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.
photo credit: mugley via photopin cc

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.

photo credit: six steps  via photopin cc

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.