their hiring and employment practices (though the decision was later reversed). From what I’ve gauged so far, much of the response can be deconstructed and broken down into capitalistic terms. Christian leaders who interpret this move as positive for the LGBT community encouraged their audiences to financially support this institution. Christian leaders who see this as damaging the family structure implored their folks to sever ties. Note how reactions from both sides are wrapped up in this notion that fiscal action best reflects our inner dispositions. We, as private owners of capital, respond with either an economic prize or sanction. This is true even for the reversal of the original announcement. It’s difficult to move beyond the checkbook and Christians leaders with broad platforms are perpetuating this understanding–from conservative bands like Casting Crowns to progressive pastors.

Many Anabaptists have talked about the profound Third Way of Christianity. Instead of sliding into conventional partisan sides, which would be the the Way of the Kingdom? I think it’s first necessary to bring our infatuation with money to the surface.

In Luke 21:1-4 we read about the story of the widow’s offering:

He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”

This passage is really convicting for me. I’ve learned to be hesitant about immediately identifying with the positive characters in parables and teachings of Jesus. There is always a twist with the Kingdom of God. I’m usually the unwelcoming older brother, the rich young ruler, and the jealous 9am laborer in the vineyard.

The Worship of Mammon by Evelyn De Morgan

The Worship of Mammon by Evelyn De Morgan

I (along with most people reading this) am in the same category as the “rich people” of Luke 21. We typically have healthcare, somewhat stable jobs, or access to some of the best resources. Even if we are not literally well-off, most still hold that out of our abundance, we participate in charity. I think this is generally how we in the West understand serving others. There’s a $35/month price tag for a sponsored child, nothing more. When a charitable organization does something we don’t like, we cut off our sacred financial sacrifice. And when they do something we deem praiseworthy, we offer up a reward in the name of Mammon. Money is our primary language when dealing with issues like World Vision, and we believe it’s usage or withholding can either uplift or damn. I think this is such a bleak picture of salvation.

But I think Jesus wants more, and that’s a hard pill to swallow. It would require us to reconsider how we do charity and to come to terms with potential idols. What if we were to offer up just as the widow did–”all she had to live on”?

biblical illiteracy

Common_Perceptions_of_Biblical_Literacy

I will frequently hear people bemoan the biblical illiteracy of American Christians. I think the bottom line is that lots of people supposedly have no clue about the contents of the bible (compared to the “Good Old Days”). Remnants of stories like Noah or Moses might linger in someone’s mind, but there’s this notion that most don’t really get it.

I remember preaching for a friend at her church last summer. She asked me to also do a youth service and the lectionary for that week included parts of Psalm 139. I scribbled down a quick little outline. One of the main points I attempted to make was to talk about how even though the Psalms were written many years ago, we can still find insight in reading them today. I brought up something like Psalm 23–”You know, The Lord is My Shepherd one,” I remember saying. I looked out at the youth and saw nothing but blank stares. It turns out none of them had really ever heard of Psalm 23. This really puzzled me as a somewhat naive seminary student. But nevertheless, this illustrates some sort of problem in the church today.

There are varying explanations to this problem of illiteracy. “Fundamentalists have spent so long hitting people over the head with bibles that people have just become tired of it,” a mentor of mine once told me. There’s some truth to that. I believe on a deeper and more systematic level, however, we oftentimes delegate responsibility onto pastors or Sunday school teachers. It’s their job to do the work on ancient languages, old social structures, or thematic characteristics of our sacred texts. The clergy/laity dichotomy is easily perpetuated by both sides.

One of the challenges in addressing biblical illiteracy in today’s world is that oftentimes our solutions are not exactly the most enduring or constructive kinds of things. Here are three misguided tendencies that I believe are worth noting:

1. Christians, equipped with a digital library of podcasts and blog posts, will become really familiar and proficient with one particular hermeneutic. This is one major issue I have with my Reformed friends on the topic of scripture (of course other theologies are prone to this, but I think it’s a significant problem in this sub-culture). Oftentimes one will settle for John Piper’s or Mark Driscoll’s exegesis, instead of adopting a more engaging stance. Likewise, everything seems to orient around some narrative adhering to monergistic thought, thus providing ammunition against competing theologies. Power dynamics obviously play a key role here, regardless of your theological inclination. Someone like famous pastor X has a commanding stage presence and authoritarian zeal, so let’s get behind him/her!

2. Christians will equate bits of information with exhaustive knowledge. Here the telos of the Christian faith and bible reading is to obtain some objective knowledge system. I think this is one of the potential drawbacks of expository preaching. We commonly dissect a passage or study and cling to select pieces of information, all under the guise that we have somehow mastered a truth. In this tendency it’s quite obvious we are all children of the Enlightenment. This is not limited to preaching from the pulpit. Wikipedia and Google provide a gateway to information about virtually anything. We can pick out some neat little facts and rest easy in our epistemology.

