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.

photo credit: cropped from eventphotosnyc via photopin cc

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 defy 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.

photo credit: e_monk via photopin cc

Monday, August 25, 2014


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.

photo credit: Rob Shenk via photopin cc

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, 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.

photo credit: Cristobal Viedma via photopin cc

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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Saturday, April 12, 2014

rruuaacchh quotes 4

Whether using violence or ignition, to have a reasonable chance you have to attack the system before you get to Birkenau.

--from The Healer Messiah, chapter 10.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Split, part 2

I like diversity of points of view. I think it’s healthy, I think it’s normal, I think it’s valuable because none of us has all the answers.

And I like that there are different religions, and that within Christianity, there are many different denominations. We need each other. We need the diversity of opinion.

So logically I have to affirm church splitting, because all of these different forms of Christianity emerged by splits. In evolution, species often split, otherwise we wouldn’t have the vast array of different forms of life. 

But at the same time I want to forge communion with those who see the world differently than I do. I need them, they need me. We need to struggle over our different conclusions, otherwise we’re no use to each other. The Church+ doesn’t just exist between people who agree with each other, but between people who disagree and struggle with that disagreement to bring something new into the world. 

So I think that we should sometimes split. Birds of a feather flock together. We have a consistent way of looking at things that leads us to strong conclusions, and we want to teach that to our children, and spend time learning and exploring the framework that we claim as our own. We want a community that speaks the same language. It’s not only more comfortable, it’s the only way to become really fluent in that language. 

But in splitting, we must forge a higher union, on another level. We must covenant ourselves to create a space for regular struggle together over our differences. Maybe it’s twice a year, pick your own interval, but we must acknowledge that we can’t be ourselves, in our particular separateness, without the other. We must confess our need for each other, that we are incomplete without the other. The confrontation of our differences is valuable, and is what will keep us from our hubris.

In particular, this means that we do not cut off communion with each other. Because (as I argue in The Healer Messiah) our communion is not based on our agreement on common beliefs. Our communion is based on our commitment to God’s spirit, who wants to make a covenant with God’s offenders. We have to live in dangerous vulnerability to each other. That is our calling.

A parting of the ways. A pragmatic separation. A lessening of the frequency of our interaction. But not a breaking of communion. We commit to a regular interaction without which we cease to exist.

For this is a spiritual discipline without which we are not the Church+. Hospitality counts, and is not always comfortable. Every time we celebrate our hospitality to each other within our congregation, we should also be hospitable to the marginalized, the outsider, even the enemy.

May I suggest that we change our rite of communion, and perhaps our rite of eating together in all its forms, to give us some regular means of facing up to the music of being accountable to our sisters and brothers who differ from us. In separating we would pledge to send delegates to each others communion services, to celebrate our deeper union, and to keep up the conversation in a disciplined, sustainable fashion. It’s a middle way, a way of muddling through, that suits our humble status.

Imagine that every communion service were followed by a “conversation time” for listening to each other as trespassers, as offenders. We make a simple announcement like: “Welcome to this communion. Please partake with us. If anyone is offended by us or by anything that we do, please bring it up in our conversation time following this simple meal. It is meant for that, you will do us a favor. We look forward to hearing from you.” The conversation does not precede the communion, for our reconciliation is not based on our arriving at a common opinion, but on our love across our offending opinions. Maybe we'd even wash each other's feet.

Note that this practice would stand the common understanding of communion on its head--what used to be an expression of exclusion, a boundary marker of a community based on uniformity of belief, would become a rite of hospitality deliberately reaching out across differences of belief. In this we would follow Jesus, who deliberately sought out offenders to eat with.

Let me speak to three possible negative reactions. The first is concern about the nag, the congregation gadfly, the poor soul who brings up his/her schtick, at length, at every opportunity. If someone is so burdened that they can’t participate well in a discussion, they need support, and they may need healing. Some might need a counsellor, someone who can help them brave the work of discovering where their trauma lies, and naming it and perhaps their aggressors, and sorting out their lives. There is no need to accept the destruction of our ability to engage each other seriously, rather, we should get burdened people the resources they need.

The second is the plaint “But we’ve listened and listened, and talked and debated and worn each other out with words. Both sides have other pressing needs to attend to. We are exhausted. We need closure.” We need to make such conflict sustainable. Let’s agree to go our separate ways and break the deadlock in which we find ourselves, so that we can sustain a slower, longer term engagement. We need a rhythm to our lives, we need to reach out and learn from each other, but we also need rest and focus on our identity. We are finite creatures, it takes a while for us to digest change. But we dare not walk away from each other. We must pledge to continue our struggle, in a sustainable form.

The third is the plaint "What if your brother or sister is damaging others? Would you still commune with slavers, or oppressors, or murderers?" To which my reply is, if they really believe they are not damaging others, and if they commit to not coercing us, then yes, I would carefully consider the risk of inviting them into our confrontational communion. The risk may be great. But our conflict within our commitment to respectful listening and teaching would be particularly valuable.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Monday, March 31, 2014

Split, part 1.

