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I Care About the Chickens

I really don’t care what some misinformed Christian fundamentalist owner of a fast-food chain thinks about my sex life. I don’t even care how much money he gives to stupid political causes. It’s a free country – he can do what he wants with his money.

It’s high time we talked about the chickens instead.

We’re in a deep food crisis in this country and in many other parts of the world as well. We have been for a long time now. The crisis is about the environment, about human health, and about the humane treatment of non-human animals. The crisis, in short, is caused and perpetuated by industrial agriculture, or what one commentator has called our “catastrophic food production system.”

If we started boycotting all fast-food chain restaurants to protest factory farming, I’d be ready to sign up. But just because some corporate hack doesn’t approve of my dating practices? I have better things on which to spend my outrage.

(A Facebook friend pointed out just recently that Chipotle’s adopted a policy concerning the humane treatment of the animals used for their restaurants. Go here for a great little film about it and also more on the horrors of factory farming.)

Over the last few years I’ve come to a greater understanding of how appalling contemporary food production has become. My awakening began by reading, back in the 1990s, Carol Adam’s provocative book, The Sexual Politics of Meat (her links between misogyny and meat packaging are persuasive, as is her hypothesis about how we manage to avoid the moral implications of our eating by distancing ourselves from the sources of our food).

More recently, Michael Pollan’s eye-opening books, The Ominvore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, are simply must reads, not to mention Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and the documentary film of the same name.

It’s time to be much more outraged over industrial farming practices than over the religious beliefs of someone who couldn’t manage to come up with anything better than “Chick-fil-A” as a name for a restaurant (how many kids now think that’s how they should spell “fillet”?). While I’m grateful to the handful of mayors and other politicians taking a stand against S. Truett Cathy’s religious-based bigotry, I’d much prefer to see them and many more take a stand against the factory farms that litter our rural spaces with cruelty and environmental havoc.

I believe outrage over our food crisis can help fuel our work toward what Jesus called “The Kingdom of God.” Let’s call it the “Kin-dom.” That’s not my moniker; it’s been around a while, and came mostly from feminist critiques of patriarchal Christianity. And I like it, not least because it evokes and suggests not only that kinship is a key characteristic of human relationships but also of the relationship between humans and non-human animals.

Kinship – how much are we willing to stake on that? Are all of us humans really in the same boat on this planet? Is that ark big enough for non-human animals? It seemed to be for Noah.

I don’t claim any moral superiority on this topic at all. I’m a meat eater, so any vegetarian credibility is out the window, let alone any vegan points.

That said, I have read a lot over the last ten years or so about dogs (I’m a huge dog lover) and about horses, dolphins, and a smattering of other animals. All of it has been astounding and in some cases life-changing. Non-human animals share far more with us than most of us have ever imagined. And what we don’t have in common is equally astonishing and more than worthy of our respect.

The life-changer came when I realized just how much intelligence and emotional awareness we share in common with the animals we eat. Salmon? Not much. Pigs? Quite a lot. Cows? Somewhere in between. In all cases, however, these animals feel pain, experience fear and terror, and hundreds of thousands of them never see the light of day or are able even to turn around in their crates and pens.

Among the many topics our food crisis provokes, we need to consider nutrition and obesity rates as well as affordable food for families in tough economic times. Are grass-fed, free-range cattle more expensive once they get packaged in a grocery store than their factory-farmed counterparts? Yes, but not by much.

These days, when I stoop over the meat counter at Safeway and compare the Foster’s Farms chicken breasts (likely artificially fattened at the cost of serious discomfort for the chicken) with the Full Circle chicken breasts (humanely raised) I literally cannot stomach the former for the sake of $1.25.

Back in the 1990s, Roman Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony declared, “Any society, any nation, is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members; the last, the least, the littlest.” And Mahatma Gandhi supposedly once noted that “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

What sits inside that little white bag from Chick-fil-A is cause for far more worry and outrage than the misguided piety of the man who makes money from it.

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Saving the Planet One Dogmatic Doctrine at a Time

Ideas matter. They matter all the time, but especially in times of peril – social, political, and ecological peril. We live in such perilous times today.

These days, ideas matter in direct proportion to every degree of elevation in the planet’s mean temperature (the double entendre here is useful). All of us need to take action now for this planet, this “fragile earth, our island home.” But we won’t get very far without sustained and careful thinking and deliberation. Ideas matter.

