What White Americans Can Learn from Nelson Mandela: Nelson Mandela Day 2016

mandelafreedom“He was born Rolihlahla, “Shaker of Trees.” He became Nelson Mandela and shook the world.” ~from The Long Walk of Nelson Mandela

Several years ago I watched a documentary on the Apartheid in South Africa during Denver’s Film Festival. I have spent time in South Africa and love the country. I have seen Mandela’s cell in the prison on Robben Island. I have been to Soweto and the museum in Johannesburg and listened to the stories. Though the film revisited many of these places, I actually recall very little of it except for the story of one man. He had a position in the South African government that supported and benefitted from the apartheid, the system of legislation that enforced severe racial segregation. He was also a Christian.

What I do remember of the film was his ache. “I didn’t see, I didn’t see,” he cried. Tears of repentance and lament dimmed his eyes as he described his awakening to the suffering and humiliation imposed on black South Africans by the privileged white regime. His lament is one that I hope and pray will be the cry of many white Americans as we slowly awaken to the reality of the experience of black people in America.

We simply don’t see. It is extremely difficult for white American Christians in particular to recognize our racism. We don’t like this word. We react to this word. But to move towards healing, we need to face this word. It’s not that most of us would ever wish misfortune upon a person of color, nor would many of us knowingly treat a person of a different race insensitively. Most of us just go about our lives, trying to be nice. And comfortable. And happy.

We simply don’t see.

We have a built in defense against seeing our complicity in the painful realities of the lives of those who are not white in America. We have created a church culture in which any sense of darkness, failure or just plain selfishness in ourselves is too shameful to admit. We have learned to cast the yuckiest parts of ourselves into shadow so we can present what is manageable and attractive. It is not uncommon to hear people talking about “what the Lord has been working on in me.” But it’s rare to hear the real humility of simple honesty: I am both saint and sinner, glorious and grotesque. And sometimes I’m just a jerk. I’m afraid. I get nervous when walking past a black man I don’t know. I assume that if a cop shoots a black man then he must have been guilty. “They” struggle because “they” don’t work hard enough. We don’t admit these things out loud very often. We are too practiced at presenting ourselves to be better than we actually are, and so we are not transformed in the deep places.

We don’t understand what life is like living in a black body in this nation. We simply can’t understand why “they” can’t just be like “us.” We don’t understand systemic injustices. We don’t realize that we judge others’ experiences and complaints and sufferings through the lens of our own lives and opportunities and presumptions. We don’t see that white lives are very privileged, which means that everything is tilted in our favor. We rarely meaningfully interact with people who struggle to survive underneath our society’s oppressive heel. We don’t see that we all have an innate suspicion of the other. We simply don’t see that we are deeply racist because we are deeply human.

It will be costly to learn to see through the eyes of the other. But it doesn’t start with scolding. It starts with love. Our faith brings us face to face with the gaze of Love. Most often we turn from its penetrating brightness. But once the light of that love has illuminated our hearts, we can begin to see others with new compassion. We can see ourselves with that compassion too, and be less fearful of seeing the ugly things we haven’t wanted to see. Encountering this Love is way of healing. It lifts the logs from our eyes and we see anew. It is the way of Christ.

Nelson Mandela knew such love. He was imprisoned for 27 years for opposing a regime whose apartheid laws constitutionally entrenched the humiliation and condition of de facto slavery for South African blacks. He was considered a terrorist. However, he spent his imprisonment learning Afrikaans, the language of his white captors and over time he won their respect. He read their books, and their poetry. He knew their souls. He created relationships through which he entreated the prison guards to treat him as a fellow man – one with human dignity. When he was released he treated everyone, including his former enemies, with the same respect and dignity that he had engendered for himself. He had fought white domination and therefore refused to allow black domination. He was a master reconciler; he persuaded a whole people, in this case the most racially divided people on Earth, to change their minds towards one another.

