January 14, 2013
It has become quite a popular quote in some church circles to remind that church is not about Sunday morning 9 o’clock. Your life from Monday to Saturday is where the real church happens, so we say. But what if that is wrong. What if it is all about Sunday morning 9 o’clock? What if everything that I’ve been reflecting on over the past 5 years on this blog (emerging churches, missional conversation, public theology, liberation theology, theology and racism) should not be a call towards the Monday-to-Saturday-real-life, but rather a radical call towards Sunday morning 9 o’clock.
On the ticket of it-is-not-about-Sunday, some of my friends has quit the church-on-Sunday’s system. They left that behind, since if the logic that it’s not-about-Sunday, but about my life from Monday to Saturday is correct, then why not take it to its logical conclusion and just end Sunday morning 9 o’clock (or whatever your equivalent of the central gathering of a community of faith is, whether Sunday evening 6 o’clock, or Wednesday evening 11 o’clock). but for most people however vaguely committed to the Jesus-story there remain a Sunday morning 9 o’clock, or equivalent event (perhaps not weekly, perhaps not in a church building), which give some kind of explicit form to their faith commitments, even though they, to some extend rightly, identify their whole of life as the place of faith.
The dark side of underplaying Sunday morning 9 o’clock is that we can use Monday to Saturday as a tool to divert the gaze away from the problematic nature of Sunday morning 9 o’clock’s gathering of a community of faith, and so underplay the very important symbolic moment which Sunday morning 9 o’clock remain, a moment which publicly reveal that which is real, and in this revelation is actually calling the church’s (and is this perhaps more than merely the church’s) bluff… or at least should be.
The form this might take is the following: “Even though we are a white middle-class community gathering on a Sunday morning, that is not our real identity. Our real identity is to be found Monday to Saturday, where members of this community of faith are through their work building relationships across racial lines, and in our outreaches building relationships with the poor“. Sunday morning 9 o’clock is therefore not our real identity, and the exclusivity revealed in this gathering should not be seen as central to the identity of those who are gathered. The church is therefore not simply a middle-class white Afrikaans community, since Sunday morning 9 o’clock is not a true revelation of who we are.
But what if Sunday morning 9 o’clock does indeed reveal our true identity. Does our choice for who should help us in heating pews on Sunday morning not reveal our relational commitments in it’s truest form? Perhaps not on an individual level, in the sense that I only choose my friends and romantic partners from those who attend church with me (although this remain common in some church circles), but rather more generally, in the sense that those who I join on a Sunday morning reveal the broader class, racial, ethnic or cultural group into which I commit myself relationally. I also do not wish to argue for simple causality (as in that the church is the reason why I have bound myself to this network of people), but rather that we need to notice that this particular commitment to a community of faith does indeed reveal our “true identity”.
Is this not perhaps in part why transforming religious communities is proving to be so extremely difficult? Not only in South Africa! Follow the North American discourse on race, look at how church from similar traditions remain separate when immigrants to Europe prefer their own communities rather than joining the existing church. On an even superficial reading of the Christian tradition we know this to be problematic, which is why we have a very long history of attempting to theologically justify this phenomenon. A mission policy which dictated that it is “more effective”, “better” or “biblical” for “each group” to have an “own church” was one brutal way in which we did this (an approach which has resulted in extreme shame as we had to acknowledge that this was built on racial ideologies masked as theological convictions), but why should a reinterpretation of Monday to Saturday necessarily be exempt from similar biases?
Don’t get me wrong, the theology which made Sunday morning 9 o’clock into the absolute symbol of religiosity need to be challenged! Insisting that Monday to Saturday (or perhaps just Monday to Sunday) should indeed be the place where faith finds its primary expression – in how we conduct business, where we choose to buy our homes, the schools we choose for our children, the way in which we do our shopping, the political convictions we have – is indeed an important shift (although not a new revelation, but rather something which we have a centuries long history of attempting to do). And using a small religious life as a way of diverting the gaze from how we continue our ruthless exploitation of others beyond our religious life might be on of the most important insights the church need to face in our day. But what about the opposite?