I don’t mean that ideas matter in isolation from action. That binary distinction is more than a cliché; it’s as furry with mold as the old blue cheese I recently found in my refrigerator. No one does hardly anything without thinking, even when some forms of thinking have become a habit. Ideas matter.

Consider just two recent examples of the clarion call for thinking carefully and deliberately together about our world. The first comes from Bill McKibben, a leading environmental advocate and writer. His latest piece in Rolling Stone is one of the more sobering assessments I’ve read about our global climate change crisis. McKibben himself describes the piece as among the most important he has ever written.

The second comes from someone I don’t know on a website I only recently found. Alan Goldstein describes in concise and compelling ways the current economic and social crisis our planet now faces. I find his analysis on target but his proposed solution weak.

Both of these pieces illustrate my point: ideas matter. Among the ideas that matter are religious ones generally, and theological ones in particular. Just read the daily newspaper. Religious ideas are fueling war, conflict, economic policies, social configurations, ecological positions…the list goes on and on. So how curious that neither McKibben nor Goldstein offers even a single word about religion!

How human beings think about God (or not) in relation to ourselves, to other humans, and to other animals has a profound impact on how we live (even if our practice doesn’t always match our theory perfectly or even closely). So how then do we think about God? And how do we deliberate together about our thinking? And how do we put our thinking into action and how does our action reshape our thinking?

I care about these questions as a human being, as a Christian, as a priest in the Episcopal Church, and as a theologian. I’m grateful for the responses in various venues to my recent blog post that suggest that others care about this, too.

So I decided to assemble a series of blog posts to describe how I approach theological ideas and the difference they make in how Christians live. That’s a ridiculously huge topic, so these are more like conversation starters.

I’ll begin with this: There is no grand solution for our planetary problems. There is no universal, all-encompassing strategy for human thriving. We all seek in vain for the pill, the method, the text, the location, the practice, the rite, the community, the guru, the geography, the school that will cure what ails us.

I’m glad there is no such thing or place or person or community that can do that. Because what we have instead are shards of beauty, slices of the piercingly poignant, the strands of awe dangling in the breezes of forests, the pimples of delight on the chin of lovers, the absurd glory of dead pets, and the stains of thumb-marks on pages turned in cherished texts.

We take all of this into our wildly graceful moments of human relationship, into our fumbling attempts at creating transcendent communities, and our visceral responses to weather reports.

All of this is the stuff of religion and theology. But few would guess it from reading media reports about denominational gatherings. If Christian theology can’t go back to the campfire where we all sit together and tell stories and shape communities of action and practice, then we are doomed.

But I don’t believe that. I believe religion generally and Christian theology in particular can help turn the tide toward flourishing – what God has intended all along. My next posts here in this blog will offer suggestions about how Christian communities might make ideas matter. Stay tuned. And please add your voice – without it, we’ll be stuck, mired, buried in a culture that denigrates ideas.

Don’t let that happen. Ideas matter.

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Jesus and “Obama-Care”: Christian Socialism Inches Forward

No, Jesus was not a socialist (viral FaceBook images notwithstanding). But he did preach a radically prophetic message and he also lived it, including all those stories about miraculous physical healing.

The current brouhaha over healthcare in the United States is not “just” a secular, public policy issue. It is a deeply Christian one. A deeply spiritual one. And therefore a deeply human one. How we treat our own bodies and how we help others treat their bodies and how we structure our “body politic” so that no one need suffer just because they don’t have money or just because they don’t have a job or just because they are not legally married – all of this cuts to the heart of nearly every worldwide spiritual tradition and practice, including Christianity.

For those who think Christianity cares mostly or only about “saving souls,” reading gospel accounts of physical healing and restoration might be a good idea – perhaps especially when vilifying access to healthcare these days so often relies on describing it as “atheistic socialism.”

Christians using the Revised Common Lectionary this coming Sunday will hear not just one but two among many such healing stories – and both about women! (Yes, that mattered then just as much as it matters today.) The snippet provided by the lectionary from Mark’s gospel presents a bold and audacious woman reaching out for help – Jesus provides it (somewhat despite himself, one should note), and a grieving religious leader whose daughter had died.

There’s lots of intrigue to read between the lines of this short passage – politics (who has access to the healer); religion (circumventing proper clerical hierarchies); and culture (who counts, what matters, and how power is distributed).

Let’s just focus on the “access” part. The audacious (and, sadly, nameless) woman in this Markan passage (5:21-43) tosses aside political, religious, and cultural taboos to get what she needs – access to healing. Now this could be an isolated, stand-alone story with no further implications for our own political, religious, and cultural climate today. But St. Paul suggests otherwise.

