World Refugee Day: Imagining a New Way

PAY-Syrian-Refugee_Daniel Etter

Photograph by Daniel Etter.

There are few who haven’t been moved by the visible anguish of Laith Majid as he and his family finally landed safely on the shores of a Greek island. Clutching his little ones, he arrived drenched and freezing in a rubber dinghy barely afloat, with an entire nation’s pain written on his face. His bravery and suffering awakened my heart like a stinging slap of icy salt water.

I wept for him. I tried to imagine what it was like to be him.

  • I have never been so very desperate as to dare to bring my family and others across a huge sea in a rubber dinghy meant for three.
  •  I have never had to leave absolutely everything behind, showing up in a new land as a pauper with children in tow, fully dependent on the good will of others.
  •  I have never had to test the courage it takes to simply choose to live.

It’s easy to go throughout my busy week and forget that millions of people live on this planet with refugee status. The UN says that there are “currently some 43 million uprooted victims of conflict and persecution worldwide. More than 15 million of them are refugees who have fled their countries, while another 27 million are people who remain displaced by conflict inside their own homelands — so-called ‘internally displaced people’.” The sheer numbers of desperate people are overwhelming. They are people who love and are loved, people who have hopes and dreams. And for the many who are housed in refugee camps, generations will pass before anything really changes for them.

I don’t believe we forget because we don’t care. A good many of us are simply trying to love God and our families, do our jobs, pay our bills, and surf the ups and downs of our lives. It’s not lost on us that in America we have it pretty good.

But here are desperate human beings asking the world for help.

This brings up lots of legitimate questions and concerns. How many refugees can a local economy take at once? How do we designate resources for all the people in need? Is there enough to go around? Is there enough for us? And what if they have terrorist leanings? Are we inviting the horrific cruelty of ISIL into our midst? We all know that the political struggle over the issues has been divisive and brutal.

I’m tired of arguing a “side”. I can only dare myself to gaze at Mr. Majid’s face and encounter his need. It scares me.

I am grateful that we have our stories, our sacred narratives that can speak to the humbling truth that I have no idea what to do. The refugee situation is a worldwide crisis. The battle of the Left and Right keeps us stuck. But I have been reading some of the work of theologian Walter Brueggemann who brings us to the stories that deal with overwhelming pain and stuckness.

[Note: These next paragraphs are my attempt to synthesize and summarize Dr. Brueggemann’s brilliant words and work from The Prophetic Imagination. The first edition of this book was written in 1978 but I find it uncannily fitting for today. Any and all brilliance in the following paragraphs is purely his.]

The story of the Exodus is a powerful point of identity for Israel. They had been were slaves in Egypt. They had become accustomed to life under Pharaoh. It was the only social reality that could be imagined. Even the religion of the Hebrew people was subverted to work for the Pharaoh’s purposes to keep the machinations of his kingdom moving. Life was hard but at least there was work and food. But Israel cried out under their bondage. And God heard.

In the stories that follow, we see that the claims of Pharaohs’ empire are ended by the disclosure of the freedom of God, that is, that God is not beholden to maintain the purposes of the dominant culture. God is not captive to anyone’s social perception or purposes. The God of Moses subverts the comfortable reality of Pharaoh and sides with the oppressed and the marginalized. The God of Moses dismantled the politics of oppression and exploitation by countering it with the politics of justice and compassion. The Hebrews found themselves being formed into a new way of being, to match the vision of God’s freedom.

The revolution of Moses was sustained for generations (with some significant ups and downs) until under King Solomon, Israel itself became “empire”. The kingdom of Solomon was one of incredible affluence. Whereas the alternative consciousness of Moses arose in a time of scarcity, there were enough consumer goods in Israel under Solomon to remove much of their anxiety about survival. The alternative consciousness brought by Moses began to lose ground. It is difficult to maintain a revolution of justice and freedom when there is satiation. In our own economy for example, says Brueggemann, it is hard to maintain passion for civil rights when we are so overly fed.

