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.


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.


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.


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.



Border Crossings, Part 1: Chain-link Communion

Two images have been haunting me of late. I don’t mean that each has, but rather what one has to do with the other. A Methodist minister helped me see their entanglement; it haunts me.

The first image is a massive fence jutting out from the west coast into the Pacific Ocean right at the friendshippark_fence4U.S./Mexico border; that fence marks the border itself. This fence also sits in a place rather hopefully called “Friendship Park.” First Lady Pat Nixon dedicated that park in 1971 and declared her hope that one day the fence would come down. Imagining a First Lady saying that today is not only difficult politically but also logistically as the Department of Homeland Security has been dismantling the park to build a better fence.

The second image is a religious fence, the kind that marks the boundary between the Eucharistic Table and the altarrail2rest of a church building, where the lay people sit. Not every church building has one of these, but many do, and while the meaning of this kind of fence varies, its message is uncomfortably clear: Access to Holy Communion, just like access to the United States, is restricted.

These two images share something else in common for me. They represent a significant change of heart and mind concerning immigration and Eucharist. Again, I don’t mean a change concerning both, separately. I mean a change concerning both, together.

To be clear, I used to approve of fairly restrictive approaches to both immigration and the Eucharist, and for much the same reason: my appreciation for systems, logic, and law – or more biblically, what Paul described as doing things “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40).

It made no sense to me that people here in the U.S. “illegally” should have access to health care or education, just as it made no sense to me that the “unbaptized” should have access to Holy Communion. I used to care so much about making sense for multiple reasons, not least these: the urge to manage for fear of chaos and the need to control for fear of scarcity.

I can’t say that I changed my mind about these things at exactly the same moment, but I did so for mostly the same reason: God’s outrageous generosity and scandalous grace.

Think of it this way: “illegal” immigrants are the wrong kind of recipients for services intended for citizens, just as the “unbaptized” are the wrong kind of recipients for food intended for the initiated. Now think about the Hebrew Bible and its exhortations about treating “aliens” in the land with hospitality (Lev. 19:34, among many other references), and think about the Christian Testament and its stories about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners (Mt. 9:10-11, among others).

More simply: Christian faith began with stories about Jesus eating with the wrong kind of people. This radical social practice continued with the earliest Christians, who frequently found themselves in jail for disturbing the status quo (Acts 16:19-24, among others).

It’s high time Christians got in trouble again, at both our Eucharistic tables and our international borders. And indeed, at least one Christian minister does both at the same time. When DHS began dismantling Friendship Park, the Rev. John Fanestil, an ordained minister in the friendship_park_communion1United Methodist Church, started crossing construction lines every week at that park, presiding at the Eucharist, and passing the elements of Communion through wire gaps in the fence.

It’s hard to imagine a better image of God’s border-crossing grace than that. And I do think the stakes are high here, as I suggested in my recent book Peculiar Faith:

Imagine someone completely unfamiliar with Christian history. Imagine this person reading for the first time these ancient [Gospel] stories of extravagantly if not wantonly hospitable meal sharing. Then imagine introducing that same person to the institution that preaches from those stories yet regulates and governs who may and may not participate in its shared meals. Would this not seem bewildering? Who could blame such a person for failing to see any connection between the ancient texts and the contemporary institution?

Now imagine someone unfamiliar with American history and politics. Imagine tastatue_libertyking that person to visit the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor and reading the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed on its pedestal: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”  Would that person really believe that the statue in New York and the fence in southern California belong to the same country?

All of this has been resurfacing in my thoughts recently for two reasons. First, the 2016 presidential election has already begun and we have to listen to debates about whether people like Columba, Jeb Bush’s Latina wife, “belong” here but not whether folks like Canadian-born Ted Cruz do. And second, alas, this summer’s General Convention of the Episcopal Church narrowly defeated a resolution that would have established a task force to address the question of an “open table” – receiving Eucharist without first being baptized.

That resolution at the General Convention was actually quite modest. Its explanatory text suggested that while the pattern of moving from baptism to Eucharist remains normative, sometimes God calls people into communion in the other direction, from the Table to the Font.

I mean, seriously, of course God can call anyone into Communion in any way God chooses. In fact, there isn’t any “normative” pattern for such calling anywhere in the Bible! Not only do the Gospel writers present Jesus as dispensing entirely with religious rules about shared meals, the Acts of the Apostles depicts the Spirit being poured out rather scary people who weren’t even baptized (Acts 10:44-47 as just one example)!

Thus I’m haunted by that morsel of bread passed through the wires of a chain-link fence – an image rich not only with God’s border-shattering grace but also God’s challenge to borderfriendship_park_communion2-keeping institutions.

Open tables and open borders – why are these so scary? In Part 2 of these reflections, I’ll suggest some reasons why, especially the reasons that used to scare me.