The lectionary this Sunday also includes a snippet from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (and if you ever despair over today’s ecclesial culture, just read both of those letters and imagine the community Paul was dealing with!). On the surface, this is a strange and even rather boring little passage from Paul’s letter. But I think it carries a wallop (2 Corinthians 8:7-15).

Paul is apparently dealing with a community marked by uneven resources (sound familiar?). Some have lots of “means” while others have none but lots of “eagerness.” Paul wants them to work together to complete the good work they started. (And I can hardly resist reading this passage from his letter through the lens of the recent Supreme Court decision regarding healthcare reform: “it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something– now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.”)

Paul is crystal clear in this passage. Those who are blessed by abundance and those who are in need must work together as a single body, each providing what the other lacks. Paul cites his own religious tradition for this by noting, and I quote: “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” So, “Occupy Rome,” anyone? I mean of course, ancient Rome…oh, okay, today’s Rome, too. Who has “too much””? Who doesn’t have enough? These are not “socialist” questions only; these are profound biblical, Christian questions. Why aren’t we asking them in our churches?

I love this passage from Paul. Abundance is not a sin. Neither is need. The point is that all work together so that all have what they truly need.

Ordinarily I would feel like I’m beating the proverbial dead horse to connect the dots here. But given the vitriolic rhetoric over healthcare reform in this country, I think it’s worth doing.

So herewith I connect the dots: If you’re wealthy and you know it, clap your hands. Then make sure that access to healthcare is available to everyone, like Jairus in Mark’s story. If you’re middle-class or poor and you know it, clap your hands. Then make sure that your insightful gifts are offered boldly and audaciously, like the woman with a hemorrhage in that same story from Mark.

So, no, Jesus was not a socialist. But Paul clearly was, and he was a socialist because of his encounter with the risen Christ.

People waiting for health services at a “free clinic.”

Worried about that label “socialist”? That’s okay. Just read his letters to the Corinthians. Oh, and his letter to the Romans, too. Read those letters in their entirety, not just snippets. But don’t miss this: We are all members of a single body. If anyone weeps, the whole body weeps. If anyone rejoices, the whole body leaps with joy. No member is expendable. No member is better than any other. We’re all in this together. That’s called “socialism.” Or rather, that’s called the Gospel – Good News.

The “Affordable Care Act” just affirmed by the United States Supreme Court is not a panacea. We have much more work to do. And here’s the truly peculiar thing: Both Jesus and Paul gave us the theological reasons to do that work.

So let’s do it.

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Faithfully Out of Synch: Holy Liminality, Part 2

Now you see him, now you don’t. He’s just a flip-flopper. Back again (yay!); gone again (boo!). Or to quote (Saint) Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, “My, but people come and go here so quickly!”

I could be referring to our crazy-making political climate of late, but I have in mind instead some religious trivia. I actually believe the two go together, or they ought to do so, and rather urgently.

This weekend is a bit religiously messy, chronologically speaking. This past Thursday, Christians celebrated “The Feast of the Ascension.” This marks the moment when the resurrected Jesus “ascends” to heaven (see Luke 24:50-53 and/or Acts 1:6-11, both seem to tell the same story but in significantly different ways).

Okay, so the risen Jesus is now “gone.” But tomorrow is the seventh Sunday of Easter on the Christian calendar. Weirdly, many Christians will hear in church a portion of John’s gospel in which the pre-crucified Jesus is saying farewell to his disciples before he dies (John 17:6-19).

So is Jesus “here,” “there,” or “in between”?

We’re smack dab in the midst of yet another potent time on the Christian calendar, that peculiar liminal time between the ascension and the particular manifestation of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost just a week from now. I wrote a bit about the holiness of liminality roughly seven weeks ago, on Holy Saturday. I love that day, that peculiar day when Jesus is dead, but not yet risen, yet wonderfully busy harrowing Hell. Not least among his glorious tasks is dragging Adam and Eve of their graves (as one particular fresco that I love depicts it).

I truly believe that such religious arcana actually matters for how Christians think about how we live in a world that’s so clearly gone crazy. (Surely I don’t need to catalogue the myriad ways our world has recently gone off the rails.)

To navigate the madness, I seek faithfully to live out of synch with it by taking John’s Jesus to heart when he prays this about his disciples, both then and now: “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world (John 17:16).”

