William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian

Category: Presentations (Page 1 of 2)

The Matthew 25 Gathering: A Eucharistic Ecclesiology of Justice and Mercy Contending for Shalom

matthew 25 gathering image[The second ACNA Matthew 25 Gathering took place last week in Phoenix, and I had the opportunity to present. There was a video recording as well, which I will share when it is available.]

It was not my plan to become a pastor, go to seminary, and certainly not to become a professor. I wanted to go to law school, practice public interest or non-profit law and do human rights work in Latin America. A job at International Justice Mission would have been a dream for if you had asked me in college to envision my future.

But as it turns out, I liked the idea of that kind of work a lot more than I was actually cut out for it. Of course, we’re all called to be involved in mercy and justice initiatives in the world in Jesus’s name and for the advancement of the kingdom at some level. I just had to realize that my strength was more in the area of teaching, thinking, and writing first.

So what I’d like to do here is just underscore three things that the Eucharist in particular teaches us about how and why we contend for shalom in an unjust and merciless world. In other words, what is the relationship between the work of seeking justice and shalom, and a specifically Eucharistic understanding of God’s mission in the world to redeem and restore all things?

I want to try to answer this question about Eucharistic Shalom, let’s call it, by just saying a little bit more about how I got here — because I think it will help to illustrate the first part of what I have to say.Matthew25_2colorlogo_300x300

Like many younger folks who have found themselves drawn to liturgical worship, I did not start out in this place. I was raised in a Baptist and broadly evangelical church setting. During my senior year of college, I went on a spring break mission trip with my church to Juarez, Mexico. My experience at this church taught me some very important new lessons about the Christian life, one of which had to do with the role of the Holy Spirit not only in worship but also in mission. I had certainly been taught to revere God’s Word as inspired and authoritative for my life, and I knew what it meant to be an evangelical Christian, but the charismatic stream was unfamiliar. So you could say this was the season in my life when I discovered two of the three streams of Christian identity, the evangelical and the charismatic, but not yet the sacramental/catholic.

But it was on this mission trip that God would also teach me something else. One day in the city of Juarez, the team I was part of went on an outreach into a public park. We had just performed a street theater-style drama that enacted that enacted the gospel story. Afterwards, we passed out gospel tracts in Spanish. I was one of the translators for our team because I could speak the best Spanish, which wasn’t saying much, and two men came up to us after the drama.

We thought they were wanting to talk about what they had just seen and heard from us, but instead, they kept trying to tell us about some of the struggles they were facing in life at the border of Mexico and the United States — the difficulties of finding good jobs, the poverty in the city, the politics of immigration, the safety issues and the crime problem in that part of the country created by drug cartels and the trafficking of narcotics, and so on. To us, this all seems mostly unrelated to the message we needed to share with them about salvation, which was spiritual — not material, not economic, and above all not political. In our minds at the time, those two dimensions, the temporal and the spiritual, needed to be kept separate and unconfused.

And so as a result of this kind of dualism in our theology, we kept talking past each other. We missed an opportunity to connect, and to share the good news of the gospel with these two men — how it could impact there life then and there, in the present, in the mundane, material, political and economic details of their life. I did not yet grasp what was going on and what was being overlooked in this exchange until probably several years later, but I never forgot it because, I knew even then that something was wrong or at least very incomplete in what we were doing.

It wasn’t even so much though that our church then didn’t care about the material needs of people. We did service projects on that trip, to show our love and God’s love for the vulnerable in Juarez. But even acts of service, with the paradigm we were working with then, were being carried out, I think, as means to an end — the end of evangelism and conversion — rather than as an ends in themselves that could testify and actually be gospel work, just as much as the preaching and street theater.

All of this to say, taking place more than ten years ago, I’ve been on quite a spiritual and theological journey ever since. And it stems from this story. I watched the talks from last year’s Matthew 25 Gathering, and at the beginning then and this time as well, I was particularly struck by Christine’s call for the holding together of the contemplative and the activist, or reflective and practitioner sides of our faith.

This has my been my same lesson and goal. It’s why I work in spiritual formation, as a spiritual director in training, on the one hand, and write and think about how to live out my political theology, on the other hand — and see no disconnection, no contradiction between the two.

For most of my life, though, even though I came to value both the spiritual and social dimensions of the Christian life, I didn’t have an ecclesiology that was able to empower both of these dimensions at the same time. Which is to say, I didn’t appreciate the church’s role and calling, and therefore my role and calling in the face of injustice, in the right way. I didn’t have a concrete, corporate worship practice that regularly drew me in, grounded and centered me in the rhythm and reality of God’s presence.

Once I got “converted” to the gospel of the kingdom of God, in addition to the gospel of the forgiveness of sins, I just kind of assumed that churches should allocate more and more of their resources toward justice efforts until there was only a minimal amount left for anything else. No need for buildings or full-time pastors. Let’s just put the money toward community development and meet in homes practicing contemplative prayer! Which I still don’t think is a terrible idea 🙂 But I judged church in my naive zeal on this basis, and I lacked a sacramental imagination for how the church participates in extending God’s justice in the world and contending for shalom.

In fact I wrote my whole dissertation without yet discovering the role of the sacraments in developing a truly counter-cultural and counter-political movement that would contend for shalom. Part of my subtitle for my work was a political theology of neighborliness and resistance (or, contending), and these practices are vital, but what I really needed, in addition, was a theology, or more specifically an ecclesiology of Eucharistic contending, which I learned especially from a Catholic theologian and economic ethicist named William Cavanaugh in his book Torture and the Eucharist.

And so my main message to you all today, is that it is the Eucharist that is at the Center between the two sides of our faith, the inward and the outward, the eternal and the temporal, the spiritual and the social. There is some distinction between each of these dimensions, but there is no separation between them, and there certainly no conflict between them.

So the first thing the Eucharist does is give us a different ecclesiology. And this ecclesiology could be the subject of an entire conference to itself, but let me just put this way: A Eucharistic ecclesiology understands that God does the heavy lifting, not us. I know this is an obvious point that might even sound cliche, but many churches in North America still struggle to trust that it’s true. It’s one of the reasons why we’ve seen, for example, the explosion of the mega-church, at the same time that we’ve seen stagnation and even steady decline in overall church participation.

And to ironically borrow business language here, we’ve gotten better at packaging the Christian faith, on the one hand — we’ve reduced the cost, we’ve monetized our sermons and our songs — but we’ve done this largely while at the same time not seeing an increase in our “market share” or tapping into new markets. And we’ve done this at the same time that our churches, again, in general, remain as segregated as ever.

Both evangelical and Mainline churches have done this. Many have developed a utilitarian ecclesiology with regard to numerical church growth within the Seeker Church Movement, and some have even become utilitarian with regard works of justice (dating back to as long ago as the Social Gospel movement at the turn of the 20th Century). In either case, the church is an instrument more than a body, used to have a greater impact on society.

But it is not the job of the church, I submit to you, and therefore it is not the job of Christians, first and foremost, to change the world. This is my Anabaptish — my Anglo-anbaptish theology coming out, if I may. Yeah, no: changing the world, that is God’s job. Our job instead is something more like this — to witness to the change of the world. Though as soon as I say this, I realize it sounds a lot like Ghandi’s “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Which is kind of embarrassing if God has to use a Hindu to tell the church its job description! But I think it’s ok, because I’m pretty sure Ghandi at least partially got this from Jesus (and of course, other Christians have said this too 🙂

There’s a show called Narcos on Netflix, and it’s not very wholesome. There’s violence and sexually explicit content at times. And it’s great TV! Whitney and I like watching it together because it helps us with our Spanish and because I’m fascinated with history of the drug war in Latin America… The main character in the third season is Pena, and he is one of the famed DEA agents who helped take down Pablo Escobar. During the first episode, he’s on leave from his job and back in Laredo, TX, where’s from. And he’s trying to get settled but feeling restless. Pena attempts to rekindle and old relationship with his former girlfriend but finds out that she’s married and has kids so he’s all depressed about this and sharing his frustrating with his dad.

In this conversation, his dad says: “Son, when you were young, you couldn’t wait to get out and see the world, but then you did, and you didn’t like what you saw. So you wanted to change it. But I warned you not to do this, because more than likely, it would end up changing you.” And in fact it did change Pena. He couldn’t rest, and he ended up going back to work long before he was supposed to because he was addicted to it. I know this is an extreme example, but I think it’s still part of what happens when we don’t have a Eucharistic Ecclesiology.

So what does the Eucharist say about ecclesiology? Well, part of what it says  – and if you’ll permit me to take a couple of verses out of context (which theologians love to do because we’re not exegetes, except for when it helps our systematic cause — is the comfortable words: “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt 11). Jesus says this to his disciples right after John the Baptist is beheaded and he has given the woes to the unrepentent cities of Galilee.  Or how about John 16, where Jesus says, I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, for I have overcome the world.” These words Jesus offers after warning the disciples about the injustice and persecution they’re going to face for his name’s sake.

