Friday, March 24, 2017

Surely we aren't blind, are we?

Jesus said, "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, "Surely we are not blind, are we?" Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, "We see,' your sin remains. (John 9:39-41)
Surely we are not blind, are we? This is the question of the day. There's enough gas-lighting and counter-blaming in our daily lives, the nightly news, and the early morning Twitter feeds to leave us wondering if anyone can see clearly.

Doublespeak. Shaping facts selectively. Blocking through obfuscation things that do not fit our agenda. To defend the indefensible such willful evasion is required.

Jesus encounters the blind man and heals him. The entire narrative as John tells it is profoundly polysemous. It offers succinct answers to deep and abiding theological questions, like:
  • Can we name direct causation between sin and punishment? Answer: No.
  • Specifically, is sickness related to sin? Answer: No.
  • Is some of our pain and marginalization the result of our parents' sin? Answer: Sometimes, although this is a result of the way the world works, not divine intervention by God. And furthermore, in those instances, the suffering that comes from sin can sometimes be the very context for God's liberating and healing work.
  • Are we permanently bound in our sin or blindness? Answer: No. Except perhaps if we are convinced we aren't blind, then it's hard to be freed from it.
In this gospel, Jesus is active on all sides of the equation. Like the God of Moses, hardening the heart of Pharaoh, Jesus heals the blind that they might see, and blinds those who believe they see.

This should cause everyone pause. Everyone. Is our confidence in our sight a form of blindness?

That being said, the text is also incredibly clear-eyed. There are people who see, and people who don't, and just think they do, and the story teaches us how to distinguish them. The text names them: the blind man is freed from sin AND healed. The Pharisees on the other hand believe they see when in fact they are blind.

I can think of no better example of this than the perspective of white evangelicals on discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. Like the Pharisees, they think they should stand apart from the world, but rather than standing apart in ways that heal and care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, they try to stand apart in self-righteous (willfully blind) ways.


In my own life, I think my willful blindness remains present, especially in view of the various levels of my own privilege. I fund a military state that destabilizes regions all over the world; I benefit from an economy that leaves billions impoverished; I have a station in life that is not earned but rather a privileged by-product of my gender and race.

Like the Pharisees, I still at times look at other individuals, other communities, and ask, "Who sinned, that they are in that situation?"

And in so doing, I fail to open my eyes and see that it is me.

This is how sin works. 

Finally, it's worth noting that the most common interpretation of this text is blind man as sign of the early Christian community. That is, the early Christians are those who have been given sight through their faith in Christ. In the meantime, the world around them, their cousins in faith in particular, are perplexed by their new sight, and busy with questions. 

This is a worthwhile symbolic reading of the text. In what ways is our faith in Christ healing us of our blindness? In what ways are we, like the blind man, asking others, "Do you also want to become his disciples?"

Monday, March 20, 2017

What We Have Meant by Resurrection

As a pastor and theologian, I'm not sure there's anything I can do that might convince readers that observing Holy Week is as crucial as entering a bracket for March Madness.

So, as a theologian, I'll double down. If some people can memorize stats for colleges they've never laid eyes on, I figure theologians can dance around a bit in the esoterica of theologizing.

Here goes.

The cross and resurrection are stunning in their mundane implausibility. That the world would reject the full presence of God in the full humanity of Jesus Christ is unsurprising. Like Col. Jessep's response in A Few Good Men, "You can't handle the truth!"--so too the world (and therefore us, I) have never been able to handle the truth of God in Christ... and so we kill him.

As Luther wrote in the Heidelberg Disputation, that person deserves to be called a theologian who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.

Which is to say, Christ died on the cross because he was fully God, and the cross was humanity's response to God made manifest.

The cross is the central and most important story. The gospel of Mark gets this best, by ending near the cross, and re-centering readers on the life of Christ itself, always telling the ending as it does, with a word pointing ahead to the Christ, but no visible sign of his appearing, only the promise, and then these words, "So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid" (Mark 16:8).