After Mandela’s release and the dismantling of apartheid law, the ANC (African National Congress) party was certain to win the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994. Nelson Mandela would become the President of South Africa. The party faced the small problem of deciding what would be the new national anthem for an essentially new nation. The old anthem celebrated the advance of white colonizers as they crushed black resistance. The unofficial anthem of black South Africans was a soulful, heartfelt tune about their longsuffering. It was gleefully clear to the new committee that the official white anthem was out. Mandela responded however, “This song that you treat so easily holds the emotions of many people who you don’t represent yet. With the stroke of a pen, you would take a decision to destroy the very – the only – basis that we are building upon: reconciliation.” He had spent 27 years getting to know the heart of those who had been his enemies. He taught that you win over people by respecting their symbols and all that is deeply meaningful to them saying, “You don’t address their brains, you address their hearts.” Eventually they pulled together two anthems in five languages into one united song.

And slowly, gently, hearts were changed, like that of the weeping Christian man in the documentary. “I was blind and now I see,” he cried. Hearts were transformed because someone listened, learned, and opened himself to the other. Mandela refused to ever compromise on the dignity of the human person no matter what color, political stance or religion. Some in the former apartheid regime feared a reverse apartheid. Instead, Mandela learned their stories, he listened to their souls, and he honored their lives. He crossed over into the reality of the other. And a nation healed.

May it be so for us, America. We have been graced with the light of God’s love and the hard won wisdom of this teacher who helps to illuminate our darkened path.

 

The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. (JN. 1:5)

“I once asked Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel peace prize winner like Mandela, and one of the people who knew him most intimately, if he could define Mandela’s greatest quality. Tutu thought for a moment and then – triumphantly – uttered one word: magnanimity. ‘Yes,’ he repeated, more solemnly the second time, almost in a whisper. ‘Magnanimity!’ There is no better word to define Mandela. No leader more big-hearted, more regal, more generously wise. Not now and, quite possibly, not ever.” ~John Carlin

Mandela was a reader. Some books that help with learning and listening include: Disunity in Christ by Christena Cleveland, Divided by Faith by Emerson and Smith, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the many powerful novels by Toni Morrison.

Dear Straight Christians, Can we talk?

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Dear Straight Christians,

We are all reeling from the fact that fifty precious children of God were gunned down in the wee hours of last Sunday morning. Fifty families are grieving the loss of their children. Fifty-three more families sit with their wounded loved ones in Florida hospitals.

Make no mistake, these souls were specifically targeted because of their sexual orientations. My gay family members and friends who I love dearly are devastated, broken hearted and traumatized. Our nation is once again aching from the raw, open wound of senseless, violent loss.

Loving them well now is going to ask a lot of us. Because, it isn’t about us.

Let’s be honest. The gay community already knows what too many Christians believe about their orientations. They know how they have been judged in character. They have heard, “You’re rebellious, you offend God, you are a mess, disgusting, disobedient. We don’t affirm you or support you. We don’t seek need to seek to understand you.” Then they have heard, “love the sinner, hate the sin” as a posture that attempts to justify the things we’ve said. But what that phrase actually communicates is, “We can judge what is acceptable in you and what is not. You are tainted. You must hide part of your soul away.” These things can never communicate love.

Can we have the courage to be even more honest here? Words and beliefs such as these help to create a climate of mistrust and otherness that can pave the way for hurtful actions. I am not assigning blame. I am saying we need to be aware of the ramifications of our ideologies. We affect the whole, for good or for not, and creating so much otherness fans the flames of those who need a target. After an event like this, we shouldn’t be surprised if the gay community has difficulty trusting our tears and love now.

The human ego cannot face its own shadow. We each keep our lesser-than, insecure, unloved parts hidden away, believing that if all I show to others is what will give others the best impression of me, then that impression is who I am. And it’s who I want to believe I am. However, Jesus was never fooled by the “clean cups” of the Pharisees that were gleaming on the outside, but filthy on the inside. When we hate, disdain or feel threatened by something in others, we are actually projecting the hated and rejected parts of ourselves out onto them. It’s a way of feeling purged and feeling acceptable by comparison as we reject, diminish or set them apart in some way. We even dare to believe that our rejection of the unacceptable other (or their parts) pleases God. This way of thinking sets up an atmosphere of fear and mistrust that opens the doorway to justify hurting the excluded ones. This pattern is as old as Cain and Abel. It’s been in our own sacred narratives from the very beginning.