However, he continues, the great Solomonic achievement was achieved by oppressive social policy. The affluence was hierarchal and unevenly distributed. Brueggemann also suggests that the religion of the Hebrews once again became a static religion in which the freedom of God was subverted into servicing the purposes of the King. He calls this a “religion of immanence” which means that the prevailing idea was that God was at the disposal of the King. When religion becomes static in order to maintain the purposes of empire, the people are conditioned to become afraid of anything that might change the status quo. The passion for real freedom and justice has been co-opted for lesser things. Those in power know that all it takes to counter an alternative consciousness is satiation.

Brueggemann describes the effects of the empire’s numbing satiation of the people: In the royal program of achievable satiation there is a religion of optimism in which God has no business other than to maintain our standard of living. There are no mysteries to honor but only problems to be solved using the cost accounting of management mentality. The value of a soul is calculated by statistics and financial speculations. This numbing satiation also requires the annulment of neighbor as life giver. It imagines we can “live outside history as self-made men and women.”

America, in all her splendor, is not unlike the empire of Solomon and Pharaoh. We boast unprecedented affluence and yet, the distribution of such affluence is extremely inequitable. As with Solomon and Pharaoh, the working class supports the upper echelon. American Christianity has in large part become conflated with the American dream, the religion of optimism. Being self-made and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps has become a religious value. American Christianity has become static in that we cannot see beyond our infighting to imagine a different reality this side of heaven. In our sleepy satiation, pockmarked with bouts of fear, we only can see to preserve ourselves.

But just as it was with Israel, it seems we have come to a time when God has tired of indifferent affluence. Like the prophets of old, the sopping, traumatized travelers that are washing up on the earth’s shores serve as a means of startling our hearts awake beyond our fears, our politics, and our comforts. The reality of human suffering – all of our suffering- can awaken us to seek a better vision that matches the freedom of God.

Even as empire lives by numbness and controlled perceptions, Jesus penetrates numbness and enters into the hurt of desperate people, and eventually comes to embody it. He reveals a very different value system than empire, where the outcast and the loser are the valued ones, where he calls into question even all moral distinction on which the society was based, and where he transforms through his own vulnerable solidarity with poor, empty and grieving.

The answers we seek lie in the awakening of our consciousness. Our future is not bound by this present. It cannot be assured or guaranteed by the values of empire. However, Jesus shows us the way to this alternative consciousness, this new mind. It is the way that empire can never imagine. It is the way of self-emptying. Jesus does not numb himself to the pain of the hurting; he joins it. He is mercy.

Brueggemann says that the future is an unqualified yes from God. Every great teacher of mine agrees! God is free from the mechanistic ways of our best systems, our “what if’s”, and our fears around fairness and deservingness. If we believe this is true, we are also free to imagine a reality different from the one we have created. We are free to risk and to enter into the pain of the refugee. We are free to awaken the passion of mercy.

Brueggemann reflects:

“Passion is the capacity and readiness to care, to suffer, to die, and to feel is the enemy of imperial reality. Imperial economy is designed to keep people satiated so that they do not notice. Its politics tend to block out the cries of the denied ones. Its religion is to be an opiate so that no one discerns misery alive in the heart of God.”

The misery of Mr. Majid and countless others like him, is the misery of God. As we awaken again to the freedom of God, we may just find a way to join Mr. Majid there in God’s aching heart. We may awaken enough to dare to imagine God’s alternative reality, and we may just heal the world.



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.

[February 2012 Synchroblog] Economic Inequality: Coming Back to Our Senses

Our Synchroblog this month explores the ever-expanding gap between rich and poor in our country and others. Reports show that this gap is has reached its highest level in 30 years. One only needs to look at history to see that money equals power in this world. And when so much power is in the hands of a few, the many are disadvantaged. The extremely poor are even more at a disadvantage. Dr. Cornel West says, “Poverty is an economic catastrophe, inseparable from the power of greedy oligarchs and avaricious plutocrats indifferent to the misery of poor children, elderly citizens and working people.”

