Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Prince of Peace

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. (Isaiah 9:6-7a)

I’m very mindful that, as we gather to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace tonight, we do so as citizens of a nation at war. Even as we hope for the endless peace that the Messiah promises, we are engaged in a seemingly open-ended, if not endless, war against terror. The yoke, the bar, the rod, and the tramping boot of which the prophet Isaiah speaks – all images of military oppression – are still very much with us.

Recall that Isaiah celebrated the birth of a child who would bring peace even as the Assyrian Empire was occupying Israel and Judah. Jesus, whose birth we believe is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, came into the world when Israel was again occupied – this time by the Roman Empire. Today, the American Empire continues its occupation of Iraq. We are still waiting for the day when the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

Make no mistake: there are plenty of garments rolled in blood to be burned. As we approach the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, nearly 4,000 American soldiers and 700,000 Iraqis have died. Another 60,000 or so Americans have been wounded, and millions of Iraqi’s are now refugees. While the value of the lives lost and displaced is incalculable, the amount of money the U.S. has spent to destroy, occupy and rebuild Iraq is not. It amounts to roughly $478 billion thus far, a rate of $275 million per day.

The costs associated with the war aren’t simply a matter of money spent, but also of money not spent. Spending an additional $24 billion per year would reduce world hunger 50% by 2015 – improving the lives of 400 million malnourished people. Allocating an additional $10 billion annually would bring the AIDS pandemic under control in the world’s most affected areas. A mere $3 billion per year would ensure that all of the children in the developing world were immunized against preventable diseases.

To bring this a bit closer to home, consider that the people of San Francisco have contributed approximately $1.5 billion in taxes to the Iraqi occupation. That same amount of money could have provided healthcare for 632,000 people, or built 4,611 units of affordable housing in this city, or provided renewable energy for 2.7 million homes. It’s even enough to clean-up one of the nation’s most toxic Superfund sites: the old naval shipyard in Bayview, which is poisoning the people of that neighborhood while no one seems to notice. The cost of this war isn’t only in terms of the suffering we have caused, but also the suffering we could have prevented.

We know what it is to dwell in a land of deep darkness, as Isaiah described nations caught in the spiral of violence. The question is: can we see the light in the darkness? Later, the prophet will declare, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you. For behold, darkness covers the land; deep gloom enshrouds the peoples. But over you the Lord will rise, and his glory will appear upon you. . . Violence wills no more be heard in your land, ruin or destruction within your borders.” (Isaiah 60:1-2, 18a,b)

This is the messianic hope – the promise of a world without violence, in which prosperity, joy, and peace are established on the basis of justice. As Christians, we celebrate the birth of Jesus as the dawning of the glory of God of which Isaiah spoke, the coming into the world of the divine light that will dispel the darkness of violence and injustice. Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, is the fulfillment of our hope for the Prince of Peace.

Why is it, then, that so many Christians embrace war? In part, because of naked self-interest, frequently cast in terms of national interest or national security. War makes some people very, very rich as well as powerful. And, as Chris Hedges has eloquently argued, “war is a force that gives us meaning.” It provides a sense of purpose, of identity, of belonging – we can give ourselves over to the national or ethnic or religious causes that wars signify. In all fairness, however, there is also a long and venerable Christian tradition of justifying war as the lesser of two evils: sometimes violence may be necessary in the face of grave injustice; a plausible idea given the genocidal age in which we live.

And yet, I’m left with a nagging suspicion that Christian justification of violence betrays faithfulness to the Prince of Peace. Miroslav Volf puts his finger on the problem in noting that

There are Christians who have a hard time resisting the temptation to seek religious legitimation for their (understandable) need to take up the sword. If they give in to this temptation, they should forego all attempts to exonerate their version of Christian faith from complicity in fomenting violence. Of course, they can specify that religious symbols should be used to legitimate and inspire only just wars. But show me one warring party that does not think its war is just! Simple logic tells us that at least half of them must be wrong. It could be, however, that simple logic does not apply to the chaotic world of wars. Then all would be right, which is to say that all would be wrong, which is to say that terror would reign – in the name of the gods who can no longer be distinguished from the devils. (Volf, p. 306)

Thus, the spiral of violence continues, with the complicity of most Christians, as if the Prince of Peace were never born; or, at least, as if his birth didn’t really make any difference. Perhaps we have not yet fully understood the way in which Jesus fulfills the promise of peace; perhaps the fulfillment of the promise depends upon our response to Jesus’ invitation to follow him – to discover that the path of peace follows the way of the cross.

James Alison rightly has pointed out that the significance of Jesus birth can only be understood backwards: through the lens of his death and resurrection. It is only because of his death and resurrection that his nativity has become of any interest to us. The theological point of the narratives of Jesus’ birth serve to underscore the meaning of his death and resurrection: that peace can only be bought at the price of self-giving love. The only way to break the cycle of violence is to resist it nonviolently; by acknowledging the truth of injustice, restoring wholeness, forgiving sinners, and reconciling enemies.

By suffering violence as an innocent victim, Volf argues, [Jesus] took upon himself the aggression of the persecutors. He broke the vicious cycle of violence by absorbing it, taking it upon himself. He refused to be sucked into the automatism of revenge, but sought to overcome evil by doing good – even at the cost of his life. Jesus’ kind of option for nonviolence had nothing to do with the self-abnegation in which I completely place myself at the disposal of others to do with me as they please; it had much to do with the kind of self-assertion in which I refuse to be ensnared in the dumb redoubling of my enemies’ violent gestures and be reshaped into their mirror image. (Volf, p. 291-292).

Jesus fulfills our hopes by demonstrating that God’s power to establish justice and peace is not, and can not be, coercive. Were it so, God and the Devil would be indistinguishable. Instead, it is the power of self-giving and forgiving love through which God is making all things new. The fulfillment of our hope for peace is costly; the cycle of violence is broken upon the hard wood of the cross. It is a “vulnerable fulfillment” as James Alison aptly describes it. It required God to embrace the other, even the enemy, in sacrificial love. God was in Christ unmasking the lie that peace can be established only through absolute security enforced by violence, revealing instead that only absolute vulnerability can finally reconcile enemies.

It is this vulnerability that is at the heart of the narratives of Jesus birth. Luke situates the nativity in the time of Emperor Augustus, contrasting the imperial power and wealth of Caesar with the obscurity and poverty of Jesus’ birth. What kind of power can Jesus, this offspring of the broken royal lineage of a defeated colonial backwater, possibly wield that would even begin to challenge the rule of violence? And yet, the joy of the angelic chorus can not be restrained as they sing “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

Here, at the very beginning of his life, the Gospel writer wishes us to see that Jesus, the Messiah, is not coming with the kind of power we expect of kingly rulers. His reign is not established through violence. In Jesus, God has come among us in a most unexpected way, challenging us to reconsider our notions of God and the way in which our hopes for peace will be fulfilled through God’s Messiah.

