Learning to serve the poor

When I was in college I was fortunate to serve as Mission Intern at a big-steeple downtown church. When people came to the door seeking financial support, I was their liaison with the church. I had afternoon office hours and a monthly budget – I always exceeded both. Each month my supervisor would meet with me, show me the budget and how much I had given away, point out the overage and grimace in a way that expressed compassionately, “This can’t happen next month.” “I know,” I’d smile back, both of us recognizing that it probably would, and it did. I also coordinated the church’s running of a Saturday Soup kitchen, using the model known as Second Helpings – where restaurant food is collected, deep frozen, and reserved to those in need. A small group of us from a campus ministry, full of the idealism and indefatigable spirit of the young, cornered the senior pastor of the above mentioned church and said, “We’re going to start a soup kitchen, and we’d love it if you all help.” Without missing a beat the pastor responded, “We’ll do it at our place!” and sure enough, over time that’s exactly what happened.

These experiences, along with time spent as a volunteer coordinator for a Habitat for Humanity chapter, left me frustrated. I kept feeling like we were putting on band-aids, doing triage, but not helping people to address their foundational issues that put and kept them in need of help. I wrote my senior thesis on “The Socialization of the Homeless: A Call for Change” wherein I argued that the homeless in general, and the poor more broadly considered, need more than for someone to hand them resources; they (like all of us) need to participate in a community of support where transformation can occur and inner capacities can be discovered and developed to their fullest capacity. This is also the argument made by Robert D. Lupton in TOXIC CHARITY: How churches and charities hurt those they help (and how to reverse it).

Dignity is a key theme for Lupton – he emphasizes maintaining and even enhancing the dignity of the poor through all policies, programs and practices intended to help alleviate poverty. This also results in heightened dignity-with-humility for those who serve – doing for is dehumanizing for those with power as well as those without. This focus on dignity then leads to numerous shifts or outright reversals. from “doing for” to “doing with”; from focus on need to focus on relationship; from emergency assistance to development assistance; from focus on meeting our needs to meeting the needs of those being served; from “charity to parity”; from “going on tourist mission trips” that displace local labor and leave little long term change to sending skilled community developers; from food pantry to food coop; from gentrification to re-neighboring; from “experts” leading to community leaders leading with “experts” (i.e. people with knowledge, skills, resources and networks) serving in support capacities. All of these shifts result in heightened dignity for all involved.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions”, a phrase oft used in literature and perhaps originating with Bernard of Clairvaux, certainly applies in this present context. Churches and charities (and governments and individuals) mean well. We need to look at the unintended consequences of our actions before we take them. We need to act in partnership and community with those being served. We need to develop opportunities for reciprocity wherever possible. We need to build on strengths while filling asset gaps.

I am also now fortunate to serve in a community where some people understand these premises and are seeking to develop community awareness while enacting policy and developing program. We have much to learn. Jesus called the adults around him to learn from the children; I think a parallel principle applies here – the poor have much to teach those who would want to help them. Needing help does not make one helpless – meeting needs unilaterally does.

In Search of a Theological Method for the Transformational Leader

       Transformational Leadership in the Christian community is a theological endeavor. Everyone agrees that the secular world in the United States has changed dramatically from the time when today’s model of church life took form – i.e. the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Theology is not just something we tell, it is something we do. Theology is the communal work of discovering God. The Theological Community is formed by those actively doing the work, along with the voices of previous generations of theologians, those of the authors and editors of scripture, those of the characters within scripture, and those of the community around us.

The Word is active, a living force which creates by its presence. How we engage that Word determines the content of theology, and thus the results of living out that theology. If all we do is pass on what others have said the word means, then we have failed to engage the Word. We need a way to connect, a theological process that is real and accessible to all who desire to participate. I believe that an exploration of Latin American Liberation Theology as it developed within base communities can give us such a process. Classically trained theologians entered as pastors to local communities of largely uneducated laity. As they gathered and formed a theological community, they were able to do theology – to have a life giving creative conversation with all the voices mentioned above. The result of this was both doxa and praxia – thought/belief and activity/action. Each community needs to do this work for themselves.

