Monday, July 02, 2018

The Heresy of "Respectability"

Here's a thought experiment: I'm sure you know churches that host soup kitchens, or groups of Christians who serve food through hunger ministries. Am I right?

Now, let me ask: do you know churches who simply get together and then go eat at soup kitchens?

The difference between serving a free meal, or gathering with all those who need a free meal in order to eat with them, is navigated according to the parameters of "respectability."

I'm going to leave "respectability" in scare quotes throughout this post, because I want to treat the word in Derridean fashion...

So...

... the demands of "respectability" diminish Christian witness. There is a general middle class captivity of the church in North America that keeps the faith trapped in a prison of its own design.

The concept of "respectability" is a function of class. And since the majority of middle class Christians rarely ponder class, it's not surprising that "respectability" is simply assumed in Christian faith communities rather than examined and critiqued. And such "respectability" is also inextricably tied up in issues of race and power.

Consider this:
White people call for “civility” when their power is challenged by people of color. 
White people criticize “political correctness” when social norms don’t allow them to get away with being horrible to people of color. 
These elements of political discourse are all about group monitoring and power maintenance. (Bobby Howard)

Let me offer a few examples.

One form of respectability polices language. There are things that can be said, and things that ought remain unsaid. According to "respectable" Christianity, Christians aren't supposed to swear, and discourse in Christian community is supposed to be moderate, careful, nice.

Ask a pastor how often they are in a room in which people are swearing, and when it is made known that they are a pastor, the whole room apologizes and the language "improves."

Yet some of the most powerful Christian speech in our world emerges from artists and other leaders who refuse to conform to middle class respectability, and so their art, their music, their speech is typically excluded the category "Christian", because the demand for "respectability" in liturgy and preaching supersedes other demands like truthfulness, or justice, or beauty.

Try to imagine worship music that is truly authentic, that emerges from the voice of the people, rather than from the simulacrum of middle class-ness (which humorously my auto-spellcheck wants to correct to middle crassness). It would sound like language bubbling up from the people. It would not be evaluated by committee. It would discomfit.

Some creatives are attempting such worship, like a recent Beyoncé Mass.



But of course a Beyoncé Mass only pushes out from middle class respectability in a couple of directions. But once you realize that middle class respectability is a cage with really wide bars, you can step out of it in many directions.

For example, who ever made up the idea that you had to dress up for church? It's certainly not biblical. As far as we can tell, whenever Jesus worshipped, he wore the same cloak he always wore (which was probably soiled and smelly), and entered the sanctuary barefoot.

Faith communities that demand by their homogeneity a certain way of dress, a certain type of car to park in the parking lot, or whether to drive a car at all, all of these throw off certain values of "respectability."

But "respectability" extends far beyond dress code and speech patterns. It's also about the content of speech, the form of life, the values that are assumed as dominant. What kinds of topics are off limits in your community? Who is excluded when such topics are excluded?

Pay attention to "respectability," and bring it into relationship with Scripture. You see immediately how heretical "respectability" is as a replacement for the moral vision of Scripture. The Bible cares little at all about whether you live in a single-family dwelling, drive the right car, or drop scatological terms into your conversation.

Want examples of non-"respectability" in Scripture? They are legion. 

Remember those Israelite spies who go into Jericho and stay with Rahab the prostitute?

Or consider Rahab's great-grandson David. Remember that story in the Bible, when Saul needed to go into a cave to take a dump, and David was hiding in the cave? So he sneaks up to Saul while is indisposed, and cuts off a corner of his cloak, then presents the corner of the robe later to Saul to show that he had refused to kill him.

I could go on, and tell the stories of the prophets. Ezekiel laid on his left side for 390 days. Isaiah wandered around naked. Hosea married a prostitute.

Paul the apostle boasts in beatings, imprisonments, and his general foolishness. In fact, he calls himself a fool.

And then let's not even get started with Jesus, who seems at every opportunity to undermine the "respectability" of religion, even the respectability of God. The Son of God always and consistently gravitates to the least "respectable" person, typically touching or being touched by them.

I'm reminded of that song in the opening of Joyce's Ulysses (a book that itself respectably undermined the "respectability" of "literature"):

I'm the queerest young fellow that ever you heard
My mother's a Jew, my father's a bird.
With Joseph the Joiner I cannot agree
So here's to disciples and Calvary.
If anyone thinks that I amn't divine
He'll get no free drinks when I'm making the wine
But have to drink water and wish it were plain
That I make when the wine becomes water again.
Goodbye, now, goodbye! Write down all that I said
And tell Tom, Dick, and Harry I rose from the dead.
What's bred in the bone cannot fail me to fly
And Olivet's breezy... Goodbye, now, goodbye!
Only the freedom of non-"respectability" allows a truth-teller to play fast and loose with traditional norms, and just so step out of the prison established by the controls of "respectability." It is only beyond "respectability" that the rich find themselves proximate with the poor, addicts feel comfortable in church pews, failures preach from the pulpit, and the dirty find their way to the font.

