Saturday, October 22, 2016

Radical Lutheran Spin Doctor #DecolonizeLutheranism

When I went to seminary in 1995, the Internet was not much of a thing. E-mail was just becoming a thing. People still left voice messages. I had to go to the library to look something up.

At seminary, I was trained how to be the right kind of Lutheran. There were basically two dominant options. You could be a "radical Lutheran," a follower of Nestingen and Forde, with a radical focus on justification by faith alone apart from the works of the law. Or you could go the somewhat more evangelical catholic route, with an emphasis on the ecumenical liturgical move towards "catholic" convergence.

Hovering around were a few whiffs of process theology, some other movements that were kind and pietistic and grounded in ethnic Lutheran histories. And then the seminary sent students on cultural immersion experiences. The basic model (although I don't think this was intentional) was that you studied your Lutheran stuff most of the time, and then you got "exposure" to stuff outside that tradition in the cross-cultural context.

I spent my cross-cultural month in Milwaukee. It snowed a ton. You could drive for miles in neighborhoods boxed in and away from opportunity, with all kinds of racial and economic oppressions criss-crossing the city and controlling lives, and it was there for the first time that I read (at the recommendation of my host, the first African-American Lutheran pastor I had ever met) James Cone, and womanist theologians. And I walked with clergy who were community organizers.

But then I went back to seminary, to "white normal," have found myself quite comfortably trying to do theology and pastoral ministry in the white, middle class framework for most of my career.

At that time, I don't think I was much aware of any larger movements, ways to organize and change the dominant paradigm. I think at that time I was learning the "spin" rather than the "take" (that's some Charles Taylor right there, "spin" is a construal that does not recognize itself as a construal--a take is a construal that is appreciative of the viability of other "takes"). I learned to be a radical Lutheran spin doctor. I also dabbled in evangelical catholicism. Frankly, it was confusing, and energizing, sometimes self-righteous, sometimes profoundly true. There's good stuff even in the "spin."

I knew there were other seminaries. I knew there were various movements within our church. But I never really had a sense that there was a lever that might change things. I certainly didn't think it could emerge from the seminaries. Most seminarians were vulnerable, just hoping for a call, and focused primarily on loving people in parishes once they got ordained (that itself is a beautiful thing--I had a lot of classmates that thought and acted like social workers).

Over time, in my career, those of us closer to the margins (I'm a missionary) started finding ways to hear from each other. Social media increased the proximity of religious leaders in our church. You could find your people. When we launched a couple of Facebook groups a few years ago for ELCA Clergy, and for ELCA people, the energy around that formation was immense. We were so glad to finally spend time with each other. I think some of us didn't know how lonely we had been.

But we also weren't sure what would emerge from all this networking. There was a lot of chatter. A lot of our conversations reinforced the "spin" of Lutheranism narrowly construed. Some people really care about Paschal Candles and paraments. Some clergy really have trouble thinking outside their specific belief system. Their commitments have been largely excarnated (another Taylor term, when religion is disembodied and becomes mostly noetic). Early in that process, the forming of these larger networks, we were discovering who we were, and who was around. We weren't aware who we were excluding, we weren't that aware of what kinds of religion, what definitions of Lutheranism, were being reified among us.

But then people on the margins started finding each other. One by one, slowly but surely, like any community organizing movement, those who knew that there was something off about the "spin" kept talk, then later acting, then forming movements, pushing up against systems in the wider church and in local parishes that pushed towards capitalist, cishet patriarchal white normativity under the guise of "just being Lutheran."

That's the thing. So many definitions of Lutheran are really just definitions of cultural religion, the holy water with which the priests sprinkled the bad conscience of the bourgeoisie.

And so was born #decolonizeLutheranism ( I remember when people started posting memes reminding us that not all Lutherans are white, and many eat injera instead of lefse, and that connecting Lutheran to specific ethnicity, or power structures, or modes of worship, ends up causing huge problems for our movement of faith, because it means the freedom of the gospel proclaimed by our movement gets stuck and colonized by race, culture, caste, and more.

