All authority is given to me…Go therefore…

Sermon notes for 05132012 – Matthew 28:16-20

All authority is given to me…        Go therefore…

The “Great Commission” as it is called is based in our acceptance of Jesus’ authority from the Father.

In Matthew 10 Jesus gives authority to the Apostles and sends them out with a similar mission: 7 As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” Here the mission is dependent on Jesus’ sending with authority. They are to go as he goes. Jesus goes in power and in humility – not an easy combination for us humans. We either shy away from power and fall into self-loathing and incapacity, or we embrace power and fall into self-glorification and go on an ego trip – either low self-esteem and impotence or grandiosity and aggressive abuse of power. Only when power is held in humility can it be held in faith and integrity by God’s children.

Just what is this authority?

In the first story (MT 10) they have authority to preach, cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. They have power over situations and powers, not over people. Jesus never exercises power over people. In fact, he contrasts in Luke 22 the power exercised by the Gentiles with the model his own disciples are to follow: 23 Then they began to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this. 24 A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25 But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26 But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. 27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. 28 “You are those who have stood by me in my trials; 29 and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, 30 so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. The one in power must assume the posture and attitude, must treat the others, as if he were the youngest. The leader of the group must relate to others as though she were a servant. This is power held with great humility, for it is not our power, it is God’s power.

And notice again that it is not power over, but power for, people. The power is over situations, over spiritual forces and natural forces, not over people but on their behalf, and for the glory of God.

When Jesus gives this commission in MT 10, perhaps we are missing some punctuation as well. Perhaps it should read: As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.’: Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” What if “cure…raise…cleanse…cast out…” are expressions and illustrations of “proclaim the good news” – they are proclamations of the fact that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near?” The authority is over illness, death, social ostracization and demons – for the sake of proclaiming the gospel of the coming kingdom.

That authority still rests with the church to this day.

Prayer is an interesting and complex phenomena. People of all religions and no religion pray. It seems built into our DNA even if a uniform belief in God is not. And what people believe is accomplished in prayer varies as much as the people who hold those beliefs. I personally believe, from my study of scripture and Christian teaching, and from observation and personal experience, that prayer does not change God or get God to do something God was not going to do anyway. When we pray for healing for someone, we are not praying that God would heal them, as though we think God’s will or action depends upon our prayers. That is not what scripture teaches – certainly not the New Testament. When Jesus prayed for healing, he either spoke to the person, or to the sickness or demon, not to God. Jesus never said, “Father, please remove this sickness/demon from this woman.” He said, “Be well!” or “Come out!” and they were made well and set free. Jesus power and authority were over the sickness and over the spirits of possession on behalf of those who were troubled. And this is what we see Peter, Paul and others doing. They speak to people to rise above their illness, and to demons to depart. Acts 3:6 is the first instance of this after the birth of the church at Pentecost: Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” This miracle gave Peter and John opportunity to preach to the Jews, and even to the authorities who had them arrested. There was a discussion of where they got the power or authority (by what name?) to do this. With authority comes power – power to do the work of the one in whose name the authority rests. Jesus received authority from the father – all authority in heaven and on earth – and bestowed power and authority upon the church in Jesus’ name, as Peter rightly states. This is the pattern followed by all the rest of the miracles in the New Testament.

Remember there was an instance when Jesus’ disciples attempted to use the power and authority given them to heal an epileptic boy but were unsuccessful. After Jesus healed him they asked, why they could not. His answer: “This kind comes out only by prayer.” (Mark 9:29) This is preceded by Jesus saying, “O unbelieving generation.” And “Everything is possible for him who believes.” To which the boy’s father replies, “LORD I believe! Help my unbelief.” The father misunderstands. The issue is not the faith of the father or the boy – rather it is a lack of faith on the part of the apostles, faith in their own authority to do that which Jesus has called them to do. Do they lack faith in themselves or in Jesus/God? Or is it simply that because their prayer is insufficient, they are not strong enough in the spirit to channel the spiritual power required to accomplish this miracle? By contrast, Jesus does have faith in his ability to do these things because he KNOWS that he has received power and authority (or authority with power) to heal. Remember his self-affirmation in Luke 4 in Nazareth: “18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This came after he hear the Father say, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased,” and after he had overcome the three temptations of Man – to self-preservation, self-glorification, and self-salvation. Because Jesus had experience of success in overcoming evil, and because he knew confidently who he was, he was able to live fully the authority and power that were his.

Jesus states that “everything is possible for him who believes,” (Mk 9:23) and “with God all things are possible,” (Mk 10:27) and “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Mt 17:20) This is certainly not our experience. There are ways of understanding Jesus’s statements as metaphor or hyperbole that let us off the hook and take the power out of these pronouncements. Jesus seems to believe what he says, and the writers seem to believe it, and the early church seemed to believe it at face value. So what is amiss? Again, we are up against a question of power and authority, its use, abuse, and absence or failure.

What is it that we lack in our lives so that we might live this authority and power in the world?

  1. We have to accept that our worth rests in God’s opinion, not our own or that of others.
  2. We have to release any attempt to cling to our own life as a personal possession.
  3. We have to resist evil with the promises of Faith
  4. We have to dwell in God as Jesus did. God already dwells in and around us – it is our lack of being fully present in response that hinders our experience of God.
  5. We have to pursue only God’s kingdom and God’s righteous justice for ourselves and for those we can impact.

We were talking about the Great Commission, remember. Jesus says, “All authority is given to me…therefore go…” We are being sent under Jesus’ authority with Jesus’ authority to “make disciples…baptize…teach…remember.” All of this is based, again, on the nature of the authority and power that come to us from/through Jesus by our faith.