Civil Rights and the Bride of Christ

Christians have good reasons to celebrate today’s landmark ruling on marriage from the U.S. Supreme Court. Not least among those reasons: social justice. As a civil contract, marriage carries responsibilities and a host of financial and legal benefits to which lesbian and gay couples should be granted equal access; at long last we now know that the Supreme Court agrees.roland_marriage

While today’s ruling clearly advances the cause of justice as well as the dignity of loving, faithful relationships, Christians have still more to say about marriage that has nothing to do with legislatures or courts. The “more” we have to say presents a rich opportunity for Christian faith communities to delve more deeply into three important and interrelated topics concerning liberty, gender, and hope. A brief word about each:

Religious Liberty
Recent pizzeria and cake decorating debates aside, the freedom of religious expression in the United States has always exhibited a great deal of complexity and generated more than a little consternation. Nineteenth century Mormons could give us an ear-full about the religious practice of polygamy (or “plural marriage”) and the so-called “separation of Church and State” – or more pointedly, the judicial limit on the first amendment right to religious expression.

More recently, prominent Southern Baptists joined dozens of others in an open letter to the Supreme Court urging them to decide against marriage equality. They asked more specifically that the justices not force them to “choose between the stbible_us_flagate and the Laws of God.” I find that request quite astonishing. Why would clergy worry that a secular court of law would “force” them to choose between the State and God? Should there really be any question about that choice? Perhaps that question could inspire more Christian communities to ponder anew the relationship between patriotism and faith, or between nation-state and religion. How Christians do or should think and act about such things is not nearly as clear-cut as the public debates about them would seem to indicate.

Religious Gender
This topic exhibits as much if not more complexity than religious liberty. Consider, for example, that San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone recently outed himself as transgender if not perhaps “gender queer.” At a conference in New York earlier this month, Cordileone warned his listeners about “gender ideology” while simultaneously (though likely accidentally) referring to himself as a “bride.” The whole biblical story of faith, he observed, is all about marriage; God establishes an “eternal covenant between him, the bridegroom, and his bride, the church.” So, should the archbishop, as a member of the Church, wear the garlands of a bride? Or should he, as a representative of Christ, insist on being the bridegroom? Can one person be both? Wouldn’t that be, well, rather queer?

If nothing else, Archbishop Cordileone’s observations can remind us that the history of gender rarely presents the kind of tidy, binary approach to maleness and femaleness that has emerged in the modern West over the last couple of centuries. Witness the ongoing exultation and near panic concerning Caitlyn Jenner.

Religious Hope
The first two topics lead nicely to this: There is more to hope for from human life than marriage. While that should be obvious, one might struggle to find evidence for that hope in the marriage equality debates that have been growing in both volume and consequence over the last fifteen years.

Consider Justice Anthony Kennedy’s observations, writing for the majority in today’s ruling. “No union is more profound than marriage,” he declared, “for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were.” Justice Kennedy not only sets a fairly high bar for marital satisfaction and achievement (no pressure!), but one could easily read his comments as denigrating all other forms of relationship.


“The Song of Solomon,” He Qi, ©2001

One of my favorite theologians, Elizabeth Stuart, lamented back in 2003 that both “conservatives” and “liberals” have missed entirely what Christian traditions have tried to say about marriage: It helps to awaken our desire for God and to stir our hope for the heavenly wedding banquet yet to come. The purpose and fulfillment of human life, in other words, is communion with God and with each other. Marriage, at its best, inspires that hope – and many other forms of committed, loving relationship can do so as well.

In short, I’m grateful that the Supreme Court has made clear what should be obvious: civil marriage equality is a matter of social justice. And perhaps this ruling will spark deeper conversations in Christian faith communities about the very essence of the Gospel: the deep desire and abiding hope for divine communion.


The Eighth Day: Bloody Memories and Hopeful Futures

How do you celebrate the Feast of the Circumcision? That’s what this day used to be called, this eighth of the twelve days of Christmas. Most Christians now know this day instead as the Feast of the Holy Name, celebrated on January 1st.

The contemporary liturgical language certainly sounds a bit more palatable for New Year’s festivities. But I think it’s a mistake to cover over the bloody wounding that accompanies the giving of a name — the violence that always attends carving out identities in social systems.circumcision

Following ancient Israelite custom, Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth, which Luke’s gospel account mentions explicitly (Lk 2:21). January 1st falls on the eighth day of the Christmas season, and thus the rather odd religious commemoration on what just happens to be the first day of a new year on the secular calendar.

Perhaps this new year conjunction is just odd enough to provoke some serious reflection on why any of this matters.

British theologian Graham Ward has noted that the circumcision of Jesus marked a boundary of identity, specifically a Jewish male identity. This is just one among many reasons, as Ward puts it, to remember that theology always entails a “cultural politics.” (Go here for a link to Ward’s essay.)

Ward’s language, though, is still a bit too tame. As nearly everyone realizes, the politics of culture in the modern West always involve finding ourselves classified and categorized in social identities. These identities exhibit multiple features and characteristics, but they are always gendered and racialized. There is, in other words, no such thing as “generic humanity.” We are always already racially gendered – and this happens mostly through acts of wounding and violence.

Less abstractly, what identity means today in the U.S. depends on: a) whether one fears being raped and then being blamed for it; and/or b) whether one can drive a car, shop in a store, or walk down a street without raising suspicion among law enforcement officials – or ending up dead.

garner_eric_chokeMore simply still: If you are not marked as “white” or “male,” then who you are emerges through wounds and violence. And just there, God shows up – colored and wounded.