Although absolute vulnerability can only be predicated of God, we still are called to the imitation of Christ by embracing vulnerability for the sake of peace and reconciliation. This requires a willingness on our part to take risks – to risk speaking the truth, to risk holding power accountable to justice, to risk asserting our dignity in the face of shame and abuse, to risk admitting when we are wrong – and yet to do this without mimicking the endless cycle of vengeance.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.” (Matt. 5:10) The birth of the Christ is not just an event consigned to the distant past, but a present possibility in each of us individually and collectively. We become daughters and sons of God, giving birth to the Christ in us, as we walk the path of peace. But as every woman who has ever been pregnant knows, there is no birth, no new life, without vulnerability. And vulnerability requires far greater courage than does the practice of violence.

This may seem an impossible ideal in a world committed to the belief that only force can secure peace. “But,” as Miroslav Volf pointedly states, “if one decides to put on soldier’s gear instead of carrying one’s cross, one should not seek legitimation in the religion that worships the crucified Messiah. For there, the blessing is given not the violent but to the meek (Matthew 5:5).” (Volf, p. 306)

Violence or vulnerability: which will we choose? The world is waiting for the Christ to be born in us. Will we be the light shining in a darkened land? The people of Baghdad and Bayview, Mosul and the Mission, are waiting for our answer.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing. Amen.

- Edmund Sears, “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear”

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Quality of Our Waiting

This morning I want to reflect with you on the experience of waiting. It may seem like a trivial thing, waiting. Everybody does it; pretty much everyday. What could be more ordinary? And, yet, the quality of our waiting is significant, even revelatory. The quality of our waiting can teach us a lot about God and about ourselves.

What is the quality of your waiting? Recall the last time you were in a waiting room, a space set aside specifically for the purpose of waiting, and consider how you waited. How would you rate your wait? Was the wait a time that you embraced, or a time through which you raced, or paced, or cursed, or worse?

Waiting can be daily, as in waiting in traffic during the commute to work or school. It can be seasonal: waiting in line at the gift wrapping counter or the post office. Perhaps more often than we might like, waiting marks the most important moments in our lives: waiting for a lab result; waiting for a tour of duty in Iraq to end; waiting for a call back after a job interview; waiting in that space between the marriage proposal and the response; standing in the circle waiting for everyone to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion.

The quality of our waiting matters. And waiting well seems increasingly hard to do in our over-scheduled, often hurried, and, if we are honest, ego-driven lives. Waiting is the enemy in a culture devoted to instant communication and immediate gratification. Success is defined, in part, by the capacity to make others wait for us. Waiting is for losers, or so we are told.

Is that what we really believe? As Christians, we’d like to think not, but our actions sometimes tell a different tale. Recently, in a state of morning grouchiness, reinforced by preoccupation with my mental to-do list and general sense of self-importance, I found myself trying to hurry my son, Nehemiah, out the door to school. I pulled the car out of our parking spot in the garage, and was waiting for Nehemiah to open the garage door.

As usual, he was skipping along, singing, and swinging his brown-bag lunch around; wondrously oblivious to the ticking clock as only a nine year-old boy can be. As someone famous once said, unless you become like children, you cannot enter the kingdom of God. Nehemiah’s lunch bag ripped apart as he was swinging it, of course, and spilled the contents on to the floor.

Rather than park the car and assist my son, I rolled down the window and barked, “Put your lunch in the car. If you hadn’t been swinging it around, the bag wouldn’t have broken. Now we are going to have to waste time getting you another bag.” Nehemiah, head downcast, murmured, “I can’t help it if the bag is fragile.” “That is precisely why you shouldn’t be swinging it around!” I replied. “Just get in the car!”

The result: Nehemiah and I both got to where we needed to go on time. I felt angry, then embarrassed by my anger. Nehemiah felt judged and shamed. It took as much time for me to apologize as it would have taken to stop and help him clean up from this very minor accident.

Now, rewind back a few days earlier to a very different experience of waiting. It was another morning, and I was equally flustered and hurried. I’d overslept and rushed through my morning routine. After a quick shower, I was preparing a bite of early lunch before heading off to a noon meeting. I had to eat, back my bag, and be out the door in 20 minutes.

In the middle of my preparations, by husband walked in the door with some grocery bags. He began to get in my way in the kitchen. While unpacking bags he starts amiably chatting about his podiatry appointment earlier and how the rest of his morning had been. I was mentally calculating how fast I could drive, trying to keep calm and pretend that I was paying attention.

But then I stopped myself. I made a conscious effort to pay attention to my husband and to enjoy a brief moment of intimacy, recognizing how precious and few such moments seem to be. The result: I still managed to get to my appointment on time, and Andrew and I were able to connect about our day in the middle of our coming and going. Andrew felt heard and respected rather than dismissed, and I felt grateful for the opportunity to be present to my experience rather than anxious about the future.

I share these unremarkable vignettes because they illustrate the subtle way in which the quality of our waiting radiates out, connecting our inner life to everyday activities. The spiritual life is simply life lived with awareness. And so how we inhabit the time of waiting can be a spiritual discipline, an opportunity to become fully present, at home in the moment, able to see possibilities that would otherwise remain hidden from us.

In my interaction with Nehemiah the quality of my waiting was self-centered and anxious. Waiting upon my son was “wasted time,” when it could have been an opportunity to be of service and to reduce the toxicity of shame that can sit so heavily upon children when they fail to meet their parent’s expectations. Contrast that to my interaction with Andrew, where the quality of waiting became patient and receptive. Waiting upon Andrew was an opportunity to deepen relationship, to let go of ego and make room for another.

The quality of our waiting, when marked by patience, opens us to the flow of life in ways that allow us to give and receive unexpected gifts. When we are open in this way, rather than trying to impose our agenda and control everything, a whole new perspective can come into view.

I take this to be the point of Jesus’ response to John’s disciples when they asked him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” As was so often the case, Jesus didn’t directly answer their question. Rather, he pointed them to their own experience. What do you see and hear? “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Matt. 11:5-6)

Jesus reframes the question about waiting, which was rooted in anxiety and fear, and invites John’s disciples to examine the quality of their waiting. What is going on in the present moment? Do you not see the signs of God’s reign, the experience of healing and reconciliation and new life that is available already, right now? Jesus cautions John’s disciples not to be offended by his invitation to let go of their expectations and egos so that they can appreciate and participate in what is.

When our waiting is a straining to anticipate an unknowable future, we miss what is going on right in front of us. Jesus reorients our waiting away from the future toward the present. Why do we wait anxiously, when everything we need is already right here, right now?

For John, who was in prison, this was a very serious question. In his present circumstance, the quality of his waiting was an urgent spiritual matter. Sitting in his cell, he no doubt struggled to wait patiently with hope rather than capitulate to fear and despair. From his vantage point, he was unable to see what his disciples were experiencing.

So often we find ourselves situated like John, in a prison of ego, or suffering, or fear, whether imposed upon us or of our own making or, most likely, some combination of the two. When life seems reduced to our little, isolated, prison cell, we become blind to what is going on beyond the range of our narrow concern, and so waiting can seem unbearable.

