An Empowered Faith Community

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Daniels Run flowing though the woods behind our church

What does an empowered faith community look like? An often overlooked example is a brief description in Luke’s Gospel, which immediately follows the story of the unnamed woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair (7: 36-50). Her action is an example of genuine hospitality in comparison to that of Simon the owner of the house who has not even extended to Jesus the customary hospitality given to guests.

Mihee Kim-Kort, writing in The Christian Century, says that “[we] often forget the women. Do you see this woman? The way she throws off cultural expectations and norms by giving fully of herself in the moment? What if our hospitality were rooted in this kind of love and fearless intimacy, a reckless abandonment that allows for the giving and receiving of salvation and wholeness?”

In response, Jesus assures her that she has received God’s forgiveness and peace. Absorbing that realization had to be powerfully liberating, yet the woman needed a new and different community to live a truly empowered life. That’s why I love the way Luke’s Gospel gives us this glimpse of a liberated community of women and men working together (8: 1-3). This is the antidote to the chauvinism of a man like Simon whose prejudices keep him from seeing the woman for who she is.

That courageous woman’s loving act has given Jesus new energy as he now continues his mission of “proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God.” We will want to especially notice who is traveling with him. All have been freed from the personal demons that had previously tormented them.

There’s now a whole cohort of liberated women alongside the twelve disciples.  I’m sure the unnamed woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears was among them. Notice that these were empowered women—not rescued women still beholden to others. The group included many who were supporting the Jesus movement with their personal resources. Such inclusive, empowered community is the genius of Jesus and his band of disciples.

Lockdown America

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Our rate is 500 prisoners per 100,000 residents, or about 1.6 million prisoners according to the latest available data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That compares to around 100 prisoners per 100, 000 residents in comparable countries. We’re five times more likely to lock people up, often for nonviolence crimes, hence the epitaph “Lockdown America.”

It’s not just the numbers. Another huge part of the problem is the racial disparity between those who are incarcerated. In our white population, there are 380 prisoners for every 100,000 people. Among Hispanics, its 966 prisoners for every 100,000 people, and among blacks its 2,207 prisoners for every 100,000 people. That’s why our prison labor system is sometime referred to as the new Jim Crow.

I used to take groups of students to participate in a three-day, inmate-led training program called Alternatives to Violence at the Graterford maximum security prison near Philadelphia. The program included role plays and discussions designed to help us understand the causes of violence, to learn how to communicate better, how to respond nonviolently to potentially violent situations, and how to build community. It was always hard to say goodbye at the end of the training. Inmates hung around talking until the guards became adamant that we need to break it up.

No one was diabolical enough to design our prison system. It’s the culmination of broken neighborhoods, broken homes, broken school systems, drugs, tough-on-crime politicians, and our collective fears. Our modern prison system actually grew out of efforts to reform ancient justice practices based on revenge and corporal punishment. This was carried out in the ancient world through gruesome public torture and executions.

Such reforms have only pushed the whole nasty business into the shadows of our social conscience. We now lock bodies away, sometimes forever. Inmates have told me that “you don’t do time—time does you.” Your human dignity is continually assaulted and you slowly shrivel up and die. More than one inmate has told me, “I just don’t want to die in prison.” That’s the ultimate indignity!

Jesus experienced such torture when he was flogged and then crucified, the cruelest form of torture the Romans could devise. Surely, his ability to absorb all that abuse without seeking retaliation is our model for overcoming hatred and cruelty with self-sacrificing love. What does this mean for those of us who profess to follow Jesus, our tortured and executed savior?

Surely, it calls for repentance because many professing Christians have been part of creating Lockdown America while others of us looked the other way.  It also means getting as personally involved as possible. The powerful thing about spending time at Graterford prison is that we engaged each other as fellow humans. The inmates could hardly believe they were sitting there talking with college students. And we no longer saw the inmates as faceless criminals. All our stereotypes and social barriers began to fall away.

The Hobby Lobby Ruling and Religious Tolerance

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The recent case before the United States Supreme Court involving Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties is an instructive case study in religious freedom in a pluralistic society. The Christian owners of both corporations sued the government over the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act because they claimed that it violated their religious freedom.

The case is especially instructive because of the innate tensions involved. On one hand, polls indicate that 89% of all Americans agree that the use of birth control is morally acceptable. On the other hand, the United States also has a long tradition of protecting the freedom of religious minorities. Where is the line between providing a healthcare service supported by the vast majority of Americans and the claim that this violates one’s religious conscience?

Does it actually violate one’s conscience if one isn’t required to directly use or provide the service oneself but instead to provide healthcare insurance that includes it for those who want it? We can quibble over how fine a line we should put on it. Other related considerations are more important.

As Jonathan Rauch, senior fellow for governance studies at the Brookings Institute wrote, “If you find you religion burdened by something so indirect then when does it end? If religious folks try to withdraw too much from the practices of ordinary society—if they push too hard for the right not to participate—it will backfire. It sends a bad message about their inclusivity and their willingness to engage with society.”