And not to be made "respectable," mind you. No, if the heresy of "respectability" is to be undermined completely, we need to remember the waters of baptism were already dirty to begin with, that dirt is life, and God is in the muck.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

When God shows up at ICE

Today we held a rally out front of the ICE offices in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I pulled up in my car, and parked right next to a friend. She works for Catholic Charities, and was bringing a young mother and her three year old daughter for a "check-in." They were rather concerned she might be detained.

Another woman was with the family, a friend of theirs and a pastor of a church in Los Angeles. She asked if we could pray together before they went in, so we did.
Lutherans at the ICE Lunch for Sanctuary
and Against Separating Families

After the prayer, our rally started gathering in the shade of a tree near the sidewalk, and the family stood at the door. ICE has offices in Fayetteville, but they keep the building unlabeled. If you want to stop by and see it, the office is at 2887 North Point Circle, right across from Saied Music.

Normally, the family would go in, and there would be a lengthy process, all with the possibility of detention. However, today the ICE employee actually came out to the front door, unlocked it, and handed the mother and three-year old a small piece of paper, and said, "See you in six months." Then she went back inside and re-locked the door.

To be clear, they all showed up worried she might be detained and separated from her three year old daughter. Instead, she went home hands in the air praising God.

God is at work, sometimes in small ways, but this was a God thing.

Then we held our rally. 40/29 news was present, so you'll probably be able to watch about our rally on the news. An immigration lawyer in town, Drew Davenport, gave us an update on the legal situation (such as it is). It's not pretty, and basically boils down to Jeff Sessions reversing protections for asylum seekers at the border for cases of domestic abuse, which then expanded into the zero tolerance policy harming thousands and thousands of families (did you know they have been detaining a 1000 people per day?!).

Representatives from Catholic Charities, Arkansas United Community Coalition, and People Power also spoke. I in particular shared that congregations are called to do their part, which means especially walking alongside undocumented people and going with them to their check-ins, etc, because it raises the likelihood of positive outcomes.

Congregations should learn how to become, and then sign up to be, sanctuary congregations.

Meanwhile, cities can also emulate Austin, Texas and become Freedom Cities.

While we met on the sidewalk out front of ICE, people working in neighboring businesses came out to watch us from afar. This was somewhat amusing. And periodically the ICE staff would peek out through their blinds. About 30 minutes into the rally, three police cars pulled up, stood around, stared at us, walked past us without interacting with us, and then left.

Which felt more like "watch and threaten" rather than "protect and serve." But we waved and smiled and used our live stream Facebook feature to monitor them while we also listened to those speaking.

It's not everything. It doesn't fix the mess we're in. But the regular gathering of such groups, especially in ways that bring to light the presence of systems of oppression, does move things in the right direction. And while we were there, the feeling was palpable. God's liberating Spirit was present among us.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Baptism and Immigration


[Originally published in the Lutheran Forum in 2007. Can't believe I've been working this beat for over a decade and we're now where we are... but we are where we are. I'd probably write this differently if I were writing it today (less academic, less 'Lutheran-y', but I've decided to re-post it given the tenor of our national conversation on immigration.]

