This is from a couple of weeks ago. (Still catching up from vacation and the beginning of school.) For this service, we broke up into small groups. A portion of our “Prayers of the People” from the series was read followed by a moment of silent reflection and then some discussion questions. At the end of the service, participants were asked to indicate their priorities among a range of social justice issues using sticky notes. I just looked at the results and the “winners” are poverty, hunger, and youth & education. This information will inform discussions of the Social Action Team, who will meet soon.
Posts Tagged ‘ethics’
Before I moved to Dallas, I was a manager in the Information Systems department of a medium-sized company that owned funeral homes and cemeteries. Yes, even funeral homes have information systems. And, yes, I was a nerd. The part of my job that I liked the most was facilitating groups of people in a software design process. I got to use lots of office supplies: sticky notes, flip chart pads, dry-erase boards. But the thing I liked the most was that, in the process of designing software, you inevitably had to design a business. In trying to narrow down a business function to the point that it could be accurately captured in software, we had to pick the business apart, find and resolve conflicts, create a unified mission.
Now I’m a different kind of nerd. I love the Bible. I love theology. I love church. But what I still really love is picking things apart, finding the common threads, and weaving them into something new. Maybe I’m the same nerd, just aimed in a different direction.
We’ve spent the last five weeks picking things apart. We’ve been talking about an ethic of love that deconstructs systems of power. We’ve covered a lot of ground: the earth, the alien, neighbors of different races and classes, the others within our own families. We’ve even talked a little about how and why we define the other as the other. Now it’s time to pick up those threads and weave them into the dreams of God. With sticky notes and flip charts and prayer! Nerds FTW!
Elvis was right: there’s not much point to all this conversation, if there’s not some action. So this week we’re going to move a little closer to action. In prayer and reflection, we’ll break into small groups and, with some guiding questions, we’ll talk about which pieces mean the most to us as individuals and as a group. What challenges us? What is obvious? Where do we agree or disagree? Where do we want to move forward?
Obviously, this does not get us quite to the action part, so the conversation must continue. In a couple of weeks, we will convene our Social Action Team to try to put together a portfolio of social justice concerns that makes the best possible use of our limited resources and allows us to develop ongoing relationships around those issues. I hope that everyone will continue to participate in that conversation.
Please join us on Sunday, 11am at the Kessler, as we dream together with God to make it on earth as it is in heaven.
Grace and Peace,
Both my parents were preachers, but only one was ordained. I grew up in a small town in Louisiana in the 1950s and 60s. It was in a time in the South when water fountains were labeled “colored” and “white,” and we didn’t know gays and lesbians existed. My father almost lost his job as pastor of First Baptist Church, Minden, La., because of his stand for integration during the Civil Rights movement, and he did lose his position on the board of Midwestern Baptist Seminary because of his stand for the academic freedom of a professor who wrote a book on the symbolic interpretation of Genesis. My mother always served as a minister, but she was never ordained or paid. Her dynamic speaking ability and exceptional leadership skills made her every bit as qualified as Daddy to pastor a church. She was always taking care of the underdog, never realizing that she was one. Growing up, I never saw a woman in the pulpit, except a missionary to Nigeria. And what she did was called “speak,” not “preach.”
It was not until September 18, 1977, that I discovered that anything could or should be any different. That Sunday evening my friend Raynal Barber and I went to a service at Cliff Temple Baptist Church, here in Oak Cliff. At the time Raynal and I were teaching in the English department at Dallas Baptist University. That evening at Cliff Temple Martha Gilmore was being ordained, the first woman in the South to be ordained by a Baptist church. With awe, I watched a woman kneeling before the congregation as a long line of people—women as well as men—passed by to lay hands of blessing upon her. Before then, I had seen only men ordain only men. Now something new was happening! After the service Raynal said to me: “Jann, one day we’ll be going to your ordination!” I gave her a shocked look and replied, “Oh no! I’ll research, write, persuade, give chapter and verse to support the ordination of women. But I wouldn’t want all the criticism and struggle Martha’s gone through.”
Eight years later Raynal stood at my ordination service at Seventh and James Baptist Church in Waco to read these words of the prophet Habakkuk: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come.” Martha Gilmore preached the ordination sermon, proclaiming that I was “the vision made flesh, the vision that God indeed calls women to ordained ministry.” Martha declared that I had also become “a statement, a promise for many women and men and a hope for many women who may be frightened to hear the divine call.” It helped to hear Martha bless me as a “statement,” because that word had been used negatively in reference to me and other women who had followed nontraditional paths. People had tried to dismiss me by saying, “Oh, you’re just trying to make a statement.” I realized that we were in a time in history when statements about the worth of women needed to be made. And these statements need to be made today as much as ever.
In the years since, I’ve discovered that it’s easier to see the vision than to live it. Time and time again I’ve faced the challenge of breaking free from cultural traditions that limit women and men. Breaking free to become all we’re created to be in the divine image is a continual challenge. Religious and cultural traditions are constantly trying to stifle our gifts and our voices, to put us back into boxes we’ve broken free from. External and internal forces are formidable.