The gay community have long been our scapegoats. And now that they are hurting and afraid, we have the opportunity to change for the sake of love. We have opportunity to be a part of the healing of the world that we so long for. It’s an opportunity to recall and reflect that the heart of God is not either/or. The heart of God is Mercy.

Jesus always beckons us into deeper and deeper depths of love. His way is always the path of kenosis, the emptying out of ourselves and our egos. Just as a swimmer cannot enter the depths of any waters weighted down with baggage, so must we leave our shoulds and oughts and dogmas and statements of beliefs on the riverbank, emptying ourselves of everything, so we may dive in too.

And so, may we stun the world with what the love of God really looks like:

  • Love comes to us as we are.
  • Love does not come with caveats.
  • Love doesn’t draw lines, make demands, or ultimatums.
  • Love seeks to know what it’s like to walk in another’s shoes.
  • Love doesn’t look down upon anyone.
  • Love never says, “us and them.” Love creates “we.”

And, may we graciously stand in the way of those who could do harm during this time of grief:

  • It is not time to expect the gay community to be grateful for our sorrow. But they sure could use genuine advocates for their safety and basic human rights. Even simply asking one another to watch how we speak can help.
  • There are a lot of competing voices clamoring for attention today in the aftermath, rendering the pain of the gay community invisible. Honor the grieving by not allowing yourself to get sidetracked in arguing other issues.
  • There’s lots of scapegoating and blame, which is always driven by fear, not love. Be the voice that says, the wounded and fallen ones did not deserve this.
  • Remember, it’s not about our caveats, and making sure people know where you stand. That’s ultimately only self-serving because it creates “us and them” again. It’s all about unfettered, unbounded love.

We have been down this road so many times. Late night host and person of faith Stephen Colbert said, “What do you say in the face of this horror? I don’t know what to say…But sadly, you know what to say because it has been said too many times before… It’s as if there’s a national script that we have learned. By accepting the script we tacitly accept that the script will end the same way every time with nothing changing, except for the loved ones of the victims and families for whom nothing will ever be the same. It’s easy to…despair and say, that is the way the world is now. I don’t know what to do, but I do know that despair is a victory for hate. Hate wants us to be too weak to change anything. Love does not despair. Love makes us strong. Love gives us the courage to act. Love gives us hope that change is possible. Love allows us to change the script.” Preach, brother.

Love can even move an obstacle as heavy and stubborn as the human ego. Love moves us beyond despair to open up the courageous humility that transformation requires. Love awakens us to its powerful movement throughout all of creation that will ultimately knit us all together as one.

The love of Christ says, you are not other than me.

May all of these children rest in peace with God.

Love,
a fellow sojourner

 

August 2012 Synchroblog and Provoketive Magazine: Follow Me

This month the Synchroblog is partnering with Provoketive Magazine once again. We will each explore the implications of Jesus’ words: “Take up your cross and follow me.”

“Take up your cross and follow me.” ~Jesus

As I reflect on the severely polarized and politicized struggles within American Christianity it is evident how little these struggles really have to do with Jesus. Both sides are more interested in isolating an ideology and then vilifying those who hold a different view. And of course, we are all convinced that our ideology is more “biblical” than any other. In all honesty, I think we hold on for dear life to our stances and beliefs so that we may convince ourselves that this is what Jesus really wants from us. It’s like a collective thought disorder. But it’s much easier than following him.

Because truthfully, who really wants to follow him?

He did the very thing that our American worldview does not allow. We are all about being upwardly mobile, successful, safe and prosperous and so we have co-opted God into that belief. We believe that God is all about blessing our efforts and that our success proves God’s favor. Our Christianity has become a prop for middle to upper class comfort and security. That ideal is found nowhere in the gospels. Jesus’ movement was decidedly downward. He moved right into the neighborhood of powerlessness and need.

I think what is most difficult for us is that Jesus, though already fairly poor, chose to become homeless. He claimed all humanity as his family and moved away from his nuclear family, which in his culture was a shameful act. (He obviously needs a tutorial in family values.) But in addition to that, while most good Jewish men of his age would have married and started having children, his singleness aligned him with the “non-procreators”, like the eunuchs, who were considered unclean and inferior. There were no categories of gay or straight in Jesus’ day; people were either procreative or non-procreative. Those who did not or could not produce children for any reason were suspect, or outcast. (See Jesus’ words in Matt. 19:11-12.) He chose solidarity with the most despised.