Radical Baptism
Bearing the name of Christ through baptism creates a new community that transcends traditional boundaries, especially nationalist ones.  The modern nation state has done a superb job of convincing peoples the world over that citizenship is definitive of personhood.  Witness the fact that the New York Times can run an article on “stateless” peoples, children born in foreign nations to undocumented immigrants who therefore have no true citizenship, nor can reliably ever expect to have such, short of the miracle of being processed by the international United Nations refugee assistance program.  In the kingdom on the left, citizenship is everything, passports and identity cards are the mark of the state, and promise most of the protections and provisions of that state.
Exploding the myth of nationality as constitutive of personal identity is one of the goals of this essay. Stated otherwise, the goal of this essay is to proclaim the Christian myth of baptism as creation of a new self in Christ. Christians proclaim, and are reminded of especially in a post-Christendom context, that it is our baptism that makes us who we are, the body of Christ.  Maxwell Johnson writes, “Baptism places into the world a community of displaced people, people on a pilgrimage who really belong nowhere except where they are led, a people sure of their identity as the Body of Christ, as those who always walk wet in the baptismal waters of their origin” (Rites, 365-366).  It is patently the case that Christians have not boldly lived out this baptismal identity. In common conversation and usage, we state our nationality before we state our baptismal status.  We are only secondarily baptized Christians, and it is the first definition (national) that most often claims our priorities and commitments and rules our imagination.  
The point needs to be made clearly and strongly.  So: national boundaries forcibly divide what is indivisible according to Christian theology, namely the body of Christ.  The baptized on both sides of the border of any nation state should have as their primary allegiance, and have as their new border, the body of Christ into which they have been baptized.  It is quite clear that much of the violence in the world, a violence that non-violent Christian community can neither condone nor be complicit in, results from the maintenance of these borders, which are the very force of death. William Cavanaugh writes, “The ancient martyrs often asserted the kingship of Christ in refusing to offer worship or service to the emperors and their gods.  The church was, by its nature as Christ’s crucified and resurrected body, a challenge to the violence and idolatry of the secular authorities… the conflict is between Christ’s body on earth and the powers of the world which refuse to recognize Christ’s victory over it.  Christians see acts of injustice and state violence as the continuing struggle between the people of God and the forces of death.”[1]
A pilgrim people, “sure of their identity as the body of Christ,” would not by and large be concerned about such things as “porous borders.” Secured on the rock of baptism, drowned into the one foundation of Jesus Christ as Lord, they would live on the way because they follow and are “the Way”[2].  As the obvious counter-example, most modern nation states are concerned about overly porous borders.  They define persons by place of birth, by nationality, and so attempt to circumscribe personhood by reference to nation.  This is their power over persons- trying to tell us who we are.  Permeable borders therefore by definition weaken the state because they commingle persons the state wishes to define and exclude (or retain), and so challenge the nation’s defining power over persons.  Although some nation states continue attempts to re-assert their power (defining persons as alien, illegal) and often do so through legitimate means (nationalizing, granting citizenship), nevertheless, a border either in reality or by citizenal definition, remains.
The Christian community, by contrast, because it’s life springs from the waters of baptism, calls the world to live as it does, with complete fluidity as we suffer and undergo God’s permeability.  A fundamental doctrine of the church, ecumenically (and universally?) recognized, is that of “one baptism” (Ephesians).  Although individual congregations may provide orientation or educational opportunities for new members who come from other communions, by definition a baptized person is a member of Christ’s church and so all congregations; most churches recognize one anothers’ baptisms, and it is baptism in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that defines that person as new creation in Christ.  As fundamental to Paul’s gospel logic as “one baptism” is his “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians).  
Can the world, and institutions within it, actually live into this pilgrim one-ness?  Traditional Lutheran theology, for example, found it necessary to make a distinction between two kingdoms, the kingdom on the left and on the right.  This distinction was helpful in a Christendom context where it was necessary to have a theory of governmental rule (left) differentiated in some ways from a theory of God’s rule (right).  It further helped because it allowed for a differentiation between values guiding the self and theories of just governmental rule.  But the imagination intrinsic to such a distinction was guided primarily by a realpolitikrather than the sacramental imagination intrinsic to the life of the community of Christ.  Two kingdoms is certainly true in a descriptive sense; it is my intention to call into question two kingdoms in its prescriptive forms.  We all live mostly as if there were two kingdoms (although it could be argued that we mostly live as if there were only one kingdom, the kingdom on the left; Niebuhr was quite right to label much of our life together practical atheism). God’s kingdom as a reality in the world, a new creation already eschatologically accomplished prior to the end because Jesus as already come among us, is seldom embodied among us.  
Take this obvious example: Can a baptized Christian fight in a war against another nation and kill another baptized Christian?  Two kingdoms theology provided a place for such, taking into account certain “just war” considerations.  But “pilgrim people” theology imagines an alternative, that these two soldiers, though of different nationalities, are still “one in Christ”, and just so thatis the primary claim on their lives, and their lifetaking.  To kill a brother or sister in Christ is to maim and divide the one body, an action fundamentally opposed to the ethic of the gospel[3].
Just so most national defense is not a Christian ethic, but a pagan one, and the Christian witness, the life of the baptized, is one of permeable and hospitable borders.[4]  It is in fact even more radical than that.  It imagines one body in many places, and therefore hospitality and lack of defensiveness precisely in order to receive and live into that one body. In this sense, stringent national defense strategies and anti-immigration policies amount to the same thing.  Both lack the imagination intrinsic to a baptismal spirituality, which sees a nation or kingdom being formed in each and every place because the baptized live in these places.
“Baptizenship” therefore recites the creed, not the pledge, and has as its symbol of unity a table rather than the flag.  Christians, maybe especially in the United States, have been far too complicit in allowing (even maintaining) an idolatrous pledge and Asherah-like flag as central symbols of faith and comfort.  Which of these two concepts primarily informs the average U.S. Christians’ ethics--patriotism or table fellowship? Although some might pay lip service to the latter over the former, in point of fact, table fellowship loses each time[5], because we have not advocated loudly for any and all of the baptized, of whatever place, to be welcome at our tables.  How would they get to our tables?  If they are languishing in a refugee camp, has our ethic of table fellowship led us to advocate for their quick processing and granting of refugee status?  If they are undocumented immigrants, do they know our tables are safe and welcoming, or are they at risk of Christians being patriotically complicit in a system that would have us sending fellow baptized Christians through the penal system back to their “homeland.”  Do the emotions that rise up around these issues give lie to our commitments?  Obviously they do.
What I am calling for first of all is for us to simply imagine the possibility that baptism actually means something now, in the present, existentially, socially, bodily.  Let’s at least imaginethat God’s Word is the source and norm of our life together, the first and the last word, the primary word, and that all other words (say systems of government, pagan practices of sovereignty, claims on personal identity, etc.) take second place to this first normative word.  To play with the two kingdoms terminology, they are the kingdom that is “left” after the “right”-full kingdom has been lived and imagined in the way of its King.  And this imagination has first claim on those of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus, have been baptized into his death, are dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6).
Then, as a pilgrim people, we might suffer at the hands of nation states or people groups who do not confess the same creed.  We would suffer from living our baptism.  At least then we would be suffering for the sake of the gospel, rather than forcing other Christians to suffer for the sake of our commitments to the flag, the nation, and the ethic of this world.  The great tragedy in all of this is that we have become so comfortable with being powerful that we simply cannot imagine that Christ when he says, “Whoever is persecuted in my name [or for righteousness’ sake],” actually means what he says.  And what he first means is that we will need to stop calling for others to suffer so we can maintain our own comfort and security.  Seriously, in this era, does the nation-state need the church’s (our) patriotic mis-guided protections?  Isn’t the Christian witness, “go and be martyrion,” much more at risk?