What if we use our public lives which is lived in a more diverse environment, or even our acts of charity across class divisions (to approach the Rollins parable used in the above link from another angle), to keep the critique out of our most intimate spaces. For us as religious leaders the most intimate space might be the church itself, and we might use the above kind of argument to divert attention from the very obvious symbols of exclusivity which our churches remain, while for members of faith communities the gathering on a Sunday morning is symbolic of our most intimate relations, and we therefore need to divert the critique away from this, even using some nice Christian notions like participating in development work or living out our faith from Monday to Saturday as tools in immunizing the local community of faith against critique.
The message of Jesus and Paul seem to be much more radical, and Sunday morning 9 o’clock might be the more important political event, even in our day. As I read both the gospels and Paul it seems like their social experiment, grounded in a particular vision of who God is, was to change the most intimate relations, which was also often found around religious gatherings. Jew and gentile, tax collector and zealot. These were not bound into a spiritual unity, but rather walked the same roads following the same rabbi, or gathered in the same community – or at least that was the ideal.
Most white South Africans have black colleagues, and we tend to at least “muddle through” these relations, and often have good relations. But the unwritten rules remain that I can leave these relations behind Friday afternoon. These relations can remain official. And we can volunteer at a local soup kitchen, but no one expect us to continue sharing a meal elsewhere with those who come to get a bowl of soup. But we perhaps know that the local congregation has a different set of rules. The local congregation to some extend assume that we will share a table at some point, perhaps give others access to our home (through various small groups or Bible studies for example) and that we should cry together when others experience pain.
What if we just started right here, at what seems to be the most difficult. What if CEOs and cleaners, black and white, Zulu and Shangaan, Afrikaans and English, were to sit next to each other on a Sunday morning. To listen to the announcement of the deaths of each others family members. To visit each others homes. Have our kids attend Sunday School together. Drink coffee together while we wait for the Sunday School to end. You know, just typical church stuff, but explicitly crossing the very divides which our particular context keep in place. Obviously we could find new ways of keeping the divisions in place even within one congregations, and a naive focus on the membership list should never be mistaken to relationships which transform our identities, but the very difficulty of doing exactly this might be a reminder that it might be the place where we should start.
Perhaps it is not about Sunday morning 9 o’clock. But as long as Sunday morning 9 o’clock remain a symbol of class, racial and ethnic divisions in a society, we might want to consider that the truth is that it is about Sunday morning 9 o’clock for most of us. This is indeed the place which illustrate who I am in all its obscenity. I am part of this white middle-class Afrikaans congregation. I am not the guy who is nice to my workers or who contribute to a soup kitchen. As a Christian I might actually be doing this exactly in order to divert the critique against this white middle-class Afrikaans congregation of which I am part.
April 8, 2012
The gospels give us two groups of narratives which provide us with a glimpse onto the resurrection. There are those narratives when people find the empty grave, and those where the resurrected Christ meet them. See for example Luke 24: First a group of women come to the grave, finding it to be empty, with messengers from God announcing that they shouldn’t look for the living among the dead, after which Peter run to the grave, confirming that it is indeed empty. Then two people are walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and are met by a stranger, a stranger whom they discover to be the resurrected Christ, just as this Christ disappear from their sight.
Modern debates about the resurrection, to my mind, don’t seem to focus on any of these narratives, but rather construct, from all sides of the popular debates, a new narrative not told by the writers of the gospel: the narrative of what happened inside the grave.
Take any construction of two sides to a popular debate on the resurrection, call them “conservative vs. progressive” or “fundamentalist vs. liberal” (both constructs of tensions in the church which I believe oversimplify the reality of real communities of faith) and you generally find a debate raging on: “could a body come back to life?” The question of what happened inside the grave. From various theological and scientific presuppositions we speculate on the missing narrative, the narrative inside the grave. Did the blood miraculously start to flow again? Was the body stolen? Was there a ‘spirit’ or ‘ghost’ which rose out of a dead Jesus? Did this Jesus simply take the blankets of from his body and face and walk out?
These are not modern questions, but have been the subject of speculation for many centuries, and particularly in the first centuries of the church. But the gospel writers refuse to answer the many questions. The gospel writers, as authors of their books, have the power to reveal information hidden to the characters. They sometimes reveal information on what Jesus was thinking, or what he prayed when no one else was with him, so they are willing to present the reader with information which no one could actually know (in the technical sense which we modern people like to connect to the word ‘know’). But when it come to the grave, they don’t dare walk onto that ground.