How will religious leaders, as resident theologians, move from telling people which theological ideas are right, toward enabling a process in which people hear the Word afresh and come to their own understandings as a part of that larger conversation? Even in the popular postmodern expressions of Christianity led by such figures as Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, there seems a dearth of interest in helping people do theology. Indeed, I think the criticisms that Juan Luis Segundo, S.J., makes of Liberation Theology in The Liberation of Theology, apply to the contemporary postmodern, postchristendom “theologies”. They have found an audience, as they resonate with the frustrations of many regarding conservative interpretations of scripture and Christian doctrine, which are felt to be too narrow, restrictive, and not representative of God’s wild creativity that we see revealed throughout creation. Yet both are externally imposed on congregations and society at large. Talking heads say, “This is what it means.” Rather, I suggest there must be a way to follow the lead of Jesus who said, “Who do people say that I am?” And who told wonderful but elusive stories as his way to explain the unfolding kingdom of God.

Some people seem to want to be fed the right answers rather than working them out together in community. This reality needs to be acknowledged and understood if possible, and perhaps even honored. Questions leave open the choice to engage or not. My interests lie in understanding a theological process that is rooted in historical Christian theology and yet enables lay people to engage the process of theology together toward a way of being Christian in this present day. Today’s churches and communities need leaders with a new vision. As our context has changed, so we need to be transformed. We need new wine skins for the new wine for this new day. I believe that the processes and practices of Latin American base communities under the leadership of those pastoral theologians can reveal for us a way of being faithful Christian communities in our current context.

“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.”

HEARING THE VOICE OF LIBERATION THEOLOGY

“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.

TURNING TO POSTCOLONIAL THEOLOGIES

“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.

TOWARD THE RE-FORMATION OF FAITH COMMUNITIES

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 et.al. 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.


 

ENDNOTES


[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 et.al. 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, et.al. 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: http://www.newfriendsnewlife.org ;

[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, et.al. p32.

[50] Míguez, et.al. p2.

[51] Taylor. p45.

[52] Philippians 3:13-14.

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

The Promise: The Servant is not just for insiders anymore

Sermon Notes for 01162011 – Isaiah 49:1-7
What follows are some reflections on how the Servant discovers God’s concern is bigger than him and his agenda. OUCH!
Call to Worship – Psalm 40

1 I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.
2 He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog,
   and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.
3 He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.
   Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.
4 Happy are those who make the Lord their trust,
   who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods.
5 You have multiplied, O Lord my God,
   your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you.
   Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted.
6 Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear.
   Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.
7 Then I said, “Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
8 I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.”
9 I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation;
   see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O Lord.
10 I have not hidden your saving help within my heart, I have spoken of your
   faithfulness and your salvation;
   I have not concealed your steadfast love
   and your faithfulness from the great congregation.
11 Do not, O Lord, withhold your mercy from me;
   let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever.

SERMON SCRIPTURES

John 1:29-42
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” 35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed ). 42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter ).

Isaiah 49
1 Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away!
   The Lord called me before I was born,
   while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
2 He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
   he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away.
3 And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
4 But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
   yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.”
5 And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
   to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him,
   for I am honored in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength—
6 he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
   to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel;
   I will give you as a light to the nations,
   that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
7 Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
   to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers,
   “Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
   because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

The Promise: The Servant Is Not Just for Insiders Anymore
When an oppressed group seeks justice, the call is often voiced, and even more often heard, as a self-focused plea:
What about justice for us?
When is it our time?
We demand equality now!
Freedom now!

In the world of zero sum economics, this requires someone to loose in order for others to gain. If you are to gain some benefit you do not have now, that must be at some cost to me.

Often this is truly the way things work.
Corporations cut laborers, extend hours, and suppress wages to increase the profits and elevate their stock value – stockholders win (including the executives with large stock options) and employees loose.
If the Republicans are to gain power and influence in Washington, our current system requires that the Democrats loose it.
If I want to be king of the hill, center of attention, the apple of everyone’s eye, then I must displace others.

What if the world didn’t have to work that way?
What if there were a limitless supply of whatever it is we most needed?
Could we, would we find a way to function differently?

What if the God who desires to bless us wishes to do something far grander than we might ask, think or imagine?
What if the blessing that we think is for us is not just for us?
And what if the blessing really only comes to us as we share it with others?

Our servant in Isaiah 49 is an interesting character. He knows that God has called him at the deepest levels of his being. This might suggest some sort of privilege, as is often supposed. He also expresses great frustration, exasperation even, that his work has been in vein. No one seems to care. No one pays any attention to what he is doing. It doesn’t seem to make any difference.