Many churches and denominations have split, or are splitting, over whether same-sex marriage partners should be given membership and leadership.

rruuaacchh poured out among us
God's Spirit poured out among us
I am on a local committee that recently organized a civil public discussion on the church and same-sex marriage. Our committee includes both conservatives and liberals, with deep connections to very conservative and liberal churches. One of the invited speakers had discussed several biblical passages that appeared to condemn homosexuality, giving reasons why they actually did not condemn homosexuality. I thought some of his efforts had fallen short. I think some of these passages are against homosexuality, and are wrong. Afterwards, there was a debriefing exchange of emails among the members of the committee. It became evident that the core of our disagreement was over scriptural interpretation. In a reply to some remarks by Bill [not his real name] a conservative member of the committee, I wrote:

[Bill], I say amen to your "I believe that our hearts are primarily deceitful (Jer. 17:9) and that we need to sit under the authority of God’s revealed will in his Word." Sign me up.

And I utterly agree with your next sentence too:

Any attempt to take interpretation and application outside of the parameters laid before us in scripture is to me dangerous, irresponsible, and subject to the whims of a given culture and cultural idols.

Great, spot on. But for me, the parameters laid before us in scripture are precisely that IF we engage with our enemies in confrontational communion, in a commitment to struggle with each other and not let go, just like we're doing here in this conversation, then indeed God is revealed in our midst. Emmanuel happens. The breathing body of Christ, the Church+, walks among us. To refer back to your first sentence, the Word lives. I think you all can think of lots of scriptures that support the view that the Holy Spirit continued revelation after Jesus passion. (One example would be Peter's dream of the unclean food, and his acceptance of eating with Cornelius. This abrogated Peter's scriptures.)

[Bill], you continue

Much like the book of Judges where “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” we too, without a recognized authority are prone to wander and follow after our own desires that Paul acknowledges in Romans 7 are often against the very thing he knows he should do.

Being open to the Holy Spirit, I want to forge communion with those who offend me, my rivals, my opponents, my enemies. I commit to staying in communion with them, that's the Church+. And so my safety net is my opponents. [I name all the conservatives on the committee], do you really think that if I were to wander and follow after my own desires, you'd let me get away with it? The thing that keeps me from sliding on the slippery slope of my own desires is my commitment to you, to not walk away from this conversation until we have consensus. That is my "recognized authority."

I have a question for you. Can you tell me where scripture says it is the end of all revelation? I think that any such assertion is unbiblical.

My next post will say why I think many churches and denominations should split. And that they should, at the same time, on another level, not split.

Monday, March 24, 2014

rruuaacchh quotes 2

A person who speaks “Catholic” may have difficulty understanding a person speaking “Southern Baptist”. They frame the world differently even though they may both use English, and the same scriptures, and even many of the same terms...

--from The Healer Messiah, chapter 1.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Spiritual Discipline

I’m taking a course on Islamic Spirituality, and the professor--my good friend Dr. Seyed Amir Akrami--once remarked that Sufism takes theology not as an end, the truth, but as a means to that end. He implied spirituality is a way, a journey that we neglect at our peril, and Sufi disciplines are to help us stay on that way.

For me truth is a state of blessed conflict, not something that can be written down in a set of propositions. That is, the limitations of my point of view, understanding, tradition and language are transcended by my community where people have different understandings and traditions. The continuous conflict of those perceptions is a great blessing. 

My goal is not to synthesize a grand truth that unifies those perceptions, though sometimes that is possible, and if so is wonderful and revealing. But synthesis is not my goal, any more than the goal of learning foreign languages is to make a blend of all the languages learned. My end goal is to live in the blessing of this sometimes chaotic conflict of perceptions in my community. It is the good place, my true home, my salvation, the kingdom of God, enough.

Amir spoke of the virtue of polishing our souls as one would a metal mirror, a trope of Rumi’s, who wrote

A mirror in external form is made up of iron,
the mirror revealing the image of the soul is very valuable

mirror, is the soul of the face of a friend
the face of that friend from that land (Rumi, Masnavi, Book 2 part 1)

(quoted from Fariborz Arbasi, Rumi on Change by Love and Reason, translated by Sherry Nabijou, in process of publication.)

Here the goal of spiritual discipline--the continuous polishing of the quickly tarnished metal mirror--is not the power of perfect vision. Rather, it is to simultaneously have one’s identity and become a mirror reflecting anothers’ identity, and in that mirroring, to see yourself and the other more clearly, though less distinctly, in losing track of the difference between the soul seen and the soul seeing. For me, as here for Rumi, it takes two to tango. I can’t become one without being two.

A favorite spiritual discipline of mine is something I try to do every time I meet another human. As, or before, I encounter them—my spouse, my child, a friend, a stranger, an enemy—I try to remind myself of what they are, and of what I am. We are capable of hosting God’s spirit. I set myself to search for the face of God in them, even and especially in the face of an enemy. To seek the face of my trustworthy opponent, someone with a message for me, a perception for me. I set myself to be quick to report to them if I see anything amiss—if I have a message for them. I pay attention to any loss of dignity of mine or theirs. Such transparency takes paying attention. It is our mutual care, to see what the other does not, and tell each other about it.

photo credit: Dean Ayres via photopin cc

Monday, March 17, 2014

rruuaacchh quotes 1

This book is about how to live well with people who deny our core beliefs, or whose actions we consider immoral, or who have traumatized us. Such people may be our spouses or kin, or international enemies.

--from The Healer Messiah, Introduction