Beyond Baptism

“The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, quoted in Marilynne Robinson’s The Death of Adam, page 113).

            Although the Christian community’s imagination is first of all informed by its standing as God’s baptized people, the church has generally understood that the implications of this acceptance (gift) of God are for all people, not just those already included.  The danger in our presentation now is that baptism could surreptitiously function as the new border, a kind-of sacramental we/they dichotomizer.  Returning to the pointed ethical question: Can a baptized Christian kill a non-Christian in war?  Or as regards immigrants and refugees: Should non-Christian immigrants and refugees receive different treatment at the hands of Christians than the baptized?  Does the theology of baptism imply that Christians only have concern for others who are baptized, or is their something intrinsic to baptism that propels itself out and away?
The joint ministry of the Lutheran denominations, as well as the ministry of Catholic Relief Service, Jewish Relief Service, and other refugee services, answers this question in their actual practice.  They help relocated refugees of any and all religious traditions.  They do not discriminate.  They do this because they agree with Bonhoeffer that “the church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of the ordering of any society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.”  So, we might say that baptism as a sacrament is gospel precisely in its openness.  Not only does it include all those baptized and therefore transcend things that might otherwise divide; it also refuses to divide based on its own internal logic. It embraces those not yet baptized and cares for them.  It is a missiological sacrament, the practice of those sent out to all nations (Matthew 28). Since it is the practice and public sign of the sent pilgrim people, it transforms now how the church relates to those to whom they are sent precisely because of what is implicit in it as sacrament.
Baptism furthermore does not function as a new “border” or we/they dichotomizer because the baptized are already de-centered by the “I AM” who names them.  As a de-centered “we”, the baptized no longer make distinctions between us and them in the way the world might.  Instead, the church lives by what we might term a “realizing eschatology.” A realizing eschatology is coming to the realization that the end has already come in Christ, and so those who are coming to realize this enjoy a kind of freedom vis-à-vis this realization. James Alison tells a wonderful parable that describes his realizing eschatology better than any rational argument:

