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Many Beautiful Names in an Idolatrous Nation

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

Quite honestly, I often wonder if I worship the same God as some of my fellow Christians.

In some respects, the answer is quite obviously yes, Muslims and Christians do worship the same God. Allah is, after all, just the Arabic word for “God” (which many Arabic speaking Christians use), like Dios in Spanish or Theos in Greek. The one God is known by many exquisitely beautiful names – at least ninety-nine of them, as Muslims would say.

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The Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of Allah

But there’s more at stake here than theological precision for its own sake. Theology always makes a difference beyond its own confines. Theological ideas wriggle their way into cultural customs, social policies, and lynch mobs. Those ideas can also shape, I constantly trust, communities of radical hospitality and social justice.

For more centuries than anyone can count, religion has provided the tempo for the drumbeat of war and the music of peacemaking alike. There are so very few “innocent” or “agenda-free” religious questions. And those questions can show up in unexpected places.

Consider the recent imbroglio over a “hazing” incident at Wheaton College, my alma mater, which included occasional references to what happened there to Prof. Larycia Hawkins. A tenured professor, a woman of color, and a Christian, she was dismissed from the college in 2016 after standing in solidarity with Muslims. The official reason for her dismissal was her supposed violation of Wheaton’s statement of faith, her insistence that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.”

The “hazing” of a student by some of his football teammates happened just one month after Prof. Hawkins left the college. The details are fuzzy and contested, but some reports of the “hazing” indicated that “Islamic music” was played during the incident and Islamic slurs were used to taunt the student. Whether or not any of this is true, it has re-ignited a social media conversation about Christianity and Islam in America.

So, do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? It matters to think about that question carefully and to respond with more than a “yes” or “no,” especially in today’s American cultural climate and the wider global realities where so much depends on how we humans live with religious difference – or whether we can.

I’d like to offer some observations about that question in two steps. First, I would propose a distinction worth making between prayer and worship. They certainly overlap, but worship always remains vulnerable to idolatry, to which the United States has recently fallen prey in particularly virulent ways.

Second, there is nearly as much religious diversity among Christians today as there is between “other” religions. It behooves us to ponder how we manage (embrace?) our own diversity before trying to address a religious tradition not our own. In doing so, I’m convinced, we find fresh ways to learn from and admire religious “others.”

But first, a brief preface.

I offer these reflections as a Christian priest and theologian. As such, I live with some convictions about God, and why my love of Jesus matters in those convictions (a love, by the way, that many Muslims also share, but differently). The longer I study Christian traditions, however, my list of certainties about God grows shorter.

Whenever I crave just a tad more certainty, I try to remember fourth and fifth century cautions. Like this one from Augustine: “If you understand something, it’s not God.” Or this, from Gregory of Nyssa: “Concepts create idols; only wonder understands anything.”

I do love the many texts of theology, both ancient and contemporary. I love them, not because they sharpen my conceptual acuity but because they invite me and then lead me (if I let them) ever deeper into the fathomless mystery of deathless Love.

So, the question at hand, it seems to me, is not about God but about us and our varying conceptions of the one God (at least in the Abrahamic traditions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims). How might we think about this? Here are my initial two steps:

Prayer and Worship: A Venn Diagram
Grant for the moment that there is but one God. When we’re fervently praying for healing, rescue, discernment, courage, love, or countless other things, I don’t think she cares whether we get her name right – there are at least ninety-nine of them, after all.

Pray with all your might to the Source of All, Deathless Love, Wonder-Beyond-Words – just pray. In due time, *God* may well reveal a divine name just for you.

Worship, on the other hand, carries some risk. The word itself comes from Old English and means, simply, “acknowledging worth.” My own list of people and places and things deserving such acknowledgement is endless. I’m still moved (often to tears) when hearing the phrase from the marriage rite of an older version of the Book of Common Prayer. The vows taken by the couple include this: “With my body I thee worship.” What a glorious declaration of God’s wonderful creation!