Yet, although the cross is the most important word, it is no word at all without its completion, and the completion of cross is resurrection. Resurrection is not at all a replacement for the cross, or its usurpation. Far too many approaches to the resurrection are supersessionist, implying that somehow in the resurrection the cross either didn't happen, or is of no account, or is no longer central.

That simply can't be true. But if we take resurrection as it gives itself, it is the completion of the cross in quite a different manner, as its deepening.

The resurrection is mundane in quite the same way as the cross. Christ was raised on the third day because he was fully human, and the resurrection was God's response to full humanity made manifest.

The cross is humanity's response to God. The resurrection is God's response to humanity. They complete each other. They are both completely natural outcomes if we take the subjects for who they are. Humanity kills. God is alive. They are completely implausible if we take the objects for who they are. God does not die. Humanity does.

So why does this all matter for our Lenten observances, and why should we devote an entire Holy Week to it?

Well, once we consider the full magnitude of these two events in their coupling, that the fully God and fully human both died and rose again, participating in both, the paradox of it all, then a number of considerations follow.

First, we are offered in the cross and resurrection a much more embodied theology. We encounter insights from, among others, the profound eco-feminists like Rosemary Radford Ruether, who connect the resurrection of the body to the deep sense of God filling the whole cosmos.

But we also open space for exploring the resurrection not just as something that happens historically "in Christ," but rather resurrection as shared experience of the whole community, perhaps even exclusively as this, like in the sermons and writings of Friedrich Schleiermacher.

Countering this, but equally compelling, some of our best theologians have argued that the resurrection is thoroughly reasonable both on scientific and historical grounds. The best on this is that great systematician Wolfhart Pannenberg.

Or finally, we might consider that in the resurrection the oppressed are freed for struggle, that the resurrection is more than just experience, or science, or history... that the resurrection is praxis, revolution. 
The cross and resurrection of Jesus stand at the center of the New Testament story, without which nothing is revealed that was not already known in the Old Testament. In the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, his earthly life achieves a radical significance not otherwise possible. The cross-resurrection events mean that we now know that Jesus’ ministry with the poor and the wretched was God effecting the divine will to liberate the oppressed. The Jesus story is the poor person’s story, because God in Christ becomes poor and weak in order that the oppressed might become liberated from poverty and powerlessness. God becomes the victim in their place and thus transforms the condition of slavery into the battleground for the struggle of freedom. This is what Christ’s resurrection means. The oppressed are freed for struggle, for battle in the pursuit of humanity. 
Jesus was not simply a nice fellow who happened to like the poor. Rather his actions have their origin in God’s eternal being. They represent a new vision of divine freedom, climaxed with the cross and the resurrection, wherein God breaks into history for the liberation of slaves from societal oppression. Jesus’ actions represent God’s will not to let his creation be destroyed by non-creative powers. The cross and the resurrection show that freedom promised is now fully available in Jesus Christ. This is the essence of the New Testament story without which Christian theology is impossible (James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 73-74).

I hope everyone will commit to worship during the Sundays of Lent, and Holy Week, because of their intrinsic value (this year, Holy Week worship in our congregation includes Maundy Thursday (April 13th, 6:30 p.m.), Good Friday (April 14th, 6:30 p.m.), and Easter Vigil (April 15th, 6:30 p.m.), plus Palm Sunday April 9th and Easter Sunday April 16th. I'll just remind everyone that it's the full week, and all the services, that will ground you in the cross and resurrection more than any other set of liturgies you might attend the rest of the year.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Baptism is all. the. things.

During Lent, the church has baptism on its mind. Thousands of catechumens the world over are engaged in preparation for baptism at the Vigil of Easter. In our congregation, we host one happy baptism of an infant this Sunday, then many baptisms (of children and adults) at the vigil in a few weeks. Some in our congregation are still actively discerning whether they are ready to be baptized at the Vigil. They're puzzling over the meaning of this sign and symbol in their lives.