We are to think of this work as an extension of the former discussion from Matthew 10 – it’s about proclaiming the kingdom of God, and now building the kingdom of God. And we have Jesus’ authority and power to do it. Remember, though, that this power and authority are not over others, but over the systems of destruction that work in the lives of those around us. We have no right to begin to try to speak to those principalities and powers until we have spent considerable time addressing the ones that seek to rule us. And once we do that, we move into the world as a servant to others – a slave to those we seek to set free. What would our ministry be, what shape would it take, if our lives were formed in this way? If we moved into the world with the full confidence and faith in the power and authority of Jesus at work in our lives to proclaim and build the kingdom, and then engaged with our neighbors as their humble servants.

What would we do? What would we say? What would we not?

What strongholds would we come against on behalf of others, but as their servants, being sure that nothing we say or do causes injury or harm to the very ones we are trying to help? If someone in your life is overcome by a destructive force, that person is not your enemy. They are you master and you are their slave, but this is in the authority and power of Jesus over the thing that is destroying them – the attitude, habit, thought pattern, addiction, belief, illness, injury, system, or spiritual force.

What kind of person would you be? What kind of church would we be, if we related to the people who drive us nuts in this way? If we related to the people we find it difficult to respect in this way? If we related to the people who are hurtful and hateful toward us in this way? If we related to the vulnerable and frail, to those who can’t help themselves, to those who should be able to (we think) but don’t (for reasons we can’t comprehend)? What if we related to others the way God relates to us. When we could do nothing to save ourselves, and when we couldn’t even look God in the eye because we were too busy looking ourselves in the mirror, God came to save us from ourselves and from all the destructive lies and myths that we tell ourselves and one another. What if we go to others as servants in the same way that Jesus came to us as a servant? What if that is our approach to making disciples? The very one that Jesus took from the beginning? What might happen then?

Some Thoughts on Repentance

Last Sunday I shared some very personal reflections on my own practice of repentance. (see: ) Repentance is not just about guilt over big sins. It is also our daily humility to realize that we are not all we are created and called to be, and to confess that to ourselves, God, and one another. We admit that we fell short (a literal definition of ‘sin’ is ‘to fall short’ or ‘to miss the mark’). We ask forgiveness and make amends where to do so would not cause greater harm. This is difficult. We feel stupid and embarrassed or worse when we have to admit that we aren’t perfect. I think one of the absolute best things I do to strengthen my marriage is return to Laura if I have been short tempered and say, “I’m sorry. That’s not who I want to be or how I want to treat you. What I meant to say was…” It’s not easy to do, but it gets easier each time. Like many things, repentance gets easier with practice. We’ll always need to do it, so we might as well get on with it.

You may have also heard me say, “I’m not mean or vindictive or hateful. I can be short sighted, distracted, or stupid. But if I do or say something that you experience as hurtful, it’s not motivated by a desire to hurt, but by one of those other things. That may not ease the sting, but hopefully it eases the reconciliation. And hopefully you’ll be willing to say, “I felt hurt/angered/etc. by what you said/did/failed-to-do.” I may not like to hear that at first, but I certainly do want to hear it.

The fact that others have seemingly chosen to ‘forgive and forget’ does not absolve us of the responsibility of confession, repentance and restoration. The fact is that God chooses to not hold our sins against us – “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). We are not thereby freed from the need to confess and repent before God. Our sin, and our guilt and brokenness over it, is a barrier between ourselves and God. Remember how you felt when as a child you did something wrong but were afraid to come clean. The kinder and more loving others were, the more you hurt. The barrier was on your side, not theirs, and you were the one who had to act, had to apologize, in order to be freed to receive the love that they had for you. The same is true of our relationships with God and one another, and even with ourselves.

People often ask what is different about followers of Jesus. Part of what should be different is that we understand and practice grace and mercy in a particular way. Paul tells us, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. That proves God’s love for us,” (Romans 5:8) and “Having been reconciled to God through Christ, we have also been given the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). What God has given us – grace, mercy, forgiveness – we also are to give one another and the world. I am to love you while you are yet sinners. We are to love the world while they are yet sinners. We are to practice reconciliation, which starts with the offended, not with the offender. We don’t wait for others to apologize before we forgive, because God did not wait for us to repent before we were redeemed and forgiven (restored into relationship). This is not easy – perhaps not possible without God’s help through the Holy Spirit. It is not what our flesh wants to do, but it is what the Spirit asks of us.

Does this mean we put ourselves in situations knowing others will hurt us? Not necessarily. We are not called to remain victims in abusive or dangerous situations. We are called to seek reconciliation before writing others off and washing our hands of them. Staying in an abusive situation enables the sin of the abuser and is not an act of love, forgiveness, mercy or grace. Moreover, when we separate ourselves from that unhealthy situation we are better able to practice these virtues. The space gives us the freedom to love, and gives the other person freedom to move toward healing.

One reason we need Christian community is because this work is so difficult – we need to be reminded, encouraged, challenged, and helped to forgive and to repent. We proclaim a God who loves us enough to experience the incarnation and crucifixion. Do we practice that faith? What does our treatment of others say about what we really believe? That we are worthy of God’s forgiveness, but no one is worthy of ours? We pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Luke 11:4); we are asking God to make the forgiveness we receive conditional on and proportional to the forgiveness we give. How frightening is that for you?

We need to practice both forgiveness and repentance – they are two sides of the same coin. If we practice one without the other, we are really just trying to manipulate God and others. We are not acting honestly and we are not acting in love. If I consistently forgive others but never repent, then I am presuming an arrogant superiority – they need to be forgiven, but I don’t. If I am repentant but never forgiving, then again I am being arrogant – “I deserve to be forgiven, but no one else does”. Humility is needed for both repentance and forgiveness, which is perhaps why humility is so often called for. It may also be why repentance and forgiveness are so difficult for us. Again, Paul points us toward Jesus who leads the way: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” (2 Philippians 2:5-8) Notice here that humility is not a mask for self-loathing or self-negation. To “empty oneself” is to release self-importance, to literally “not be full of oneself.” Humility must not be mistaken for self-abnegation – it is rather the fullest affirmation of our true identity as God’s beloved children.

