Friday, December 01, 2017

The Creation of Advent

An Invitation to the Season

Salvation extends far beyond the human. Although we humans are attracted to the salvation peculiarly offered through that human being Jesus Christ, we realize that salvation is more than just a promise of eternal life for humans. Salvation is bigger: it is all of creation restored, made whole, healed and at peace. And this is in part because we are a part of, and not separate from, creation itself.

As a preacher, I probably make the mistake of too frequently focusing on how the gospel impacts human beings. It’s a natural mistake. It’s easiest for us to think out of our own frame of reference (the human), and harder for us to consider how the gospel connects with the non-human: mountains, angels, stars, forests, creatures of all kinds.

And yet the poet reminds us in Joy to the World that “heaven and nature sing” and “fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy.”

The Scripture we hear during Advent focuses our attention on God’s loving connection to all of creation. Mountains quake at God’s presence. Clay is formed by the potter. Even boiling water and kindling for fire participate in the praise of God (Isaiah 64:1-9). At the great and glorious day, the sun will be darkened, stars will fall, angels will fly out, the winds will gather, fig trees will teach, roosters will preach (Mark 13:24-37). The river Jordan becomes the means of forgiveness and atonement, leather and camel hair amplify the baptist’s message, the wilderness itself becomes the pulpit (Mark 1:1-8). Valleys will be lifted up, mountains will be made low, uneven ground will become level, grasses and sheep become the communities over which God’s Word hovers and cares (Isaiah 40:1-11). 

And those are just the creation references for the first two Sundays of Advent. Clearly, all of creation is part of the gospel message, and it is all of creation that sings the Advent song.

There are many references to creation in the liturgy also… and even more than the creation we can directly experience. Even as we discover more and more stars, galaxies, universes, planets, quarks, and elemental particles, I am reminded that every Sunday in the liturgy the pastor names the cherubim and seraphim as members of the great choir together with whom we sing around the throne of God. Although most of us have not directly experienced cherubim or seraphim (or dragons or unicorns for that matter), naming them in the liturgy becomes a way to live in the space between what we can see and know, and what we cannot see and yet can name and trust.

God’s creation is always far larger than we know. The maps used to read “here be dragons” along all the regions as yet unexplored. Advent is an excellent season to set sail into the lesser known regions and meet, God-willing, the better angels of our fantasy, and all creation with them. Perhaps in this way, mindful of salvation as the healing of all of creation, we might better participate in such healing, experience such healing ourselves, created as we are, beloved creatures God is currently healing.

Here are the ways you can experience Advent at Good Shepherd:

On December 3rd, 10th, and 17th, we host Advent worship services at 9 and 11 a.m. In these liturgies, we sing the great songs of the seasons, light the Advent wreath, and reflect on texts from the gospel of Mark and Isaiah that accentuate all of creation’s participation in Christ’s healing work. On December 10th, during the 10 a.m. education hour, our Sunday school program hosts a Puerto Rican Christmas Pageant and Disaster Relief Fundraiser. On the 17th, our choirs and ensembles host their annual Christmas Concert at the 11 a.m. service.

On December 6th and 13th, we host Advent soup suppers. These simply suppers are a fund-raiser for the high school youth traveling to Houston next summer for the ELCA National Youth Gathering. Bring a soup to share if you wish, supper is at 6 p.m., Holden Evening Prayer at 6:30 p.m. 

On the 20th of December, we host a Longest Night service. While Advent is a season of hope and Christmas is a season of joy, not everyone feels hopeful. Grief, illness, aging, depression, loneliness, unemployment, and loss are magnified. In the Northern Hemisphere, December 21 is the longest night, the winter solstice. It marks the shortest day of the year, the official start of winter. Tradition says that nature and all her creatures stop and hold their breath to see if the sun will turn back from its wanderings, if the days will lengthen and the earth will once again feel the sun’s warmth. On this darkest day of the year, we come with our honest yearnings seeking the return of light and hope.

We conclude the Advent season with the great celebration of Christmas Eve, with a contemporary service at 9 a.m. Sunday morning December 24th, and two candlelight services at 4:30 and 7 p.m. The following Sunday, December 31st, we host a special 9 a.m. service of Lessons and Carols.