Too many Christians, in my view, have read that verse as a kind of divine permission to absent themselves from “worldly concerns.” To the contrary: I read the Johannine Jesus as urging his disciples to live out of synch with the world’s standards of reasonable, proper, efficient, and respectable proposals for sustaining the way things are.

Among the many ways to read the gospel texts, for example, taking them as testimony to “business as usual” would seem quite a stretch. I cannot imagine any of Jesus’ disciples thinking of themselves as champions of the status quo. Jesus instead seems at nearly every turn to lead his disciples into troubling both the religious and civic order of things. In today’s courts of law they would qualify as “disturbers of the peace” or stand guilty of “disorderly conduct.”

Shouldn’t these pioneers of Christian faith set the standard for the (dis)orderly life of God’s people today? Shouldn’t the Gospel lead all of us who claim to follow it into profound acts of disturbing the cultural peace?

Along with many others, I’ve been noticing just how much religion and politics have been blending of late in our public discourse: whether women actually have any rights over their own bodies; whether couples of the same gender can get married; whether economics ought to have anything to do with the “least among us.” The list goes on and on.

There are many ways to analyze all these confluences of religion and politics. Here’s just one: In an age of profound change and anxiety, the default position is certainty, dogmatism, and safety. The final cry of any civil or religious institution in the throes of fear is, of course, “But we’ve never done it that way before!”

Quite remarkably, that posture is precisely what the Gospel urges Christians to avoid. So what it would it mean to live out of synch with both religious and cultural trends? I don’t know precisely. But I’ll venture this: The dry, institutional certainties of the past (whether civil or religious) won’t save us. Only the scary vagaries of a future we cannot see and for which we risk everything will bring us into the orbit of the risen and ascended Christ.

I’m thinking a great deal about that claim this weekend in my own life. And I’m wondering how it might translate into our public discourse about social policy.

The risen Jesus won’t be tied down and domesticated. Certainty is not a theological virtue. But faith is. And so is hope. And love most especially is. Could we imagine, in this liminal season as we await the Spirit’s manifestation, a politics of risk that privileges love above all else?

That’s precisely what the Apostle Paul urged (1 Corinthians 13:13) – love matters above everything else.

How clichéd can we get? I mean, really. Isn’t that just a Hallmark greeting card we toss into the recycling bin?

But how about this: What if love is what we do in all those in-between times when we can’t figure out what’s really going on? What if love isn’t about certainty or dogmatism or safety or anything else we try to confect to soothe our wounds of anxiety? What if love is mostly about risk without any guarantees?

What if those are the very questions those first disciples of the risen Jesus asked as they watched him disappear into heaven?

Let’s answer those peculiar questions and change the world.

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“Enchanté, Madame”: Why Good Policy Alone Won’t Save Us

Christ is risen and we’re killing the planet. I know – you’ve heard something similar countless times. Another species extinct. Another ecosystem threatened. Global climate change. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Maybe you haven’t heard this one quite so often: If it’s okay to rape women, it’s okay to rape the planet.

That grisly connection is, alas, being performed right now on legislative stages in Washington, D.C. and in far too many states. The link between the current war on women and the war on the planet (the former talked about incessantly these days and the latter, not so much), is subtle but vitally important.

I firmly believe that the many complex “issues” we face today are woven together in complex, lovely, troubling, spiritual ways. I want to try to evoke that here, if only as a preface to the great work our species must now confront. So let’s consider just a few of the dots that need connecting at the moment:

  • First, access to birth control and abortion (which is still technically legal in this country) is under attack. If only this were old news. I appreciate the moral quandaries faced by people of good faith about abortion, but now we’re seeing restrictions appearing even when the health of the mother is at stake, and even in cases of rape and incest. So, is it really okay to rape women? (For more on access issues, read here, which is wonky and policy-heavy, but important; or Rachel Maddow’s take on it here.)
  • Second, access to clean water, clean air, and a safe food supply is equally under attack. This doesn’t appear often enough in the headlines. According to some, the current Congress is the most anti-environment Congress in U.S. history. (Read more about that here; though this is a partisan source, it nonetheless provides helpful links to actual legislation, and it’s disturbing.)
  • Third, access to the truth requires tedious knowledge of legislative riders, appropriations bills, and countless other political arcana that make most people reach for a cocktail instead. The U.S. House, for example, recently passed a much needed piece of legislation for student loans, but paid for it by reducing health care funding that might affect women the most. (The word “might” is important there and I recommend Ezra Klein’s take on this here.)