The more I tried to live my call to pastoral ministry in various roles, as a chaplain, on a church staff, as a pastoral counselor, and as a writer in support of women in ministry, the more I realized that the resistance to ordination of women is only a part of a larger patriarchal culture that gives greatest value to white, straight, able-bodied, financially privileged males. Other people are considered “other” and marginalized and oppressed. One of the arguments I heard against ordination of women was, “If we start ordaining women, the next thing you know we’ll be ordaining gays!” I must confess that at that time I tried to argue that the two issues were separate. But Sophia Wisdom kept expanding my vision so that I could respond, “Yes, that’s the point! The ordained ministry should be open to all.” I was realizing that the ordination issue is just the tip of the patriarchal iceberg. At the foundation of our patriarchal culture is an image of a male God, sanctioning patterns of dominance and submission. More and more I was understanding that the strongest support imaginable for the dominance of men is this worship of an exclusively masculine Supreme Being. So my call expanded to writing, preaching, and teaching on the inclusion of the Divine Feminine.
Isabel Docampo tells me that some of the young women in her classes at Perkins say, “We don’t need to do inclusive language any more. That was important when you were going through seminary because there were all men. Inclusive language isn’t important anymore because now women can be leaders in church and are in the workplace big time.” Isabel says that when these young women go out into churches, they discover that gender discrimination, although more subtle now than in the past, is still all too prevalent.
People have tried to discount my advocacy for inclusive language by saying, “You’re making such a big deal over a few words. The Creator of the universe can’t be limited; He’s above male or female.” When I agree and say that there should then be no more problem referring to God as “She” than as “He,” I get strong negative reactions, like I’d suggested that we bring pornography into worship. No better proof can be found for the bias against the feminine and the need to overcome it by calling God “She.”
My passion for changing worship language is not just about personal preference or about making women feel better about ourselves, although that’s a worthy goal, and it’s not about political correctness, but about faithfulness to our Gospel calling. Gender-balanced language in worship is a justice issue on a wide scale.
Naming the Divine as “Sophia” (Greek“Wisdom”) “Hokmah,” (Hebrew “Wisdom”) “Mother,” “Sister,” “Ruah,” (Hebrew “Spirit”) “Midwife,” “She,” and other biblical female designations gives sacred value to women and girls who have for centuries been excluded, denigrated, discounted, even abused and murdered. Including the Divine Feminine in worship comes from our call to do justice, to alleviate suffering. I’ve come to understand how worship of an exclusively male Deity forms a foundation for demeaning, devaluing, and abuse of women. Language and symbols shape our thinking which drive our actions. Many people don’t realize how worship with exclusive language oppresses people; it oppresses by devaluing those excluded. This devaluation lays the foundation for worldwide violence against women and girls. In the U.S. alone, every fifteen seconds a woman is battered. One in four American girls will have been sexually assaulted by the age of 18. One in three women in the world experiences some kind of abuse in her lifetime. Worldwide, an estimated four million women and girls each year are bought and sold into prostitution, slavery, or marriage. Two-thirds of the world’s poor are women. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, in their book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, state: “More girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than people were killed in all the battles of the twentieth century. More girls are killed in this routine ‘gendercide’ in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century.” There are many more alarming statistics on worldwide violence and discrimination against women and girls. A theology that truly includes females and males and bisexual and transgender people, all genders, can make a powerful contribution to a more just world.
Perkins professor Marjorie Procter-Smith in her book The Church in Her House: A Feminist Emancipatory Prayer Book for Christian Communities, writes about the need for faith communities to recognize overlapping and interlocking structures of oppression, which theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza calls “kyriarchy,” meaning literally “rule of the masters or lords.” The more familiar term “patriarchy” suggests that all men (literally “fathers”) are rulers. But men of color, gay men, disabled men, poor men are usually excluded from power.
Theology and worship practice make a difference. That’s why CityChurch, now Church in the Cliff, was founded, to be a truly inclusive community that preaches inclusive theology, and practices and models inclusive worship that shapes actions of justice and peace. Our theology and worship practice matter. Not just personal preference, but can often be a life and death matter. Read Unfinished Lives: Reviving the Memories of LGBTQ Hate Crimes Victims, by Brite Divinity School professor Steve Sprinkle, and you’ll see how religion can be the cause of or the solution to hate crimes. Complicit in these crimes are not only churches preaching anti-LGBTQ theology but also those remaining silent in the face of this hate-inducing rhetoric.
What can be do to end sexism, heterosexism, gender oppression and violence? As a faith community, we can continue to grow toward greater inclusivity in our theology, worship language and symbolism. We can give equal value to women and men through worship that equally balances Mother and Father, Brother and Sister, She and He, Christ and Sophia, and other female and male divine names. In addition to this inclusive language, we can find ways to include all genders in our symbolism, our theology, and our practice. Worshipping a Deity who includes more than one gender lays a strong foundation for justice and peace in our world. As individuals and as a community, we can find other specific actions to take. I recommend these two books, Unfinished Lives and Half the Sky, hard to read because of the alarming stories, but also hopeful in listing actions we can take to bring change. Steve Sprinkle also has a blog and FB page that give specific things we can do. Half the Sky has a whole chapter entitled “What You Can Do,” and an Appendix listing many international organizations that support women and girls. And closer to home: National Organization for Women; Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus-Christian Feminism Today; ecumenical, multicultural Equity for Women in the Church Community; Dallas Foundation for Women; Planned Parenthood. Individually and together as a faith community we can continue to grow in becoming the Good News of liberation and abundant life for everyone.