Micah 6:8 tells us that what God desires of us is that we do justice [together with God], embrace mercy [together with God], and walk humbly [together] with God. Justice and Mercy are the two hands of humility with which we practice God’s love in the world. Any notion of Justice that lacks Mercy is false, just as is any notion of Mercy that lacks some expression of Justice. Forgiveness is not contrary to God’s justice – it is the very nature of God’s justice.

We cannot experience the fullness of God’s love without passing through our own valley of repentance – which feels for many like a shadow of death. God’s whole creation calls out to us proclaiming God’s glory and our beauty, begging for us to let ourselves be loved, and to love all around us. Repentance is a vital step in that process. Without it we can’t be ready for the things to come – cannot be ready for the blessings that God has for us or the ways that God desires to work in and through us. God has dreams for us, but until we repent, we won’t be able to dream them, much less live them.

“What did you come here for?” a reflection on Mark 1 vs29-39

In preparation for sermon on 02122012

It would have been easy for Jesus at this moment to be caught up in the cult of personality. Already Peter says, “Everyone is searching for you.” One might think, “Oh great! This ministry is really starting to take off here in Capernaum. We’ll establish our base here, and once it is good and solid then we will branch out to the surrounding country. That could have been a good ministry plan for someone. In fact, it is the plan that Paul followed in Corinth and Ephesus and other places.

This story illustrates the importance of discerning a vision for ministry. We need to answer the question, “What did you come here for?” And by that, I don’t mean, “What did you come here to get.” But rather, “What did you come here to do? What is God desiring to accomplish in the world through you?

Let’s remember some of what Paul says about his own ministry:

I planted, Apollos watered, and God gave the growth.” (1 Cor 3:6)

I am glad that I did not baptize,… for Christ did not send me to baptize, but to proclaim the gospel…” (1 Cor 1:14,17)

You see, it is not enough for us to simply say, “Our task as church is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with the world.” Or even, “Our mission is to Make Disciples.” Or to list the Great Commandment and the Great Commission, from which Rick Warren derived the “5 Purposes of a Purpose Driven Church.” All of these are true, but only in the most general and vague ways. They still don’t tell me what I am supposed to do. They don’t tell us what we as a congregation are meant to do – are we to plant, or to water? Are we to baptize or to preach? Are we to stay in one spot and build a strong ministry or “go to other towns and proclaim the good news there as well, for that is what [God sent us] to do”?

If we are not clear about what God intends for Forest Grove, then we will do lots of good stuff, but miss the center of God’s will and blessing for us. There are a great many details and decisions in our lives that God leaves up to us. God may not have a preference on each person’s career, vocation, location, family relationships, etc.  There is no indication in scripture that every person or group should anticipate and search for a unique calling like that of David or Moses or Paul, much less that of Jesus. AND YET, we are unique individuals, with different experiences, personalities, talents and gifts, all of which God can and will use to further God’s glory and establish God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. God will work through our uniqueness if we offer it up in worship and prayer.

So, perhaps it is not so much that God has one and only one preferred dream for Forest Grove – only one right answer to our questions – so that if we fail to hear properly, we will miss the real blessing in our lives and fail to be the real blessing God calls us to be. But, how can we know unless we ask, seek, and knock? I think we dare not go through life assuming that God doesn’t care. Rather, let us “do everything for the glory of God.”1 Cor 10:31) Let us pray that God will guide us toward the fullest expression of the image of God in us. (Gen 1:26-27) Let us pray that we will “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” (Eph 4:15) If we release control of our own lives to God, then whatever God desires to do, however fully God desires to lead and guide, we will be open to follow. This does not mean that we release responsibility. We are still accountable to God, self and others for our life and its impact in the world. Rather, we live with a sense of hope, expectation and freedom that the Spirit is at work in the world in and through us, that the reign of God is being established in justice, righteousness and love with mercy and grace. God clearly has a will, or Jesus would be teaching us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The question is how we are to join in, how we are a part, or more specifically partners with God in answering that prayer. So when others around you say, “You need to do this,” or, “We need to do that,” you are able to let your yes be yes and your no be no, because with Jesus you are able to answer the question, “What did you come here for?”

Toward a Suburban Middle Class Postcolonial Theology of Liberation

Rev. Kendrick G. Crawford
(download pdf here)

How might the formation of Base Ecclesial Communities (communidades eclesiales de base or CEBs)[1] in Latin America inform the work of the church in North America – specifically in the United States, and most particularly in middle class suburbs? Even where congregants and neighbors look alike, they represent a diversity of backgrounds, experiences, world views and theologies. Liberation Theology, particularly as reflected in the experience of those living in CEBs, and then viewed through a Postcolonial lens, can offer us some insights for our path forward. By reflecting on their shared life together, bridging their own experiences of difference through community, we can gain a clearer picture of their faith practices, and how a faith lived in community matures and develops to the point where local laypeople are able to articulate their own theology of their own and the world’s liberation. Might we then find a way forward to a suburban middle class postcolonial theology of liberation?

Latin American Liberation Theology (LALT) grows out of a proclamation of “God’s preferential option for the poor.”[2] Yet “poor” must mean more than just economically disadvantaged. Poverty in the biblical sense is multifaceted and includes economic poverty, social poverty, relational poverty, religious poverty, spiritual poverty, emotional poverty, and poverty of self. God’s preferential option is for all of these – with the caveat that only those who recognize their poverty can respond to God’s gift of salvation from it. Part of what has always interested me in LALT is the notion of a theology rising from among the people – particularly in base communities. The Gospel in Solentename[3] illustrates the genuine articulation of faith by people in a base community. Classically trained pastor theologians, some from Europe, came and entered into Christian community among the indigenous peoples. These cultures were already in a process of hybridization –the commingling of blood and sweat, of culture and language and identity that had long been taking place.

