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Christmas in Torture Nation

Can violence and torture ever save us?

That’s a rather rude question for this Advent and Christmas season. Perhaps ruder still: Is violence just an inevitable consequence of living in the U.S.A.?WaterBoarding

Actually, these are exactly the questions to ask in relation to Christmas, a season to celebrate the birth of one born into a context of imperial violence and who would die from state-sponsored torture.

This seems a particularly timely topic today given how many (mostly white people) were surprised by the grand jury decisions in Missouri and New York and who were nearly as surprised by the recent Senate committee report on CIA-run torture programs.

I admit: I found all of this shocking and I was among those who were, at least at first, surprised by all of it. But it didn’t take long for me to remember why I shouldn’t be.

And yet there’s more: As I began editing this blog post, two NYPD officers were shot and killed as they sat in their patrol car; how quickly some linked their deaths to the protests over the deaths of unarmed black men (notice the headline from this NY Daily Post story). And still more: a human rights group in Germany has now initiated a process to file war crime charges against Bush administration officials for their role in torturing terrorism detainees after 9/11.

Are all of these just random, poorly timed (it’s the holidays!) moments of tragic violence? Or are we, in the U.S., at last ready to consider the diabolical thread that connects them?

Merriamlynching-Webster defines “torture” as “anguish of body or mind; the infliction of intense pain (as from burning, crushing, or wounding) to punish, coerce, or afford sadistic pleasure.”

That definition renders American history in quite disturbing textures:

  • Institutional slavery was nothing if not organized, state-sponsored torture, which lasted for nearly two-and-a-half centuries on this continent.
  • Jim Crow segregation, routine lynchings, and countless instances of bodily degradation of African Americans surely qualify as terrorism if not socially sanctioned torture.
  • “Homosexuals” (mostly gay men) were routinely hospitalized in the first half of the 20th century, many of them subjected to electro-shock therapy (yes, it’s as bad as it sounds) and sometimes forcibly separated from families and exiled from their communities; I would call that torture.
  • LGBT people still today, every year, take their own lives because of the constant religious haranguing about being “abominations” and “Satan-spawn” and “defective”; it’s the religious version of water-boarding, but stretching over years rather than minutes, and it’s torturous.
  • Nearly every U.S. governmental engagement with Native American tribes on this continent has involved forced relocations, genocidal military attacks, destruction of sacred sites, disruption of tribal life, decimation of cultural customs and languages, and the near-constant ideological humiliation of whole peoples who are apparently “uncivilized”; I couldn’t come up with a better centuries-long plan of torture if I tried.trail_tears

That’s just a short list of the torture we know about, and it’s knit into the very fabric of American history and culture.

The most recent instances of American violence are not just anomalies, or brief blips on our national radar screen that shall soon disappear. They are symptoms of a much more insidious disease. American society turns instinctively to violence and even torture to solve our problems.

Contemporary theologian Kelly Brown Douglas in her book, What’s Faith Got to Do with It?, argues for noticing just one of the root causes of this social pathology: Christianity itself. She notes, for example, the close alignment between a particular view of atonement and the justification of violence against all those deemed “other.”

She means, in brief, that if the torture and suffering of Christ is the means of salvation, then it’s a very short leap indeed to find nearly any other kind of torture salvific, or the (tragic) means to a greater good. “While the cross in and of itself may not precipitate deadly terror,” she writes, “the cross invested with power does” (p. 69). And indeed, it at least contributed to how Christians could gather – as Christians – to lynch African Americans in 20th century America. Pioneering theologian of liberation James Cone has argued the same thing in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

Sound absurd? Or maybe just a quaint, if tragic, token of America’s past? Consider the recent polling data indicating that more than half of U.S. Christians believe U.S.-sponsored torture is justifiable. And get this: more than half of self-identified atheists insist that torture is never justifiable.

Note that data well: religious theists are on board with torture and atheists aren’t. How is this possible?

Kelly Brown Douglas would likely ask, but why are you surprised?

No, violence and torture can never save us; they are the very things from which we need to be saved. First-century residents of Israel/Palestine could have and likely did say the same thing in the midst of imperial occupation, violence, and frequent torture. (The cross on which Jesus was crucified was not, after all, unique. Crucifixion was one of the favored means of torture in the Roman Empire to keep occupied peoples docile and passive.)

nativity_star_donkeyLuke begins his account of the nativity by making that context plain, which we dare not forget today: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus…” (2:1). Nothing about Jesus, not even the place of his birth, is free from the touch of imperial power and everything implied by that power.

If Christian preachers this week in the U.S. don’t address American imperialism in some fashion, as well as the violence and torture on which it has always relied, it will be more than a missed opportunity.

It won’t be the Gospel.

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Salvation is an Inside Job

I love Da Vinci’s portrayal of John the Baptist, for multiple reasons. He’s vaguely androgynous, strangely alluring, and his smirk hints at a secret he’s dying to tell – that he did tell: repentance is the path toward life.finger_pointing_john

The vast majority of Christians hear about John on the second Sunday of Advent, a day when Episcopalians begin worship with a prayer about the message of prophets, the importance of repentance, and the need to forsake our sins. Exactly pitch perfect for life in the U.S. today.

I think it’s worth remembering that prophets quite often make people mad, but not necessarily because of what they say about the future. Prophets make people mad because they tell the truth about the present, the kind of truth-telling more than a few don’t want to hear, especially if it means changing the way we live.

John is usually framed by the gospel writers with the words many Christians also hear in Advent, words from Isaiah the prophet about a voice crying in the wilderness, mountains being brought low, and crooked paths made straight.

John was a bit more pointed about that message. A counter-cultural, granola-crunching, hippie from the Haight-Ashbury, John despised the socio-religious pretentions of decent folk who kept up appearances but did so at the expense of the under-class and day-laborers. Luke’s account has John refer to the religious leaders of his day as a “brood of vipers” and insists that the fruits of repentance will be marked by social and economic justice (Luke 3:7-14).

John’s rudeness is something like an occupational hazard for prophets, born, I think, from the urgency of their message. The truth they speak is most often one of judgment and the need for change.

There’s a good deal of prophetic truth-telling happening today and it’s making a lot of people irritable if not really mad.

More than a few otherwise calm and measured scientists are starting to sound a bit unhinged in their truth-telling about our global climate. It’s not just an “inconvenient truth”; to take this truth seriously would mean making a profound course correction in the way all of us live.smokestacks2

We are also living through a nationwide moment of truth-telling about race and racism. To take seriously this truth of systemic white supremacy would mean, just as it does for our global climate, a profound change in our socio-economic institutions.

At this time of year, I’m frequently reminded what often links our climate crisis with our racism: the economy. In this season when the retail shopping engine lurches into high gear, the link is startling.

Some of today’s prophetic voices, for example, are trying to tell us a truly unsettling truth about our shopping malls. They would urge us to notice that nearly every product we can buy in our department stores is made in one of the roughly 300 factories in Juarez, Mexico, just over the border with El Paso, Texas.

jaurez_factgryName nearly any mainstream corporate brand you can think of, and there’s a factory in Juarez making their stuff with poorly paid labor, unregulated working conditions, horrible ecological effects, and in the wake of an epidemic of kidnappings, violence against women, and murder. Just a few years ago, Juarez was actually named the “murder capital of the world.” That’s where a lot of our stuff comes from.

Consider this short list of companies who rely on the suffering of the women of Juarez to fuel the global economic engine: Philips, Epson, Honeywell, Toshiba, Johnson & Johnson, Seiko, Lexmark, General Electric, Maytag, Alcoa, Goodyear, Bosch, Pepsi, DuPont, and Coca-Cola.

Again, that’s a short list.

I find this nearly intolerable. None of us chose to set up this system yet all of us are deeply ensconced in it and benefit from it every day – much like the system that has caused our climate crisis and the systems that privilege white people.

I say “nearly” intolerable because I do think this kind of prophetic truth-telling would crush us without the rest of the liturgical year and what it offers for Christian faith. These first two weeks of Advent, after all, are not for our despair but for our hope. Advent rather boldly declares that another kind of world is possible and, indeed, that God is even now bringing about that new world.

The question, of course, is how. How is God doing this?

Personally, I would love to see God just part the heavens, rend them open, step down here and fix this mess. It’s beyond my ability to analyze adequately, let alone sort it out. Some superhero salvation, perhaps from some realm beyond, would be really welcome right now. And indeed, my Christian faith includes the conviction that God has sometimes acted in such dramatic fashion and sometimes still does and will still do.

But mostly not.

Mostly, salvation is an inside job. Social transformation happens mostly from the inside out – and that can be just as dramatic as the heavens being torn asunder.

John the Baptist certainly cared about the inequities, distortions, and corruptions of his own society. Yet notice the twin focus of his message: the urgency of repentance to prepare for the one who will baptize not just with water but with the Holy Spirit.

Ah! The Holy Spirit – now that might be the game changer we need. That’s the who can bring down the mountains of resentment and hate each of us has built up to protect our fragile hearts; the one who can take the twisted paths we follow to justify our destructive lives and make them straight; the only one who can cry out in the wilderness of modern loneliness and despair and make the wild flowers bloom in the deserts of consumerist impulses.

The world’s transformation most often happens and takes root there, in the human heart.

So let’s read Isaiah like that:

In the wilderness (of our collective suffering) prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert (of our sorrow and perplexity) a highway for our God.
Every valley (of despair) shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill (of violence) be made low;
the uneven ground (of economic oppression) shall become level,
and the rough places (of racial hostility) a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken (Isaiah 40:3-5).

Read Isaiah like that and Christmas becomes a celebration of salvation as an inside job: God chooses to save with and among us, to guide and lead us toward our thriving as one of us, from the inside out.

How does God transform the world?

With repentance. The kind of repentance sparked by seeing the world as it really is, from realizing how the world actually works, from hearing words of prophetic truth-telling that can pierce our collective denial sufficiently to make space for the Holy Spirit.

In that space, the Word of God becomes incarnate — again.advent_candles3

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The Slow-Motion Shipwreck of Theological Education

shipwreckBoth the Apostle Paul and Jonah have been appearing recently in the daily office lectionary of the Episcopal Church. Both stories feature shipwrecks: the one Jonah averted by having himself tossed overboard (Jonah 1:11-12) and the one that destroyed the ship Paul was on but with no lives lost (Acts 27:21-26).

Both stories suggest a way of thinking about what’s happening in graduate-level theological education today. Both stories offer assurances of God’s presence in the midst of disaster. Both stories make me wonder: Does the ship really matter?

For some years now (decades?) we’ve been witnessing what amounts to a slow-motion shipwreck of seminary education. The current turmoil at the General Theological Seminary is only the latest example (read more about that here), as is the similar but less public uncertainty at Episcopal Divinity School, not to mention the closing of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary as a residential school for the Master of Divinity degree in 2008.

Those examples come from my own denominational home, but similar moments are unfolding nearly everywhere in higher education. If you work for a divinity school attached to a university – especially if it’s Harvard or Yale – you may have no direct experience of all this, but everyone else in the theological world does.

Each school, of course, must deal with its own particularities (and they can be quite complex, if not confounding and infuriating, as the Crusty Old Dean reminds us). Yet I am convinced that the current upheaval of seminary education mirrors a broader tectonic shift in institutional Christianity itself, at least in Europe and the U.S. Others have noticed this long before I did, including all those involved in “emergent Christianity.” But here’s the obvious question that no one (yet) can answer very well: what exactly is emerging from all this?

To suppose that something is emerging at all sounds rather hopeful. But let’s be clear: the whole thing is a shipwreck of epic (biblical?) proportions. And still, I am profoundly hopeful.

I have no fix-it plan for the future of theological education on which to base my hope. But I do take solace in remembering that ours is not the first generation to face moments of uncertainty and crisis. That rich history reminds me that every ship eventually wears out, or simply splinters in the throes of storm-tossed seas. Perhaps that’s the point: the ship matters far less than where we’re going, even when we can’t see over the horizon.

Getting to that unfamiliar shore will mean swimming for our lives away from the shipwreck, and prior even to that, recognizing that the ship is a wreck. If we do that, as Paul insisted, everyone gets out alive and actually thrives. Or, as Jonah ruefully realized, repentance matters.

In no particular order, here are three of my current observations about the sinking ship and the new shore that beckons:

  1. Good Mental Health Resists Binaries and Extremes

My therapist urges me regularly to avoid binary extremes. That seems like sound advice for Christian churches and seminaries. Most Christian churches, for example, live and operate today as if the twentieth century never happened. Seminaries have followed along that same path, forming church leaders using a model developed in the 18th and 19th centuries. That model was helpful then, not so helpful now. Or as my therapist also likes to say, that was a good coping mechanism when you were growing up, but it’s not useful as an adult. The ship carried Paul to Malta – where it was time to abandon it.

I’m actually very grateful for the deep formation I received in the Anglo-Catholic tradition from my Episcopal seminary back in the 1980s. It was spiritually nourishing, theologically inspiring, and intellectually stimulating community. Indeed, I was so deeply formed in that seminary community that I really didn’t want to leave – perhaps Jonah felt the same way in the belly of a fish. Trying to replicate that seminary pattern of life as a priest in a suburban Chicago parish was perhaps not disastrous but certainly less than helpful.

What then do we do with the rich legacy of our traditions in a world our ancestors never could have imagined? That question need not and should not rely on binary choices. “Formation” is not necessarily bad; the “tradition” is not irrelevant; leading and sustaining communities of counter-cultural Gospel witness is imperative. Yes, and still, we can’t keep repeating how Christians were formed in the tradition a century ago just because we don’t want to reinvent the whole thing from scratch. Mental and spiritual health will resist extremes, even when the middle way (remember that?) seems unclear or muddled.

  1. Karl Barth Won

Some years ago a colleague from another seminary made some arresting observations about contemporary theological education that have stuck with me, not least this: Barthian Neo-Orthodoxy won the day in the 1960s and 1970s. Evidence of this victory infuses nearly every seminary curriculum for the Master of Divinity degree, regardless of where the school falls on the conservative/liberal spectrum. Those curricula begin with Bible, then move into Church History, and then tie them together with Systematic Theology – those are the three sources, in that order, that Barth insisted constituted the only sources for revelation.

I can hear the howls of protest now, mostly from my liberal and “progressive” seminary colleagues. To which I would gently ask, why then do so many seminaries persist in that pattern? What if we began the M.Div. degree instead by taking field trips to art museums, city council meetings, and economic development organizations as if these were also sources of revelation? (I mean, aren’t they?) Following each excursion, students and faculty could engage in shared theological reflection, regardless of how biblically, historically, or systematically sound the reflection is. The academic disciplines come later, as tools for honing and refining our reflection.

Useful? Naïve? Not academic enough? I don’t know, but does Barth continue to win?

I actually appreciate many of Barth’s insights but continue to worry about the patriarchal and paternalistic (if not actually infantilizing) patterns of formation that so often attend that Barthian approach to theology. (Here’s just one exhortation to remember that seminarians are actually adults.) Seminary “formation” matters as we often get in our churches what our seminaries model in their pedagogical styles (and believe me, that can and does keep me up at night).

We might try reshaping seminary education for collaboration and mutual goal-setting.  We could do this by resetting learning outcomes every year based on the particularities of each incoming class rather than the standards set by an academy (let alone accreditation agencies) that may have little if anything to do with what Christian congregations need today. That would be scary but maybe also liberating. To be both we need constantly to ask whom we (denominations and seminaries) are trying to please and appease, and why, in the standards we set.