These are not sexy dots to connect. But connect them we must. Consider this recent pithy observation about environmental responsibility from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams: the world is “not just a huge warehouse of stuff to be used for our convenience.” (Read a great essay on this here.)

I can’t help but wonder if far too many men think the same way about women – women’s bodies as warehouses, incubators, resources, objects. We’ve had a few decades now of insightful analysis about the link between male privilege and ecological degradation – men can control “mother” nature just like they (try to) control women. But I’m not at all convinced that such a link has sunk into our collective consciousness. (Even less likely to have sunk in are the connections between misogyny, homophobia, and global climate change…but I digress.)

So I wonder: How might all of us think differently about our own bodies, the bodies of others, the bodies of non-human animals, and the body of this planet? Would thinking differently make a difference in how we live, the social policies we support, the politicians we elect? I hope so. But what does “thinking differently” mean?

What about “enchantment”?

A few years ago, I stumbled upon a book that proposed precisely that and I’m still trying to tease out its implications. The book is by James William Gibson, called A Re-enchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature. It’s an insightful, heartbreaking, hopeful, and lovely book. I also believe Gibson captured something critical and essential: arguing about environmental policy won’t solve any of our problems unless we rekindle our nearly forgotten enchantment with nature.

By “enchantment,” Gibson means many things at once: nature isn’t anyone’s private property; it isn’t just a “resource”; it has its own life and value and beauty quite apart from humanity; and it’s uncanny, uncontrollable, lovely, grotesque, compelling, beyond categories of human meaning making. It is, in a word, enchanting.

I really want to think more and write more about this, and I will. But for now, in the midst of these Great Fifty Days of Easter (Easter is a season, longer than Lent), I frequently find my spiritual attention gravitating toward the image of the “new creation.” The resurrection of Jesus wasn’t just for him, and it wasn’t just for every other human. In some way, Easter proclaims God’s stubborn commitment to life for everything, without exception. Now that is surely peculiar, thankfully.

So, could that great Gospel proclamation lead us to a re-enchantment with the world and all its many wondrously uncanny and glorious bodies? Could it, at long last, dismantle the utilitarian and objectifying posture toward women’s bodies that so many politicians, not to mention religious leaders, seem to adopt? Could Easter move us to find each other and the world around us enchanting?

I believe it could. And not a moment too soon.

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The Fairness of Death & the Generosity of Easter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that’s really unfair…thank God.

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Got Hope?

Will the world end if the Euro zone collapses? Will it end with rising sea levels and global droughts? Has your world already ended with prolonged unemployment or a foreclosed mortgage? Where do you find hope in a world that seems to be coming apart at the seams?

These are perfect questions for tomorrow, the first Sunday of Advent.

Advent marks the beginning of a new Christian liturgical year. On the first Sunday of this season (“New Year’s Day”) most lectionaries recommend, oddly enough, apocalyptic biblical texts for worship. So the New Year begins not at the beginning but at the End, with the second coming of Christ (not the first) and the end of the world as we know it (cue music from R.E.M.).

So stop shopping (for now), stop stressing over Christmas decorations and ponder the theme for tomorrow that sets the tone for the entire liturgical year to come: hope. What do you hope for? How does your hope shape the way you live? Does it make a difference? Where do you find what you need to replenish your hope?

Let’s be more specific: Should anyone place any hope in the U.S. political system these days? In our financial markets? Do you have any hope of being able to retire? Of having social security checks? Feeding your family? How about the Occupy Wall Street movement? Is that hopeful to you?

Questions like that make it seem far less peculiar to begin a new year with the End. I believe there’s a profound connection to tease out between how Christians navigate the liturgical year and how we think about the world around us. Advent brings this vividly to light.

Tomorrow, the Church will launch again into the great cycle of observances that take us from incarnation to epiphany and on into passion, death, resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit. That cycle takes roughly six months. And tomorrow sets the tone for the whole thing: What, finally, do we hope for from all this?

Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, once described that great cycle like this: “The whole story of creation, incarnation, and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us.”

Reading aloud that one sentence in every Christian congregation each Sunday morning for a year (to ensure that every member hears it) would transform the Church more fully into the world-changing community it’s called to be. Why? Because I think most people consider themselves, at best, “tolerable,” maybe loveable (if God is the one loving), but very rarely desirable.

Williams appears to have realized this too and insisted that God’s desire for us means, quite simply and profoundly, that the Church’s job is to ensure that people see themselves as desirable and “occasions for joy.”

If the Church really did that, it would change the world. How could we ever let “desirable occasions for joy” go hungry and homeless in our streets, or turn them away at national borders, or deny them health care? How the Church worships can and should shape how the Church lives in the world.

But what about all that apocalyptic, world-ending stuff that bubbles up in Advent? Actually, all sorts of “worlds” come to an end quite regularly – personal worlds and relationships, the worlds of social institutions (banks!?), economic empires, a computer’s operating software. “Worlds” as we know them are never permanent. It’s really not so surprising that they end.

What is surprising is how people manage to live with hope in those world-ending moments. For me, I can’t do that alone. I need a community and I need regular reminders about where true hope can be found. That’s what Advent is all about.

I find it helpful to remember that the word “apocalypse” (which we usually translate as “revelation”) has its origins in a rather ordinary Greek word that referred to a cover, like the lid on a jar. Put a prefix on the front and a verb ending on the back and you get apocalypto, which ancient Greeks probably used every time they opened something. It just means “to take the lid off.”

I believe revelations happen all the time. I believe the Apocalypse unfolds constantly. I believe the advent of Christ is ongoing, not isolated to a moment 2,000 years ago, nor to a far-distant future we cannot see. Everything about life, our relationships, our struggles, our dreams, and fears can “take the lid off” God in our midst. That’s when hope happens, and it changes us so that we can change the world.

May all of us find ourselves desirable this Advent season and treat one another as occasions for joy.

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The Privilege of “Non-Violence”

A small group of “agitators” disrupted an otherwise “peaceful” demonstration and general strike in Oakland this past Wednesday with moments of “violence.” The swift disavowal of that violence by just about everyone but the agitators themselves raised some red flags for me. (Read about what happened here, and especially the remarkable notion that shutting down a commercial port qualifies as “peaceful” protest.)

We don’t know exactly who those agitators were. We don’t know precisely why they engaged in vandalism or why they incited the police. But apparently that doesn’t matter; their violence was wrong. The violence of the general strike itself, however, is perfectly acceptable. Why? What’s the difference?

Among the many peculiar stories in the gospel accounts, I can’t stop thinking about the one so often called the “cleansing of the temple” (see Mt. 21:12-13; Mk. 11:15-19; Lk. 19:45-46; and Jn. 2:13-16).  Whatever Jesus did that day – overturning tables, driving people out, whipping bad religious bankers with a cat-o-nine tails – whatever it was, he disrupted a corrupt system and he got into a lot of trouble for it. And let’s be clear: what he did was violent. I mean, don’t you think it was? If not, what counts as “violent” for you?

There are lots of squishy words running through our public and private speeches these days, whether in Congress or at the water cooler or in our living rooms. “Anarchists” is a favorite one of late as it lumps all those people together who don’t behave in public the way the rest of us would prefer. “Wealth” is another notoriously squishy word. Compared to the vast majority of people on this planet, if you don’t worry about where your next meal is coming from and you have a roof over your head, you are wealthy.

“Violence” is just as squishy. We use it in all sorts of ways, as if they all mean the same kind of thing. We “do violence” to a text by misinterpreting it. We “do violence” to ideas when we misrepresent their meaning. If you eat meat of any kind, you are responsible for doing violence to an animal. We “do violence” to humans in all sorts of ways as well, some horrific and physical, others far more subtle, emotional and relational.

So what counts as acceptable and unacceptable violence, and who decides, and why?

I don’t know. But I’ll offer two observations, though I’m not sure yet how to connect these to my peculiar faith in the supposedly “non-violent” Jesus.

First, a “general strike” is not an instance of non-violent protest. A general strike, if successful, disrupts the economy of an entire city, and that hurts both businesses and people. Sure, the hurt is temporary, but let’s not pretend that a general strike is merely “harmless” protest. It is, in my view, a form of violence. Both the religious and civic authorities in Jesus’ day apparently thought so, too. Disrupting systems of monetary exchange is a violent act – and those first century authorities responded with violence in return; they crucified Jesus.

Second, the privilege I enjoy because of my class, race, and gender makes it very unlikely that I will ever engage in acts of vandalism. My comfortable job and cozy home blunt what would otherwise be a far sharper disgust and anger toward the corruption of both our financial system and politicians.

But if my house had been foreclosed on by a bank that was later charged with fraudulent mortgage practices and that reaped huge profits without paying hardly any taxes at all – well, I’m not so sure I wouldn’t be out on the streets smashing that bank’s windows.