Here’s the risk: assigning worth to something that is dangerous, harmful, or violent. Biblical writers were, to put it mildly, preoccupied with this risk. They called it “idolatry.”

Rather than pondering whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God, more than a few Americans might want to ponder whether they are assigning worth to the modern nation-state – the kind of worth that belongs only to *God*.

This has been a constant danger in American history (“In God We Trust” stamped on our money), but it now appears unashamedly around every corner – fetishizing the flag, covering one’s heart to swear allegiance to that flag, making “America first.”

Whom (or what), one must ask, do Americans worship?

Diversity Starts at Home
The canon of Scripture used by most Christians includes many more names and images and symbols for God than appear regularly in Sunday morning worship. More of us might engage in respectful encounter with religious difference if we engaged with our own religious diversity more honestly, as Christians.

Drawing on ancient Hebrew texts for a Christian insight about this, consider Leviticus and Isaiah.

The writer of Leviticus portrays a warrior God who demands absolute covenantal purity and strict distinctions between Israel and all other nations. The writer(s) of Isaiah, on the other hand, portray an amorous God of social justice and peace-making who invites all the nations to the holy mountain for a banquet.

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The Holy Mountain of Feasting in Isaiah (Abigail Sarah Bagraim)

I believe these various biblical writers are writing about the same God, but their perceptions and understandings could not be more different; and the implications of the difference are actually quite profound. (If a space alien landed and was given only those two biblical texts, that alien would likely conclude that they refer to two different “gods.”)

The gospel writers portray Jesus as deeply rooted in the faith of his Israelite ancestors. But in which ancestral understanding of God was he rooted? Luke gives an unambiguous answer: In the fourth chapter of his gospel account, he has Jesus quote from Isaiah to launch his ministry.

If at least Luke rooted his perceptions of Jesus drawn from Isaiah’s perceptions of God, then it seems to me that Christian mission ought to focus on inviting all the nations, all the religions, all the races, and creeds, and ethnicities to the holy Mountain of God to feast at a banquet. And this, I am convinced, would actually change the world.

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Jesus reading from Isaiah to inaugurate his ministry (Luke 4)

The change will come by focusing less on whether African-American football players obey their white owners and stand for the national anthem, and more on where anyone’s true allegiance ought rightly to belong.

The change will come when American Christians think differently about refugees from Islamic countries, about Muslims building mosques in “our” cities, and how to stand in solidarity with our Jewish siblings when their synagogues are defaced. The change would come from seeing all of them and us trying to pray to and worship the same God.

The change will come when we extend our vision beyond Abrahamic traditions and realize a common quest shared by all humans (and likely other animals, too): to find our place in a universe utterly beyond anyone’s understanding and to make meaning from our lives together, in a world where only wonder understands anything.

Are we worshiping the same God? It doesn’t matter to whom the word “we” refers. The only way anyone will know the answer is when everyone lives a world of justice, bathed with peace, and where all creatures thrive and flourish.

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Officer Krupke and Our Social Disease

I watched the film version of West Side Story for the first time on television in my early teens. I loved everything about it and I also encountered something new that puzzled me.

In a scene roughly half way through, members of the Jets street gang sing a parody of their experience in the juvenile justice system. Action sings about being arrested, going to court, being sent to a psychiatrist, and then to a social worker.westsidestory_krupke2

“Hey,” he declares, in response to the social worker’s diagnosis, “I got a social disease!”

I had no idea what that meant and it scared me. Was it contagious? What are the symptoms? Would I be arrested by officer Krupke? I thought the police were my friends!

I now know more: All of us in the U.S. live, and move, and have our being in a society of hostility and violence. From militarized police to “total destruction” presidential rhetoric, from hate-speech rallies to brutalized transgender people just trying to pee and a circulated memo at a major technology company about the inferiority of women, we – all of us – have a debilitating social disease.