Throughout all of it, we will remain mindful of the depth and breadth of God’s saving work, who in and through Christ is working the healing of the whole cosmos.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Southern - Christian - Progressive - Loud

            As a Christian pastor, I have some recent experience with the interplay of regionalism as it engages new media forms and informs our civic and religious imagination. That’s the story I wish to tell here. As a Gen Xer raised on a farm in rural Iowa, my move to Fayetteville, Arkansas constituted a transition from one significant regional culture in the United States to another--from the Midwest to the South. I am regularly discovering that the social imaginary I inhabit does not always align with my newly adopted region's imagination and self-perception. Midwesterners do imagine differently than Southerners. From our forms of speech, to our religious commitments, to our sense of communal identity, we are a nation of diverse regional cultures. And part of regional imagination is delimiting and correctly describing the regions. In Colin Woodard’s memorable remapping of the American “nations,”[1] I actually moved not from the north to the south, but from the Midlands, where people designate their ethnicity by their European or other ancestry (German, Norwegian, Polish, Vietnames, Pakistani) to Greater Appalachia, “rendered perfectly in the Census Bureau’s map of the largest reported ancestry group by county: its inhabitants virtually the only counties in the country where a majority answered ‘American.’
            However, the regions of our nation are not what they once were, if they ever were what we believe them to be. The flattening of globalization is redrawing all the lines. The Midlands and the South have become more diverse, with an influx of immigrants and increased levels of internal migration. Their religious landscape has also changed, with increasing numbers of people in both places self-identifying as secular or non-religious.
There is a new mind of the South, one perhaps even more noticeable to a transplant from the north, but nevertheless captured succinctly by southerner Tracy Thompson, who writes:
[There is a] mismatch of history and identity that so many Southerners up through my generation have had, this vague sense of cognitive dissonance that comes with growing up in a world where nothing you see around you quite fits with the picture of history made available to you.[2] 
As just one example of this, after the tragic shootings at Mother Emmanuel in Charleston, many across the country called for the removal of Confederate flags from public places. Predictably, as a form of protest many individuals flew Confederate flags on their own property. However, in Fayetteville, Arkansas, you would have been hard-pressed to find a Confederate flag flying. Later that summer, however, when I was back in Iowa visiting relatives, I went for a jog in Des Moines, Iowa, and ran past no less than five Confederate flags flying in front yards. Talk about cognitive dissonance.      
Lyndon B. Johnson famously remarked as he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that “we have lost the South for a generation.”[3] Although his prediction was a bit early, by the time I arrived in Arkansas, it had basically become reality. Mark Pryor’s senate seat (a Democrat) had flipped to Tom Cotton (a Republican) and in 2017, “in a region stretching from the high plains of Texas to the Atlantic coast of the Carolinas, Republicans controlled not only every Senate seat, but every governor’s mansion and every state legislative body.”[4] This is a regional imagination finally catching up with shifting political reality, but it has also taken by surprise many people in a state that proudly birthed Bill Clinton.
Many also believe that the United States is quickly losing religiosity for a generation, with significant percentages of the emerging generations identifying with no specific religious tradition.[5] For those in the Christian tradition who remain committed to the faith but whose civic imagination aligns closely with the progressives (a larger percentage of whom are "nones")”[6] some basic questions present themselves. Does it matter whether Christianity offers anything different or other than secular humanism?  The question is necessary, and made even more necessary by the rise of what Charles Taylor maps as the new conditions of secularity.
The change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others. I may find it inconceivable that I would abandon my faith, but there are others, including possibly some very close to me, whose way of living I cannot in all honesty just dismiss as depraved, or blind, or unworthy, who have no faith (at least not in God, or the transcendent). Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives.[7] 
The conditions for secularity are distinct from secularization. Taylor is not describing a world that is increasingly secular in the non-religious sense of that term, but secular in the sense that many forms of religiosity can live side by side and even mutually support one another. We might remember the classic dictum of that famous Christian humanist, Nikolai Grundtvig, who frequently stated: Human first, then Christian. The world increasingly recognizes shared interests across multiple religious and secular perspectives. Even as we traverse regional variations in our religious traditions, this holds true. Emerging progressive Christian communities across the United States and in each region are discovering they share much in common with the interests of secular humanism. There are many shared ends even if the faith behind the ends differs.
            Yet for Grundtvig, there was still "then Christian." What is this "then Christian"? This remains the continuing civic imagination question emerging progressive Christian communities are puzzling out in their regional contexts. I believe the answer hovers around issues of resistance and sanctuary, both resources in Christianity not as clearly present in or adjacent to various kinds of humanism. I will return to these at the end of this analysis. Digging down to actual Christianity also includes disambiguation from dominant forms of Christianity in the United States, forms of the faith that allow a co-optation of Christianity by “moral majorities” who believe the perpetuation of racism, sexism, and homophobia part and parcel of the maintenance of Christianity as the dominant religion. Christianity in my (progressive) way of imagining it contains within itself unique resources for repentance and resistance focusing Christians on a preferential option for the poor and migrant, and radical neighbor love that overturns the morality of capitalist self-interest.