Christmas, after all, proclaims a God who chooses to identify with all of us on a path marked by blood. The blood of childbirth, yes, and yet more blood in wounded genitals, and still more as a criminal executed by imperial power on a cross. God takes up residence with us in all that bloody mess.

That’s why I fret over the erasure of genital blood on this “Feast of the Holy Name.” Does that liturgical shift reflect an ongoing discomfort with Jesus’s genitals or a subtle denial of wounded bodies? Probably a bit of both, which carries implications for all the sexually and racially scarred bodies populating our communities and sitting in the pews of our churches.

Well, so what? (And that’s probably the best question to ask about any theological reflection.)

Among the many possible responses to that question, I’m rather intrigued right now by the number eight. While I’m not particularly enamored with numerology, those who are note several significant features of “eight”: it’s the number of people saved on Noah’s ark (1 Peter 3:20); it’s the evocation of perfection in some Chinese traditions; Pythagoreans associate eight with love and friendship; some ancient Egyptians considered eight the number of cosmic order and perfection; flipped on its side, 8 is the mathematical symbol of infinity.

Most of all, I’m fascinated by Augustine’s fifth century speculation. For him, the “Eighth Day” is the day of the promised new creation, the glorious “what next?” that follows the seven days of divine creation in Genesis. For Augustine, the Eighth Day promise is signaled and sealed by the resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning.

On this eighth day of Christmas, I’m clinging to Augustine’s imaginative proposal. In the midst of so many bloody memories – not least, those incarnated in the bodies of Michael Brown and Eric Garner – Christmas invites a radical, even illogical hope for the future. Not in spite of our bloody awful memories but in the midst of all of them. God appears among us, from the very beginning, as wounded and scarred, enticing us to live differently.

For Christians, January 1st is always stained with blood. God chooses to reside right there, in our bloody memories. And right there, not somewhere else, God seeks to give birth to hopeful futures.midwife

Let’s be the midwife in 2015.


Learning to Love on the Flight to Egypt

The Gospel changes the world by creating communities of reconciling love.

I have devoted my life to that proposition even though I constantly struggle to define and parse nearly every word of it.

Christmas Day makes love seem rather easy in much the same way nostalgia does; it’s not a memory but a wish and wisp. But each year on the fourth day of Christmas, on December 28th, the Church insists on remembering the “Holy Innocents” of Bethlehem and why love matters.

That language sounds rather sweet and cozy, but of course the event was horrific beyond my ability to imagine. The holy innocents were all those infant male children slaughtered by order of King Herod to protect his own throne (Matthew 2:16). After being warned about this impending disaster by an angel, Joseph packed up Mary and the baby Jesus and fled to Egypt (Matthew 2:13).holy_innocents1

There’s a wonderful irony in the Holy Family’s flight from Herod’s egomaniacal wrath. The one announced by angels as the “savior” flees to the very land in which his own people had been slaves many centuries before. The place of exodus becomes the place of safe return.

Were Mary and Joseph just a bit chagrined by fleeing for their lives to the nation that had once tormented their people? Did they find that galling? Scary? Did they have to present government-issued I.D. to cross a secure border? Where did they stay when they arrived? Were they welcomed? Shunned?

flight_egyptI wonder what Mary and Joseph talked about during their flight. Did they strategize about how they might blend in, not attract attention? Did they muse over ancient history and how much they really ought to despise Egyptians? Did they worry about meeting as much violence as the kind they were fleeing?

Or did they, perhaps, learn something about love on their flight and during their sojourn? They were, after all, transporting divine love incarnate. How might that have inflected their posture toward their ancient enemy?

Did the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt set the tone for the whole Gospel? Could it be that the key to the whole thing is to learn how to love people who are different from us? Or even more, to love people whom we really ought to despise and who may have done us significant harm?

Could the Gospel change the world by creating communities of reconciling love?

I really do think so, but it will mean enduring flights of profound discomfort into territory that does not feel like home and where we are really scared and can’t imagine how we’ll survive let alone love anything at all.

I have no recipe to follow here, just a trail through a desert traced in the lines of an ancient text. There I sense or intuit something about love that I still need desperately to learn.

There are so many whom I could so easily and naturally and understandably and even justifiably despise: brutal police officers killing unarmed black people, corporate CEOs destroying the planet, the Islamic State beheading people at every turn, the Christian fundamentalists who destroy LGBT lives every year…the list goes on and on and on in a spiral of rage, hate, and still more violence.

I could so easily despise them all, and it would change nothing. Despising all those people will just keep the world exactly as it is.

Instead, I’m going to hop on that donkey over there and join the Holy Family on their flight. I really want to eavesdrop on the conversation. I might, and indeed, I’m sure I will learn something about world-changing love. It has always been fragile, but bright; flickering, but tenacious; seemingly innocuous, but oddly piercing and brilliant.

Just like the child fleeing for safety to the land of his former captors.



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.


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


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).