This weekend, some of the people who lead this movement will gather in Chicago, at one of our seminaries, for the first #decolonizeLutheranism conference. I can't be there, and I am really sad, because these are my people. Many I call great friends. I am so impressed by the myriad ways this group has found their voice, are collectively organizing, and are fighting for our denomination to become decolonized.

So this is my one contribution. It's kind of just a history as I see it. But I will add one more thing. Kind of a fair warning, and it's something I think the group already knows. The church is going to listen to you this weekend, and mostly because we're liberals now we'll nod our heads in agreement. "This church" is largely sympathetic to the cause, in the abstract. But "this church" doesn't know how to decolonize itself. It's only just discovering that it itself is the master of spin. The leaders at the very top of "this church" are so caught up in their spin they can't even see how spun out they are, and even getting to the point of having them recognize it as a "take" is going to be a stretch. They're not going to like the cross-pressure, we're going to act all fragile, and there's a good chance walls will go up or we'll break.

So God bless you. And I'm with you. And I wish I could be there. And I love you. Let's keep finding each other. We're on the inside of the outside together, as it were. I'm somewhat curious whether it will lead to transformation, or an exodus. I'm good with either one. Jesus liked to walk. So do I. Let's go.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Finding your voice in politics, religion, and social media: from private devotion to public theology

“The signal virtue of Christianity is that there is a version of it for the learned (theology) and one for the common people (devotional practice); and though the two may find themselves in occasional contention, they are bound together within the ecclesiastical institution itself. It is hard to come up with a popular version of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind or Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism.” (Terry Eagleton)
Let's start with the premise that part of the work of theology is the public articulation of the faith. Theologians, although often writing for the academy, have as their intended audience a reading public.

The best public theology, or the best public theologians, are the voices we rely on to articulate a theological vision in ways accessible to readers of all traditions, secular and religious. Although they will speak out of, or be grounded in, specific religious traditions (and in fact will do their best work if they are grounded in a specific confessional tradition), they will find ways to speak in ways that are genuinely public.

In the meantime, the vast majority of the population do not think of themselves as theologians. They are the "common people" Eagleton mentions above, and their religion is lived out not in the discourse of theology, but in their devotional practices, such as private prayer and church-life.

This form of religious life inhabits a primarily private sphere, is influenced by a largely individualist culture, and even those parts of it that have a corporate dimension (such as worship or membership in institutions) still has an indelible private outlook. Religion in terms of devotional practice is decidedly personal.

There isn't anything problematic about private or personal forms of devotional practice. They are theology in practice, theology on the ground, theology in real life.

But with the rise of social media, articulations of private devotion now takes on a public dimension, and the public articulation of private religious faith puts us in a strange new world. It means the vast majority of those on social media, whose religiosity when articulated publicly is some form or other of moralistic, therapeutic deism, are now out on a quest to bring their confessional traditions into view, and they are finding their voice, haltingly and steadily.

Let me give just one example, the one currently on all of our minds this month: the politics of elections. 

Before the advent of social media, the average voter would consume various kinds of media as a resource to inform their vote. They might talk with their family or friends. If they were highly active in politics they might attend town hall meetings or march in parades or canvass neighborhoods or lick stamps for campaign mailings. But before rise of Facebook and Twitter, their politics was still largely private.

Suddenly, with the arrival of social media, voters now had a venue not only to share their political perspectives more freely with a wider audience, but to do so in quasi-public ways. It doesn't take very long with the rise of new media for a shift to take place from I can share my thoughts on social media to I MUST share my thoughts on social media.

We see this at the height of this election cycle. Many Facebook posts the last few weeks have started: Although I have been largely silent about the presidential elections, but now, in these latter days, I feel like I must speak out.

Then, they start writing. Sometimes the posts are long. They're confessional in nature, searching, honest, journalistic, exploratory. But they are decidedly public. Many women's voices have emerged recently, and are of particular interest, because they are truly finding their voice in a public context. 

In the meantime, people's religious views inevitably inform their politics. But because the majority of the religious have at best a few private devotional practices in place as resources to fund their imaginations, what you watch is the emergence of a religio-political discourse largely un-formed by the traditional resources of public theology. 

