William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian

The Politics of Jesus or the Politics of Jesús?

The Politics of Jesus remains a landmark book that has inspired much of neo-Anabaptist thought. I read it for the first time in seminary alongside several other seminal works by Gustavo Gutierrez, James Cone, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Reinhold Neibuhr and others. It’s represents a movement that I’ve been impressed by in recent years, particularly with its critique of how power often gets used in our culture and in the church to reinforce hierarchies and antagonisms, rather than to advance God’s kingdom.

The Christendom Options

What many evangelicals put forward when it comes to a Christian vision of social justice is not so much a criticism of the dominant social order as such, but more so just a criticism of behavior within the social order. This matters too, of course, but the church needs something more. In other words, evangelical church leaders often struggle to give people what Walter Brueggemann called a “Prophetic Imagination.” Instead, social engagement has tended to focus more on individual moral issues.

At the same time, there are also those Christians who have indeed articulated a strong critique of the way society is organized. They then go on to call for the transformation of society into a more “Christianized” form. Both liberal and conservative versions of this abound, and in the 20th Century, examples range from the Social Gospel Movement to Christian Realism (in the last two decades, Radical Orthodoxy). There is much to be learned from each of these schools of thought, and they should not be dismissed, but I would argue that they nonetheless all begin their thinking primarily from within the paradigm of Christendom.

The neo-Anabaptist View

What Yoder and neo-anabaptists after him do (Hauerwas, etc.), however, is not only question the values of certain political and economic arrangements (of both the Left and the Right), but also call on the church to embody its own micro-political economy of God’s kingdom here and now. The mission, therefore, is neither to Christianize the social order (Rauschenbush), nor even to simply do our best trying (Niebuhr), but rather to bear faithful witness to Christ with cruciform existence in a world that remains hostile to it. This means the church may often look like a failure or be “unsuccessful” in society’s eyes, and that is ok.

Yoder’s “Politics of Jesus” has often been mistaken for an ecclesiology of separatism and disengagement.[i] But this is clearly not what Yoder espouses. As many know, Yoder’s case for non-violence, understood as an imperative of the church and as central to Jesus’s life and message, is not merely a social ethic but a revolutionary way of being in the world that says we must be willing to suffer and die rather than retaliate against our enemies — because that is what Jesus did for us.[ii]

Another Post-Christendom Option

But this still leaves out the voice from Latin America and now globally of those on the margins who’ve been proclaiming God’s preferential option for the poor and oppressed. And given our current political climate, I do not think the “Politics of Jesus” alone will be sufficient by itself to equip the church. We must also heed the word of “the Politics of Jesús.”

“The Politics of Jesús,” as first espoused by Latin American liberation theology but also many others since then, is indeed concerned about transforming social conditions, but not by influencing through the halls of power — not from the viewpoint of a Christendom society, in other words.

These people already find themselves living on the underside of history. So the transformation of social structures for them must be done from below and in a subversive way. After all, this is how God moved to liberate people in the Bible. The Spirit began its work from the margins and in the midst of the excluded. Furthermore, there is a consistent warning throughout the Scriptures against those who benefit from the unjust political and economic treatment of the vulnerable.

What’s the Big Difference?

So both of these theological streams are born out of a post- or non-Christendom perspective. Both are faithful to certain readings of the Bible, and both are inextricably tied to their particular contexts and histories of experience. Finally, both believe that power must be wielded from outside the system rather than from within.

The big disagreement between them basically comes down to whether this power or force can ever become violent in its efforts to oppose oppressors and call them to repentance. In The Politics of Jesús, Miguel De La Torre puts it like this:

Not all violence is the same . . . To make a preferential option of love for the oppressed means harming the oppressor, who has a vested interest in insisting on the use of nonviolence, as the only ethical acceptable methodology, by those who she or he oppresses. The conflict and disruption that comes with following Jesús, whose consequence at times is violence, illustrates the need for ethical praxis for colonized people that lack the physical or military power to confront or overcome the colonizer (p. 163).

I think it is impossible to assess the question of which position is “right” without being in either of their contexts. If I am a privileged citizen of the most powerful country in history, faithfulness and hermeneutics look different than they would if I were a poor resident of a small village outside of Lima or of an urban slum of Tegucigalpa.

I do not try to answer this question, then, for someone who finds themselves in utterly deprived material circumstances. I do believe Jesus’s command to take up our cross (Matt. 16:24), turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39), and put down the sword (Matt. 26:52), are non-negotiable, but I also think they easily get misappropriated. So I don’t presume to interpret for the oppressed. What I can do, however, is look at my own life, and with my church ask about the ways that we are getting implicated by violence and exclusion, and how we can practice resistance and neighborliness together.

Can we Learn from Both?

For the church in North America right now, and especially given recent actions taken by the executive branch of the U.S. government, there is one commitment that both of these minority and prophetic streams of the tradition seem to completely agree, and it is this: The gospel of God’s kingdom makes demands of our allegiance that are going to directly challenge the spirit of nationalism, “America first,” or any other militarized, corporate, top-down means of securing the interests of one group over and against another.