It has been an interesting few months in the culture wars. And first, let’s be clear that it is a war. Over the last couple of weeks, I have been told by people who oppose change, by people who gleefully patronize businesses that oppose change, that it’s not helpful for me to characterize it as such. These words denoting conflict show my own intolerance and bigotry. Bullshit. This is not a fight that women and LGBTQ folk and their allies would like to be having. But those in power do what they always do: they take their active response to change, their clutching at the power they have, as normal and neutral. They view their action as inaction. So they frame things as if they are passively minding their own business while this unexpected turmoil erupts around them. When Martin Luther King was in jail in Birmingham, he did not have kind words for those who sat on the sidelines, quietly enjoying their freedoms, and pretending that segregation was none of their business.
So let’s look at a few dispatches from the front lines. The Vatican came down on American nuns in April. Ostensibly, it was for doctrinal problems, but at the core of those doctrinal problems is the nuns’ refusal to be conscripted into fighting against the interests of women and children, of the poor and the forgotten. In May, President Obama came out for marriage equality. In the last week or so, we have the Chick-fil-A boycott after the CEO, Dan Cathy, said clearly what everyone should have known before: he opposes same-sex marriage and uses company profits to support anti-gay organizations. And, finally, this week no one was surprised when another anti-gay evangelical cultural critic, Jonathon Merritt, was outed by a gay blogger with whom he had put himself “in an unwise situation” and “had physical contact that went beyond the bounds of friendship.” And then there was one more that, strangely, seemed to pass without much fanfare.
Around the end of June, Alan Chambers, the president of Exodus International made a startling announcement. If you don’t know, Exodus is an umbrella organization for ex-gay ministries and reparative therapists, who believe that through prayer and psychotherapy, homosexuals can be made straight. Mr. Chambers’ announcement was, essentially, that none of that is true. He admitted that people could not decide not to be gay, that reparative therapy does not work, that all the prayer in the world won’t change one’s attractions, and that trying to do so might, in fact, be harmful to those who try. This is not startling news because we did not already know this. It is startling because it erases every claim they have ever made about homosexuality. It reveals the truth that their starting point was never science, but their belief that homosexuality is simply wrong. I’d be happy to talk about why I think they have always been wrong about that, but right now I’d like to talk about the ideology behind the ex-gay movement, which appears to be continuing with vigor in spite of Mr. Chambers’ change of heart.
I’ve been reading a book called Straight to Jesus, which is the story of an ethnographer, Tanya Erzen, who spent a year working in an ex-gay ministry to study them, like Jane Goodall living among the chimpanzees. She became quite close with the men in the program, so it was not at all an unsympathetic portrait, though she clearly disagreed with both the premise and the method of the ministry. Briefly, ex-gay ministries and reparative therapies are predicated on the idea that people are made gay by some kind of break in the development of gender identity. It could be abuse or an absent or critical parent. The net is cast so wide that almost anything can be said to be the cause. And when those things that are supposed to be causes don’t, in fact, cause someone to be homosexual, there is some countervailing cause that kept the person’s gender identity on track, say an uncle or minister who was always present or a mother who raised the child to believe in the Bible and God as the ultimate father.
So the task set before a person who wants to stop being gay is to reconstruct proper gender identity and reestablish non-sexual, same-sex friendships. People in this program spent their time doing manly things like playing team sports and hiking, because nothing gay ever happens in sports or on long camping trips. Participants are prohibited from doing anything the program categorizes as gay, such as shopping or being sarcastic. Apparently, snark is totally gay. If the men in the program stick with this regimen, they are told they will eventually learn to be attracted to women. They will get married. They will be the head of the household, as a proper man should be.
The interesting thing is that no one believes this. The men in the program never really think that will happen. Some try to never leave the program by moving into leadership positions. Some quit trying. Most simply live out a pattern of fall and redemption. It’s so common that it is built into the program. In a strange amalgam of Pentecostal testimony and twelve-step program, they confess their failures publicly, whether it’s thinking about another man in the program, buying gay porn, or hooking up with someone at a rest stop. Because few of them have ever lived in an openly gay community, they are told that those things are what being gay is. According to everything they have ever been told, there are no healthy gay relationships. And so their desire can only be suppressed or lived out in fantasies or momentary trysts. And all of it is viewed as the worst kind of sin.
For the longest time, the religious right ignored the ex-gay movement. But as the battle for gay rights heated up, the politicos found they needed a counter-narrative to that supplied by gay activists. If you could change your sexuality, if it was merely a matter of lifestyle choice, it need not be protected. When Exodus International got involved in politics in 2001, many in the ex-gay movement felt betrayed. Exodus ran a series of ads telling the stories of ex-gays and leveraging them to argue against same-sex marriage. Those whose stories they told, for the most part, did not agree to be used that way. In fact, many favor same-sex marriage and other civil rights for LGBTQ folk, seeing their own choices and struggles as their own. So if you ask ex-gays, they would say that the culture warriors aren’t really on their side. What, then, do they want?
In short, they oppose homosexuality and all other manner of queerness because it upsets their apple cart. Their apple cart holds all the power. They control access to God. They control access to money. To justice. To love. What the culture warriors are really after is to maintain the status quo. Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians of the wisdom of the world and its failure to reveal God. God’s wisdom, God’s power, is Sophia standing on the busiest street corner, yelling at all the idiots who will believe anything they are told, the ones who buy into the fear, who build a bunker out of tradition. God’s wisdom, Sophia, the message of the cross, is a scandal. Imagine, a woman speaking with the power of God! Imagine, two men married to one another! Imagine, a man raising children or a woman leading a church! Imagine relationships of equals where no one possesses or controls anyone else! It’s all scandalous! Indecent, even. If you want to find God, look for the scandal. Make no mistake, the battle for same-sex marriage and the battle for ordination of women is the same battle. And the culture warriors are right: the family and our society are at stake. Do we want a society of equals working in partnership toward a common good? A world in which we discover together who we are? Or do we want hierarchies of power, learned from childhood, and maintained with brute force? A world in which everyone’s role is predetermined and merely acted out? Where does a God of liberation and hope stand in that battle?