Throw all of this together with the additional layering of new media, and you get a sense of why people of faith, transplants to our region, or natives to the South whose identities do not align with the external stereotypes of it find it difficult to map a civic imagination, and why there are in fact contested versions of such an imagination. Many southerners feel like they are engaged in the Sisiphean task of repeatedly disambiguating themselves as southerners from the stereotypes of southerners. “Arkansas has for one reason or another undergone more caricaturing and stereotyping in the American imagination than has just about any other state.”[8] The main stereotype that makes an average Arkansan self-conscious is a negative one, that they are low class and uneducated and poor. Such stereotypes Arkansans have learned are dealt with most effectively by way of humor, so that Brooks Blevins ends the introduction to his book with the rejoinder: “Even if we don’t get to the very bottom of this, perhaps we’ll be better able to laugh at ourselves… at the very least, you found a friend to read this book to you, and I found a friend to write it. Yee-haw, indeed.” [9]
This issue of what I might term representational hyper-awareness has significant political ramifications. For example Senator Tom Cotton, at a recent rally in Fort Smith, Arkansas, had this to say:
Go home tonight and turn on one of the nighttime comedy shows. Tomorrow morning, turn on one of the cable morning-news shows. This Saturday, watch ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ” he said. “All the high wardens of popular culture in this country, they love to make fun of Donald Trump, to mock him, to ridicule him. They make fun of his hair, they make fun of the color of his skin, they make fun of the way he talks—he’s from Queens, not from Manhattan. They make fun of that long tie he wears, they make fun of his taste for McDonald’s.” He went on, “What I don’t think they realize is that out here in Arkansas and the heartland and the places that made a difference in that election, like Michigan and Wisconsin, when we hear that kind of ridicule, we hear them making fun of the way we look, and the way we talk, and the way we think.[10]
            Although this is a breathtaking leap, Tom Cotton is right about one thing: inasmuch as southerners perceive themselves to be subject to ridicule by the "high wardens of popular culture," and perceive Donald Trump to be also, they then are tempted to imagine a kind of solidarity between Trump and southerners, even if on every other level (his wealth, his (im)morality) he diverges from a Southern Christian imaginary. Their solidarity under ridicule unites them, and it is precisely the interplay of the regional social imaginary with the forces of media that informs their voting habits and political preferences even more than their religious commitments.
So let us consider a recent case, a moment where all this regionalism and religion and new media collide. During the February 2017 congressional recess, Republican Senator Tom Cotton returned to his home state and hosted a town hall meeting in Springdale, Arkansas. Springdale is part of the “new" or emerging South, population 70,000, 40% Latino, 8% Pacific Islander. It would certainly fit in Tracy Thompson’s chapter in The New Mind of the South she titles “salsa with your grits.” Cotton was taking a lot of heat, along with many other elected officials, for his support of a repeal of the ACA, and proposal of the RAISE act that would dramatically curtail immigration and refugee resettlement.
The history of refugee resettlement in the United States is rather storied. The United States, although historically the landing place for migrants from all over the world, especially Europe, did not begin to resettle significant numbers of refugees until it was forced to by the Holocaust and the great need to provide a safe place for Jews to flee during World War II. Since World War II, the United States has slowly and steadily increased its commitment to offering refuge those fleeing various kinds of danger around the world. Working in partnership with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, over the last decade the United States has resettled on average around 75,000 refugees. These refugees come to the United States because each year the executive designates admissions levels. The actual resettlement is then overseen by one of nine primarily faith-based refugee resettlement agencies, one of the largest of which is Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS).
In 2015, when the Syrian refugee crisis became a part of the global conversation, a large group of us in Northwest Arkansas began looking into establishing a refugee resettlement center. Although the last time Arkansas had welcomed refugees in significant numbers was during and following the Vietnam war, we knew our community and region to have many positive resources for refugees, and to be in general a welcoming community. So, in conversation with LIRS, the governor of Arkansas, and the state department, I started work, in addition to my work as pastor, serving as the acting director for Canopy NWA, our newly incorporated refugee resettlement center. In just a year, we built the non-profit, and in 2016 we began welcoming refugees to Northwest Arkansas. Then Donald Trump was elected president, and his first action in January of 2017 was to announce a Muslim ban, which also include a pause on the entire refugee resettlement program in the United States.  Suddenly, we were looking at dropping from 110,000 refugees arriving in the last year of the Obama administration, to a maximum of 45,000 refugees, and possibly less, arriving in the first year of the Trump administration. This was potentially devastating for our new non-profit, harmful to national resettlement agencies, and of course tragic for all those families anticipating and needing refugee resettlement to get away from war and persecution.  