Postcolonial thought – both postcolonial theory generally and postcolonial theology in particular, will serve as a corrective to some of the insights drawn from the above exploration. These theories consider the ways that language and identity are constructed in colonial and postcolonial contexts, particularly moving beyond binary dualisms toward an understanding of what creates those distinctions, what lies in the spaces between them, and what hybridities are created when these various factors intermingle. Immediately we note that all this wonderful work of liberation theology was done in the colonial and postcolonial context, in a conversation that included representatives of colonial and imperial power and representatives of the colonized. Through this postcolonial analysis we can discover how subversion of colonial interests came about – specifically through the formation of spiritual community.

Finally, some tentative suggestions will be made for how these insights might be applied to a middle class suburban community in Texas. One of the important insights drawn from both LALT and from Postcolonial Theology is the importance of concretization and specificity. One critique offered of Homi Bhabah is that his approach to postcolonial thought remains too broad, as though there were one common shared experience of colonialism. Not all colonial experiences or histories are the same or even similar. Reflection on them must recognize these differences;[4] so must the theology of each community. As Joerg Rieger puts it, “The problem with approaches that are born in moments of resistance elsewhere, however, is that they do not readily translate into sufficient challenges to the status quo at home.”[5] Indeed, I have found it difficult to offer much more than a cultural study when presenting liberation theology in a middle class congregation – it seems foreign, because it is. Do parishioners care about the poor?  Certainly, because they are good, compassionate people and because Jesus tells them to care. Do parishioners see the connections between third-world poverty and their own nation’s policies? Yes, but they feel confused and torn between the binary, or overwhelmed by the system and powerless. Do parishioners make connections between all this and their understanding of God? Probably not, at least not in the recognition that their theology may be part of the problem. Will simply pointing this out to them help much? No, for as Rieger notes, these ideas “do not readily translate.”


“This insight [that ‘the conversionist agenda of the churches was often seen by colonial administrators as subversive of colonial hierarchical relations’] might direct us to the studies on missionary practice in colonialism as mixing blatant reinforcement of colonized peoples’ subjugation with penchants for subverting that subjugation.”[6]

Working toward a postcolonial theology of liberation in conversation with the community voices of Latin American Liberation Theology requires an understanding of the impact of colonialism on those communities and voices.[7] In what ways did the experience of being colonized shape the engagement of indigenous peoples with the message brought by the Dominicans and others?  And how have those communities changed in the years since the end of the Colonial Era?  The priests who formed CEBs in the 20th century were generations removed from the experience of colonization, so we need to look not only to the work of Romero, Boff, Gutierrez and others, but also to the legacy upon which they built, notably the work of Bartolomé de las Casas. We see in the text by Gutierrez, LAS CASAS: In Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ, that at least some Christian leaders wrestled deeply with the tension between the colonial impulse and the needs of the indigenous populations. He describes that, in 1510, Dominican Friar Anton Montesino preached a series of scathing sermons which pronounced judgment on the Spanish colonial ruling class for their unchristian and inhuman treatment of the Indians – which in the eyes of the Dominicans amounted to a total rejection of Christ and the salvation he offers.[8] The immediate response was a backlash by the establishment who understood that their power was in jeopardy.[9] Though Liberation Theology as a school did not develop until the second half of the 20th century, its legacy draws on centuries of struggle by theologians concerned to be able to proclaim the Good  News of God’s salvific reign for all people – European immigrants and the natives of this ‘new land.’ This witness was brought by the very clergy charged by the crown with converting and Christianizing the Indians. Las Casas was convinced that peaceful tactics were both more effective and more in line with the Gospel, and he outlined such in De Unico Vocationis Modo Omnium Gentium ad Veram Religionem.[10] In Guatemala, las Casas formed a community he named tierra de vera paz, where he practiced his peaceful method of witness.[11] Though most of his ministry was at court or in other places removed from the community of the local parish, he never gave up his concern and advocacy for the liberation of the Amerindians, perhaps serving as a model for future academics and others who minister beyond the local congregation.

Michelle Gonzalez quotes Roberto S. Goizueta in positing a “theological anthropology that ‘understands the human person as constituted by relationships, not only relationship to the human community which precedes and forms the person, but especially by relationship to the primordial, triune Community whose life is life.’”[12] The truth of this would help explain the alienation felt by those living in middle class suburbia in the U.S. where identity is defined more by interaction with objects, vocations and avocations than in relationships. And thus we might find a way back from this alienation by the way of community, which will be the way of the cross as we release self-serving impulses in consideration for the needs of those around us. This results in our needs also being met in that community. Karen Baker-Fletcher invites us into a theologically nuanced dance exploring these ideas of relationship and cross-bearing as central to the salvific journey on our way back into God’s kingdom.[13] Again, we can see this in las Cassas and Mendosino, along with the religious leaders of the CEBs. There seems to be an experience of relationship which transforms the perspective of those leaders toward the indigenous peoples, their ‘parishioners,’ and an appreciation of the latter as co-humans who are also in and worthy of relationship with the triune God. The church will benefit from a deeper reflection on both the process and the content of this theology.


“Liberation theology can be said to have pursued a tri-focal critique (1) of the oppressive powers of state, economy and culture; (2) of how the church has absorbed, justified and benefited from these powers; and (3) also of the ways the people, the poor, the oppressed (often but not always considered as Christians) have themselves internalized oppressive patterns, requiring hence a process of conscientization, a ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’. Postcolonial theory will further our understanding of this three-way circulation. It will help in the analysis of the troubling ways that Christianity, born as a movement of a colonized people, could also come to mimic the empire.”[14]

R.S. Sugirtharajah asks, “At [this] time…what is the task of contextual theologies which have invested so much in locations, roots, indigenous resources and soil?”[15] He offers three options – (1) to ignore the cosmopolitan and become immersed in the vernacular; (2) to become an unrooted citizen of the world, with no ties to any particular vernacular; or (3) to “blend creatively cosmopolitan and vernacular cultures.”[16]  He goes on to say, “Vernacular Cosmopolitanism is about an appropriation and transformation which resist any simplified binary understanding.”[17] In other words, he suggests the formation of communities, of ways of being that move beyond and overcome the either/or, us/them, rich/poor, colony/colonized, white/other male/female, Jew/Greek, slave/free categorizations. Might doing so within the community of a local congregation lead also to a theological vernacular cosmopolitanism – a theology that is at once connected to context yet engaged with the global, specific but not rigid or superior? He goes on… “It is in this multi-directional swirl of cultural ideas that I foresee the emergence of postcolonial theology.”[18]  One of the criticisms of much liberation theology is that in its leaning toward Marxism it divides the world into poor and rich, oppressed and oppressor, good and evil. More recent work has sought to clarify and rectify that error.[19] Sugirtharajah’s nuanced work seeks to bring us beyond the binary through honoring difference.

Postcolonial Christian Theology seeks, in part, to set Christianity within its historic context, i.e. that of globalization.[20]  Rieger asks: “How do [the previously described] various embodiments of globalization measure up to how we understand the divine as embodied in core Judeo-Christian traditions and in the person and work of Jesus Christ? More specifically, what kind of power is at work here, and how is it related to how different theologies envision divine power?”[21]  Part of the work of the church is to understand how power functions in communities of all sizes – familial, congregational, municipal, regional, national and global – and what God has to do with it. In what ways do our uses and experiences of power in our relationships reveal our view of God? For instance, does a view of God as omnipotent and exercising power through domination correlate strongly to communities where someone has to be in charge – a hierarchical understanding of power in community? And in what ways does our view of the Trinity specifically impact our use and abuse of power?[22]

One of the advantages of postcolonial thought is that it helps to critique liberation theologies, which themselves are critiques of the contemporary theologies of their (and our) days. Rooted first in cultural analysis, applied early on to the academic study of literature, postcolonialism helps us understand how and why certain ideas, ideologies, and forms of expression emerged in the context of colonial and postcolonial/empirical power. This corrective function of theology was emphasized by Barth.[23] Reflecting back on las Casas, we can see how power played a significant role for the colonists, the colonized, and for Bartolomé himself caught in the middle. It was akin to the quote of one pastor of an affluent congregation who said, essentially, “They need Jesus too, and I can do more for the poor from this position of power.” It is not an articulation of the choice everyone should make, but an example of making difficult decisions in the particular. Also I am reminded of the earlier critique of Bhabha’s thought as being overly universal and flattening the contours of the conversation, with the correction brought by Sugirtharajah’s call toward a vernacular cosmopolitanism, which incorporates the universal while respecting the particular. This notion will be taken up again in the last section as we look at how liberation theology and postcolonial thought might influence the work of ministry in suburban middle class congregations in the US.


When the postcolonial ethos of ‘differentiated liberating struggle’ is discernible in religious communities, we can speak of those communities as manifesting postcolonial spirit. These historical communities of spirit constitute necessary conditions for achieving a postcolonial theology. [24]

People in my particular context often seem to feel powerless against invisible forces that are controlling their lives – in particular corporations and government – and as a result seek both a scapegoat to blame, and a ‘firm foundation’ of certainty against the vagaries of life. Rieger suggests that this experience is broadly felt, and in part results from globalization.[25]

Diana Butler-Bass and others have written extensively on the decline of Christendom, and the struggles of congregations and denominations.[26] It used to be that these symptoms were visible only among mainline churches, and so it became easy for others to blame liberalism, thus laying a foundation for the rise of evangelicalism as seen in denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention and in the non-denominational ‘bible church’ movements. Bass points out that in the last several years the symptoms have spread even to the SBC which has seen its growth halt and now begin to reverse. Enter the “Emergent/Missional Church Movement” with a brand of grace-filled, open evangelicalism. This movement has a lot of heart, but not much theological articulation as yet. Will theologians come forward to articulate the renewed faith(s) of this movement? Again postcolonialism offers us insight, for as Rieger notes: “Globalization from below ultimately demands nothing less than the tearing down of top-down power differentials and reconstructing society and the church from below.”[27] The vernacular cosmopolitanism will result in a re-formation of structures within the church, requiring that we reconsider how we construct communities, and how our communities relate in covenant with one another through denominational, ecumenical and interfaith networks. This work will require sophisticated theological reflection that is rooted in local contexts – an incarnational expression of this new vision, not only God on high, but God from on high here among us, Emmanuel. This will be good news indeed.

One question arising from the re-formation of faith communities is, “What are the sources of our faith and theology?” Various historical examples are well known, including the papal claim to infallibility and the protestant reaction of sola scriptura. The familiar Wesleyan quadrilateral includes scripture, tradition, reason and experience. Wesley’s own insight that religion must flow from the bottom up[28] suggests that we might want to look again at scripture for its internal articulations of source. Given that the Source is God, how does this come to us in the human community? A formerly enslaved herding people are called to be a light to the nations. The incarnation comes not in the palace in Jerusalem but to a poor couple from the country. And Jesus himself is quoted as saying, “unless you become as little children…,”[29] and “Thank you father that you have hidden these things from the wise and revealed them to infants….”[30] Part of the prophetic vision of God’s future for the earth is that, “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”[31]

All of this together suggests that we as church may need to rethink power in the congregation and in the Church, with a view toward seeing the vulnerable – poor, widows, orphans, hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, strangers, and of course children – as a primary source for and voice of theology. I think most people are inclined to take the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to mean primarily “my experience,” rather than human experience. Scripture, reason and tradition, as found in the insights of liberation and postcolonial thought, become guides for us in knowing which experiences should carry theological weight. A challenge for us in middle class suburban churches then becomes how to hear these voices in a way that honors their subjectivity. We might begin by finding the most vulnerable within our own congregations and setting ourselves at their feet.[32] The church receives the revelatory communion with God through these sources – they become voices or channels through which the Holy Spirit speaks to the church.