As I noted in a recent sermon on white supremacy (published here), most of us want to isolate troublesome individuals, the “radicalized” foreigner, the disgruntled teenager, the psychotic co-worker. Few of us want to examine or even acknowledge our shared psychosis. The problem is not a few bad apples in the barrel; the problem is the barrel.

Or perhaps the television commercial for Palmolive dish washing liquid from my youth says it best: “You’re soaking in it.”

I’ve been struck recently by a number of studies and articles on chemical addiction, especially the low success rate of twelve-step programs. I have some good friends for whom Alcoholics Anonymous has been life-saving and life-changing; they are the exception. Twelve-step programs have a “success” rate of between 5 and 10 percent.

Meanwhile, I know more and more family members, friends, and colleagues who are “self-medicating,” whether by over-drinking or with anonymous sex hook-ups or binge eating or just increased isolation. I, too, drink too much and struggle with nicotine addiction.

I am convinced: treating addiction as an individual’s problem to overcome misses entirely the root of the problem. We, all of us, have a social disease. And only a social response will offer and lasting hope and healing.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, the exploding homeless population – and our many failed attempts to address this problem – renders our social distress in visible bodies. Armando Sandoval coordinates “homeless outreach” programs for BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit district. He named our social disease rather pointedly:

“The issue is societal. It’s not BART, it’s not SFPD [the police], it’s not the justice system, it’s not the public health or mental health departments. It’s everything.”

Deeply embedded in all this – “infected” – most of us have trouble seeing the precise character of our plight. The following is my attempt, in outline, to “see” it, not for my own healing, but our healing. As ancient Christians insisted about salvation, my healing is inextricably bound up with yours. We have to work this out together, the diagnosis and the treatment.

My brief outline is in three parts: a personal encounter with our shared dis-ease; some theological theory; a bit of spiritual practice from Jesus.

Apocalyptic Hazing
Like many others, I was shocked recently by the revelations of violent “hazing” at Wheaton College in Illinois, my alma mater. Five Wheaton football players stand accused of doing felony-worthy things to a fellow student. The details are contested and fuzzy and still being adjudicated. Still, I responded with fury and outrage on social media; I ranted; I remain dismayed by the school’s response (a slap on the wrist or just a “pat on the head” for the accused).

Why did I have such visceral responses and why did I rant so much? At least two reasons.

The first feels like “Matthew Shepard PTSD.” The original reporting of what happened last year at Wheaton included a description of the student being stripped, tied to a fence with duct tape, and left there overnight. Nausea washed over me as I read this, ripples of dread and deep sorrow. The image evoked with uncanny resonance what had happened to Matthew back in 1998, even under very different circumstances.

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The fence where Matthew Shepard was left to die.

The second reason reaches back to my childhood, echoes of being bullied by the jocks in grade school and Jr. High for being a sissy and acting girly. I read the story about Wheaton, plastered with a photo of hyper-masculine football players in their uniforms. It shuttled me back to those agonizing moments when I was pinned to the ground by a group of jocks, hardly able to breathe. I can hear their taunts: “Did you bring your dolls to school, faggot?”

No one is born dreaming of torturing a young man like Matthew Shepard. No one just “naturally” throws sissy boys to the ground as they walk home from school. These things are learned – not just from “bad” parents, or “failed” schools, but in the crucible of a violent society laced with toxic forms of masculinity and seasoned with white privilege.

My African American colleagues have taught me this over the years: in a society drenched in white supremacy, everyone is racist, no exceptions. We all live with a social disease expressed with multiple symptoms.

My visceral response to the (latest) Wheaton scandal qualifies as apocalyptic for that very reason, as the word “apocalypse” suggests: it reveals what has always been there.

Theological Theorizing: The Domination System
None of this is new. It’s actually quite old. The texts of the Christian Testament in the Bible are shaped by living under the imperial thumb of the Roman Empire. This isn’t just dusty history, but a frame for noticing that thumbprint on our lives right now.

