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Advent: Let it Be Strange and Unsettling

Tucked away between Thanksgiving and Christmas are the four Sundays of Advent. I love this season, in part because it’s probably one of the more counter-cultural moments on the Christian calendar. While the wider society gears up for the “holidays” (a.k.a. shopping) and “Christmas” music floods the airwaves, the new liturgical year begins, not with the baby Jesus in a manger, but with the second coming of Christ at the end of time.black_friday.jpg

On the first Sunday of Advent, many Christians will hear (perhaps with some alarm) a whole array of biblical texts rooted in apocalyptic or eschatological sensibilities. Most mainline or “liberal” congregations likely find this quite perplexing, maybe even a bit embarrassing. But I think we should let this first Sunday of the new year remain strange and unsettling; let’s keep it odd and disruptive enough to inspire hope.

We might recall, for example, that the Greek word eschaton means “last thing.” But “last” can mislead us. Rather than referring to something like a final chapter, “last” most often refers to a fresh beginning in Christian traditions; the end of this world inaugurates new life in God.

“World” deserves further scrutiny as well. That word in biblical texts rarely if ever refers to planet Earth. The Greek word usually translated as “world” is kosmos, at once more expansive than this planet (the whole of reality) and much smaller than Earth (one’s own social location or neighborhood). In that sense, all sorts of “worlds” come and go with some regularity, whether the world of one’s personal relationships, or of one’s biological family or a professional career, or the “world” of commerce, of nation-states, and ecosystems.

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Detail from Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment”

I imagine few Christians relish delving into these apocalyptic themes on a Sunday morning while thinking about buying a Christmas tree that afternoon. Yet in a world of violence – whether overseas in distant deserts or European cities or in our own backyard – the strangeness of Advent can remind us about the vital and disruptive character of hope itself.

“Business as usual” simply will not do in a society marked by gross income inequality, violence against women, and so many unexamined social policies rooted in white supremacy. Each of those “worlds” Christians should be glad to see end. Frankly, given the current state of affairs, I’m not optimistic that they will end any time soon.

That’s why I need Advent’s unsettling insistence on hope.

Unsettling, because hope inspires us to live in anticipation of a new world, even when we can’t see how things could possibly change.

Unsettling, because hope urges us to act on behalf of a new world that we can’t yet see (Romans 8:24-25).

Unsettling, because hope might convince us to set aside old, familiar things, even the most comfortable things, to make room for the new thing that God is constantly bringing about (Isaiah 42:9 and 43:19).

To be sure, apocalyptic texts and traditions can sometimes fuel armed conflict as a strategy for social change, or portray the world neatly divided between the saved and the damned, or simply breed complacency and neglect over this world in favor of the next one yet to come. That’s why Advent 1 cannot stand alone. We need the rest of the liturgical year to guide our vision toward the presently unimaginable – a world of peace with justice where all can thrive and flourish.

When that unimaginable world seems so terribly far out of reach, complacency feels easier – or more accurately, the paralysis of despair. That’s when I need to be troubled and startled into a fresh encounter with hope.

The shopping can wait. So can the Christmas tree. And, for right now, so can the baby Jesus. Right now, I need to sit with the strange and unsettling rhythms of Advent.

May this season stir up our collective imaginations for a different world – and the courage to help usher it in.advent1

The collect for the First Sunday of Advent, 1979 Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus  Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and
for ever. Amen.

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Redeeming Christ the King

I begin with confession: I have a strong affinity for movies that feature the forces of good triumphing over the forces of evil (the two being quite clearly distinguishable) and especially if there’s nail-biting battle scene where the hero rides in on a white horse at the last minute to save the day. Think Gandalf on said horse leading the riders of Rohan to save the good guys at Helm’s Deep in the “Lord of the Rings.”

gandalfAnother confession: I do actually like the fuss over royalty. I don’t mean celebrity; there’s a difference. I mean the grace and understated authority of, say, Queen Elizabeth II. The idea of swearing fealty to a beneficent monarch – especially if she could actually fix things – appeals to me.

Given these confessions, the Feast of Christ the King ought to be a slam dunk in my book. Many Christians will celebrate this feast on November 22 this year, which brings the long season after Pentecost to a close. This makes a great deal of liturgical sense. As the Christian calendar ends (the first Sunday of Advent on November 29 marks the beginning of the new Christian year), we Christians laud our King and anticipate the coming Kingdom of God – and given recent world events, not a moment too soon.