I had an art teacher in high school, Ms. Griffin, that loved to say, “There are two types of people in the world…” She would then provide an obviously simplistic and meaningless division of all people. “There are two types of people in the world: those who like ice cream and those who don’t.” When we pointed out that there exists a far greater range of people in the world according to their feelings about ice cream – some are indifferent, some like some kinds and not others, some like it on hot days, but not cold – she responded, “There are two types of people in the world: those who think there are two types of people in the world and those who don’t.” One way that systems of power work is by giving the illusion of clarity in false binaries like this. There are two types of people in the world: whites and non-whites; men and women; gays and straights. But we are all really of Ms. Griffin’s second type. No one really sees the world as being so simple, so easily divided.
Over the last few weeks, we have seen the foolishness of division. We divide ourselves, creatures, from the earth, creation. We divide the local from the alien. We divide white from non-white and rich from poor. We divide male from female and gay from straight. This last is particularly disturbing because it shows how we “otherize” those to whom we are closest. We turn our families and friendships into systems of power, everyone in his or her proper place.
In the second creation narrative, the one where the earthling is split in two, the other is supposed to be our counterpart, the one that stands across from us, beholds us and confronts us. We have commonality that can bring us together in love, “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” And we have difference to reveal new possibilities to one another. If we see only sameness, we see only our own reflection. If we see only difference, we have a tendency to hate it. We no longer recognize the dignity of the divine humanity in which we all share. The divine, in whose image all of humankind is created, includes unity and difference. Each of us is this subtle concoction of sameness and difference. We have to see the whole person, that which we recognize and that which we don’t. Because the binaries just don’t work. They obscure a much richer and more nuanced reality that requires a richer and more nuanced ethical posture.
God calls us to live in a rich and complicated world. That is its beauty and its challenge and its hope. It is often confusing, often unclear, often surprising. Thank God for that.
Before Church in the Cliff opened, Lisa and I went to Cathedral of Hope a few times. One time, during the passing of the peace, I turned and encountered a transgender person. I was taken aback. My mind couldn’t register him or her. I didn’t even know what pronouns to use. Then I had an epiphany: God is like that. We try to contain the world in our categories. It gives us a sense of control. If I can name it, I can control it. But occasionally, our categories are undone. We are out of control. We are confused. We are destabilized and forced to find new ground.
I didn’t know it then, but it was the seedling for this series. I encountered, was confronted by, a person I could not easily label. Since then, I have become deeply suspicious of all these categories and the ways we use them to identify the other. Really, we use them to sustain the boundaries of our own identities. And, in the current debates over family and sexuality, we use them to control at least half the population. In spite of the way that those structures are enshrined in our sacred Scriptures, I think God has something more for us. God always exceeds our categories.
I’m sure this trans person saw my confusion, saw me turn away not knowing what to say. I’m sure that she or he experiences that a lot. I wish so many things for that moment. I wish I could ask him or her how he or she preferred to identify. I wish I could shake her or his hand and wish him or her peace. And I wish I could tell her or him that I saw God that day, that my world shifted and I knew that there were such great possibilities in God’s world that I hadn’t even imagined. I was deconstructed and I could never be the same.
Please join us this Sunday, 11am at the Kessler, as we talk about the way we construct gender and sexuality as a cohesive system of power. Our friend Jann Aldredge-Clanton will share the story of her ordination as a Baptist minister and her passion for inclusive language.
(Note: This was from last week. The web site was down and this could not be posted.)
There are two streets that run on parallel tracks through North Oak Cliff, the neighborhood where Church in the Cliff and many of its people reside. When I drive down Jefferson Boulevard, I feel like I should have hired a translator for the trip. Everything is in Spanish. There are nineteen quinceañeras. There are mercados and supermercados. There are services for people who live hand to mouth: check cashing, loans, pawn shops. There are also a lot of people walking around. It feels like there is a lot of life being lived on Jefferson Boulevard.
Davis Street has its fair share of Spanish, but it is gradually disappearing. For years, old auto repair shops and warehouses have been turned into shops and restaurants. A couple of years ago, it was rezoned so that no new mechanics could move in. Instead, there are high-end restaurants from some of the best culinary minds in Dallas. Boutique wine shops. Organic food co-ops. And lots of white people. In cars. On one end of Davis, in the Bishop Arts District, the traffic and parking are so bad that many of the locals don’t go there anymore, especially on weekends. Something is growing on Davis Street.
So what does all this have to do with church? And God? Well, we’ve been talking about how love deconstructs systems of power, how God crosses the boundary lines that we hold dear. In order to participate in that, we have to first see those lines and then be willing to cross over.
There are boundaries in our neighborhood and even around our church. I live in Oak Cliff, in part, because I want diversity. But I don’t shop on Jefferson Street. I love the new restaurants and shops on Davis. I draw a line around myself; I make my own borders. I stay on my side of them, safely in my comfort zone. Worse, I sit by and watch (and sometimes actively participate) in moving those boundaries, encroaching just a little more on the lives of people I will probably never meet. It’s imperialism on a small scale. Divisions are maintained instead of contested. The life of God calls us to something else, even – especially! – in our own backyard.