3. Assuming that  personal study is the solution. I recognize the value of reading scripture on your own in order to develop your passion for it, but all too often do such practices become individualistic and isolated from communal contact. I think this tendency also ties into our Google-ized world as well.

So, where does that leave us? What kind of solution would be appropriate for this illiteracy?

I think it’s interesting how these three tendencies don’t exactly orient themselves around scripture itself. Neither are they concerned with an open or dynamic sort of community. Instead, we have a celebrity pastor, Enlightenment system, or privatized faith to cushion and uphold our religion. A cult-following of a pastor is indeed community, but it seems more exclusive and artificial than a living system (after all, s/he dictates the “final interpretation”). And both the Enlightenment expository study and privatized faith foster an overly personalized conception of religion. In this light, you could be perfectly fine reading a devotional each morning and occasionally tuning into a podcasted sermon.

With that said, I think learning to wrestle with texts with other people would be a necessary foundation to address illiteracy.

religious vs. secular violence

A couple of years ago I remember a somewhat tense conversation with several friends about the issue of violence in Christian history. Think of issues with the crusades and Muslim relations, popes declaring wars, and a sort of “convert or die” mentality. These kinds of things can really damage the reputation of a religion that claims the love of God as central. Likewise, the “they’re not really Christians” card is usually played in response to these dilemmas. My friends in the discussion who were not Christians were especially wary of this defense. Some even thought aloud if being religious necessarily led to religious fanaticism.

It’s interesting to compare and contrast how the situation in Ukraine is portrayed compared to a suicide bomber attack. Both scenarios involve death and social upheaval. But even though it’s depicted that the stakes are high with Putin vs. the world, it’s interesting to see how there’s an assumed civility with “secular” conflicts and potential violence. After all, a suicide bomber would be acting out of a seemingly sub-human irrationality, right? It seems as though we have the issue of religious fanaticism here.

William T. Cavanaugh writes about this in The Myth of Religious Violence. He depicts a prominent narrative that goes something along the lines of this:

Religion used to play a key role in public life. But after the Reformation/Renaissance, nation-states soon realized the bloody consequences of claiming God sides with this or that crown. Fortunately, with the Enlightenment, humanity recognized the value of this separation of powers and this paved the way to a more peaceful society.

Therefore,  deviance from church/state separation must be treated as inherently backwards . This “myth” supports the values of systems like democracy, socialism, and capitalism. They are means to a teleological prize. Notice how religion is tamed to a certain degree. Cavanaugh further notes that we experience a dualistic understanding of violence: religious : dangerous :: secular : acceptable. I think you can see where he is going here. While Cavanugh is not denying the existence or severity of religious violence, he argues that we commonly think of violence done in the name of things like nationalism or economic ideology as somehow less brutal and entirely OK/expected/necessary/(virtuous?).

I’m looking forward to continuing Cavanaugh’s book. So far his argument is really compelling.

collective guilt and Paul’s body of Christ

In two weeks I’ll be heading to El Salvador. One of the pre-trip readings has been The Massacre at El Mozote by Mark Danner. In this tragic book, Danner provides a gripping summary of a 1981 massacre of nearly one thousand non-combatant El Salvadorians. In other words, these were unarmed men, women, and children caught in the crossfire of the civil war. Through eyewitness interviews, original photographs, and obtained government documents, Danner reconstructs the events surrounding this grave tragedy. Many of the women and children were raped by the pro-government forces before being brutally murdered. Most human remains found during future excavations were horrendously mutilated.

EL MOZOTE 1

And to complicate things, the United States was entangled in a sort of alliance and funding web with many powers in the Latin American region. Supposedly the repressive El Salvadorian government would not succumb to communist influence if our nation were to provide millions of dollars annually in military aid. What also stands out is that the battalion responsible for the massacre at El Mozote was explicitly trained and equipped through US funds and resources. Danner interprets the events following the massacre as being marred in a systematic cover-up on part of both governments. I found his case to be quite convincing.

War is a bloody game, you might say, and civilian casualties should always be expected. But after reading Danner’s account, this situation struck me as just downright demonic. From the horrendous testimony of a young girl who actually survived the massacre to examining the indifference of both Democrats and Republicans in congress, this was definitely a sobering read.

People don’t like to apologize. Articles released in the years following El Mozote (particularly in the Wall Street Journal and Time magazine) adopted a skeptical tone and arguably dismissed the reports of rape, mutilation, murder, and conspiracy as “anti-US propaganda.” Political pride essentially trumped human rights (or at best, attempted to cloud and discredit the situation).