So the Eucharist is good news to us — we know this. It offers us rest, it receives us in peace, and it gives comfort. When we receive it, it restores us, fill us up, and reminds us of our true identity, and therefore our first purpose, which is that we are children of God called to sit at the feet of God. Hans Urs von Balthasar, says that the Eucharist is contemplation in love and the communion of love with love; and it only from such a celebration that a Christian mission goes out into the world” (Love Alone is Credible).

The Eucharist is a love feast, the agape meal, in other words, where we are nourished, fed, strengthened, enlivened, awakened, by Christ’s real presence in the bread and the wine. It is an encounter with the love of God made known to us in Christ.

I seriously didn’t used to think that this mattered, because the church I grew up in didn’t think it did either. If we took communion, it was passed down the isle to us on a tray! It’s amazing how much the Sacrament of the Eucharist has come to mean to me now, though, just the very practice of coming forward every Sunday. During worship to the Lord’s table to receive something participate with everyone else in more than just sitting, standing, singing and listening. Our bodies get much more involved this way, which again blurs an perception of a disconnection between the spiritual and the physical.

So we start with good news. It’s like Creation and the whole story of the Bible — to begin with, the Eucharist is closely tied to the Sabbath rest of God’s communion with us (this is kind of like the upward movement).

And look, I probably don’t even need to say this, but I’m painfully aware that there’s nothing automatic about this — I’m not suggesting, for instance, that my taking communion, somehow people are just going to become better disciples every week. Sadly, the history of the church just shows that’s not true. We need many other things in the practice of our faith beyond Sunday worship.

But that’s what makes the next aspect of the Eucharist I’m going to talk about so important. The Scripture that’s going to help us, I think, is Corinthians 11:17-34. If the first thing the Eucharist does is draw us “upward,” secondly, it turns us inward. Because at a conference on justice and shalom, we tend to want to look outside of ourselves at the world to point out everything that’s wrong with it, and then ask what can be done? But God doesn’t let us do that just yet:

17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk.22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.

33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. 34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.

The extent and nature of the relationship between the Eucharist and the more general breaking of bread together that’s being referenced here is not entirely clear, but it’s safe to say that the two were more connected than we are used to today. And the close association with worship and eating was familiar to the pagan context of Corinth already.

The problem that Paul is addressing in v. 21 may have either been that 1) wealthier believers were eating together in the official dining room of a Roman villa, whereas second-class citizens were relegated to the atrium; or that 2) wealthier believers came earlier to the house church gathering and ate the best food they brought without waiting to share it with the hungry poorer classes and the slaves, who arrived later.

If we can also hold Acts 2 and 4 in our minds, we might say that one major goal of this worship event in the early Church was a sharing in equal standing before God, regardless of social or economic status. Those who had more brought more so that those who had less got enough.

Jesus tells the disciples in Luke 22:15-18, “I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the Kingdom of God.” This meal is intended to be a genuine foretaste of the great eschatological love feast, or what I think we can simply call at this gathering, Shalom.

To partake in this meal, therefore, while there is unjust treatment of one another on the basis of social or economic standing is taking place, is in fact unworthy of and unpleasing to God, rendering one guilty of sinning against the body and blood of Christ (v. 27). This is a big deal.

And now we come back to Matthew 25 – those actions make one culpable for the death of Christ himself, for what we do to the least of these, we do to him. Examine yourself, therefore! Is the exhortation, lest you eat and drink condemnation on yourself! Taking communion unadvisedly could apparently kill you!

But not only are we supposed to examine ourselves. This is the first warning. The second instruction is about discerning the body. White churches (and here I’m talking just as much to myself and my own church): the black churches in your city, the Hispanic churches, the Asian churches — are you in communion with them? Are you eating before they get there? In the Roman villas? Have they been relegated to the atrium? How is it with the body of Christ in your city? Do you even know them? Are you listening to them? Do you think you’re part of the same body of Christ?

I almost wonder if the segregation of our neighborhoods and the segregation in our churches, isn’t basically the same thing as wealthy, and mostly white people taking communion first, keeping the best food for ourselves (schools, real estate, the police force, healthcare, the environment, etc.).

Before the Reformation (on this 500 year anniversary), salvation used to depend in part on one’s relationship to the body. I think we’ve lost something by moving away from that. We corrected a corruption, but we also left behind something essential. Of course, then Jon Sobrino came along 500 years later and restated it: Not just no salvation outside the church — outside the Eucharist, in other words — this became no salvation outside the poor, because the poor are part of our body, the very body of Christ.

But we have to be careful not to romanticize the poor, as you all know. And we also have to watch out for turning the Eucharist into something that romanticizes church, or makes it into what Jurgen Moltmann calls an “unbloody repetition of the event that took place on Golgotha on the altar of the church.” Moltmann also has this, moreover, to say as a warning about what he calls “the cult of the cross”:

“[The Eucharist] points to the God who was crucified not between two candles on an altar, but between two [rebels] in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong, outside the gates o the city. It does not invite thought but a change of mind. It is a [sacrament] which therefore leads out of the church and out of religious longing into the fellowship of the oppressed and abandoned.”

“On the other hand, it is a [sacrament] which calls the oppressed and godless into the church and through the church into he fellowship of the crucified God. Where this contradiction in the [Eucharist], and its revolution in religious values, is forgotten, it ceases to be a [sacrament] and become an idol, and no longer invites a revolution in thought, but the end of thought in self-affirmation.”

So the Eucharist, is visible sign of God’s unconditional, invisible grace, granting us peace and rest, but the Eucharist also judges us, as we just saw. And thirdly, the Eucharist commissions us with a task. As we consume the elements and become Christ’s mystical body, we are then entrusted with the mission of extending that body through our presence among the exploited and suffering bodies of the world — reclaiming them as Christ’s own.

Alexander Schmemann talks about the Eucharist as a procession that the church goes on to enter the Kingdom of God. This is helpful, but I think we need to add to that that the way the church makes this procession, is precisely through what J.M.R. Tillard describes as the flesh of the church becoming the flesh of Christ, in his interpretation of Ephesians 5:29-32, which is another familiar passage talking about the great mystery of who husband and wife become one flesh just as Christ’s body and his bride’s body become one flesh. We are Christ’s presence. God realizes Christ’s body through our presence.

Whereas injustice and violence in our world and society is an anti-liturgy concocted by state and market forces to oppress vulnerable bodies, the Eucharistic liturgy extends Christ’s own broken, sacrificed and resurrected body into the members of the church to become martyrs, that is witnesses, in the world.

St. Cyprian speaks of the individual body as a microcosm of Christ’s body, and therefore stresses the importance of resisting the attempts by the powers of this world — in his case, Rome — to use Christian bodies for their own purposes. Cyprian would of course ultimately join the witness of the martyrs themselves, refusing to let bodily pain intimidate him and weaken his allegiance to Christ. The Eucharist creates in ecclesial community the kind of corporate body that can resist capitulation to sexual, political, economic and cultural cooptation.

Y’all know the Didache talks about the three years that candidates for baptism spent in catechesis before they were admitted to the Eucharist. Three years. Questions such as these are asked: Have they honored widows? Have they visited the sick? Have they done every kind of labor? The president would literally say to the congregation, “Whosever is holy, let them approach. Whoso is not, let them repent.”

That is what prepares the Church as counter-body and counter-performance to the liturgies of the dominant culture, state and economy. Christendom ecclesiology, by contrast, indefinitely defers the Kingdom of God, spiritualizes it, tell the poor to wait, and is content with superficial unity that hovers above the political plane of our lives, “setting aside differences,” (that is, by not acknowledging or dealing with them, or just worshipping in our own silos). Eucharistic ecclesiology, however — properly understood — has the kingdom irrupting into time and confusing the eternal and the temporal and thereby resisting the principalities and powers, spiritual and physical.

Many Christians still misunderstand this distinction between flesh and blood on the one hand, and the principalities and power on the other. You see, by contrasting these two realms, Paul is not inserting a chasm between the spiritual and the physical. Rather, he’s making a claim about who is actually in power. Flesh and blood are still enslaved to sin, and so they act like it, and they fight like it. But if all authority on heaven and earth has been given to Christ, then our struggle is no longer with sin, for it has been overcome. The questions is, are we giving our allegiance to the one who is already on the thrown and who will have the ultimate victory over all contenders. If we tap into that power, the immanence of Christ’s eschatological reign will be at our disposal, so that flesh and blood, that is, sin and violence, are no longer weapons with which we wage war, but temporal lies that we resist because we serve and obey the one who’s already conquered them. But this does not mean the battle is not material. It still will be, and we will probably have to suffer.