In the shadow of the U.S. political apparatus, and yes, even more so in the age of Trump, I believe we must pull from the riches of both of these traditions. And again, only speaking about the church in North America, I think the best example we have that is faithful to both remains not only the civil rights movement and the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., but also that of César Chávez and the activism of the United Farm Workers. Of course, everybody tries to hijack these two icons, but we can avoid that.

Each movement offered a public incarnation of a non-violent political theology. What distinguished them from Anabaptists, however, was their state-oriented posture. They weren’t content to stay “in the neighborhood.”  Each in their own way mobilized the church and people of faith alongside others to call society at large to account. They demonstrated an alternative way of peace, justice and mercy in the world, and spoke prophetically against both racism and militarized capitalism.

Questions

So, for those who like me have been attracted to the new Anabaptist perspective:

  1. Is my church being drawn outside of itself and mobilized to work with other churches or even non-church groups to resist violence and fear-based politics?
  2. Is the only Christian ethic informing my community’s political posture a Christendom, majority-white, evangelical one?
  3. As a church leader, how can I help guide people in my congregation to be confronted by the subversive political-theological of the African-American or Latino/a American Christian experience?

[i] Yoder’s position is well known. Of course, there is the sex scandal that now taints his reputation, but I can’t speak to that here. This quote captures his thought as well as any: “The lamb that was slain is worthy to receive power!’ John is here saying, not as an inscrutable paradox but as a meaningful affirmation, that the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history. The key to the obedience of God’s people is not their effectiveness but their patience (Rev 13:10). The triumph of the right is assured not by the might that comes to the aid of the right, which is of course the justification of the use of violence and other kinds of power in every human conflict. The triumph of the right, although it is assured, is sure because of the power of the resurrection and not because of any calculation of causes and effects, nor because of the inherently greater strength of the good guys. The relationship between the obedience of God’s people and the triumph of God’s cause is not a relationship of cause an effect but one of cross and resurrection” (p. 232).

[ii] “…the cross, being the standard punishment for insurrection or for the refusal to confess Caesar’s lordship, already had a clear definition in the listener’s awareness. “‘Take up your cross’ may even have been a standard phrase of Zealot recruiting. The disciple’s cross is not a metaphor for self-mortification or even generally innocent suffering; ‘if you follow me, your fate will be like mine, the fate of a revolutionary. You cannot follow me without facing that fate” (p. 38).

Christian Community as a World-Changing Social Experiment

[The audio for this sermon can be found here.]

Well if you’ve been around all in 2017, you know that we’ve been in a series on Sunday mornings on discipleship: how to be with Jesus, do what he did, and become like him — and in the last couple of weeks, we focused on two key essential ingredients for doing exactly: what does it take to become like Jesus? First of all, we have to know his message and his teachings, and then we have put that message and teaching into practice — because what we do with our lives, and the habits we form and practice determine where we end up and who we become.

What we do and the habits we form literally, actually changes our desires themselves, from what they naturally are, which is very self-serving, to what they could be, in the service of God and others.

And you can be sure that, if you go on this journey of doing the things the Jesus did, your life is going to look different from the rest of people’s lives in the society and culture us. It’s safe to say that we will actually be living a counter-cultural lifestyle if we’re imitating Jesus, and he has authority over what we do.

But there’s one aspect to this counter-cultural life that may actually be the most unnatural and counter-cultural of all in our present age. And it’s this: community.

The teachings and practices of Jesus can only be embodied and will have their intended effect if they take root in a community. Put more simply: The way of Jesus can only be applied sustainably in the context of community. Community is not optional for following Jesus. It’s essential. And it also may be asking more of us than we think.

The word community is kind of a buzz word in Christian circles that gets a lot of mileage but maybe not as much understanding. Well, I want to say it’s a little bit like a marriage, but with more people involved and without the romance, and not necessarily lifelong. But other than that it’s pretty similar!:

a group of individuals committed to living in close proximity, with real consequences, common concerns and responsibilities, practicing similar rituals – and whose lives intersect on a regular basis, for an extended period of time. – pastor and author John Mark Comer (paraphrased)

And like any discipline, community is hard work. Take physical exercise as an example: when you’re not regularly doing it, the prospect of it is kind of unappealing. But when you when you really get into a rhythm of practice of having it as part of your life, you feel like you can’t live without it.

I mean just think about raising kids by yourself, even if you’re not a single parent. Like, there’s no way! You always need help, even if it’s just calling a friend and asking them what they did when they were in your situation.  I know this because we’re living it right now with our first child who is about 4 mo. old!

So community in this way, is not just a Christian idea. It’s a basic human need. We are relational animals, from the most extroverted to the most introverted among us.

Because I for one am on the introverted side. Sometimes that surprises people who mainly see me on Sundays.  But actually, being a pastor, and getting up and speaking in front of people, can be one of the easiest ways to avoid community! And the way I prefer to deal with my issues is that I go to Mepkin Abbey, and I spend the day there. I do this about once a month, and I did it a couple weeks ago. I meet with one of the monks who’s spiritual director/mentor of sorts, and then I have some time of silence, solitude, prayer and reflection. Which is great!

But even more than quiet retreat — because I know myself — just put me outside with a journal, a book and surf board, and I wouldn’t need to see a human for like weeks —  I need to be drawn back into community, because that’s where the most difficult struggles I’m going to face, are likely to be exposed, addressed, and overcome.  