I didn’t want to be part of this blog. It gives me a pain in the gut to think about these things. I have seen few issues create more anger and divisiveness than this one. I have seen it turn seemingly civil and kind people into raging, snarling foes. Even for those who can contain their anger, there remains a certain unwillingness to see the plight of others who are impacted by their views. And I have no solutions. I do believe that re-regulating Wall St.* and insisting that the very rich and the big corporations pay their fair share in taxes is the right thing to do. That’s just common sense. But I don’t know how to change our love for this beast that ensnares our lives. We need to try. There are over 2,000 verses in the Bible that reference the poor. That’s a significant clue that this is supposed to matter.

In all honesty, all I know to do is call out to the church, for we are the embodiment of Jesus now. Jesus turns power upside-down. He is the one who takes an axe to the roots of systems that exploit and oppress. Like Jesus, we are the persistent little stream of water that gradually softens the rock hard foundations of the structures of power. I don’t know so much about what to do, but I do think we can explore who we are meant to be.

I have come to believe that money stands in opposition to the Kingdom. There is nothing else about which Jesus gave such an explicit warning. He made it very plain in the Sermon on the Mount: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Mt. 6:24) Jesus is rarely so dualistic in his thinking. But here He is very plain. It’s either/or.

Money seems to break down the very essence of who we are meant to be as human beings. It disembodies our faith. It quickly divides us into the haves and have-nots, distancing us from the realities of each others’ lives. The money/power thing exposes how one of the saddest questions in the scripture has played out throughout time: “Am I my brothers’ keeper?” With the heart of Cain, our answer is a loud and definitive, no. We do write out our checks to a local charity or dish out food at a homeless shelter. But truthfully, we are the jealous workers in the vineyard, so afraid that someone will get something they don’t deserve, especially when we’ve worked so hard.

We have forgotten that the source of the goods we produce buy and sell were never ours to begin with. We are divorced from the acts of others in our communities that make it possible for us to work at all, to manufacture, create, transport materials, or buy and sell anything. The further away we have moved from tilling the earth to forth food in order to survive, the more disembodied our lives and services have become. Trading stocks and making decisions that affect the lives of millions have become an a-moral acts, truly distanced and disconnected from the men, women and children who are affected. Finally, we have dared to believe that what we have earned is our own. We have hidden ourselves away from any reminder that in truth we all are needy, dependent people because our very ability to think and create and work comes from God from the start.

Christianity involves coming back to ourselves as a whole. Jesus is not just a ticket to heaven, but the means of reconciliation and restoration to a communal life of Shalom, which is a community of universal flourishing, wholeness and delight**. Even the Our Father prayer invokes community. Together we say, “Give US this day OUR daily bread.” This Jesus thing is all about being intimately connected with the needs and realities of the other.

In small ways and within small groups, some things are beginning to change. Churches are connecting with those who create community gardens for themselves and others in need. This allows for the dignity of taking part in working for all, as well. Interest is growing in establishing more local, sustainable food supplies. There is a renewed interest in handmade goods and skills. People are simplifying their lives and getting rid of stuff. With less to protect, perhaps we’ll have more to share. With less to protect, we may recover faith in a new way. We might actually remember what it means to trust for our daily bread, trusting God by trusting each other. Maybe we’ll also remember what is means to be grateful.

In light of all this, I celebrate a woman with a level of faith I don’t know yet: Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

[*Seriously, how did de-regulation happen? Was everyone asleep? That de-regulation happened was a clear example of the power wielded by those with extreme wealth.]
[** The word shalom is described in “Not The Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin”, by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.]