Eucharistic liturgy and Eucharistic imagination disrupts the imagination of injustice and violence, because it invokes a politics of forgiveness, and repentance and enemy love. 

One of the biggest lies that the church has come to believe in the modern period, somehow, and especially in the United States, is that worship is some kind of apolitical space. The Eucharist is a political act, friends — it’s eschatological subversion of the status quo.

We can’t be fooled by the promise of a cheap unity at the Eucharist that floats above or glosses over the real conflict between the oppressed and their oppressors. Let’s not forget that the Eucharist is at least a memorial of Christ’s death at the hands of worldly authorities. And therefore a dangerous memory.

Now, again, it’s important to admit, the body of Christ is liturgically enacted, but not institutionally guaranteed. Anyone who’s part of a church knows that. Anyone studying church history knows that. But that is no reason to shrink back from tapping into the power of the Eucharist. Rather, I believe, this gap between the ideal and real is all the more cause for an urgent reclaiming of that power for precisely such a time as this.

So, our ecclesiology must become reconnected with our eschatology, which is that the Kingdom of God is at hand — not indefinitely deferred as in Christendom — and the touchdown point that holds together our doctrines of ecclesiology and our eschatology, again, is the Eucharist.

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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A Christian Spirituality of Public Life

I gave this lecture at the Ridley Institute, Saint Andrew’s Church, Mt. Pleasant, SC on March 15, 2016.

This subject, if I understand it correctly, is one of special significance to me. For whatever reason, God seems to have given me a particular burden for asking questions about how we as Christians and as the church are to be related to the rest of society, and these questions are rarely simple, and, not only are the questions not simple, but then actually the work that is entailed in doing that relating is also quite challenge. So I think it’s a tall order, and I’m hardly the expert or the authority on the matter, but I do hope that some of my reflection on this that I share with you will prove useful, and if nothing else, at least interesting.

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Imagining the Beauty and Drama of Christ from History’s Underside: Toward an Ecclesial Postmodern Political Theology

If postmodern theology is to awaken the political imagination of Christian churches and energize them in a subversive and liberating way, then I submit that it must do at least two things: First, it must speak with a depth of theological conviction and fidelity to the Christian tradition in a way that at the same time transcends both modern and pre-modern epistemological strongholds.

And secondly, postmodern theology must recast the church’s mission in a manner that is, while not defined by this, still significantly informed by of a political-economic ethic from the standpoint of the experience of those on the underside of history — which is to say, those who do not benefit from the dominant center of society but rather find themselves on the periphery, in many respects. In particular, when I say underside, I mean those victimized to some degree by euro-american, “colonial-capitalist” history (whether it be on the basis of class, race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or what have you).

So, there two challenges for the church — one postmodern/epistemological, the other postcolonial/political-material. And my way of thinking about these two fronts of that the church is facing, is helped by drawing on the work of two major figures: Hans Urs von Balthasar and Enrique Dussel.

Balthasar’s theology, for those who may not know, begins with a theology of beauty — and really it’s an epistemology – an approach to truth and faith from an aesthetic starting point, rather than a propositional or moral one. And then, only after having started with beauty, does he move into what he calls theo-dramatics. Because he’s saying that what is truly beautiful is the key for knowing, inspiring and approximating God’s goodness in the world, shaped by the Christian story: “God’s drama” of salvation history. This also has implications for ecclesiology, which I will touch on briefly below.

The second thinker I’m relying on is Enrique Dussel. Dussel is a contemporary of Latin American liberation theologians (LTs) like Gustavo Gutierrez and Jon Sobrino, but he has really distinguished himself as a philosopher more so than a theologian by seriously and critically engaging modern European and American philosophers of the 20th Century. Specifically he appropriates Emmanuel Levinas but in a more socio-political rather than phenomenological vein, using some of Levinas’s same categories, like exteriority and alterity, to talk about how the most privileged political and ethical perspective is always that of the victim and outsider — the excluded one.

But even more than that, Dussel retells the history of modernity itself, which for him is essentially coterminous with colonialism, in terms of having its origin and defining material moment in the Spanish conquest and invasion of the Americas – in the events of the subjugation, brutality and exploitation of the indigenous people there and what that has continued to mean for Latin American history ever since even well into the 20th and 21st Century. This is how he conceives of history itself from the experience of its “underside,” what he also terms the “subaltern.” Modern Western civilization was built on this imperial “discovery” and the slave-based economy that ensued. The consequences are still being experienced, especially by the governments of Central America in the past 50 years.

But Balthasar is the figure who I believe can guide us — not all the way, but for a while — beyond the modern/post-modern impasse, while also being faithful to the Christian tradition (even though he of course has his blind-spots too). Here’s what I mean: if modernity was guilty of logocentrism, condescension, normalization and universalization by way of trying to smooth out differences, then postmodernity has been prone to paralyze constructive politics in the name of heterogeneity and multiculturalism/pluralism (Rosa Maria Rodriguez Magda). Alan Badiou has voiced a comparable critique of postmodernity by describing it as “communitarian particularism” that “reduces the question of truth (and hence, of thought) to a linguistic form, judgment . . . [that] ends up in a cultural and historical relativism” (Badiou, 2003). And I think von Bathasar’s theology, again, because of both his aesthetic epistemology, on the one hand, and his christocentrism, on the other, avoids the cliff on either side.

In addition, I’m trying to map an ecclesial political theology, which means it will take its departure from the social location of the Christian faith community, rather than principally from the standpoint of state citizenship. For the latter is yet another way that political theology has too often been captured by modernity.

At the same time, these two places or identities – that of the church and the state – cannot be separated. I’m not calling for a neo-anabaptist politic. But Balthasar argues that, in his public ministry, Jesus illustrates how there can be an opening up a horizon beyond the immediacy of the state, indirectly limiting the state by subjecting it to an eschatological critique. Which is by no means an abandonment of the material, but it does signal toward something beyond the material that is always manifesting and incarnating itself in the material. So there remains the indication of a liberation the originates in God, not humanity.

Here’s what this politics boils down to though for Balthasar. In Theodrama vol. 2 he states that:

“Politics concerns [the Christian]: as a “member” of the body of Christ in profound solidarity with each of the Lord’s least brothers [and sisters] and must realize the inescapable responsibility for the conditions under which they live…”

So political power comes in the weakness of that solidarity that the church has with the most vulnerable.

Like Jesus, though, there is a refusal to concede to the “rivalries of history,” for Balthasar. The church cannot grab power or seek to influence it from the top down. And there’s a lot about this that I think we should hold on to. So Balthasar gives us parameters for a Christian ecclesiology, but there is much wanting here in terms of the promise of and cry for liberation from oppression! There’s not enough urgency in Balthasar. So for a political and economic ethic, I turn to Dussel.

It’s worth noting that while he’s not a pacifist, Dussel considers any power taken by the state, rather than power given by the people in their consent, to be illegitimate. Because this would be self-referential power and therefore fetishism.

Dussel accuses both the neoliberal US and the Latin American Left of historically presupposing the necessity of violence against their political opponent – and instead contends that politics is about the continuation of life whose aim is the very preservation of the opponent — through the means of deliberation and delegation, and so on. So Dussel’s is a biopolitics – of the preservation, enhancement and continuation of the life of the political community but also of its very condition for material reproduction: the planet, culture and indigenous traditions!

  1. So the first of three ethical principles that Dussel follows is a material one, expressed as the obligation to produce life. Its concern is with human bodies and their well-being. This is the source of value for the political community, not production or consumption.
  2. The second principle, then, is more formal and procedural, as that of discourse ethics (it’s the goal of consensus around moral validity). Bearing in mind the first principle then, discourse here is always carried out with the voice of the underside, and of victims setting the terms of dialogue.
  3. Third, there is the criterion of feasibility (feasibility of mediations), the question of what can actually and practically be achieved in any given political situation.

These three criteria – material, dialogical and feasible – are co-constitutive of what Dussel judges can finally be called “good.”

Finally, though, I turn back to Balthasar. In his mind, Beauty (aesthetics) is the starting point, and may in fact have the most potent recourse to inciting the Good.

And obviously, for Balthasar, the archetype of beauty is the life-form, and the whole drama of Jesus, the Christ figure, whose beauty is most fully revealed in relief from the ugliness of humanity’s violence that puts people on crosses. So beauty is made known above all in God’s willingness to go to that human, bodily and historical-material, political place of suffering and rejection.

So to summarize all of this: because of the kind of beauty that is revealed for Christians in Jesus (this is Balthasar), there is an ecclesiological call to solidarity, with those who Jesus has solidarity with in his suffering. What Dussel then demonstrates, moreover, is that this solidarity must start with those on the margins.  And Dussel’s three principles for political-economic ethics stress that this solidarity is not just a willingness to suffer with, but to suffer for. It is a willingness to resist with and to protest with – not just with but for people, to achieve better conditions for the flourishing of their lives.

As I consider what this theology amounts to if practiced, I imagine that it might reflect several aspects of what political theologian Mark Lewis Taylor calls critical movements of resistance.

Taylor discusses critical movements of resistance as responses to various sufferings and injustices that are being experienced by those on history’s underside as a result of the colonial-capitalist state, in theo-poetic fashion, which is not reducible to the level of political economy (so aesthetics!), but is just as much interested in affecting culture and stirring artistic expression of creative story-telling, dramatic and performative acts of resistance to catalyze a social movement.

So an appropriate Critical Movement of Resistance (CMR) will take broader and deeper forms than mere advocacy for change in public policy, though it certainly includes this. And it will be constituted by at least three visible markings, Taylor says: an 1) owning of agonistic being — solidarity in suffering, sharing in the weight of the world. Second, 2) cultivating of artful reflex, a kind of mirroring or mimicking of the state. Perhaps most powerfully illustrated just biblically in Jesus’ triumphal entry on a donkey, genuine street theater! and thirdly, the 3) fomenting of adversarial political and counter-colonial/decolonial practices, which would need to actually name opponents, call them out, expose them, make evil show itself! Not destroying the opponent, but calling them to repentance! And then attempt to take higher moral ground in an unpredictable and offsetting stealing of the show, beating stakeholders to the stage. It is disruptive and demonstrative, in other words.

This obviously takes strategic planning, vulnerable networking, risk-taking, and in a way that has to be careful not to devolve into sheer aestheticism, and that at least aiming to bring about sustainable, and life-renewing communal activities.

Revelation: Where has God Spoken to Us?

(Below is the transcript for a lecture I gave on Oct. 20th at the Ridley Institute of St. Andrew’s Church in Mt. Pleasant, SC. They are an extension campus of Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA.)

Your reading this week was entitled, “What is the Bible and What is it good for?” but even this question has another one behind it, an even broader subject which is the subject of tonight’s lecture: “Revelation: Where has God Spoken to Us?” The doctrine of Christian revelation — the question of how we get the content of our faith, and what is the authority for our faith, what is the medium by which God has spoken to us and continues to do so.

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Striving for the Good in the Face of Uncertainy: The Paradox of Faith and Politics in Kierkegaard and Niebuhr

[My argument in this paper is that Kierkegaard and Niebuhr together, with their notions of faith and justice as paradoxical, provide a political theology that is neither despairing nor presumptuous in its vision for how to strive for the good. This is what I presented at the American Academy of Religion Annual Conference in San Diego this past week. For that reason, it is written more for a talk and is not in final format, so some of the references are not properly cited yet.]

The paradox of politics for Rousseau was the question of, “Which comes first, good people or good laws?”  In other words, how can a democracy be legitimate when the legitimacy comes from the democracy itself which is to be founded? There is always the problem of delimiting the people and deciding who speaks for them. It is never a fixed entity, and certain groups are always excluded. According to Bonnie Honig in her book Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law and Democracy, “…even established regimes are hardly rendered immune by their longevity to the paradoxical difficulty that Rousseau names… the paradox of politics is replayed rather than overcome in time” (EP, 14).

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What is Communion?

“The Church does not perform the Eucharist. The Eucharist performs the Church.” – William Cavanaugh

What is the Purpose of the Lord’s Supper/Communion/The Eucharist?

That we might feed on Christ, be reconciled to God and to each other, and be strengthened for the living of the Christian life.

Some key Scripture: Luke 22:19-20; 1 Cor. 10:14-17, Matt. 26:27

o In our worship service, while preaching and the pastor plays a key part, it is not at the center of what we do. Rather, communion is, and this is what the whole service is built around. The Bible has a very similar, progressive and narrative structure, building up to and culminating in the Gospels. The Eucharist represents this same center of the redemption history and story of the people of God.

o Secondly, through communion — literally, “common union” — we understand ourselves as a people who are called into a new society, a new brotherhood and sisterhood, which is called to have a starring role in the drama of God’s communication of God’s redeeming love to the world. Our society is a society in which there is a great loneliness and in which it is difficult for people to have experiences of community and solidarity. Communion subverts and offers an alternative to this.

The Roots of Communion

Passover: was called the “Feast of Unleavened Bread.” Leaven or yeast was always a symbol of corruption to the Jews, and this very special Passover bread was to have no leaven in it. It symbolized the purity of Israel, redeemed by God’s grace. Then there was wine — a symbol of life and blessing.

“This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me . . . This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:23-25).

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body eat and drink judgment against themselves” (1 Cor. 11:27-29).

That is why the “passing of the peace” was introduced just prior to receiving Communion!

What is a Sacrament?

  • “Visible sign of an invisible reality,” or “outward sign of inward grace” — a reality that doesn’t depend on us, but that includes us nevertheless! Ordinary things, everyday things, are being transformed by God into the means of God’s self-communication. Sacraments are about God being present in and among and through the ordinary, transforming and fulfilling, not destroying it.

Table or Altar? (Transubstantiation, real/spiritual presence, or Memorial?)

  • It is significant that the doctrine of transubstantiation did arise until 800 years after Christ!
  • This is not a transaction (transubstantiation), but nor is it merely a ritual (memorial).  Here we gather, acknowledge the real presence of Christ in a powerful metaphor (consubstantiation), receive what is always available in plenitude, and are sent out.

Five Big Communion Themes:

I. The Incarnation: why Communion is a celebration of our embodied-ness/physical life (all five senses)!

  • solidarity/relatedness, suffering, non-dualism, sacred and profane joined

II. Dependence on God: how Communion is a celebration of our life-source

  • God is our food! (John 6:48, 53, 54) to participate in abundant life, first here and now, but also hereafter

III. Christ’s self-emptying example: Communion expresses how we are to live in the world as servants

  • goes back to the incarnation, but this particularly stresses modeling the way Jesus lived

IV. Journey of Thanksgiving and Response

  • with humble, repentant and grateful hearts for what God has done and is invites us into

V. Shalom! Communion celebrates being restored to right relationship w/ God through Christ’s incarnation, life, death and resurrection.

  • We know that our relationship with God, our fellow human beings, and the rest of God’s Creation, is not as it ought to be
  • Shalom means not only the absence of violence and oppression but also the satisfaction of every spiritual and physical need. The time of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God is one of healing, of sight to the blind, of the lame walking, of the poor being fed.

We are called (gathered) and empowered (sent) to witness to the Kingdom of God (God’s will done “on earth as it is in heaven”). The Eucharist is the hinge upon which this going and sending turns. So the life of the church, especially its worship and Eucharist, is a foretaste of the Kingdom that is to come.

Leander S. Harding, In the Breaking of the Bread:

“The existence of humanity in the Garden was a priestly existence, an existence of grateful offering to God. We fell from that vocation. We forgot who we were and what we were made for. We began to crave the world as a thing in itself. The Creation became an idol instead of a means of feasting on God’s love. Jesus has come to restore us to our original vocation. In and through him we now bring the world again to God, and the Creation, beginning with the bread and wine, again becomes the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. ” (p. 48).

“God wants all of life to be Eucharist for us. God wants all relationships, all human transactions, all our work, all our interaction with the rest of Creation to be Eucharist, a partaking of the life of God that causes thanksgiving to well up in us and draw our hearts to God and t a new unity with each other.” (p. 34)

“In this peace, the natural divisions of race, class, age, and social status that keep people apart are overcome. Even the categories of righteousness and unrighteousness, of decent and indecent people, are overcome.” (p. 43)

Conference at UNAM in Mexico City: Philosophical and Political Dimensions of NAFTA

Borrowing significantly from my dissertation and drawing on the work of Enrique Dussel and Mark Lewis Taylor, the title of my talk is “Globalization, NAFTA and the U.S.-Mexico Drug War: Twenty Years of Free Trade as Decolonial Struggle.”  I am especially looking forward to hearing from Dussel himself, as he will be giving the keynote address.  I will share details from my presentation afterwards.

NAFTA Colloquium Póster ColoquioTLCAN

Striving for the Good in the Face of Uncertainty: The Paradox of Faith and Politics in Kierkegaard and Niebuhr

Below is a description of the paper I will be presenting for the Kierkegaard and Niebuhr groups’ joint-session at the American Academy of Religion Annual Conference in San Diego this November:

In her book Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law and Democracy, Bonnie Honig has contended contra Carl Schmitt, that both sovereignty and the state of exception need to be de-exceptionalized and dispersed back into the hands of “the demos.” For her, exception and emergency are part of even the most ordinary and everyday political processes, and human agency is always involved in interpreting, augmenting or even suspending the law in its administration. In this paper I propose to discuss and show how the thought of Soren Kierkegaard and Reinhold Niebuhr can aid us along toward the aim of reconceiving the power of democracy and social progress in human history for a political theology that is neither despairing nor presumptuous in striving for the good.