As the identities of the postcolonialized and postcolonizers are being constructed, the strict binary categories of the colonial era are revealed as inadequate.[33] Who then are we, and who am I as a self, in relation, as a resident and citizen of the one remaining superpower?  The United States has participated in the colonial and imperial exercise, and it has done so from its own identity as a former colony, though one which has superseded the authority and influence of its colonizers. With independence from Great Brittan did not come a return to a precolonial reality. There was no sloughing off of empire, for the resident population was so overwhelmingly of European decent as to create a new reality here in the northern two thirds of North America (Canada and the United States).

“There is a psychological phenomenon that consists in believing that the world will open up as borders are broken down. The black Antillean, prisoner on his island, lost in an atmosphere without the slightest prospect, feels the call of Europe like a breath of fresh air.”[34] This correlates to the experience of unfulfilled hopes in the Tricontinental World as colonial powers formally left without the resulting expansion of economic and social prosperity for the masses. Perhaps part of the frustration and animosity felt in other parts of the world toward the West, and toward the U.S. in particular, results from this disappointment – the opportunities promised do not materialize as others might have hoped. We in the U.S. no longer mean what Lady Liberty sings to the world – she no longer speaks for us, it would seem. Much of the political conversation is isolationist and protectionist, giving no more voice to that welcome of generations past, nor of the “Great King” of Matthew 25 who calls us to care for precisely those tired, poor, huddled masses, “naked…hungry…thirsty…sick…in prison…stranger.”

Absent dialogue with and understanding from the margins, the current debates in the U.S. between political and economic conservatives, moderates, and liberals will accomplish little.[35] These debates might be compared to the work of Kohlberg who presumed to describe moral development among all children by only studying boys. Carol Gilligan in her work that was first collaborative and later corrective, sought to offer a view ‘from the margins’, i.e. from the experience of girls. Surprising to many, though not to her or other women, Gilligan’s findings differed starkly from Kohlberg’s – boys and girls, she summarized, experience the world very differently. This conversation has continued, with various theorists seeking to bridge or at least understand the distance between the two.[36] The broader implication, returning to Rieger, is that we cannot understand the whole when we have seen and heard only part. We cannot understand our social, economic and political (not to say religious or theological) realities without hearing the voices of the silent, without seeing the invisible.

How will we undertake this project? One option may be to bring in a group of spokespersons for the marginalized to address those of the dominant culture. I have seen this lived out through the work of Reverend Irie Session and the group New Friends New Life. Reverend Session leads these women who, in a liberative community of the oppressed, are finding empowerment and grace as they make their way out of the violent objectification of sex trafficking and ‘adult entertainment’. A part of their work is to speak to groups about their experience in a panel format, one that often includes a male who has personally struggled with sexual addiction or otherwise participated in the oppression of women at the margins as these women were/are. Through this experience, these women move toward subjectivity while they also educate others and shed light on an area of society intentionally kept in the shadows. This work is made possible because, together with Rev. Session, these women have arrived at a place of sufficient confidence and security that they have the courage to stand and name their brokenness, to be the face of the victimized, and to call, in community, for something more for the whole human family, beginning here in this particular locality.[37] We see the project initiated from the margin with support of someone who serves as a bridge builder, someone who has found or made a way to recognize and be recognized in both communities – in the center and at the margins.[38]

This may actually be a beneficial starting place for a much broader awakening. It is difficult to envision that a Christian congregation in this region would argue in support of the sexual objectification, exploitation or abuse of others regardless of race, class or gender. It is fairly easy to see what is wrong with that system. What is hidden is our own complicity – and yet it can be revealed fairly easily if painfully. One might engage the high incidence of pornography use and the science relating it to neurological, attitudinal and behavioral changes.[39] Within a local congregation this dialogue can then open the way for other notions of hidden objectification and the ways that many are unknowingly complicit.

These stories are about the Good News as God’s power for redemption – and thus they are the Gospel, and their sharing is evangelism. Elaine Heath (The Mystic Way of Evangelism) has taken up William Abraham’s definition of evangelism as “primary initiation into the kingdom of God,”[40] which she expands: “evangelism as an initiatory process is complete only when individuals are fully incorporated into the church.”[41] Given the insights above, we can understand that this process of incorporation is one of mutuality, wherein we are incorporated into each other, or together into some new hybridity that does not yet exist. The sources of truth must include the voice of the other, particularly the vulnerable. Christian truth must include the understanding that God’s Good News, the Gospel of Jesus, must be good news for all people, not just me and my group. Thus those “being incorporated” need to have the freedom to say, “What I am hearing and experiencing is not good news to me,” at which point we realize that either: they have misunderstood us, we have misspoken, we have misunderstood the Gospel to begin with, or perhaps a combination of these.

Heath observes that on the margins we will find our prophetic voice “to speak to the dominant culture” in ways that subvert the status quo and move us toward God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.[42] She proceeds to apply mystical spirituality concepts (apophatic, kataphatic, kenosis) to the experience of faith communities, particularly those that are experiencing their present life as one of struggle through what feels like a dark night of the (congregational) soul. “Christians are yearning for a simpler, unfettered relationship with God in community, for a new day for the church.”[43] This longing sought be met in and through the liberative journey of the Suburban Base Community and the encounter with “the least of these,” who are Christ to us when we serve them and when we refuse – they are Christ to us in relationship. We encounter God anew when we encounter them, and if we refuse, then we will not encounter God in grace, but in judgment.

The economic and governmental systems of the U.S. purport to provide opportunity for all who want it, though they primarily provide exponentially greater opportunity for a privileged few.[44] This reality traces its roots back to our own colonial history and the imperial ideations of manifest destiny. We need to study colonialism and the responsive development of various forms of theological resistance, including liberation theology and postcolonial theologies that are focused largely on the experiences in other places. This can give us some distance and perspective by which to appreciate those struggles, and from which to return to study our own history and understand our own present. This reflection will be difficult because we benefit in substantial visible ways in the immediate and short term, the system promises long term rewards, and we participate happily and defend it vigorously.