LInks to the other Synchrobloggers will be added as they come in:

Marta Layton – Fear Leads to Anger. Anger Leads to hate …

Kathy Escobar – Pawn Shops, Empty Refrigerators, The Long Hill Up

Carol Kuniholm – Wondering About Wealth

Glenn Hager – Shrinking The Gap

Jeremy Myers – Wealth Distribution

Liz Dyer – The First Step Is Admitting There Is A Problem

Ellen Haroutunian – Economic Inequality: Coming Back To Our Senses 

K.W. Leslie – Wealth, Christians, and Justice

Abbie Watters – My Confession

Steve Hayes – Obscenity

[Book Review] Half The Church by Carolyn Custis James

Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women
By Carolyn Custis James
Zondervan Publishing
206 pages, including questions for discussion
Zondervan gave me a free copy to give away – leave a comment and I will use a urim and thummim to decide who gets it.🙂

I see what you did there, Carolyn Custis James. I do hope it works.

I wanted to review this book because it addresses gender-based injustices, one of the things that I am most passionate about in life. The title Half the Church is derived from Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity For Women Worldwide, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. For those who already care deeply about these issues, that book will be a better investment of time and money. For those who are new to these issues and are curious, Carolyn Custis James’ book can be a good and heartfelt starting place, but it is frustratingly incomplete in offering what is truly needed to find the author’s goal of “God’s vision for his daughters”.

The book was birthed from the author’s awakening to the brutal treatment and lifelong misery that is endured by a large portion of the world’s population simply because they are female. It contains some heart wrenching stories of wife burnings, beatings, forced prostitution and rapes, forced and under-aged marriage, selective abortion, human trafficking, and the fact of the paucity of resources spent on girls in a world that prefers sons, to name just a few. Perhaps to keep her readers from turning away in distaste, the author somewhat underplays the raw horror of these and other injustices. The very real statistics are gruesome. There is an estimated 200 million women missing from the world’s population due to the discrimination and abuse based solely on being born a girl.

Part of the author’s goal is to awaken the church to these brutal realities, and to challenge us to move on the behalf of the powerless and voiceless, living a gospel of action and deed as well as word. James shows herself to be very wise in understanding that the conservative Western church that she addresses has been somewhat resistant when it comes to social justice issues. She is also aware that it tends to see it itself as a unique entity which looks with suspicion upon anything that is new to their understanding of things, no matter how much good might come from it. James treads on delicate and controversial topics, particularly theological ones, with a light but forthright touch. She understands where that part of the church is coming from and what they can and cannot handle. She approaches them with a style and language that will not close their ears.

James does make a strong attempt at defining the “vision for God’s daughters” in addressing the word used to describe woman at her creation, eser, which means helper. Eser does not refer to an assistant or handmaiden, rather, it is a word that is used most often in the scriptures to describe God. James likens it to being a warrior, which is empowering and sheds broader insight on the purposes of the creation of woman beyond childbearing. She also offers a compelling portrait of the leadership capabilities and the positive impact of women in society. The gist of her scriptural studies is to call attention to the essential dignity of womankind, which is something that must be held as absolute if abuses against women are to ever be stopped.

This is a book that needs to be read between the lines. There are some things that cannot be said outright without losing your audience, in this case I believe, the conservative Christians with a complementarian view of women.  (For those unfamiliar with this word, it is the theological view that although men and women are created equal in their being and personhood, they are meant to complement each other through maintaining gender-based roles and a husband-headship structure in marriage.) If you step on their views it is likely that your voice will be discounted. As I have said, James deftly skirts around the major landmines, such as the concept of wifely submission. She hints that the traditional view of submission just might create selfishness in men when they believe that women are meant to “pretend that they are less than they are” in their relationships with men. She laments that women are prized for their willingness to give in and this way of thinking leans too heavily on just a few attributes instead of embracing the “full range of qualities that Jesus displayed”. It is a shrewd and subversive way to show that the way in which submissiveness is taught in these church circles could be just as bad as the low view of women in the more troubled places in the world.