The paradox of politics for Rousseau was the question of which comes first, good people or good laws? That is to say, how can a democracy be legitimate when the legitimacy comes from the democracy itself which is to be founded? Moreover, there is always the problem of delimiting the people and deciding who speaks for them. It is never a fixed entity, and certain groups are always excluded.

But democracy cannot be reduced to merely the rule of law or the extension of rights to new constituencies. Instead, by recognizing the power of the role of the people in mundane political procedure, we can celebrate the potential for the disturbance of existing institutions and practices. In order to do this, however, there must first be an acknowledgement of a place in democracy for the suspension of existing laws and norms, only this place is no longer that of the sovereign, as Honig argues, but in the subjectivity of individual political actors and their orientations toward the possibility of a “miracle.”

For Kierkegaard, without risk, there is no faith. And so it is in society with the emergence of opportunity for change or progress. The Danes of Christendom much like citizens in our time would prefer to proceed by merely “knowing” the truth, not resolutely striving toward it with exceeding interestedness. Socrates put faith in the good and even sacrifices his life for it, but Climacus only saw this as “Religiousness A”, as the highest example of the ethical stage of existence – not because Socrates’ subjectivity lacked passionate inwardness, but because the object of his faith itself was not paradoxical. Everything that Socrates needed to learn, he thought, came from within, and from recollection, rather than from outside or beyond. As Niebuhr would say, for Socrates, a Christ was not expected. But as Kierkegaard has it, the place from which our faith comes is precisely infinite and paradoxical, both in its nature and in what it promises.

The point is that a miracle can only occur if the people are prepared for it.  In other words, it is not solely depend on the infinite but also on finite receptivity. Miracle here does not refer to the norm-exception binary that commands and compels attention, but instead is thought to be one that with subtlety solicits a response. Those who want to receive the signal, to witness it, have to first be open to its possibility. This openness requires preparedness and the cultivation of a certain orientation toward divinity, as well a periodic collective gathering. Democracy is much the same way. When democratic forms of life are interrupted by emergency, well prepared subjects may experience the chance to respond democratically, that is, in faith, to gather and to mobilize for the protection and expansion of the values of the collective.

Socrates’ ethic not only lacked room for a miracle (revelation), but he also could not account for Kierkegaard and Niebuhr’s conception of human sin and guilt. What stands in the way of the potential for this gathering and mobilizing on the part of the demos is the paradoxical combination of human freedom and limitation, analyzed so well by Kierkegaard and later appropriated by Niebuhr into the realm of social ethics. As both finite and free, human beings have natural limitations but infinite expectations and pretensions, which leads them to become self-conscious about their insecurity and hence creates anxiety. Anxiety inclines the people to seek their own certainty and security, which is always insufficient, to the detriment of assuming agency for extending new rights to new constituents.

What Niebuhr does is creatively reimagine the place of finite and free human beings in society in accordance with the dialectical relationship between God’s justice and love. In this respect, he is thoroughly Kierkegaardian, but in a socio-historical fashion. Niebuhr has a more optimistic outlook on so-called natural theology than Kierkegaard, but is equally realistic about the limits placed on political progress as a result of humanity’s sinful condition. In this way, they both hold fast to faith in the face of objective uncertainty — Kierkegaard individually, and Niebuhr politically. The paradox politically speaking for Niebuhr, however, is between striving to realize proximate justice within history on the one hand, by resisting the temptation to unreservedly push forward and expect human fulfillment of a justly representative society without remainder on the other hand.

Niebuhr says it like this in Nature and Destiny: “The final majesty of God is contained not so much in [God’s] power within the structures as in the power of [God’s] freedom over the structures, that is, over the logos aspects of reality. This freedom is the power of mercy beyond judgment. By this freedom God involves himself in the guilt and suffering of free [human beings] who have, in their freedom, come in conflict with the structural character of reality” (p. 71). The agape of God, which is the paradox of God and of politics, is thus at once the expression of both the final majesty of God, as Niebuhr calls it, and of God’s relationship to history. So it is from faith in the tenuous and risky relationship between humanity, God and history, constituted by the paradox of agape, I will argue, that Kierkegaard and Niebuhr illuminate the horizon upon which historical-political subjects can strive for the good.

Sacralizing the Secular: The Economic Organization of Emerging Ecclesiology in North America and its Latent Spirit of Resistance

[This is a working copy of the paper I presented at AAR this year in Chicago in the Ecclesiological Investigations Group on the following theme: “The Social Gospel in a Time of Economic Crisis: The Churches and Capitalism Today.”  Here is a link to a further description.]

Walter Rauschenbusch observed and contended that global capitalism directly opposes the spirit of Christianity in at least two fundamental ways: by inhibiting economic democracy and by encouraging the rule of profit motive over and against the value of human life.  In contrast, the Christian spirit is marked by devotion to the common good and to God’s reign of justice in the world: “Devotion to the common good is one of the holy and divine forces in human society, [and] [c]apitalism teaches us to set private interests before the common good” (315).  

The mission of the church in light of global capitalism then it seems is to mirror and foster an alternative social and political order by instilling and adhering to values that subvert the dominant narrative of competition, consumerism, imperialism and individualism.  Such subversive values include peace-making, generosity, cooperation and solidarity.  In order for these values to be thoroughly integrated into the church and the lives of Christians, they must also affect the economy of ecclesial organization itself.

Rauschenbusch, like most everyone else in his time, failed to be duly cognizant of racial and gender prejudices and the challenges of religious pluralism.  Furthermore, he was obviously unable to foresee the current impending ecological crisis, peak oil, the post-WWII triumph of U.S.-dominated international military and economic power, and more recently the hyper-financialization of the global market itself – specifically with its heightened volatility as demonstrated by the Great Recession.  Nevertheless, much of what Rauschenbusch meant by “Christianizing the Social Order” was profound and is still relevant.

Rauschenbusch attempted to popularize the view that Jesus’ teachings about the reign of God regarded God’s peace and justice as ideals to be prayed for and realized in the present as much as anticipated in the future.  Rauschenbusch diagnosed and identified the capitalist, corporate state as “the industrial outfit of society . . . owned and controlled by a limited group, while the mass of the industrial workers [– often propertyless –] is without ownership or power over the system within which they work” (311).  Extrapolating from this, Rauschenbusch argues that

where [profit from Capitalism] is large and dissociated from hard work, it is traceable to some kind of monopoly privilege and power . . . Insofar as profit is derived from these sources, it is tribute collected by power from the helpless, a form of legalized graft, and a contradiction of Christian relations” (Christianizing the Social Order 1926, p 313).

Impressively, this issue of ownership of the means of production and wealth in general by a few is perhaps as pertinent as ever for people in North America today.  Growing income inequality and the stagnation of wages adjusted for inflation, particularly in the past three decades, is staggering.[1]


With respect to the recent financial crisis itself, Christian leaders and theologians would benefit by understanding the values, incentives and mechanisms that gave rise to the housing bubble and the subsequent market crash – if we wish to have a hand in shaping and informing a counter-consumer culture in Christian communities.  Discussing the causes for the Financial Crisis itself is beyond the scope of this presentation, but by relying on the work of others – like Dr. Christine Hinze – who have taken the time to really grapple with what exactly led to the recession, I’ll briefly make a few observations from which I think we can appropriate intentional local practices that might really signal a thorough critique of the disparate economic establishment.[2]

The consensus seems to be that, broadly speaking – even if it has become cliché to say since OWS – the market crash itself was brought about by a financial sector that incentivizes and even secures the privatization of profits and the socialization of risks and therefore losses, or costs, as evidenced most notably by federal bailouts of the big banks.  In summary, one might identity at least four major factors the led to the financial crisis:

  1. Deregulation via the removal of much-needed firewalls between commercial banks, insurance companies and security trading institutions/brokerage firms — through legislation passed under the Clinton administration, and through the role that money plays in Washington in general (SuperPACS, Citizens United, no term limits, etc.)
  2. A lack of a principle of agency and responsibility for taking bad risks, enabled by the design and implementation of financial instruments that repackaged and sold over-leveraged credit at multiple levels (e.g., credit default swaps)
  3. Credit-rating agencies with conflicts of interest issued artificially high approval ratings for mortgage-backed securities
  4. The toleration, or promotion of, in many cases, a culture of debt-financed living – even if many people were victims of predatory lending

These phenomena highlight a top-down proclivity of global capitalism in general for not only privatizing market success and socializing market failure, but also its contribution to an increasing disparate distribution of wealth in the U.S.  Additionally, the financial crisis unmasked the elasticity and underscored the interdependence of global relations.  (It should also be mentioned that there are other critical perspectives from an even longer-term standpoint about the causes of the Great Recession, as exemplified by Yanis Varoufakus’ recent work.)


