D’etre and D’etat: The Difference Between Jesus and Church

I worked at a big fat church for a few years once.

For about five minutes of those few years, the staff was charged to “live in the republic of ideas.”  I wrote what follows earlier today, but it strikes me as the difference between the Kingdom of God’s raison d’etre and the raison d’etat so many churches live and ultimately die by:

It occurs to me that our use of terms like “industrial” or “industrialized” nation reveals rather efficiently the willingness of our power elites (political and economic) to sacrifice most of us for personal gain; to spiritually, emotionally, and economically destroy the creative, academic, merchant and truly small-business class (let’s call it the bourgeoisie) right along with the cynically styled “working class.” We bourgeoisie and/or proletarians freely mingle, and not-so-freely mimic the choices of the power elites (be they Clintons or Romneys) with what we’re told are consumer “choices” but are really the gasping acts of hanging-on desperately performed by human agents too exhausted from surviving to enact true human agency. This is purely diabolical; if there is a God in heaven, that God must not endorse this system. Surely, the central Christian image of God not in heaven but on a cross is in reaction to the system that enslaved Judea, that murdered John the Baptizer, that found Jesus guilty of blasphemy and sedition. That Christ’s message — God is for the margin and not for the power structures we worship — brought about his death at the hands of those power structures isn’t only a sort of proto-theological poetry, it is the essential Christian fact, the essential Christian witness, the essential Christian claim about the nature and person of God. That Jesus spoke of a kingdom different from those of the Sanhedrin and Rome and Washington and Wall Street and Seattle isn’t some spiritual-only conceit. What Christ called the Kingdom of God is not so-called Christendom, not the so-called Church; it is a physical network of willing rebellion.

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Sandra Bland, Bill Cosby, Barack Obama: Color, Cognitive Dissonance, and Our Undying National Shame

The same day our first black president became the first sitting president to ever visit a prison, we learn about the prison death of Sandra Bland, a young black woman who was beaten by white police and wrongly jailed. The prison says Bland killed herself. Anyone with a brain says bullshit.
Yesterday, the President was asked if Bill Cosby’s Medal of Freedom could be revoked. Mr. Obama, an expert on Executive Orders, said our nation has no precedent or mechanism for revoking the honor, but also said that anyone who does what Bill Cosby has confessed to doing is a rapist. Cosby, a rapist who, with Methaqualone, revoked the freedom of his victims, can keep his Medal of Freedom because the President can’t think of way the Executive Branch could repeal the honor. This is the man who defied all odds to become our first black President. This is the man who delivered (for better and worse) the kind of health care reform no one thought possible. This is the same sitting president who, in recent months, hasn’t met an executive order he didn’t like. But he can’t pry the Medal of Freedom from Ghost Dad.

In Chattanooga, four Marines are dead after a terrorist attack perpetrated the same day Muslims around the world break the fast of Ramadan. Muslim communities have rightly condemned the massacre, which is almost immediately classified as an episode of terrorism. The shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, another clear act of terrorism, was not labeled so by law enforcement with the same speed or diligence. All terrorist acts are hate crimes. All violent hate crimes are terror.

Two days ago, Nate Silver revealed research showing that life is as dangerous for Black Americans in America as is life in Rwanda. That Rwanda.

Yesterday, assholes greeted the first black president with Confederate flags in Oklahoma. Inside the prison, he did one of the blackest things of his presidency, albeit subtly. He called out the prison industrial complex from within the literal belly of the beast. White progressives like me will say he didn’t do enough, never understanding from experience what it is to be black in America, never understanding why even a second-term President of the United State with zero political capital at stake can’t say what he really means simply because he’s also black.

During the 19th-century Christian Revival we now call the Second Great Awakening, which started where I happened to go to seminary, Lyman Beecher said that slavery was a national sin threatening “to entomb our glory.” 200 years later, marks of that shame are no mere scars on our body politic. They are open, festering, bleeding wounds. Blackness is less a social stigma than a sentence; the punctures in Black America’s hands and feet, the gashes in its sides, the ropes around its neck are not just lyrical or spiritual. And just in time comes White America, with another book by the same white author from a million years ago who somehow cemented the Tall White Savior tope among our elite, white, and nominally progressive intelligentsia, this time about how sad it makes her that her daddy is a racist. White Academia will parse this out for decades, but it’s already been called “a revelation on race.” White America doesn’t just control community policing, foreign policy, and most of the nation’s wealth. It, of course, controls the discussion on race, and on the artistic merits of literary treatments of it from genteel would-be hell-raisers working out their privilege.