At this point, James refuses to take a stand on either a complementarian or egalitarian view of women. I think I understand her reasons. To do so would mean that she would lose much of her audience, particularly those who are complementarian if she comes out as egalitarian, which I suspect she is or soon will be. (Honestly, moving towards egalitarianism is inevitable if one continues to be passionate about gender-based injustice issues as a Christian.) But James squirms out from under the issues with a quote that insists that no-one can know what the 1 Timothy 2 passage means (that is the passage that seems to say women may not teach or have authority over a man). Actually, there has been a great deal of respected scholarly work done around that passage and other passages dealing with women (such as Ephesians 5, the “submission” passage) that can lead to a life-giving and dignifying egalitarian interpretation. To not at least acknowledge that when addressing the serious issues at hand borders on being irresponsible. I don’t mean to be too harsh, but how we view women through the lens of scripture has a direct impact on the incidences of gender-based injuctices.

When we bring ourselves to the scriptural text, our underlying assumptions and attitudes should be challenged, and the ways in which we cooperate with the abuses of our surrounding culture should be disrupted. James gives a too easy way out to those who perhaps inadvertently support a view of women that enables abuses from facing uncomfortable but necessary challenges to what they believe. Despite all her compelling words, this group will remain largely unchanged. It is simply heart breaking that the Christian message in this part of the church in regards to women is no different from that of the “world”.

Herein lies the greatest weakness of this book. Her refusal to take a stand belies the very core of her argument. For the belief that women are limited to certain roles, that their voices are not as important, welcome or trusted in all arenas (including teaching men) and that they are to be subservient to men continue to feed the lies and misogyny that keep gender-based injustices in place. James admits that at the core of injustice lies the issue of power. Complementarianism lays power squarely in the hands of men. In not addressing this issue adequately, she becomes an accomplice to the view in the world that women are to be controlled and ruled over, and therefore can be treated as chattel.

Certainly, some will be offended by a proclamation of an egalitarian interpretation of scripture and some will turn away. Yet, because James believes in eser as the essence of woman she should therefore act as eser, a warrior for a reading of the Bible text that could shed more light on “God’s vision for his daughters” that can help to release them from the very cruelties she disdains. Ultimately, she does address the problem of gender wars in the church and acknowledges that a higher view of women will foster a healthier view of men as well.  We all are in need of a masculine presence that can engage in genuine partnership with women and that is much healthier and stronger than that of those who must quiet the voice of woman in order to serve their own egos. However, there will be no ‘blessed alliance” between men and women as described by James without an honest look at the complicity of the church in the oppression of women.

To be sure, there is a time when it is best to be very gentle and prudent in speaking a potentially disruptive message. But the issues of gender-based injustices are very real and many lives hang in the balance. This is not the time to pander to those who worship their dogma over the preciousness of people. Yes, to take a stand means she will lose readers and perhaps speaking opportunities. Yes, Zondervan would lose readers as well. (And money. ‘Nuff said.) Even so, it is time to take a stand, Evangelical Christian publishing world. It is time to take a stand, Ms. James. To do any less is an outright betrayal of those who need you most.

Reading The Bible From The Margins [October 2010 Synchroblog]

This post is part of a larger Synchroblog. This month’s topic is “seeing through the eyes of the marginalized.” I will post links to the other blogs as they come in.

I once had a conversation with a fellow Christian about what Jesus might be asking us to do about the poor. She insisted that she scrimped and saved and made good decisions all her life in order to have what she has now and those who are poor could do the same. Any discussions about laws or systems that discriminate against the poor (and thus help keep them in the cycle) were moot to her. She sincerely felt that this was the teaching of the scriptures. I recently wrote a blog post (here) about another friend who ministers in the legal system with young women in detention. Those woman are invariably low income folks, and of course, they have made really bad choices in their lives. But this friend understands that the ways in which the poor have been taught to think and understand life and finances are very different from those of us with more privileged lives, and that they need much intervention and mentoring before the things that seem like common sense to us can be understood, much less embraced. She has learned to see through their eyes.

