Saturday, December 13, 2014

N.T. Wright on Marriage

I really like N.T. Wright's broadly stroked sketch of the whole Bible, save for the conclusion at the end, where to me he abuses his own argument, and ends up not following his own wisdom.



He mentions sea and dry land, and animal/vegetable, and heaven and earth, and marriage between man and woman, as symbols, signposts pointing towards something profoundly true. Blazed across the whole Bible is God's attempt to reach out to God's offenders, to establish a marriage, a covenanted relationship, with those who are offensive. There is something complementary in the relationship between opposites, between the infinite and the finite, between heaven and earth, between God and God's enemies, between us and ours. Out of their confrontation within a marriage something can be born that wasn't in the cards for either one alone. It is the supreme act of creation.

All good. Language often pulls metaphors out of something visceral whose functional logic parallels that which is being talked about. For example, we might say "we're all in the same boat, don't rock it" using a physical analog to describe a social situation. Indeed every marriage between a man and a woman is a symbol of complementarity, of the productive coming together of things that are radically different, and of the commitment it takes to make that complementarity work.

But that doesn't logically imply that gay marriage is wrong. Just that gay marriage isn't as strong a metaphor for the commitment and value of a complementary relationship, as is hetero marriage. We don't conclude from the truth of "we're all in the same boat" that we shouldn't "think outside the box." A good metaphor doesn't amount to a normative claim. Rather, this overarching biblical theme of the value of difference implies we must forge a committed relationship with those whose perception and experience of the world is radically different from ours. Within the warm community of the church, we commit to confrontation, transparency and struggle with each other over our differences, and to depend on each other's different perceptions in our mutual discernment of what to do next in healing this world. It is the supreme act of creation.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

I can't breathe

I've been reading John Lewis' Walking with the Wind, his first-hand account of the civil rights movement of the 1960's. Lewis' writing is honest, personal and very real. The non-violent movement convulsed the nation and broke the back of legal segregation in the deep south.

But by the end of chapter sixteen, after the movement had endured all the beatings, shootings, teargas and bombings of the Freedom Rides and Birmingham and Mississippi and Selma, Lewis writes (pg 347):

Something was born in Selma during the course of that year, but something died there, too. The road of nonviolence had essentially run out. Selma was the last act.
...
We're only flesh. I could understand people not wanting to get beaten anymore. The body gets tired. You put out so much energy and you saw such little gain. Black capacity to believe white would really open his heart, open his life to nonviolent appeal, was running out.

Sixty years later, what does The Healer Messiah have to offer the people of Ferguson, or New York, or dozens of other communities? Is there any wisdom beyond nonviolence? Is there a reason why the movement of the 60's ran out of steam? What should be done now?

The movement attempted to use the federal government to force the southern states to end segregation. They built on Supreme Court decisions declaring segregation unconstitutional in education and in interstate commerce. Their strategy was to generate political momentum that would force the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to intervene against southern states to uphold federal law. 

State troopers and local sheriff's departments often attacked the movement with dogs, fire hoses, savage beatings and brutal mass arrests. By Lewis' account, the political impact of the horrific TV footage of the peaceful marchers' fate on the bridge out of Selma forced the Federal government to send federal troops, federal marshals, and the FBI to protect the marchers from the sheriff posses and the populace as they walked through the hate-laced countryside from Selma to Montgomery.

Their strategy worked, in that it attained its goal of forcing southern states to end legalized segregation. Their nonviolent courage ignited the nation, and the widespread political support they inspired resulted in the US Civil Rights Act of 1964 and US Voting Rights Act of 1965.

On page 349 Lewis writes 

Now we needed to deal with the subtler and much more complex issues of attaining economic and political power, of dealing with attitudes and actions held deep inside people and institutions that, now that they were forced to allow us through the door, could still keep the rewards inside those doors out of our reach. Combating segregation is one thing. Dealing with racism is another. [emphasis mine]

In short, the movement hadn't set out to heal its enemies. The State of Alabama, and the Klan supporters who signed up for the sheriff posses and cheered the club-swinging mounted police, were forced by the feds, not healed.

The Healer Messiah asserts that our only salvation is our enemies' salvation. Our only healing is our enemies' healing. The movement's great but limited results weren't a failure of nonviolent tactics, but were a result of the limitations of their strategy. I'm not saying what they did was an error—they had an opportunity to force the system to behave by its own values, and they seized that opportunity. Their courage ignited many in the nation, and they took a giant step in the right direction.

But there is work left undone.

The way forward is to raise our strategic sights to the healing of our society. We must heal each other. By that I mean inspire each other into the kind of relationship described in The Healer Messiah as a confrontational communion, not a melting pot. It is a daunting proposition, but there is no other final solution. Our weapons are courage, hospitality, humility, mutual inspiration and perseverance. May God, whose spirit we can breathe, help us all.