The sacrament probably has as many meanings as there are those receiving it. For some, it's entrance into the life of the church. For others, its an opportunity for transformation. For others, a dramatic dying and rebirth. For others, it's a bit of water and an awkward moment in front of a crowd.

The sacraments are curious. They're special moments in the life of Christian community when God's promises intersect with materiality. God's forgiveness with bread and wine. Rebirth with water. Gospel words flying from a pulpit into ears. Promise combined with a wedding ring. Hope in resurrection spoken over oil imposed. Love expressed in the washing of feet.

If God is at work in all things, how is it possible for God to be especially present in specific places, certain times? How can God "show up" if God is also trans-local? How can God be an "event" when God is beyond time?

Here's what the primary ELCA text on the sacraments has to say about baptism: “Baptism inaugurates a life of discipleship in the death and resurrection of Christ. Baptism conforms us to the death and resurrection of Christ precisely so that werepent and receive forgiveness, love our neighbors, suffer for the sake of the Gospel, and witness to Christ.”

Interestingly, when I talk to adults serious about baptism, their questions often center around belief. They wonder: Should I be baptized if I don't believe every single point in the creed? Do I have to believe everything listed here to be baptized?

I have a fairly straightforward answer to that question. Answer: No. I think belief is rather more complex than that.

We don't hold fast to specific and easily defined propositions to assure ourselves that baptism is right for us. Instead, our individual faith is the continuing exploration of the faith shared by the Christian community. It's us joining up with a faith that transcends us, both temporally and geographically. For example, we confess together that we believe in the resurrection of the dead. But what specifically we believe about resurrection, how it happens, how it works, what it signifies... there is considerable space in there for a life-time of doubts and new insights. If you don't believe me, just read some systematic theology. Or Immanuel Kant.

I would never recommend that anyone get baptized if they feel they are violating their own integrity. But if you just have doubts and wonder whether you should get baptized, I say: Welcome to the club. All of us baptized people have doubts all the time. It's not the anti-thesis of faith. It's part of it.

What baptism inaugurates, however, is a life of discipleship. It's you being conformed into Christ that you might love your neighbor, suffer for the sake of the gospel, and witness to Christ. A better question than do I have to believe all this? might be Am I ready for that?

Are you ready to potentially suffer for the gospel and on behalf of your neighbor in their need? If you can say yes honestly, then by all means, be baptized.

At the baptismal liturgy, we commit to:



In other words, baptism isn't a doctrinal position or set of beliefs. Rather, it is a way of life. The way of life comes with news and stories to share, doctrines to explore, but these are always resources for the journey, the way of life we are on. Baptism is life lived IN Christ, who himself through his Spirit enlivens all the actions we promise to engage in at our baptism.

The other thing about baptism: it's a wall-shatterer. Although we are already united in our shared humanity (and it can be argued we are also united in our shared solidarity with all of creation), baptism especially signifies God's active breaking down of the traditional barriers and binaries that divide us. Baptism is scandalous, because it illustrates God's active over-coming of national boundaries, gender binaries, religious divisions, and more. It brings us to awareness of intersectionality in order to find life there.

"As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28) 

One mark of whether a community is doing baptism right: if the community itself is rather surprised by who arrives to be baptized.

When you come to the waters of baptism, you were already a human, and shared common humanity with others. In baptism, the sacrament signifies the "even more" of God's uniting of our common humanity. We receive baptism as a gift, a resource for trusting that indeed, God's promise, and our humanity, is enough to overcome and transcend all the forces that divide humanity one from another, and from creation.

There's more "there" there than we realize, and that's what sacraments do. They draw our attention to the truth of what already is, by deepening and transforming it.

There are many days as a pastor and Christian, I ask myself, "What the hell am I doing? Am I able to do this?"

Then I remember: "I am baptized! I am in Christ. Let's go."

That is baptism.

Monday, March 13, 2017

It's the end of white America as we know it... and I feel fine

In a nation as steeped in civil religion as ours, inevitably the top administration has an operative if not explicit court theology, perhaps even a specific court theologian.