What we call the secular is actually the realm or domain of the Spirit. The secular – literally meaning the world, the realm outside of church control – isn’t profane. Rather, properly understood, it is sacred because the Spirit is and has always been active there, evoking light from darkness, order from chaos, fullness from void, life from lifelessness, actuality from potentiality, and potentiality from actuality. (Brian D. McLaren, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? p. 151)

In the wake of economic recession and the recent financial crisis, and in view of growing global and domestic disparity with respect to wealth and power and its concentration into the hands of so few at the expense of so many – without adequate transparency or accountability – I propose in response that churches in North America are entrusted with several basic tasks:

  1. Raising awareness and making the economic inequalities and interdependencies of the world, both abroad and domestically, better understood by Christian congregants
  2. Engaging the public sphere through changes in habits of consumption so as to bear witness to God’s mission of (economic and ecological) reconciliation in the world
  3. Using capital, organizing themselves (in church governance and leadership) and conducting their worship and service practices as a church in such a way that challenges and contributes to the transformation of these inequalities
  4. mobilizing the fulfillment of this mission in part by facilitating participation in local political decision-making processes in order to disperse economic power where it has become overly concentrated, disembodied or undemocratic

I suggest that the church in North America will be best situated to oppose the exploitative nature of global capitalism by embracing the erosion of the sacred-secular divide – what Charles Taylor called “the Great Disembedding”[3]  – a distinctively modern divide, or as Taylor elsewhere descries it – a modern social imaginary – and one that is still prevalent in liberal-democratic nation-states and Western culture in general.  It is true, however, that a “de-secularization” or  “re-enchantment” of the world has been increasingly noted and called for in recent decades, indicating “both a discrediting of [rigidly] scientific theor[izing] of secularization and a renewed debate about a more nuanced understanding of secularism, religion, and the influence of modernity on each.”[4]  Aaron Stuvland insists, for example, that  

“Secularization, far from undermining religion with its denial of the transcendent and its insistence on verification through the senses and the application of cold logic, has created a spiritual vacuum and a deep desire for integration.  In fact, secular space for that matter simply does not nor has it ever existed. Or if it has existed as a political coercion, the secularization of the church results in the sacralization of the secular.”[5]

Gustavo Gutierrez has expressed the need for transgressing this boundary by emphasizing that there are not two histories, one sacred and one profane, one soteriological and one political, but rather, Gutierrez contends, that “the history of salvation is the very heart of human history [itself].”[6]

I believe that the boundary-blurring of the sacralization of the secular would serve to de-privatize religious communities and thereby renew or potentially re-capture something of their transformative force in the public sphere.  Such is a spirit of resistance to capitalism, I submit, or at least a spirit of resistance to a certain kind of capitalism – namely, its late neoliberal, global form with a reach that, though fragmented and not monolithic, relativizes, consumes and subsumes at so many levels –vertically, horizontally and internally – in terms of intensity, velocity and overall impact.

By using the language of “resistance to capitalism,” however, I’m not implying the endorsement of some other kind of macro, total state model, socialist or otherwise.[7]  In this way I do intend to break somewhat with the analysis of traditional Latin American liberation theology, despite deep indebtedness to Gutierrez and others of the movement.  Rather, I’m speaking of the church and its response to and role in the shadow of a corporately compromised capitalist state.  As such I am persuaded by those like Martin Luther King Jr. who summon the church at times to be the conscience of, or conscience raiser for the nation-state – though not because I believe this to be a primary vocation of the church.  The church is not a servant of the state; nor should its purposes be defined in terms of the state.  But, I do agree that speaking truth to power is one of the church’s chief responsibilities and means for bearing witness to God’s reign in the world.

To over-identify the church’s mission with the task of affecting the public sphere though without some further qualification is to risk confusing and conflating the secular and the sacred altogether; that is, the danger could be the secularization of the sacred rather than the reverse.[8]  I wish to maintain, therefore, that the church’s role is to transcend the allegedly immanent plane[9]  – not to be captured by so-called secular reason (Milbank).  I understand that the church is neither strictly sacred nor secular, but the foremost medium, potentially, through which the process of sacralization can occur.  Thus, my aim in this paper is to try to point to several ways that emerging churches in North America are both obscuring and moving sacred-secular borders, and to indicate additional practices by which this is and can be done by the church more generally.    In light of this aim, I propose that the deficiency of economic democracy in the marketplace can be contested from below by the church as followers of Jesus endeavor to conserve and steward resources more simply and responsibly, hold more in common together, decentralize power, organize its leadership in greater mutuality, meet publically, and share space with others and mobilize for the sake of the good of society as a whole.


By emerging ecclesiologies in North America, I am referring to a wide range of relatively recent “fresh expressions” of church, including house churches, pub churches, new neighborhood churches, and hyphenated churches (this refers to the housing by certain Mainline Protestant congregations of new worship gatherings and services in traditional facilities that treasure the old but bring in the new – that is, merge ancient and contemporary spiritualities and traditions).[10]  With a swelling desire for aesthetic and participatory liturgy, these faith communities bring dance, drama and literature into worship (or maybe better said, they’re make dance, drama and literature more worshipful).  And rather than borrowing their songs from the most popular Christian music or simply singing traditional hymns, emerging communities often write their own music and have their own artists.[11]  Other common practices include corporate and contemplative prayer, as well as Sabbath keeping.  Emerging churches tend to privilege the vision of the Christian community in Acts as the model to be sought, and have frequently been associated with New Monasticism.  These communities have a tendency to resist the self-identification of the title “church,” preferring instead names like “Solomon’s Porch,” “Mosaic,” “Journey,” “Jacob’s Well,” and the “Emmaus Way.” Many do not have (or want) their own buildings or ordained pastors.  If their leaders are even called “pastors,” they’re sometimes bi-vocational, and they’re likely to be compensated at the same rate as other staff members.  While it could be argued that both evangelical churches and mainline denominational churches continue to have a propensity toward preoccupation with numbers and money, and the measurement of overall quantifiable influence, emerging folks might accuse; conversely, as Phyllis Tickle asserts, “Market success, is neither an emergence concept nor even an emergence virtue.”[12]  Tickle describes emerging churches as fairly indifferent to [market success] and individualism as a cultural value.[13]  Tickle paints a picture of emerging churches as free from the trappings of modernity and instead more sensitive to postmodern impulses such as adaptivity, relationality, and hybridity.  This somewhat romanticized characterization is not without criticism, but it may still suffice for the purposes of this paper.[14]

There is in general a noticeable aversion to hierarchy, to clear distinctions drawn between clergy and laity – preferring instead gift-based and team-oriented leadership structure as opposed to ordination-centeredness.[15]  Moreover, emerging faith communities are frustrated by denominationalism and want to form looser, bi-laterally collaborative networks with less infrastructure and overhead.  At the same time, they do not usually endorse a wholesale rejection of or separation from established churches.  Many leading this movement are younger mainliners (though not exclusively young), while others have been called “post-conservative evangelicals.”[16]  Disenchanted evangelicals, for instance, are learning to appreciate and reinvigorate traditional liturgy.[17]  This is partly why one does in fact see new forms of church growing out of existing congregations.

Theologically speaking, emerging churches are characterized by post-foundational epistemology and  theology, “Emerging church ecclesiology . . . seeks to rethink how church is done in a decidedly postmodern context . . . They are asking questions of mission, the centrality of Jesus, and what it means to live in community.”[18]  The rediscovery of the centrality of the Kingdom of God in Jesus’ teachings as a world-centered or “secular” mission for the church.  There’s a strong belief in the mission of realizing an “alternative social order” implies a new way of being and acting in the world both locally and globally.  The dualisms of modernity are thought to have placated the transformative potency of the gospel, so emerging churches wish to eschew this false dualism, with greater sensitivity to postmodern impulses like adaptivity, interdependence and hybridity. It is supposed by extension that if God’s redemption of the world is already present and bids people take part in its sacralization, then secular space is not without God, and God’s work knows no categories or boundaries.  “Because of this focus,” Andrew Stuvland explains, “emerging churches tend to be small and decentralized communities.” that value commitment and accountability over meetings and institutions. . . Stuvland argues that the “relational and fluid structure of the emerging church a de-centralized, entity opens it up to becoming more relevant and responsive to global realities.”[19] By extension, transforming secular space has become a core practice, it seems, and even a hallmark of emerging churches, as gatherings are held in places like coffee shops, art galleries and neighborhood community centers, in part for precisely the purpose of blurring sacred-secular lines.

According to LeRon Shults, “[emerging ecclesiology’s] resistance to a missional approach that colonizes the other is reflected in theological commitments to more dynamic models of ecclesial identity as wholly embedded in the relational life of “the world.”[20] Many [emerging churches] want to focus more strongly on the way in which embodied communal life here and now is being redemptively transformed and reordered in salutary ways that manifest justice in the world. In a certain sense, then, one could say that [for emerging ecclesiology] all salvation is “outside” the church.”[21] Shults concludes, “If [emerging churches] have anything in common, it is a desire to embrace the prophetic, the enthusiastic, and even the mystical as they move toward reformative ways of being and becoming in community as followers of the way of Jesus.”[22]

Let me now try to identify more specifically and practically a few marks and habits of economic organization for social awakening, some of which I see budding in emerging churches – while others are more feasible for established churches.  Both though correspond to what I’m calling a latent spirit of resistance to global capitalism.


[As a backdrop to talking about the church’s response to economic recession and the financial crisis, I am presupposing the globalization narrative that industrial economism of the 20th Century has been bulstered by the hyper-financialization of global markets in the 21st Century.]

Stewardship and Conservation: as a result of resource scarcity and the ensuing sustainability crisis brought about by this nation’s current international energy dependency and addiction to consumption, severe consequences are foreseeable – not only ecological in nature but geopolitical.  In other words, the energy crisis is intimately related to militarism and a security crisis, both of which increasingly serve the financial sector.[23]  At leas two kinds of responses are in in order on the part of churches, with respect to how Christians spend their money and where they entrust it: First, purchasing local, regional and fairly traded goods and services – especially food – must become a basic church rhythm in response and value – as sacred as anything else Christians do.  Some churches are adopting this, but many are not.  To resist the massive-scale distribution of goods and services by buying locally is to participate in the subversion of its overarching reach globally. Transactions that sustain small-scale farmers and businesses in turn become acts of living sacrifice for the sake of the propertyless, the unemployed and the otherwise disenfranchised around the world.  Further, in an attempt to protest third-world debt, unpenalized Wallstreet crimes and financial economism in general, it seems reasonable to advise that Christians bank with smaller financial institutions, even if these institutions can’t offer the same services at the same low rates as big banks.  rather than primarily focusing on accumulating wealth in the stock market, Congregations can be encouraged to bank locally and regionally, and even invite them to invest significant portions of their wealth and savings in non-profit micro-finance lending organizations.  So these are practices that emerging and established churches alike can implement.

What is more, in the name of Christian stewardship and creation care, rather than mere humanist environmentalism, church groups can sacralize the secular by conserving water and energy, which are sacred gifts from God but that have been secularized as profitable commodities – So by walking, cycling, utilizing public transportation, and consciously reducing what we send down sewage pipes.  The growing adoption of vegetarian and vegan diets is also sacralizing.  Along these same lines, to form and maintain smaller neighborhood-based churches rather than investing heavily in destination churches, is to conserve energy and therefore to at least indirectly combat the violence and neocolonialism of militarily ensuring secure lines of trade, as well as to challenge a culture of individualism that subjects church attendance to consumer preference and to the commodification of religious goods and services.  And this is where the economic organization of emerging ecclesiology really shines.

(With regard to) Church Buildings, then, whereas many  evangelical churches have perhaps tended to over-accommodated their worship to culture for the sake of remaining relevant, many Mainline Protestant and Catholic churches have adjusted in more subtle ways to signs of times without abandoning the richness of their rituals, liturgy and traditional adornment.  This is one reason why some emerging churches still feel comfortable in traditional buildings.  Another reason is that many emerging church congregants have had negative experiences with contemporary evangelical and non-denominational churches. However, evangelical and traditional Protestant churches alike are usually organized in such a manner that requires the allocation of the vast majority of their resources toward utility, maintenance, facility and payroll costs.  As a result, most of the money, time and energy of established churches is being directed toward the preservation and proliferation of their particular ministries and programs – ministries and programs that, however effective and well-intended, tend to reinforce sacred-secular divisions.  The advantage of the economic organization of emerging churches is that, with lower and fewer fixed costs, more resources are freed up to be directed outward.

Of course established churches can experience social awakening too, and in ways already mentioned.  Examples range from the incorporation of recycling, carpooling and other energy saving programs to awareness campaigns that emphasize the importance of spending less, sharing more, and replacing wasteful systems of any kind.  They can lease or share their worship facilities to newly forming, emerging congregations, for instance – or to non-faith-based organizations more generally that fall into the purview of the church’s broader mission for social justice.[24]  Buildings can be used for soup kitchens or homeless shelters in the winter.  One Anglican Church in Alantown PA was able to keep its doors open during the recession because it used its space to start an AIDS clinic and to  partner with another organization to offer GED classes five days a week.

Making greater use of urban real estate for other purposes, like after school tutoring and youth programs in sports, music and art in particular are some of the most tangible ways to curtail neighborhood gang activity and therefore also to protest/resist mass-incarceration in this country.

Further still, there are both emerging and established that perform some kind of service to the community in lieu of a worship service, say, once a month or every quarter, which can be a powerful statement to society about the church’s concern for the world.  which, as Michelle Alexander made so well known in her book The New Jim Crow, has a grossly uneven effect on the African-American population in the United States.[25]  Partnering with the school system in this way too would by extension combat drug-related violence in Mexico with the weapon of education rather than that of the penal state and outsourced slaughter to competing drug cartels.

While usually lacking the necessary facilities to support this kind of work, emerging faith communities compliment established ones by being nimble and small enough usually to gather in public space for worship, which has greater potential to bring people of different socio-economic status into the same place, which increases the visibility of suffering, injustice and inequality in the world.  Furthermore, neighborhood-based community groups create greater accountability and intimacy so as to ensure a common culture of commitment to these new practices of economic responsibility, interdependence and creation care in and between households.  Consequently, with lower fixed costs the church will be free to apportion a higher percentage of its resources toward the local and global needs of the most disadvantaged.

the Collapse of Clergy-Laity Separation: (and the re-emergence of bi-vocational church leadership)  Thirdly, emerging ecclesiology demonstrates a dethroning of the sharp clergy-laity divide by championing gift-based rather than clergy/ordination-centered leadership and priestly authority.[26]  Gift-based leadership language draws on Paul’s “one body, many parts” metaphor as a model for team and strength or talent-focused responsibility-sharing in church staff structure.  Obviously this does not mean that just anyone is able to claim theological or pastoral authority, nor that the Eucharist or its relationship to the priesthood is something to be taken lightly; but rather simply that with sacralizing the secular follows as well the disintegration of any inflexible difference between lay and clerical leadership responsibilities.  Instead what emerges is a leadership model based on personal strengths and indigenous, organic anointing that can only happen incarnationally – or, relationally, locally and contextually.  Consequently, there has also been a bourgeoning lay interest in and access to theological education.  In short – taking the priesthood of all believers a little bit more seriously.

As already indicated, the aversion to hierarchy in emerging church culture need not be anti-denominational.  It does seem though that with such great decline not only in church attendance but also therefore the decline in tithes and offerings to the Mainline churches in North America, change in denominationalism itself is inevitable and imperative.  How exactly structural amendments are made will vary significantly, but more relaxed networks with less bureaucracy and fewer layers are needed to meet the demands of emerging ecclesiology.[27]

Advocacy:  Finally, churches can experience social awakening by facilitating community organizing.  Much can be learned from certain Latino/a congregations in this regard with their practices of community organizing.  More so than in the case of arguments made by liberation theologians, for Latino/a ecclesiology the process of transformation (of economic, political, and social structures) is a byproduct of the process of transformation within the domestic cultural location: “So suffering is not only an epistemological category but an aesthetic, physical and domestic experience that the church must embody along with the poor.”[28] There is also implicit in Latino/a ecclesiology a criticism of Protestant liberal individualism, which has invented the individual as an unsituated, rather than community-situated self, and therefore a self-enclosed entity.[29] In his book, The Mestizo/a Community of the Spirit: A Postmodern Latino/a Ecclesiology, Oscar Garcia-Johnson describes how Latino/a churches have utilized community organizing to mobilize and enact the church’s mission in neighorhoods:

Methodologically speaking, community organizing is a social process based on the communal exercise of self-betterment.  [It] employs a language constructed from within the constituency of a given community – a language that aims at social empowerment . . . Such an endeavor entails finding a shared [neighborhood] vision of community development . . . The shared vision is to encourage inclusion, participating in the planning process, and Motivate participants toward imagining the preferred common future for the community.  Community organizing entails a bipolar social process.  On the one hand, there is (social) inclusion, participation, unification, and communal imagination.  On the other hand, there is (socio-economic) assessment, task distribution, decentralization, and leadership development.[30]


My argument in closing is that by “sacralizing the secular” and becoming more decentralized, participatory, and outwardly/practically economically conscious as churches, with respect to our organization, leadership and ordination – which is what many emerging faith communities are already doing – churches will be able to constructively address and with hopefulness respond to the financial crisis and economic recession brought about by the hegemony of global and financial capitalism.  A blurring of the sacred-secular divide would lead to changes like lower tolerance of high operations costs and encouraging/enabling economic and consumer simplicity as well as the support of fair trade, in the lives of individual members of the body of Christ.  Church leaders especially should be expected to embody simple living and risk-taking for the sake of those on the margins in society.