These are all facets of our most cherished, robust, and foundational national shame. And, put another way, shame is clearly something we have none of.

This is not some middle-of-the-night rant about white guilt or self-loathing. But before I’m the proud descendent of hard-working Europeans et al, I’m a stubborn and imperfect follower of a colored carpenter who was murdered by the State and other social elites for pointing out these very sins and calling bullshit on them. “Jesus help us” is no anemic yearning, no therapeutic incantation. It is a protest. It is a demand.

All theology is black theology, James Cone said. Here blackness has nothing to do with color but with violation: of personhood, of God’s likeness in us, of freedom and of futures. It has entombed whatever civic glory America had claim to, even as it entombed the living Christ himself. This is one of many facets of the Christian hope of resurrection, not for resurrection’s sake, and not for the sake, surely, of some jingoistic pride, but for the coming of an age and order where the war of each against all is over, where each and all have enough, where people aren’t raped and murdered because people in power have taken the mantle of God for themselves.

Jesus, help us.

Melissa Maleski-2

Fridays with Francis: February 13, 2015: Beautiful Romance and Broken Ego

Melissa Maleski

A beautiful romance begins with a broken ego. That is the only way I can think to summarize Pope Francis’ message leading up to Valentine’s Day.

There was some fairly hard language to come from the Chair of Peter this week. Technically it began at the end of last week when Pope Francis called the abuse-of-minors scandal a scourge, but he kept the ball rolling this week. He called on world governments to stop ignoring the  shameful wound of human trafficking, which boasts a consistent tally of victims in the neighborhood of 2.5 million. In some parts of the world the word shame carries some weight, but us Westerners have some well-padded egos. If Pope Francis wants Western governments to listen when he speaks, I’m afraid he’ll need to use much stronger language. But let me come back to this in a minute.

The Holy Father saved his strongest statement for couples who choose not to have children. Not bothering to mince words, he called this choice selfishA society with a greedy generation, that doesn’t want to surround itself with children, that considers them above all worrisome, a weight, a risk, is a depressed society,” the pope said. “The choice to not have children is selfish. Life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies: It is enriched, not impoverished. I’m assuming that the lack of reaction in the mass media to this statement is due to Dropped-Jaw Syndrome.

There is a rapidly-growing debate around the inter-web about who is more selfish: parents or childless-by-choice couples. For your edification check out this editorial in Time.  Or this passionate opinion. Or this actual side-by-side debate. Each position defends their claim primarily on the grounds of economics and psychology. The Catholic position, which Pope Francis succinctly stated, rests primarily on moral principles. Economics and psychology are incorporated to support the moral principles, but are not supposed to precede moral considerations.

I don’t want to make this a windy apologetics piece, so I will try to explain briefly why childless-by-choice is selfish by Catholic standards. Male and Female were created as a gift, one to the other. When one male and one female come together, they are supposed to give all of themselves to the other. This is called the total gift of self. It’s a process that is similar to how stars are born. Clouds of gas and dust (the individual persons) begin to collapse and die. As the parts collapse, the center of the clouds get hotter and more solid (Sacrament of Marriage). When the center reaches peak heat and density, a star is born. It starts to grow, and eventually it’s light bursts forth for universes to see. This last part correlates, in people terms, to two things. One, biological conception and birth of children. Two, charitable contributions to society through volunteering, donations, and being generally happy and well-adjusted people. Both components are necessary aspects of man’s existential reality. Holding back, or not totally giving one’s self to another, blunts the humbling impressiveness of this gift. Feel free to argue the logic of it in the comments, but this is Theology of the Body in a mustard seed.

Let me turn back to Pope Francis and Western governments. His statement to Western leaders is not as forceful as the one aimed at childless-by-choice couples, and that intrigues me. Maybe it’s just that the latest consistory of cardinals began this week, but I get the feeling that Pope Francis has a different approach in mind for dealing with those who are on the top of the food chain of power and influence. Rather than engage in compelling dialogue (as, say, Jesus did with the Pharisees and regular folk), I think we may see the Holy Father increasingly limit the attention he gives anyone attached to established power. Like the Sadducees in the New Testament, those who have gotten comfortable being in charge will be nudged to the margins of relevance. What better way to break an over-inflated ego than to deny it room to breath?