The middle class is much closer to the economic reality of the working poor than that of the wealthy who we aspire to emulate. Here in Collin County I am involved in the local response to homelessness, and we see the fracturing of tenuous middle class lifestyles common in our seemingly affluent communities. While this paper does not permit room for an in depth economic analysis, and I’m not an economist, I do want to argue that our relationship with spending on consumer products, services and recreation poses threats not only to our economic stability, but to our moral and spiritual health.

We are surrounded by temples to gods of every shape and name – much like Paul when he arrived in Athens. [45] One can pick out, perhaps, an obscure temple to a seemingly ‘unknown god,’ but it isn’t easy.  To quote Walt Kelly’s famous Pogo comic strip, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”[46] We have built these temples and we worship at them with our currency on which is written, “In God We Trust.” The situation of the middle class parallels that articulated by Míguez in their explanation of the Pax Romana: “the colonized elites found that it was convenient for their own existence and power to conform to this power as a means of survival;”[47] indeed! Heath recommends spiritual practices for the church as we move out of our current situation into God’s future – the last of which is to actively resist the consumer culture that teaches and reinforces (forces) us to objectify others, self and God and subjectify things.[48]

Exciting and promising work can be done in this direction by drawing on the ideas presented in this paper, work that would bring together insights from Latin American Liberation Theology, the concrete experience of Base Ecclesial Communities (CEBs) and Postcolonial Theologies and apply them to the formation of a vernacular cosmopolitan theology of the “Liberation of Suburbia,” what I like to think of as Frappuccinist Theology (I find the ubiquitous experience of paying $5 for a gourmet frozen coffee from Seattle to be symbolic of our middle class consumer culture). I believe that this proposal, taking into account all that is said above, can avoid the pitfall of a middle class misappropriation of liberation theology,[49] particularly through the concern to start with the voices of the vulnerable and powerless within the congregation itself, and in relational conversation with our neighbors so that we might hear and know them and be known by them. We can work toward that which has been identified as “a different way of conceiving power and human life.”[50]

In this time of hybridity and liminality, in our in-between-ness of ceasing to be and moving toward becoming, we will engage the “discourses of difference” and the “discourses of liberation,”[51] thereby “setting aside what is behind…and pressing on toward the goal of the higher calling in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”[52] We are called, as people of Christian Faith, to live in the already/not-yet of the Kingdom of God which is within, at hand, and yet to come. The old is passing away; all things are made new.[53] The Suburban Vernacular Cosmopolitan Middle Class Base Community can be a way for particular communities to live into God’s vision for all creation. The essence of the Christian faith is rooted in a community that participates in the liberative work of God to move beyond all systems, structures, and experiences of captivity and oppression and onto a journey toward a land of promise.



[1] Smith, Christian. “The Spirit and Democracy: Base communities, Protestantism, and Democratization in Latin America.” Sociology of Religion. Vol. 55, No. 2. Summer, 1994: p119.

[2] “The phrase ‘preferential option for the poor’ was coined by theologian Gustavo Gutierrez in the period between the second General Meeting of the Conference of Latin  American Bishops (CELAM) at Medellin in 1968 and the third General Meeting at Puebla in 1979.” Thompson, J. Milburn. Book review of Gerald S. Twomey. The “Preferential Option for the Poor” in Catholic Social Thought from John XXIII to John Paul II. Reviewed in Cistercian Studies Quarterly, 2006, Vol. 41 Issue 3, p384.

[3] Cardenal, Ernesto. The Gospel in Solentiname.  trans. Donald D. Walsh. Maryknoll, N.Y. : Orbis Books, 1982.

[4] Gonzalez, Michelle A. “Who is Americana/o?” Postcolonial Theologies: Divinity and Empire. Ed. Keller, Catherine, Michael Nausner and Myra Rivera. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2004. pp62-3.

[5] Rieger, Joerg. “Liberating God-Talk”. Postcolonial Theologies: Divinity and Empire. Ed. Keller, Catherine, Michael Nausner and Myra Rivera. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2004. p212.

[6] Taylor, Mark Lewis. “Spirit and Liberation.” Postcolonial Theologies: Divinity and Empire. Ed. Keller, Catherine, Michael Nausner and Myra Rivera. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2004. p47. Referencing Comaroff and Comaroff.  Of Revelation and Revolution.

[7] Gonzalez. p64.

[8] Gutierrez, Gustavo. Las Casas: In Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ. NY: Orbis. 1993. pp28-29.

[9] Gutierrez. las Casas.  p33.

[10] Lippy, Charles, Robert Choquette and Stafford Poole. Christianity Comes to the Americas 1492-1776. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 1998 p84. Las Casas’ work in English is entitled The Only Way. Ed. Helen Rand Parish. Trans. Francis Patrick Sullivan. New York: Paulist Press, 1992.

[11] Lippy p85.

[12] Gonzalez. p74.

[13] Baker-Fletcher, Karen. Dancing with God: Trinity from a Womanist Perspective. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press. 2006.

[14] Keller, Catherine, Michael Nausner and Mayra Rivera, eds. Postcolonial Theologies: Divinity and Empire. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2004. p8.

[15] Keller. p37.

[16] Sugirtharajah, R.S. “Complacencies and Cul-de-sacs.” Postcolonial Theologies: Divinity and Empire. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2004. p37.

[17] Sugirtharajah. p38.

[18] Sugirtharajah. p38.

[19] Rieger. Postcolonial Theologies.

[20] Rieger, Joerg. Globalization and Theology. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. Kindle Loc 58.

[21] Ibid. Loc 106-108.

[22] Again, Baker-Fletcher’s insights on the communal nature of the trinity are valuable here. In particular, I think there is some opportunity to explore how power functions in dance among partners, and how that may relate to our understanding of power in community vis-à-vis the trinity. Dancing with God.