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Addendum: the following is my contribution to the conversation about the structures that have us stuck. I have little experience here, in particular I'm neither black nor a policeman. I offer it humbly, perhaps it will be useful to you.

The logic of police interventions is to control. This is so deep as to be unquestioned. It goes down to the bedrock of the need for the state to have a monopoly on coercive power if it is to protect the weak from the strong. In this logic, control is a virtue of police. 

During an interaction between citizens and police, if the police see the citizens as docilely accepting police control, usually all goes according to well-established processes and safeguards. But to the degree that the police feel their control is not accepted, they impose greater levels of physical control. They escalate. In extremis, they'll kill.

But a virtue of the oppressed is to deny the control of the oppressive system.

Many young black men project a defiance of control, in their stance, their dress, their language and their attitude. This defiance is a virtue of the oppressed. They reject the unfair system under which they suffer. Their every gesture expresses that dignitytheir rejection of the system. It's the same reason Palestinian's throw rocks at tanksa matter of dignity.

Blacks are angry and frustrated at living with unfairness. Whites fear those who have such a demonstrably and historically well-founded grievance against them. The expectation of conflict is all it takes for police to feel a challenge to their control even when there is none.

The virtue of control, the virtue of defiance, overlaying fear and anger. That's how Ferguson, and many other communities, are stuck. This is going to be a long haul.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Hospitality when threatened

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., once said "it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning."

But not Halloween night.

In a small town in late October, aliens and monsters lurked in the darkness around the house. Frankenstein and some witches stood on the front porch defended by skulls and spider webs, weird wailing sounds echoing from loudspeakers. The attackers advanced with a threat, "Trick or Treat."

Hospitality was extended, and gratefully received.

At Halloween, we celebrate hospitality offered in the face of every symbolic threat we can think of, on both sides.

Good idea. We often look like that to each other.

No wonder the crowd was diverse. Felt great.

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Monday, August 25, 2014

pinch

What am I?

Pinch your shirt to make a fold of cloth. A wave is a pinch on the surface of the sea. Massanutten Mountain is a long ridge near my town, a pinch of the earth's surface.

There's no line on the ground that you can straddle with one foot on the mountain, and one foot off the mountain. Salient and solid, the mountain fades gradually out into the whole earth's surface. There's no separating a wave from the sea, yet we count the waves as if they were independent.

If visitors from some alien civilization came to this corner of the galaxy and asked it "What do you know of yourself?" they could do worse than ask us. We're each a part of this earth that is aware, that internalizes a model of the world around us. We know some of what goes on in ourselves, less of what goes on in our town, a tiny bit about the planets and the stars, yet what we know is amazingly effective. We're pinches of the whole, that mirror the whole in caricature in our minds.

And more, we can talk to each other.

So we have a duty to each other. Our duty is to tell each other what this experience is like, seen from where we stand. Each of us is closer to some things, and sees some things better, than the others. I owe it to you, to tell you what I know of this life. I should expect that you see things differently. That's what I need you to tell me about--the rest I already know.

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Monday, July 14, 2014

rruuaacchh quotes 7

...a group of experts, those who individually design the best solutions, is NOT the best group to attack the problem. Why? Because they tend to all have the best point of view—not a very good one, but the best one. Better is a group of people who have some experience but have very different points of view on the problem, some of them not the best. Those sub-optimal points of view carry information that is not in the best view.

From The Healer Messiah, chapter 8.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Useful Enemies

Muhammad Legenhausen, a Muslim friend of mine who speaks German among several other languages, recently posted the following:

Im Namen Allahs, des Gnädigen, des Barmherzigen

Teur ist mir der Freund, 
doch auch den Feind kann ich nützen, 
Zeigt mir der Freund, was ich kann, 
lehrt mich der Feind, was ich soll.
Friedrich Schiller


The first line means "In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful." It is the first line of all the chapters of the Qur'an save one. Muhammad tends to start all of his posts this way. I translate the quote from Schiller as

Friends are dear to me,
But I can also use enemies.
A friend shows me what I can,
An enemy teaches me what I should.

The ambiguity is interesting. It could be that having an enemy teaches me the harshness I need to dominate and not lose out. It could be that the enemy is my savior from my ignorance and self-approval. It is not both: I don't learn much from people I dominate, other than how to dominate. Choose.

The icon is of the three military strangers whom Abraham hosted and confronted at Mamre. They came to destroy the city where Abraham's nephew lived. Abraham feasted them and negotiated with them, somewhat unsuccessfully. They turned out to be emissaries of God. Choose.