Melissa Maleski-2

Fridays with Francis, February 6, 2015

Melissa Maleski

The Holy Father kept things low-key this week. No wacky soundbites. Nothing overtly offensive to anyone, really.

Pope Francis reminded the bishops to stay on-board with the Church’s ongoing dedication to cleaning up the vestiges of the shameful sexual abuse scandal. He spoke about the importance of fathers in their children’s life:  Also today’s children, returning home with their failures, need a father who waits for them, protects them, encourages them and teaches them how to follow the good path. Pope Francis did express approbation for spanking a child under certain conditions; I’m surprised that this hasn’t caused an uproar yet. Maybe the obnoxiously frigid temperatures in the Mid-Atlantic region are chilling everyone out.

The Holy Father did announce that he will be addressing Congress when he comes to the United States this September. I can imagine what he will say to our legislative branch.

The real fun will be reading the reactions from Fox News, Breitbart, and the Drudge Report.

Finally, the martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero was officially recognized by Pope Francis, which allows the beatification process to begin.

As the Holy Father is wont to do, he made a couple of very sweet and inspiring gestures of Christian charity this week. First, he chatted with a group of special-needs children on Google Hangouts. Then, after already announcing that the planned Vatican bathrooms for the homeless will include showers and barbers, 300 homeless were given umbrellas to keep them dry from the persistent bad weather.

To keep the sweet note going, I’m sharing with you a fun dessert I stumbled upon. It is a sandwich cookie called an alfajores.  It’s an Argentinian iteration of a Spanish delicacy. The recipe, in Spanish and then English, is here. Strap on your metaphorical apron with me and try making these on Valentine’s Day, in honor of our Argentinian Pontiff!

Melissa Maleski-2

Fridays with Francis, January 30, 2015 : Encountering Others In Mercy and Peace; Considering Atticus Finch

Melissa Maleski

I gave in to temptation this week and took one of those silly Facebook quizzes. It was something about which literary character I most resemble. I got Atticus Finch, from To Kill A Mockingbird. In the description of the character, one line jumped out at me:

Someone who is as forgiving as they are morally inflexible.

This resonates with me for very personal reasons, but it dovetails nicely with the Holy Father’s week. It was the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and Pope Francis spent almost all of his breath on what Christian unity will require of us. To be more specific, he said, “Christian unity will not be the fruit of subtle theoretical discussions in which each party tries to convince the other of the soundness of their opinions.” Rather, he wants us to encounter others and challenge them. This certainly gives some context to his comments on annulments this week.

What the Holy Father’s statements have to do with the description of Atticus Finch is simple. To be agents of Christian unity, Pope Francis wants us to esteem mercy as much as we do Truth. How are we to do this?  Stop legalizing the faith, for one.

In no uncertain terms, Pope Francis is telling us that we won’t win friends and influence people if all we are doing is engaging in doctrinal pissing contests. But he is not advocating the rejection of doctrine or its manipulation. Not at all. I think what he’s saying, first of all, is that we need to first get right with our own beliefs. Either we need to have the moral inflexibility of true conviction, or be open to the possibility that we are wrong–and that someone will someday prove it. Regardless of which way you lean, you need to be at peace with your direction. That peace is crucial to having a meaningful encounter with another person.

Once we have peace, it’s easier to start an encounter. We can spend more time listening. We can spend more energy empathizing. Only then can we challenge, and be challenged. The challenge Pope Francis speaks of is not a verbal one. It is a challenge to act: to live in imitation of Jesus, who unites us all in Himself.

Of course, it’s equally important that we actually care about  encountering others outside of our tiny universe. Never mind the strength of our convictions. If other people aren’t as important to us as we are to ourselves, what’s the point of unity?

So in the spirit of Pope Francis’ call for Christian unity, throw a party with some friends. Engage each other, preferably with a bottle or three of wine. May I suggest an inspired  vintage?