We know he treated women as full and competent disciples, he welcomed the stranger and the sick, touched the dead, and healed the children of the enemy. In his presence the tight miserly hands that held onto precious silver and gold opened wide. He undermined every structure of religion and empire and really, really ticked off those with power. Let’s just be honest. It’s far, far easier and safer to convince ourselves that being pro-life and justifying the harsh realities of the lives of those with less (money, resources, opportunity), or feeling superior for being more tolerant than thou, is somehow at all like the path Jesus walked.  Instead, Jesus asks us to pick up the instrument of our death and to follow where he goes. Any sane person would count the cost. Any sane person would struggle with it, because to follow Jesus means that we no longer get to co-opt the faith to make our own lives work.

Many of those whom I know that consider themselves to be “biblical” Christians feel that the “dying” that is asked of them means they reject the “world” and its values (hence the dogged political views). However, I wonder if how we have come to understand “the world” has become quite distorted. Blogger and Wild Goose Founder Mike Morrell says, “Jesus was referring to the world of principalities and powers, those inhuman and dehumanizing forces of religion and empire. He wasn’t referring to culture-as-such, and certainly not to planet earth. Millions of friends-of-God are awakening to the reality that we live in a God-blessed and God-beloved world that God still thinks is ‘very good,’ however marred by egoic haze and degradation its become. We’re all connected – for life or death.”

And there it is. What will “kill” us is following Jesus’ movement into the God-blessed and God-beloved world, and receiving those for whom Christ died as we would Christ Himself. That means making a home with them all, in the here and now. That means looking beyond political and doctrinal divisions into the eyes of all humanity, not to minister to them or over them, but to join them and work alongside them. Jesus asks us to do the very thing our religious and political hearts find abhorrent. But by making space within ourselves to receive the other, we are changed by them and ego dies. We begin to become less defined by our certainties and stances, and more defined by love, by becoming “we”. And Kingdom comes. That was Jesus’ prayer for us before he died, and his prayer for us as he continues to live.

It’s much easier to convince ourselves that we are following Jesus by choosing to eat or not to eat at a certain chicken restaurant. It’s much harder to share your table with those whom you have decided don’t belong. It’s even harder to admit that there is only One Table. However, we are going to need each other because let’s face it, Jesus’ path is more than a little crazy. It will cost us our lives.

Links to the Synchrobloggers will be added as they come in.:)

Carol Kuniholm Which “Way” Am I Called to Follow?

Glenn Hager Strange Places

A Memorial Day prayer by Mark Twain, if we dare

The War Prayer

by Mark Twain

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and sputtering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spreads of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country and invoked the God of Battles, beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpouring of fervid eloquence which moved every listener.

It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Sunday morning came – next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their faces alight with material dreams – visions of a stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender! – then home from the war, bronzed heros, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation – “God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest, Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!”

Then came the “long” prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory.

An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher’s side and stood there, waiting.

With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal,” Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!”

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside – which the startled minister did – and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said:

“I come from the Throne – bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd and grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import – that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of – except he pause and think.

“God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two – one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of His Who hearth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this – keep it in mind. If you beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

“You have heard your servant’s prayer – the uttered part of it. I am commissioned by God to put into words the other part of it – that part which the pastor, and also you in your hearts, fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!’ That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory – must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God the Father fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

“O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle – be Thou near them! With them, in spirit, we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it – for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

(After a pause)

“Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits.”

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

[April 2012 Synchroblog] Is There a Christianity without the Resurrection?

This month’s Synchroblog explores the question: What if Jesus never rose from the dead? If there were no resurrection, would there still be a religion known as Christianity?

My first thought is, without the resurrection I don’t think Christianity would have survived. After all, after the crushing blow of Jesus’ death, there had to be something big that happened to have caused those first century Christians to risk their lives and endure 300 years of intense persecution and torment at the hands of Rome. Something happened that opened up a whole new way of seeing life, hope and the Kingdom of God. And as a result, the Church has survived for 2000 tumultuous years.