Monday, June 23, 2014

rruuaacchh quotes 6

Taken as propositional belief systems, monotheism, polytheism and atheism (there is one God, there are three million Gods, there is no God) are utterly incompatible. But seen as languages, as well-developed traditions, they all have much to say about the human condition, and we can profit by their being at the communion table.

--from The Healer Messiah chapter 8.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Freddy

Freddy, I hope life has dealt well with you.

When I was in sixth grade Freddy accosted me in the school bathroom. He was a fifth grader. The bathroom had a door from the hall, but also a door out to the school grounds, and was the easiest way to get out to the ball diamond.

He challenged me to fight. Stood in my way. Said I was afraid.

My folks had told me not to get in a fight. Fighting on the school grounds was forbidden. I was a good pupil. Freddy on the other hand sometimes had issues with teachers.

I was a head taller than Freddy. Freddy was thin, I was solid. He stood there, looking up at me, calling me a coward, daring me to hit him.

I stood there, tears rolling down my face. I told him I wouldn't fight, that I didn't believe that violence solved anything. I didn't back away, but I wouldn't hit him.

I've never been satisfied with that day. All my life I've wondered what I should have done. Now I know.

My family was well off. Freddy's lived down by the tenements. I didn't hang out with Freddy. I was smart, and knew it, and wanted to be a leader. But I was hamstrung by my care for my reputation. If it came to a fight, the teacher's question would be "who hit first?" I wasn't afraid of Freddy, I was afraid of being labeled the one who started the fight. I was afraid for my status in the eyes of adults, the power structure. You can't be a leader with that attitude.

Maybe he wasn't there by choice, and maybe it was frightfully costly to him, but it was true that he dared to spite the system. Freddy was asking "Do you dare to deal with me directly, dare to give me a playing card against you, dare to risk the consequences meted out by the system, or do you stay in the system?"

I hadn't sorted out the difference between being good and being the teacher's pet. I shouldn't be too hard on me--it was a pretty tight fix. If I'd hit him he could have told the teachers I'd started the fight. And if I didn't, he could call me a coward.

I should have dealt with him directly. I should have given him a whack, nothing to really hurt him. Maybe he'd have tried to pummel me. Maybe he'd have told the teachers I had started a fight. I don't know what issues he may have been dealing with. I don't know what the costs to me might have been.

But I know that what I did was unsatisfactory. Non-violence isn't the guiding principle. Wanting fair relationships, regardless of the cost, is. And the best way to a real, fair relationship with Freddy just then was to give him a whack. Not to beat him, not to prove my courage, but to dare sharing his world outside the system. To step onto his turf, into his communion, into his power.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that if confronted with an armed, violent person you shouldn't call in the cops. That's not a question of protecting your reputation, and there's nothing fair about it. But Freddy wasn't a bully 20 pounds heavier than me. He was a scrawny little tough.

Freddy wanted a real peer relationship. He sensed there was something wrong with the way I related to him and others. We were both into fishing in the local ponds and streams, maybe we could have become friends. He had much to offer.

Freddy, I hope life has dealt well with you.

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Saturday, May 10, 2014

rruuaacchh quotes 5

It means that the Messiah is loose in the world, this world. It means the gospel isn’t just about the past and the hereafter. There is a breathing Messiah, now.

--from The Healer Messiah chapter 4.

Monday, April 14, 2014

An Open and Closed Case

My friend Michael King, Dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary, said he's often blue in the face. In his words: 


But "the open" find it hard to be open to "the closed." And "the closed" see it as violating their stand to be open to "the open." So I can preach until I'm blue in the face (and my face is often blue) that Christians will be open to treasures in perspectives other than our own. Yet the "closed" will hear me as imposing an openness that closes them out, as demanding they play a game rigged against them. Should they in turn insist our divisions can heal only if I yield to their One True Truth, I'll likewise experience the game as rigged. That's the riddle. (Michael A. King, Painholders on holy ground, The Mennonite, Feb 2014)

There's an upside to this. We don't need the weaknesses of both the open and the closed, we need their strengths. The conservatives' strengths are in their faithfulness to a wisdom that's been tested through generations. A conservative will dare to confront, even to offend. What motivates them is their appreciation of how desperately evil humanity can be. Hear hear!

The liberals' strengths are in their ability to reach out to learn from other sources of wisdom that have also been tested through generations. A liberal will dare to change. What motivates them is their appreciation of how desperately ignorant humanity can be. Hear hear!

The spirit of God carries both, and in spades. 

Not just daring to confront: daring to offend while weak, while powerless, while giving up power to dominate or control.

Not just daring to learn: forgiving offenses in order to forge a relationship where room for the offender can be negotiated.

To be fully human we must incarnate the spirit of God. This is the heart of the gospel. It's a matter of life and breath.*

*trademark, the American Lung Association.
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