In sum, not so much by taking anything away from the traditional practices of the church but by intentionally expanding the social ramifications of those practices, a theology or ecclesiology of sacralizing the secular is essentially to sacralize the mundane, ordinary everyday-ness of life – to sacralizes all the exchanges, that is, be they economic, cultural, relational.  This can start with the institutional church itself, but is moving forward with many expressions of emerging ecclesiology — some of which are partnering with established churches.  These movements are perhaps the clearest sign that social awakening in North American churches is already well underway.

[1] Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future (W. W. Norton & Company, 2012).  Some major causes are fairly easy to identify, as there is wide consensus among economists, such as more women entering the workplace, the outsourcing of jobs, immigration and technological advancement.  These factors together have created a labor surplus, which drives wages down and gives prospective workers far less freedom and power to negotiate their compensation.  And of course the problem has only become more acute since 2008.

[2] Christine Firer Hinze, “Economic Recession, Work, and Solidarity,” Theological Studies 72, no. 1 (March 1, 2011): 150–169.

[3] Andrew Root, “A Secular Age,” Word & World 30, no. 1 (Wint 2010): 111–113.  Root summarizes: “This moves the reader to what Taylor calls the Great Disembedding, which in Christianity meant the splitting of sacred and secular into two distinct categories. This would unravel the enchantment of the world. Now, so-called enchanted experiences only had credence in the sacred realm and were eliminated from the secular realm, disenchanting it. Taylor asserts that this division had significant impact on how one conceptualized the self. Now, the self and the world were no longer a whole, but were experienced in parts. Therefore, the porous self gave way to a buffered identity, the idea that you can think of yourself as outside of, or other than, the world. This buffered identity is the core ingredient for the poisonous stew of Western individualism that Taylor so opposes.”

[4] Aaron Stuvland, “The Emerging Church and Global Civil Society: Postmodern Christianity as a Source for Global Values,” Journal of Church and State 52, no. 2 (Spr 2010): 210.

[5] Ibid., 221.

[6]  Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, Revised. (Orbis Books, 1988), 86.  I think it can be argued that even Augustine’s two cities and Luther’s two kingdoms are not in conflict with this notion – as long as the mission of God’s city or kingdom is taken to be one of commission to permeate or sacralize the secular city or kingdom by the divine.  At the same time, there are those who criticize Gutierrez and see a distinction between him and pre-/early modern Christian thought: “Gutierrez thus wants to overcome the bourgeois privatization of the church by elevating the spiritual status of the mundane political world and by breaking down the barriers between theology and politics.  The church is the explicit witness to the liberation of humanity from sin, including social and political sins of all kinds.  The church, however is not epistemologically privileged in understanding social and political processes, which operate within their worldly autonomy and are thus best understood by the social sciences” (Cavanaugh, The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology).

[7] It follows then I am not necessarily trying to make a case against say, market competition – insofar as competition can be conceived within the confines of a more fundamental commitment to cooperation for achieving the end of basic provision and well-being for everyone in society.  Markets are indeed useful and necessary for productivity and efficiency, but they are not value-neutral, as many economists would have it.  Without transparency, accountability and at times thorough ethical scrutiny informed by the interests of the majority, productivity and efficiency can be ruthless.  And the first to pay for the mistakes of the profit-maximizing speculators are almost always the poor. – So I insist with Jon Sobrino, for example, that churches overlooking their responsibility for solidarity with and defense of the most vulnerable are simply not fulfilling their God-given mission. Thus this goes beyond mere Keynesian theory, which, despite recognizing the need for government interference and stimulation, fails to question global capitalism’s normativity, the supposed amoral nature of its capacity for perpetual growth, its dependency on profit motive, or its appeal to unqualified utilitarianism.

What is more, in light of the proliferation of value-pluralism, it probably cannot be argued anymore in the same way Rauschenbusch did that the mission of the church is to “Christianize” the social order.  And while it is perhaps not incorrect to describe the U.S. as a welfare state, it could hardly be credited with social or economic democracy.  But while self-interest drives the economy, confidence in such an economy, as Rauschenbusch rightly saw, will ironically fall if market practice, culture and regulation are not moralized through smart and fairly invasive legislation.

[8] Liberationists like Gutierrez, for example have been charged with expecting the church to bow before the authority of the social sciences.  But conversely, those who privilege ecclesial-based social ethics in the post-liberal tradition, for instance, are accused of too much reluctance to “dirty their hands” with the politics of the nation-state.  In my view the liberationist vs. post-liberal juxtaposition is a false binary, and it seems to me that sacralizing the secular requires greater appreciation and negotiation of the hybridized, dynamic and dialectical character of language itself, as well as the relationship between the church and the public sphere.

[9] D Stephen Long, “How to Read Charles Taylor: The Theological Significance of A Secular Age,” Pro Ecclesia 18, no. 1 (Wint 2009): 93–107.

[10] Phyllis Tickle, Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters (Baker Books, 2012), 116.

[11] Scot McKnight et al., Church in the Present Tense: A Candid Look at What’s Emerging (Brazos Press, 2011).

[12] Tickle, Emergence Christianity, 116.

[13] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why (Baker Books, 2008)., 145.

[14] There are those who would criticize not only emerging ecclesiology but also Evangelicalism and Mainline Protestantism for accommodating modern-liberal ideals like democracy and egalitarianism without realize the simultaneous comportment of smuggled-in secular reasoning.  It is argued in other words, that ecclesial authority and institutionalism in the church are still vital. See William T. Cavanaugh, “The Ecclesiologies of Medellín and the Lessons of the Base Communities,” Cross Currents 44, no. 1 (Spr 1994): 67–84.

[15] Tony Jones, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier, (Jossey-Bass, 2009), 204. “Emergents downplay—or outright reject— the differences between clergy and laity.”

[16] Roger E. Olson, How to Be Evangelical Without Being Conservative (Zondervan, 2008).

[17] McKnight et al., Church in the Present Tense, 75.

[18] Stuvland, “The Emerging Church and Global Civil Society,” 219.

[19] Ibid. 228.  See also: Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging Churches, 65; Sweet et al., A Is for Abductive, 264; Emilio Gentile, Politics as Religion (New Haven: Princeton University Press, 2006). See the notion of “political religion” explored in Michael Burleigh

[20] F LeRon Shults, “Reforming Ecclesiology in Emerging Churches,” Theology Today 65, no. 4 (Ja 2009): 427.

[21] Ibid., 428.

[22] Ibid, 429.

[23] Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: When the World’s Biggest Problems and Jesus’ Good News Collide (Thomas Nelson, 2009).

[24] Chris Lewis, ed., Letters to a Future Church: Words of Encouragement and Prophetic Appeals (IVP Books, 2012).  British emergent church leader Kester Brewin summons North America churches, in the spirit of “emergence ecclesiology,” to forsake purified space.

[25] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, The, 2012).

[26] Tony Jones, The Church Is Flat: The Relational Ecclesiology of the Emerging Church Movement (JoPa Productions, LLC, 2011), 119.

[27] One should be careful though, not to overly-idealize notions of egalitarianism and democracy – as William Cavanaugh rightly cautions.  Sometimes the modern-liberal heritage of these forms of organization can be uncritically received and incorporated, which may have unintended and undetected secularizing consequences.  Again see Cavanaugh, “The Ecclesiologies of Medellín and the Lessons of the Base Communities.”

[28] Oscar Garcia-Johnson, The Mestizo/a Community of the Spirit: A Postmodern Latino/a Ecclesiology (Pickwick Publications, 2008), 113-14.underlines several traits of Latino/a churches that could be adopted by others as well.  These in particular are worth mentioning: Manana living; Being-in-community and having commonality, which implies coviviencia (life together); by extension, accompaniment – a paradigm for understanding church-in-culture; and lastly, sacramentality as a remedy to false dichotomies – an idea that is akin to sacralizing the secular.

[29] Roberto S. Goizueta, Caminemos Con Jesus: Hacia Una Teologia Del Acompanamiento (Convivium Press, 2009).

[30] Garcia-Johnson, The Mestizo/a Community of the Spirit. 128.

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