Many analysts of the Obama administration noted, for example, that Obama was in many ways his own theologian, and deeply influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr in particular. Although Obama departed from Niebuhrian Christian realism in practice at times, there is deep continuity between Obama's overall approach to governance and Niebuhr's thought. Obama was also accused of being influenced by the firebrand Chicago pastor Jeremiah Wright. This seems less likely, even if some of Obama's rhetoric is colored with Wrightian prophetic eloquence.

Christian realism acknowledges that the extent of human injustice on this earth requires compromise. Casting a vision for the kingdom of God is too idealistic in the face of reality... so Christian realism reigns it in towards more pragmatic and realistic considerations. Niebuhr still maintained a strong social justice focus, but tempered it in comparison to, say, the Social Gospel movement. Many presidents in the United States, not to mention prominent politicians, have been influenced by Niebuhr, including Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, and Hilary Clinton.

Interestingly, Christian realism as a religious perspective has had greater influence among prominent Christian politicians than among theologians and churches themselves. The Social Gospel movement, by contrast, has had a much greater influence on ecumenism, Civil Rights, and so on. Also interestingly, although Niebuhr did in fact highlight many important social justice concerns, one he overlooked, along with all the Anglo-theologians of his era, were the clear racial implications of the dominant theology. James Cone points out in The Cross and the Lynching Tree that for all his perspicuity, Niebuhr never noticed a connection between the cross of Christ and the horrible lynchings happening in the United States throughout his career.

Such Christian realism was the court theology of the previous administration, but rumbling around in the wider culture, and gathering influence all across our nation, was another theological vision, exemplified by such prominent Christians now in seats of power like Betsy DeVos, and most influentially, Steve Bannon.

So what is this theology, and how does it differ from Christian realism? On the one hand, we can't really say there is just one theology of the Trump administration. For example, Betsy DeVos has been waging a holy war for quite some time, but it's a holy war by "believers," that is, super-rich evangelicals who believe it is their destiny to transform the culture through their wealth and influence, and with "a single, unified message merging social conservatism, free-market capitalism and American exceptionalism: the belief that the rights and freedoms spelled out in the U.S. Constitution were mandated by God."

The result of this messaging is a merger of libertarianism, populism and religious conservatism so dramatic as to be incommensurable if compared to any form of truly biblical Christianity. It is an exclusive form of Christianity convinced it is right when it is neither Christian nor right.

However, although this is an ambitious religiously motivated strategy to transform culture via a direct attack on the so-called "secular" institutions of our democracy, it is not yet the core theological vision of the Trump administration. This is more of an ambitious "reformation." To get to the heart of the theological vision of the Trump administration, you need to look at Steve Bannon.

Bannon is a Roman Catholic, but of the ultra-conservative and creepy variety. The man behind Trump's throne regularly cites a novel about an invasion of Europe by feces eating deviants as the basis for his worldview. In the summer of 2014, he gave a presentation at the Vatican that lays out his apocolyptic theological vision.

Essentially, Bannon's apocalypticism sees Western civilization under threat, and himself (together with his alt-right media behemoth Breitbart) and Donald Trump, and all the other white supremacists he can muster, as those trying to save such civilization (which they imagine is homogenous and white and healthy because of it) from the invasion of the "other" (by which they mean black and brown bodies).

This is to say, in spite of the evidence (notice, he's in the highest seat of power, together with a ton of other Christians who believe things similar to him), Steve Bannon and his tribe believe they are discriminated against and under threat from the hoards of immigrants just hoping to cross over the border and immediately vote illegally in the next president election (never mind that it looks like it was Steve Bannon himself who committed voter fraud).

It might not be too far off to simply say that Steve Bannon's theology is Madmax: Fury Road, but without any of the feminism.

In Bannon's speech at the Vatican, he claims that the 21st century is in crisis... he calls it "a crisis of our church, a crisis faith, a crisis of the West, and a crisis of capitalism." In this, he is a close ally of DeVos, who also believes capitalism and Christianity are twins.