John, very wisely, responded to this circumstance by asking for help. He sent his disciples to Jesus to help him see what John was unable to see for himself: whether or not there was any meaning to his experience of waiting. John understood that connection, relationship, was the antidote to his isolation, uncertainty and fear. He entrusted himself to others and to God, when his experience of waiting became too much for him alone. Just because John was unable to see the signs of God’s presence, didn’t mean that they weren’t there. He simply needed the help of others to get some perspective.

John realized that the sometimes painful quality of our waiting need not cut us off from others, from those who can help us see the seeds of healing taking root in the present moment. “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.” (James 5:7-8) As Christians we are called to practice waiting together, so that together we can discern clearly the movement of God in the world and become one with the flow of divine love that sustains all things in all circumstances. All else is ego and illusion.

To borrow a phrase from James Alison, the “strangeness of this passivity,” this waiting, is that it slowly works on our fear and grandiosity, so that we can, little by little, let go of our illusions and projects and all the ways we try to secure ourselves through manipulation and control, instead relaxing into the presence of God, whose loving regard reveals that we are secure already, and so can make space for others in ways that bring freedom and joy.

Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper sticker that says, “Jesus is coming. Look busy.” While this is funny in its way, it is also rank heresy. Far better would be, “Jesus is coming. You can relax now.” You are loved and forgiven already. There is nothing left to do or prove. There is only the love of the One who is coming again and again until we embrace this love and accept the invitation to participate in the new creation that God is offering us with each breath. Amen.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Bishop Jacob

While we offer the Great Thanksgiving every Sunday at St. John’s, last Sunday was especially great as we celebrated 150 years of ministry in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco. It was a joy to have our bishop, Marc Andrus, with us to preside and preach. The lessons were for the anniversary of the dedication of a church. I was especially struck by Bishop Marc’s comments on the reading from Genesis 28:10-17:

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

Bishop Marc noted that Jacob is a collective figure – he is Israel, the people of God. Thus, we can see this passage as a communal vision representing the hope for us collectively to become “gateways to heaven,” liminal or “thin” spaces where the presence of God becomes palpable. Our buildings are not the house of God spoken of here, but rather the people of God, the living stones built into a spiritual house. (I Peter 2:4). It is the quality of our common life that shows forth God in Christ – or does not.

While each of us promises in baptism to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ” and to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” we do so as microcosms of the cosmic Christ, as parts of the whole Body of Christ. Each of us, individually, is a collective figure. When we show forth Christ to others, we are reflecting back to them the truth of who we all are together – surely the Lord is in this place, in us (plural), and we did not know it!

We are, as St. Paul said, ambassadors for Christ. What we represent to others as Christians is not ourselves, but the presence of God in Christ formed by our experience in community. Thus, in baptism we first promise to continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. It is only together that we become Christ.

It occurred to me while Bishop Marc was preaching that one of the functions of episcope is to symbolize our being collective figures. The bishop is a collective figure, a symbol of the Church’s unity. But this is not the sole purview of the bishop. Rather, he or she points to the reality of this representative function in the ministry of all the baptized. We all serve to mirror God to each other.

This is no doubt why the bishop can be such a polarizing, as well as a unifying, figure. We watch our bishop being arrested for civil disobedience protesting the Iraq War, and some say – “Hey, that is not who we are!” His picture shows up on a blog at a rally for immigrants’ rights and we wonder, “Is that what we are called to be about?” He speaks at a Board of Supervisors hearing to challenge Sutter Health’s plans to shut down St. Luke Hospital’s services to the poor, and some question, “Is the Church just being used by the unions?” He gathers a group of clergy to address environmental racism in the Bay View-Hunter’s Point neighborhood, and some mutter quietly, “Those people aren’t Episcopalians, why should we care?”

Collective figures sometimes reflect judgment back to us. As we struggle to see ourselves in them, we wonder whether they, or we, have failed to show forth Christ. That struggle can result in polarization, or it can become the occasion to foster a deeper sense of unity through (self) critical encounter in community. Some believe that the bishop should be “minding the store,” serving as a diocesan administrator. When bishops are safely ensconced in ecclesiastical bureaucracy, they are far less likely to hold up before us an uncomfortable mirror. I prefer my bishop to be a “Jacob” rather than a manager, a collective figure challenging us to see ourselves as part of the whole, as Christ. Only then can we become the “gate of heaven” for the sake of the world.

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Power of Water: Part Two

On All Saints' Sunday I preached about the power of water. The symbolic power of water is nowhere more profoundly felt than in the water of baptism: as Sophia, our newest member, discovered that morning! Though in all honesty, she was unable to stifle a yawn as the water flowed over her. I promised her it would get more exciting later!

The symbolic power of oil of chrism is quite profound as well, but that is a sermon for another day. Thanks to Jan Adams for these photos.

Almighty God, by our baptism into the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ, you turn us from the old life of sin: Grant that we, being reborn to new life in him, may live in righteousness and holiness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (BCP, p. 254)

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Power of Water

“We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water.” Amen. (BCP, p. 306)

This morning we will celebrate the baptism of Sophia Fastaia and, together, renew our baptismal promises. We would do well, in preparing for this moment, to recall the elemental and symbolic power of water. We normally take water for granted, confident that it is under our control. It provides a lovely backdrop for our commute over the Bay Bridge. It arrives on command with the turn of a faucet. We tend not to think of water as a matter of life and death. Catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina are so shocking, in part, because they undermine our sense of mastery over water, reminding us of its power to remark boundaries, to defy limits, to alter our existence in life-changing and life-ending ways.

Two recent stories remind us of water’s power, illustrating the way in which water maps our world and shapes our identity. This week, Michael Music brought to my attention a London Times article about the uses and abuses of water in Zimbabwe:

At the bottom of a deep pit, a woman ladled grey liquid into plastic drums.

It did not smell too bad and her family had not become sick, even after drinking it for the past two months. “Some people say it is sewage, but they may be making it up,” she said as she heaved a 25 litre (5½ gallon) drum up the slope and into a wheelbarrow.

In any case she, like many of the poorest people in Zimbabwe’s second city of Bulawayo did not have a choice: no water has flowed through the pipes in some neighbourhoods since July.

A water expert who accompanied The Times to one of several boreholes in the impoverished Cowdray Park area of the city said that the liquid at the bottom of the pit was indeed sewage that had seeped through the soil from a nearby treatment plant.

As the level of ground water sinks, the thousands who come to find water are forced to dig their impromptu wells ever deeper. All around were puddles and holes.

Critics of President Mugabe say that he is using water as a tool of political repression. In the early summer heat of the semi-arid western provinces of Matabeleland, the city of about 800,000 people is fast running out of water. Three of its five main reservoirs have dried up. The fourth is expected to be empty next month and the last one will be able to supply only 16 per cent of the city’s already tightly rationed needs. “If we have even a mediocre rainy season this summer we are faced with the spectre of Bulawayo literally shutting down,” said David Coltart, MP of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

The water crisis is a dangerous extra strain on Bulawayo, which is already reeling from the country’s hyperinflation, critical shortages of basic food and electricity supplies, and the political repression witnessed in the rest of the country.