While you are at it, share your thoughts on one last remark of the Holy Father:

It is one thing to pass on the faith, and another to teach the matters of faith. Faith is a gift: it is not possible to study Faith. We study the things of faith, yes, to understand it better, but with study [alone] one never comes to Faith. Faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit, which surpasses all [“academic”] formation.

In context: Pope Francis is explaining why the strength of your faith is determined by how strong the faith is of the “woman who raised you.”  And they say that the Church doesn’t value women…

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Beneath Pixie Hollow: A Brief Social History of the Fey Folk

RDG Stout

So apparently fairies are a thing again.

When most folks hear “fairies,” we surely think of Tinkerbell. Disney has rather cornered the market on tiny winged Victorianesque young ladies. As a father of little girls I must confess that I’ve become surprisingly well-versed in the various denizens of Neverland, and I can’t say as I mind a bit of Tinkerbell merchandise. Indeed, I rather hope that hanging a blonde in a strapless miniskirt from the Christmas tree gives my wife ideas.

But this fad goes beyond Disney and the family-friendly market. Neopaganism and the New Age movement have made fairies into big business. Witness the art of Amy Brown, or the 131,395 books that an Amazon search for “fairies” nets you. Cynics would surely dismiss this as infantilism, the aptly-named Peter Pan Syndrome, and lump it as part of a larger phenomenon encompassing Avengers movies and Brony conventions. (Not that we don’t watch a little MLP in the Stout household.)

But methinks there’s more to it than that. Fairies inevitably represent nature, and our postmodern world—largely disconnected from the soil and insulated from the seasons—yearns to reconnect with natural phenomena not just on a physical but also on a spiritual level. We want the world to feel enchanted again. And that’s what fairies do: they enchant the world. But nature isn’t cutesy. And up until recently, neither were fairies.

Continue reading →

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Burning ISIS

RDG Stout

Editor’s Note: Stout, a Lutheran pastor, shares this anecdote about the origin of this piece: “For the first time in a decade I got into the pulpit this past Sunday, felt that my sermon stank, and made up a new one on the fly. What I can remember of it largely became Burning ISIS.

I want to talk about the Assyrians.

The Bible is full of evil empires that run roughshod over God’s people one after the other. The Babylonians, the Persians, the Romans. It’s easy for them to run together. But the Assyrians were different. The Assyrian Empire was not united by language or ethnicity or legends of shared ancestry. No, the Assyrian Empire was based on religion.

Their chief god was Asshur, and all you had to do to be considered Assyrian was to bow down and worship the Assyrian god. If you refused, well—the emperor was well within his rights to persecute you not only as an enemy of the state but of the cosmic order itself. Remember, the Assyrians are the people who invented crucifixion. When the nation of Israel broke in two, and 10 out of the 12 tribes of God’s people were scattered to the winds, never to reform again, it was at the hand of the Assyrians. They were the religious fanatics of their era, the archenemies of Israel. And I should note that they lived in what we now call Iraq. Basically, the Assyrians were the ISIS of their day.

This brings us to the book of Jonah. It’s a short book, only four chapters, takes about 10 minutes to read. Chances are that the last time you read the story, if ever, was back in Sunday School. We tend to treat Jonah as a children’s story or a comedy, and there are certainly comedic elements in it. But it contains a major twist, a real hook at the end, that makes Jonah a very adult book indeed. It goes something like this.

Jonah is called by God to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, there to prophesy that unless they repent of their evil ways God will destroy them for all that they have done. Jonah immediately hops on a boat—and takes off in exactly the opposite direction. He sails to the farthest land he can think of. And on the way, a great and terrible storm comes up, threatening to sink the ship. The crew, all gentiles and pagans, realize that there is something unnatural about this storm, and each man begs forgiveness and mercy from his respective god, to no avail. Meanwhile, where’s Jonah? He’s hiding from the storm down in the ship’s hold.

Finally someone thinks, “Hey, what about that Hebrew guy? Maybe he knows something about all this.” So they bring up Jonah and he says, “Yeah, this is my fault. My God gave me a mission and I refused to do it. You’ll have to throw me overboard.” And the pagan crew, to their credit, replies, “No, we don’t want to do that. Just say you’re sorry!” But Jonah stubbornly insists, “No, I’d rather get thrown overboard.” So the crew calls out to God, “We really don’t want to do this, but here it goes!” and they heave Jonah overboard. Immediately the storm is calmed.