In particular, the critical tools theologians learn and apply to spell out arguments are mostly lacking, and instead popular forms of piety shape the discourse.

It could also be said, and probably should be said, that since politics was for a long time also private, the average person finding their voice on social media is likely to apply their private political devotional practices as the resource most familiar to them as they find their voice.

In this sense, it was absolutely no surprise that singing the National Anthem became one of the hot topics this election cycle: that song, sung as it is at the American liturgy we call football, is the height of private devotion publicly displayed. Changing the devotional practice and doing so in a public venue became a transformational strategy for opening up space for the articulation of a public theology.

It also highlighted the truly post-religious nature of the new social media youth advocacy.

I think we are all just dipping our toes into something radically new. We are watching a blending of private devotion and public theology happen daily, in our own lives, in our own media streams, and our mutual sharing in one another's lives. 

I am not offering a full-blown taxonomy of what is different, or a prescription for how to do it better. Like everybody else, I'm discovering how to do this thing as we go along. But I do think we are learning. We are all discovering our public voice, which is then revealing the depth or superficiality of our private religious devotion because with the tiny exception of those who consider themselves theologians, we are all bringing our private religious devotion to bear as our primary resource for all becoming public theologians together.

Some examples: 

1) I blog. Blogging is the primary place where I engage public theology. But it's very different than a previous era of theologians whose audience was primarily each other and the academy. My audience is you, those of you reading this. So the nature of the public has changed.

2) I post prayers on Facebook. I've found that we need private devotions in our emerging public spaces, and they serve us well there. 

3) I live as a Christian example and pastor in social media, but I also live as a public citizen there. The two blend together, and sometimes this is helpful, and sometimes its a hindrance. Before social media, most of my parishioners wouldn't have known much of what I was up to week to week between Sunday services. Now, many know everything, from our daily routines to my personal opinions. 

4) I find myself wishing I read less stuff on the Internet, and read books more. The biggest potential loss in this era of everybody finding their voice, is the silencing of the books. Books, and the sustained arguments made in books (or the sustained imaginative worlds presented), are perhaps our greatest resource for theology well-articulated and democracy well-lived. We may need a new monasticism, spaces set apart for reading that aren't on-line.

5) I worry about the loss of privacy, and sale of the public. The prognosticators who say we are giving our privacy away are correct. And I am watching in real time as we sell all our public spaces to the highest bidder. The public is a shared common good and not a commodity, and a private life and the space inside it is richness incarnate. The first requires our collective attention to sustain, and the second requires personal vigilance to exercise rightly.

6) That being said, we are no longer going to be able to simply just keep our private theological and political views to ourselves. It was an illusion to ever expect those with a public voice to be capable of neutrality. The desire for a non-biased press or other form of media, though admirable, was in many ways uninspired. A true secular public will allow for the diversity of voices in an intentional plurality that does not erase, but rather highlights and celebrates difference while finding shared resources for public dialogue.

7) The next public theology is going to arrive from the ground up, from the network itself, and in my life, the best living example of this currently is #decolonizeLutheranism, whose first gathering takes place Saturday in Chicago.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Eric Metaxas is a tool

Bonhoeffer would be rolling over in his grave, if that were a thing. Here's a recent quote by Eric Metaxas, a "biographer" of Bonhoeffer.
The anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer also did things most Christians of his day were disgusted by. He most infamously joined a plot to kill the head of his government. He was horrified by it, but he did it nonetheless because he knew that to stay “morally pure” would allow the murder of millions to continue. Doing nothing or merely “praying” was not an option. He understood that God was merciful, and that even if his actions were wrong, God saw his heart and could forgive him. But he knew he must act. 
Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer knew it was an audience of One to whom they would ultimately answer. And He asks, “What did you do to the least of these?”
For a long time I've tried to convince anyone who will listen that they should skip the Metaxas biography and read others, perhaps especially by Schlingensiepen, Bethge, Christiane Tietz, Reggie Williams, and Charles Marsh (read them in that order, and skip Metaxas altogether). 