More pointedly: Do seminaries serve accrediting agencies or academic journals or the Church?  I no longer believe we can just assume to answer “all three” without caveat or qualification.

  1. The Gospel (Still) Matters

Whatever “Gospel” means remains contested, and rightly so. The stakes are high. At the same time, I am struck by how many seminarians struggle to integrate their faith (including the “mystical experiences” that many of them are too chagrined even to mention) with their academic work.

I know, I know: we theological academics insist that scholarly work is part and parcel of “spiritual” experience. And yes, “deconstruction” is a necessary prerequisite for a “constructive” approach to a mature faith. Yes…and, students still struggle. And then they graduate, get ordained, and lead congregations filled with people just as hungry as they are to figure out whether and how the Gospel still matters in a broken world.

In particular, I worry that too many Euro-American Christians focus on the shipwreck and never ponder the island. More traditionally, the central proclamation of the Christian Testament has virtually disappeared from center stage: resurrection from death. In part, this kind of reticence about the Gospel reflects a fatal flaw in the model of theological education derived from the 19th century, when “resurrection” got lumped in with all the other “mythological” stuff that belongs to a pre-enlightened age.

This fatal flaw appears in liberal circles whenever we insist that human beings always have the ability to build something new out of the wreckage of disaster. We don’t have to trot out Pelagius (yet again) to worry about that kind of “lift yourself up by your own bootstraps” theology. For conservatives, the fatal flaw appears whenever Christian communities fixate on a better life beyond the grave to the exclusion of all else. That seems like a sure and certain recipe for denigrating this planetary arena of God’s creative work. Climate change, anyone?

Neither of these approaches seems convincing enough to abandon the shipwreck and swim for an unknown shore. Both of those views tend to evacuate God from the messy, joyous, invigorating, exasperating, triumphant moments of daily life. That’s precisely where most people going to church today want to find God. Do they?

I do believe something is “emerging” from the detritus of modern Western Christianity. Perhaps we could still call it “Gospel” if it features Jesus rising from the dead – the central proclamation of the earliest Christians. What in the world could this mean?

It could mean a new world rising from the malaise of a dead economy, one tailored for the wealthy at the expense of the poor; it could mean rising from a dying planet in a new vision of ecological relation; it could mean rising from the constant death knell of racial injustice and violence into a world where diversity is embraced as a gift; and yes, I do believe it means rising from the death of our mortal bodies into the incomprehensible, eternal life of God. (Naturally, I have more to say about that, which you can find in chapter 7 of Peculiar Faith: Queer Theology for Christian Witness.)shipwreck2

To see all of those moments woven into a single garment of effective theological education will mean attending carefully to both Paul and Jonah. As Paul’s ship fell apart, those who were able swam to shore; those who couldn’t swim grabbed pieces of the crumbling ship on which to float ashore (Acts 27:43-44). We need the pioneers who just jump in and swim. We also need those who see valuable pieces in the flotsam to save and preserve.

Jonah, of course, resisted nearly every moment of God’s gracious renewals. He was even resentful of God’s grace to the penitent! But he nonetheless stands for a remarkable act of courage. Throw me overboard, he tells the floundering ship’s crew, and you will be saved. They did, and they were.

The curmudgeons among us (and I can certainly fit that bill at times) still have something to offer to this moment, even if it’s only the courage to let God have God’s way, as Jonah (resentfully) did. That, too, counts as profound witness.

Courage will, of course, mean change. It will mean changing how I teach. It will mean changing how student success is evaluated. It will mean changing seminary curricula. It will mean changing the governance structure of our schools and our congregations/denominations. It will mean changing how Christians live in the world. It means all this and more because the Gospel changes everything. It always has and always should, if it’s Gospel.

I’m not prepared for those changes. No one is. And that’s the point. As Rowan Williams once observed some years ago, “The Gospel cannot be both palatable and transformative at the same time.” Paul had the same insight when he was knocked off his feet on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-5), as did Jonah, when he had himself cast into a turbulent sea.

If the Gospel is (re)emerging from today’s tumult, it will not be comfortable. But it will be life-giving.

beach_breakfastMay we be gentle with each other as we swim to shore or, as the case may be, as we are vomited up on a beach. Who knows? Perhaps someone waits for us there, cooking breakfast (John 21:4-14).

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The Ground Cries Out

There’s a lot of blood in the Bible, just as there is the world today. Whether in ancient texts or the daily newspaper, we seem awash in blood.blood_dripping

You don’t have to read very far in the Bible to stumble into blood. In the fourth chapter of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, Cain kills his brother Abel. God confronts Cain by saying, “your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10).

Couldn’t we say the same thing about the fratricidal madness in Israel/Palestine? What about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)? They garner headlines by beheading two Americans but most of their victims are actually fellow Muslims.

There’s plenty of blood closer to home, too. It’s everywhere: the horrifying image of Michael Brown lying on a Ferguson, Missouri, street in a pool of his own blood; the revelation that the Ferguson police department in 2009 actually sued a man they had beaten for staining their uniforms with his blood; every “drive-by shooting” that happens nearly every day in the U.S. spilling still more blood.