The late biblical theologian Walter Wink offered a compelling way to read first century gospel accounts through the lens of what he called the “Domination System,” a system employed by every imperial power, whether ancient or modern.

[The system] is characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all … from the ancient Near Eastern states to the Pax Romana, to feudal Europe, to communist state capitalism, to modern market capitalism.

Diarmuid O’Murchu brilliantly (in my view) applied Wink’s diagnosis to the stories of demon possession in the gospels. The loneliness and isolation of the “possessed,” O’Murchu notes, mimics precisely the effects of living under the Domination System.

The gospel accounts hint at this, O’Murchu writes, as “evil spirits represent unmet needs. The spirits inhabit the inner empty shell caused by feelings of inferiority, unworthiness, disempowerment, torture, pain, and alienation.” Don’t most of us feel one or more of these things just looking in a mirror first thing in the morning?

But we can’t treat these symptoms as if only individuals suffer from them; the symptoms point instead to a social disease shared by all.

O’Murchu proposes a path toward healing marked by the “companionship of empowerment.” Exorcism is only the first step; healing means, finally, restoring relationship. Think of the Gerasene demoniac (Luke 8), restored to his community, or the young child foaming at the mouth and lifted up by Jesus to be given back to his parents (Luke 9). Or think Lazarus, raised from a tomb of death but still bound. Jesus turns to his beloved community: “Unbind him,” he says to them (John 11).

Most of all, this: Jesus lived the healing he preached and practiced around tables of shared food.

Jesus at Table
I begin every one of my theology classes with this: “Christian faith did not begin with a text, or a doctrine, or an institution, but with radical social practice: table fellowship.”

The gospel accounts portray how often Jesus got in trouble for eating with the wrong people. In that first century context, those with whom you shared food mattered as much as those with whom you had sex. Both food and sex were the primary ways to mark social dominance in a system of hierarchical value.

Jesus cast those systems aside and ate with the wrong people.

He did this because his people, and the wider society, the whole human race suffered from a debilitating social disease: oppression, fragmentation, isolation. And only a social response would suffice: all are welcome at the Table.

This is ridiculously pedestrian and wildly profound: We must eat with the wrong people. It’s our only hope.

Ditch your self-improvement book. Stop berating yourself for that second, or third, or fourth glass of wine. Reject all those messages about your flaws and shortcomings. Do this: Set a table with food and invite everyone you know – all of them, including officer Krupke.

Accompany others. Be accompanied.

Love someone. Be loved.

This is totally ridiculous. It’s also the peculiar faith of Christians, who hope because of love.

We, all of us, suffer from a debilitating social disease. Only a social treatment can heal us.

It’s called Love.

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Our Migratory Species at the Table of Belonging

Everyone migrates, whether a few short blocks every day or across continents over many weeks, and the land we cross doesn’t actually belong to anyone but God.

That claim scrambles how most people organize the world we currently inhabit. But I’m not sure if I’m willing to live its implications – a borderless world with no political boundaries, let alone gated communities, designated wetlands, national parks, secured parking garages, and countless other spaces marked with painted or fenced lines.

But I am sure of this: modern Western society perfected a system of belonging that has very little if anything to do with actual land and terrain and nearly everything to do with political allegiance and religious affiliation. And this, too: navigating that system – migrating – carries enormous economic and cultural consequences, often life-and-death choices. And one more thing: belonging is never clear and absolute, despite both legal and political rhetoric to the contrary; it’s always ambiguous, intentionally.

I grew up watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on television. I was fascinated by the behavioral patterns of different species of animals, including the mind-numbing treks whales take across oceans and the ones managed by butterflies over vast fields and mountain ranges. Canada geese caught my attention every fall and each spring, their honking migration punctuating my walk to school.

I grew up in a settled suburb in one house for my entire childhood. Migration is what other species do, I thought, not humans. But of course, our species migrates constantly and always has. We began somewhere on the continent of Africa and then walked, for a long time, and filled the planet.