So we are left with two narratives: The grave is empty. The resurrected Christ has appeared to Peter, the woman at the grave, the travelers to Emmaus.
Are we allowed to dare walk into the grave, attempting to guess what happened? I would say yes. I say yes simply because I don’t think anything is out of bounds. Simply because I think that the God which we find in the Bible is fine with our questions, our attempts at sense-making, our attempts at giving a coherent or rational (sometimes both, sometimes these two seem to exclude each other) argument for our beliefs, or the tradition within which we live.
But I do think we miss the point if our debates and conversations about the resurrection end up as a technical conversation about what happened within the grave. The grave is empty. That’s it. That’s enough. That’s what the gospel present us with. The resurrected Christ, the one with whom we have been resurrection (following the (post)-Pauline writings in Collosians), has appeared to his followers, and this changed their lives.
I want to dare say that if we move our conversations out of the grave and into life, away from what happened in the grave and into what should happen to those to whom the resurrection Christ appeared in their lives, we might find a conversation which both bind us together and lead the church into becoming salt and light. This, to my mind, is a conversation we are in dire need of. What is the implication of the resurrection for the economy, the ecology, for a world in which death, not life, is the reality which face a very large proportion of this planets inhabitants. If our belief in the resurrection don’t translate into a belief that the death facing us can be overcome (and leaving people to die because we believe that they will go to heaven is not believing that death has been overcome, but rather a firm belief that death has won, that opposing death is impossible), then I struggle to call it faith in the resurrected Christ.
This is the sixth year that I’m blogging on the resurrection on resurrection Sunday. Earlier posts can be found here.
September 6, 2011
A personal introduction is in order for this blogpost: I think that the past two years has been a very long conversion experience, and an ongoing one. It was characterized by a journey into a space where I am no longer the answer for the world, but where I begin to notice how I am embedded in the sins of the world. I you scan through the posts from the past two years, Amahoro possibly being the single most important event in this journey, much of this will be found. It is an ongoing journey, one which I find to be struggling with, but one which are pushing me into a world from which I can never return, and I believe pushing be towards the Jesus whom I have learned to call Messiah.
The phrase “blessed are the poor” (Luke 6) has always been one of those strange moments in the journey with the Bible of the congregations and groups where I’ve spent my life. Luckily Matthew (Matthew 5) gave us an easy cop-out when talking about “blessed are the poor in spirit”, that phrase we knew how to interpret. But it is Luke which continue to push our imaginations. What do we do with the blessed poor?
I can quickly think of two common ways we solve this statement. The first is by projecting onto the poor those things we experience as lacing in our own lives: rest, not worrying, community with others. The second is my spiritualizing poverty so that everyone become poor. Some are poor because they lack meaningful family relations, others because they lack money.
But for Jesus some people were categorized as poor, and some as non-poor, as rich. The poor had little room to manege their own lives, they were oppressed by a system of taxes and the rich taking over their land. But I also don’t get the idea that Jesus is romanticizing poverty. He is not the kind of ascetic who call people into poverty, because of some deeper spiritual meaning. Jesus is a prophet challenging the system of injustice which create the poor. Yet Jesus is the one saying that “blessed are the poor”.
However, when we move away from this passage, then the poor are no longer romanticized nor spiritualized. We are aware of the fact that poverty is a very real problem in our country, and I would say that the dominant approach within the church is that the poor are pitied, and that we want to help the poor. We want to bless the poor. Sometimes we would even talk about blessing the poor with our gifts and help. If we were to stand up and do our own sermon on the plain (what we generally call the part in Luke where this phrase is found), we would probably start with: “Let us participate in the coming of the kingdom of God by blessing those who are poor. Let us bless the poor” (even using nice missional language like participation in the kingdom of God). But would we start our sermon with the words: “Blessed are you, the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”.