However, it seems it’s been really hard to recapture the early passion of the church. I sat with several friends this week for whom the Easter season felt flat, even sad. “Why bother?” they asked. There’s tons of historical and psychological explanations to explore, but in a nutshell what I see in our present day is major memory loss on the part of the church.

The liberal theology that has flourished since the 18th century de-emphasizes the supernatural events of Christ’s life such as the virgin birth, atoning death and resurrection in favor of an earthy, incarnational faith that concentrated on feeding the poor, caring for the sick and imprisoned, and outcast, and treating the least of these as Christ Himself. This became known as the social gospel, a Christianity to make a difference in the world. To be fair, not all denied basic orthodoxy as truth, but there was and is a definite concentration of the actions of Jesus and his command that his followers do the same. It’s cool stuff really, however, there is a major problem. This liberal reductionist theology has not produced on its promises: that humanity alone can change this world for the better. It cannot change the human heart. In its blindest moments, it allows evil to remain unchecked.

Conservatives on the other hand, have inexplicably thrown out the social gospel in their fervor to preserve the basic tenets of orthodoxy (virgin birth, atoning death and resurrection). On this end, the faith has become dangerously more about having an accurate Christology than about Christ. The actions and life and teachings of Jesus are seen primarily as a means to the Cross and personal eternal salvation, over against having a significant purpose of their own. The emphasis then has shifted from caring for the world to personal and social morality. This has overshadowed the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God in and among us, a subject about which Jesus spoke frequently. Though a creedal understanding of events like the resurrection is a necessity (and I’m grateful for the preservation), the words of Peter Rollins come to mind: “I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.”

The problem with both “ends” is that extreme wickedness remains throughout our human societies. The social gospel is not able to diminish it in this hurting world, and the emphasis on eternal salvation and creeds has not diminished it in the hearts those of us who call ourselves “saved”. Both poles seem to act as though the resurrection never happened (except as an assurance for heaven perhaps) and it’s not working out so well. True transformation does not seem to happen much when we live in extremes.

If resurrection is to be believed, it must be about much, much more than doing good stuff or believing the right stuff, no matter how sincerely these things are done. The resurrection happened within this world, so I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it then, that it has a whole lot to do with this world. It is not merely a hope that lies in the future outside of this world but a renewal right here, right now within it.

NT Wright says,

[The resurrection is] the utterly characteristic, prototypical, and foundational event within the world as it has begun to be. It is not an absurd event within the old world but the symbol and starting point of the new one. The claim advanced in Christianity is of that magnitude: Jesus of Nazareth ushers in not simply a new religious possibility, not simply a new ethic or a new way of salvation, but a NEW CREATION. (emphasis mine)

To paraphrase Wright, there is a new world being reborn in Jesus, and in this world Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t. God’s saving rule is breaking in. As my pastor often says, Jesus didn’t come to make us good, He came to make us new. There’s something beautiful and powerful and real enough to change the intractable narcissism of our hearts. And, it’s not just about us, it is about the renewal and healing of everything. Old things have passed away, the new has come.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of striving. We’ve all blown it in some way. We’ve all decided that we’re right and our way of doing religion is better than that of “them over there”. And I’m not going to give a “10 steps to the Resurrection Life” schpiel because I don’t have one. I hope that is a relief. I think the way is simply like that of the early church: Come and see this Jesus of Nazareth.

Richard Rohr says,

Christ Crucified is all of the hidden, private, tragic pain of history made public and given over to God. Christ Resurrected is all of that private, ungrieved, unnoted suffering received, loved, and transformed by an All-Caring God. How else could we believe in God at all? How else could we have any kind of cosmic hope? How else would we not die of sadness for what humanity has done to itself and to one another? Jesus is the blueprint, the plan, the pattern revealed in one body and moment of history to reveal the meaning of all of history and each of our lives. The cross is the banner of what we do to one another and to God. The resurrection is the banner of what God does to us in return. Easter is the announcement of God’s perfect and final victory.

He is God’s life-affirming yes to the universe. And yes, Resurrection says, this is not the end.