Yes, I harbor fantasies of Christ-as-Gandalf riding in on that great horse and solving the terrorism problem. And yes, I would gladly bow and genuflect before Jesus, my Lord and King. But I am deeply troubled.

The trouble began some years ago by reading and listening carefully to feminist critiques of male power and the way institutional Christianity supports male dominance over women (and basically everything else). That dominance is made explicit in our accolades for “Christ the King.” The trouble deepened by delving into the history of the Roman Empire’s appropriation of Christ as a figure of imperial authority, wedding “church” and “state” in a bond that has wreaked cultural havoc ever since.christ_pantocrator_dome

Given those problems, I sympathize with efforts to revise this last Sunday of the year with language about the “reign of God” or even the “divine commonwealth.” I suppose we could try using the language of “governor” or “president.”

But no. The problem is governance itself, lordship, reigning, presiding, ruling, or in short, power. I’d like to think humans capable of discerning the difference between beneficial and malignant power. Alas, we are easily beguiled by power and mostly, it seems to me, incapable of imagining (much less enacting) a non-coercive power – or even articulating what in the world that means.

In a world of violence and terror, power itself is a dangerous concept, even when wielded by the ostensibly beneficent. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us years ago, hate can never cast out hate; only love can do that. And so I wonder about power itself in the light of Dr. King’s insight and in a world where “kingly” power is all too evident in its ghastly effects.

I found some solace in these vexations, for a time, by returning to my Evangelical roots. Rather than anticipating a worldly kingdom, I turned inward and focused on the need for Christ to “reign” in my heart, to transform it and rule over it. And, of course, there too the problem of coercive power remained.

A student reminded me of this rather pointedly in one of my classes last year. I made an offhand remark about how “compelling” and “irresistible” God is as a source for transformation. The student objected. “Anything that even sounds like coercion is not God,” he said. I objected in return, but only half-heartedly; he was right. (And I thank God for the gift of teaching, from which I learn so much.)

There is no throne in my heart from which Christ needs to reign and there is no throne on this planet just waiting for Christ to sit in it – even though I still long for both moments. Ah – longing! That’s where my attention belongs.

A world of violent power doesn’t need Christians gathered to one-up the world’s power with the “true king,” no matter how we dress it up. If the world needs anything from Christians it’s the way the Gospel could inspire us to create desirable spaces. I mean, spaces where we can remember desire itself, or perhaps touch for the first time our deepest longings, yearnings, and hopes.

What God does in Christ, in other words, is lure us toward love, planting within us the desire for love and connection, for justice and peace, for unimaginable reconciliation. The divine lure toward love, vulnerability, and trust – that alone will change the world.

This year, on the Feast of Christ the King, many Christians will be hearing these words from John’s Jesus as he stood before Pilate, representing the might of Rome: “If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would be fighting…”

The “kingship” of Christ has nothing to do with fighting, with dominance, with victories defined by how many losers are subdued or killed. The “kingship” of Christ has nothing to do with power at all of the kind that any of us now know.

Christ the King rejects kingship in favor of vulnerability, the kind born from love, the kind that breeds trust, the kind that changes me so that I can help to change the world. If that’s what “kingship” is, I would gladly genuflect – and then stand up and start loving.

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Don’t Drop the “T” — Put it First

Childhood friends teased me for “playing with dolls” rather than “playing army.” High school football players called me a “woman” when I auditioned for concert choir. A friend from my church youth group once told me that the “least I could do is sit like a man.” He said this when I crossed my legs by folding my right knee over my left knee rather than resting my ankle there.

All of that happened before I came out – either to myself or to others – as a gay man. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not separate and distinct; they are deeply intertwined. Indeed, at the root of “homophobia” is a thinly veiled misogyny, or more pointedly, a profound gender panic over the erosion of male privilege.

Every gay man should already know this, if not from direct personal experience, then surely from witnessing the treatment of women in our patriarchal society. Sadly yet also understandably, some gay men are among the most sexist.  I say “understandably” not to excuse misogynistic postures but to appreciate the depth of patriarchal formation that shapes everyone, even (especially?) gay men, who have been told relentlessly to “act like a man,” or “butch it up” in public, or who puzzle over “straight acting” in personal ads.