In short, I worry that even defining what counts as “non-violence” is yet another realm that belongs to the privileged.

I’m thinking about this at all because something is going on in my own backyard – not because of the decades-long struggle in Israel/Palestine, not because of the conflict between China and Tibet, not because Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square in much the same way that my own neighbors are gathering in Oakland – and that speaks volumes about the privilege I currently enjoy.

I wonder how long that privilege will last. I wonder how that privilege shapes my reading of the Gospel. I wonder if I would care so terribly much about defining “violence” so precisely if I lost my job, my house, my health insurance, my credit cards, and the ridiculously easy access I have to food at the local Safeway. The definition of violence varies, I should think, depending on whether you’re defining it next to a cozy fireplace or seeking shelter beneath a freeway overpass.

These are peculiar quandaries for a peculiar faith. At the very least, I think they ought to lead Christians beyond our usual comfort zones and into something like “transformation.” What will that look like? Offer your suggestions here…please.

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Occupy Christianity…with the Gospel

Did Jesus and his disciples occupy Palestine? It doesn’t take much to read the gospel accounts of overturning the money-changers’ tables in the Temple and the “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem with crowds hailing Jesus as the Messiah as versions of today’s “Occupy Wall Street” movement.

There are significant differences. I mean, of course there are. It’s not even entirely clear how any of us should understand the “occupy” movement today, with its multiple demands, sometimes confusing messages, and apparently conflicting allegiances. But this much is probably safe to say: the “occupiers” (whether in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, D.C. or wherever) have had enough of “business as usual.” It might also be safe to say that they love their country; these are insiders doing all this occupying – they are us.

We could say the same thing about Jesus and his disciples: They loved their country, they loved their religious tradition, they were insiders and they had had enough of “business as usual.”

This becomes very complicated very quickly. We mustn’t forget that first century Palestine was itself already occupied, by the Roman Empire. Some of the religious leaders actually colluded with those occupiers by making various economically beneficial deals on the side to keep the peace. Disrupting that peace, some have argued, is what got Jesus in so much trouble and eventually executed by the Romans (and without any real objection from his own religious authorities).

“Occupy” has a very troubling history, not just in the first century but also today as we live with the legacy of Euro-Americans occupying far too many lands and cultures at the expense of those who were already there. But I wonder if we might find a way to rehabilitate that troubling word with some more “homey” resonances.

I occupy my home, not out of protest but because, well, it’s home. I’m happy to occupy it and I’m happy to share that occupation with my mother and a canine, by the name of Tyler. I’m also happy to share that occupation with friends, colleagues, visitors, guests.

I also occupy various vocational roles – as a priest in the Episcopal Church, a theologian in the academy, a writer, a teacher, a pastor. I consider these to be privileged “occupations” and they are more frequently grace-filled than I can recount.

Those examples (and many others) make me think of “occupation” as a form of “taking up residence.” I wasn’t the first to take up residence in the house I currently occupy, and I probably won’t be the last; I’m making it a home in ways the previous occupiers didn’t, but which build on what they did before me. Countless others have taken up residence in the vocational work I now occupy and they have inspired me to extend their work with some redecorating and renovations.

What about the Church? Modern western cultural values have taken up residence in Christianity and have occupied it for quite a long time now, for a few centuries at least. The results have been rather mixed. Is late modern global capitalism a gospel value? What about racial bias? Do Christians really believe that the current gap between rich and poor is a gospel value? What about environmental degradation as the price to pay for corporate profits?

What about people just seeking to be loved and cherished for who they are? Can we imagine Christian churches welcoming absolutely everyone, no exceptions? What would that kind of welcome do to our stratified communities?

I honestly don’t know how to answer all these questions, but I do believe they need to be asked and pondered in fresh ways. I do believe this: If the Gospel were to occupy Christianity and take up residence in our churches in new and compelling ways, the world would change.

I saw an “occupy” protest sign recently online that read, “Jesus is with the 99%.” Well, yes, but Jesus is with the 1%, too. Jesus is with all of us. Only when “all” really means all will we realize that the wonderfully peculiar Gospel of Jesus has taken up residence among us once again.

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Queer Home Economics

What do civil marriage equality and the debt default crisis have in common? They are linked by a deceptively simple word: economics.