Tara and I encountered a similar situation while on a vacation in Turkey a couple of years ago. The Armenian genocide is not something that is readily discussed by authorities and some citizens, even though nearly a century has passed. Authors and reporters are regularly criticized or even imprisoned in exposing these sorts of national issues. While walking through a rural town one day, we saw a gift shop featuring a marionette with a Pinocchio-style nose with Nicholas Sarkozy’s face on it, obviously an act of criticism against some comments he had made a few years back. There was a sign next to the marionette that read: “Sarkozy is a liar, Armenian genocide is anti-Turkish propaganda.”

Why is it so hard for groups to apologize? Commonly the response seems to be denial or shifting guilt in order to maintain a sense of righteousness about some network of people. Churches and denominations will frequently do this too–it’s not just a problem with world governments. Sovereign Grace Ministries and Vatican scandals are just two examples that immediately come to mind.

The problem does become difficult because potential culpability is diffused among a mass of people, all in the name of upholding ideology or institution. If you think about it, things like “Bush’s Iraq War” and “Obama’s Drone Policy” don’t exactly make much sense considering the networks and systems in place to carry out such endeavors. These aren’t one-person jobs. Even though someone might be in a position of power or leadership, these sorts of things don’t just happen without the compliance and efforts of others (sometimes a massive amount of others, too). These potentially form murky ethical dilemmas.

What would be a solution, especially in relation to shortcomings of the church?

Recently I have been studying Paul’s Christology and theology of the body for another class at Perkins. More particularly, these issues are really prominent in 1 Corinthians. Paul of course deals questions of bodily purity (re: sex with priestesses), but I think 12:12-13 reveals a profound understanding of community and collectivism:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Paul then goes on to explain more on this conception of the body. Instead of dismissing the supposedly lesser parts, all play a key role. The weakest members are actually the most important. Paul actually defines the Corinthians as the actual body of Christ.

I don’t think many of us would take Paul seriously on this when faced with institutional conflict. We prefer to think of ourselves as individual players in tune with a righteous group identity. I think this is true in many cases, especially with El Mozote. We would much rather adopt an abrasive defensiveness in response to threats against our pride.

But as the people of God, we are called to a radical alternative. In reading 1 Corinthians 12, we read that Paul presents a revolutionary challenge: there are many members, yet one body. The body of Christ matters. People matter. Acknowledging mistakes and working through guilt matters. The deeper truth is that we are connected as Christians in Christ. This might be an optimistic view of institution, but I think it might help, especially if we view Jesus as acting in restoration and making things right.

Calvinism and Divine Wisdom

Here’s a fun little theology post.

During a late night bus ride yesterday, I heard an interesting podcast by Greg Boyd. In a brief rabbit trail comment he mentioned how Calvinistic understandings of divine foreknowledge and providence are somewhat problematic once considering the rich picture of God as divine wisdom. This thought was raised in response to a question about Satan’s present evil and God’s goodness. To paraphrase Greg: “The two most dominant pictures of God we get in the bible are that God is holy, and God is full of wisdom. The typical Christian emphasis is usually on the holiness part, but we usually neglect the apparent reality that God is also a problem solver.”

He is obviously referring to many passages that span both the Old and New Testaments. In parts of Proverbs, we read about lady wisdom. Some might argue that this is a distinctly feminine metaphor for God–the divine sophia. This is obviously paralleled with John’s use of logos to describe the incarnation–a masculine word for wisdom. The passages of Jesus’ yoke in Matthew explicitly correspond to many parts of wisdom literature and deuterocanonical books. Epistle writers discuss the wisdom of God in many of their letters too. Scripture is filled with stories and musings on God’s wisdom.

I would venture to say that wisdom is not exclusively omniscience. Cleverness, ingenuity, and creativity all strike me as values of wisdom, and these do not entail simply knowing all the facts. Wisdom has a sort of “hands on” feeling to it where it is lived out and put into practice. If God is depicted as infinitely wise, the ought we view God as being clever and full of ingenuity and creativity? This of course relates to the fluidity found in open theism and how God, being all powerful and perfectly loving, in some way or another is able to keep the future “open” to some extent in order to cultivate genuine love (or “free will” to use westernized language). God has the dynamic potential to see problems and provide solutions. This implies the possibility for change, adaptation, or uncertainty.

I see this as a pretty clever argument for open theism based on scripture. God is wise and approaches the world’s deep pains and problems with unimaginable innovation. To me it seems strange to assume how God can “solve problems” if history is set in stone. Is it fair of me to say that Calvinism does not properly address the complexities surrounding God’s wisdom? After all, the nature of a potential all-encompassing divine plan seems more or less a product of God’s sovereignty.

How would you respond to this if you are/were a Calvinist? What’s the point of wisdom literature?