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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

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Soul Sickness and Domestic Terror

I can’t get the words of an old African-American spiritual out of my head:

“There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.”

Those words came to me yesterday morning as I read about the mosque in Joplin, Missouri that had been burned to the ground overnight, apparently because of arson. This is the same mosque that was damaged by an arsonist earlier this summer (on the Fourth of July, no less).

That old spiritual keeps coming back to me as we learn more about the terrorizing of worshiping Sikhs outside of Milwaukee over the weekend, just two weeks after Batman movie-goers were gunned down in a Colorado theater.

It’s time we recognize all of these as just the latest symptoms of a serious societal sickness in the United States. Whether this sickness is treatable or proves to be fatal to the soul of this nation will depend in large measure on our collective willingness to diagnose it and to speak truthfully about its consequences.

Whatever we might learn about the perpetrators of these acts of violence will matter less than whether we can address what truly ails us as a society. Whoever is elected President this November needs to stand up in January during the State of the Union Address and be perfectly frank: “The state of our union is not good.” And here are just two of the reasons he could cite.

Money Buys Truth
What would you do with $6 billion? Corporations and lobbying groups will spend at least that much buying this year’s presidential election. But the real cost is truth-telling.

Politicians won’t speak the truth for fear of losing corporate money and most people don’t even want to hear the truth because it would mean changing the way we live. Most of us don’t want to hear about where our computers are made, how our food is raised, what petrocarbons do to the environment, who foots the bill for legislation, and why white supremacy still shapes nearly every one of our cultural institutions.

A project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center recently noted that the 2012 presidential campaign is on track to be the most deception-laden of all. An NPR story from a few months ago suggests that fiercely partisan divisions aren’t going away any time soon. This means in part that what we really need right now likely won’t happen: grown-up conversations about gun violence and racism.

Untreated Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
I remember vividly where I was when the twin towers fell. Even today, I tend to look up with a twinge of anxiety when I hear a low-flying plane in the San Francisco Bay Area. That is surely mild compared to the post-trauma symptoms of New Yorkers.

While I’m a big fan of “retail therapy,” I hardly think that keeping New York’s Fifth Avenue shops open for business after the 9/11 attacks suffices to address the trauma of terror.

The virulent anti-immigration rhetoric over the last ten years bears witness to our collective post-traumatic stress disorder. All “foreigners” are suspect, especially if they don’t speak English, or have dark skin, and even more especially if they wear turbans. (Read this excellent commentary about guns, white men, and madness.)

(Wade Page, the shooter in Wisconsin, sported a 9/11 tattoo and had been tracked for years by the Southern Poverty Law Center for his involvement in white supremacist groups.)

This could be an occasion to address not only post-9/11 trauma but the longer traumatic legacy of African slavery and economic stratification. Something has gone terribly awry when white people among the working poor are unable to make common cause with African-Americans among the working poor – this is the classic “wedge” that politicians have learned to exploit with corporate money.

People are traumatized. People are fearful and anxious. Way too many people can’t put food on their tables. These hard realities are mapped to race, to color, to language, to culture, and, sadly, to turbans. We must find a way to talk about this.

So how might we begin to diagnose even these two symptoms? Christian traditions (among others) have a word for it: sin.

Self-styled liberal Christians shy away from this, but I think it’s time to name it. I don’t mean the rightly caricatured “Santa Claus God” who checks his list to see who’s been naughty or nice. I mean instead how both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Testament treat “sin” as anything that prevents the full flourishing of life and relationships, which the Creator intended for all.

Back in the 19th century a religious philosopher/theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, described the human condition as a “sickness unto death.” This sickness results from the self’s turning inward on itself instead of outward, in relation. This, Kierkegaard said, leads to a spiral of despair, and surely today we are on that brink.

Some indigenous peoples in North America referred to the same thing as “soul sickness.” That’s how they made sense of their encounter with Europeans, whose obsession with private property and their inability to share what they had with others perplexed them. The Chippewa had a cure for this soul sickness: organizing your community for the sake of the common good.