[23] Rieger. Globalization and Theology. Kindle Loc 253.

[24]  Taylor. p47.

[25] Rieger. Globalization and Theology. Kindle Loc 288.

[26] Bass, Diana Butler. Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith. New York: Harper One, 2006.

[27] Rieger. Globalization and Theology. Kindle Loc 348-349.

[28] Jackson, Thomas, Ed. Works of the Rev. John Wesley, 3rd ed. (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872; reprint, Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1986), 3:178.

[29] Matthew 18:3.

[30] Luke 10:21.

[31] Isaiah 11:6.

[32] Míguez, p20.

[33] Gonzalez. Postcolonial Theologies. p63.

[34] Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin White Masks. Trans. Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press, 2008. p5.

[35] Rieger. Postcolonial Theologies. p214.

[36] For a further discussion of this, see: Gabriel D. Donleavy. “No Man’s Land: Exploring the Space between Gilligan and Kohlberg.” Journal of Business Ethics (2008) 80:807–822.

[37] Baker-Fletcher builds her work on similar redemption narratives where survivors have had the courage to press through their own suffering and make of their courage an offering to God’s kingdom work.

[38] For more information on Rev. Session and New Friends New Life, see: ;

[39] Hilton, Donald L & Jr, Clark Watts. “Pornography addiction: A neuroscience perspective.” Surg Neurol Int. 2011; 2:19. Published online 2011 February 21. doi: 10.4103/2152-7806.76977

[40] Abraham, W.J. The Logic of Evangelism. Grand Rapids, MI. Eerdmans. 1989. p13.

[41] Heath, Elaine A. The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008. p13. While she seems to have in mind a clergy and faculty audience, the book would be a good primary source for congregations on their journey toward becoming, particularly with the aid of a small group discussion guide that included prayer and retreat experiences.

[42] Heath. p26.

[43] Heath. p36.

[44] Rieger. Globalization and Theology. Kindle Loc 850.

[45] Acts 17:15-34.

[46] Kelly, Walt. We have met the enemy, and he is us. NY, NY: Simon & Schuster. 1972.

[47] Míguez, Nestor, Joerg Rieger & Jung Mo Sung. Beyond the Spirit of Empire: Theology and Politics in a New Key. Norwich, UK: SCM Press. p4.

[48] Heath. p171.

[49] Míguez, p32.

[50] Míguez, p2.

[51] Taylor. p45.

[52] Philippians 3:13-14.

[53] 2 Corinthians 5:17. Cf. Revelation 21:1-5.

God has a plan for you.

Synchronous Life Ministries Logo 3You may have heard this phrase before. “God has a plan for your life.” One of the most often used scriptures in this conversation is from Jeremiah 29:11 “I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD, “Plans to bless you, not to harm you.” What a great promise God made through Jeremiah to the people of Jerusalem and Judah, his chosen people. As a community, as a family of faith under God, God desired and intended to bless them in a time to come. We need to be clear that this promise is not spoken to an individual, or a collection of individuals, but to the nation as a whole. Individualization of the text is a departure from Jeremiah’s message.
We also need to look at the preceding versed from the beginning of the chapter.(In fact, I might argue that if we want to claim any promise that we believe God offers in scripture, we ought to at least do the work of reading and understanding the message of the entire book in which that promise is found.) Earlier in chapter 29, The God of Israel says that the divine plan for the people of Judah is that they will remain exiled in Babylon for 70 years – at least 2.5 generations! So the promise of deliverance that is made to one group of adults will find its fulfillment in their great grandchildren! And what does God direct in the meantime? Settle in, and be a blessing to those around you so that you also may be blessed (Jer 29:4-7).
So we do have an expression of God’s plan and will for individuals in that particular situation – live where you are (“bloom where you’re planted”) and bless the people around you. And if we then revisit vs 11ff, we can see that God’s plan is to bless us, but God’s plan for us is dependent on our faithfulness toward God. When we go all the way back to the Exodus, we see that God’s plan was to lead the people from Egypt into the promised land – but they refused to go. So, god had that generation wander and die in the wilderness and allow their children to enter the land. The God of Israel has a general plan to bless the peopel of Judah out of Babylon in the future. God has a very specific plan for how they are to live out their relationship with God in the present by being just and righteous and gracious and merciful and loving toward the people around them – who by the way might be considered captors and thus enemies!
Take a moment to read Jeremiah chapter 24. It speaks not of God’s plan for the people in captivity – but of God’s opinion about them, attitude toward them. God sees them as good fruit, worthy to be blessed. God loves them and wants them to return to worship Him. It was their leaders who failed to keep them near to God and the covenant who are like rotten fruit before God’s eyes – they will be punished and set aside, says God. How often might we think of our times in captivity as God’s punishment toward us? In this story, the prophet tells us that the time of captivity is God’s way of drawing the people back, not of punishing them.
If we jump way forward to the teaching of Jesus, we find sermon upon sermon and story upon story about how we are to live. Paul, Peter, James and John offer the same kind of teaching in their letters. God’s plan for us is to live righteous and holy lives wherever we are, withwhom ever we find ourselves. And when God does call someone specifically to a particular task or ministry, they were not beforehand wandering around asking, “What is God’s plan for my life?” as though God had a job and a house and a spouse picked out for each person. Rather, they were seeking to live faithful lives in the families and professions they had chosen or made. Peter was content to be a fisherman when Jesus called him. Paul was a tentmaker content to do battle against the church in the name of the Mosaic law and way of serving God. Moses (to go back again) was content to be a shepherd on the mountains working for his father-in-law.
God does have a plan for you, but it most likely is for you to live your life according to the teachings of Jesus, to share his love and gospel of salvation with others, however and wherever you find yourself. If God has something more specific for you, God will let you know. You do not need to expend great energy or anxiety trying to read God’s mind. Simply bless those around you and seek their welfare, for as they are blessed, so you will be blessed.