Please go back in your memory to 1989.  Now please imagine that you are in Albania.  November comes along, and through the ether comes news that many miles to the north, in Berlin, the wall has come down.  You know exactly what this means: it means that it’s all over, the beast which ran your lives is mortally wounded, has lost its transcendence, is dead.  It’s all over bar the shouting  It may take some time for the thrashing about of the beast in its death throes to calm down. It may take some time for the effects of that to trickle down through Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, but fundamentally it’s over.  You and some friends begin quietly to dance and celebrate in Albania.  The very fact that you are dancing and celebrating is itself not only a sign that the beast has lost its transcendence, but is something which is, itself, helping the loss of transcendence, because you can have a party in its face.  Something has been undone, somewhere else, and this means that you don’t need to undo it yourself, the rejoicing in its being already done is part of what universalizes the undoing so that you do find yourself participating in the undoing, but as a recipient who is spreading the effect.. Some people, of course, do not accept that the coming down of the wall means that the beast is dead.  They want to say: no, that’s a temporary blip, and we’re in charge here.  So they turn up grunting and shouting and bullying to try and make it look as though nothing has changed.  But it has, and even they are losing faith in the old order.  Part of the celebration may be learning to help the apparatchiks of the old order discover themselves a place in the new one  Giving them a soft landing: something the old order, built on revenge and triumph over enemies, couldn’t possibly understand.  While they’re around, of course, your celebration will look like, and be made to look like, dancing in the face of the evidence.  And that is what True Worship implies: the beginning of the celebration of a new regime even while the old regime hasn’t yet grasped the news of its own fall (Undergoing God, Continuum 2006, 40-41)

Certainly Jesus was one who was dancing in the face of the evidence.  Inasmuch as the church has lived like Christ and with Christ, it has danced this way also.  This is to say that because baptism is what it is, death and resurrection into the life of Christ, it brings with it the whole burden and blessing of Christlikeness—suffering and witnessing for the “others”, precisely because in Christ there is no longer other, but only neighbors who are already eschatologically “we.”  And this non-othered ordering and neighborliness includes even those who wish to maintain the old order.  

Baptized, We Live[6]
            So far this essay has contained enough radical assertions to keep the close reader busy with questions and critiques for some time.  I have purposely asserted the issues in as direct and pointed a way as possible, precisely to bring the issue to life in our imaginations.  I am aware that much needs to follow in the way of appropriation and reflection (although I also wonder if most further work I would do on the issue might seek to tame the beast).  One way forward is to enter into conversation with an alternative “real” eschatology[7], informed by a more traditional law/gospel distinction. 
Exemplary theologian Gerharde Forde is one who maintains that there is an end before the end (a “real” as compared to Alison’s “realizing” eschatology), and on the basis of law/gospel distinctions proclaims a paradoxical already/not yet. He writes, “Precisely because faith sees that Christ alone is the end of the law, that law correlates with sin and death and cannot be removed by our theologies, law is established this side of the eschaton” (The Preached God, 219); or later similarly, “…there is no cure other than a more radical proclamation of Christ as the end of the law who because he is the end establishes the law prior to the end” (224).
Many  of the documents and ministries of the current church assume some form of  this understanding of the law and its continuation.  For example, a Lutheran joint statement on immigration reform reads:  We recognize and affirm the responsibility of the government to regulate immigration in a godly manner while considering the many factors that deserve careful attention.”[8]  This is a clear and concise articulation of the two kingdoms doctrine, at least in its traditional formulation.  
            As another example, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a Lutheran organization involved in ongoing work resettling refugees in the United States and advocating for refugees and immigrants, has worked out a clear and helpful policy statement on comprehensive immigration reform.  They write:

LIRS and its member organizations believe that “In difficult and threatening times, churches and all Christians have an obligation to stand with the word of God against those who use fear to deny fundamental human rights and dignity to the stranger in our midst.”[9]LIRS continues to advocate for reform of our broken immigration system, working with our partners, who include immigrant, business, labor, faith-based and human rights groups. To meet the needs of migrants and of our communities, meaningful reform must be based on the following four principles: 
·               Uniting families
·               Protecting human rights and worker rights
·               Ending the marginalization of the undocumented, making it possible for them to live openly in our society
·               Giving immigrants willing to contribute to our economy and society a path toward permanence.”[10]

While recognizing that the system is broken, LIRS works within and through the current legal system, calling for reform of the laws themselves.  They “recognize and affirm the responsibility to regulate immigration in a godly manner,” and then clarify their understanding of the “godly manner” through four principles. 
All of these are worthy commitments.  I notice, however, that the four principles are informed by concepts of “rights,” “family values,” “non-marginalization,” and “contribution.”  These are important concepts in our political landscape, and they have considerable traction.  What is missing (probably not unusual for a public document from LIRS or any other non-profit of its kind) is the language of baptism and sacrament in the radical sense articulated in the first portion of this essay.
            Nevertheless, the baptismal imagination does seem to inform further comments in the document regarding differing House and Senate Comprehensive Immigration Reform legislation.  LIRS opposes legislation that criminalizes undocumented workers.  It especially opposes legislation that criminalizes ministry with undocumented migrants.  Their recommendations are especially geared towards providing a path to permanence, avoiding long-term or unjust detention, and protecting the least and the vulnerable- unaccompanied minors, asylum seekers, torture survivors, and fractured families.  Here I am reminded once again of Bonhoeffer’s confession: “The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.”  
The public statement of Bishop Stephen Bouman, Metropolitan New York Synod, is another example that, although not naming baptism directly, certainly radicalizes the issue in relation to Scriptural mandates: “God calls us to welcome, protect, and love everyone in our midst. Our love for the stranger must transcend national boundaries, race, language, culture, and religion.”[11]  Bouman proclaims this in relation to immigration abuses in our nation, especially out-of-control detention of undocumented immigrants, many of whom are children or young women with families.  No mention is made of baptism per se- instead, in this press-release, the emphasis is on the biblical mandate to welcome the stranger.  Statements from Lutheran leaders like Bouman help illustrate a necessary next step- to relate the doctrine of baptism to the biblical mandate to welcome the stranger and care for the sojourner in our midst (Leviticus 19:33-34; Matthew 25).Statements like Bouman’s also exercise us in imagining a “realizing” eschatology pushing at the edges of current ministries of the church and affiliated organizations.

Heaven is Wet

The Church is the collective living out of the opening of heaven.[12]

All the way to heaven is heaven, because He said, “I am the way.”[13]

Church imagines citizenship differently because the Christian imagination is essentially eschatological. The church is not a rival polis, but points to another time and place, the new heaven and new earth.  The church may appear to be a rival polis, may even articulate a vision of the life of the baptized, translated for the sake of the whole world, that sounds “as if” it rivals other polises; it is nevertheless a vision, and is non-exclusive in its exclusive claims. It is a way, the “collective living out of the opening of heaven.” Inasmuch as it is the way of Jesus, the Son of God, it is heaven, for heaven is God and life in God.
Although this can be articulated eschatologically, it also has a point of reference in the public witness of the crucified Christ.  Christ, as the holy one of Israel, in his torn open and crucified body, is crucified “in the air,”[14]as a public sign of the end of one rule and the non-violent proclamation of a new one.  Our incorporation into this crucifixion is how Paul, for example, makes sense of our new life in Christ.  Because we are drowned in baptism and raised with Christ, our new life in Christ takes the form of this crucified openness.  A number of boundaries take on new conceptuality.  We are “adopted” (adoption serving as a fruitful metaphor that compares favorably and helpfully with the metaphor of immigration I have been employing in this essay).  Jesus says to the beloved disciple, “This is your mother,” and to his mother, “This is your son.”  We are just so a new sibling society, brothers and sisters in Christ, and although many may try to distinguish us by what we used to be, we are who we are made, and the heavenliness of this new creation is awash with a new fluid relationality. Immigrants.  Refugees.  Friends. Brothers. Sisters. Pilgrims. Citizens of heaven.  For God has named us in a life-giving flood.
It is specifically in the presence of this public event “in the air,” the crucifixion of Jesus on the cross, that the church discovers who it is[15]The church is who it is in the presence of this crucified one.  Although it may seem an obvious point, it seems frequently lost in the telling. The point is this- the Christian proclamation inherently has a public dimension.  It takes place in space and time in front of a watching world.  It furthermore creates a community through the proclamation of Jesus crucified.  So there is a community of people who are marked by the cross and so live as “resident aliens” or “pilgrim people.”  And it is the public life of these people, their life together, that is itself political action and activity before a watching world.  That is, this Christian community does not first of all need to make changes in public policy, or change the world through shrewd politicking and advocacy.  Rather, the Christian community is called first of all to live differently in and of itself, as the people it is created and sustained in the waters of baptism. Changes in the world will take place inasmuch as the world a) takes note of what the church is doing and how it is living, and b) reacts by working with, or resisting, the public nature of the church’s life.  But the church is called to attend first to itself, and not to the hoped for or expected impact.
A wonderful example of this in the history of the church in the United States was the Sanctuary Movement. In the early 1980s, churches of all stripes- Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish—offered refugees from Central American countries social services and advocacy support..  At that time, since many of these countries were officially allies of the United States, the U.S. would have denied many of these refugees asylum, even though many of the refugees had participated in the liberation theology movement, and were indeed in need of asylum.  “These congregations, united under the banner of the Sanctuary Movement, also pledged that they would not reveal the identities of these refugees, even if they were arrested or jailed for doing so.” [16]A result of this movement to provide sanctuary (in the real sense of that term) was a change in national foreign policy. But changing foreign was not the movement’s raison d’etre.  Rather, it was solidarity with the oppressed, and an imagination informed by the idea that it is our new life in Christ that has primary claim on us.  
The New Sanctuary Movement, initiated this past month by Interfaith Worker Justice as a response to concerns for comprehensive immigration reform, has as its most crucial element a repeating of the first Sanctuary Movement’s “prophetic hospitality.”  Congregations “host” a family seeking sanctuary for three months and support them throughout that time.  In the case of the New Sanctuary Movement, no laws will be broken. But in a tense political and cultural climate, even this kind of hospitality will likely meet inhospitable protests.
Such a movement has deep resonances, even if unnamed, with this proposal for the recovery of a radical baptismal theology.  It is a call to the churches to provide sanctuary for people, in many cases Christian people, who live in fear because they have been marked and identified first of all by nationality and race.  One can imagine that at least in some of these sanctuaries, now literal rather than figurative, the waters of baptism flow and an echo of a voice is saying, “Child of God, you have been sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross forever.”  And the congregation responds, “The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.”