Treating the tragedies in Aurora, Oak Creek, and Joplin as isolated incidents of potentially mentally unstable individuals only perpetuates our denial. We need to name our collective illness before we can find healing.

Surely faith communities can help facilitate those conversations, and not merely for naming what ails us. Surely leaders from all of our religious traditions could stand together, put aside doctrinal bickering, and bear witness to solidarity, and thus to a vision of hope, of the possibility of healing, and of a way to live together differently. Surely now is the time.

There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole;
there is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.

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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).

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Trinitarian Finger Pointing

The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the queerest things about Christianity, and I honestly don’t know exactly what or how to think about it. As many Christians will celebrate Trinity Sunday tomorrow, I do think it’s important to remember what Buddhists like to say about doctrine: “the finger is not the moon.” The best we can hope for from any doctrine is that it will point us toward something important, but it can never capture it.

Liberal Protestants tend to shy away from Trinitarian doctrine, but I have at least three reasons (appropriately enough) why I queerly love the Trinity: you can’t sell it on Wall Street; it irritates politicians; and it won’t fit on a Hallmark greeting card. Here’s what I mean:

1. You Can’t Sell it on Wall Street

We live in a world of nearly total commodification. There’s hardly anything left on this planet that can’t be packaged, advertised, and sold. Big banks even made billions from packaging and selling something that didn’t exist and no one understood: the future value of debt.

The Holy Trinity, by contrast, resists every attempt to package it – even by theologians. Every attempt to say exactly what the Trinity means never quite works, sending the theologian back to the drawing board. And that’s how it should be.

As Augustine once noted many centuries ago, “si comprehendis, non est Deus” (if you understand something, it’s not God). To put this in another way, Trinitarian perplexities can help guard against idolatry. Or to paraphrase Augustine, if you can sell it in the gift shop, it may not be an idol, but it’s not God, either.

2. It Irritates Politicians

Fortunately, not every politician needs to be irritated, but more than a few do. In an era of dissolving social safety nets and in a society where the top 1% of the population controls 40% of the wealth, more than a few politicians need to be reminded about the corrosive legacy of modern western individualism.

That reminder will irritate them, especially if they believe that every man (or rather, every rich, white man) should live for himself. Respecting the rights and dignity of every individual is good, but not at the expense of destroying any notion of the common good. It’s even more irritating to these politicians to talk about this with theological language. The Holy Trinity can work really well for that.

Trinitarian doctrine developed, in part, as a way to describe the very heart of reality itself as social. Some theologians find the language of choreography helpful for this. In the dynamic interrelations of the Trinity, we cannot distinguish the divine dancers from the divine dance; indeed the dancers are the dance and vice versa, and the dance itself is endless, deathless love.

As social creatures created by a social, dancing God, we are bound together, inextricably interwoven with each other – friend and stranger, lover and enemy – and all of us need each other to hear the music, learn the steps, and dance our way into the abundant life that God intends for all. That’s both a hopeful and a challenging view of reality, regardless of political party or income bracket.

3. It Won’t Fit on a Greeting Card

Actually, there’s not much I can think of worth saying that does fit on a greeting card – unless the card is really big. Take love, for instance. If love is more than a feeling or a sentiment, I don’t see how we’ll ever squeeze it into an envelope – and I think that’s a good thing.

I’ve been learning a lot about love just recently from working with my colleagues in the Episcopal Church on developing resources for the blessing of same-gender relationships. We’ve been trying to craft liturgical language about how relationships of any kind can become a blessing to the wider community when committed love brims over into lives of hospitality, generosity, and service.

There’s something Trinitarian going on there. Augustine, for example, experimented with several ways of talking about the Trinity, including this one: “The Lover, the Beloved, and the Love Itself.” I like that, especially when other theologians expanded on it by suggesting that the Love itself was uncontainable, welling up and spilling over from the Lover and Beloved into the act of creation – and that includes all of us, as we are caught up more and more into the great dance of divine love.

No, the finger is not the moon. But I do find Trinitarian finger pointing not only hopeful and challenging but also inspiring, enticing, and inviting. So, shall we dance?