Marriage clearly means much more than joint checking accounts. But let’s not assume that love, companionship, and sexual intimacy have no economic implications. If economics didn’t matter, we wouldn’t care how employers or health care providers or the Church Pension Fund treat same-gender relationships.

And while the debt default crisis makes great partisan drama, that’s just the tip of a vast ideological iceberg, which now threatens to sink the Ship of State on which all of us depend in countless ways, whether we’re single or newly married or somewhere in between.

Christians don’t have to be professional economists to notice that both the Bible and Church history are packed with economic images at nearly every turn. Those images do not a fiscal policy make, to be sure. But they can help to shape a Christian voice in the public square, as some religious leaders recently discovered as they get arrested in the U.S. Capitol rotunda for doing precisely that.

Biblical theologian Walter Brueggemann once remarked that he wished Episcopalians would take the Bible just as seriously when talking about economics as they do when talking about sexuality. But those are not separate concerns; they are deeply intertwined in what I like to call the Gospel vocation of “queer home economics.” I know that “queer” word is troubling, but I don’t mean it as just shorthand for LGBT people. I mean it more broadly as strange, odd, and just peculiar.

I think it’s worth remembering that the word “economy” derives from the combination of two Greek words: oikos, or house, and nomos, or law. In that sense, organizing the daily operations of one’s household, from grocery shopping to meal preparation and bill paying to laundry, describes an economic effort to create a home that functions for the benefit of all who live there – which is precisely what “homemakers” were taught to do in high school courses called “home economics.”

Professional economists do something similar but on a larger scale, with towns, cities, counties, states, and nations, and increasingly, how all of those interrelate in a global household – clearly much more an art than a science.

In Christian traditions “economy” has also been used to talk about God. This doesn’t make God a cosmic banker setting heavenly monetary policy. Consider instead “divine economy” in the more “homey” sense. If the world is not only God’s creation but also God’s household, then God-the-home-economist seeks to create a vast, lively household in which all thrive and flourish.

Insert Jesus into this mix and something rather peculiar if not rather queer happens. Consider the shepherd Jesus described who leaves ninety-nine sheep behind to find the one that is lost (Luke 15:4-7), or the man burying treasure in a field and then selling everything he has to buy that field (Mt 13:44), or the woman turning her house upside down to find one missing coin (Luke 15:8), or getting rid of all possessions to purchase the one pearl of great value (Mt 13:45).

Those are all economic images Jesus used to describe what he called “the kingdom of God” and by most economic standards today, Jesus was a lousy economist. It makes no economic sense to put ninety-nine sheep at risk for the sake of just one or to liquidate one’s resources for the sake of buried treasure or a single pearl, no matter how valuable, or to devote so much time and effort to recovering one coin.

Early Christians took the economic implications of those parables to heart as they blurred the distinction between private household economies and larger societal ones. In the Acts of the Apostles, those Christians understood such revolutionary economics as an indispensable component of their faith and, indeed, as a matter of life and death (Acts 4:32-37, 5:1-7).

Jesus tried to prepare his disciples for this economically peculiar work by reminding them that a wise householder brings out of the household treasure not only what is old but also what is new, surprising, and fresh (Mt 13:52). Even more pointedly, he reminded them what happens to old wineskins when they’re filled with new wine – eventually they burst (Mk 2:22).

I wonder whether it’s time for the U.S. economy to “burst” and make way for a different vision. Our political system is clearly broken. Both parties are deeply beholden to Wall Street and corporate balance sheets. Among the nations, the U.S. ranks 30 in life expectancy, 31 in infant survival rates, and 37 in quality of health care. That’s a short list in an economic situation that will take more than just a little tweaking around the edges or raising a debt ceiling.

Christians engaged in queer home economics will do so not only for the treasure, the pearl, and the coin, but especially for that one out of a hundred who is lost. Or perhaps those thousands who are “lost” without any health care because they don’t have a job or aren’t married to someone who does; or those millions starving in Somalia (currently the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet while the US debt ceiling grabs all the headlines); or the appalling conditions of the factory workers outside the U.S. who make our tech gadgets, like the computer on which I’ve written this blog.

Whether or not the U.S. defaults on its debt next Tuesday, the Christian household of faith has a lot of work to do. We could start by imagining not just eleven but hundreds of religious leaders being arrested in the Capitol rotunda, and not just in D.C. but in every state capitol around the country.

If we did that, Jesus, the peculiar home economist, would surely be right there with us. And he would likely have some suggestions about what to do with all those money-changers’ tables (Mk 11:15-18).