Please join us this Sunday, 11am at the Kessler, as we talk about the ways we distance ourselves from our neighbors. Whether it’s the onerous War on Drugs or simple “economic development,” we’ll expose the lines that separate us and see if there is a better way.
Grace and Peace,
Vote August 5 to Join AWAB
At the Alliance of Baptists annual gathering in April, I met the Reverend Robin Lunn, Executive Director of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (AWAB). The mission of AWAB is “to create and support a community of churches, organizations and individuals committed to the inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons in the full life and mission of Baptist churches.” As a church with a longstanding commitment to this goal of full inclusion, it seems a natural fit for us to join in their efforts.
In order to join, we must do a few things. First, we must decide to do so. Second, we must agree on a financial gift to AWAB. I suggest $150 per year, which will be included in the budget under discussion. Third, we must add a statement of welcome to our by-laws to ensure that our church remains committed to being open and affirming. I suggest we establish a team to put that together and vote on it at our September meeting.
In joining AWAB, we get some benefits. AWAB serves as a vetting organization for a group of partners working for full inclusion, such as Believe Out Loud. In talking to other ministers at the Alliance gathering, we shared stories of the inquiries we have gotten about our inclusivity. After telling the inquirer that we are a welcoming and affirming church, it is a given that the follow-up question will be: “But are you really?” Joining AWAB will allow us to be on lists of churches where people can be sure that they will be fully included. This is, of course, a marketing tool, but there is a larger purpose.
Churches need to come out of the closet. Right now, the discourse around sexuality overwhelmingly features churches that are opposed to the concerns of LGBTQ folk. Many other churches are silent because of denominational politics. The result is that people think that the only valid Christian option is to oppose homosexuality and the civil rights of LGBTQ folk. This creates a cultural inertia to the point that some churches cannot be openly open and affirming because it could compromise the lives and livelihoods of their members. When individuals come out, it is harder and harder for society to exclude them, legally or otherwise. When churches come out, it changes the conversation; it redraws the lines between the just and the unjust.
We have been welcoming and affirming for a long, long time. It’s time for us to be more open about it.
Finally, the Worship Team is looking for suggestions for the next series to begin in mid-August. What would you like to talk about? What are you wondering about? What does your soul need? Email suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I know we’re always looking for ways to annoy our fundamentalist friends and family, so here’s something: the exodus, the central narrative of the Jewish tradition and the paradigm for the Christian journey, didn’t really happen. It’s true. There’s a pretty substantial archaeological record from the period it would have happened, about 3000-3500 years ago, but not a bit of evidence of a massive migration of 600,000 people from Egypt to Canaan. There should be artifacts from Egypt, cultural influences from their time there, records of a disruption – something. But there’s not.
One plausible theory of the origins of Israel is that the stories of the patriarchs and the exodus from Egypt are the collected memories of a variety of peoples who lived in Canaan and Egypt around the 13th century BCE. There were people called habiru who did not claim loyalty to any state. They were sojourners, aliens. They had a bad reputation as transient outlaws, roadside brigands that disrupted the trade of the nation-states in which they wandered. Sometimes they were migrant laborers or captured to become slaves. Some of those slaves appear to have escaped at various times, which might form the kernel of the memory of the exodus combined with other Canaanite narratives to generate the cultural identity of the nation of Israel.
Now, it’s not that important whether one believes the exodus really happened or not. The important thing for our consideration today is the way that the people of Israel constructed their identity, the things they chose to focus on in writing their story. The three figures that loom the largest in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, are wanderers, aliens. Abraham lived as an alien in Egypt and Philistine. Jacob fled from his brother Esau’s wrath and lived as an alien with Laban. Moses was an alien in Midian after fleeing a murder rap in Egypt. Then he wandered in the desert for forty years with the Hebrew people. Even after that, when they finally settled down, built Jerusalem and the Davidic kingdom, they were destroyed and exiled, strangers in a strange land.
We commonly focus on the Promised Land, equating it with traditional Christian notions of the afterlife. “Oh when shall I see Jesus and reign with Him above/and from a flowing fountain drink everlasting love/I’m on my way to Canaan/I’m on my way to Canaan/I’m on my way to Canaan to the New Jerusalem.” If we can just make it to the Promised Land, the land of milk and honey, things will finally, finally be okay. But I wonder if we shortchange the wandering and in the process ignore the wanderer, the transgressor of boundaries, the disruptor of the dominant culture.
First, it should be clear that God likes the alien. I honestly don’t see how anyone can read the Bible and have a negative attitude toward immigrants. In addition to the Patriarchs, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were refugees in Egypt, fleeing the threats of Herod. When the Bible speaks of aliens, there are no qualifications, no criteria, no equivocation. In Matthew 25, Jesus does not say, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me after providing proper documentation.” It’s very clear. No ifs, ands, or buts. The just welcome the stranger. So as a matter of basic compassion, we should support the alien, regardless of legal status. But there is a deeper issue here: the question of where and how we find God. To get there, let’s back up a bit and look at how Christians have related to the world around them in the past.
Growing up a Southern Baptist, missionaries were legendary figures. Any time a missionary came home, they got the pulpit for the day. We heard about providing medical supplies in Palestine. We heard about sneaking Bibles into communist countries in hidden compartments in a car, like James Bond for Jesus. And we heard a lot about conversions. The world was being saved one village at a time.
What we did not hear about was the cozy relationship between Christian missions and Western empire. Sometimes, the Christians got there first and countries or companies came in ostensibly to ensure their safety, but coincidentally opened up the native people and resources to exploitation. Sometimes, the countries and companies got there first and the Christians came to the newly secured and infrastructured place to accommodate the native people to Western culture, a.k.a., religion. Either way, Christian missions were frequently complicit in the spread of Western economic, military, and political power. This is not just the story of the spread of Protestant missions in the 20th century, but the story of Christianity at least as far back as the 4th century. Whether it’s the Roman Empire converting the “barbarians” of Europe, or the Spanish Empire converting the “savages” of the New World, or today’s evangelicals working hard to convert Africa and Asia, it’s the same story. Native cultures are destroyed and native people and resources are used up.
Once everything is used up, people have no choice but to move. For survival, people must migrate. Abraham left his land because of famine. The Hebrews left Egypt because they were enslaved, not unlike the Mexicans in the maquiladoras on the border, assembling products that they will never be able to buy. People migrate because they have to, because someone’s greed has taken away all the other options. That lack of options makes it difficult to imagine a way out of this, but as we have said, God is in the business of the impossible.
Like the ancient Hebrews transforming their homelessness and alienation into stories of legendary wanderers and heroic escapes from oppression, Leticia Guardiola-Saenz transforms the narrative of her life, as we all do. Guardiola-Saenz is a Bible professor in Seattle, but she grew up in the borderlands of the Rio Grande Valley, ten blocks from the International Bridge of Reynosa. She describes it, looking back:
Now, the old bridge of my childhood, the site of struggle, rupture and hybridity, depicts not just the broader picture of the divided identity of the Mexican-American population of the borderlands, but it is also a place for dialogue and construction from which I can assemble my hybrid identity, denounce oppression, fight for justice, and call for liberation.
The border that runs through her life becomes a source of strength and the possibility of transformation. She quotes Homi Bhabha, a post-colonial theorist: “The transformational value of change lies in the rearticulation, or translation, of elements that are neither the One nor the Other but something else besides, which contests the terms and territories of both.” I can’t think of a better way to describe God.
God does not eliminate difference, but God contests the ease with which we codify difference. We want a bright line between America and its neighbors. We want a bright line between black and white. We want a bright line between male and female, gay and straight. But no one sits solidly on either side of those lines, so much so that those lines are constantly deconstructed. That is God’s promise in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” God crosses boundaries. God disrupts. God wanders. God is the stranger at our door, waiting to be welcomed.
How do we understand our relationship with the world outside of our borders, however we define those? What are we to do?
What borders to we live on? What boundaries to we transgress? In what way are hybrids?
Russ Castronovo: “pay attention to the borders, for it is in these uncertain regions where the landscape of politics is most susceptible to sudden change and reversal.”
Christian identity as diaspora
God is found on the Other side
Marcella: “Our task and our joy is to find or simply recognize God sitting amongst us, at any time.”
“The Other side is in reality a pervasive space.”
Last week we talked about the earth as neighbor, one who shows us compassion. She provides the possibility of life, so it seems a peculiar act of violence to carve her up like the concubine at Gibeah (Judges 19). We imagine ourselves as God separating the light from the dark. In a tragically misguided sense, that is exactly what we are doing. The lines we draw, the cuts we make, the wounds we leave — on each side of those lines are people.
Of course, violence begets violence. I’m an American. She is a Mexican. These are Indians and those are Pakistanis. Ireland and England. China and Tibet. America and Iran. The conflict seems eternal, so we patrol those borders and penetrate them as our needs dictate.
If we can’t conquer, we convert. “We” go to “them” and tell “them” how “they” can be like “us.” If they just work hard enough and adopt our form of virtue, they can become our mirror reflecting our glory back to us. Growing up an evangelical Christian, we called that “missions.”
When we go over there and convince them how great we and our ways are, they naturally want to come here to experience that greatness first-hand. It turns into more violence – and not just drug wars and anti-immigration vigilantes. The line between America and Mexico runs straight through the middle of millions of families and individuals. The lines we draw can cleave a body in two.
Please join us this Sunday, 11am at the Kessler, as we talk about immigration, missions, and the redemptive power of border-crossing.
The journey of becoming an ecotheologian of sorts began for me through caring about people: I have a distinct memory from my first semester of coursework at Brite, where I was reading a text by Eleazar Fernandez where he asks the question: What does it mean to have hearts as large as the world? I was already a nature-lover, beginning gardener, runner and hiker, but I hadn’t yet made the connections between the things that I found enjoyable in my personal life and in my professional life. That started to shift for me through a couple of different things: as a pastoral counselor, I began to notice how deeply things in people’s physical environment affect their sense of happiness, as well as their health. As a hospital chaplain, my long-term patients (especially the CF kids who were in a really tightly controlled indoor environment), talked about how much they missed being able to go outside – and on the rare occasions where Dallas air quality was good enough to allow this, they came back with joy on their faces…and many times got better faster.
I began to look at the ways our tradition invites us to relate to the world that sustains our lives – and found a really mixed heritage, both in our sacred texts and in the theologies that have developed our relationship with creation. A really common interpretation you’ve probably heard of takes the genesis passage that talks about “dominion” and reduces that to the right to use and control the earths resources to the benefit of humankind alone. This is a real challenge for us, I think: we live in a culture that fits this kind of model to a t: it’s a culture of individual happiness and material gratification, so its really comfortable to look at the earth as an object and tool for us to use so we can be happy.
There are two things that might help us pick through this today:
1) Playing out this scenario with 7 billion other people on the planet: what happens? We end up storing up lots of earth’s resources and making lots of waste in some parts of the globe (like ours), and others are left with fewer resources and dealing with the waste that gets created (like most of our electronic waste, which is shipped across the world to dump and salvage operations, in which children are exposed to toxic chemicals as they try to make enough living to survive.
2) I think this is not a very rich or respectful way of looking at how God calls us to relate to the rest of the world, the “otherkind” of creation – many other stories can help us live a little more thoughtfully with our traditions. Larry Troester, a GreenFaith Scholar in Residence and Conservative Jewish rabbi in NYC, offers us three models from the Hebrew bible that help us cast our relationship with creation in more complex ways. Caretaker (Psalm 8 – praising God for creation and for making people “masters” of it), Farmer (Gen. 2.4b-7, 15) creation story – placed in a garden to keep and till it – reciprocal relation), Citizen (Psalm 148 among others: litanies of creation offer praise – all are citizens of creation that offer praise to the divine), & Creature (Eccl. 3.17-21 – we all return to the dust).
The interesting thing to note about these models is that even at their most anthropocentric, we are still to play a responsible and caring role with regard to the creation, because it is ultimate God’s and part of God’s activity in the world.
The creation isn’t a passive resource, but an active subject with whom we are in relationship: how does this change our engagement with it? Are there ways you are already doing this in your life? What was a meaningful time you felt like you were relating to the creation? How would you like your relationship/our relationship as a culture to creation to be different?
Our understanding of God as the tip-top of a system of power begins at the very beginning. In Genesis 1, we commonly read: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”
As is often the case, some things get lost in translation. First, we often think that the earth is nothing here, but that is not the case. The Hebrew, tohu vavohu, is often used to describe a wasteland left in the wake of a calamity. It is definitely a something. Second, the wind does not merely sweep over the face of it. It actually hovers, like a mother bird feeding her young. And third, when God says, “Let there be light!” – well, this is where it gets really word-nerdy, but hang with me. The form of the verb here is called a jussive. It expresses the wish, desire, or command of the speaker. When a king says something with a jussive, it is usually translated as a command. When the subject speaks to the king, it is translated as a supplication. But why assume that power structure here? Let’s try reading it a little differently.
God encounters this desolation, the site of calamity and feels compassion for it. God hovers over it, nurtures it, and speaks to it. God says, “I wish there were some light in you. I wish you could be something again. I wish you could be restored.” And when God calls out to this broken place, the broken place responds: There is light!
If reality is a chain of command,, then we might as well all just get in line, do what we’re told, and use it all up. For our own survival, we might want to be careful about how we use it, stretch it out as long as possible, but that’s about us. As long as we control what is below us and let ourselves be controlled by our betters, things will play out as they should. When it’s over, it’s over. It’s all in God’s plan. It’s just the way things are.
But I believe that the order of reality is relationship. God sees brokenness, desolation, a place where life cannot be, and changes it. Restores it. Heals it. Makes life possible by speaking to the brokenness of the world. We’re going to look at a lot of issues in this series and each one can be viewed as simply the way things are. But, as we discussed last week, God is in the business of the impossible. The way of the world is not God’s way. So it may seem impossible that the earth’s resources are enough, that humans can live on the earth without consuming it, that the earth is, in fact, a place for life to live and to thrive. But God is in the business of the impossible. As Christians, so are we. We can speak to the broken places of the world and find some light. We are small and our resources are few, so let’s start with love. Love God. Love your neighbor. Love the earth that gives so much that we might have life and have it abundantly.
Table Litany (written by Genny)
The central symbols of our communion celebration are bread and wine: fruit of the earth, and gift of the vine. They are imminent, practical symbols: without eating and drinking, we could not live. Without sharing these things together, we cannot live fully.
In our prayers at this table together, may we remember:
Those who planted
Those who harvested
Those who transported
Those who loaded and packed and unpacked
The soil and water that brought these gifts of life to us,
And the animals who made the soil and the plants their homes.
May they all be cared for and renewed, as loved neighbors in the web of life.
Our stories tell us that on the night he was handed over, Jesus shared a meal with his friends. He took bread, and broke it, sharing it with those he loved, saying, “Take this, and eat it.”
Then he took a cup of wine, and poured it out for his friends, saying, “Take this, and drink it.”
In doing these things together they loved each other more deeply than they had known before.
Hoping for a world where we share a table together, celebrating even our differences, sustained by a blessed garden in a circle of abundant life, is faith worth acting upon. There are places at this table for all: you are invited to come, whether you believe a little, a lot or not. The table is ready, and we welcome your presence.
It seems that as I think about this series more and more, I keep circling back to the question asked in the Luke 10 version of the greatest commandment story: “Who is my neighbor?” It’s a reasonable question. If we are to love our neighbor, surely we should know who that is. The answer, presented in the parable of the Good Samaritan, is, “The one who showed mercy.” If we really think about it, who shows more mercy than the vast expanse of creation on which we depend?