God’s response is to completely look past this childish fit.
Instead, God, acting as though the servant had not just been whining, and that in fact nothing was wrong with the plan, says, “You know what, we’re going to take this thing global! Never mind you enjoying these blessings of mine. That’s too insignificant. It doesn’t amount to anything compared to what I can and will do.”

Now, if you think about this conversation in greater detail, or at least as I do, I imagine the Servant at this point saying, “Are you even listening to me? I’m upset over here and you don’t even seem to care. HELLO!” And waving hands in front of God’s eyes, which have taken on a glassy expression as a grand distant vision comes into clearer focus.

Have you ever tried to talk to someone about some injury or insult and realized they weren’t really paying any attention? You’ve just gone on with your story for five or ten minutes, and when they finally speak its not really a response, but some non sequitur about their plans. Frustrating indeed!

Anyway, t
he servant receives an expanded call. It may be that the call has changed – God has changed the divine mind. Or, perhaps the servant just wasn’t listening before and only heard what he wanted to – the part that benefited him. OR, it could be that God’s revelation is progressive, unfolding over time, so that it only appears to us to change and develop, but God actually had the whole thing mapped out and gives us as much as we need when we need it. Or all three.

If we stop for a moment, and look at the situation from God’s perspective, or that of anyone other than the Servant, we realize how great it is that the blessing is expanding. Of course God desires the blessing to extend to all people. And for those who were the outside groups, in Isaiah’s time the non-Jews, what Good News to hear that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel, was for them as sisters and brothers, enemies becoming family!

Israel had always thought of itself as the social outsider, the victim at the hands of these evil nations who worship other gods. This, all the while that they understood themselves to be the religious insiders, “God’s chosen people!” What an irony.

And now, the Word of God comes to flesh to proclaim that everyone gets to be an insider – religious and social. The Word of God comes to say that the victims will minister to their oppressors – that the lion and the lamb will dwell together in peace.

Tomorrow our nation honors the life and ministry of Rev. King. He wrote and said many great things that are worthy of study and reflection by all people in this nation and around the world. His greatest words are not those of the famous dream speech, but rather those of his other sermons, letters and essays. The dream speech is the one I want to call to our attention now, though. Because in it, King makes this great leap to believe that God’s vision is far more than what he might ask. He could, as many did, dream simply of peace and justice for his people. That would have been a good dream indeed. But it was not his dream. Let me remind you of the Word –

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”²
This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!³

At times Christians have wished to divorce faith from social issues. Certainly for the Jews of Isaiah’s time, there was no possibility of separation between their faith in their God and their hopes for social, economic, and political stability, freedom, peace and prosperity. Certainly then the hope that the Servant promises is not only for “God’s Chosen People” but for all God’s people. Indeed, “God’s chosen people” is not some award like the Golden Globes or Oscars, no trophy like that of the Super Bowl where the best or the favorite are chosen, as though God loves the Jews more. RATHER, God’s chosen people are such specifically as God’s way of blessing the world.

Certainly, in the ministry of Jesus, people’s social needs are addressed by Him through the means he had at his disposal. Certainly, in the ministry of the early church Paul repeatedly explains how the Gospel tears down dividing walls of preference and favoritism, bigotry and hatred and from the rubble builds bridges of blessing and sanctuaries of safety.

Paul wrote “When one suffers, all suffer and when one rejoices, all rejoice.” We have thought he was speaking only or primarily of the church, and perhaps he thought so to. But in the reality of continuing revelation we can certainly see that, in the light of the Word of God proclaimed in Isaiah 49, this truth is a reality of the whole human family. This is why we ache to see the news from Tuscon, Arizona of a week ago, and why we smile to hear the good news of recovery for complete strangers. This is why we are incensed at t
he ongoing suffering in Haiti a year after the devastating earth quake. This is why we are ambivalent about what is best in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in Iraq and Afganistan.

This is why we tithe to outreach, and why we visit people in the hospital. This is why we helped start Family Promise of Collin County and will open ourselves to the transforming power of radical hospitality. Because their suffering is our suffering, and their blessing is our blessing. So long as others suffer, our blessing is incomplete.

Indeed the dream is that all of God’s children, throughout the world, might live in the Kingdom of God on earth for which we pray, the kingdom initiated by Jesus Christ and continued by faith through the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit.