Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Peace of the Body of Christ, Part I: The American Problematic

Last week I wrote a post in which I argued that there can be no coherent account of Christian martyrdom from a perspective of justifiable violence; put positively, only Christian pacifism can offer a coherent account of willingly dying by others' hands ("murder to no good end"). This week I posted ACU English Professor Bill Carroll's response, critiquing numerous aspects of what I wrote, of Lee Camp's position, and of what he has seen in the work of John Howard Yoder, particularly from the perspective of belonging to the American context and the apparent implication of simply (or rather, simplistically) allowing oppression to go on undistressed by our own privileged lethargy. The key historical example would be Hitler; the present and ongoing case, Darfur.

Instead of a one-off response to Dr. Carroll, or an interminably long reply addressing each particular criticism, I thought I would instead respond through a series of posts, taking the necessary time precisely and articulately to state my own position, and the general position with which I identify and espouse and long for other Christians to take as their own. All modern Christan pacifist roads lead back to Yoder, and so we will use him as our guide, especially his collection of essays entitled The Original Revolution. His patient and deliberate ecumenical articulation of Jesus' call to all disciples to repent and to become part of a new people, devoid of all violence, lies, and oppression, involving necessarily the renunciation of the sword as a legitimate tool even for the work of justice, is in all respects the singular and seminal explication of the peace entailed in following the crucified Messiah of Israel. Hopefully we will find in his work a voice that aids rather than intensifies our disagreements.

Initially I would like to address the question of being an American, and the problematic it raises for any discussion of peace and violence. Dr. Carroll is right: anytime a white middle-class academic claims not to participate in some aspect of "regular" life, beware! Without a doubt the most fearful sort of puritan is a tenured one. So I want (briefly!) to address my own personal coming to Christian pacifism, and hopefully that sharing and that honesty will set the stage for similar and helpful dialogue as we move forward.

For seven weeks in the summer of 2006 I was part of a nine-person missions internship in Jinja, Uganda. (You can read more about my time there here.) I had just completed my sophomore year at Abilene Christian University, majoring in Biblical Text. The question of America, war, and Christian faith had not failed to come up in my time so far in college, or in high school before. In high school I had a couple years of devoted anti-Americanism, and was fiercely opposed to the Iraq war when it began in March 2003. However, beginning in my last year of high school, and leading into my first year or two at ACU, I slowly grew (by reading, i.e., by intellectual conviction) more and more politically conservative, to the point that I could not only justify World War II to an impassioned pacifist friend, I could probably justify the Bush Administration's preemptive policy. Not that I necessarily agreed -- but I could see the argument.

In Uganda, multiple factors conspired together to initiate my conversion (and conversion is the exact word for it) from "just war" to pacifism: the context; reading Lee Camp's Mere Discipleship; and the apprenticeship of Spencer Bogle, one of the missionaries there and my former youth minister. Especially powerful was a week we spent in Rwanda, in which we spent time at the genocide memorial and at a Kigali church preserved as it was on the initial day of the massacre. We actually flew out of Kampala, headed for Heathrow, the day after the plot in London was thwarted to overtake 10 flights over the Atlantic and crash them into the sea. It was a unique and startling moment to watch President Bush's press conference on our last night in Uganda; the language, the assumptions, the anger, the hubris, the body language -- all of it, seen with eyes made new by the previous two months.

I needn't detail the endless, infinitesimal details that led from Point A to Point B. Suffice it to say, I had never encountered the case Camp presented in Mere Discipleship. I learned the meaning of "eschatology." I read of the "already/not yet," of the "principalities and powers," of the strangely unbiblical presumptions of Christians in powerful nations or of awful events in supposedly "evangelized" nations like Rwanda. In short, I heard the gospel of Jesus Christ: the good news that the old age is ending and the new has begun, that the kingdom of God has come near, that all are called to repent and follow the one crucified and risen and now reigning as Lord.

And I heard this call as I came to know and love, and share life with, my Basoga brothers and sisters in Christ. These men and women of unsentimental, unromantic poverty, largely powerless, were mostly (according to the world) confined to a small portion of land in a little village in a relatively insignificant country on a hungry and disease-stricken continent. Yet the gospel proclaims: Here is God's people. The gathering together of three dozen, or 100, or a mere handful of these men and women and their children is the ekklesia, the church of the Lord Jesus. And each Musoga is a Spirit-empowered disciple of Jesus, a member of the coming age in which there will be only truth, only love, only peace.

Seeing this in the flesh, and not merely in ink on a page, helped me not to sit back and merely "be convicted" in all of my undeniable privilege and affluence. Returning to America, things could never be the same for my life again. The twin implications of Christian discipleship would forever be intertwined: life with and service to the poor, and renunciation of violence.

Now, of course this still is not necessarily "hard," particularly with regard to nonviolence. Unless I came home and gave away my possessions and now live as an enemy-loving homeless man, I can hardly claim the unassailable integrity of what I profess. On the other hand, I take the apparent ease with which my given context allows me to "say" I am a pacifist not as an excuse or a loophole or a happy accident, but precisely as a challenge. I do not live in a world devoid of violence, nor are my neighbors' lives or beliefs untouched by it. I live in a country that has and is the most powerful, most formidable, most active, and most widespread military force in the history of the planet. Most of the men and women with whom I worship take it for granted (or believe with conviction) that this is a positive, and/or beneficent, and/or providential state of affairs. They also believe, as I once did, that to support and even to participate in this reality is a virtue befitting disciples of Jesus. To me, this is the ideal place to be a voice for the peace of Christ. No, I am not confronted by violence, systemic or persecutorial or random, on a regular basis. So no, for better or worse, I do not regularly have to "stand up" in peaceful resistance to the threat of violence, to me or to my family.

But I am where I am, and I live where and what I have been given to live. For a time my wife and I felt called to missions in a dangerous part of the world, and here in the American city my wife's vocation takes her into the heart of the most violent and ugly places in the world. We may yet be called by God into regular danger; we may yet be asked to submit to the horrors of this fallen world. As it is, so far as I can conceive or obey, we must be faithful where we are; and the only faithfulness I know is the faithfulness of the broken body of Christ, given for you and for me, and the peace we have received from God in it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Rejoinder to Privileged Pacifism

I had the pleasure of meeting ACU English professor Bill Carroll last month at Lipscomb's Christian Scholars Conference, and after graciously offering me some suggestions for genuinely good Christian poetry, Bill has been reading through the blog. Last night he commented on a post from a week ago on Christian martyrdom and justifiable violence, in which I argued that Christian justification of violence negates any possibility for a coherent account of martyrdom. Since his comment raises excellent issues that I would like to address further this week (and beyond), I asked Bill if he would mind my posting his comment in full, and he kindly agreed. I deeply appreciate any and all dissenting comments such as these, so I look forward to the ongoing and spirited conversation to which this will hopefully lead. Finally, I bolded portions of his writing I thought especially important: such edits are completely my own; everything else belongs to Bill. See you later this week for my response.

Sorry so late to this post, but a thought that bothers me when I read Yoder or Camp's reiteration of Yoder: Neville Chamberlain's purchase of "Peace in our time" at the cost of tens of thousands of Czechoslovakian (at the time) Jews, gays, disabled persons lives seems so irresponsible and such a tragic price. We seem to have no problem letting the blood of others be the price of our peace. It was clearly the move of a politician who was not a pacifist, but it troubles my soul to have the power to stop genocide, even if "peacekeeping" means standing with guns between people holding machetes. Too often Christians with power are content to let distant (whether behind the closed door in the next house or in a far nation) oppressors destroy the oppressed, particularly when involvement requires a personal cost. I am not a fan of violence, and I get frustrated because I get labeled a hawk simply because I hesitate to embrace pacifism without hesitation. I would love to hear more from Camp about his experiences in Rwanda when the violence broke out. His published comments beg more questions than they answer. It seems remarkably easy to be a Christian pacifist in the U.S. at the moment, and remarkably easy to condemn Nigerian Christians for their religious/political quarrels with their fellow Muslim Nigerians or Irish Catholics and Protestants who maintain their centuries old quarrel. Again, I am not saying violence effectively answers violence -- history shows how naive that position is. However, we enjoy a privileged pacifism. Perhaps because I work in the academy, but the current American brand I see most often is theosophical, unattached to the oppressed, condemning, and, bluntly, callous.