[1]Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist, Blackwell, 1998; ???
[2]“So. Jesus the Way, the ways of Jesus.  He shows the way.  He also isthe way…The Way that is Jesus cannot be reduced to information or instruction. The Way is a person whom we believe and follow as God-with-us”; Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, Eerdmans: 2007; 36, 40.
[3]I remember some years ago visiting a Druze community in Israel, and learning that although they did participate in the Israeli army, they refused to fight if they knew Druze peoples were fighting on the other side (the Druze had communities in neighboring nations, not only in Israel).
[4]Pat Robertson on immigration is a crucial example of exactly what has gone wrong with Christian advocacy on immigration policy.  In a recent front page article in the New York Times Book Review, Michael Kinsley writes, “Robertson quotes an Oxford historian who noted that in 376 A.D., “in a complete break with established Roman policy,” the emperor admitted “a large band of Gothic refugees.”  In the space of two years, they revolted and killed him.  The emperor, Robertson observes, “had done… the Christian thing,” but not “the Roman thing.”  So there you are.  Robertson the so-called Christian recommends the Roman thing over the Christian thing-- Michael Kinsley, article entitled “Election Day”, Nov. 5, 2006 issue of The New York Times Book Review.
[5]In fact, I remember that after 9/11, many communion tables were draped with American flags.  
[6]Daniel Erlander, self-published, 1981
[7]Contrasted with the “realizing” eschatology of James Alison and others.
[8]The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, “Joint Statement Regarding Immigration Concerns,” June 2, 2006, http://www.lcms.org/pages/internal.asp?NavID=10023
[9]Joint Statement from the ELCA and LIRS, “Evangelical Lutherans Call for Fair and Just Immigration Reform,” March 2006, http://www.elca.org/advocacy/immad0306-5.pdf
[10]LIRS Comprehensive Immigration Reform backgrounder, www.lirs.org
[11]http://www.lirs.org/News/NewsReleases/20070420WWJSAIR.htm
[12]James Alison, Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination(New York: Crossroad, 1996), 81.

[13]Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness: An Autobiography(San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1952), p. 247.
[14]According to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that now worketh in the sons of disobedience." ( Eph. 2. 2 ) But the Lord came to overthrow the devil and to purify the air and to make "a way" for us up to heaven, as the apostle says, "through the veil, that is to say, His flesh."( Heb. 10. 20 ) This had to be done through death, and by what other kind of death could it be done, save by a death in the air, that is, on the cross? Here, again, you see how right and natural it was that the Lord should suffer thus; for being thus "lifted up," He cleansed the air from all the evil influences of the enemy. "I beheld Satan as lightning falling," ( Luke 10. 18) He says; and thus He re-opened the road to heaven, saying again, "Lift up your gates, 0 ye princes, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors." ( Psalm 24. 7) For it was not the Word Himself Who needed an opening of the gates, He being Lord of all, nor was any of His works closed to their Maker. No, it was we who needed it, we whom He Himself upbore in His own body - that body which He first offered to death on behalf of all, and then made through it a path to heaven (Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, chapter 4)

[15]Think, for example, of the liturgical proclamation, “For as often as we eat this bread and drink of this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
[16]Faith Works, Newsletter of Interfaith Worker Justice, May 2007, page 4.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Mea Culpa Leadership

Try this thought experiment with me: in our culture, what are incentives to the admission of culpability, failure, weakness, mistakes? From where I sit, it seems very few benefits accrue to those who apologize or make such admissions, and there are many disincentives. Admitting failure, apologizing for anything, is risky business. Admit a mistake, and people will pile on you.

You've seen this happen, I'm sure. No wonder its a rare occurrence to actually admit guilt or fault.

If you are in a position of leadership with an organization and you consult your lawyers, they'll probably strongly recommend you make no such admissions in writing or otherwise, lest you make yourself vulnerable to a lawsuit.