What does this imply? If I understand Belhar correctly, then God is in a unique way present with those who are suffering. Belhar states “… that in a world full of injustice and enmity He is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor, and the wronged and that He calls his Church to follw Him in this”. In his commentary on this text, Piet Naudé writes: “God does not stand by the poor because they are poor or because – as in a class struggle – he is in a particular way the God of the working class. In God, there is no injustice. God stands with the people who suffer in situations of injustice, because of this in justice. God can do no other. This is how God is.”
What does the the poor being blessed imply in Luke? Not that they have access to the lost ideals of the middle class, but that the kingdom of God is their’s. Maybe we could say that the kingdom of God can be found among those who suffer. I usually explain the “kingdom of God” to youth groups with two statements: First, the kingdom of God is how this world would look if God was king and not the rulers of this world. Second, the kingdom of God is God’s dream for the world, how God dream the world to be. Is it to much to say that among those who suffer in situations of injustice, those who we can call the poor (being more than an economic category, but being those who are placed at the bottom of the system), there we will find God’s dream for how the world should look. There we find the dream of what the world might be if God were to be king and not the rulers of this world.
What would happen if those of us in the rich church exorsise our drive to be the ones who are blessing the poor, and start recognizing the poor as those blessed by God. Those who find themselves in the place where God is to be found, and start listening for the dreams of what the kingdom of God might look like. Obviously we do not enter this space in a naive manner, where the voices of the poor suddenly become some kind of direct link towards the voice of God. The poor have no more direct line to the thoughts of God than the spiritual does, and listening to one lone voice is not hearing the voice of God, just as listening to one lone super-spiritual congregant is hearing the voice of God. But if we dare enter into conversation with those who are poor, with the entirety of this category whom of people we call poor, dare listening to what the poor are dreaming the world to be like, might it not be that we will find among those to whom the kingdom of God belong dreams of what this kingdom might look like? And if we then want to participate in the coming of the kingdom of God, then it might not be through our blessing of the poor, but through the discovery of the blessedness of the poor, and the participation in the coming of the world which the poor are dreaming into being.
A personal conclusion is in order as well: I’m not at this place. I struggle with this. I like to find solutions for poverty rather than listen to the world the poor are dreaming into being. I like to be the hero. But most of all, I’m not sure if I’m ready for the radical dreams the poor are dreaming, I fear that I might not like what I’m hearing. But might it be that these dreams are the coming into being of the kingdom of God? I think I need help struggling through this, so your thoughts will be appreciated.
August 3, 2011
Yes, that is a play onto McLaren’s well-known book which gave rise to fingers being pointed towards heresy, but this post has little to no reflection on McLaren’s book.
A few years ago conversations on “orthodoxy and orthopraxis” was quite common. The parts of the conversation which I enjoyed basically boiled down to the idea that orthopraxis (“right living”) was more important than orthodoxy (“right doctrine”). Obviously critiques came in stating that orthodoxy shouldn’t be read in such a narrow fashion, not to mention the various critiques from those who believed that the correct doctrine (narrowly defined as the thoughts we have concerning God) was indeed the most important part of being Christian. I generally found myself comfortable with voices arguing that in reading the gospels our lives as followers of Jesus seem to be more important than getting the facts and details right (thus the orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy argument as it was popularly formulated).
In the meantime the conversations has evolved, suddenly everyone went missional, the emerging label died a silent death to a certain extend, we have American’s teaching Africans about postcolonial theology and what have you more. But I experience a certain amount of tension growing with this newly discovered orthopraxis. More and more it would seem like we get a form of Christian boastfulness where some are “more missional” than others. “I feed more poor people than you” seem to be the new scale along which God’s favour for certain groups are to be measured. The idea that “we have found the real radical Jesus while you are still struggling with the old institutional Jesus” end up not very far from the many debated which we’ve seen over the past two centuries where various groups have declared themselves to be the true bearers of the correct faith, only now, the correct faith is equated with the correct way of fixing the world.
Annemie Bosch once shared a story of what David Bosch used to say during Apartheid. She gave permission that I can share it, although she hasn’t read these words, so mistakes in this paragraph are my own, but nonetheless, it goes something like this:
During Apartheid David Bosch would often say that in the struggle against apartheid, and in the work of transforming the mainline church and it’s relation to apartheid, we need to voices of Carel Boshoff, Johan Heyns, David Bosch as well as Beyers Naudé. Those who aren’t able to listen to the one, might listen to the other, and although they are voicing seemingly contradictory opinions, each in his unique way is contributing towards the end of apartheid and a just society.