As UN "Peacekeepers" find across the world, you can have the big guns, but when people with rocks and blades want to kill each other, someone dies, and often it's you. Many of these peacekeepers legitimately have no desire or intent to use deadly force, and I envision these individuals as martyrs for a cause, though often the individuals are not Christian. It seems somewhat unkind to argue that a person like this could have no "intelligent" or "defensible" account for martyrdom. I do believe that pacifism in the face of Hitler would have ultimately left Europe free of Jews. Is that our aim? In the face of Nazism, Bonhoeffer was driven to conspire to murder, and I side with the scholars who label him anti-Semitic. However, he recognized the humanity of the Jews, even as he held typical European prejudices, and he could not conceive of another way to stop the slaughter. Bonhoeffer may not be perfect, but I respect his understanding of the gospel, and I believe his case illustrates that pacifism is not as uncomplicated as American academics believe it to be.

This in itself is more of a rant than a philosophical position. The context for it is broader than this post, and I hope my tone hasn't been offensive, because I enjoyed reading the thoughts here.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Commending to You: Dave Dameshek

And now for something completely different.

The current scene for sports news and commentary can make one's head spin. The monopolizing and ever-expanding World Wide Leader continues to gain ground, but so much that there is continual backlash; ESPN is truly never far away from you at any one moment. The blogs, the radio, the semi-gossip/semi-news outlets, the feeding frenzy of the sports media on stories that exactly zero persons care about (see: Vick, Michael; Favre, Brett; Bryant, Kobe). It is altogether one chaotic hot mess.

Bill Simmons is a sort of calm amidst the agonistic storm, a voice millions read and share together, laughing and bickering and emailing around. He and Rick Reilly represent two successive generations of sports readers, two ways of looking at the world and at sports, as two unifying writers who bring together some sort of odd coherency (however mixed and mashed and hobbled) within a scene so diverse and so divided that it is curious we think it all belongs to the same genus. I know many who love Reilly and especially his stories; Simmons is my man, though. He fights the good fight, he writes excessively, he loves basketball in general and the NBA in particular with a ferocity I relate to, and even when he isn't a model citizen, he's a blast to read and seems (intentionally) as if we could grab some coffee and argue over Spurs versus Celtics for hours. Bill Simmons owns sports writing, and even in his barely-over-a-year-old podcast, is beginning to own sports podcasting.

Enter Dave Dameshek.

Dave Dameshek just celebrated the one year anniversary of his own (daily) sports-related podcast, aptly titled Dave Dameshek On Demand. As a Pittsburgh transplant in Los Angeles, he has been in prime position by tradition and by geography to comment on recent sporting events (Penguins, Lakers, Steelers, Dodgers, etc.), just as Simmons has for the past decade with Boston sports' dominance. Dameshek is actually a good friend of The Sports Guy's, and accordingly I was introduced to Dameshek through the B.S. Report a year ago last summer. It was a slow courtship, but by the time the Steelers looked to be gunning for a Super Bowl run, I found myself regularly tuning in to hear his take, and was hooked. Since March his podcast has been a daily fixture while working at the library, and recently I've been pleasantly surprised by his decision to split each day's podcast into two "more bite size" podcasts that usually add up to a longer total running time than only one would have.

But why do I love Dave Dameshek? Let me count the ways.

1. His sly intelligence. The man is a walking sports trivia book, and it comes from years of soaking it in through a great love for the various American games available to us. But more revealing is his language. He may feign the blue collar style, but don't be fooled: the man knows how to talk, and that says enough.

2. His endless word plays. I call Dameshek the King of Synecdoche: he never knew a boring noun he couldn't elucidate by a more elaborate analogy, nor an idea for which a made-up term couldn't be imagined. See: The Shekster's Dictionary.

3. His love for the particular. Dameshek refuses to relent on the issue of tradition, belonging, and fandom -- he is a Pittsburgh fan through and through, hailing from "the banks of the three rivers" -- and all aspects of sports need comply with this singular fact, not the other way around. See: his unenviable quest to decide whether to raise his son a Pirates fan, aka "preemptive emotional child abuse."

4. His humor. The man is hilarious. See: Hypothetical Horatio.

5. His contrarian nature. Not only does Dameshek continue to fight the good fight -- in Los Angeles, no less -- of arguing that trading Ariza (and possibly Odom) for Artest was utter foolishness, he's usually in the minority in his opinions. And that's always a good sign.

6. His self-deprecation. No endless talker or semi-public personality is worth paying attention to if he can't laugh at himself. Dave Dameshek can, and does. See: the Pie Face fiasco.

7. His family life. One of the most refreshing things about Dameshek is his apparent unwillingness to criticize his wife on air, or to complain about family life at all. This is a rarity for any man, much less someone comedically gifted and in sports. See: calls home to Cindy, with references to Baby Oprah and Jean-Claude van Dameshek.

8. His voice. It is nasal, it is loud, and it is funny when shouted or whispered. See: any conversation about food.

9. His taste. From movies to the 80s to sports figures to music (sometimes), Dameshek can always be relied upon for recommendations and excellent pop culture arguments and discussions. See: Jon Hamm.

10. The one man house band. Dick Banks puts together enjoyable and frequently funny songs for the show, whether opening or closing the podcast or introducing guests, and they sort of ground the daily differences in a familiar regularity.

11. The Sass. Skylar "The Sass" is a fantastic semi-co-host and contrarian to Dameshek's own contrarian style, and if it weren't for the quality of the guests, I would want to hear them argue it back and forth every day.

12. The revolving door of guests. The Blue Horseshoe, show humorist David Feeney (my favorite), The Ed (my least favorite), Beto Duran, A. Martinez ... the list goes on. Always light, always substantive, always fun. The chemistry never fails.

I could go on. The point being: listen to Dave Dameshek. Subscribe to iTunes, try out the podcast. You won't be disappointed.

(And with that: thanks so much bloggers -- it's been a thin slice of heaven.)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Nicole Burdette

Yesterday my friend Patrick introduced me to the wonderful 2001 film Chelsea Walls, directed by Ethan Hawke from a screenplay adapted by Nicole Burdette from her own play (and scored by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy!). It's set in the famous New York City Chelsea Hotel, home to numerous famous artists, writers, and poets for decades. The film is a low-budget, low-key passing in and out of the various persons occupying the hotel at the moment, catching glimpses of their lives, their problems, their relationships, and their art interspersed with the art itself. Probably the most powerful moment is about halfway through, when the character Audrey (played by a young Rosario Dawson) recites a poem directly into the camera and to her boyfriend, overlaid with various images and overlapping its own words. Below is the poem, after which is a YouTube embed of the clip from the movie; and my own poem afterward feels fitting given the poetic context of both the film and the moment represented here.

- - - - - - -

I Want

By Nicole Burdette

I want to be a lost poem
in a stranger's coat pocket,
that conveys the importance of you.
To assure you of my desire,
to assure you of dreams.
I want all the possibilities
of you in writing.
I want to give you
your reflection,
I want your eyes on me,
I want to travel to the lightness
with you and stay there,
and I want
everything before you
to follow us like a trail behind me.
I want never
to say goodbye to you,
even on the street corner
or the phone.
I want,
I want so much
I'm breathless.
I want to put my power
into a poem to burn a hole
in your pocket
so I can sew it.
I want my words
to scream through you.
I want the poem
not to mean that much.
And I want
to contradict myself by accident,
and for you
to know what I mean.
I want you to be distant
and for me to feel you close,
I want endless days
when it's day and
nighttime never to end
when it's night.
I want all the seasons
in one day.
I want the sun to set before us
and come up in front of us.
I want water up to our waists
and to be drenched by the rain,
up to our ankles
with holes in our shoes.
I want to think your thoughts
because they're mine.
I want only
what's urgent with you.
I want to get
in the way of the barriers
and I want you to be a tough guy
when you're supposed to,
like you do already.
And I want you to be tender,
like you do already.
And I want us
to have met for a reason
and I want that reason
to be important.
And I want it
to be bigger than us,
I want it to take over us.
I want to forget.
I want to remember us.
And when you say
you love me
I don't want to think
you really mean New York City,
and all the fun
we have in it.
And I want your smile always,
and your grimaces too.
I want your scar on my lips,
and I want your disappointments
in my heart.
I want your strength
in my soul
and I want
your soul in my eyes,
I want to believe
everything you say,
and I do.
And I want you
to tell me what's best
when I don't know.
And when you're lost
I want to find you.
And when you're weary
I want to give you steeples
and cathedral thoughts
and coliseum dreams.
I want to drag you from the darkness
and kneel with you
exhausted with the blinding light
blaring on us,
And...



- - - - - - -

Called Before Poetry's Pilate

A preposition makes a poem
And I haven't the skill.
When the muse directs in
Whispered tones, Comma here, I
Keep the flow unbroken and
With my pen become poetry's
Silent serial killer, hacking and
Slashing until the arteries clot
And refuse even that show of life.

I am the murderer you seek.
Look only in my words, and
You will see, by the nighttime
Deeds of grammatical wickedness,
Of linguistic horrors drenched
In history's judgment, my long guilt.
And before the shearers I will keep a
Silence befitting a torturer of words.
My kingdom is a false and ugly world.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Letting His Words Trouble Our Thoughts: On How to Read Wendell Berry, Modern America's Prophet of the Evitable

I

Wendell Berry inspires emotional responses. Though from all appearances a fairly reserved man, a long-married father of two, a Kentucky farmer whose parents and grandparents tilled the same soil, he simply does not seem to elicit lukewarmness in those who read or listen to him. There seem to be two equally passionate reactions: evangelistic discipleship, and virulent dismissal. To read the man is to know where one stands: further entrenched, or on his side.

A recent piece written in response to Berry's work as a whole is an excellent example and a helpful reminder. It is an example of the sort of "all or nothing" mindset that usually characterizes an initial or sustained confrontation with Berry, and a reminder both of why that ought not to be our mindset when approaching his work and of how to go wrong when evaluating his thought.

I happened to be rereading one of Berry's essays when I came upon that piece (found by way of the premier online resource for all things WB), and fortuitously it quite nearly directly addresses many of the issues brought forth; more importantly, however, it leads us to a healthier, less polemical place, in which we may find solid ground on which to listen openly and graciously without feeling the need merely to Agree-or-Disagree.

II

Put succinctly, Wendell Berry is a spokesman for the evitable. We usually only put those letters together when speaking, reading, or writing "inevitable," and that fact is not a coincidence. As I have written elsewhere, we live in a world of the inevitable: there is without question no other choice than to live and do and buy and be this way and not that way. If derivation from the accepted way comes to be, it will first be labeled as relative to individual choice and then be commodified, marketed, and sold as a product -- finally returned to the natural way of things. Thus it is impossible to imagine having no television, or no car, or no job outside of the home, or more than two children, or merely one sexual partner, or no computer, or no iPod, or no Twitter account, or.... That is the age we belong to; there is no other way.

Wendell Berry believes otherwise. He says so, too. Thus he is modern America's prophet of the evitable, of the avoidable, of that which is not required or fated or demonstrably bigger or better. Put positively, for all of his Mad Farmer anger, all of his incisive critiques of the industrial machinery of unfettered capitalism, all of his protests against the ever-growing destruction of the land and loss of small farms -- Berry is a prophet of hope. He confirms his hopefulness explicitly in numerous essays, because in contrast to optimism or assurance or statistical probability, whether the signs are looking up or down, all he can do is hope, because hope does not presume knowledge outside of the limits of oneself; rather, hope is an act of faith.

The essay I found myself reading is entitled "Feminism, the Body, and the Machine," found in The Art of the Commonplace but originally written in 1989 as a follow-up to a prior essay, published in Harper's, explaining why he was not going to buy a personal computer. The outrage, as we might expect, was vehement, and Berry felt compelled to write a response addressing not just criticisms and concerns, but also articulating more fully the issues and questions and problems at stake.

"The feelings expressed seem to be representative of what the state of public feeling currently permits to be felt, and of what public rhetoric currently permits to be said" (p. 66), for "[s]ome of us, it seems, would be better off if we would just realize that this is already the best of all possible worlds, and is going to get even better if we will just buy the right equipment" (p. 65). With those two programmatic statements, Berry sets the tone and direction of the entire essay: That there would or could be explosive outrage upon reading the choice of one man not to buy a computer and his reasons for it, reveals a great deal about the society and culture that would inculcate, incubate, and foment the mindset behind such a reaction.

Berry spends a great deal of time discussing marriage, feminism, and the corporate economy -- all of which wonderful stuff! -- but I want to focus on the second half of the piece. After naming the "higher aims of 'technology progress'" as "money and ease" (p. 73) -- our perverted vision of what it means to offer a "better future" to our children -- he says:
The question of how to end or reduce dependence on some of the technological innovations already adopted is a baffling one. At least, it baffles me. I have not been able to see, for example, how people living in the country, where there is no public transportation," can give up their automobiles without becoming less useful to each other. And this is because, owing largely to the influence of the automobile, we live too far from each other, and from the things we need, to be able to get about by any other means. Of course, you could do without an automobile, but to do so you would have to disconnect yourself from many obligations. Nothing I have so far been able to think about this problem has satisfied me. (p. 74)
However, regarding "the influence of the automobile on country communities ... we should have acquired some ability to think about it." The same goes for the purchase and use of a computer, or for that matter, any new piece of technological machinery. What is the net result of this new thing on the environment, on culture, on children, on my work, on my art, on my family, on me? Does it offer a solution to a need I was formerly unaware of, a need I will continue not to have unless I own the solution? Does it in any way compromise the forms of life and contingencies involved in human interaction? How is it built, and by whom?

Such questions, Berry argues, are simply not thought important enough to take up regarding modern technological innovation. To do so is to "fly in the face of progress" or not to "get with the times." Berry's reply? "Do I wish to keep up with the times? No" (p. 75).

Of course, one man's decision not to own a computer -- or other such easily dismissed options as a television, "a motorboat, a camping van, an off-road vehicle, and every other kind of recreational machinery," alongside a "second home" and "colas, TV dinners, and other counterfeit foods and beverages" (p. 79) -- is not, by the world's terms, "significant." And this is a primary place where others' anger seems to rest and recoil: Such an insignificant decision isn't going to stay the tide of history! If so, why do it at all?
Thoreau gave the definitive reply to the folly of "significant numbers" a long time ago: Why should anybody wait to do what is right until everybody does it? It is not "significant" to love your own children or to eat your own dinner, either. But normal humans will not wait to love or eat until it is mandated by an act of Congress. (p. 79)
He reiterates that such things as a computer or TV are "easy" decisions; like so many others, though, he is "still in bondage to the automobile industry and the energy companies, which have nothing to recommend them except our dependence on them." Airplanes are "inconvenient, uncomfortable, undependable, ugly, stinky, and scary," but their singular fact -- speed -- entails in itself their demand and their dominance.

Regardless, it is necessary, if we want to pass this world on to our children in a livable and sustainable condition, to begin to find lines to draw that are not easy, lines that will seem at the time as if they cut us off from what we have learned to call a "need." One man he knew that had made such a decision lived "in the age of chainsaws," but "went right on cutting his wood with a handsaw and an axe" (p. 80). Such a model is exemplary and necessary: "He was a healthier and a saner man than I am. I shall let his memory trouble my thoughts."

III

Therefore, writes the blogger on his MacBook. It is at this moment that most writers I have seen address or engage Wendell Berry on the internet apologize, rationalize, justify, cower, or explain why it is or how it is that they may quote or employ Berry to their own ends without disqualifying their own integrity. The problem, to be sure, is there; as Patrick Deneen writes on Front Porch Republic,
There is something inauthentic about propounding a life of localism and community on the internet....

[W]e live deeply enmeshed in the world shaped by an itinerant economy and rootless journeymen.... It has been noted on more than one occasion that most of the rest of us writing here lack the authenticity of the likes of Berry. Because of this, we can be dismissed all the more easily as, at best, intellectual romantics of a Rousseauvian mien, and at worst, as hypocrites who would call on others to live a life that none of us have ever shown any real capacity to live.
However, the problem is almost certainly exaggerated, at least most of the time. This leads us to the essential lesson: Wendell Berry has no interest in remaking Americans into a nation of Wendell Berrys. He is not interested in clones, literally or figuratively. He is not even interested -- though many seem to think so -- in abolishing cities, or businesses, or commerce, or trade, or technology. He has highly critical views of various of those institutions and realities, and clearly desires a radical transformation in the way we engage, encounter, embody, and participate in those and other mediums and forms of human life and community. But farms only exist in relation to cities. Food is only sold (or traded) to people who don't grow it. No, Wendell Berry does not live in 1812: he owns a car, uses a chainsaw, has a refrigerator, flies on airplanes. He does not make his own clothes or shoes, and his children and grandchildren likely do and will use and own technology he does not.

None of those things is the point.

Because the point is neither determining for others what they should do, nor (God forbid) lining up behind the master, ready in perfect obedience. The point, put as succinctly as possible, is health. (Another word might be wholeness, and if we were to use Scripture's language, we would say shalom.) Wendell Berry is concerned with health holistically: communal, cultural, local, global, natural, artistic, familial, mnemonic, traditional, bodily, spiritual. And to care for health is to see the disease, and to diagnose it, and to do one's best to identify the remedy. Wendell Berry sees the state of American life in cities, in towns, in rural areas, in farming, in families, in churches, in government, in laws, in entertainment, and he sees sickness. Most of this sickness has been brought on by our own choice or by passivity or submission to radically destructive power. It is brought on whenever we sit slack-jawed through a commercial instead of taking a walk; whenever we buy something we could have made or didn't need merely because it was there or someone told us we ought to; whenever we enter into relationships as if they are contractual, easily broken, conditional, or centered on ego.

The remedy is simple: remove or refuse what has brought on the malady. Berry sees the culprits here as needless technology, wanton disregard for the earth, giving highest value to size and speed over against the beautiful or useful, and so on. Thus he does not own a television or a computer, lives and works on a farm, makes and keeps a household together with his wife, seeks to be in harmony with his environment, and writes poetry and stories and essays demonstrating and praising and embodying the virtues he esteems.

But he is not perfect, and does not claim to be. Nor, then, should we expect him to be. Thus we may say in all grace and in all charity: Wendell Berry is not right about everything. He is right about some things, perhaps many things, but not all things. Therefore when we read him, when we hear him, when we see his words used or enjoyed by others, at times we may and ought to disagree with him. I do so implicitly right now as I write this blog post. That is fine. What is important, what is most important, is that I do not dismiss him because he does not match my preconceived or presently conjured standards for how a man who writes what he writes ought to be or live. To react in such a way only confirms the disease: Don't tell me what to do; I'm my own person; I can do what I want! Instead, let us approach Berry with the cautious humility and deep reverence with which he approaches his chainsaw-eschewing friend: letting his words, and in time his memory, trouble our thoughts, as long as we live and as long as we seek to live our lives as well as we can. That is the only response both healthy and faithful to the challenge Wendell Berry invariably, and stubbornly, and joyfully presents to us.

Monday, July 20, 2009

"To No Good End": Requesting a Coherent Account of Christian Martyrdom

For some time I have had a nagging question at the back of my mind about the Christian just war tradition, and this week it was finally brought to the fore by David Bentley Hart in his essay, "Ecumenical War Councils: On Webster and Cole's The Virtue of War" (found in Hart's collection of essays, In the Aftermath). As Brian Hamilton noted a few months ago, Hart displays a "bizarre thoughtlessness regarding pacifism" that at times is profoundly bewildering. In "Ecumenical War Councils," for example, Hart refers offhand to "the pacifism of Yoder (with its myriad inconsistencies and incoherencies)" paired in tandem with the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr! And the overall tone of the essay is, like so much else by Hart, one of erudite, meticulously worded, hypercritical nostalgia for Christendom; and thus it is possible for Hart to discuss, explore, and even hail "justifiable violence as a work of charity" (p. 153 for both quotes).

Later Hart says, "It is one thing to turn the other cheek against insult and casual abuse, without seeking vengeance, or even to accept martyrdom, but another thing altogether to permit oneself simply to be murdered to no good end" (p. 154). And his prescriptive vision of Christians "go[ing] forth to fight for God's justice ... do[ing] so as citizens of a Kingdom not of this world, one that can make use of the post-Christian state, but that cannot share its purposes" (p. 155) is as close to a hellish blank check for religiously purposed violence as I have ever seen.

Regarding the prior quote, however, it reminded me of a friend from undergrad who was an avid proponent of the legitimacy of violence for Christian life. His main thesis was, in so many words, that martyrdom is fine if we're being persecuted for the faith; but if some random guy accosts me, or my house is invaded, or I'm fighting for a good cause, or some such situation, I'm grabbing the closest equivalent to Jesus' whip and beating the hell out of the attacker.

Here is my question, then, asked in all sincerity: Is it possible for Christian proponents of justifiable violence to give a coherent account of martyrdom?

I cannot answer in the affirmative. If discipleship's call to love and not to retaliate against my enemies is conditional upon their intentions (because I am a Christian, versus any other reason), or upon participation in the rule of rightly ordered justice (as Hart argues), or upon the harshness or extent of the intended violence or consequences (as is often implicitly felt), or upon the expectations or commands or authority given me by the state (as many Christians believe or argue in America), or even upon my individual preference or level of devotion (as is generally thought about "radicals" or "special" saints, who alone as a minority class may be expected to do what we cannot), there simply cannot be any coherent account of Christian martyrdom.

From these various positions, what is a Christian supposed to do when attacked? Ask politely if the violence is because he or she is a Christian, and if so, bless it, and if not, fight back? What of a Christian soldier? What if an enemy soldier or combatant were savagely attacking one's troops for the explicit reason of hatred for Christians? Or what of a Christian citizen who attempts to retaliate against sanctioned violence, doing his best to kill before being killed, but is captured and put to death? Is it only upon the formal removal of the power to self-defense that one may then submit to martyrdom?

Once again, we return to Hart's dismissal of "permit[ting] oneself simply to be murdered to no good end." This is genuinely perplexing. Was Christ murdered to a good end? Were his disciples? Are the martyrs? What is that good end, how does it differ between Master and follower, why, and what are its conditions? Is it possible for these conditions to be met, for a good end to result, when Christian violence is not only allowed but lauded as rightly ordered love of God in various open-ended situations?

It seems to me that martyrdom, as the obedient imitation of Jesus' suffering love on the part of his followers, must itself be understood first as "murder to no good end." It is precisely for that reason why the willing deaths of the early Christians were such a scandal, while simultaneously such an attraction, to the pagan Roman world. What could cause ordinary men and women of no meaningful standing or accord to allow themselves to be killed for no apparent good reason? Not only that, but how could they seem so joyful? Are they not afraid? Do they not value life? What of their children, their families, their future?

For, we must remember, Christians were not killed "for being Christians," that is, for being "wrongly religious" in our modern sense. Christians were killed for political, societal, economic reasons. Christians were those who began to claim allegiance to a Lord other than Caesar. Christians were those who bizarrely "ate the body" and "drank the blood." Christians were those who initiated one another into their own society distinct from Rome. Christians were those who refused to participate in the cultic and cultural practices that held Roman society together. Christians were those who served, welcomed, and elevated the poor and the marginalized, the sick and the outcast, women and slaves as equals into their new family. These were their blasphemies. These were their transgressions. These were the reasons for which they were ostracized, beaten, tortured, ridiculed, burned, stoned, and crucified.

And when they endured these seemingly meaningless sufferings and horrors and deaths, that is the exact place where they most witnessed (martyr meaning "witness" in Greek) to the saving love of God in Christ. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, these men and women revealed a love and a strength so powerful that it could endure death peacefully, joyfully, and without resort to retaliation against one's enemies. A love that did not take into account the reasons for which one was being persecuted. A love that did not take into account what might happen to one's own body, or plans, or future. A love that did not rationalize violence by office, justice, or nature.

A love that witnessed to another way, a future that had invaded the present. A love that could convert even one's enemies.




[Images courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art.]

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Andrew Bird

Andrew Bird is a musical enigma to me. His 2005 and 2007 albums -- The Mysterious Productions of Eggs and Armchair Apocrypha, respectively -- while consistently daring and ingenuous in surprising ways, have never quite grabbed hold of me for the duration of the entire work, or for much time afterward, beyond a few sings each. However, his album from earlier this year, Noble Beast -- to which my friend Reid Overall graciously introduced me this past May, as we sat in his truck at 2:00 am in front of Abilene's own Starbucks, without a doubt the ideal time and place and circumstances for any musical reacquaintance -- has done the trick. The song below in particular, "Effigy," in both its lyrics and music, captures perfectly the impossible balance Bird somehow manages on Noble Beast between his peculiar style, his idiosyncratic poetry, and the indefatigable beauty resulting therefrom. Every so often, if the poem is from a song, I commend a trip to iTunes to download the song; this is one of those times.