Church and political leaders believe that Mr. Mugabe is determined to let Bulawayo wither without water. The Government has ignored repeated appeals for help.(1)

Here we have an insidious use of water to map the social world, defining insiders and outsiders, metaphorically putting people in their place. In this, Zimbabwe is hardly unusual. Water is perhaps the single most significant marker of identity on the planet.

Because of overpopulation, mass consumption, misuse, and water pollution, the availability of drinking water per capita is inadequate and shrinking as of the year 2006. For this reason, water is a strategic resource in the globe and an important element in many political conflicts.

Some have predicted that clean water will become the ‘next oil’, making Canada, with this resource in abundance, possibly the richest country in the world. There is a long history of conflict over water, including efforts to gain access to water, the use of water in wars started for other reasons, and tensions over shortages and control.

UNESCO's World Water Development Report . . . indicates that, in the next 20 years, the quantity of water available to everyone is predicted to decrease by 30%. 40% of the world's inhabitants currently have insufficient fresh water for minimal hygiene. More than 2.2 million people died in 2000 from diseases related to the consumption of contaminated water or drought.

In 2004, the UK charity WaterAid reported that a child dies every 15 seconds from easily preventable water-related diseases; often this means lack of sewage disposal. The United Nations Development Programme sums up world water distribution in the 2006 development report: ‘While one part of the world sustains a designer bottled-water market that generates no tangible health benefits, another part suffers acute public health risks because people have to drink water from drains or from lakes and rivers.’(2)

I understand now something that the Rev. Deacon Tracy Longacre said to me recently, “If you want to do something to help women and girls in Africa, then build wells.” She went on to tell me about her experience in a village in Northern Cameroon. There, women and girls had to walk two hours to fetch clean water from a river, then two hours back home. This absolutely vital task took so much time that the girls were unable to attend school.

In this case we see how water maps not only a social world dividing rich and poor, but also a hierarchy of male over female. Given limited resources and a gendered division of labor, it was the boys who were sent to school. So, Tracy and her compadres came up with a brilliant plan. They raised money to build a well in the village. And guess where they placed it – right next to the school. Now the girls attend school regularly. And the adult women have so much disposable time on their hands that they were able to organize a community center to address other quality of life issues.

Here we see the power of water in another aspect – literally as a well of life, marking the passage from slavery to freedom. If water symbolizes a “locative map,” reinforcing social boundaries that mark the status quo, defining who is in and who is out, it can also symbolize a “liberative map” that serves as a signpost on the way to a new and better place.(3)

As we gather around the baptismal font this morning, what meaning do we discover in the water there? What kind of world does it map for us? What identity does it impart? While all maps, including ritual maps, are imperfect, they do serve to help us imagine deeper truths about our location in the cosmos, and our need to be liberated from the death-dealing places in which we find ourselves.

In the words of Gordon Lathrop,

Baptism ought not be used to support the status quo; neither should it present a world-denying way of getting out of here. This place where we stand is, indeed, a little place, dwarfed and marginalized and threatened in the vast chaos of things; yet this place is beloved, dear, central even. This place where we stand thus matters immensely, yet it is connected to all places. Oppressive structures do truly surround us, yet they are not eternal; they should be challenged and changed . . . the ancient practice of the Christians, including especially poor Christians, has been to trust that it is the structures of terror and oppression that are most unreal in God’s real world, and then to cast very real, very local networks of mutual support and shared food – assembly as witness – in the face of such oppression. Such practice expresses baptismal meaning, both liberative and locative. Further, vastness does threaten, yet held in the hands of God, this vastness is also open, beckoning, new, interesting even. And we do truly die, yet we do not need to organize our whole world around our fear of death as the primary principle. We may find the place and span of our limits to be the very place of transfiguring grace and echoing song. Allowed always to say both things, [transfiguring grace and echoing song,] the public symbol of baptism can constantly challenge whatever public organization of space may mark our current culture.(4)

So much meaning in just a tiny bowl of water; it takes at least a lifetime to take it all in. That is why we keep coming back to this water again and again, to renew our promises and to reimagine the map of the world it invites us to explore, rewrite, and redeem. For Sophia, and for us, it is a map that locates us squarely in the waters of the Bay Area that nurture our daily life, while calling us through those waters to realize Sophia’s connection with the girls gathered around the well in Cameroon, and the women carrying the water that may be their children’s death in Zimbabwe.

Whether rejoicing in the water of life or lamenting the water of death, we remember that the water is not ours. It is God’s gift, and our response to that gift, in the service of life or death, shapes our identity in ways we don’t even realize. The water does not leave us unchanged. So let us choose life, for Sophia, and for the whole creation. Amen.


[1]“Parched city is forced to drink sewage while Mugabe ‘plays a political game’”, London Times, Sept. 15, 2007.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water#Politics.

[3] On “locative” and “liberative” maps see Gordon Lathrop, Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology, pp. 97-103.

[4] Lathrop, p. 111

Monday, October 29, 2007

Council Responds to the Bishops

The Executive Council of The Episcopal Church adopted the following resolution in response to the House of Bishops' New Orleans statement. I'm grateful that Council recognizes the pastoral and canonical implications with respect to the ministry of gay and lesbian people. I'm glad that they have gently admonished the bishops as to the limits of their authority.

This resolution, however, reminds me just how captive we are to clericalism. The resolution is concerned almost exclusively with B033 and access to the episcopate. It it says nothing about our bishops refusal in the majority of our dioceses to provide for the pastoral and ritual care of LGBT people. Ordination to the episcopate is important but it effects a very small number of people. Of far greater concern to me is the way in which the lives and relationships of LGBT laity are dismissed and marginalized in our church. They are at best invisible in many places.

This resolution is a step in the right direction. But we need to do better. The sacramental and pastoral ministry of the Church is not yet accessible in its fullness to all of the baptized. That is a scandal, and it is far more extensive in its effects than access to episcopal ministry. Perhaps the problem is that we need to find a better way to speak to one another than through resolutions. A pastoral letter from Council on the Church's ministry to all the baptized seems to be in order. Perhaps that would prod our bishops to do their job.

Resolved, the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church, meeting in Dearborn, Michigan, expresses its appreciation to the House of Bishops for undertaking the monumental task of trying to clarify the conflict between the canons of the Episcopal Church and the demands raised by the Dar E [sic] Salaam communiqué, and be it further
Resolved, the Executive Council affirms with the House of Bishops the essential and renewed study of human sexuality as noted in the “listening process” of the Lambeth Conference of 1998, and be it further

Resolved, that the House of Bishops’ statement exacerbated feelings of exclusion felt by many of the lesbian and gay members of our church by defining Resolution B033 from the 75th General Convention to include lesbian and gay people, and be it further
Resolved, that by calling particular attention to the application of B033 to lesbian and gay person [sic], it may inappropriately suggest that an additional qualification for the episcopacy has been imposed beyond those contained in the constitutions and canons of the church, and be it further
Resolved, that while B033 focuses on the consent process for bishops, the broader impact is to discourage the full participation by lesbians and gay persons in the life of the church and enshrine discrimination in the policies of the Episcopal Church, and be it further
Resolved, that the Executive Council acknowledge with regret the additional pain and estrangement inflicted on lesbian and gay members of the church, and we pledge to work toward a time when our church will fully respect the dignity of every human being in all aspects of the life of our church.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Shape of Humility

Jesus said, “all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
(Luke 18:14) Amen.