Because we had recently begun resettling these refugees to Northwest Arkansas, and because our congregation participates in a lot of social justice ministry in alignment with immigrants and refugees, my presence at the Town Hall was essential. I got there early, and stood in line with the thousands of other (mostly anti-Cotton) Town Hall attendees. It was exhilirating, and frightening, and a media frenzy. All the national networks were there. To my surprise,  I had the opportunity to ask a question at the Town Hall advocating for expanded refugee resettlement not only in our state, but in our nation and did so out of the biblical imagination that recommends providing hospitality for the stranger, for "you were once strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19).
Now imagine this scene. Thousands of attendees in a high school auditorium in Springdale, Arkansas (which incidentally has more Marshallese and Latino students than Anglo) chanting in support of refugees and immigrants. I say to Cotton over the microphone, “We love Muslims!” in response to his characterization of Muslims as a threat. The noise at this point is deafening. The media, caught by surprise at the breadth and depth of the progressive (Christian) support for immigrants and refugees in our state (remember those media elites and their perceptions of us), followed up with televised interviews in the days that followed. Standing in front of a camera for MSNBC[11], I again became mindful of this deep truth about the South: when we speak on the national stage, we are always concerned for our image. There is this representational hyper-awareness. I wanted to make the South, or at least Arkansas, look good. Do them proud. We wish not to live into the stereotypes. I’m not sure all regional peoples feel this way when they emerge on the national stage, but I know Arkansans do. “Arkansas people remain first and foremost cognizant of the state’s place in the American consciousness.”[12] And many progressive Christians are equally cognizant of the perception of Christianity on the national stage.
The southern imagination functions in a circular fashion, with the south mirroring to the world, and then sometimes undermining and sometimes reinforcing the imagination the world has of it. So in this instance, the remarkable aspect was not only Arkansans aware of how they look to the world (including the frustration by some that it is a person with views like Tom Cotton who represents us in the Senate), but also the perspective of those outside the South toward us, their fascination at the size and tenor of the town hall, the surprise of Rachel Maddow to the Arkansas pastor making a comparison between the town hall and Prime Minister’s Question Time in the House of Lords.[13] Parallel this again with the progressive Christian community, who frequently encounters surprise in public settings when articulating their faith perspectives. "You're a Christian, and you believe that?"
This small moment on the national media stage serves as a microcosm of how our progressive faith movement operates at the regional level in cooperation with other progressive organizations, religious and secular. Living in an increasingly metropolitan region (Northwest Arkansas), the sense of state or regional pride ties in tightly to the form of Christianity on offer, as well as the forms of Christianity that are free to emerge through our imagining of them. As just two examples, our congregation in the past year has launched Canopy NWA (mentioned above), Such resettlement work has developed through the cooperation of many interfaith partners, including the Islamic Center, the synagogue, and many local secular non-profits and businesses. Additionally, two years ago our congregation became the first Reconciling in Christ[14] congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in the Deep South. Here again such a commitment opened doors to cooperative work with non-religious LGBTQ+ affirming groups. It was a changed imagination--that there was a critical mass of LGBTQ+ and their allies, that there was widespread ecumenical and interfaith support for refugee resettlement in Arkansas--that facilitated our congregation taking steps towards full inclusion and refugee welcome, steps we knew to be the right ones, both on ethical and strategic grounds, but that were made possible by a changed context and emerging alternative imagination of the possible.
The resources for social change are grounded in the way media layers and re-centers regional and religious imaginations, with institution building, television and newspaper presence, and new social media platforming all interlocking in a seamless fashion to energize religiously informed civic imagination. So, for example, the development of our refugee resettlement agency, Canopy NWA, only happened because we began local conversations after a Twitter post from the governor of the state opposing refugee resettlement, and was strengthened and made more streamlined by our ability to organize like-minded people of faith to form the non-profit and solicit resources. Our presence on television, radio, and in the newspaper[15] has meant not only that our model is inspiring others to replicate the development in other locations, but the widespread media coverage is affecting our regional identity and external stereotypes of our region. Transform how the wider world perceives the southern Christian imagination, and just so recursively expand the civic imagination of contemporary Christianity on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. As John Edge describes such a transition in his recent book on the changes in southern food culture:
The South was once a place that did not brook intrusion. Now it’s the region with the highest immigration rates. When I was a boy in 1970s Georgia, a barbecue sandwich and a Brunswick stew with soda crackers was my go-to meal. Jess (my son) prefers tacos al pastor, hold the cilantro, and cheese dip with fryer-hot tortilla chips. In his South, Punjabi truck stop owners in Arkansas fry okra for turban-wearing reefer jockeys. And Korean bakers in Alabama turn out sweet potato-gorged breakfast pastries. His South is changing. For the better, mostly. In fits and starts, yes. New peoples and new foods and new stories are making their marks on the region. In those exchanges, much is gained. What was a once a region of black and white, locked in a struggle for power, has become a society of many hues and many hometowns. His generation now weaves new narratives about what it means to be Southern, about what it takes to claim this place as their own. Given time to reconcile the mistakes my generation made with the beauty we forged amid adversity, his generation might challenge the region of our birth to own up to its promise.[16]