I was astonished to realize recently that the FDA still prohibits gay men from donating blood, a policy established in 1983 at the advent of the AIDS crisis. And I do confess: I like vampire fiction, from Brom Stoker’s Dracula to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and, of course, television’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” ( a great source for theological reflection, I have to say).

In Francis Ford Coppola’s film version of Dracula, several characters repeat in mantra-like fashion a key line: “The blood is the life!” That summarizes pretty well an ancient Israelite conviction as well — one we might do well to consider in today’s blood-soaked world.

Blood signaled not merely violence in that ancient society; it was the visible, tangible, taste-able, smear-able, odiferous presence of life. Or rather, precisely because blood is the coursing, flowing presence of life itself, the careless, wanton, violent shedding of it is truly horrific.

This weekend, many Christians will hear from the biblical book of Exodus and about blood, the blood of a lamb smeared on doorposts. It is of course the foundational story for Passover. Most Christians likely also hear in that story intonations of the last supper Jesus shared with his friends and will think about the symbol of Jesus as the “lamb of God.”

Blood becomes visible with violation or violence, and life is seen, manifested and displayed, even as it is being degraded, demeaned, destroyed. I wonder if we Christians might take that insight with us to the Eucharistic Table on Sunday.

In a world awash in blood, I wonder if we Christians might consider anew what it means to eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Lamb of God. Is this conceivable anymore? I think it should be.

As we ingest the symbol of Jesus as the Lamb of God, we take into ourselves the very life of God:

  • We take in God’s own deep solidarity with all victims of violence, made visible in the blood of Jesus spilled by Roman soldiers.
  • We take in God’s unswerving affirmation of life, made visible in the wounded hands of the risen Jesus from which his blood flowed.
  • We take in God’s own participation in the risk of bodily intimacy – the risk for everyone and not just gay men, the risk made visible in Jesus sharing the cup of his life with the one who betrayed him.

As the very life of God courses through our veins and arteries, eventually, perhaps regularly, maybe even daily, this life will be made visible in acts of compassion, generosity, and love. It will declare itself in the refusal to allow, ever again, the body of a teenager to lie in a city street for hours as blood drains from his body. It will manifest itself in a new kind of world devoted to abundant life for all and not just for some.passover_blood_door

It will be as obvious as blood slathered on a doorpost.

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First-Century Ferguson

I do not mean that Ferguson, Missouri, is somehow a first-century locale, especially with all the twenty-first century military gear on display of late to keep unarmed protesters terrorized. I do mean that some first-century Christian insights might help some of us to think a bit differently about race and violence and Gospel in the U.S. today.ferguson_guns

For the last couple of years, I’ve started all of my seminary classes with this: “Christian faith began not with a doctrine, or a text, or an institution, but with a radical social practice: table fellowship.”

To be clear, I am convinced of the importance of teaching, words, and structure in Christianity, but all of that serves but one thing: communion with God and with each other, or table fellowship, in all its many forms.

I’m not an expert on race and racism. I’m a white guy, who enjoys much more privilege than I am actually aware of in my daily life, and I am committed to learning and doing what I can to dismantle racism – my own and this country’s. I am also a Christian theologian, and I do believe that Christian theology and Christian faith and Christian spiritual practice can make a difference in undoing racist structures and animating a vision of thriving life for all.

As a theologian, I try always to be mindful of this: First-century Mediterranean societies were no less stratified than the modern West. Food mattered a great deal back then, more so than in today’s fast-food culture. In the first century, with whom one shared food helped to maintain the strict social stratifications based on gender, class, ethnicity, and religion. Food and sex served the same purpose in those societies: maintaining a social hierarchy of value. Or more simply, some people mattered more than others. (I offer an extended commentary on this very thing in my book Divine Communion.)

First-century Christians, following the example of Jesus, interrupted that social dynamic with a bold move: eating with the “wrong” people. By doing so, they declared that all people matter, no exceptions. (Of course it took them some time to get to that insight and not everyone did, thus St. Paul’s frequent diatribes in his letters…)

I was reminded of that first-century insight by reading Acts 10 just recently. That text has been used often by LGBT people as an ancient analogue for the struggle to welcome sexual and gender diversity in today’s churches. Welcoming Gentiles into that early and mostly Jewish Christian community was cause for significant scandal – and it reshaped the whole movement. But I realized something else from my recent reading of that text, and I’m rather stunned that I hadn’t really considered it before.

In that ancient story, Peter and his Jewish companions spend several days in the household of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. Remember, at that time Palestine was an occupied province of the Roman Empire, In this biblical story, the ones oppressed enjoy the hospitality and the food of their Roman oppressors! More than this, the Spirit is poured out on all of them (Acts 10:44-46)!

So many Christians read that ancient story in a very narrowly theological way; it is also, and just as much, social and political. The story is both because God is social, and thus political.

Can we imagine a wemmaus_supper_contemporaryorld in which white Ferguson police officers sit down and share a meal with African American Ferguson citizens? First-century Christians could imagine that. Can we?

I’m not suggesting a “solution” to the ongoing horror of race relations in the U.S. I am suggesting that finding such a solution will not happen without a table, without shared meals, without the totally irrational, seemingly impossible commitment to eat together. Remember 1950s’ lunch counters? It’s not just accidental that race relations in the U.S. orbit so often around shared food. Thiseucharist_contemporary matters.

This is the heart of Christian faith, in my view: God sets a table for all of us to enjoy. It’s now up to us whether we will sit there, with each other, and with the Other we have been taught either to fear or to despise.

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Paul’s Wake: Coming Out as Christian on the Aegean Sea

By “wake” I mean the scant traces a boat leaves behind as it cuts through the water. I have no idea whether the Apostle Paul was afforded the other kind of wake, the one before a funeral. Both seem rather apt images for my upcoming Greek adventure.

I’ll soon be sailing the Aegean Sea on a fifty-foot sailboat with seven other gay men. Paul himself sailed this sea (at least nearby) on his missionary journeys, even though (of course) his ship’s wake disappeared quickly many centuries ago.

Paul’s theological wake remains, however, and in more ways than anyone can calculate. That wake is carved indelibly on the sea of Christian faith and spiritual practice. I’m actually a great admirer of Paul, even though I argue with him frequently.Paul the apostle

I’m going on this trip to relax but I can’t go without pausing to reflect theologically on the locale – especially since Paul’s writings have too often caused serious harm. Paul would be appalled by that damaging wake.

Paul exhibited extraordinary courage, erudition, and even deep pastoral care. Some of my most cherished biblical texts come from Paul: the declaration that “faith, hope, and love” are the hallmarks of Christian life, the greatest being love (1 Cor. 13:13); the insistence that in Christ there is no longer “Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female” (Gal. 3:28); his timely image these days of the whole creation “groaning” as it waits for salvation (Rom. 8:22); and of course his game-changing crescendo that absolutely nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ (Rom. 8:38-39). And that’s a short list.

Sadly, the only Pauline text most LGBT people know instead is the one from his letter to the Romans. There he describes same-sex sexual activity as “para phusin” (1:26-27), or what biblical translators typically render as “unnatural.”

To honor all those who have suffered harm because of this one biblical text (and some have taken their own lives), I hereby dub my upcoming Aegean excursion “The Unnatural Tour.”unnatural_tour_big_map

I call it that not in spite of Paul but to respect his pioneering insights in that world-changing letter (countless people have had course-changing moments by reading that letter to the Romans, including Augustine in the fourth century, Martin Luther in the sixteenth century, and Karl Barth in the twentieth century, to name just a few).

Consider Paul’s astonishing declaration later in that letter where he describes God’s grace with the same peculiar phrase – para phusin (11:24)  Paul uses that phrase only twice in the writings we have from him and both in this letter to the Romans. The first refers to sexual practices; the second, to divine grace. But how to translate it? Against nature? Contrary to nature? Above nature? Or just “unnatural”? Whatever it means, Paul seemed perfectly fine with using it to describe both sex and grace.

So I embark on an adventure in Paul’s wake, the one that disappeared long ago and the one that remains. I go on “The Unnatural Tour” with some anxiety as well. Will my gay sailing companions (whom I have not yet met) find it odd, disturbing, or annoying to be sailing with a theologian? Will I even tell them that they are?

Sad but true, it’s often more difficult to come out as Christian among LGBT people than it is to come out as L, G, B, or T among Christians – at least the kind of Christian one bumps into here on the Left Coast of California.

To live with more anxiety about revealing one’s Christian faith than revealing one’s sexuality actually feels like a relief for those of us who grew up in mortal terror of coming out sexually. But that relief comes with profound sadness and not a little anger. To set the joys of bodily intimacy against the good news of the Gospel distorts both, and far too frequently in tragic ways.

So I set sail with a bunch of gay men, not as a missionary but with honesty. I hope they will discover two things: 1) priests and theologians really can have fun; and 2) the source of their bodily yearnings for intimacy is in fact God, who made them for bodily joy. (By exhibiting the former, I hope the latter becomes obvious.)

map_linesI’m also relishing this: When the gay cruise ends, I will wash up (via ferry) on the shores of the island of Patmos. There, reportedly, the seer known as “John” was exiled and wrote what became the last biblical book of the Christian Testament.

As an eschatology geek, Patmos might be the highlight of my trip, even though it comes at the end (appropriately). I’ll visit the legendary cave on that island where pilgrims mark the spot of John’s visions. I’ll also be staying at the hotel on that island (complete with a spa!) where the restaurant is called “Apocalypsis.”

I’m sure that everyone working there has heard every joke imaginable about their “apocalyptic meals.” But just in case they haven’t heard the campy versions from a gay priest, I’ll make sure they do.

I’ll be my campy theological self on Patmos and on that boat with gay men because it just might prompt a Gospel moment – a moment appropriately and wonderfully encountered in Paul’s wake.

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The Village People on Easter

I confess: I still enjoy dancing to “Y.M.C.A.” by the Village People, complete with all the goofy hand gestures that accompany each of those four letters. A dance floor filled with people, arms stretched above their heads to make a “Y” – it looks like a prayer meeting.

That song became something like a gay anthem way back in the disco days of the late 1970s. Earlier this year, some activists suggested including that song in the opening ceremonies of the winter Olympics in Sochi, to protest Russia’s stance toward LGBT people. But Victor Willis, the song writer, insisted that he really didn’t have gay men in mind at all when he wrote it.

Willis’ protests notwithstanding, The Village People have endured as gay icons, not least for their costumes. The biker, the sailor, the soldier, the cowboy, tvillage_peoplehe American Indian, the construction worker, and the cop – these hunky cultural stereotypes fueled the erotic fantasies of many gay men (including me). This might make The Village People rather gay, certainly kitschy, but not terribly queer.

Something far queerer happens toward the end of Luke’s gospel account, a story that features another kind of village that many Christians will hear about this weekend, as we always do on the third Sunday of Easter.

emmaus_breaking_breadAn alluring stranger joins two disciples of Jesus traveling along a road toward a village called Emmaus. When they arrive, they invite this stranger to join them at the village inn. There, sitting at table, the stranger breaks bread. In that moment the disciples finally recognize the stranger as the risen Jesus; in that same moment, he disappears (Luke 24:31).

But wait! What happened to the joyful reunion part? If not a Hollywood-style orchestral soundtrack why not at least a hug? Or as Dorothy put it in the Wizard of Oz, “My! People come and go so quickly here.”

Luke’s village people underscore the peculiar character of Christian faith and indeed its queerness. “Queer” not so much for its LGBT sensibilities but for its refusal to give what so many of us want: a clearly defined God we can grasp and control.

Luke set the stage for that moment several chapters earlier, when Jesus appeared in glory on a mountain. There, Peter did what I would have done and excitedly proposed to build a booth, a place to capture and contain the glory (Luke 9:33). But Jesus refused to be boxed in and captured, just as he did in a village called Emmaus.

First-century Emmaus and twentieth-century Village People – together they can remind us about the risks and dangers in trying to categorize, classify, and capture both God and humans. On the one hand, we risk living with little more than an idol, and on the other, all the dangerous cultural divisions drawn by race, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender of the kind NBA Clippers owner Donald Sterling just recently displayed.

Black men play basketball. Asian women are bad drivers. Gay men lust after American Indians, especially if they just happen to be construction workers. Familiar stereotypes are easily dismissed but they linger, fortifying the categorical assumptions most of us adopt nearly every day.

The familiar made strange.
The reliable unraveled.
The status quo ecstatically undone.

These are the peculiar hallmarks of Christian faith and they invite us into queer moments of encounter. In the midst of what we think we already know – racial profiles, sketchy neighborhoods, exotic cultures, the familiar stench of decay and death – right there strange new life awaits. Queerly enough, according to Luke, hospitality is the best way to see it.

For Luke, it takes a village to raise the ensign of Easter over the familiar categories of our despair. Even The Village People can help when we see their campy costumes as parodies and we dance not with categories but with people, our arms raised in the shape of a “Y” – or even better, as a “V”.village_people_ymca2

God’s victory over death appears when we break bread with strangers, and even more in the courage to dance with them.

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The Best Easter Egg Ever

There’s a scar on my left index finger. A visible reminder of that moment when I was twelve and accidentally closed my father’s jack knife over that finger’s middle knuckle. Not just a visible reminder. If I bump that finger just right and hard enough the nerve endings quiver, triggering a vivid memory of pain, a bodily flashback to the twelve year old I used to be, and in some ways still am, yet changed.

Mary Magdalene stood weeping near an empty tomb. She spoke to someone she thought was a gardener. Only when he spoke her name did she recognize him as the risen Jesus (John 20:16). Stranger by far than an empty tomb are those gospel moments of resurrection when the closest friends of Jesus fail to recognize him. John quite oddly insists that the disciples finally rejoiced in their recognition only when they saw the scars on his risen body (John 20:20).

Resurrection does not erase the crucifixion as if it never happened. Trauma denied or repressed is trauma that will haunt us forever. Easter startles and transforms not by covering over pain and suffering but by bringing new life up from its depths.

I venerated the “old rugged cross” on Friday with a congregation still rebuilding from a devastating, traumatic fire. The bell tower survived the fire, including the wooden cross that had stood at its peak for nearly 137 years. That cross survived the fire but apparently not the many decades of weather erosion.gs_cross_full

The wood of that cross had rotted and decayed, despite the many layers of paint, and the whole thing will need to be replaced. Removing it from the tower, the contractor discovered something else: the very center of that cross had deteriorated so severely that a swallow had built a nest inside. Egg shell fragments still remained there with the nest, a quiet witness to the nurturing of life in a symbol of death. Surely the best Easter egg ever.

And that was the cross we venerated on Good Friday.

gs_cross_nest_exposedI knelt there to touch and kiss that crumbling cross to remember my own bodily fragility, my fears and anxieties, the betrayals I have endured and the ones I have perpetrated, the love for which I yearn and the loves I have spurned. Into those depths God has plunged to build a quiet nest of new life.

Easter invites us to follow Mary to the tomb, weeping. We go there with the grief of mistakes and loss, with the regrets over what could have been but never was, with all the scars we still carry and that still jangle our nerves with what might still be. We go there, not in spite of all these memories and hopes that make us who we are but because of them.

Just there and just then, we hear our name.

 

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Moonstruck on Good Friday

This year’s “Paschal moon” just happened to coincide with a lunar eclipse. Not just any kind of eclipse but the kind that creates a “blood moon,” an appropriate image and color for Holy Week.blood_moon

This week’s stories and symbols carry more than most of us can take in all at once – bodily intimacy, vulnerability, loving tenderness, betrayal, imperial violence, suffering, and death. All of these populate human experience at various times to some degree and always have. Yet discerning or inserting God in these experiences lends further intensity to their already mysterious character.

Mysteries inevitably invite the urge to unravel and solve them (think Sherlock Holmes) and perhaps even more so for the religious variety. Encountering the uncanny mysteries of both love and death, human beings seek quite naturally to “make sense” from them; the results can range from the incredulous to the oppressive.

Making sense from the death of Jesus has animated Christian ideas of atonement for centuries. Some of those ideas convert the mystery into a mechanism of exchange (Jesus died in my place); others rely on blame and scapegoating (to which the shameful history of Christian anti-Semitism bears painful witness). Love and death, especially as they intertwine, will always elude our sensible grasp.

This week’s lunar eclipse brought Rose to mind, the Olympia Dukakis character in the film Moonstruck. Rose sought eagerly to solve an irritating mystery: why do old married men chase younger women? Her brother finally ventures an answer: “They fear death.” Armed with this insight, Rose confronts her husband, who has been having an affair with another woman. “Cosmo,” Rose says, “you’re gonna die, just like everyone else.” To which Cosmo quite sensibly replies, “Thank you, Rose.”

Science solved the mystery of “blood moons” and Rose solved the mystery of adulterous husbands. The mystery of Good Friday remains, not to be solved but pondered and embraced: God’s own unfathomable journey through creaturely life, suffering, and death. And this, Christians have tried to say with our peculiar faith, is the journey toward new life.

cross_window_flowerSome strands of Christian history resist explanatory mechanisms and let the mystery stand, inviting and piercing. These are the strands I will take with me to Church this afternoon where I will venerate that old rugged cross – the strands that place that cross on a green hill; the strands that portray that cross as a flowering tree; the strands that see clearly an instrument of imperial torture and, just as clearly, the strength of divine love, a love stronger than death.

I will take with me the mysterious fourth century vision of Ephrem of Edessa, who imagined the “carpenter’s son” fashioning the cross into a bridge over which souls can flee from the region of death to the land of the living. That bridge, in turn, buds as a tree in spring, blossoming with desire:

Since a tree had brought about the downfall of humankind, it was upon a tree that humankind crossed over to the realm of life. Bitter was the branch that had once been grafted upon that ancient tree, but sweet the young shoot that has now been grafted in, the shoot in which we are meant to recognize the Lord whom no creature can resist.

I will go to the cross today with the words of an ancient hymn, written some two centuries after Ephrem. I will sing these words, not with understanding, but as one struck by divine vulnerability and intimacy – yes, as one moonstruck with love:

Faithfcross_treeul cross above all other,
one and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be:
sweetest wood and sweetest iron!
Sweetest weight is hung on thee.

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Tina Turner and Maundy Thursday

“What’s love got to do with it?” Tina Turner sang that question in the 1980s. The peculiar faith of Christians offers an answer: everything.

Holy Week 2014: The hope of Divine Communion

Christianity began, not with an institution, or a doctrine, or a text, but with table fellowship. The many meals Jesus shared equally with the socially powerful and the least likely, the stories he told of wedding banquets and feasts, the tender washing of feet and the risky, self-offering of bodily vulnerability – all this and more set the Table around which the earliest Christians gathered. In short, love set the Table, and it turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6).

Since then, texts, doctrines, and institutions have (sometimes well and sometimes poorly) tried to pass on that social witness to radical love, and for a singular reason: Love changes everything.

Landmark legislation and milestone judicial rulings can change many things (from civil rights to environmental protections). Strategy sessions and protest rallies can change the course of social policies and labor practices. All of these make a difference for a better world but they can’t give what each of us truly wants and what the world really needs: Love.

The Apostle Paul apparently agreed. To the first century Christians in Corinth he wrote:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3).

More than most people today seem to realize, the history of Christian reflection and practice simmers with love’s peculiar, life-changing energy.

“Love bade me welcome,” wrote the Anglican poet George Herbert in the 17th century, just as Julian of Norwich, writing two centuries earlier, insisted that “Love was our Lord’s meaning…and in this love our life is everlasting.” Maximus the Confessor, writing still earlier, in the seventh century, went so far as to name that divine love “Eros.” If Eros is love, he wrote, then that love which unifies all things is God.

Encountering Love, receiving it, and bearing world-changing witness to it defines the essence of Christianity’s peculiar faith. And I too often and rather quickly forget this.

So tonight I join millions of Christians around the world and return to the Table of Love. Today is Maundy Thursday, the day to remember especially the final meal Jesus shared with his closest friends and the mandate (from which we get the word “Maundy”) he issued at that Table: Love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34).

I go to that Table not first because I need forgiveness (though I certainly do), or because of religious obligation (though it is that). I go because Love draws me there.

I may not fully believe it and I might go haltingly. I will likely go worrying that I’m not quite ready or that my thoughts aren’t focused clearly enough or that I myself am not nearly loving enough to receive love. Nonetheless, Love draws me.eucharist_hands_bread_wine

A wise colleague once noted that “love changes us so that we can change the world.” What’s love got to do with it? Everything.