The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is a scandal to good, religious people. At least, it should be. It calls into question our assumptions about what it means to be in right relationship with God. It challenges us to embrace real humility. And that is never easy.

Looking deeply at this parable, we discover that the Pharisee is not a bad guy, the caricature of the self-righteous prig that the history of interpretation has made him out to be. It would be so much easier if he was, but he isn’t. He is doing all the right things. He is filled with good intentions and noble actions. But there is something missing.

While the Pharisees’ prayer may sound arrogant to our modern ears, on its own terms it is really just a version of “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” Who among us, observing the suffering of others, hasn’t uttered some form of that prayer? And please note that the Pharisee is far from indifferent to the suffering of others. In fact, he has a real concern for the poor.

In his supererogatory acts of fasting and tithing, the Pharisee far exceeds the expectations of religious observance. Instead of fasting on the appointed holy days, he fasts twice a week. Rather than tithing only on the required portion of his income, he gives away ten percent of everything he acquires. In so doing, he is making a sacrificial offering for the sins of his people and fulfilling the religious obligations of those who are too poor to fast or tithe.

I would even go so far as to suggest that the Pharisees’ very public prayer in the Temple, differentiating himself from the tax collector, can be read as a prophetic denunciation. Tax collectors were notorious for lining their pockets by charging exorbitant sums far beyond the required tax. Such fraud and embezzlement made it difficult for the poor to maintain a subsistence income and impossible for them to demonstrate the kind of piety the Pharisee exemplified. In taking their side against the tax collector, the Pharisee is announcing good news to the poor.

So if this Pharisee was such a fabulous guy, why did the tax collector return to his home in right relationship with God, while the Pharisee did not? For all his goodness, the Pharisee lacked a sense of his own need for the mercy of God. For all his concern about justice, he didn’t really allow the suffering of others to touch him at the level of the heart. His goodness actually served as a barrier between himself and others, defending him against the vulnerability that real relationship with God and others requires. The Pharisee had not yet allowed his heart to be broken.

The tax collector was truly a bad guy. He’d no doubt done some awful things, and he new he was complicit in the suffering of others. He didn’t need the Pharisee to tell him that. He knew how desperately he needed the mercy of God to bridge the gap between him and those he had harmed. He understood deeply and painfully how tragically involved he was in the suffering of others. His heart had been broken.

The Pharisee cares about the suffering of others, but for him they remain “other,” a foil for his own goodness. He is unwilling or unable to acknowledge how deeply he is connected to their suffering at the level of the heart. In this, the tax collector is way ahead of him, and so the possibility for a real relationship with God and others is open to him. The Pharisee is unmoved by mercy – it leaves him unchanged. The tax collector is being transformed by mercy. He will never be the same again.

Humility is the sign that we are being transformed by the mercy of God. Humility isn’t simply an interior disposition, a kind of self-knowledge or proper valuation of one’s self. Humility is something concrete and tangible. It is given expression in our decisions and actions. Humility is like real estate: it is all about location, location, location; in this case, social location. Humility is an actual physical and spiritual movement to a new place, in which we close the distance between ourselves and the suffering and hope of the world.

However, in the economy of God’s mercy, humility is just the opposite of real estate in terms of its valuation: the value of humility increases as it moves us more deeply into the “wrong side of the tracks,” the places where others fear to live. Humility can be quite costly in material terms, but it yields an amazing spiritual return. It places us in a position to experience the mercy of God.

We tend to judge ourselves by our intentions, but the world judges us by our actions. The test of humility is not what we think about ourselves, but rather where we locate ourselves in the world. It is a question of how deeply we allow ourselves to be connected with the suffering and hope of the world, which is, of course, our own suffering and hope. They are one, and in discovering that they are one, we wade into the flow of divine mercy.

God is far more interested in a broken heart than in a resume of pious good deeds. Or to put it another way, we can’t even begin to be good until our hearts have been broken. But this breaking of the heart is not an event; it is a process of deepening compassion that opens the floodgates of mercy as we move more deeply into relationship with God and others. It is costly and, yes, painful. But it is the only way to be truly, fully alive. In embracing humility, we really do experience a paradoxical exaltation. We are alive in the endless flow of divine mercy that sustains the cosmos.

Since my return from Uganda I have been wrestling with the challenge of this parable. Am I willing to have my heart broken? What would it look like for me to embrace real humility? It is tempting to retreat into unconsciousness, to pretend that I don’t know what I now know. But that way leads to death, and I want to choose life.

What I can no longer deny is that I am rich: wildly rich by any comparative global standard. The average Ugandan has an income of $300 annually. I earned nearly that much money in the time it took me to prepare and deliver this sermon. As people there and in other parts of the developing world strive, quite understandably, to attain the quality of life that I enjoy, we risk exceeding the planet’s carrying capacity for human life.

What I can no longer deny is that my lifestyle is unsustainable on a global scale. Kampala’s air quality and traffic congestion are comparable to Los Angeles or the Bay Area. In the race to mimic Western lifestyles, carbon emissions, desertification, deforestation, and species extinctions are approaching the tipping point of global environmental disaster; all because people want to live like me.

Just this past week the United Nations Environmental Program released a report warning that “the human population is now so large that the amount of resources needed to sustain it exceeds what is available at current consumption patterns.” Climate change is turning semi-arid land to arid land in Africa at rates that further threaten an already precarious food supply. Himalayan glaciers are shrinking, diminishing the amount of water supplying the expanding populations of China and India. At current rates of harvesting, all species being fished will be extinct by 2050.

The brunt of such calamities will, of course, hit the poorest of the poor first and hardest. Regional conflicts over resources will escalate, and the pressures on population migration will mount. Charity is no longer a sufficient response to the suffering of the world, if it ever was. We can no longer keep our distance, removed from the suffering of “those people,” while the whole earth groans in anticipation of new creation.

As 21st Century North American Christians, the practice of real humility requires a global consciousness and a sense of participation in the suffering of other species and of the earth itself, as well as human suffering. Our hearts must be broken at a depth that far surpasses anything required of our forbears in the faith. The whole planet is in need of the mercy of God.

What kind of future will we choose? Where will we locate ourselves in relationship to global suffering? Will we be willing to live with less so that others will be able to live with dignity, or live at all?

These are large and difficult questions, and they require a collective, political response guided by a spiritual vision of our need for the mercy of God. Like the tax collector, we must begin by acknowledging our tragic complicity in the suffering of the world, our powerlessness to heal what is broken on our own, and our dependence upon the mercy of God and of others. We must be willing to embrace humility, to move from the center to the margins, to make room so that peaceful and sustainable life can flourish for all creatures on this planet earth, our island home.