Check out our other Synchrobloggers:

March Synchroblog: All About Eve

You’d have to be living under a rock these last few years to not be aware of the escalating frenzy around women’s health and women’s rights that is going on in political and religious spheres. There have been a myriad of bills that include unnecessary intrusive procedures, limiting birth control coverage, diminishing the definition of rape and even the “Protect Life Act” bill H.R. 358 which would allow women who need abortions due to life threatening conditions to be turned away. There is an extreme obsession with female “pelvic issues”, as one theologian has named it.

Then there was the recent kerfuffle about Rush Limbaugh’s vile tirade about Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke, calling her a slut and a prostitute for testifying about mandated insurance coverage for birth control. (Originally, no female voices were going to be allowed at all at the committee.) In addition, he showed quite a bit of unfortunate ignorance about how female contraception works, adding weight to the questions, why are men deciding what is good and necessary for the female body? Why the need for such obsessive control? I was saddened but not surprised to hear some female conservative Christian friends support him, even with the clearly uninformed and misogynistic attitudes. This all came not long after John Piper asserted that, “Christianity should have a masculine feel.” He justifies that by listing all of the men involved in Jesus’ ministry in that very patriarchal society. Apparently, God intended that the subversion of women into a male dominated religion was meant to help her “flourish.”

While so much of this is justified and defended as “biblical truth” it more accurately reflects an interpretation forged through long term, deep-seated, negative attitudes towards women. These attitudes deny the humanity and dignity of women as full Image bearers. To believe that woman can only flourish while being ruled over by men is the same rationale used to justify colonialism in Africa and the worldwide slave trade in which it was believed that whites should rule over blacks for their own good. The roots of beliefs like these spring from the ancient patriarchal belief system that held women to be property and whose duty it was to enhance the power and numbers of the male leaders’ tribe. Therefore, he must control her reproduction to protect his interests.

What we see happening today in parts of conservative Christianity is that it has become a very disembodied religion. It has become belief in beliefs. (Insert a long boring historical explanation about the impact of the enlightenment, rationalism and singular trust in cognitive ways of knowing here.) It’s like when Jesus was faced with the Pharisees as he healed a man on the Sabbath. The Pharisees knew the law. They had their beliefs. I imagine they could also see the disconnect – the cruelty that existed in refusing healing to this man, yet they insisted on the following the letter of the Law, certain that to do so would please God. Over and over, Jesus challenged religious beliefs for the sake of love. He healed on the Sabbath, touched women- even bleeding ones, and touched the dead among other things that were forbidden for a Jewish man. The Pharisees had beliefs; Jesus lived an incarnational faith.

Like the Pharisees, those who are acting in ways that diminish the voice of women and the needs of women are trapped in their beliefs. There is admittedly a lot at stake for them here. One (conservative) seminary professor has said, “I contend that if we lose the battle over the gender debate, we lose a proper interpretation of God’s word,… We lose inerrancy. We lose the authority of the Bible, and that is detrimental to the gospel.” There’s little wonder that it feels so threatening to them to even consider that their interpretation may have problems. If your belief is in beliefs and one belief is found to be faulty, the whole house of cards will come down. Such a precarious situation means that they must defend their beliefs fiercely. When that is the case, they must not only enforce their beliefs over others but also absolve themselves from the inherent disconnect: responsibility for the suffering they might impose. They remain safely removed from the messiness of lives and stay unmovable in their beliefs, certain that this pleases God.

The problem is of course, that this is far more than a problem with interpretation. This has real life impact on half of the human race. Other examples include the refusal of the Catholic Church to allow condom use which has been shown to contribute to the proliferation of HIV in Africa. The book Angela’s Ashes follows the story of an Irish Catholic man and the chronically hungry children of his community that was pressured by beliefs that to forbid reliable birth control was pleasing to God. In addition, many women who take birth control do not do it for family planning reasons but for medical reasons, such as to prevent ovarian cysts or to correct hormonal problems. A woman who uses birth control is no more a slut than a man who uses Viagra is a dog. But these woman and their children are the flesh and blood realities impacted by the rigid adherence to beliefs over faith.

Most importantly, Jesus came to unseat our enslavement to beliefs, literally the letter of the Law, and to center us on himself, God revealing Godself in Christ. Jesus said nothing about doctrine or positions during his years on earth. But he did teach and demonstrate an embodied love – cool water for the thirsty, clothes for the naked, food for the hungry, help for a wounded stranger by the side of the road, and human dignity for all, even or perhaps especially, for women. To reduce following Jesus down to a set of beliefs to be enforced has turned his emphasis upside down.

I admit that beliefs are easier than faith. And lest anyone make assumptions, I do hold to Christian creeds about God and our faith. I have many conservative Christian friends whom I respect and admire. They are still my homies and I would consider many of them the very best people on earth. But there must be room for healthy self-criticism and self-reflection for the parts that seem to have shifted their gaze. When beliefs become the most important thing, it changes the very nature of our faith because Jesus in flesh and blood is no longer the center. This is how we tell the difference: Beliefs cause us to hide and preserve and rule over, faith draws us across borders into the reality of others’ lives and needs in humble love. Then people, not beliefs, become the point.

Jesus expanded the gist of the “moral law” a thousand fold. And some of Jesus’ best friends were (are) sluts. Just saying.

Enjoy the other Synchrobloggers:

Marta Layton The War on Terror and the War on Women

Kathy Escobar replacing the “f” word with the “d” word (no, not one of those ones!)

Tammy Carter Pat Summitt: Changing the Game & Changing the World

Wendy McCaig Letting Junia Fly: Releasing the Called

Words Half Heard Lenten Submission: Rethinking Hupotassō

Jeremy Myers Women Must Lead the Church

KW Leslie Churches and Women

 Michelle Morr Krabill – Why I Love Being a Woman

Jeanette Altes – On Being Female

Melody Hanson – Call Me Crazy, But I Talk To Jesus Too

Glenn Hager – Walked Into A Bar

Steve Hayes – St. Christina of Persi

Leah Sophia – March Syncroblog-All About Eve

Liz Dyer – The Problem Is Not That I See Sexism Everywhere…

Sonja Andrews – International Women’s Day

Sonnie Swenston-Forbes – The Women

Christine Sine – It All Begins With Love

K.W. Leslie – Undoing the Subordination of Women

Carie Good – The Math of Mr. Cardinal

Dan Brennan – Ten Women I Want To Honor 

[Book Review] Kissing Fish: Christianity for People Who Don’t Like Christianity

Kissing Fish: Christianity for People Who Don’t Like Christianity
By Roger Wolsey
Xlibris Corporation

It’s important to remember while reading Kissing Fish: Christianity for People Who Don’t Like Christianity, that the stated purpose of this book is to reach out to those who “don’t currently identify as being Christian, or who do privately, but are hesitant to let others know because the word “Christian” has come to be associated with behaviors, stances, and attitudes that they don’t want to be associated with.” The author brings an evangelistic passion for offering a broader, more progressive point of view to those who for one reason or another stand apart from Christianity. I understand his fervor, having experienced the same frustrations and hurts from within conservative Christianity that much of Wolsey’s target audience has seen and felt. However, at times the tone of the book seems to reflect the very type of thinking that the author criticizes in the parts of conservative Christianity that say, “This is why they are off base, and why we are right.” I admit, at one time this stance would have felt affirming to me. However, at this point in my faith journey, I wonder if that posture only creates more confusion about it all.

The book is best understood through the author’s profoundly personal faith journey that has shaped his beliefs and devotion. Roger Wolsey is an ordained United Methodist pastor who serves on the campus of the University of Colorado. “I shouldn’t be a Christian,” he tells us, “The odds were against it.” His deep disappointment with the church as a youth and young adult confused him about God and repelled him from the church. His faith was later re-ignited through time spent with an intimate community that was “unobtrusive, authentic, down to earth and intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually satisfying.” He came to love Christianity through their communal lens, in contrast to the more individualistic “flying solo” lens of the more conservative traditions that he had seen.

Through his own story, Wolsey seeks to advocate an understanding of Christianity that speaks to today’s postmodern young adults who “embrace a more nuanced, experiential, paradoxical, mystical and relational approach to faith and spirituality” than what has been presented to them through the more outspoken and fundamentalist forms. In this light Wolsey presents his treatise on Progressive Christianity, which he claims, actually “represents a reformation of the church to its earlier, pre-modernist and pre-Constantine roots.” He adds, “Ironically, this implies that in reality, it is progressive Christianity that is conservative and “conservative Christianity” isn’t.”

He offers a series of contrasts and challenges to consider that juxtapose conservative and progressive Christian thought. For example, there are many statements such as, “Conservative Christianity focuses on the religion about Jesus and getting people to agree with certain intellectual truth claims and that its important for people to believe all these things here and now so that they can go to heaven when they die. Progressive Christianity focuses on a more radical way of life, namely, the counter-cultural, subversive and life-giving teachings of Jesus.” And, “Conservative Christianity emphasizes people’s personal relationships with God, Progressive Christianity remembers the Jewish (and Jesus’) understanding of salvation by additionally focusing upon the broader pursuits of inter-human hesed (loving kindness) and the societal Kingdom of God and striving for personal wholeness and social peace, justice and liberation from oppression and bondage.” There are many who will resonate with the first halves of the statements, weary of the narrowness of focus in the conservative church. The progressive alternative is certainly compelling. And the author’s intent is to offer a different lens upon what it means to follow Jesus, and in that he succeeds. However, I do have to wonder if the portrayals of conservative Christianity– and in all fairness I must add that conservatism has made me want to scream all too often– are perhaps too reductionistic and therefore, unfair. Then again, maybe not. Even so, the propensity within us to vilify the other, whomever they may be, stands in sharp contrast to Jesus’ imperative to love one another (even those with whom we disagree) and that is something that I wish the author had addressed with more force.

All that aside, there is much in what Wolsey presents as progressive Christianity that is beautiful and hopeful. He takes on a hefty task by exploring a wide range of topics such as liberation theology, process theology and openness theology. In addition, he explores current hot spots such as the nature of the atonement, the realities of heaven and hell, eschatology, and the problem of theodicy. He also addresses differences and problems of interpretation of scripture and the hermeneutical lenses that both enhance and distort our reading. Obviously, in a work of this length these topics cannot be fully explored. In order to be thorough and fair (to both sides), this work could or should have been multiple books. But his ideas serve as conversation starters, designed to challenge and captivate the minds of those who are frustrated by their perception of the Christian gospel, and to answer some of their struggles.

Problems to be aware of include the fact that Wolsey appears to speak as if Progressive Christianity is a singular group with a clear statement of faith. He also does not clearly differentiate between what is progressive and what is liberal Christianity. (Many of my Progressive friends tell me pointedly that there is a difference!)  Finally, the author often approaches issues as if there are just two possible points of view, conservative or progressive. The diversity of thinking within the Catholic Church as well as well as a multitude of Protestant traditions (and Eastern Orthodox) do bring much more varied and diverse perspectives to all of the issues discussed. Again, the point of the book is to address those who have been repelled by certain strains of conservative Christianity and to offer them what the author has found to be a life-giving alternative. But its hard not to feel as though the vast diversity of the Body of Christ has been diminished a bit by lumping all of us into one of these two categories.

The most compelling arguments for the author’s point of view lie in the last few chapters of the book which emphasize both personal practices such as prayer, forgiveness and reconciliation, and the outward practices of serving and loving others. Wolsey’s passion and compassion for our hurting world is palpable. The “love chapters” push past all of the theological arguments of who or what best represents Christianity, and bring to mind Jesus’ words, “You will know [my followers] by their fruits.” Progressive Christians value orthopraxis, the “right” and radical way of love taught by Jesus. It is here that we are presented with a Christianity that is truly worth giving our all.

Even with all of the problems of the book, it’s hard to dismiss the zeal of a man who desires to entice college students (and yeah, probably the rest of us too) to follow Jesus and help to create the Kingdom of God in the here and now. Wolsey says, “Christians are called to be peacemakers and evangelists of the Christian gospel of forgiveness of sins. Christian are also called to be justice makers – people who do what they can do to create a world where there will be as few sins and transgressions committed as possible. For we know that there will be less to forgive if there are fewer sins and offenses committed. And we know there’ll be less of a need for bandages in a world where ‘justice rolls on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream.’” (Amos 5:24)

It’s a worthy read.