My own poem afterward is, unsurprisingly, a continuation of my recent infatuation with trees. Atlanta is filled with them, and no non-natural populated place as much as Emory University. I am unapologetically, then, as you might imagine, that guy who, when walking to and fro between general and theological libraries, nose planted in some thick book, stops, realizing where he is, and slowly lifts his eyes higher and higher upward, realizing he is walking at the feet of God's created giants. I will stand there, staring aghast in utter shock, mouth agape, with no sense for time or destination, indefinitely. I have seen these trees hundreds of times by now, and I simply cannot get over them (not to mention the fact that I have now seen them through four seasons!). And so as I walked among these old friends this past week I realized that I am quickly losing the ability to pass by them without stopping or without immediately writing a poem, or both.

Such is God's gift of creation. What a blessing it is to live in this world.

- - - - - - -

Effigy

By Andrew Bird

If you come to find me affable
Build a replica for me
Would the idea to you be laughable
Of a pale facsimile?

So will you come to burn an effigy?
It should keep the flies away
And when you long to burn this effigy
It should be of the hours that slip away, slip away

It could be you, it could be me
Working the door, drinking for free
Carrying on with your conspiracies
Filling the room with a sense of unease

Fake conversations on a nonexistent telephone
Like the words of a man who's spent a little too much time alone
When one has spent too much time alone

- - - - - - -

Arboreal Affection

The branches of the tree
Spiral out like arms of an
Octopus, stretched long and
Barky thick, breathing bright
Air and stretching toward, not
Repelling, the source of
All life. The way he spins
About himself, though still
To the untrained pupil,
Must make his mother proud.

She happily peers o'er
With a sappy burst of
Feathery leaves, and gapes
At the majesty of
What was once a mere seed
Hanging serenely on
Her limb. She thinks me when
She sees me, smiles and points,
Sees that I cannot not
Stop, sees that for me to
See her son, or any
Tree, is poetry, is
Divine command to halt,
Is silence, grandeur, time,
Demanding words to name
This agéd mystery.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Blogging Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology: Table of Contents

Volume 1: The Triune God

Introduction & Preface

Part I: "Prolegomena," Chapters 1-3

Part II: "The Triune Identity," Chapters 4-6

Part II: "The Triune Identity," Chapters 7-9

Part III: "The Triune Character," Chapters 10-12

Part III: "The Triune Character," Chapters 13-14

Volume 2: The Works of God

Part IV: "The Creation," Chapters 15-17

Part V: "The Creatures," Chapters 18-20

Part V: "The Creatures," Chapters 21-23

Part VI: "The Church," Chapters 24-26

Part VI: "The Church," Chapters 27-30

Part VII: "The Fulfillment," Chapters 31-35

A Final Quote

"In the end, as I have already more or less said, it is the entire shape of Jenson's narrative that remains compelling, as that narrative unfolds around the Person of Christ, whether one is ultimately persuaded by it or not. Here I can only direct the reader to Jenson's work: there (especially in his Systematic Theology) one will find an account of the triune God drawing nigh to us—and of us drawing nigh to him—an account of extraordinary imaginative richness, one that is (depending on one's temperament or intellectual affiliations) either seductive or scandalous, but one that is also impossible to forget. For myself, I can say only that I have returned often to his work, and found it an inexhaustible challenge to refine and clarify my own thought. And whenever I make that return, I cannot help but feel that, in a small way, the experience is rather like that of Jacob wrestling with God in his angel at the ford of Jabbok. No one of my theological persuasion, I think, who engages Jenson's thought in earnest can doubt that it is indeed the living God with whom he has come to grips therein: not some fabulous metaphysical phantom conjured out of Jenson's fixations or fantasies, but a genuine attempt to describe the God of scripture in the fullness of his historical presence and eternal identity; nor can he hope to retreat form that contest without a wound—or, for that matter, without a blessing."

—David Bentley Hart, In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 169

Blogging Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology: Volume 1, Part III: "The Triune Character," Chs. 13-14

This is part of a series blogging through Robert Jenson's two-volume Systematic Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). For more information, see the introduction to the series.

Chapter 13: "The Being of the One God"

I. Receiving the Being Tradition

"Being" is not a biblical concept, but because the gospel came to be within the Greco-Roman world, the Greeks' theological presuppositions and problems became those the gospel had to interpret, and now those same issues unavoidably belong to the Christian tradition. What is to be? What is being? According to the Greeks, being is equivalent to divinity, and human beings, although in their sharing of being are of the same sort as the deities, are nevertheless derivative because their being is not perfectly timeless, impassible, deathless. Perfectly to be is to persist indefinitely, neither coming nor going; this is "form" (eidos), which accordingly is seen, albeit with the mind's eye.

II. Dealing With Being

One possibility in response to the inherited question of being, generally taken by Eastern Orthodoxy, is "to disengage God from some implications of this acceptation" (p. 211); another, taken by "late-modern Western theology" as well as by Rabbinic Judaism, is simply to "disallow its application to God," thus construing God as "nonbeing." The former places God outside the question itself and the latter leads ineluctably towards an ontology of violence; therefore the answer must be to take the inherited tradition, reshape and refashion it according to the gospel, and thence produce a Christian understanding of "what it is for God to be" (p. 212). This path will rightly reject the implicit Greek teachings that there is no distinction between creature and Creator, and that deity exists to secure us against (for such divinity exists itself as utterly impassible vis-a-vis) the contingencies of time. The primary teachers from the tradition here will be Thomas Aquinas and Gregory of Nyssa.

III. Existence and Essence in God

Thomas took Aristotle's teaching on being and form and reformulated it not only to allow for immaterial form that is not divine (such as created angels), but to separate essence (what something is) and existence (that something is). Only in God are essence and existence one: what God is means God is; for God to be God must be. And there is no other of whom this is true. The one God's being is his essence; yet this God is triune. How to work this out?

IV. God's Eternity as Temporal Infinity

Gregory of Nyssa took the metaphysics of being and reinterpreted them through a trinitarian lens. What does it mean to say that the triune God is? First, it is the mutual life of Father, Son, and Spirit that is the referent for the predicate "God." To speak of the existence of the triune God is to speak of an ongoingness of a life between persons. And, second, it is not any other(s) but the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit whose life this is, the three whose identities with and among one another have been sketched elsewhere in the work. Finally, the divine nature or ousia is infinite: "God's act of being is constrained by no form other than itself" (p. 215). The infinity of the gospel's God, however, is not the atemporal changelessness of the Greek understanding of eternity. The triune God's limitlessness is precisely his temporal infinity: not contrary to or outside of time, but as unbounded timeliness, faithfulness to all ages, hesed for all generations, creator of and participant in history's time just because he is himself, as the infinite God, a participant in his own history, his own sort of time. The triune God does not merely endure impassibly and unchangeably in a fixed point called eternity; this God has a source (the Father) and a telos (the Spirit) whose reconciled present is the Son -- and this life, this temporal infinity, is God. "God is not eternal in that he adamantly remains as he began, but in that he always creatively opens to what he will be; not in that he hangs on, but in that he gives and receives; not in that he perfectly persists, but in that he perfectly anticipates" (p. 217). Even to the death, and beyond, God is faithful.

V. The Temporal Infinity of the Eternal Triune Love

God's temporal infinity is precisely because he is triune. The Spirit is God rushing toward us from his good future, yet only as the infinite liveliness of the Son whose bounded human life is the Logos of the Father, whose intention is "a specific loving consciousness" (p. 220). Again, the triune life is a drama: "The Father is the 'whence' of God's life; the Spirit is the 'whither' of God's life; and we may even say that the Son is that life's specious present" (p. 219). The love that is this life is the resolution of the antimony of hope, the tension brought by the question of what happens when the hope promised by the Spirit's coming future -- the kingdom of God -- is in fact fulfilled. Infinite love, endlessly sought and found and sought again, is "itself openness to unbounded possibility." And because God is love, because God's eternity is love, it is therefore also personal.