But the more dangerous aspect of Bannon's theology, and why it's worth knowing, is it's blood.  Like all fascists, Bannon is particular fascinated by the blood. Here I mean blood in a few senses: first, blood as race or ethnicity. He thinks there is some pure blood of Western civilization, a genetic code, that is under threat by the invasion of other blood types. But also he imagines, perhaps even hopes for, a blood bath. He's scared that ISIS will create "rivers of blood" in the United States. He anticipates a clash of cultures between the West and Islam.

And then, in the end, like the blood theologians of fascism before him (Hitler prince among them), the end vision of the apocalypse is no coherent vision at all. Unlike the actual apocalypse in Scripture, which is a vision of the new Jerusalem, the restoration of streets to live in, Bannon's vision of the coming whatever is an incoherent hodgepodge of hollow inconsistency, sometimes valuing hard-nosed capitalism, at other times railing against the cultural elites, always and ever consolidating power to himself and identifying all "others" as enemies.

It's hard to tell the extent to which Steve Bannon holds to the neo-pagan "religion of the blood" which was the hallmark of the Third Reich. But given his close ties to the alt-right (which is safe space for white supremacy), it's worth noting the theology of this religion. Hitler and the Third Reich “saw blood, particularly in a religious sense, as the determining factor. In other words, a church had to be a church of the blood, rather than a church of faith or a church of belief. The blood tied together the Nordic races. So for Rosenberg, the blood, racial stock, racial identity, became the keynotes of this new ideology” (Mark Weitzman).

Clearly, Bannon's tying together of Western civilization with his specific form of Christianity (especially as an anti-dote to supposed liberal secularization) has these racial overtones. That the Trump administration led with the executive order of a travel ban and shut-down of refugee resettlement gives further credence to what most of us theologians are observing: Bannon is Trump's court theologian, and his theology is an apocalyptic theology of blood and capitalism posing as Roman Catholic safeguarding of a "Christian" empire.



Finally, we should keep in mind that although Bannon believes himself to be a Roman Catholic, and Betsy DeVos believes herself to be a Christian, and Trump recently has been claiming to be a Presbyterian, the actual agenda of fascism has typically been not nearly as friendly to authentic Christian faith as it first appears.

The agenda typically goes: take over the churches from within, through the manipulations of party sympathizers. Later, discredit, jail or kill Christian leaders. Finally, re-indoctrinate the lay people and give them a new faith. In Germany, this was faith in the Third Reich. In the United States, it's faith in America the Great.

Race is omnipresent in this theological history. Although white theologians in particular seem to overlook it (remember Niebuhr's blindness), race is always a crucial factor in the drift of Christianity from it's core values. It's no wonder that a central aspect of the New Testament is its reflection on the relationship between the Jews and Gentiles in the new Christian community being formed in the first century.

The apocalyptic is then a close second, with fear-mongering the typical tool to manipulate a path into or through the apocalypse rather than making space for the real apocalypse to reveal itself... that is, visions of the peace-able kingdom of God.

As a pastor and theologian, I'm committed to remaining as clear-eyed as possible in this moment, hoping against hope that our democracy will be more resilient than it appears, not prone to populism, undaunted by the power maneuverings of the super-wealthy, willing to confront its own racism and misogyny in order to live freely in the authentic revelation of fully humanity in God.

Perhaps, strangely, what we are seeing in spite of all the protests and sputtering, is the end of white America as we know it... it's violent, contorted, last gasping breaths. The vision on the other side of this trap, the trap of assuming Christianity is tied to blood, and specifically, white European blood, is of many people's gathered around the throne and the lamb, a lamb who says, when reminded of his "blood" brothers and sisters, "Who are my mother and my brothers and sisters? Whoever does the will of the one who sent me are my brothers and sisters" (Matthew 12:48-49).

We have far more brothers and sisters than we will ever know, and the real apocalypse, the real "seeing," is the opening of our eyes to encounter them for who they really are--God's coming kingdom and greatest gift.