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Global migration patterns, 2010-2015; for an animated map and analysis: http://metrocosm.com/global-immigration-map/

We migrate for many reasons – wanderlust, better resources, fleeing violence, escaping tyranny, following a lover who got a great job offer. But these movements are rarely unfettered.

Those people are taking our jobs.
We don’t have enough resources for them.
Our cultural heritage is being destroyed.
They bring chaos and violence.

These are not new concerns. The ancient Israelites worried about “exotic” cultural practices staining their religious life (we find this in texts supposedly condemning gay men like me). Early Christians worried about “pagans” and gentiles corrupting their newly gestating faith (which would include, well, gentile men like me).

And yet, sacred texts likewise declare the primacy of caring for the stranger and sojourner in our midst (Leviticus 19:34 – the same book, ironically, that worries about exotic influences); insist on pilgrimage as a vital characteristic of faith (Hebrews 13:14); and portray Jesus himself fleeing to Egypt as a refugee with his parents, presumably without a passport (Matthew 2:13).

I keep wondering why migration so quickly provokes anxiety and panic, and I keep returning to money and power.

William T. Cavanaugh offers some helpful framing for this. I’m thinking especially of his analysis in Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church. He notes, for example, that national borders are actually not meant to keep all “others” out but only to regulate their crossings.

Even in an age of multi-national corporations, Cavanaugh insists that corporate entities require national boundaries to regulate the flow of human capital – think Mexican farm workers in the Central Valley of California picking the fruit I buy at Trader Joe’s. Think as well on the fear they live with every day, which keeps them willing to work for wages I wouldn’t take and under conditions I would not accept.immigration_california_strawberries2

That’s the money part. The power part is drenched in white supremacy. “Whiteness” is no less an invention of Euro-Americans than the borders defining nation-states; both will be defended to the death. Post-Civil War Reconstruction and the regime of Jim Crow made this perfectly clear: “Whiteness” depends on the proximity of a subservient “other,” a vast underclass of colored people against which “Whiteness” itself is defined. Equality is the presenting heresy in this worldview, not the mere presence of people of color.

“White nationalist” rhetoric would seem at odds with this view, but only at first blush. White nationalists do want to be separated from people of color, but not so far away as to lose reasons for their superiority. I recoil at the crudeness of this, its vulgarity.

Perhaps I recoil too much, sitting on my heap of white, male, economic privileges. I’m not talking about guilt – though it does linger unhelpfully around the edges. I mean: how many borders and boundaries am I willing to let dissolve and fade away in the light of the Gospel? How much do I rely on all those demarcations for my own sense of self and safety?

I struggle with these questions and can’t imagine trying to respond by myself. That’s why I keep going to church, to the Eucharistic Table, to that borderless access to divine life. There I can be reminded, or try to be, that we’re all in this together; that there is no safety in isolation; that our shared distress is rooted in powerful forces that would keep us separated. I don’t know what to do, and I can’t risk what I must, without others.

Protesting at rallies, lobbying Congress, advocating for policy changes, resisting the totalizing effects of global capitalism – all of that matters. These matter, too: dinner parties with our neighbors whose names we don’t know and who speak with an “accent”; noticing the people we work with whose skin color is different and whether everyone makes the same wage; stopping the car and talking with the fruit sellers on the corner, the day-laborers at Home Depot, the imam down the street.

We get to know people, care for them, find ourselves happily in solidarity with them, and we might suddenly decide to chain ourselves to a DACA deportee; if they go, we go. Because we, all of us, are a migratory species.

I like to imagine St. Paul nodding his head vigorously as he sits in prison, in chains, writing from his detention cell. That saint who insisted that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male and female (Galatians 3:28) – no green-carder, no passport-holder, no citizen, no refugee, no ESL graduate. There are only creatures of God, all of us longing for home, to belong.

I see this – not always, but often enough – as I migrate to the Table.

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