So often, we think of the earth as an object, a resource for our use. There is strong biblical warrant for this, as there is for most power structures. According to one reading of the first creation narrative found in Genesis 1, God, the ultimate power, has delegated to humans power over every living thing. But maybe there is another way.
What if we instead thought of the earth as a subject to which we relate? A neighbor who has shown us mercy? A neighbor who we might love? How might that change the choices we make and the kind of justice we work for?
Grace and Peace,
Genny Rowley is currently a doctoral student in the dissertation phase of Brite Divinty School’s Pastoral Theology and Pastoral Care program. Her project involves connecting with people of faith who are working for ecological justice in their local congregations.
July 1 – Introduction
How can love deconstruct power and create justice?
July 8 – The Earth
How do we relate to the earth and how does that frame our relationship with everything else? How (and why) do we divide it up and fight over it?
July 15 – The Alien
How do we relate to the people “over there,” especially when they come “over here”?
July 22 – The Neighbor
How do we relate to the people all around us? Who do we consider to be our neighbor and why?
July 29 – The Other
How do we divide ourselves from the people closest to us, in our families and our friendships? How do we decide who is “the other”? And do we have to?
August 5 – Decisions
As a church, how and where do we direct the resources that we have to create a more just world?
On Sunday, I was highly critical of Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Dallas, as well as others of his ilk that are famous for their criticism of homosexuality. You can read my comments here, but the main point was that any ethical stance must risk something. This follows from Jesus’ claim in John 15:13: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” My claim was that, in saying that “gay is not okay,” Mr. Jeffress risks nothing and, therefore, finds nothing and gives nothing. Mind you, this is not an apology; I stand by that statement. However, my intention was to hold myself and our church to the same standard and I think I failed in that.
I did ask the question in our conversation, but, being a conversation, it didn’t go exactly where I thought it would. As we used to say about software design: This is not a bug, but a feature. Some tremendous insights were given, as well as some difficult and important questions. However, I don’t want to let the questions I started with slip by: What do we risk as a church? What are we willing to risk?
Valen suggested that we risk a certain kind of alienation. Because we hold certain positions on social issues, such as being open and affirming of all kinds of queerness, and because we take practices to be more important than beliefs, we often find ourselves on the margins of the dominant Christian tradition. (I say “dominant,” not because that tradition is necessarily the largest, but because it is currently the loudest.) I agree that we risk this kind of alienation, whether that means outright rejection by family and friends, criticism by other Christians, or just the awkwardness of trying to explain what the hell we are doing. However, I wonder if that is enough. It strikes me that Robert Jeffress and others often claim, not just alienation, but victimization by a larger culture that is hostile to their values, values that they take to be from God. It also strikes me that some of us enjoy alienation; it feeds my need to be special. So, while our alienation is very real and, at times, uncomfortable – painful even – I want more, for myself and for our church.
I’m not sure what I’m asking. Often, the greatest risks are surprises. (Thanks, God!) But I want to continue pushing this question as a church. We often struggle with issues of identity, but often that question is focused around beliefs, how we understand ourselves as Christians and as a church. What if, instead, we focused our identity around action?
Our next series, starting in July, will be on social justice issues. My hope is to lift up the things we are already doing and to ask what more we can do. Do our actions match our values? Is there an identity we can claim? What would anyone outside our church recognize as Church in the Cliff? If we disappeared, would it make a difference to anyone but us?
I also wanted to address some of the questions highlighted by a visitor. Like many of us, it seemed that she is moving away from a more conservative tradition, but is unsure of what faith looks like outside of that. She was looking for a bottom line, a set of beliefs on which to ground herself. As many expressed in the conversation, our faith tends to be organized around practices more than beliefs. Although the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus appear to be important to all of us, we probably all understand those things a little differently. Our task is to love one another as we negotiate their meaning. However, I would like to provide my version of what those things might mean as succinctly as I can.
In the traditional view, Jesus was both human and divine and his death on the cross is payment for our sin. In the church of my youth, and probably what is now the dominant view in American Protestantism, the critical thing is to accept this fact in order to be saved. I can say clearly that I no longer understand things this way.
I do think Jesus is both human and divine, but not in a way that is substantially different from any of us. In a difference of degree, Jesus was so clear about the task of his life and so faithful in pursuing it, that the divine part was in complete control. He was not under the sway of fear, controlled by the limitations of being human in a finite world. And he did die for our sins. That is, he died because of the sins of those who were – and are; as Pope John Paul II suggested, Christ is crucified all day every day – controlled by fear. Fear of loss, of death, of rejection, of pain, all drive us to control others, to isolate ourselves, to insulate ourselves. Jesus stood up to that fear and lived through it unto death. Our task as Christians is to live into that story, stand with those who suffer even unto death.
This means that salvation is not one moment. Yes, a big decision is helpful as a milestone, a marker of the day we decided to turn toward God and live into that story. But we must make that decision every day, every moment we are beset by fear and loss and death. We must look for salvation every day because sin persists every day.
This also means that salvation is not for us; it is for the world. If walking in the Way of Christ and the Wisdom of Sophia is just entering heaven and avoiding hell, you’re missing the point. In fact, it lives into precisely the fear that drives the world into sin. Instead, we as Christians can live into God’s dreams for the world, a world beyond fear of loss and limitation and death, a world of faith, love, and hope.
This, to me, is the meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Others in Church in the Cliff may see it differently. I look forward to continuing to discuss it and to sharing life together through it all.