It comes down to seeing. My first friend was unable and angrily unwilling to see through the eyes of those who had had different lives and opportunities than she. I can understand her frustration. It would be easier to “help” the poor if they were like us, that is, if it didn’t require that we enter into their worlds to see as they do. It is common for us to assume that others see and experience the world in the same way we do. We also assume that others experience God the same way and read the Bible the same way as well. Miguel A. De La Torre, author of Reading The Bible From The Margins (See what I did there? I stole his title!) says that it’s all too easy to assume that the Bible text has one clear meaning that existed in the mind of God and was revealed to the original hearer and we may ascertain what that was and apply it for all time and all people. However, interpretations of the “one meaning” often reflect the dominant culture – an androcentric, white, middle to upper middle class westernized reading. Then, if these interpretations are questioned, we become unsettled and even defensive as if we are messing with the biblical text itself. But just like my first friend, we can remain blind if this one perspective is the only set of interpreting eyes that we have upon the text.

Justo Gonzalez (quoted by Miguel A. De La Torre) shares a story of a sermon preached through the eyes of the marginalized. They were studying the part of the fourth commandment that says, “six days you shall labor”. The pastor asked the congregation how many had worked six days that week, then five, then four, etc. Very few hands went up. Then he asked how many would like to work for six days but were unable to find employment. All of the hands went up. The minister responded, “How then, are we to obey the law of God which commands that we shall work six days, when we cannot find work even for a single day?” Honestly, I had always just skimmed over that part of the commandment. I didn’t see.

De La Torre points out that the “eyes” of class privilege blind us to that first part of the commandment. We assume the privilege of being employed. We are oblivious then to the reality of those segments of our society that lack opportunity for gainful employment because of external prejudices towards race, ethnicity or class, or internal things such as brain-addling traumatic stress due to chronic poverty, neglect and abuse. Without being willing to hear and see the text through the eyes of the marginalized we miss this and probably much more. Our blindness keeps us from loving our neighbors as ourselves.

A few years ago I was invited to teach to a group of Christian pastors and leaders in Mozambique. I remember speaking about Sabbath and what it meant to keep that commandment. There with the poor was the struggle of finding the six days of work. I wondered what it would be like to move into discussion of the Sabbath Day, when their six days had not brought them the fruits of labor. However, the Africans seem to grasp a better sense of the need for Sabbath and the Shalom, human flourishing, wellbeing, connectedness, enjoyment and rest that the day was meant to bring, because their culture is much more communally oriented and not as production and success driven as ours. Even so, it became evident to me that they took everything I said as absolute truth and it was hard for them to believe that I truly desired their discussion and input. I became painfully aware that here I was, a white person of privilege standing “over” black Africans in authority as a teacher, just as plenty of white, western, well-meaning missionaries had done so many times before.

What would it be like to see the text through their eyes? It was one of the “help me God” moments. I sensed God say (no honest, I did), “Speak to them about their story.” So, with some trepidation, I did so. Mozambique was formerly Portuguese East Africa and at least a million people from that region had been kidnapped and sold into slavery a century and a half before. The Portuguese colonists had since ruled their land and made them into second class citizens. That rule did not end until the latter part of the 20th century. As we reflected on their story aloud, their eyes dropped to their laps. Shoulders sagged.

But, I said, the ten commandments were being given to a people who had just been led out from a life of enslavement to Egypt. What could this Sabbath commandment mean for them? The class began to see their story in the text. The Sabbath was a command for all. In this commandment they saw a decree of justice because the Sabbath rest and shalom was for all people, not just the privileged class, as had been their experience. They saw that no one was to be viewed or measured as their position or privilege that day. All were human beings and the playing field was flat. The party was for all. They believed this showed God’s true heart for them. Honestly, have you ever read the fourth commandment this way?

They began to bounce out of their seats. “Africa is blessed”, cried one man, “Because see? God loves it.” They showed me verses from which they had been taught by the colonists that they were black because they had sinned and needed the white man to rule them. They had believed that their “sin” was why they didn’t have work. But through their eyes on the text, the joy and delight of God in the African peoples sprang from the pages. We could have spent the class focusing on the theological and eschatological meaning of the “rest” of God as outlined in my notes, blah de snort. But instead we saw the scriptures come alive and bring freedom and restoration to these people. Their eyes on the text made all the difference.

Seeing through the eyes of the marginalized is not merely a means of administering social justice, though that is important. It is not merely an act of love, though that can hardly be a small thing. The eyes of the marginalized bring to everyone a fullness of understanding in the reading of the biblical text and therefore, to the reading of life. Yes, I learned the tools and rules of hermeneutics in seminary – all about the grammar, rhetoric, genre, historical and cultural contexts, and so forth. But even with such careful study, the biblical text has been used too often to justify horrific events such as slavery, apartheid, oppression of the Native Americans, subjugation of women, and the maltreatment of gays. Seeing through the eyes of the other is crucial to help us to truly hear the Word of God. It is a crucial work in bringing forth the in-breaking of the Kingdom. It is a crucial piece in becoming whom we are meant to be- like Him in this world. We cannot say that we know Truth without the gift of many kinds of eyes to bear witness to the fullness of meaning. We cannot say we know “neighbor” until her eyes become our own.

Check out these amazing voices:

Kathy Escobar Sitting at the rickety card table in the family room waiting for Thanksgiving dinner

George at the Love Revolution – The Hierarchy of Dirt

Arthur Stewart – The Bank

Sonnie Swenston – Seeing through the Eyes of the Marginalized

Wendy McCaig – An Empty Chair at the Debate

Christine Sine – Seeing through the Eyes of the Marginalized

Alan Knox – Naming the Marginalized

Margaret Boehlman – Just Out of Sight

Steve Hayes – Ministry to Refugees: Synchroblog on Marginalized People

Liz Dyer – Step Away from the Keyhole

John O’Keefe – Viewing the World in Different Ways

Andries Louw – The South African Squatter Problem

Drew Tatusko – Invisible Margins of a White Male Body

KW Leslie “Who’s the Man? We Christians are.”

Jacob Boelman – Seeing through the Eyes of the Marginalized

Peter Walker – Through the Eyes of the Marginalized

Cobus van Wyngaard – Addressing the Normalized Position

Tom Smith – Seeing Through the Eyes of the Marginalized

Christen Hansel – Foreigners and Feasts

Annie Bullock – Empty Empathy

Sonja Andrews – On Being Free

Synchroblog- Immigration: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…

This is part of a larger synchroblog, which is when many bloggers write on the same issue. This month, the topic is immigration. This is a tough, complicated issue. In our extremely fragmented and polarized nation there are loud voices on all sides. Some are angry that people are entering our country illegally, thus breaking our laws. Some are voices of fear, particularly when immigrants bring in unfamiliar religious or political thought. Some are voices of resentment, especially when it comes to added taxpayer burdens and the scarcity of available jobs and resources. Still others speak out for compassion and human rights.

I felt I needed to seek a wiser, more informed voice to address all this. Wisdom is so often found in recalling our larger stories. So, I called dad. He is almost 82 years old. He has served in public offices for years. His grandparents immigrated to America though Ellis Island.

Dad reflected on the system that was in place to receive and process the massive influx of people coming from Europe and Asia during the earlier decades of the 20th century. These were people who were searching for safety, political asylum, religious freedom, hope and opportunity. Thousands and thousands poured in on huge ships. As is common to our fallen human condition, preference was given to more affluent passengers. Those from “steerage” class were put through the most rigorous testing to be allowed admission. There was a hospital on or near Ellis Island in which passengers sick from their long journeys could recover, though some were ultimately refused and sent back. Often, their rejection was due to a diagnosis of tuberculosis, yellow fever or other diseases against which there was little effective treatment at the time. Also, if a person was deemed unable to support themselves and likely to end up on welfare, they also would be excluded. It was a system with considerable flaws and strengths but in the end most people were admitted. The question is, what is the system in place now, particularly when it comes to our struggling Mexican neighbors?

I am not sure why our recent government administrations (of either flavor) have not done much to create a system of fairness, welcome and safety at our southern border. To do so is essential because the issue is much, much larger than the problems inherent in the influx of undocumented people. The lack of such a system can bring much harm to those who are least able to protect themselves. There is the harsh reality of human trafficking, which imprisons and exploits thousands or perhaps millions of men, women and children. The incidence of this modern day slavery is at an all time high. There is also the dodgy demand for cheap labor. It seems that those who use the cheap and often unprotected labor that undocumented peoples provide have more power and influence on border issues than those who don’t. And I wonder too, about the influence of the drug cartels. They are powerful and malicious and they can threaten or buy elected officials on both sides of the border. Are these types of perpetrators the ones who are really calling the shots when it comes to immigration on our southern border?

Despite our economic woes and internal splits, we are still the land of opportunity, the land of hope. And of course we are NOT the Kingdom of God, but we are a place where, at least in theory, everyone has a voice and certain inalienable rights. Of course people would want to come here. My heart aches for those who have been maimed or killed in their efforts to cross the border and find a new life and new opportunities in the United States. Those of us who have never felt so desperate are fortunate indeed. We need a reasonable and compassionate system in place to facilitate the immigration of struggling people into the United States. Without that, Dad says, people will continue to die in the desert. They will continue to fall prey to unscrupulous opportunists. The powerful and greedy will continue to control their lives and ours.

So how does the Church respond? In a recent gathering of friends we shared the Bread and Wine together and reflected on the surprise of the gospel. There were stories such as that of a man who heard a piece of gossip – a sex scandal- of a rival of his who was a fellow pastor with a large ministry. He felt enraged at the hypocrisy, and felt quite smug about the information, knowing it would take down this guy and put an end to his ministry. But then he heard Jesus say, why would you do that? Why destroy him? He felt compelled by Jesus to seek the man’s friendship. As trust was built, confessions were made and healing was started. The gospel is so often a surprise; it’s so different from the letter of the law. It always has in its center the heart of a person, the immeasurable value and preciousness of another. It has a passion for rescue and restoration. We have too often become sin managers and are so easily offended at the idea that someone has broken the law that we forget the larger purpose of our call. We indeed are our brothers’ keeper.

I have talked to some kind hearts who leave water bottles and other supplies in the desert and provide places of respite for the travelers who are crossing into the US. They believe they are obeying God through these acts of civil disobedience. I love their compassion and I do believe they are obeying a higher law. But these acts alone are not enough. Let’s remember the reason our grandparents and great-grandparents came here. Let’s remember the compassion and cruelties of the past. It is up to the government to establish a reasonable and compassionate immigration policy as is fitting to the history of the United States, a nation of immigrants. It is up to the Church to preach the welcome of God. The radical and undeserved hospitality of God is the scandal of the gospel. May we live it well. After all, we are exiles too.

Links to other bloggers will be added as they come in.

Steve Hayes Christians and the Immigration Issue

Matt Stone – Glocal Christianity  Is Xenophobia Ever Christlike?

Mike Victorino at Still A Night Owl – Being The Flag

Liz Dyer at Grace Rules – Together We Can

Sonnie Swentson-Forbes at Hey Sonnie – Immigration Stories

Bethany Stedman – Choosing Love Instead of Fear

Pete Houston at Peter’s Progress – Of Rape and Refuge

Joshua Seek – Loving Our Immigrant Brother

Amanda MacInnis at Cheese Wearing Theology – Christians and Immigration

Sonja Andrews at Calacirian – You’re Right

Kathy Escobar at Carnival in My Head – It’s a lot easier to be against immigration reform when you have papers

Jonathan Brink – Immigration

Peter Walker at Emerging Christian – Immigration Reform

Beth Patterson What we resist not only persists but will eventually become our landlord

K.W. Leslie – the Evening of Kent – American Immigration

Christine Sine – Godspace – Immigration Reform- Yes, No, Don’t care