VI. God: Event, Person, Decision, Conversation

Now for summation. The one God is an event: he is not fixed, bound, monadic, uneventful; he is a life, a history, a narrative, a drama. "God is what happens between Jesus and his Father in their Spirit" (p. 221). The one God is a person: because this drama is one of faithfulness, there is perfect coherence in the personal story that is the life of the one God in three persons. Therefore the language proper to personality is not foreign or ridiculous when applied to God: feeling emotions, changing his mind, acting and refraining, responding to other persons, making and fulfilling promises. Such personal attributes are then "ontological perfections, not deficiencies," and to that extent and in that truth "unabashed petitionary prayer is the one decisively appropriate creaturely act over against the true God" (p. 222). The one God is a decision: following Barth and explication in previous chapters, God's eternal decision in Jesus of Nazareth, the Logos become flesh, indisputably determines for himself and for us who and what sort of God this is. And finally, the one God is a conversation: as seen in Genesis, God creates by speech; as seen in John, Jesus is the Word spoken by God and the Word who is God. God is the conversation between and among and to himself, not as a singular monad but as a community of identities, a life together in infinitely loving conversation. It follows that the church, however highly it prizes the virtue of silence, must always be a place of bold and daring and gifted speech.

VII. Omitting the Attributes

God's "attributes" are notably missing from this work by intent, because no special sectioned-off place is appropriate to their housing, but rather they come forth necessarily in the speaking of the gospel here and there; and so their presence is scattered throughout and not gathered together in one place of this work.

Quote

"The biblical God's eternity is his temporal infinity. Any eternity is some transcendence of temporal limits, but the biblical God's eternity is not the simple contradiction of time. What he transcends is not the having of beginnings and goals and reconciliations, but any personal limitation in having them. What he transcends is any limit imposed on what can he be by what has been, except the limits of his personal self-identity, and any limit imposed on his action by the availability of time. The true God is not eternal because he lacks time, but because he takes time. ...

"The eternity of Israel's God is his faithfulness. He is not eternal in that he secures himself from time, but in that he is faithful to his commitments within time. At the great turning, Israel's God is eternal in that he is faithful to the death, and then yet again faithful." (p. 217)

Further Thoughts & Questions...

This chapter is one of the richest in the entire work (having now finished Volume 2), primarily due to Jenson's profound conceptual suggestion of how to understand God's eternity. I know that many would disagree in principle, and others like David Bentley Hart disagree by hard argumentation, but it seems to me that whether his particulars are correct or his explication is clear, Jenson is on to something. The God narrated in and by the Bible simply will not accord with the god of the philosophers. Not by his character or being or other such abstractions, but merely in the way he is, in the fact of his being narrated, in his interactions with his creatures, in his doing this or changing that or fulfilling or negating prior commitments -- if we come to each and every biblical passage ready to say, "Well, when God says x, we know that he already knows y will happen; therefore x cannot have meant what it sounds like it would mean because that is not what God could have meant..." we effectively chop our own interpretive and theological legs out from beneath us. Not that we should come to the text simplistically; but, as Brueggemann would urge us, we must accept the text as it stands. And the life and person that God is seems to interact with his creatures in time in a way that is both drastically simpler and incomparably more complex than we usually allow. Robert Jenson helps us to see this through what he calls God's temporal infinity, and if that were his only contribution, it would be an extraordinary one.

Chapter 14: "Our Place in God"

I. The Roominess of God

That God is entails that he is knowable. But what does it mean to know God? It first demands remembering (as well as repairing history's disastrous forgetting) that God is, on the one hand, truly other than us, and on the other hand, triune and therefore personal. God's knowability has been described in the tradition by four "transcendentals," and the three of which that have not been explored so far will be done so now: truth, goodness, and beauty (though put another way, because God is knowable as and through these descriptors: knowable, enjoyable, lovable). To the extent that these describe the triune life, is it possible for others to participate, to join, this life without thereby adding "another" identity, thereby creating a growing pantheon of gods? "God can indeed, if he chooses, accommodate other persons in his life without distorting that life. God, to state it as boldly as possible, is roomy" (p. 226). God can do this because the only true and fixed identities of God are those called Father, Son, and Spirit, exactly in their relation to one another through begetting, proceeding, and mutual love. When God does make space in his life for others in time, this is the act of creation.

II. The Knowability of God

God is knowable first because, in the triune relations, he knows himself. Creatures know God not because of their immense (or even given) cognitive powers, but because God takes them into himself and thus into his own knowledge of himself. And we needn't look for this God or try to find him in order to know him, because he has introduced himself to us: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt." The actuality of God's knowability is found in the story of this God's life with his people; therefore to know God is to belong to God's people, the church. In the saying and enacting of the gospel together, God is known: the church is welcomed into the triune discourse, and participates in it! Our conversation with this knowable God demands a body in order to be subject and object to each other, and vice versa, and a body there is: "the body born of Mary and risen into the church and its sacraments" (p. 229). This is the one to whom the Father looks as Son, with whom we are included, with and as whom we are enlivened by the Holy Spirit, who then gives us the words to speak and the life to live as ones belonging to the divine life.

III. The Vision of God

This work has emphasized the speaking of the gospel over against the tradition's emphasis on vision and seeing; yet is "there also appearing and seeing in God?" (p. 229). The answered affirmative must be eschatological, for we will see God the risen Christ only in the consummation of the kingdom, just as God sees himself in the human Son, the Word made flesh.

IV. The Goodness of God

The moral content of God's address begins in his own life between Father, Son, and Spirit, and is then given to creatures for their own benefit: worship of the true God, righteous community, faithfulness to life. God's goodness then comes to us through his commandments, nowhere better seen than in Israel's canonical witness of Deuteronomy. This goodness is both who God is and what God does, which are the same: "God is good because he does good. He is lovable because he is loved" (p. 232). God's goodness, and not our own, however, is that in which the church places its trust for salvation.

V. The Hiddenness of God

God is not simply "there," available as an object for us to grab hold of, to know on our own terms, a finite thing in our control. God is hidden, but it is precisely in his availability to the world, in his manifest presence, that he is hidden. God's hiddenness is his refusal to be bound by our projections onto him, by our human idolatries; God's hiddenness is his slipperiness in our hands, for whenever we think either that we have him pinned down or that he has turned his face away forever, there he is, vibrant and alive and delivering yet again -- yet no more "ours" for the having than before. We never know what he is or will be up to, for he is beyond us, out ahead but prior to, on the move and creatively infinite. Thus God is hidden in that, even having been perfected in the new creation, we will never tire of him, never cease in our going on to more and more glorious knowledge of him; but also in that he comes to us centrally and definitively as an executed body on a cross, bloody and disfigured. This will forever be a scandal to us, and therefore our hope is faith in this one seen and known yet confounding and hidden.

VI. The Beauty of God

God's beauty is the harmony that is the life of Father, Son, and Spirit, the infinite musicality of the personae dei. "Accordingly, our enjoyment of God is that we are taken into the triune singing" (p. 235), and the worship and life of the church must and does, therefore, by plan and by spontaneity, explode into beauty reflective of the glory of God. "God, we may thus say, is a melody. And as there are three singers who take each their part, a further specification suggests itself: the melody is fugued. ... God is a great fugue. There is nothing so capacious as a fugue" (p. 236).

Quote

"God's beauty is the actual living exchange between Father, Son, and Spirit, as this exchange is perfect simply as exchange, as it sings. The harmony of Father, Son, and Spirit, the triune perichoresis, transcends its character as goodness because it has no purpose beyond itself, being itself God. And the harmony of a discourse thus taken for itself and for the sake of itself, is its beauty, its aesthetic entity." (p. 235)

More Thoughts & Questions...

It is possible -- I haven't read many responses that aren't appreciative, or even exulting, toward the work -- that some may object to Jenson's relatively meager account of the "way" God is, his attributes or content; but for the most part, I have enjoyed the fact that he allows the story of the gospel, and therefore the story of the church's working out of who God is, to contain implicitly who God is and what he is like -- especially if we believe that God is what he does. In this chapter particularly I found Jenson's discussion of God's knowability and hiddenness to be a great resource for conceiving of how and why we know God without God ceasing to be God.

Finally, ending the first volume by calling God a "fugue" seems fitting and essential: an endlessly open metaphor that, while he expands upon it in surprising ways in the next volume, remains there for us, on the page, awaiting interpretation but more importantly calling for doxology. For to know that God is a fugue is to want to join the melody.



[Image courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art.]

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

William Stringfellow on the Prophetic Piety of the Poor

"From my own vantage point and experience on that issue, the Christian faith is not about some god who is an abstract presence somewhere else, but about the living presence of God here and now, in this world, in exactly this world, as men know it and touch it and smell it and live and work in it. That is why, incidentally, all the well-meant talk of 'making the gospel relevant' to the life of the world is false and vulgar. It secretly assumes that God is a stranger among us, who has to be introduced to us and to our anxieties and triumphs and issues and efforts. The meaning of Jesus Christ is that the Word of God is addressed to men, to all men, in the very events and relationships, any and every one of them, which constitute our existence in this world. That is the theology of the Incarnation.

"The Word of God is present among the poor as well as among all others, and what I have called earlier the piety of the poor conceals the Word of God. The piety of the poor is prophetic: In a funny, distorted, ambiguous way it anticipates the Gospel. This is confirmed every day in East Harlem. There is a boy in the neighborhood, for instance, who is addicted to narcotics and whom I have defended in some of his troubles with the law. He used to stop in often on Saturday mornings to shave and wash up, after having spent most of the week on the streets. He has been addicted for a long time. His father threw him out about three years ago, when he was first arrested. He has contrived so many stories to induce clergy and social workers to give him money to support his habit that he is no longer believed when he asks for help. His addiction is heavy enough and has been prolonged enough so that he now shows symptoms of other trouble—his health is broken by years of undernourishment and insufficient sleep. He is dirty, ignorant, arrogant, dishonest, unemployable, broken, unreliable, ugly, rejected, alone. And he knows it. He knows at last that he has nothing to commend himself to another human being. He has nothing to offer. There is nothing about him that permits the love of another person for him. He is unlovable. Yet it is exactly in his own confession that he does not deserve the love of another that he represents all the rest of us. For none of us is different from him in this regard. We are all unlovable. More than that, the action of this boy's life points beyond itself, it points to the Gospel, to God who loves us though we hate Him, who loves us though we do not satisfy His love, who loves us though we do not please Him, who loves us not for our sake but for His own sake, who loves us freely, who accepts us though we have nothing acceptable to offer Him. Hidden in the obnoxious existence of this boy is the scandalous secret of the Word of God.

"It is, after all, in Hell—in that estate where the presence of death is militant and pervasive—that the triumph of God over death in Jesus Christ is decisive and manifest."

—William Stringfellow, My People is the Enemy: An Autobiographical Polemic (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964), pp. 97-98

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Jon Foreman

Jon Foreman is the lead singer of Switchfoot, another casualty in the unfortunate phenomenon I have described elsewhere that seems to happen to all promising or substantive "Christian" musical artists today: intriguing potential in the beginning; laudable development musically, lyrically, and theologically; popularity descends; and, inevitably, interminable, homogeneous, overly produced electric guitars. I gave up a couple albums ago, and maybe they have come back from the darkness, but fortunately, apparently something is still there in Jon Foreman as an individual, because in his solo work some of the best facets of Switchfoot's early stuff comes to the fore.

A couple other personal favorites by Foreman are "House of God, Forever" (a gorgeous duet rendering of Psalm 23) and "Instead of a Show" (a profound expansion of Amos 5's call for justice as true worship), but below is the one I have found most impacting. If I could change one thing, in the last verse, in the second to last line, I would change, in according with patristic trinitarian teaching, "both of his hands" to "the Son and the Spirit." Either way, I imagine that that is the meaning of Foreman's words anyway. In keeping with his other solo songs, it gives the sense of the psalmist's cry (and subsequent praise) for God's sure justice. My own poem afterward is a similarly scriptural reflection on images for forgiveness taken from Israel's and the church's most treasured stories.

- - - - - - -

Equally Skilled

By Jon Foreman (of Switchfoot)

How miserable I am
I feel like a fruit-picker who arrived here
After the harvest
There's nothing here at all
There's nothing at all here that could placate my hunger
The godly people are all gone
There's not one honest soul left alive
Here on the planet
We're all murderers and thieves
Setting traps here for even our brothers

And both of our hands
Are equally skilled
At doing evil
Equally skilled
At bribing the judges
Equally skilled
At perverting justice
Both of our hands
Both of our hands

The day of justice comes
And is even now swiftly arriving
Don't trust anyone at all
Not your best friend or even your wife
For the son hates the father
The daughter despises even her mother
Look, your enemies are right
Right in the room of your very household

And both of their hands
Are equally skilled
At doing evil
Equally skilled
At bribing the judges
Equally skilled
At perverting justice
Both of their hands
Both of their hands

No, don't gloat over me
For though I fall, though I fall
I will rise again
Though I sit here in darkness
The Lord, the Lord alone
He will be my light
I will be patient as the Lord
Punishes me for the wrongs I've done
Against him
After that, he'll take my case
Bringing me to light and to justice
For all I have suffered

And both of his hands
Are equally skilled
At ruining evil
Equally skilled
At judging the judges
Equally skilled
Administering justice
Both of his hands

Both of his hands
Are equally skilled
At showing me mercy
Equally skilled
At loving the loveless
Equally skilled
Administering justice
Both of his hands
Both of his hands

- - - - - - -

Forgiveness Is

Forgiveness is the healing stone
Slung and shot like a catapult
In miniature, frozen for a moment
As a promise, gracious, to the hulking
Violence of the taunting giant

Forgiveness is the soothing coal
Plucked and placed like a hot kiss
Heaven’s eroticism, stinging, not
Now or ever painless preparation
But always the fire of knowledge

Forgiveness is the liberal vision
Terrifying and true like a sentence
Delivered between destinations, this
Exodus no deliverance—yet the scales
Itching, precipice of future come

Forgiveness is the planate cross
Carried and planted like a flag
The powers’ mission accomplished
The world’s onlookers’ eyes ungouged
The engine’s oil, running red, stopped

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Flag(s) in the Assembly: An Uncertain Proposal

I take it as axiomatic that a church should not display a national flag in or around the physical premises of the church building, much less in the assembly or sanctuary. That this is not self-evident is in itself a problem, of course, but for those churches that do see the discrepancy but struggle to find a satisfying solution or do not feel threatened by the American or other flags' visible presence (usually out of a thoughtful gratitude, rather than a frothing patriotism), I wonder if there are any faithful options. This especially came into sharp focus recently after a story I heard secondhand about a church, contrary to regular practice, displaying the American flag for Memorial Day.

The reasons are manifold for maintaining an absence of the flag, but the danger is uniquely potent for American Christians, for two reasons: First, since its inception America has been inextricably linked conceptually, metaphorically, religiously, and militarily with the (Protestant) Christian church. America has been proclaimed a new Israel, a city on a hill, the hope of the nations, the triumph of man, the promised new world, etc. These are frighteningly blunt in their appropriation of eschatological images of the church in the New Testament. Thus the claim that "America is a Christian nation" or, as straightforwardly as possible, "Christian America." This is -- and it ought not need to be said at all -- idolatry, plain and simple. The church is the people of God, the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit. America is none of these things. Even if every single individual that made up the nation called America happened to be, by birth or by choice, Christian -- like other European nations of the past, I might add -- nothing would thereby be changed. America is not and cannot be the church, and therefore is not and cannot "be," without qualification, "Christian."

Second, America is not merely one among many nations, nor merely a nation "with the soul of a church" or one happening to contain many self-professed Christians; America is, in a profound sense in our time, the nation. It is the preeminent world leader in military power, economic strength, and political muscle. When America throws its weight around, people amen, cower, rebel, submit, flee, or at the very least flinch. There are no bystanders in the time of America; one is not neutral toward it. It is in the business of picking sides and asking others to do the same. That is simply what it means to be "the best" in those areas the world deems important.

And so, as any American knows, what comes along with being (or claiming to be, or acting like) "the best" is a resilient, remarkable, fervent pride. Americans love America, love being American, love that America is what it is. And with that comes a kind of devotion which, accordingly, involves the American flag. The flag is the symbol of the nation: its history, its virtue, its standing, its future. And because the nation demands allegiance, Americans pledge allegiance to that flag as the one thing uniting them all together.

It is easy to see, then, regardless of how one feels about Christians actually pledging allegiance (we'll leave that for another day), why the presence of the flag in assembled Christian worship would be problematic. Here is a visual representation of National, Economic, Political, Military Power that expects, solicits, and even demands Pride, Devotion, and Allegiance. There are four visual possibilities for the flag in worship, all equally detrimental in their role:

1) above the cross, in which the cross of Christ lies symbolically in subordinate service to the flag;

2) on level with the cross, in which the two are linked visually as mirror and equal representations of the same divine reality;

3) below the cross, in which the flag exists ontologically in service to the cross; and

4) in place of the cross, in which the cross of Christ has disappeared altogether and the flag has replaced it as the symbol of the faith.