Take as another example the growth of Indivisible, an activist group started after the presidential election of 2016, locally focused, implementing a defensive congressional advocacy strategy to protect their values. A founding member is actually from Arkansas (Billy Fleming) and their model for developing the Indivisible movement was to publish reproducible resources (an “indivisible guide”) that could fuel a progressive grassroots network of local groups to resist the Trump agenda.[17] Although the guide was published on-line and designed for the entire social media network, by offering a replicable model that local groups could put in place in each district, within months Indivisible had become a national movement with chapters (sometimes multiple chapters) in each congressional district of the United States. In Northwest Arkansas, the chapter meets regularly at our church building, and we find creative ways weekly and monthly to fuse the mission of the church with the advocacy activities of Indivisible. Clearly going mass media actually facilitates going local, if those using new social media forms are savvy. Indivisible goes big by going small and local, with a continuing focus on national issues energized at the local level.
            Over the course of the last nine months, our progressive advocacy groups and religious groups have continued to work on effective strategies responsive to regional issues, strategic in their use of new media, and energized (at least in part) by religious values. Lots of us are asking how in this moment the new south can imagine a new regional and national identity? And what role do faith communities play in the development of such an imagination? And where does media fit in the equation? One model effectively being implemented across the country and beginning in North Carolina is the New Poor People’s Campaign, led by the Rev. Dr. William Barber.[18] Their current strategy includes both a national campaign of civil disobedience, and regional organizing state-by-state. As a faith-based progressive group, they are committed in particular to continuing the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. They have taken up strategically a state-by-state organizing approach, and their focus is centered out of a deeply Christian and biblical imaginary, "offering a platform for people to speak who are affected by four interlocking issues: systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, and ecological devastation."[19]
One mantra I have been learning as I continue this work comes from organizers at Arkansas United Community Coalition, an immigrant rights advocacy group. They frequently say, “Nothing about us without us,” a slogan first popularized in the disability rights movement.[20] As a white pastor in a predominantly white church who spends significant time in refugee and immigrant spaces, I have had to learn repeatedly how to listen, support, walk-alongside, amplify. It’s a slogan I wish prominent leaders in this moment might heed: whether it’s the evangelicals publishing their Nashville Statement, or multiple attorney generals and President Trump threatening to end DACA, something that could keep the human first in more of our imagination would be the slogan, “Nothing about us without us,” coupled with that other slogan of Grundtvig, “Human first.” Christians hoping their message might be life-giving and attractive can learn much from both slogans, not the smallest of lessons being the first shall be last, the last shall be first (Mark 10:31). It’s awfully hard to build a progressive Christian movement when the largest and loudest voices in Christianity are busy encouraging strategies quite opposite those of progressives--and Jesus. Nevertheless, it has probably ever always been so. Effective progressive movements are finding ways to keep their imagination indigenous to the region (the actual region rather than the stereotype), open to the resonances of the wider movements with which they partner, amplified by new media in order to be even more effectively local, cognizant of the traditions of all and respectful of the humanity in each.
At this point, it may sound like I have been more focused on the "human first" than the "then Christian." And in fact on many levels I am. Accomplishing shared social justice goals in a secular context requires implementing a language accessible to all regardless of religious tradition. On the other hand, even those outside of Christianity may benefit from an understanding of the equipment Christians in particular bring to the table for such organizing work. So I conclude with some reflection on the way the peculiarly Christian social imaginary plays in this space.
First, we might remember that "there has been consensus for several decades among political historians of the early modern period that European theories of resistance found their first articulation in the Lutheran tradition."[21] One of the more significant moments in the Reformation was the emperor's push early on to suppress reform. When Martin Luther died in 1546, Charles V published the Augsburg Interim which put all German lands back under Roman Catholic rule. All the cities and towns acquiesced to this interim, with the exception of one--Magdeburg. The pastors of Magdeburg published a confessional document explaining the "why" of resistance, why the magistrates of Magdeburg were right to resist. Although not as well known as some other confessional documents of the early modern period, the Magdeburg Confession functioned not only as a first example of regional resistance to empire, but even became a source for the articulation of forms of resistance like the Declaration of Independence itself. It even informed the thought of such a significant resister as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote:
There are thus three possibilities for action that the church can take vis-à-vis the state: first, questioning the state as to the legitimate state character of its actions, that is, making the state responsible for what it does. Second is service to the victims of the state's actions. The church has an unconditional obligation toward the victims of any societal order, even if they do not belong to the Christian community. "Let us work for the good of all." These are both ways in which the church, in its freedom, conducts itself in the interest of a free state. In times when the laws are changing, the church may under no circumstances neglect either of these duties. The third possibility is not just to bind up the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel but to seize the wheel itself. Such an action would be direct political action on the part of the church.[22]