The vision that the Church must offer the world today is a vision of self-denial and sustainability for the sake of the whole. The age of gratuitous consumption has reached its nadir. That false god must be renounced so that we may worship the God of life anew. Learning to live within the limits of renewable resources and the requirements of global health is the shape of true humility in our time. Mercy is contagious, and humility is the means by which it is spread. May God grant us the wisdom and the courage to practice true humility. Amen.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

DioCal Convention

The 158th. Convention of the Diocese of California passed the following resolution by a wide margin today, as well as a resolution providing for trial use three rites for the blessing of same-gender unions:

Response to the House of Bishops’ Statement

Resolved, That the 158th Diocesan Convention considers the statement made by the House of Bishops at their September 2007 New Orleans meeting to be non-binding on the Episcopal Church unless adopted by General Convention; and

Resolved, That the 158th Diocesan Convention affirms the unanimous decision of the Standing Committee to refuse to discriminate against partnered gay and lesbian bishops-elect in the consent process as called for in General Convention 2006 resolution B033; and

Resolved, That the 158th Diocesan Convention deplores the lack of access to adequate pastoral care and liturgical rites for the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in most dioceses of The Episcopal Church and the refusal of the majority of our bishops to make provision for it, and calls upon the House of Bishops to publish guidelines for such care; and

Resolved, That the 158th Diocesan Convention commends the House of Bishops for its call to increase implementation of the Communion-wide listening process as a process of real engagement, and calls upon the Presiding Bishop and her staff to develop such a process within the Episcopal Church, recognizing that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people continue to be marginalized in many parts of our Church; and

Resolved, That the 158th Diocesan Convention commends the House of Bishops for its call for the full participation of the Bishop of New Hampshire in the 2008 Lambeth Conference, and acknowledges the basic contradiction between support for Bishop Robinson and the implementation of B033; and

Resolved, That the 158th Diocesan Convention commends the House of Bishops for its support for the civil rights, safety, and dignity of gay and lesbian persons, and calls upon the General Convention to work to resolve speedily and justly the basic contradiction between such support in civil society and the absence of such support within the Church’s own pastoral and sacramental life.

Submitted by Sarah Lawton on behalf of the rector and vestry
of the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist, San Francisco

Sunday, September 30, 2007

A Response to the Bishops' Statement

The following is the draft of a resolution that our vestry is considering bringing to the floor of our Diocesan Convention on October 19. It is very much a work in progress, and comments are welcome. I will be away in Uganda for the next two weeks, and my ability to monitor comments will be spotty, but I'll do the best I can in getting them posted.

Update: the final version adopted by Convention is found here.

Response to the House of Bishops’ Statement

Resolved, That the 158th Diocesan Convention affirms the unanimous decision of the Standing Committee to refuse to discriminate against partnered gay and lesbian bishops-elect in the consent process as called for in General Convention 2006 resolution B033; and

Resolved, That the 158th Diocesan Convention deplores the lack of access to adequate pastoral and ritual care for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in large parts of the Episcopal Church and the refusal of the majority of our bishops to make provision for it, and calls upon the House of Bishops to publish guidelines for such care analogous to those developed by the Canadian House of Bishops; and

Resolved, That the 158th Diocesan Convention calls upon our bishops, individually and collectively, to defend the baptismal dignity and human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people with vigor equal to the manner in which the House of Bishops has defended diocesan and provincial jurisdictional boundaries; and

Resolved, That the 158th Diocesan Convention commends the House of Bishops for its call to increase implementation of the Communion-wide listening process, and calls upon the Presiding Bishop and her staff to develop such a process within the Episcopal Church, recognizing that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people continue to be marginalized in many parts of our Church; and

Resolved, That the 158th Diocesan Convention commends the House of Bishops for its call for the full participation of the Bishop of New Hampshire in the 2008 Lambeth Conference, and acknowledges the basic contradiction between support for Bishop Robinson and the implementation of B033; and

Resolved, That the 158th Diocesan Convention commends the House of Bishops for its support for the civil rights, safety, and dignity of gay and lesbian persons, and calls upon the House of Bishops to work to resolve speedily and justly the basic contradiction between such support in civil society and the absence of such support within the Church’s own pastoral and sacramental life.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Bishop Jenkins Got It Wrong

Over at Episcopal Cafe, The Lead notes an article in today's New Orleans Times-Picayune that quotes Bishop of Louisiana Charles Jenkins decrying schism. Bishop Jenkins reportedly stated that:

"The most devastating thing, and the thing I do not want to see happen, is that there becomes two Anglican communions in North America," he said. "It is a sickness unto death. If we claim to be a catholic body, this is a temptation to which we cannot give in.

"On a more pragmatic level, those who will be hurt the most by this are the poor," he said. "We are involved heavily around the world in ministries of relief and development. And I don't think we have the luxury of giving in to our self-absorption on this issue, and taking that energy and those resources away from the poor."

The issue about which we are "self-absorbed" is, of course, the issue of what it means to include baptized Christians who are gay or lesbian in the life of the Church. Bishop Jenkins seems to believe that this is an issue peculiar to the Episcopal Church, and that our attention to it precludes our solidarity with poor people at home and abroad. He is very much mistaken on both counts.

This may be news to the Bishop of Louisiana, but there are gay and lesbian Christians in every Province of the Anglican Communion. If he is paying any attention at all to current events in Nigeria and Uganda, for example, this should not come as a surprise. Even if The Episcopal Church disappeared tomorrow, the question of including gay and lesbian Anglicans in the life of the Communion would continue, because people of faith are raising the issue everywhere.

We may have been engaging the issue longer and more openly than many other Provinces of the Communion, but The Episcopal Church is hardly alone. Rather than being "self-absorbed," perhaps the gift we have to offer the Anglican Communion is the fruit of our experience of ministry with lesbian and gay Christians. Maybe we can advocate for a real listening process that includes the forgotten voices of LGBT people in the Global South. That would not seem at all "self-absorbed" to me.

Bishop Jenkins second mistake is his implicit assumption that concern for lesbian and gay people and concern for the poor are mutually exclusive. We can't advocate for justice and inclusion for the former and support development projects that benefit the latter simultaneously. That is simply, empirically false. There are plenty of individuals, congregations, and dioceses that are doing both, and will continue to do so regardless of what is decided at the House of Bishops, or the Lambeth Conference, or General Convention. If Archbishop Akinola or Archbishop Orombi refuse to accept "tainted money" from us, the blood of the poor is on their hands, not ours. There are other ways to help the poor that don't require us to capitulate to prejudice.

And, dear Bishop Jenkins, need I point out that the world's poor include people who are lesbian and gay? Indeed, some of them are poor precisely because of the prejudice they experience. Gay and lesbian people in places like Uganda are arrested, tortured, and imprisoned. Their names are published in the press, leading to the loss of jobs and ostracism from families. They are blacklisted from private and public sector employment.