I assume this is why, in addition to the actual personality issues (pride, vanity, stubbornness), many leaders in our nation (including those at the very top) follow a simple doctrine: Never apologize. 

But there's a big problem with this doctrine. Never apologizing means never changing, never growing, and rarely getting better. It's like that line in Thor: Ragnarok when Thor tricks Loki at his own tricks. He says, "You'll always be the god of mischief, but you could be so much more."

Repentance doesn't guarantee growth, but it is a practice that illustrates maturity and the potential for growth. 

This brings me to Shanna Germain. Shanna is an amazingly creative writer. She makes games and stories with Monte Cook Games, plus novels and a lot more. I started following her on social media  a few years ago when I got into role-playing in the Cypher System, the gaming system published by Monte Cook. I love following her on social media because she is so wise (and added bonus, she wrote a whole role-playing game with dinosaurs). 

Shanna recently posted this, which I share with her permission:

I am sitting with my imperfections today. My failures and flaws. It makes me feel bruised, this self-reflection--and tender. It's always a hard space, but it's a space from which I hope to rise, better and smarter for doing the time and the work... 
One hard thing about getting older is that my failures and flaws are not the simple mistakes they once were. Now they are more complex and ingrained, harder to unweave and understand. Leveling up is complex work.
There's so much truth in this short post, I feel like I need to break it down and exegete it, like Scripture. Maybe because I'm in middle age, probably around the same age as Shanna, this post felt especially close, poignant. I've been sitting with my own imperfections a lot lately, not always knowing what to do with them.

I fail all the time. Sometimes I fail because I'm leading with my strengths, and I get confused in the application. Sometimes I'm just stubbornly clinging to my flaws. They are so complex and ingrained, almost hard-wired into my operating system, I hardly know how to re-write them... I even wonder if I can.

And my failures sometimes have a much larger impact than when I was younger. As a pastor, my failures impact my congregation. As a voice in our community, or here in these social media spaces, my flaws get magnified in so many ways. 

Shanna compares this work to "leveling up," which is language familiar especially to gamers. Gain enough experience, you level up. With each level, you gain extra skills, abilities, powers. Players in a game at higher levels often have to keep track of how their various new skills interact. You might gain a skill at level 4 and forget about it for a while, only remembering at level 10 that you even had the other ability in your skill set.

In middle age, it seems we're all in over our heads, literally. We don't even know what we don't know. The systems in which we are embedded are complex, and part of their complexity is actually created by our own complexity. 

If we're leading really, really well, we're actually creating these challenges, because we're creating in ways that lead out into uncharted waters. Heck, really great creatives don't just lead us into uncharted waters... they actually CREATE the water.

In the midst of all this complexity, all these failures and flaws, it is the peculiar Christian notion (call it a doctrine if you'd like) that you can always apologize.

You can always apologize, because there is always grace. You can always repent, because new life shows up on the other side. Such sitting with our failures and flaws is the beginning of the Christian life, it is the center of the Christian life, and it is always available. It's a better way, even if it is the path less taken.

Imagine if our national leaders were encouraged by our culture, and by their own leveling up, to recognize mistakes, admit their failures and flaws, repent, and turn in new directions. Watching our leaders not do this is maddening, and also sad and pathetic. They look stuck, trapped. I've noticed the same pattern in myself at times. I don't like it.

I mean, it's not just that individual leaders in our nation follow the doctrine of never apologize. It's actually American Doctrine never to admit we made any mistakes. It's ingrained in us from a very early age. Just go back and read the history textbook you were assigned in school. 

One of the more remarkable aspects of Scripture is how different it is from other works of "history." In some ways, the entire Hebrew Scripture is a record of Israel's failures, and God's faithfulness. Similarly, the New Testament is a story of Christ's epic failure, and God's raising him up. And Paul's letters are all about his own weakness, and God's strength in spite of Paul's failures.

I don't know about you, but I don't want to find myself at 71 years old so immature that I can't say sorry, so rigid I can't change, so righteous I have no need of God's. So with Shanna I'm sitting with my imperfections in this blog, and I'm finding such sitting then gets me up off my seat into a life I'd otherwise be afraid to live.

Finally, one caveat: I am not giving anyone the assignment to publicly apologize while in a position of leadership. As I mention at the beginning of this post, I know how risky this can be, from personal experience, and seeing it play out in the lives of others. For right now, I'm sitting with this tension in my own life: between the Christian call to repentance, and the reality that admitting weakness in public settings for leaders can, because of our cultural situation, harm sense of self, compromise the leaders' role, and leave people feeling isolated. I'm not sure how to reconcile the theology with the reality, but I know sitting with the first, and acknowledging the second, are important, and important to hold in tension.