It is certainly too much of a stretch to claim that all forms of resistance have Christian origins, but it is fair to claim that a very significant resource for resistance that has inspired much of the Western imagination is in fact the Christian imagination. For a contemporary example, one could could consider the practice of sanctuary.
            Before we consider sanctuary, however, we need to briefly consider another Christian practice, that of repentance. We need to acknowledge that of the many cities in Germany, only one resisted the Augsburg Interim. During the Holocaust, it was a small remnant (the Confessing Church) that resisted the Nazis. So also with sanctuary, it is a small percentage of the whole of congregations in the United States who have actively participated in offering sanctuary.
            But repentance is in Christian tradition something ever before us. It's the first call of the 95 theses of Luther, in fact, that the whole life of the Christian is to be one of repentance. So, when Christians heed their own tradition, they can confess their failure to live into their own best practices, and re-center themselves on the very social imaginary that defines them.
            One of these Christian imaginaries, sanctuary, may in fact become even more important in this next era, as immigrants and others seeking refuge approach the church in time of need. The original Sanctuary Movement was "a religious and political campaign to provide safe-haven for Central American refugees fleeing civil conflict in their homelands during the 1980s."[23] Reverend John Fife, one of the architects of the Sanctuary Movement, still works along the border, leading efforts to protect the undocumented in their perilous travel. Fife is a strategic trouble-maker. He is living out a pecular way of practicing "then Christian." In a nation that has for decades understood Christianity to be the dominant cultural form of religiosity, it may be surprising to lift up disruption of the status quo as an especially Christian practice, but nevertheless, there it is--part of being Christian is being "a royal pain in the ass... shout[ing] from the mountain top what is supposed to be kept silent, and audaciously refusing to stay in [the] assigned place... upsetting the prevailing Panopticon social order designed to maintain the law and order of the privileged."[24] In this instance, practicing sanctuary, providing actual physical sanctuary to undocumented immigrants or refugees in church sanctuaries becomes both human and Christian at the same time. Human because it is simply doing the right thing. Christian because it makes use of the religious space itself (sanctuary) precisely in the way it is named--as sanctuary. When sanctuary breaks the law, precisely there it is sanctuary. A community wrestling around how to do it, and how much to sacrifice doing it, will expand the progressive Christian social imaginary in ways we have yet to imagine. And if you make fun of us for our disruptive activity, we will join you and exercise self-mockery, which we will then use strategically to our advantage.