Why do I argue this? Because all Metaxas does is apply his agenda and then attach Bonhoeffer's name to it. He makes Bonhoeffer into his tool.

Then, in this case, he becomes a tool of a particular kind of disturbing right-wing politics.

There are so many ways Metaxas is misappropriating Bonhoeffer and besmirching his name in his current defense of a vote for Trump, but the most egregious is his complete corruption of Bonhoeffer's insight that "everyone who acts responsibly becomes guilty."

He corrupts it because he detaches the concept from its Christological origins and instead uses it as a saccharine platitude defending a vote for a candidate that "may not be a vote for that candidate" (introducing another form of bizarre rationalization heretofore unheard of). 

The best indicator of the extent of Metaxas's tool-ness, Metaxas-as-tool, is his rolling out of all the lies and half-truths the Republican party, Trump in particular, has been spouting against their opponent. Metaxas has to lie, must lie, about Clinton in order to convince himself she is a worse candidate than Trump. 

Which is yet another way he is so very different from Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer didn't have to invent lies against people in order to oppose them. He would articulate opposition straight up, and reserve the state of confession (which is what Metaxas is claiming) for incredibly extreme situations like the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party.

Bonhoeffer himself believed we were called, like Christ, to accept guilt for the sake of others, but this guilt is always construed by Bonhoeffer in Christological terms. It is a Stellvertretung. Standing in the place of. Vicarious action and responsible love on behalf of the other.

But Bonhoeffer came to such insights when he saw the situation of the African-American community in Harlem, the Jews under Nazi Germany, and so on. In a national situation where one candidate (Trump) so clearly stands as a real threat to the lives and well-being of minorities of all kinds in our country, and really, all women, Metaxas's argument that Christians must vote, and that they must vote for Trump, isn't actually absurd, it's beyond absurd, and lives at the intersection of heresy and threat, a space Bonhoeffer himself would never have inhabited.

Although Bonhoeffer himself took responsibly for himself, he never inflicted responsibility on others in the way Metaxas does in his fatuous op-ed. 

And although Bonhoeffer did himself have to make difficult moral choices, some of which went against his own non-violent commitments, he did so only under great duress, and in a time of true "confessing."

Metaxas would like to think his is a confessional church moment. He seems to think that western civilization hinges on the nomination of one Supreme Court candidate.

But it does not, and by acting as if it does, Metaxas proves himself to be not only a tool, but a bombastic demagogue, all while taking the name of one of the greatest theologians and saints of the 20th century in vain.

Eric Metaxas, shame on you. Shame.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

So you're resettling refugees!? How can I help?

This fall Canopy NWA begins its work as a full-fledged refugee resettlement affiliate of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS). We anticipate two or three refugee families arriving in Fayetteville by the end of this year, and around 25 families resettling in NWA over the next fiscal year.

What started as a hope and a prayer last winter is now a reality.

It takes a lot of work to start anything new, but starting a refugee resettlement center and building it from the ground up has required a unique blend of efforts and assets. Chief among our assets has been our network, and chief among our efforts has been networking. Canopy could not have launched without the partnership of Catholic Charities, LIRS, dozens of local volunteers, generous financial backers, the state department, and the support of community leaders.

We've done a unique thing here in Arkansas. Many if not most resettlement centers start as sub-offices or affiliates of existing Lutheran service organizations like Lutheran Social Service. What we've built in NWA is an ecumenical organization with local, ground-up leadership. God has been calling us to welcome the refugee, and our community has made all of it possible with their passion and gifts.

Along the way, people regularly sit down with me for coffee, or send a note by e-mail or text, and ask, 

How can I help?

For those of you who have asked, I'm offering this post as one answer. 

This past week, Canopy was featured on all the major television news stations. Some of you may have noticed that when these stories went live on social media, there was a storm of commentary in the (Facebook) message threads. This flurry of messaging, some of it negative, was disheartening to supporters of Canopy, but as a long-time advocate for refugee resettlement, I can tell you it's not surprising. Refugee resettlement, the process, outcomes, distinctions, they're all foreign (literally) to most people, so a huge part of our work is education.

Towards that end, the first way you can help is to get informed. Don't just get kind of informed. Get truly knowledgeable. 

At the bottom of this blog post, I've reproduced an LIRS Refugee Fact Sheet. Start by reading that sheet. Try to memorize it.

A lot of the concern about refugee resettlement articulated on social media this past week fell loosely into two categories. 

These are: 1) Security, and 2) Limited resources.

A lot of people basically say: Why are you helping refugees when we have homeless people and struggling veterans in our community? Can't you use your time and energy and funds to help the homeless?

On the issue of limited resources, a great response to this question might be: "You're right, we have some rather intractable homelessness and food insecurity issues in our community, and our veterans are under-resourced. Let's work together to advocate for better resources for those communities!" 

Then, you might add: "Refugees who resettle in the United States usually work hard in their neighborhoods, volunteer, and serve. So it is very likely that the refugees we resettle in Northwest Arkansas today will be our partners in addressing homelessness in the future."

It might also be worth pointing out that federal and state funds are allocated for specific purposes. There are governmental resources for the homeless, and the veterans, and there are also resources allocated by the federal government to assist with refugee resettlement. You simply can't divert funds designated for one program to another program, and you wouldn't want to do that anyway. 

A much better approach is to build your own organizations addressing the problems you are noticing in your community, or petitioning your politicians to allocate better funds for the homeless or veterans. On veteran care, you might want to start by reading this. On homelessness in Northwest Arkansas, read this research paper on homelessness in Washington and Benton counties.  

Another way to come at this question is to ask: What is the net benefit or loss from resettling refugees in a community?

The answer is clear: Refugee resettlement is a long-term financial blessing to communities, not a burden. If you don't believe me, take a look at these two studies:

1. A 2012 report shows a significant positive economic and community impact on Cleveland as a result of refugee resettlement:

2. A report on refugee resettlement in Miami shows that they resettle quickly and grow the economy:

On the issue of security, a great response to this question might be: "We all want security, absolutely. Refugee resettlement is the most vetted process for new Americans coming to the United States, and refugees arriving here want the same things we do--safety, a place for their families to thrive, opportunity to succeed and contribute to their community. Although security always comes up in conversations about refugees, our concern for long-term safety in our communities would be better focused on reversing and reducing our practices globally that contribute to radicalization."

It's not easy to talk with facts and rationality to people who are genuinely afraid, so this is a difficult conversation to have with people, but the truth is, it's in the self-interest of the refugee resettlement program to get this right... we want true refuge for refugees, and that can only happen if the communities in which they are settled are themselves secure and safe.

Now that you're informed, you might also want to volunteer. If you want to volunteer, we recommend you do a couple of things. First, visit the Canopy NWA web site (or your local refugee resettlement affiliate) and learn what their current volunteer needs are. Sign up for their e-newsletter, join LIRS in advocacy for refugee issues, and if your local affiliates has such a program (Canopy does) create a co-sponsor team to co-sponsor a refugee family. 

Finally, let's say you are now very informed, and you wander back to one of those social media threads where people are posting all kinds of comments about resettlement, homelessness, and veterans? Don't despair! A lot of times people are posting in a vacuum of information, and they may be genuinely afraid. Engage them with kindness, offer helpful information (in your own words) from this blog post or other resources, and create a relationship. Our community will be better when you engage those who hold a different opinion from you. We will all grow together, and become an even better canopy for refugee resettlement, the homeless, and veterans.

We're in this together!

Refugee Fact Sheet

Q. How does someone gain refugee status?
Refugee resettlement in the US is a federal program. Each year in October, the president, in consultation with Congress, sets the number of refugees to be admitted for U.S. resettlement. Currently, under the Obama administration, that number is 70,000 refugees. In 2016, the number will be 85,000, with at least 10,000 of those refugees likely to be from Syria. In past years, during the Reagan years, for example, our refugee numbers were somewhat higher at 120,000. Still, in any given year, the number the U.S. resettles is relatively small— roughly one-half of one percent of the world’s refugees, which is estimated today at over 60 million*. (UNHCR)

Q. How does the resettlement process work in the U.S.?
Nationally, there are 9 voluntary organizations that coordinate refugee resettlement, including Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), and nearly 200 social service organizations across the country that actually do the work of helping resettle refugees in local communities. Congregations also have played a role in the resettlement process, often helping to anchor the families who come here.
Refugees often resettle in places where they can be near their families and where there are jobs, good schools and safe neighborhoods—not unlike the reasons why most of us live where we do. The best scenario is to place refugees where they can be successful. The refugee state coordinators (at the state level) agree to the number of arrivals. Resettlement organizations must have the capacity to manage the process as well.

Q. What is the difference between a refugee and immigrant?
Refugees move to a new country because they have nowhere else to go. They are eeing persecution and fear for their lives. They must prove that they have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution based on their race, religion, political af liation, and other factors. Immigrants relocate to a new country because they want to, and have approval, from the government that is receiving them. They are people who can return to their countries without fear.

Q. How do refugees support themselves?
They nd jobs. Refugees have been helpful to our economy in recent years because they have taken jobs in industries that have had employee shortages. And, these industries were good placements for refugees because they required few English or technical skills.

Q. Do refugees come here for a certain time limit?
Refugees and immigrants are here permanently. They can apply for permanent residency after a year and apply
for citizenship after ve years.

Q. Can refugees apply for public assistance?
Refugees can apply for public bene ts if they are eligible, just like other residents. Employment counselors help refugees nd work so that they can support themselves. Many refugees often nd work in manufacturing or other industries very quickly, making them ineligible for public assistance.

Q. What about refugees taking jobs and draining local economies?

Refugees are more likely to be entrepreneurial and enjoy higher rates of successful business ventures compared to natives. At the local level, refugees provide increased demand for goods and services through their new purchasing power and can be particularly revitalizing in communities that otherwise have a declining population. It is also worth noting that research has shown annual earnings growth among refugees living in the U.S. has outpaced pay increases among economic immigrants, or individuals who haven’t been displaced by disaster, persecution or violence. 

Q. Do refugees receive cultural orientation and information about customs and U.S. laws?
Yes. Refugees receive orientation before they come. Refugee resettlement agencies review this information
again when they arrive.

Q: Aren’t refugees more likely to be criminals?
Based on a recent study conducted by the American Immigration Council, immigrants are less likely to commit serious crimes or be behind bars than the native-born population, and high rates of immigration are associated with lower rates of violent crime and property crime. This holds true for both legal immigrants and the unauthorized, regardless of their country of origin or level of education. In other words, the overwhelming majority of immigrants are not “criminals” by any commonly accepted de nition of the term. For this reason, harsh immigration policies are not effective in ghting crime.
Refugees are more likely to be entrepreneurial and enjoy higher rates of successful business ventures compared to natives. At the local level, refugees provide increased demand for goods and services through their new purchasing power and can be particularly revitalizing in communities that otherwise have a declining population. It is also worth noting that research has shown annual earnings growth among refugees living in the U.S. has outpaced pay increases among economic immigrants, or individuals who haven’t been displaced by disaster, persecution or violence.

Q. Why should we allow refugees to come here?
We are a nation of immigrants and refugees. As people of faith, we are called to “welcome the stranger”. Helping refugees who have ed their homes and are displaced in refugee camps with little or no food, health care, shelter or protection is the right thing to do. We hope that someone would do the same for us if we were in their shoes.
While there is a short-term cost, there is a long-term economic gain that refugees bring. The majority of refugees open businesses, ll important jobs, become teachers, CEOs, and public of cials. The overwhelming majority of refugees and asylum seekers in the U.S. today are law-abiding, hard-working individuals and families who make valuable contributions to their communities by starting businesses, paying taxes, and by sharing their unique cultural gifts with America. Much of our continued success as a nation will rest on our ability to embrace those who come here seeking protection and better opportunities for themselves and their families. The U.S.
is a global leader in programs that support immigration, refugee resettlement and asylee protection. Let us all continue to join forces in working to help improve these programs and maintain their integrity.

*Figure includes refugees, asylum seekers, and displaced persons worldwide Updated: June 2016