This is no generous orthodoxy (in the strict popular interpretation of the word), but might rather be described as a generous orthopraxy. Tony Jones wrote a brilliant piece a number of years ago where attempted to describe a broad understanding of a changing orthodoxy where all role-players (I believe in a blogpost on the paper he used the words “from Benny Hinn to the Pope”, although I can’t find it) co-determine the definition of orthodoxy, and we remain open to the possibility that our consensus might change.
Within the complex reality of our world today it might be important to remain skeptical of the person with the “perfect plan for poverty”. Within the broad discussion of those who believe in justice for all we might want to recognize the role played by everyone from American short-term mission teams to Africa right through to Marxist analysts. Working with a fluid orthodoxy assume a robust debate, but it is a debate where we remain generous on who we consider to be a “legitimate voice” within the ongoing discussion. In our quest for justice, for ethics, I’d suggest we remain generous on who we consider to be partners on our quest for “right living”. This will require a robust debate, a clashing of ideas, but it assume that those I differ with are a necessary voice, and more important, a necessary body, in our quest for justice.
Annemie Bosch kindly rewrote the story to better reflect what was actually said, and agreed that I could add it here:
During Apartheid, David Bosch maintained that in order for us to attain justice for all in South Africa, we needed, in the Afrikaans-speaking section of our nation, the voices of Beyers Naudé, David Bosch, Johan Heyns, Carel Boshoff and Andries Treurnicht. Each of them was, in his own way, campaigning for a just society and for true equality and equity. Those who, because of their background and upbringing, could not hear what Beyers said, would perhaps be able to hear what David said – and so on, all along the line, up to the stance which A.P.Treurnicht took. So each one of these people, and others like them, were contributing towards a change in South Africa so that we could have justice and peace for all…. Which, even up to this day, we have not achieved. So once again we need the voices of many people at different levels of “the Stuggle for Justice” in the New South Africa. Let’s not write off those who differ from us in some or other way. Lets rather use our energy to do what our hand finds to do, and do it well. Let’s take hands and stand together against that which is wrong in our society – and especially in THE CHURCH – which is so much bigger than our little part of it!
April 24, 2011
This blog doesn’t have a lot of traditions or rhythms. Just the one, that wasn’t planned, but sort of “happened”. Once a year, on (or close to) Easter Sunday, I blog about the resurrection. The first post was simply because I had to get some stuff out of my system, but now it’s the one rhythm that I try and keep to. So this time around I continue reflecting on this key theological concept, and I continue to find myself within the contemporary debate, attempting to move beyond the impasses which we have created.
In my own context, and that of many others in the various white Western parts of the world, the debates on the resurrection typically gravitate towards questions of historical reliability and speculations on biology rather than theological implication. This is a gross generalization I know, but just listen my out for a moment before condemning the statement. We turn to Wright or Crossan, but rather than actually engaging their texts in all their complexity (something which I can’t claim to have done), we like to quote them to justify our various positions on whether the resurrection was a historical event. And the debate continue, and the historians doesn’t seem to provide us with an end to it.
We try to work around it by turning to biology. Or we turn to biology to make sure the extremity of our claims don’t go amiss on our hearers. We do the biology trick by adding a bunch of descriptions onto resurrection. Jesus was not only resurrected, but it was a physical, bodily, historical, literal resurrection (and yes, I’ve heard this exact four strung together within the debate, although I’m still in the dark on exactly what is being implied with each, and how they relate to the various resurrection narratives of the Bible). Or we do the biology trick to the other side by explaining that it was not any of the above descriptors, or not certain of them, and then adding others such as “spiritual” or “metaphorical”. Although these words do help in pushing us towards theology, they are not quite what I’m moving towards.
What historians do not deny is that we have a whole bunch of resurrection narratives from the ancient world. They differ on whether all of them, or all but one of them, can be discarded. Within the church we’ve been confronted with this by various smart young catechists asking us why we make such a big deal about the resurrection of Jesus but ignore the other resurrection narratives in the Bible. Various well-meaning pastors has then mumbled something about how the other resurrections was only temporary and the people dies again, but Jesus’ resurrection was permanent.
But here is the thing: The Bible doesn’t consider resurrections to be a once of event (if you take the book literally that is). It does consider one particular resurrection narrative to be of special importance. The supernaturalism of it however doesn’t seem to bbe the biggest issue. Rather, the bigger story within which it is found is what gives meaning to it.
Many apologists have made claims about how we wouldn’t have worried about what Jesus said if it wasn’t for his resurrections proving that he is God. But I say, the early church wouldn’t have worried about the resurrection if it wasn’t for what Jesus said and did. For who he was. The fact that it was Jesus that was resurrected was important for the early church, not the fact that they has a circus-act of resurrection to dazzle the world with.
So where does this line of thought take us? Well, today the resurrection is a reminder that God chose the words of the propher from Nazareth above the power of those who send him off to be crucified. The resurrection is primarily a theological claim, rather than a historical or biological claim, saying that the God was found in the words of him who said that the poor and those who suffer are blessed, rather than with those who are powerful and control others. It is the claim that in Jesus the time when justice will come and injustice will end has been initiated, and that the death on the cross didn’t bring and end to this force for justice, this voice talking about the kingdom of God.
If today we would find ultimate proof that one of the Ceasers from the first century was also resurrected, put as many descriptions as you want before this, would that be proof that Ceaser was lord? That God is on the side of the Ceaser? No. Because the resurrection is only the final confirmation of the continuation of a much longer tradition: that God is the God of the widows and orphans, the God with an eye for the little things in life, the God of those who were cast out. The resurrection can theologically only give meaning where it is a confirmation of this. No amount of historical evidence or biological claims can bring any proof that there was a resurrection event that pointed to God if it isn’t a confirmation on a life which was in line with the God that was the God of the slaves, rather than the God of the Pharaohs.
Is this good history? No it isn’t. We need good history, but this is not it. This is theology. It is claims about God, about the world, about how we choose to interpret reality. About how we choose to hope, not because of the historical proof we have, but sometimes despite of it. This is faith. Claiming that the gods of this world does not have the final say. That not even the cross can have the final say. Most probably a few debates will resound again this year, or has already by now, about this celebration that the church have on Easter Sunday. But let us pray that we will not be pulled around by historical niceties but confess our deepest theological convictions, faith commitments, words that say much more about the meaning this celebrated event has for lives today than about the proof of a supernatural event many ages ago.
Let’s remember that we confess faith not simply because there was a resurrection which was kind of wonderful and strange and out of this world, but because the one we confess to be the resurrected lord is the one who preached about the kingdom of God. Jesus gives meaning to the resurrection, not the other way around (or at least, this year, on resurrection Sunday, this is the way around which I’d like to consider it, but we won’t exhaust the long tradition of reflection on this particular event in one blogpost, or in one year of celebrating Easter).
Last year’s reflection on the resurrection, where links to previous reflections can be found.
February 10, 2011
The idea that has been working in me for the past year or two could be explained as the conviction that ideas which is not unpacked in all its complexity in the actual material (I’m starting to sound like those literalists who put 4 descriptives before the word “resurrection” just to make sure that you definitely agree with in the minutest detail with them) reality of our existence, then we should be very skeptical as to what the real intent of that idea is. I know that many in philosophy and theology has unpacked this much better than I have, but nonetheless, I need to write to get my head around this.
Even on ‘n popular level we have always claimed that the idea and its application should exist together. When it doesn’t, we make statements such as “practice what you preach”, and we talk about the hypocritical nature of the church. We especially love to talk about the church, although I believe the same should apply to most of modern liberal society. Because who will ever claim that what we should do is exploit the poor? Yet those in power participate in exactly this on a constant basis, whether Christian or not.
But rarely do we measure on what we actually do. In reality we have all this guards which we’ve employed so that no one could ever really know what I’m doing. So if you’d dare to make blatant racist comments, or claim that the plight of the poor should be of no concern, or that the destruction of the earth is not something which we should put energy into stopping, you will find yourself with a lot of harsh criticism. But if you choose to move out of a suburb which is attracting more and more black residents, spend your money in a way which will never be accessible to the majority, or consume products in a way which is not environmentally sustainable, little will be heard, except from a few radicals which we’ve worked out of mainstream conversations. So long as you make the right noises about all the good things you intend, and keep from braking these rules in the most blatant ways, you’ll be left alone, even considered a moral citizen whom are contributing to the social well-being of society.
And then we get those who follow Jesus, or those who follow Marx, that sit at a coffee-shop and discuss this new world where the first will be last, and where we should not wait to be served, but serve others, or where we dream of a world where the workers will not do work which they can’t afford to buy (and how many waiters can afford to sit at coffee-shops and be waited upon?). (and yes, I was sitting with Christian friends with Marxist inclinations at a coffee-shop in the past week)
And while the simple non-participation in the coffee-shops of our day might not lead to any kind of revolution creating a new world, we simply fail to notice that when ordering a Latté we are participating in keeping this system of unequal distribution in place. We have these nice ideas, but the true conversation towards our own ideas, that conversation which actually change our material reality in much more dramatic ways than by challenging our participation in coffee-shops (which can really be said to be an arguable example), that is what it is about.
However, it’s about more than hypocrisy. The skeptical view which we need to engage in the church, is that not only are our good ideas not reflected in how we construct our lives in this world, but our good ideas might actually be what keep us from constructing our concrete lives in a way which reflect the vision we claim to have of society. It is exactly because we can sit in church on Sunday mornings and dream about a society where all are equal that we can go out during the week and participate in a society where equality is a continually fading dream, always knowing that on Sunday morning a preacher will believe on our behalf that this dream is actually true, and thanks to this rhetoric we will be able to continue one more week.
So, since I have to go now for a meeting with fellow pastors at a local coffee-shop, and to prove that I’m don’t have in mind the typical examples of those who preach a heaven one day or something blatantly non-material as that, I’ll conclude with what I’m thinking about but still has to unpack more: is all this talk about mission actually changing the church, or is it exactly because of all this talk about mission that the so-called postmodern church is able to continue without actually changing.
January 28, 2011
I sat in church one morning as the preacher was sharing a story about Shane Claiborne. Suddenly a mass of thoughts kicked in which sprang from this one insight: this preacher doesn’t really want me to follow Claiborne! Why would the preacher propagate the example of Claiborne, Mother Theresa, Ghandi, Madiba… (Jesus?) and various radical voices if I shouldn’t follow in there footsteps? This is the post I’ve been meaning to write for many months. The one I maybe never should have written.
Youth ministry has a way of becoming a kind of barometer for what is cooking within the church. Here is the very simple test: In the church we like telling stories of Mother Theresa, Ghandi, Shane Claiborne (whom I mention because a story about him started this reflection in many ways) and many radicals. But what would the middle-class church do when we take these examples seriously? If we make them normative for youth ministry? What if youth ministry become a place where we tell children that they shouldn’t worry about getting a job and good education, but rather give up money and possessions in order to live among the poorest of the poor. And what if the children of the congregation would follow through on this. What if they were to literalize our examples, understanding our sermons and the examples we use as something which should actually be followed through?
Reinhold Niebuhr wasn’t the world greatest fan of the Mennonites and other radical ethical church-based ethics. But maybe he can help us in understanding this fascination with the radicals. In the classic Christ and Culture Niebuhr himself have to acknowledge that there is a certain fascination with these approaches where what they say and what they do actually come together. When we find these voices embodying a radical non-violence, actually living with the poor, we have a certain kind of respect for them. Niebuhr himself didn’t seem to consider the Christ Against Culture approach, where he would list the examples of Mennonites and other radicals, to be really helpful, and most mainline voices would probably be more comfortable with some of Niebuhr’s other approaches. Our continued use of example of radicals might therefore be out of respect, but I’m thinking something more sinister is at work here.