[1] American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (Penguin Books, 2012).
[2] Tracy Thompson, The New Mind of the South (Free Press, 2014).
[3] https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2014/04/10/remarks-president-lbj-presidential-library-civil-rights-summit
[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/05/upshot/demise-of-the-southern-democrat-is-now-nearly-compete.html
[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/23/opinion/democrats-religion-jon-ossoff.html
[7] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Belknap Press, 2007), 3.
[8] Brooks Blevins, Arkansas/Arkansaw: How Bear Hunters, Hillbillies, and Good Ol’ Boys Defined a State (The University of Arkansas Press, 2009), 4.
[9] Brooks Blevins, Arkansas/Arkansaw: How Bear Hunters, Hillbillies, and Good Ol’ Boys Defined a State (The University of Arkansas Press, 2009), 10.
[10] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/11/13/is-tom-cotton-the-future-of-trumpism

[11] https://www.facebook.com/joshuacmahony/videos/vb.20613111/10102580240803747/?type=2&theater
[12] Brooks Blevins Arkansas/Arkansaw: How Bear Hunters, Hillbillies, and Good Ol’ Boys Defined a State (The University of Arkansas Press, 2009), 186.
[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prime_Minister%27s_Questions
[14] https://www.reconcilingworks.org
[15] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/13/us/trump-refugee-ban.html
[16] John T. Edge, The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South (Penguin Press 2017), 350.
[17] https://www.indivisibleguide.com
[18] https://poorpeoplescampaign.org/new-poor-peoples-campaign/
[19] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/news/william-barber-and-liz-theoharis-take-poor-peoples-campaign-on-the-road
[20] James Charlton, Nothing About Us Without Us: Disability Oppression and Empowerment (University of California Press, 2000), 3.
[21] DeJonge, Michael. Bonhoeffer's Reception of Luther  (Oxford University Press, 2017), 198.
[22] Ibid. 210.
[23] Miguel De La Torre. Embracing Hopelessness (Fortress Press, 2017), 130.
[24] Ibid. 151.

This essay forthcoming in a collection of essays from the Civic Imagination Project.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Bonhoeffer's Reception of Luther: A Review

Bonhoeffer's Reception of Luther.  Michael P. DeJonge. Oxford University Press, 2017.

Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran. Say it again. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran. Although his long-standing association with his contemporary Karl Barth has sometimes led us to believe Bonhoeffer was more Barthian than Lutheran, and although evangelicals (that bastard Eric Metaxas chief among them) like to claim him for their cause, the truth is simple: Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran.

DeJonge opens his book with simple statistics. Bonhoeffer quotes Martin Luther more than any other theologian--870 times, and usually approvingly. Karl Barth, by contrast, gets fewer than 300 citations in Bonhoeffer, and theologians like Augustine, Aquinas, Kierkegaard, and Calvin each get only a few dozen citations.

Frequency alone fails to establish influence, so DeJonge offers a more nuanced and compelling thesis. "Bonhoeffer thought his theology was Lutheran, and he was justified in thinking so" (7). DeJonge believes this thesis has interpretive value, because taking Bonhoeffer's Lutheranism "seriously generates better interpretations of his texts in their context than readings that do not" (7). It especially facilitates coherently interpreting what are otherwise especially difficult problems in Bonhoeffer scholarship.


Offering this thesis, DeJonge then unpacks first how Bonhoeffer understood himself as a Lutheran, and second what it might mean for Bonhoeffer to consider himself a Lutheran. Much hinges on this method. It offers itself as a compelling model for interpreting any theological figure. Consider first how the author gives him or herself, their own self-understanding. Engage their self-understanding charitably. Then consider more broadly whether their self-understanding comports with a broader historic understanding of the tradition. Or, as DeJonge once more summarizes it, "Bonhoeffer understood his own thinking to be Lutheran (in a narrow, insider sense of Lutheran), and he was justified in that (in a broader, outsider sense of Lutheran)" (10).

Failing to notice the Lutheran character of Bonhoeffer's thinking results in a variety of interpretive problems. For DeJonge, chief among these is the inattention to the connection between Bonhoeffer's theology and Luther's two-kingdoms thinking. Similarly, attending to the influence of Luther on Bonhoeffer highlights Bonhoeffer's academic phase focus on "the church as the present Christ or, what is the same, the place where the gospel is preached and heard" (14).

The book opens with a consideration of Luther Renaissance scholars' impact on Bonhoeffer, with particular attention to Karl Holl. Although Holl is not widely known today, he is recognized as the initiator of the Luther Renaissance. Bonhoeffer's close engagement with Holl illustrates how early and deep Luther is in Bonhoeffer's thinking. Intriguingly, Bonhoeffer even offers a correction to Holl's hyper-focus on conscience, and instead grounds justification in Christ rather than the conscience, a move that has significantly influenced our theology of justification yet today.

Christology takes center stage in the book as a whole. DeJonge maps the influence of Luther on Bonhoeffer's single-agent Christology. "The heartbeat of Lutheran christology is the christological 'is'--this man is God--which translates into the exclusive agency of the person of Christ... if there is anything about the Lutheran tradition that Bonhoeffer sees with [special] clarity and pursues with abandon, it is the exclusive christological agency of the person of Christ" (67).

Then, from "Christ is" DeJonge notes that Bonhoeffer moves to "Christ is present" and finally to "Christ is present as Word, sacrament, and church-community." Sound Lutheran? You bet!

Something I particularly love about DeJonge's approach: he has a way of situating Bonhoeffer, placing him within a particular tradition and historical moment while also reading him generously. Having outlined a variety of theologies of two-kingdoms that arose in the 20th century, he says of Bonhoeffer that his "two kingdoms thinking is of course of a particular type... from early through the late period of his thinking, Bonhoeffer thinks in terms of the two kingdoms, although his thinking adjusts, to borrow a phrase from Ethics, in accord with reality" (102-103). This is the kind of author and scholar you want to spend time with, somebody who generously reads his subject of inquiry, and even enlists that author in the interpretation of his own development.

In the late portion of the book, DeJonge takes time to disambiguate Bonhoeffer from the Anabaptist theological lens, especially the work of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas. Such disambiguation is essential, because the association of Bonhoeffer with Anabaptism "leads to a number of misinterpretations. " So he takes time in the Anabaptist chapter to demonstrate Bonhoeffer's non-commitments to nonviolence over-against the misinterpretations of Hauerwas and Yoder (143).

A book on Bonhoeffer necessarily must include notes on resistance. "There has been consensus for several decades among political historians of the early modern period that European theories of resistance found their first articulation in the Lutheran tradition" (198). So even if much has been and needs to be said about Luther's influence on Hitler and the system Bonhoeffer was resisting, failures to note the connection between the Lutheran articulation of resistance and Bonhoeffer's commitment to resistance result in a misinterpretation of the theological grounding of such resistance.


For Bonhoeffer, as for Luther, an authentic understanding of the doctrine of justification results in an abiding commitment to the vocation of a Christian, which Bonhoeffer interprets as responsibility. DeJonge quotes his World Alliance Lecture: "vocation is responsibility, and responsibility is the whole response of the whole person to reality as a whole" (249). Over-against a pseudo-Lutheranism that divides reality into independent spheres, with Christ an authority over only some of those spheres, DeJonge sees that Bonhoeffer in a deepening of Luther's key insight centers in on this concept of responsibility (Stellvertretung). Bonhoeffer is not just influenced by Luther. He also offers a "critique of Lutheran according to what he considers its own best standards" (248). In theology, there's really no better form of reception than that.