Obviously, every one of these possibilities is disastrous. The cross represents to us the absolute call of Jesus to each of us individually and to us together as a community to follow after him, to commit ourselves utterly to him in allegiance above and in replacement of all other allegiances, to renounce all former claims in order to become citizens of the kingdom of God. The flag, by any pairing imaginable, enters into this call not as a rival claimant but as a complimentary fellow, one more icon in the visible reverie of the faith. The God of Israel, however, is a jealous God, and he will not stand to have a rival god in his presence, and thus not in the gathered worship of his people.

I hope it is clear, therefore, why it is utterly inappropriate for the American flag to be displayed in, on, above, around, or by means of any other coterminous preposition vis-a-vis physical church grounds. Before moving on to my uncertain proposal, though, I should also note an apparent doublesidedness to this brief explanation. On the one hand, this temptation and reality is, in the present day, uniquely American. Being the Biggest and the Best, the most Christian and the most Iconic, we are nearly singular in our patriotically syncretistic temptations. On the other hand, however, there is nothing "less wrong" with, say, a village church in Uganda or an apartment church in Russia displaying their respective flags. Nationalism is a sly devil; rabid revolutions and demographic violence do not demand international influence for participation. And the call to discipleship with its subsequent expectations do not waver according to nation.

Now, with all of that said, what of possible "faithful options" of which I hinted above? This is merely a thought, and probably a bad one, but I share it in hope for feedback and contemplation.

What if, in a church accustomed to display of the American flag, instead of fighting the battle to remove the flag completely -- which, while a commendable fight, too often rightly earns that coercive description by the tactics and attitudes employed -- other nations' flags were added to the display? And not only random flags -- of equal size and shape as America's! -- but chosen specifically for that specific church in that time and place, in visual subordination and subservience to the cross. (If there is no cross, of course the whole project falls apart.)

For example: begin with the American flag. Then add the flags of any church members' home nationalities, whether Mexico, Britain, or Australia. Next add the flags of all the international missions locations that church is involved in, say, of Uganda, Honduras, and Croatia. Finally, take the flags of the half a dozen or so most prominent, most talked about, most reviled, most foreign enemies of America (from the past, present, and foreseeable future), and display those too -- say, those of Iran, North Korea, Cuba, China, Russia, Venezuela, and Sudan. And order them chronologically, randomly, or even by "greatest enemy," beginning in the center and moving outward.

So displayed might be, in some order, the flags of Australia, Britain, China, Croatia, Cuba, Honduras, Iran, Mexico, North Korean, Russia, Sudan, USA, Uganda, and Venezuela. Fourteen nations, from around the world, ordered arbitrarily, some home to members of the church, some home to fellow members of a missionary church connected to this one, and some explicit enemies of the nation in which this church resides.

What might this convey to the people of the church?

What if it meant that Jesus, the one to whom the cross points, is Lord of and over each and every one of these nations, fully and equally? What if it meant that the great commission applies to each and every one of these nations? What if it meant that God is already present by his Spirit in each and every one of these nations? That Jesus died for each and every one? That God loves each and every one? That each is on equal footing before God; that each belongs to the broad sweep of history that is God's created world; that each is mere withered grass before the Word of God; that each is allowed no ultimate claims of allegiance before the one true God? That any person of any tribe or tongue is welcome in the assembly of this gathering of God's people? That when we pray, we not only pray a blessing for the well-being of the nation in which we find ourselves as exiles; we pray even more fervently for the blessing of our enemies, whether of the church or of the nation in which we reside. All are one before the Lord our God, for God is not the God of Jews alone, but of Gentiles also. And we pray Maranatha! Come Lord! We pray that God's kingdom would come on the earth -- for we know that it has not come in full, not in any nation or place, but we await it in its fullness in all times and in all places and in all languages: for the coming of the Lord; for the New Jerusalem; for the tree whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

If Only Piper and Wright Had Read Jenson a Decade Ago...

"There is also a rather odd and very different temptation that must be mentioned, which was once unique to Protestantism but seems to be spreading: to suppose that adherence to the Reformation doctrine of justification is itself a sufficient condition of faithfulness, that is, to confuse a set of instructions about the gospel with the gospel itself. The short statement of the gospel is 'Jesus is risen,' not 'We are justified by faith.' The gospel is a story about Jesus and us, not a linguistic or existential stipulation. For this reason, it is possible to dispute the hermeneutic doctrine of justification while in fact proclaiming the gospel according to its intention or to loudly maintain that we are justified by faith alone while never speaking the gospel at all."

—Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology: Volume 2: The Works of God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 293

Monday, July 6, 2009

"Do You Not Know? Have You Not Heard?": On the Non-Inevitability of Christian Faith

If one were to fashion a credo to hang over every story, every command, every poem, and every person of the biblical canon, of the varied tellings of the creator God's history with his people Israel, with his Son Jesus, with his Spirit-led church, it might be:

Nothing is inevitable.

To anyone familiar with Scripture, this maxim is self-evident. From any ordinary perspective, it was inevitable for the world to collapse into ruin after Eden, after Cain, after Babel; inevitable for Abraham to die childless; inevitable for Jacob's descendants to die in slavery; inevitable for the wilderness to triumph; inevitable for the nations to swallow up little Israel; inevitable for the exiles to vanish into history.

From any rational, even sympathetic, prediction, it was inevitable for foreign occupation to sever Israel's future; inevitable for a lunatic baptizer to remain at the margins; inevitable for a virgin to be childless; inevitable for a Galilean prophet to die abandoned and alone; inevitable for a nonviolent, sectarian, ethnic movement centered on the poor and oppressed to wither away upon their leader's execution; inevitable for the further execution of that movement's later leaders to lay the groundswell finally to rest.

Inevitability, simply and straightforwardly, is not in the vocabulary of Israel's God.

One would think, then, that any people constituted by or grounded in the witness of Scripture would not fall prey to thinking in terms of inevitability -- but that is exactly what happens. Christians no less than anyone else speak the language of inevitability. Other terms under this heading include "realistic," "responsible," and "just wait and see."

For example, one might respond to Jesus' economic teachings by saying, "Well, that's not responsible." Or, in response to Jesus' lived pattern of nonviolence one might say, "Well, that's not realistic." Or, upon hearing a young couple share their intention to follow Jesus in x or y way, an older person might admonish, "Well, you're young now; things are different when you're older. Just wait and see." Such responses may even be claimed by their speakers to be biblical.

On the contrary, the Bible summarily responds on behalf of God: "Do you not know? Have you not heard?"

Do you not know that the one God does not act in accordance with your limited imagination? Have you not heard that Israel was brought up from slavery in Egypt? that Jesus is alive? Do you not know that the gospel is promise and miracle and freedom? Have you not heard of the martyrs and saints? of Maximus the Confessor, of Francis of Assisi? Do you not know that the Lord reigns? Have you not heard that he is mighty to save?

And so on and so forth. The biblical God, the God revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the triune God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is not constrained by or limited to what we happen to call "realistic," " responsible," or -- God help us from even thinking it -- "inevitable." As surely as the Lord lives, there is no such thing. It is therefore nothing short of idolatry to speak in such a way. For if this sort of economics or that sort of politics, this sort of coercive arrangement or that sort of unjust circumstances, is truly inevitable, truly intrinsic to human life, truly insurmountable in the broad scheme of things -- Jesus is no longer Lord, but a new and more powerful god has usurped him. Whether it be the Market or the Government, the Flag or the Gun, a Theory or a Gender or a Race, Baal or the Nation, Satan or the Family, the triune God has been defeated in the last, and is finally no deity at all.

But we know that no such thing has happened: no such god has won. As those who belong to the one who truly reigns, while "at present we do not see everything subject to him," still "we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor" (Heb 2:8-9). We are the ones who know that the world did not collapse into ruin, that Abraham was given a child, that Israel plundered their taskmasters, that the Lord made a way in the wilderness. We are the ones who have heard and believe that John prepared the way, that the virgin was with child, that the Messiah hung on a cross, that Israel's God raised his anointed from the dead. We have been given the eyes to see such things, and insofar we are those who see Jesus. And because we see Jesus, the Logos become flesh, we know the truest logic of the world is not that of nations or generals, of Wall Street or Washington: instead, it is in the crucified and risen flesh of the Son of God. His Spirit is the freedom of history. In that same freedom, we cry to God that his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

And just so, that what seems inevitable would not obtain.