Now Jonah is sinking down, down into the depths of the sea. And at this point he thinks, “Okay, maybe I should say that I’m sorry and ask forgiveness.” And right then, he is swallowed by a whale! Often the whale is portrayed as the punishment of God, but it’s not. The whale is actually what saves Jonah from drowning. And where does this whale finally spit Jonah up? Why, on the shores of the Assyrian Empire, right where he was supposed to head in the first place.

Now, the Assyrians have a god named Dagon—Asshur is top dog, but he’s not the only one—and portrayals of Dagon always envision him as a man being vomited up out of a giant fish. So when Jonah gets horked up on shore by a whale, what must the people think? Why, here is a messenger from God! “Great,” mutters Jonah, “now I have an audience.” And he utters the shortest and most pathetic prophetic speech in the Bible, just one single line: “40 days and Nineveh shall be no more!” And then Jonah goes up on a hill to watch the Assyrians be destroyed.

But wouldn’t you know it? Against all odds, the people of Nineveh repent! They beg forgiveness for their sins and turn to God in sackcloth and ash. And God says to Jonah, “Because they have turned from their evil, I will not destroy their city.” And Jonah goes ballistic. He yells out to God, “I knew it! I knew this is exactly what would happen! This is why I ran away in the first place! I knew that You were loving and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love! I knew that if they turned towards You then You would forgive them—and I wanted to see them burn for what they’ve done!”

That’s the hook, right there. That’s what makes Jonah a very adult book indeed. Through the whole story we hear God pronouncing judgment and whipping up storms, and we think that God is the vengeful one. But He’s not. We are. We’re the ones who want to see evil punished, to see the bad guys get what they deserve. We’re the ones who want sinners to burn for everything that they’ve done. God doesn’t want blood. Man does.

It’s the same way when Jesus comes. He shows up and people flock to Him, throw palms before Him, try to make Him King. And they do so because they recognize Him as the Messiah and they expect Him to go to Jerusalem and kick out the bad guys.  At that point there’s a new evil empire over Israel: the Empire of Rome. And everyone expects Jesus to draw the sword and raise an army and conquer Rome—and He does! But not with violence. Not with fire and blood and steel. Jesus conquers Rome through the Cross.

We want Jesus to call down fire from Heaven. That’s how James and John earned their nicknames, “Sons of Thunder,” by asking Jesus to make sinners burn. That’s probably even why Judas betrayed Jesus, to try and force His hand. But that’s not how God works. He doesn’t burn up the wicked, no matter how badly we think they deserve it. Instead, He prays for those who hate Him, loves those who persecute Him, forgives us even as we are murdering Him on a Cross.

This is the love that conquers sinners. Who would’ve thought that Rome, the evil empire, would become the beating heart of Christianity for a thousand years and more? Who would’ve imagined that Saul—a religious fanatic who, far from being an Apostle, hunted down and persecuted and even participated in the execution of innocent Christians—would be struck down, not with fire from Heaven, but with a vision from Heaven, transforming him from the Church’s avowed nemesis into her greatest advocate?

Perhaps the hardest aspect of Christianity is the call to love our enemies, even as they hate us, even as they persecute us. This doesn’t mean that we love the evil that they do. We live in a world where fanatics behead innocent people and put it on YouTube. My God! We see the cruelties of ISIS on the news and we just want to see them get what they deserve. We want God to call down fire from Heaven—or if He won’t, perhaps the U.S. Air Force will. But God doesn’t work that way. If He sent His angels to slay every sinner, which of us could stand? We were all enemies of God once.

Christians have a duty to resist evil. But in the process we cannot allow ourselves to dehumanize our fellow man. Clichéd though it may sound, we must love the sinner and hate the sin, for indeed we are sinners one and all. And we are forged in the Image of God, one and all. You never know what the Lord will work through the hearts of wicked men. You never know what act of love will turn a sworn foe into a true brother. Grace is always available for those who desire it. And Christ is always bringing sinners to new birth in impossible and mysterious ways.

There are still murdering fanatics in Iraq who will kill anyone who does not bow down to their god. And we are still called, as we have always been, to love those who hate us and pray for those who persecute us. It’s a 2,000-year-old story. And it’s still our story today.

RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories.