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Radical Nuns Take Over the U.N. — World Peace Declared and the Church Objects!

That is, of course, a ludicrous headline, worthy of “The Onion.” That said, and given some of my past experience with Roman Catholic women religious, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if they made the attempt.

Moreover, given the latest absurdities from the Vatican concerning apparently “rogue nuns,” I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if the Church objected to world peace if it didn’t conform to orthodox doctrinal standards. I wish I were making that up. Alas, the Vatican recently voiced its objection to the compelling and effective social justice ministries of The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, even though those ministries are perfectly aligned with more than a century of Catholic social teaching. (Don’t try to make sense of institutional Christianity; it will make you crazy and drive you to drink. I’m here to testify.)

So let’s pause here. Take a deep breath. Perhaps we can frame these absurdities with the peculiarities of Christian faith. Sure, radical nuns taking over the United Nations is ludicrous. But consider the following story. Is it any less ludicrous?

Two friends are walking down a dusty, deserted road. They are sad and grieving over the death of a friend. As they talk about their lives and the state of the world and their grief, a stranger joins them on the road. This stranger has truly mind-blowing things to say about the meaning of life and those two friends are spellbound.

They invite the stranger to join them for supper. As they sit down to table, they finally recognize this stranger as their dear friend who had died. In that very moment, the stranger disappears.

That’s a rough paraphrase of a classic Easter season story from Luke’s gospel (24:13-35), often referred to as the “Emmaus Road story.” It’s one of my favorites. I like to pair it with the story about “doubting Thomas” that so many Christians heard this past Sunday. I like to pair those stories because both of them diffuse our obsession with certainty. Both of them dethrone human hubris. Both of them elevate doubt and humility to spiritual virtues.

I take both stories as cautionary tales for theologians (like me) and institutional Christianity more generally. Any attempt to make absolute statements about God, Christian faith, or spiritual practice will always fail. Always. Like the risen Christ in the story from Luke, God will always slip through our fingers in that very moment when we think we have it all figured out – or more pointedly, all nailed down, understood, captured, and controlled.

The truth of any religious tradition or spiritual practice does not reside in how well we talk about it or parse its doctrines or ensure its systematic coherence. No, the truth of any religion resides in how we live it, and how our living promotes liberation from oppression, social justice, human flourishing, and planetary thriving. If that kind of effective spiritual living runs counter to doctrinal articulation, it’s high time to adjust the doctrine. The entire history of Christianity bears painful witness to this.

To be clear, I’m not promoting intellectual laxity, moral libertinism, or “laissez-faire spirituality.” I believe Christians ought to make bold claims, strike outrageous social postures, and preach like our lives depend on it (because they actually do). But I also believe that we should infuse all of it with a healthy dose of humility. After all, we could be wrong; we have been wrong in the past; we will be wrong again.

Alas, institutional Christianity’s besetting sin is not boldness but safety; not risk for the sake of life but the status quo for the sake of survival; not reckless creativity but staid conformity, and mostly for the sake of power and privilege. And by “institutional Christianity,” I do not mean only Roman Catholicism.

So here’s a modest proposal for this Easter season. If even the most wonderful news of all time – the resurrection of Jesus – can slip through our fingers in the blink of an eye, then we might want to handle our doctrinal positions a bit more lightly.

Here’s the more pointed version: If the Church can’t control the risen Christ, then maybe it shouldn’t try to control radical nuns who are actually living the Resurrection in their work of social justice and human flourishing.

Is doctrinal adjustment too high a price to pay for new life? Really?

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The Fairness of Death & the Generosity of Easter

The Word of God became flesh and was killed. God should have known better than to try to mess up a neat and tidy social system.

Every society needs an orderly system in which everyone knows her or his proper place. When everyone plays fairly and follows the rules, the whole thing runs smoothly. If you choose an unseemly profession, like being a tax collector or a prostitute, you shouldn’t expect to socialize with polite company; it’s only fair. If you squander your savings on wild parties, don’t expect any help from your family and neighbors; it’s only fair. If your anger about profit margins boils over and you cause a scene at the local IRS office, expect to be arrested and prosecuted; it’s only fair.

Pastor Rick Warren would apparently agree. In a recent interview, Pastor Warren explained this perfectly sensible worldview in response to President’s Obama’s call to shoulder each others’ burdens:

Well certainly the Bible says we are to care about the poor. There’s over 2,000 verses in the Bible about the poor. And God says that those who care about the poor, God will care about them and God will bless them. But there’s a fundamental question on the meaning of “fairness.” Does fairness mean everybody makes the same amount of money? Or does fairness mean everybody gets the opportunity to make the same amount of money? I do not believe in wealth redistribution, I believe in wealth creation.

As perfectly reasonable as that sounds, there are some problems with it. I’ll mention just two.

The first problem is this: virtually every single parable in the gospels. Take your pick – the parable of the sower, the prodigal son, the pearl of great price, the lost coin, the lost sheep, any of the wedding banquet stories – just pick one. You won’t find anything at all about fairness. But you will find the God of absurd, foolish, and gregarious generosity.

So how about this – let’s create a national economic policy based on Jesus’ parable of the laborers in a vineyard. Each one worked a different number of hours. Each one was paid exactly the same. (Matthew 20:1-16). Why, I wonder, hasn’t Pastor Warren thought of that? Or maybe his Bible doesn’t have that particular chapter in it (as my friend and colleague Susan Russell suggested on her Huffington Post blog).

The second problem is this: God raised Jesus from the dead. Now that’s totally unfair. After all, God is the one who so foolishly chose to plunge into the fleshy pool of human vulnerability; mortality has consequences. And besides, if we can’t expect God to play by the rules, surely chaos would result, and that’s just not fair.

But here’s the thing: God doesn’t care much about fairness. God cares far more about abundance – abundant grace, abundant love, abundant life. Not even death, apparently, can quash divine abundance. And that word – abundance – could surely ease Pastor Warren’s fears about “wealth redistribution.” There really is enough, more than enough, to go around for everyone. As far as I can tell, God has never heard of a zero-sum game.

So if Pastor Warren worries that the Gospel might rob the poor of their dignity (as he intimated in that same interview), he might want to meditate for a bit on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37); or the one about poor Lazarus begging at the rich man’s gate (Luke 16:19-31); or the story about that uppity foreign woman who taught Jesus a lesson about scraps from the master’s table (Matthew 15-21-28); or the woman with an unending hemorrhage (presumably without any health insurance) whom Jesus healed (Matthew 9:20-22).

That peculiar text called the Bible that Pastor Warren likes to quote also includes something else. To the wealthy, educated, religious elite of his day, Jesus said this: “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31).

Now that’s really unfair…thank God.

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Harrowing Hell & Holy Liminality

Betwixt and between. Neither here nor there. Departed but not arrived.

Justice proclaimed but not yet fully practiced. Equality enacted but repeatedly denied. New life promised in the midst of death.

These are profound but often difficult moments. Some decades ago now, anthropologist Victor Turner analyzed moments of transition when someone has started to leave one phase of life but hasn’t yet moved fully into the next. Think adolescence, that awkward slice of life when one is no longer a child but not yet an adult. Turner referred to these as “liminal” moments, taken from the Latin word “limen,” for threshold.

The fecundity of these in-between states dates much further back than Turner, to ancient mythology. “Liminal deities” preside over thresholds, gates, and doorways, lending spiritual significance to border crossings. In Greco-Roman mythology, Hermes/Mercury was the messenger of the gods and guide of the dead, just as Janus became the god of doorways, of beginnings and endings. Janus, the god with one face looking forward and another looking back, is often associated with New Year’s Day, January 1.

Liminal moments can be challenging and disconcerting; just ask any teenager. My own constitutional impatience makes it difficult to rest after finishing a project; I’m eager to start the next one. Communities and institutions in transition frequently want to skip over all the unsettling liminal bits, those untidy passages where the past still haunts and the future remains unclear. Sloughing of the past too quickly risks losing what we might need to make a leap forward.

But there are other kinds of liminality, too. Moments of getting stuck between a past that we won’t relinquish and a future we’re unwilling to embrace.

The Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) heralded a long overdue transition toward racial equality in the U.S. Not only is a racially just society still woefully elusive, current legislative initiatives would drag us back to the “Mad Men” era if not a virtual Jim Crow. A woman’s right to make decisions about her own body should have been settled decades ago even as contraception is once again on the legislative table. The Supreme Court overturned state sodomy laws in 2003; lesbian and gay couples can now have sex without fear of prosecution but they can’t get married.

There is much work to do, and neither nostalgia nor utopia will help us. Navigating the liminal “betwixt and between” thus proves both rich and challenging. The past is familiar but sometimes painful; the future is hopeful but unknown. Today, on the Christian calendar, I’m reminded that Jesus hallows the liminal by harrowing hell.

The day between Good Friday and Easter, “Holy Saturday,” is a truly peculiar day. Suspended between the Cross and an empty tomb, Christian communities and clergy busy themselves with Sunday preparations.

Christian tradition has Jesus doing something on this day as well – descending into the underworld to rescue all those held captive by the Devil. This is the sacred version of “no child left behind.” In Janus-like fashion, the crucified Jesus refuses to forget the past even as he looks forward to a promised future.

One of my favorite depictions of this Holy Liminality is in the Byzantine Church of the Savior in Chora, Istanbul, where a gorgeous fresco covers the apse. It depicts Jesus, standing on the gates of hell that he has just smashed, raising Adam and Eve from their graves. Actually, he’s dragging them out from death. I can’t help but see both astonishment and a touch of reluctance in their postures: “Really? You remembered us? But where are we are going? What lies ahead?”

On this day, this Holy Saturday, in the midst of busy preparations for the Feast of Resurrection, let us pause, even for a moment, to remember what we marked yesterday: the lengths to which imperial forces will go to maintain the status quo. Let us remember as well all those who came before us, the pioneers and visionaries who carved an arduous path toward a better world. Let us remember all those who did not live to see that promise fulfilled. And let us remember all this to fuel the hope we need for the work still to do — a profound hope indeed, which, as tomorrow’s feast reminds us, was first announced by women.

The promise of tomorrow cannot be won by forgetting yesterday. That makes this particular Saturday not only peculiar but also, and therefore, holy.

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Holy Fools for a Holy Week

Carrying his cross on the way to his death, Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me but weep for yourselves and for your children” (Luke 23:28). Indeed.

I’m sure Trayvon Martin’s mother has been weeping of late (read more). So has the mother of Dalton Lee Walker, a twelve-year old boy who took his own life a few days ago because of bullying, and on the very same day the documentary film Bullying opened nationwide (read more about that here). If she could, Shaima al Awadi would be weeping, not only for herself but for her four children. But she can’t. She was beaten to death in her San Diego home with something like a tire iron this past week. Why? She’s Iraqi and Muslim (read more here).

I’ve been reflecting this Lent on the powerful and poisonous confluence of male privilege and white supremacy – what it looks like, its effects, and what it will take to dismantle it for the full thriving of women and therefore also of the planet.

Now that we have arrived to Holy Week, I believe those reflections have been rather foolish. Isn’t it just a fool’s errand to dismantle centuries of white male privilege? Yes, it is. And I am happily a fool to try.

Palm Sunday this year, the beginning of Holy Week, is also April Fools’ Day. What a great coincidence for reflecting on the absurdity of marking with elaborate rituals these ancient, first-century stories – as if they mattered, is if they still speak today, as if they might actually change the world.

I think the best way to journey through this holy week is to don a jester’s cap and embrace the foolishness of the whole thing. Here let me offer two reasons why.

1. Religion is always vulnerable to being co-opted by empire.

In some ways, this is obvious, but far too often, not obvious enough. First century Palestine was an occupied province of the Roman Empire. Those political dynamics are reverberating throughout the gospel texts in ways most readers usually don’t notice.

I worry, for example, that talking about the “triumphal entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem (as most Christians do on Palm Sunday) is terribly misleading. I was reminded recently that on the Jewish feast of Passover, the Romans typically staged a military parade in Jerusalem to underscore their control and power. A leading military figure would ride at the head of the parade on a horse followed by the armored might of centurions and soldiers. (Read this provocative and insightful post about all this here.)

Put the story of Jesus into that context: He climbs on to a donkey, not a horse, and basically waddles into the city, not followed by soldiers but by the people. This is a moment of deep political mockery worthy of a 1990s-style ACT UP protest. The donkey didn’t even belong to Jesus – he had to borrow it. And the only armor his followers had were the branches of palm trees.

If ever there was a biblical precedent for April Fools’ Day, this is it. Jesus was making a profound joke, but with a point: Don’t take Rome so damned seriously.

Of course, and to put it mildly, one mocks imperial power at one’s own peril, especially when the very next thing you do is wreak havoc in the local IRS office, which is exactly what Jesus did with those money-changers’ tables in the temple – the prime location for religion’s co-optation by empire.

Now here’s something interesting: early Christians took this resistance to empire as an essential part of their faith. Just one example comes from a remarkable critique of the Roman household. Some early Christian writers critiqued the hierarchical ordering of the Roman household, which should be a microcosm of the Church, as the body of Christ, not the empire. (I blogged about this recently; read more here.)

This was an amazing leap forward for the liberation of women in the midst of a deeply patriarchal society – and not surprisingly, Rome did not look kindly on disrupting the configuration of the imperial household. Empires never look kindly on such things – not then, and not today.

Sadly, that kind of religious critique nearly disappeared in the fourth century, when the emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the empire.

So as we walk through Holy Week, we would do well to note that the State will always rely on religion to support its imperial power. At the very least, to follow Jesus into Jerusalem means that we must not remain silent about what happened to Trayvon Martin, Shaima al Awadi, and Dalton Lee Walker.

2. The Cross is Foolish

Let me count the ways. St. Paul, no less, wrote that the cross of Christ is just foolish, a stumbling block, silly – and therefore the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). I won’t pretend to know what Paul really meant by that or to understand it. But there’s a huge elephant sitting in most “liberal” or “progressive” Christian living rooms – the doctrine of atonement. And that doctrine is lurking around every corner of the rites and stories of Holy Week.

I read recently that one of the key reasons why younger generations stay away from Christian churches is the trouble they have with that doctrine. I have trouble with it, too! But I’m troubled mostly by how just one view of it has dominated American culture. Especially during this week, I think it’s important to remember that there is not just one such doctrine of atonement in Christian history or even in the Bible; there are many. And there are also many other ways to reflect on the significance of the Cross quite apart from notions of atonement.

That said, I believe reflecting on judgment, atonement, and forgiveness is essential for our 21st century life, but those topics have been so twisted and distorted as to make that task nearly impossible. Let’s set that aside for a moment and consider something equally foolish.

I find it helpful to think about Jesus in this holy week as the radical companion. In that way I believe Jesus reveals something truly astonishing about God – the God of solidarity.

If you want to find God you could, of course, look anywhere, but you might want especially to look among the poor, the misplaced, the homeless, the suffering, and the grieving. You might especially look among all the victims of imperial power. That’s how I read the Bible.

Earlier in Luke’s gospel, in the Transfiguration story, the disciples of Jesus are discussing the “departure” that Jesus must undergo in Jerusalem. That word translated from the Greek as “departure” is εξοδον. That’s the very same word that Greek translators of the Hebrew Bible used to refer to the exodus of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt – yet another empire. I cannot believe this is just a linguistic coincidence.

Remember, Moses fled Egypt only to return in a decision to engage in radical solidarity with his people, to set them free. Here I believe Luke is inviting us to see in Moses and now also in Jesus that the same passion for solidarity belongs first and foremost to God.

Jesus models this with the choice he made about his own life. He could have, for example, chosen the path of a Levitical warrior to liberate his people by force from Roman occupation. I say “Levitical” warrior because the culture of tribal warfare from which that biblical book arose was constructed on an economics of patriarchal masculinity in which topping one’s enemies – with violence, if necessary – demonstrated covenantal faithfulness.

But Jesus chose instead to follow the path articulated by the prophet Isaiah. In that book, the Levitical warrior becomes the “suffering servant,” and rather than topping one’s enemies, that servant leads all the nations instead to God’s holy mountain where they learn war no more and beat their swords into ploughshares (Isaiah 2:4).

Indeed, Luke has Jesus quote not from Leviticus but from Isaiah at the beginning of his ministry: “God has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom for the oppressed” (Luke 4:18-19).

Both Moses and Jesus chose the path of radical solidarity, not for the sake of suffering but for the sake of freedom. The God who enters our struggle with us does so to lead us out – from death to life.

I believe that’s exactly what Luke’s Jesus meant when he said this incredibly foolish thing: “Take up your cross daily and follow me.” If we live for ourselves alone, we will die; if we live in solidarity with others, especially the vulnerable, the poor, the fearful, the oppressed, and the suffering, we will live – both in this life and the life to come.

That’s the remarkable path Jesus blazed for us to follow – surely for the sake of Trayvon, Shaima, and Dalton Lee, among so many others.

But do note: That path is costly. It comes with great risk. It is thoroughly foolish, not least because we will have to give up much to do it. But if we do, that path leads to unimaginable life.

May this week change all us so that we can, with God’s amazing grace, change the world. I know. That’s just foolishness…..and thank God for it.