In line of liberation theology 101 we should begin to be skeptical when we see how these radical voices is being used. The overused quote from Dom Helder Camara enlighten us on this topic: ”When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” In the middle-class church we seem to like telling stories about the saints. But then the saints from Camara’s quote. Religious people. Those who give food to the poor. Those who practice Christianity in applaudable ways. We ignore the fact that these voices is calling into question the very existence of the churches in which we are quoting them! Because all of them, Claiborne, Theresa, Ghandi, Madiba (I have to add him at this point because of the frensy running at the moment), Jesus, were not only the saints from Camara’s quote, but also the Communists from Camara’s quote. They all called into question the middle-class white Western status quo (except for Jesus obviously, although it was another white Western middle-class that he was challenging). So maybe we like quoting saints. Not even the radicals from Niebuhr, those putting action into words, but those who participate in high-profile acts of compassion. But maybe something more sinister is at work here.
This obviously bring me to Peter Rollins (well maybe not so obviously, but is does). In one of Rollins’ parables (32 min into the conversation), he tells the story about the business man who lost his faith thanks to the preacher who prayed for him. This business man was using religion to define his being, while his material reality was that of being a corrupt business man. We could continue with hes corrupt ways because of the religion of which he was part, which he could use as lie to tell himself that actually his corrupt ways doesn’t define him.
But let me go somewhat deeper, into an argument which I believe might underlie Rollins’ story. In Zizek’s A Plea for Fundamentalism (at 25 minutes) he shares the insight of Agnes Scheller. Scheller was in a concentration camp in the 2nd World War, and observed that the largest group of people became a kind of “living dead”. They lost life, not even fighting for existence. Another group however resorted to a kind of egotistical life or death struggle. Everything was allowed in order to continue living. Lie. Steal. Fight for life in the most ruthless ways. But among this second group there was always (emphasize always) the idea that there is someone somewhere in the concentration camps that were able to remain a moral person. Should they however find that this doesn’t exist, they would become part of the living dead. The paradox he states: In order to be this total egotist, you had to believe that there is someone who hasn’t become this egotist which you are.
Zizek continue to talk about how religion keep capitalism in place. But at this point I want to move away from him, since the example he use is of religion that advocates a disconnect from the material reality which help us to fully participate in the capitalism reality (which is beautifully illustrated in Rollins’ parable). But in some mainline liberal environments the examples we use is exactly those who critique the same things Zizek critiques, who might agree completely with Zizek. We use these examples, the radicals actually living that which they say (or at least we believe that they are living what they are believing), but with the understanding that these examples are not to be followed.
Is it not that we share these stories to tell each other that “there is someone who was able to actually live the Christian life, and my identity is determined by being a Christian, not by what I am busy with daily”. Ghandi we obviously use in the church as a kind of Jesus-follower, ignoring his Hindu background and focusing on the fact that he liked the sermon on the mount. We call in these people and name them examples for how we are supposed to live, but there is a collective understanding that these examples shouldn’t be taken too seriously, although they should be considered part of the tradition which we are part of, they are Christian, we are Christian, and therefore we are part of those who actually live this radical life (although our very existence as middle-class church are shouting against this idea).
My fear is therefore that the sinister reality is that we call in people as examples in order that we can continue never to follow these examples. When do they move from being an example to becoming the soothing voice telling us that it is OK to continue on the path that we are on, since they have lived the radical path on our behalf.
On a side note I have to clarify why I have Nelson Mandela on this list next to Mother Theresa: Isn’t our reactions to health of Madiba a reminder that we have used him as a soothing voice for our own non-commitment to reconciliation? If Madiba was truly the inspiration we claim, then we should be able to let him go in peace, since a whole country would have taken over that which he claimed to stand for. Is the idea that Madiba shouldn’t die not the ultimate reminder that when we loose this icon of reconciliation, we (and I’m speaking primarily from the white community) would have to face the reality that we have not commited ourselves to reconciliation? (In similar fashion to Rollins’ parable and Zizek’s example from the concentration camp).
And then we need to go to the end of the list. Jesus. When Nolan writes:
“On the whole we don’t take Jesus seriously – whether we call ourselves Christian or not. There are some remarkable exceptions, but by and large we don’t love our enemies, we don’t turn the other cheek, we don’t forgive seventy times seven times, we don’t bless those who curse us, we don’t share what we have with the poor, and we don’t put all our hope and trust in God”
Why then do we call Jesus in as example? Is it because we think he should be followed?
I’m not against Mother Therese, Ghandi or Jesus. But if we use them to keep in place that which they were fighting against, then the faithful act might be to reject them.