And there’s been many times when, through marriage or just friendship or working with people at church, when I’ve learned about my selfishness. One example for me is that, though I’m usually willing to admit if I’ve done something wrong, if I’ve been rude to Whitney, been short with her, or neglected a responsibility for my job, I’ll apologize, but I also really want to give you an explanation, you know, and make sure that I’m understood. And sometimes that just kinda negates the apology or repentance!

Now, I said a moment ago that community is maybe the most counter-cultural thing about the Christian life today.  And again, most things about the Christian life are not going to be very popular, and I don’t think there was ever a time in history when Christian community was like perfect. But in the information age, and the digital age, as you know, we are quite possibly the most disconnected connected society, that has ever existed. We long to be known and to be connected, but we also want to keep our options open. Because if your my age or younger, you have FOMO.

And in our society, it’s never been easier to know what other people are up to, and yet also not really know what other people are up to. Or it’s never been easier to tell other people what’s going on in our lives without actually telling them what’s going on in our lives. We don’t have to do it face to face! We can do through an email, a text, a post, a picture.

And conversely, when things don’t go well, or we’re don’t want to see someone, we can avoid talking about it and dealing with it in a mature way. Like, seriously, if I get in a fight someone, and I don’t want to see them anymore, unless they live in my house, or I’m forced to be around them in a small group setting, I can just block unfollow them on instagram, unfriend them on facebook, block their number from my phone… right? And as long as I don’t see them in person, problem solved!

And I’m no technology, or social media hater! I take advantage like most of you, and I do think they are tools that can be leveraged for good and even for the advancement of God’s kingdom, but it’s much easier for these tools to inhibit us than it is for them to help us if we’re not very intentional.

And even going beyond social media and technology: It’s maybe never been more common than it is today to form loose relationships, that can easily be terminated with a new job offer, or a better opportunity, or a bigger house, or by finding a cooler church. And, again, because of when and where we live, if you’re fairly wealthy, you can afford to not really deal with people more than you have to, you know?

This is how the world works at the most fundamental level. People naturally desire independence. Politically, economically, culturally. They want to do their own thing. If you try to stop us, eventually, we’ll even go to war with each other. Just to be able to do what we want. History is basically one long saga of this. We move away from community — by trying to dominate or at least avoid each other.

The word itself shows up for the first time in Acts 2:42:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

In this case, it gets translated as “fellowship.” It’s the Greek word koinonia, which, depending on the context, also gets translated as community, sharing, participation and even contribution. It connotes a sense of intimacy and generosity. It later on acquired a meaning of an almost economic nature in which to have koinonia was to own a share of something, as in a business deal or stock.

And keep in mind that, up to this point in the Bible, the Jewish people had been together by God’s covenant relationship with them and the Law, yes, but also their nationality and ethnicity. But in the book of Acts, those two things go away for the first time. So much so that, writing to the Galatians, which is one of the communities Paul visits in Acts, Paul has this well-known line:

26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. – Galatians 3:26-29

Race/ethnicity, class, gender. These are three very big categories are being sidelined a little bit. Not erased, they still matter, but they’re no longer defining in the light of Christ! They don’t go away, but they no longer divide us.

Scot McKnight, who’s an Anglican biblical scholar and theologian, says this:

The church is God’s world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the table to share life with one another as a new kind of family.  When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God’s show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a family... [But] the reality is that each of our churches has created a Christian culture and Christian life for likes and sames and similarities and identicals. Instead of powering God’s grand social experiment, we’ve cut up God’s plan into segregated groups… – Scot McKnight, A Fellowship of Differents

When it comes to unity in churches, there are two main ways this usually works.

  1. Worship with people who are like you.
  2. Or, Worship with people who are maybe a little different from you, but just don’t talk about anything that’s controversial or actually spend enough time together for confrontation to surface.

But we know that God’s will is for us to be more than either of these two options.

In our membership class last week, this is one of the things we invited some newer folks to consider. And this is good for all of us to revisit, probably, if you’re a member here:

“With God’s help, I will protect the peace and unity of Saint Peter’s Church by committing to a standard of love and truth in my relationships with others.”

So for one thing, it takes a willingness to learn how to do confrontation well. Conflict is not a bad thing! It’s actually an inevitability in any family or organization, and it can be handled with honesty, humility and grace – toward reconciliation! if Christ and God’s Spirit are our common denominator.

It’s what Jesus says in the gospel reading for this morning. If there’s a conflict, deal with it. If you stay angry, you bring judgment upon yourself!

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar & there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go & be reconciled to them; then come & offer your gift.Matthew 5:23-24

Obviously, though, this is much easier said than done. We can talk about how we’re committed to this, but it’s another thing to do. And that’s why even though I’m up here trying to lay out some principles for it, ultimately, it isn’t something that’s taught so much as demonstrated and modeled. It has to be created.

And the main way to create it is to bring different kinds of people together with different gifts, around some unifying principle,  in relationships of vulnerability, mutuality and solidarity. Carrying each other’s burdens, letting people in a little closer than we’d like. Accountability and encouragement!

You look at Jesus’s own life, and this is what he did.  There was actually quite a range of folks in that first group of 12, even though they were probably all young Jewish men. He had people in that group from totally opposite ends of the political spectrum. I know we have people in this church on both sides of the political aisle, and I’m quite happy about that. I’m grateful to God for that.

Another requirement for community: it takes a long-term commitment to the same people and place. St. Benedict defines community as:

“the commitment and spiritual skill of staying put long enough to get somewhere.”

If we did that, it really might be a world-changing social experiment.

And listen, this isn’t a pitch for Saint Peter’s as a the perfect church or something. For some of you, we’re probably not even ideal. But I’m telling you, neither is any other church, and as long as you come to church with a consumer mindset, you’re going to be disappointed.

And I’m not saying that all of your community, and all of your real, honest, long-term relationships are going to happen through your church. That would be nice, but it’s not realistic, and so I recognize it can be difficult to balance. It’s more like we have a few different circles that intersect — family, church, work, neighborhood, recreation, lifelong friends. I have one friend for whom stepping into greater community just means potluck dinners every Friday night that he can with his neighbors.

Community is also just the people with whom you celebrate the good things and mourn the bad things. We see that play out all the time in the life of our church — there’s some incredible stories we can share, and they are stories about you. Taking care of each other in times of crisis, and tremendous need or sadness. And enjoying the beautiful gifts of life together as well.

But we can still do better. The gospel itself demands that we do, because it’s what finally gives shape to our community as Christians. God pursues community with us as his children, even though we’ve run from community with God. And he pursues us all the way to the cross. To the point of Christ denying himself for our sake. And what was the cross if not our rejection of God’s offer of community? But you might say the good news is, God doesn’t accept our rejection.

And that kind of love is stronger than all the things that divide a community. That kind of love is what actually lays the foundation of community, for God’s world-changing social experiment.

So that’s the invitation. Will you commit to developing the spiritual skill of staying in one place with one people, long enough to get somewhere — to let God make us like Christ? Let’s pray.

Learning about the Gospel from Self-Help, AA and Tony Robbins

[This post originally appeared on the Mockingbird blog.]

The kind of religion many people in America grew up with went something like this: do or believe these things in order to be “right with God.” But as experience will show, following either of these directives tends to lead to greater frustration, disillusionment and anxiety. “Am I really good enough?” “Am I really saved?” This encounter with church or Christianity for many did not enable a more joyful, tranquil and abundant life. It did the opposite. Sometimes it told folks they had to vote Republican. In other instances, it made them feel like they couldn’t trust science or enjoy the arts.

This is not to say there aren’t more thoughtful and grace-centered versions of Christianity out there. There are. But examples of bad faith still abound, and these lead many people to doubt, despair, or simply accept that they’re just not very “religious.”

The self-help industry, popular psychology and new age spirituality all have something of a stigma in most Christian circles, and for some good reasons. I too have tended to be a skeptic, but I’ve also been fairly ignorant about these movements. And in light of the sort of religion I’ve just described, is it really any wonder that we’ve seen the growth of such “unorthodox” spiritual schools of thought in recent decades?

Obviously, there are many varieties of self-help and new age thought, and some have been more influential than others. Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, has made an indelible mark on the work of soul care and addiction treatment in American spiritual life. In his book discussing the spirituality of the 12-step movement, Breathing Under Water, Richard Rohr contends that AA will go down in history as America’s greatest and most unique contribution to the history of spirituality. (John Z said much the same here). Rohr argues that AA,

represents what is good about American pragmatism. There’s something in the American psyche that becomes mistrustful and impatient with anything that’s too abstract, theoretical, or distant. Americans want a spirituality that is relevant, that changes people, and that really makes a difference in this world. For many, the Twelve Steps do just that. They make the Gospel believable, practical, and even programmatic for many people.

One of the most longstanding and successful celebrity figures in self-help spirituality is Tony Robbins. A recent glimpse of his work was captured by the Netflix original documentary, I’m Not Your Guru (2016). The movie was directed by Joe Berlinger, which is interesting in itself. Berlinger is known, among other things, for creating films that usually focus on uncovering and shedding light on social injustices. For him to have a favorable impression or even care about a famous motivational speaker and life coach seems strange. Robbins’ has even been known to practice hypnosis and “fire walking”!

Berlinger, a self-described cynic, admits in an interview with Vogue that he too went in with many doubts. But he also reports that he had a personal breakthrough because of Robbins, and he described it as an “incredible, profoundly moving experience where I was brought to tears . . . for this to evoke these kinds of emotions in me was pretty extraordinary.” The film was given a disapproving review in the New York Times for not being critical enough of Robbins. But after reading the Berlinger interview, I had to see for myself.

The movie chronicles Robbins’ six-day seminar called “Date with Destiny,” which has a high price tag. The most transformative moments in the film are condensed into exchanges Robbins has with individuals during certain sessions that he calls “interventions.” He confronts people. He asks probing and invasive questions. He offends and shocks with harsh language. He’s trying to wake people up from a slumber and take them on a spiritual journey that exorcizes their fears and tolerance of mediocrity. In two cases, he calls out people who are suicidal, one of whom was sexually abused for years in a cult that claimed to be Christian. Both of these individuals have life-altering, “new-birth” experiences during the week.

Some of it is cheesy. Some of it is superficial and consumeristic. And certainly its effectiveness is driven in part by Robbins’ cult of personality. But just as much if not more of the film depicts breathtaking inspiration and life change for people.

Participants are encouraged to face their unhappiness and call their struggles by name. They are given plans for how to genuinely make progress, as well as the accountability to maintain it. Above all, the individuals who Robbins interacts with are presented with a message of unconditional love, acceptance and dignity that lifts their spirits.

All this to say, I think are a few things that people of faith can learn from Robbins.

  1. In general, human beings long to be liberated from enslavement to addictions, depression, anger, shame, fear, numbness, self-loathing, and all the rest. Robbins has tapped into this.
  2. He has discovered that the way of grace, rather than moralism, is the path to true empowerment. Similar to how Jesus addresses the woman caught in adultery, he meets them right where they are and does not condemn.
  3. However, Robbins does not give people permission to stay where they are. He leaves them no other option than to “turn around,” to change their mind, and to move in a different direction. It may be a secular version, but the pattern is real. People are hungry for this message and invitation.

Now, there are also obviously some weaknesses and limitations to what Robbins is doing. His affirmation of love is abstracted from history and any local community. People pay loads of money and travel long distances to get this mountain-top injection of advice and encouragement that will no doubt be very difficult to sustain. And as with AA, the work is done by you, one other person (sponsor), and a “higher power.”

So what it lacks is just as important: the creation-size story of the gospel. If Christians are sometimes tempted to “credit the source” of grace while missing the point of grace itself, Robbins shows that it’s possible to get the point without crediting the source.

The spirituality is also all very Eastern. By this I mean, sin is not the problem — suffering is, and knowledge of how to be free of its grip on us. Robbins is obsessed with taking away people’s pain, and he’s good at it. The problem is, people need their sin to be taken away as well, and not just their suffering.

But there still is a difficult truth for Christians to admit in all of this: The self-help movement figured something out. You don’t have to be in church, and you don’t even have to be a Christian, to experience the freeing and healing power of honesty, positivity, humility, grace and human solidarity.

Alternatively, as a Christian, what I would want to tell Tony Robbins fans is mainly this: having a rich, successful, smart, and charismatic human being tell you that you’re absolutely worthy of love is great. But what if the God of the universe has already said this to us? Robbins says we are loved because we are good — or at least have the capacity to be. Jesus Christ says that we are loved because he is good, even when we are not. And based on what I know about myself, a message about his goodness is better news than one about my potential.

Abortion, The Women’s March, and other Uncontroversial Things: A Couple’s Perspective

main_900On the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, there is quite a convergence right now with this past Saturday’s Women’s March, Trump’s Inauguration the day before, and the March for Life this coming Friday. I don’t think I’ve ever written about abortion, mainly because it’s a conversation I’d rather have in person, and I’m certainly not an expert. Not to mention, it tends to get people up in arms, and often for good reason. But today I felt compelled to say something.

Though my theological orientation has tended to be broadly evangelical, I hold fairly “progressive” views on many social issues. But not when it comes to abortion. I have a son now, and there’s no question in my mind about the sanctity of his life in the womb. I can only speak as a man, which  is insufficient (my wife Whitney speaks for herself below), but even in the exceptional cases that make abortion necessary or justified (rape, incest, risk to maternal life, etc.), I believe it remains tragic. And the reality is that the majority of abortions do not occur as a result of these terrible circumstances.

Thus, like many others, I desperately want the demand for abortion to decrease. And there are many ways to lovingly combat this epidemic — some political, some not. The conventional liberal position on the subject (namely, that abortion should not only be legal, but also that it is a moral “right”), strikes me as an understandable but misguided one, funded in part by an on-going reaction to the incredulity of the Religious Right and other groups in the past that have suppressed women’s equality. I am unconvinced, however, that outlawing abortion or voting for only “pro-life” candidates is the best or most effective way to actually go about being “pro-life.”

Though it is a very different issue, my doctoral studies on the drug war taught me a lot about the power and adaptability of illicit markets. Pushing abortion underground could potentially do more harm than good. Hearts are not likely to be changed by taking this approach, and in the long run, studies show it may not even save lives. A social and economic strategy, rather than a legal and partisan one, may be preferable. And as a pastor, I think churches and non-profits have unique resources and opportunities to fight abortion by creating safe, shame-free support systems for at-risk moms. Moreover, every ounce of God’s grace must be proclaimed and extended to persons who’ve already had abortions.

GTY-womens-march-washington-4-jt-170121_12x5_1600With regard to the Women’s March, I can understand why some feel excluded from it because of the organization’s official stance on “reproductive rights.” The march was about much more than that, though, and discrediting it on the grounds of one issue seems unwise. Political activism is messy and flawed, and the campaign platforms of popular movements will rarely line up perfectly with all of our convictions. But we need these kind of protests and demonstrations. They are vital to the integrity of democracy.

In fact, any “pro-lifers” who marched on Saturday may have been making one of the strongest statements of all. They would have shown their ability to self-differentiate and work with those who hold opposing views. It would have been a sign of maturity, not compromise. And why not participate in demonstrations such as the Women’s March as well as The March for Life on Friday? For one thing, that would certainly put a fly in the ointment of the Christian stereotype.

There are also those who might be inclined to dismiss the march because they feel their rights have already been secured. If that is you, I recommend reading this post. There’s still work to be done when it comes to the treatment of women, even in the US, and marching for women’s rights is about protecting and celebrating progress as much as it is about achieving it. Obviously, some who marched were  condescending and indulgent rather than concerned about educating and building bridges, but it appears that these were the exception more than the rule.

I pray that Christians in particular can find a way to dialogue and work together across the isle on important issues like this one. It is easy to be discouraged by all of the polarizing discourse one sees these days. I too have added my fair share of critical commentary. Nonetheless, I remain hopeful and confident that the good news of God’s coming kingdom will shine through the cracks of our divided society.


Whitney’s Take:

static1.squarespace.comI have been watching communities and people in my life respond to the Women’s March this weekend and feel convicted to form my own response.

There are those in my community that would say, “Why would I march? I have all these rights, and I don’t stand for abortion.” I say that response is too simplistic and dismissive of an act of solidarity that stands for so much more. I don’t support abortion either, but I also know that it is a very complex, heartbreaking issue that cannot be given a black and white label. I am not going to “throw the baby out with the bath water,” because this march was about more than one issue.

Regarding the laws that establish women’s rights: just because a law is so, does not mean its intended effects play out in culture – especially for those that have grown up poor, without a support system, and are stuck in a vicious cycle that upper-middle class citizens have a hard time fully understanding. I know this because I grew up in the upper-middle class and don’t always see what isn’t put right in front of me. One’s worldview and experiences do not reflect an accurate picture of reality for all, and that has been a hard concept to remember and operate from for me.

Unfortunately, I was unable to march because it was pouring down rain and I was home with my baby while my husband was working 🙂 If I could have, though, I would have marched for victims of sexual assault. I would have marched because the expectations placed on working mothers today sometimes feel insurmountable. If you are trying to both be a mom and work, you constantly battle the feeling of inadequacy in both roles, in addition to battling the unrealistic expectations society puts on your body image. You feel guilty for the way your attention is divided, or maybe for the way you need your work to sustain you as a person — rather than just being satisfied as a mother. I would have marched for the mothers that want so desperately to be at home with their babies full-time, but cannot afford to be. I would have marched in celebration and honor of the women that fought before me throughout the 20th century so that I could vote or even have the freedom to feed my child by whatever means necessary (as seen in this photo, where I am pumping in an airport bathroom. The things we do for our children…)FullSizeRender(1)

I would have marched because I try to follow Jesus. He calls us to stand with the marginalized, and he esteemed women in a way that was revolutionary for his time. I would have marched because we have elected a president that represents so much of what many women have been fighting against whether subversively or overtly throughout history. I would have marched because this president makes light of Woman, and I take that personally. I would have marched because I want to learn to work with people I don’t agree with. I would have marched in honor of the women in my life and family that have shaped me. I would have marched because women feel the pressure to max out all capabilities and possibilities, since we do have opportunity in the US, rather instead of simply living at a more sustainable, enjoyable pace. I would have marched to make a statement about how my husband and I have committed to raise our son, and how we are going to do our best to teach him the truth.

Basically, women amaze me. They are ethereal, beautiful, wise, strong beings, so much like their Creator, and they give and sustain life. The experience of becoming a mother and the raw emotional and physical energy it demands has left me in awe of the capacity of all women, mother or not. We are capable of so. much. So. Much. It is incredible and words seriously do not do it justice. We can, and do, do it all.

Silence Plumbs the Depths of Suffering, Priesthood and Apostasy

[This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance blog.]

In his work, Varieties of Religious Experience, William James makes a distinction between the spiritual posture of what he calls the “sick soul,” on the one hand, and “healthy-mindedness,” on the other. Neither label is necessarily positive or negative.silence-banner-e1483736562537

By “sick soul,” James means someone for whom human suffering and injustice tend to be an inescapable and overwhelming problem. There are no answers for it, and finding a state of “rest in God” can be very difficult for those with this disposition. By contrast, the “healthy-minded” person of faith is able to cultivate a deep sense of peace and trust that God is good, and all manner of things will be well. Evil for the healthy-minded is like a lie that poses no serious threat.

Of course, many of us probably oscillate between these two places from time to time, and certainly the latter is ultimately more desirable from a Christian point of view. But rush too quickly to healthy-minded religion, and we are sure to lose the prophetic heart of the biblical narrative. We see examples of both throughout Scripture, each one given legitimacy as a earnest stance before God — e.g., “How long Oh Lord?” (Psalm 13) vs. “I have stilled and quieted my soul” (Psalm 131). But the movie Silence, much like the book, does not make the still and quiet of healthy-mindedness very easy to come by.

I am no expert film critic, so I leave that job to others. (For reviews of the production and casting quality, see this write-up by my friend Rod Machen, or this excellent, more thorough one with spoilers.) Nor will I give a summary of the plot and characters here. My interest in Silence is more about the theological and existential themes that are developed throughout, and having just read the book, I was eager to see how Martin Scorsese would adapt the story.

No, I didn’t “like” the Movie…

There’s almost nothing “Hollywood” about Silence. It isn’t “entertaining,” and it doesn’t mean to be. As another reviewer commented, this is not the kind of movie you “like” or “don’t like.” It’s one that you “experience and then live with.”

Every scene makes you sit and watch longer than you want to, but without overindulging. The violence, though brutal, isn’t depicted in a sadistic or gory way. That would distract from what’s really going on. Scorsese wants to draw viewers in to the devastation of the story, not shock them with grotesque imagery.

The miserable condition in which the priests and peasants find themselves leads them to take comfort in the most vital and basic of things: sunlight, food of any kind, a smile, camaraderie, or even just simple religious icons. One feels both admiration for their courage and empathy for their plight. What appears to sustain these Christians, in addition to their faith, is the solidarity that each shares with the other in their suffering.

It will be no surprise to viewers to remember that Shusaku Endo wrote Silence in the 1960s. The “Death of God” movement of the day shows up in several of Padre Rodrigues’s (Andrew Garfield) inner monologues—he is the protagonist of the story. In some ways reminiscent of Elie Wiesel’s Night, written a decade earlier, the account could scarcely be imagined in the Western Judeo-Christian mind prior to the Holocaust.

Endo’s Silence, however, has a different feel to it than Wiesel’s Night. Whereas the Nazis sought to systematically exterminate an entire people group, the Samurai and Japanese ruling elite do not hate the Portuguese or even their fellow Japanese who have converted to Christianity. They merely want to root out Christianity itself. They claim to have studied it but determined that it is dangerous and threatening to their culture and way of life. This in no way excuses their cruel tactics, of course, but similar to how, say, the Gospel of John makes Pontius Pilate sound like a “reasonable” man, Silence manages to humanizes the Japanese persecutors despite their brutality.

Still, there are moments eliciting nothing but sheer anger and disgust at the sight of such terrible pain being inflicted upon the poor Japanese Christians. Even as a Christian, one can’t help but wonder, was it really necessary for these people to be converted? Was the salvation of Japanese peasants actually at stake if the gospel wasn’t brought to them in the first place? Couldn’t the God of Jesus Christ have mercy on them, regardless?

Doubt, Betrayal, and the end of “Healthy-Mindedness”

And this raises perhaps the most obvious and pressing theological predicament of the film. It’s the same one Rodrigues himself asks: “God heard their prayers, but did he hear their screams?” Such a incisive question could also call to mind Bonhoeffer’s famous line from his Letter and Papers: “Only a suffering God can help.”

Another probing provocation by Silence is about the role of a pastor or priest. There are a number of gut-wrenching scenes throughout the film that get directly at what it means to intercede or atone for someone else. If Jesus is the great high priest who substitutes himself to take away our sin, so too do Rodrigues and Garrpe (Adam Driver) yearn to mediate between their new Japanese brothers and sisters and the suffering imposed on them by the infamous Japanese “Inquisitor” named Inoue. In heartbreaking fulfillment of priestly duty, these good shepherds love and defend their sheep in the face of any harm.

But maybe the most difficult faith question of all comes when Rodriques is finally reunited with the fallen priest, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson)—his former Catholic teacher and confessor, who has now renounced the faith and become a Buddhist scholar. They even gave him a new name!

Ferreira didn’t initially commit apostasy because he doubted his Christian God. He did so to end the suffering of fellow Christians. Eventually, however, he learns Japanese and begins to think that many of the Japanese “Christians” weren’t genuine converts after all. They may have conflated Jesus-worship with worship of the sun (confusing the translation of “son” and “sun”). Ferreira argues with Rodrigues about this and insists that the Japanese cannot imagine a transcendent God that exists beyond nature itself. Ferreira contends that the martyrs died for priests like himself and Rodrigues, but not for Christ.

Rodrigues judges Ferreira’s words as blasphemous and disgraceful at first, but Scorsese concludes the movie with some creative license, departing in imaginative detail from the novel, and leaving the viewer to decide for herself whether Rodrigues remains a believer. Whatever his destination, there’s little doubt that Rodrigues’s journey disabuses him of any “healthy-minded” religious condition — one that for Rodrigues stemmed from his naive assurance that everything God wills or allows to happen is for the good. Rodrigues was ready for martyrdom, but not one like this.

So Silence is silent about many things: is renouncing one’s faith in order to save others from suffering merely a formality, as the Japanese interrogators suggest? Is the cost of faithfulness too great if someone else has to bear it? Would it have been better for the Jesuits never to have stepped foot on Japanese soil? It seems the Japanese political leaders figured out how to force a choice between the fidelity of betrayal and heretical orthodoxy. There is no resolution or solace either way.

No Answers in Silence

If you’re expecting a movie that will strengthen your faith, this may not be the one. I also suspect the film (and book) has its shortcomings. But you should still see it. Missional Christians have something important to learn from not only the trials and tribulations of the Catholic missionaries, but from both the resistance to and embrace of Christianity by the Japanese. What is the responsibility of the evangelist when the lines between syncretism, gospel contextualization and mere proselytization become so blurred? The movie doesn’t give answers. It only demands contemplation. Such is the holiness and ambiguity of Silence.

And yet, Scorsese still leaves room for faith. Jesus himself walked the path of Godforsakenness. Jesus himself came to be trampled on and renounced for our sake. What if Jesus himself is the one who breaks God’s “Silence”?

What We’re Missing When We Call Jesus “Teacher” or “Rescuer”

[This is a re-post from Missio Alliance.]

Recently I noticed a little twitter interaction between Tim Keller and Rachel Held Evans. Keller tweeted the following:

To which Evans replied:

Keller replied back:

Evans went on to make a number of other responses, when others chimed in, like:

Fully recognizing, of course, that banter on twitter hardly counts as real dialogue or theological discussion, this exchange is nonetheless revealing. Now, it could be dismissed as just a typical debate between two different streams of Christian thought, one evangelical and the other mainline Protestant. And some might want to criticize the way Evans responded to Keller’s tweet, like she was picking a fight (the snarkiness of “I’m one of those crazy people…”).

Still, I think her last tweet above actually gets at something very important. Evans’ point is not a liberal one. Nor is their disagreement necessarily about atonement theory—say, between penal substitution and moral influence. And I do not think Keller and others like him are dismissing Jesus’s teachings or the significance of following him, either.

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Passion for God’s Mission of Peace and Healing

[This sermon is based on Luke 10:1-11. The audio can be found here.]

Well we are in Week 3 this morning of our Advent series in which we are asking the question, “what gift can you bring?” We’ve talked about how we bring our whole selves before God, and how we bring our sacrifice of worship. And today we’re going to talking about offering the gift of passion for God’s mission and participation in that mission.

And when we think of the word “mission,” it’s one of those words that can mean many things to many different people, both good and bad. Companies have missions, the military has a mission, non-profits have a mission, churches have missions, and you may have even at one time or another crafted your own life-mission, which may be a good idea! Whitney and I have asked before, what is our family mission?

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The Prodigal Son: Bringing Ourselves Fully Before God

[This sermon is based on the the parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15:11-32. The audio can be found here.]

For Advent this year, as you’ve been hearing, our theme is to ask, “What gift can you bring?” We all have many gifts and blessings that God has given us, that can be used and offered back to God and to the world in an act of gratitude for what we’ve been given.

And so part of what this theme and question should provoke is a kind of self-reflection and inventory where we look at our lives and ask: what do I have, what am I holding on to, that God may be asking me to hand over or to submit, to surrender for his purposes.

But the other thing that can happen when we ask the question, “What can I bring?” is that we get a little bit anxious or insecure. We might take the question the wrong way, maybe by excessively judging and doubting ourselves — or just comparing and competing with others based on what they have, and what they can bring that we can’t.

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Can Missional Evangelicals be Mystical? Another Way Forward After the Election

[This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance blog]

A week later, what has transpired with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States is still stunning. It’s hard to imagine that the country could be more divided than it is right now. The division runs deep, and it is not just political. It is also spiritual.

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Freedom, Contingency and God’s Suffering Love in the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar: The Adequacy of the Analogy of Drama for Imagining the God-World Relationship

The following is a working draft of the presentation I will be making at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting in the Open and Relational Theologies session on the topic, “A Wider View of Theodicy: The Place of Sufferers, Mourning, Love, and Lament in Theological and Philosophical Reasoning”:

“The Hegelian babble about the real being the true is therefore the same kind of confusion as when people assume that the words and actions of a poet’s dramatic characters are the poet’s own. We must, however, hold fast to the belief that when God—so to speak—decides to write a play, he does not do it simply in order to pass the time, as the pagans thought. No, no: indeed, the utterly serious point here is that loving and being loved is God’s passion. It is almost—infinite love!—as if he is bound to this passion, almost as if it were a weakness on his part; whereas in fact it is his strength, his almighty love: and in that respect his love is subject to no alteration of any kind. There is a staggering perversity in all the human categories that are applied to the God-man; for if we could speak in a completely human way about Christ we would have to say that the words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” show a want of patience and a want of truth. Only if God says it, can it be true, i.e., even if the God-man says it. And since it is true, it is also truly the climax of pain. The relationship to God is evidently such a tremendous weight of blessedness that, once I have laid hold of it, it is absolute in the most absolute sense; by contrast, the worldly notion that my enemies are to be excluded from it would actually diminish this blessedness.”

The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard, quoted in the preface of Theo-Drama Vol. 5: The Last Act, Hans Urs von Balthasar

“If God’s nature, theologically speaking, shows itself to be absolute love by giving itself away and allowing others to be, for no other reason than that this (motiveless) giving is good and full of meaning — and hence is, quite simply, beautiful and glorious — the same must apply to [God’s] “making room” for [God’s] free creatures.” – Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. II, 273

In this paper I’d like to propose that Hans Urs von Balthasar’s “theo-dramatic” account of divine and human freedom, on the one hand, and divine experience in humanity’s suffering, on the other hand, can shed light on God’s love for an open and relational understanding of the doctrine of God. For Christian love — both of God and of neighbor — has not only an open and relational quality, but it is also dramatic in that it is embedded in a history the oscillates between freedom and contingency.

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