In fact, you don't have to travel to Africa to find gay and lesbian people suffering in this way. No doubt some are sitting in the pews of the Diocese of Louisiana. Why, Bishop Jenkins, I suspect some of the folks most affected by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath are - my stars! - lesbian, black and poor. You see, Bishop Jenkins, the world doesn't divide up into the neat categories we try to impose upon it. It is a messy, complicated world out there, full of folks whose identity includes many labels and finally transcends them all in the beauty of holiness: our creation in the image of God.

Who are we to say who is to be excluded for the sake of the whole? Is it really better that one group should be sacrificed so that the whole Communion can be saved? Didn't Caiaphas say something along those lines . . .

Sorry Bishop Jenkins, but you can't hide prejudice behind concern for the poor. It shows right through all your pious hand-wringing. Poor people don't need their plight compounded by our prejudice. We need to work to eliminate both poverty and prejudice because all too often they end up affecting the same people. You should know that as well as anyone. It wasn't so long ago that people were saying, "We can't be self-absorbed about civil rights, when we've got all these poor people to help."


Monday, September 17, 2007

Hope for New Orleans?

In his usual perceptive way, Jim Naughton has written a thoughtful essay about the upcoming House of Bishop's meeting in New Orleans. Hopes for New Orleans essentially comes down to a hope that the bishops will preserve the status quo. The gist of it is this:

A minority in the House doesn’t like the fact that a candidate in a same-sex relationship would not currently receive a majority of consents from diocesan bishops, and hence could not take office. But they acknowledge it as a political reality, and probably wouldn’t mind saying so . . . If the question is whether Episcopal diocesan bishops are willing to postpone the development of an authorized text to be used in blessing same-sex relationships, then the answer, in all likelihood is yes. If the question is whether every diocesan bishop is willing to enforce a ban on the blessing of same-sex relationships, the answer is almost certainly no.

If I understand this correctly, the best we can hope for is that the bishops will assure Archbishop Rowan Williams, and the Joint Standing Committee of the Primates and Anglican Consultative Council, that BO33 really does mean no more gay or lesbian bishops, and commit themselves collectively to refuse to authorize blessing rites at a national or diocesan level. This is where we are at now, and we can't move forward one way or another until at least General Convention 2009.

In other words, The Closet triumphs anew, and polity trumps prophecy. Is this really the BEST for which we can hope?

Maybe. But I dare to dream better dreams.

I can imagine the bishops saying something like, "Yes, we understand that B033 urges us to exercise restraint in consenting to the election of a bishop whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion. But the truth is that many of us really do not believe that being in a committed same-gender relationship in-and-of-itself constitutes an impediment to episcopal ordination. Therefore, the most we can do is assure you that we will collectively and individually vote our conscience in the matter of consent to episcopal elections, much as we always do. Only God the Holy Spirit knows whether or not that will lead to the consecration of a gay or lesbian bishop in the future. She hasn't spoken yet on the matter, but we are confident more will be revealed."

Or something like this, "General Convention hasn't authorized rites for the blessing of same-gender relationships at the national level, and only a handful of dioceses have done so. As we continue to experience the reality of gay and lesbian couples in our congregations, further discernment on the matter of blessing such relationships will emerge. Some dioceses will judge them already blessed by God and will seek to have the Church acknowledge this publicly, liturgically, and in good order. Others will not. We are unwilling - in fact, we are unable - to preclude the work of God the Holy Spirit in this ongoing discernment. If at some point we as a national church authorize such rites, then y'all will have to enter into a period of reception about the matter. Until then, don't get your panties in a bunch. We have a way to go before you need to get anxious about it. And by then, you'll be more concerned about gay and lesbian people in Nigeria and Uganda anyway."

Perhaps that isn't much more to hope for than the status quo, but words do have meaning, and honesty is the better part of valor. Surely we can hope for our bishops to say a word of encouragement to us, to declare that they can not pretend to ignore the gifts of gay and lesbian people, and will not suffer those in the Church who are ready to receive those gifts being forced to refuse them. So, dear bishops, be courageous and don't dissemble. Tell the Primates and ACC leaders how it really is with us and don't make promises you can't or in good conscience, will not, keep. Oh, it may hurt a little bit in the short run, but all is in God's hands anyway. In the long run, all will be well.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Obama Got It Right

I haven't made up my mind about the Democratic Party primary campaign for President. I lean toward John Edward's populism and am allergic to Hilary Clinton. But as I consider the mess in Iraq, which has received so much attention from the hearings in Congress this week, I must say that Obama got it right. In 2002. Here is an excerpt from a speech he gave then:

I don’t oppose all wars. And I know that in this crowd today, there is no shortage of patriots, or of patriotism.

What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.

What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income - to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression. That’s what I’m opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics. Now let me be clear - I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity. He’s a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.

But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history. I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.

So for those of us who seek a more just and secure world for our children, let us send a clear message to the President today. You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s finish the fight with Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, through effective, coordinated intelligence, and a shutting down of the financial networks that support terrorism, and a homeland security program that involves more than color-coded warnings. You want a fight, President Bush?

Let’s fight to make sure that the UN inspectors can do their work, and that we vigorously enforce a non-proliferation treaty, and that former enemies and current allies like Russia safeguard and ultimately eliminate their stores of nuclear material, and that nations like Pakistan and India never use the terrible weapons already in their possession, and that the arms merchants in our own country stop feeding the countless wars that rage across the globe. You want a fight, President Bush?

Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality, and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells. You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to wean ourselves off Middle East oil, through an energy policy that doesn’t simply serve the interests of Exxon and Mobil. Those are the battles that we need to fight. Those are the battles that we willingly join. The battles against ignorance and intolerance. Corruption and greed. Poverty and despair.

Guess I'll have to give the young Senator from Illinois another look.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Christ Against the Cosmos: An Essay on Pauline Freedom, Part III

Part Two can be found here.

Freedom as Life in the Spirit

Paul argues that the experience of the Spirit was a formative part of the Galatians’ initial acceptance of the gospel (3:1-5), and the allegory of Hagar and Sarah served to remind them of their identity as those “born according to the Spirit” (4:28-31). It is the Spirit, then, that also enables the practice of freedom – “walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh” (5:16). The Spirit, through faith in Christ, establishes the sphere of freedom, and it is the Spirit that maintains it.

Verse 5:1, which concludes the allegorical argument that precedes it, makes clear that freedom for Paul is understood as a sphere or realm of existence established by God’s action in Christ, and not simply as an internal attitude. A better translation might be Martyn’s: “It was to bring us into the realm of freedom that Christ set us free.” [1] In this image of the realm of freedom, Paul once again emphasizes the contrast between Christ and the cosmos, a contrast that he develops with apocalyptic language in the following verses. Importantly, the exhortation in 5:1 to maintain this freedom reveals that for Paul, freedom is understood in both an indicative and an imperative sense: as that which has been accomplished through Christ and as that which it is the community’s task to retain. Freedom is both the result of Christ’s liberating action, and the sharing in this action (cf. Gal. 2:20; 3:27-28; 5:24; 6:14). [2]

In speaking of the Spirit as the enabler of the practice of freedom, Paul refers, as he has earlier in the letter, to the Spirit of Christ – not to the spirit of the community or of the individual.[3] The freedom that the Spirit brings is not manifest in Torah observance (or, for that matter, in its avoidance), but rather in “faith working through love.” (Gal. 5:6). Authentic freedom issues in love evidenced as mutual service in the life of the community, for Christ has completed the Torah in one sentence, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (5:13-14).[4]

Freedom is, therefore, something that Christ exercises through us by his Spirit, rather than a function of an autonomous human will. This is emphasized in the contrast that Paul introduces in verse 16 between the Flesh and the Spirit. Martyn has argued that whereas Paul has spoken of “flesh” previously in the letter in terms of the (un)circumcised foreskin, here he speaks of “Flesh” as another enslaving power.[5] The apocalyptic battle in which the Christian community is engaged is not between divine Spirit and human flesh, but between the Spirit and the Flesh – with both understood as cosmic powers.[6]

The battlefield imagery that Paul invokes begins in vs. 13, where “do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (RSV) can be read as “do not allow your freedom to be turned into a military base of operations for the Flesh” – as Paul’s use of the word aphormê is a metaphor for “a point from which a war can be waged” rather than simply meaning an “opportunity.”[7] Paul’s description of the conflict between the Flesh and the Spirit in the verses that follow is replete with such imagery; these powers are at war with each other, and the Galatian community is the site of battle.

The consequences of this battle are seen in the life of the Galatian community with reference to the catalogue of vices and of virtues that Paul invokes in Gal. 5:16-25. While it is true that Paul here takes over and slightly revises traditional catalogues common to both Greco-Roman and Jewish moral discourse, “Paul speaks neither of vices nor of virtues attributable to individuals, but rather of marks of a community under the influence of the Flesh and marks of a community led by the Spirit.” [8] Paul rejects both Hellenistic philosophical ethics, which argues that individuals attain virtues through paideia, the training or cultivation of human nature, and Jewish ritual ethics, which focuses on the prevention of transgression through keeping Torah. In contrast to both, Paul asserts that the “virtues” are the “fruit of the Spirit,” the result of a communities’ living daily life under the guidance of the Spirit, rather than a human attainment.[9]

It is, then, a serious mistake to read Paul’s descriptions of the activities of the Flesh and the Spirit in Gal. 5:19-24 as an example of nomistic, moral discourse focused on “vices” and “virtues.” By concentrating on the matter of community life, and by speaking of the Flesh and the Spirit as supra-human, apocalyptic powers, Paul transforms what had traditionally been a form of moral discourse – vices and virtues attributable to individuals – into marks left on communities by these two apocalyptic powers.[10]

Such a reading takes seriously Paul’s assertion in Gal. 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (RSV). For Paul, freedom is not a matter of individuals choosing a way of life, much less a lifestyle, but rather the sphere of existence determined by the Spirit of Christ. Against the Teachers, Paul argues that victory over the power of the Flesh can only come through submission to life in the Spirit, and not through submission to Torah observance.

Conclusion: Freedom in the 21st Century

God’s action in Christ has inaugurated a New Creation, a sphere of freedom bringing release from the enslaving elements of the cosmos, Torah, and the Flesh, and marked by mutual self-giving love in the community of those who have been baptized into Christ. This is the essence of Paul’s argument in the letter to the Galatians. In it, we can see traces of the Jewish and, perhaps, Cynic influences on Paul, for whom freedom is a decidedly public, communal phenomenon with social consequences (Gal. 3:28; 4:22.). Paul’s elaboration of the marks of freedom, with the important exception of love, is largely consistent with Greek and Jewish ethics. Also in keeping with his Jewish roots, Paul sees freedom as a function of divine action in history.

What is radically different in Paul is his identification of the cross of Christ as the locus of God’s action in history establishing the realm of freedom and his consignment of the entire cosmos to enslavement. So complete is this enslavement, God’s apocalyptic invasion of the cosmos through Christ can only be understood as a New Creation, a novum in history that stands over and against all that preceded it (both Torah and not-Torah) and all that remains under the domination of the Flesh. Paul differs from his contemporaries, too, in his understanding of life in the Spirit as the source and guarantor of authentic freedom manifest in love, rather than human ethical or ritual disciplines.

Perhaps what is most challenging about Pauline freedom for many contemporary North American Christians is Paul’s insistence that freedom is a divine gift lived out in community, rather than an individual right rooted in human nature. Rather than serving as the cornerstone of liberal individualism’s ideology of the autonomous person, Paul’s understanding of freedom can be characterized as the cornerstone of a Christian ecclesiology of the pneumatic community. It is the Spirit-filled community, not the liberated individual, which is the locale of freedom, a freedom that seeks to express the agency of God rather than humanity.

The church’s task in the 21st Century is to critically evaluate and reclaim a Pauline conception of freedom as an antidote to the modern/postmodern retreat of the “liberated” individual into a self-contained privacy marked by self-indulgence and consumerism, offering instead an alternative vision of freedom as the discipleship of equals in the Spirit-filled ecclesia.[11] The Church in our day faces a challenge similar to that of the Galatian churches to whom Paul addressed himself: the challenge of fully accepting the implications of our baptismal identity as expressed in Gal. 3:28.
[1] Martyn, Galatians, pp. 446-447, follows Smyth in arguing that the word “freedom” in the dative case, which begins the sentence, is best understood in the sense “of place whither.”
[2] “The whole sentence states in a very concise form both the “indicative” and the “imperative” of Christian salvation in the Pauline sense.” Betz, op. cit., pp. 256 – 257.
[3] Cf. Gal. 3:2, 3, 5, 14; 4:6, 29; 5:5. See also Martyn, op. cit., p. 492.
[4] Ibid., pp. 486-491. Martyn here provides a very interesting interpretation of verse 14, arguing that is best understood in the sense of Christ having completed the law.
[5] Ibid., pp. 485-486.
[6] Ibid., pp. 484-540. It is not that humans cannot exercise free will, but rather that authentic freedom is found only in obedience to the Spirit. Otherwise, one comes under the dominance of some other cosmic power.
[7] Ibid., p. 485.
[8] Ibid., p. 496. Cf. Betz, op. cit., pp. 278-283, who agrees that for Paul the catalogues are the results of spiritual powers, and not vices and virtues per se, but interprets “flesh” as a human agent of evil rather than a cosmic power and understands the effects of these powers in terms of individuals rather than communities. At this point Betz, wrongly, I think, interprets Galatians in terms of Romans and reads both through the lense of modern individualism.
[9] Betz, Galatians, pp. 257-258. Cf. Martyn, op. cit., pp. 524-536.
[10] Martyn, Galatians, Ibid., p. 484.
[11] Schüssler Fiorenza, op. cit., pp. 160-236, 343-351 provides an excellent example of a critical retrieval of the “Pauline” idea of freedom for the contemporary ecclesia of women. “Pauline,” because what I have taken to be representative of Paul’s understanding of freedom she takes to be representative of the early Christian missionary movement that preceded Paul, a concept of freedom that Paul subsequently modifies in a conservative direction. While I agree that this is ultimately true of Paul, it don’t believe this modification is yet evident in Galatians.