Gay Rights Next BattlegroundThe consequences of all this have become more apparent and dire with the increasing visibility of those who identify as transgender. The recent arc traced from former Olympic decathlete Caitlin Jenner’s gender transition to the defeat of a Houston anti-discrimination ordinance has now generated an open letter from some (anonymous) “gay/bisexual men and women” urging us all to “drop the T” from that ubiquitous LGBT acronym. This, they argue, is crucial as “trans ideology” erodes the “rights of women, gay men and children.”

To appreciate just how misguided and even dangerous this letter is, we need to review some ancient history here, both civic and religious, which is far from over and past. That history continues to haunt this present moment in ways we cannot afford to overlook.

Historically, and speaking frankly, sex has most frequently been understood as an act of penetration – a body party of one person is inserted in the body part of another. Gender is mostly irrelevant in these ancient views. Whether it concerns a vagina, an anus, or a mouth, penetration marks what counts as “sex.”

Not just coincidentally, “penetration” also describes conquest, battlefront victory, and more generally how one dominates a weaker party. That’s the point. To “be a man” and to “be a warrior” have been synonymous for most of human history. It’s not just lust that leads conquering armies to rape everything in sight in the ancient world; indeed, it’s not about lust at all but power and dominance – or I suppose we should say the lust for the power to dominate.rome_rape

For the ancient societies that produced biblical texts, both “good sex” and “good worship” exhibited these dynamics of dominance and submission. As biblical scholar Stephen D. Moore succinctly puts it, sex in the ancient Mediterranean world was basically “eroticized inequality.”

Keep those ancient historical markers in mind and consider these more recent ones:

  • Christian men in the 19th century worried about the “feminization” of Christianity and tried to create a more manly and “muscular” depiction of Jesus.
  • The term “homosexuality” itself was coined by 19th century medical researchers to describe “inverted” men, men who acted as if their genitalia and emotional lives turned inward — just like women.
  • Prior to World War II in the U.S., only the “submissive” partner in male same-sex sexual acts was considered “homosexual,” because he was “acting like the woman.”
  • Emasculating African American men (treating them like women) has been a constant tool of white supremacy, from plantation slavery to anti-miscegenation laws and contemporary police brutality.
  • Joking about the supposedly tiny genitals of Asian men belongs to a larger project of feminizing them for racist purposes.
  • The Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq involved U.S. soldiers (both male and female) humiliating Iraqi prisoners with sex acts, basically making them submissive, “like women.”
  • After Gene Robinson’s election as bishop of New Hampshire, conservative religious objections exhibited a significant shift in rhetorical strategy and moved away from the story of Sodom’s destruction, and toward the supposed “gender complementarity” of human beings in the biblical creation accounts.
  • For decades, street violence and bullying has focused not on loving relationships but gender nonconformity, on “femmie fags” and “bull dykes” and even more on the transgender among us.
  • More than a few contemporary Christian men have now returned to the anxieties of their 19th century forebears and are deeply concerned once again about the “feminization” of Christianity and turning Jesus into a “sissy.”

Drop the “T”?

Far from it! It’s actually high time we put the “T” first in our social analysis, political activism, and theological reflection. Perhaps then all us (especially white men) would understand better what biblical theological Walter Wink called “the domination system.” That system – just as pervasive in our civic and religious institutions today as it was in the first century society of the Gospel writers – creates hierarchies of value and sustains them with violence, the very system Jesus sought to dismantle.

Drop the “T”?

No way. Not when so much of our distress — from racism and colonialism to militarism and ecological disaster — is fueled by the deeply entrenched denigration of all things feminine. Not when so many gay men think that “marriage equality” protects them from the patriarchal-industrial complex that no amount of “straight acting” will blunt. Not when white, affluent gay men have never paused to consider what their civil rights have to do with working class women of color.

Drop the “T”?

That’s a great idea if you want people to focus on trivialities (like who uses public bathrooms) rather than the urgent task of dismantling the systems that place men over women, white over black, straight over gay, and humans over all other animals and their ecosystems.

Drop the “T”?

Absolutely not. To the contrary, the peculiar faith of Christians would urge us to put the “T” first for a world of peace and justice in which everyone can thrive and flourish.

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