It feeds the general perception that religious people are intolerant and that their scruples trump the needs and desires of ordinary people. After the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, there was lots of public comment comparing the five conservative male justices who ruled in favor with the three female justices who ruled against it. The clear implication was that these traditional men just don’t get it. One young woman demonstrating against the ruling was carrying a sign that read, “Keep your theology off my biology.”

As religious people, is this the perception we want others to have of us? What will it take to instead be known for our tolerance and compassion—for being more like Jesus? We’re sorely mistaken if we imagine that God’s calling us to be pure and separate. We’re instead called to roll up our sleeves and to get engaged up to our elbows with all who seek the common good.

American–Christian

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This week I have been working on a sermon titled “American—Christian” that addresses the relationship between our American citizenship and our faith as followers of Jesus. It’s not easy. Part of the difficulty is that it’s hard to find worship resources related to our July 4th Independence Day celebrations. It’s apparently a taboo topic in many worship settings.

It’s understandable that lectionary resources for the global church don’t include liturgies and prayers that American churches can use. There is, however, a corresponding dearth of material in our American church hymnals and other worship resources. We certainly want to celebrate that which is good about the United States and that which we love about our homeland. One song that does that is “America the Beautiful.” But what resources can we draw on to make it more than an unreflective patriotic exercise? To help us do that, I chose the hymns “Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God” and “I Bind My Heart this Tide.”

This tension has always run through our public life and our faith communities. As I was working on my sermon I ran across an instance of this in the days leading up to World War II. In 1938, the Jewish immigrant composer Irving Berlin revived and slightly changes his song “God Bless America” that he had originally written in 1918. It became an instant success as Kate Smith sang it in patriotic venues. The familiar lyrics to the song are:

“While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free,
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer. ”

God Bless America,
Land that I love.
Stand beside her, and guide her
Thru the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam
God bless America, My home sweet home.

American folk singer and songwriter Woody Guthrie soon grew tired of hearing Kate Smith singing it on the radio. He thought it was unrealistically patriotic and complacent about the social ills in our country. In response, he wrote “This Land is Your Land,” which has since become one of our most popular American folk songs sung by many different folk singers. We all know the first verse:

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

Many of us are not as familiar with the more edgy verses, such as the following one that reflects the social sensibilities Guthrie developed as a boy in Oklahoma where he and his family lived through the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Our circumstances are somewhat different today but this same social and spiritual tension still runs through our public life. The challenge for our churches and places of worship is to recognize it and to respond as a people of faith.

Practice Resurrection

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Doubt is pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother. — Kahlil Gibran

To understand the doubt among Jesus disciples, when confronted by accounts of his resurrection, we need to enter into the pain they had experienced. Theirs was not a feel good faith. According to the Gospel of Luke, one evening as they gathered for dinner they were talking about the persistent rumors when Jesus suddenly appeared in their midst and gave his familiar greeting, “Peace be with you.” They were terrified! (24:36-49).

The disciples thought it was a ghost. Being visited by a ghost was not a happy event in the ancient world. “No, no,” Jesus said, “Why are you afraid?” Look at the marks on my hands and feet. It’s me. Their imaginations had to be working overtime. They were trauma victims struggling to put their lives back together after going through a horrific week of state sponsored torture. The last thing they needed was to be visited by that ghost.

Jesus gently coaxed them to a still incomprehensible conclusion. He didn’t explain resurrection, but encouraged them to discover it for themselves. Luke’s tells us that the disciples “in their joy . . . were still disbelieving and still wondering.” They wanted to hope but there were too many unanswered questions. They were so afraid of getting it wrong again. I can empathize because I have my own questions. Such things don’t happen in my world either.

When you’re dead, you’re dead. We all know that. The more sophisticated the arguments explaining the resurrection are the more questions they raise. So I won’t do that. But, like those first disciples, I feel hope burning inside me. Death cannot have the last word. If it did the militarists and capitalists would be right and I will never submit to such a world.

So Jesus turned to the scriptures to help his disciples see what God’s up to. He talked about Gods’ plan for creation, about the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, about the exodus from Egypt, about Ezekiel’s vision of a valley of dry bones coming back to life, and about Isaiah’s depiction of a suffering servant. Slowly, their minds began to unlock. Perhaps the rejection and humiliation of the crucifixion wasn’t a dead-end after all. Could it be part of God’s plan–the final steps into the plight of broken humanity? The wheels begin to turn. What would it mean to believe, to practice resurrection?

How would it reorient our lives, our families, and our communities? Jesus challenges his followers to be witnesses to such a brave new world bubbling up in the midst of our cruel and tired old world. We’re witnesses to the fact that we can live as free people. No matter what happens to us–death will not have the final word.

Like those first disciples, we have not arrived and are far from perfect. Still, I see signs of resurrection in our love and care for each other. I see them in our resistance to the powers of death, greed, and violence. We resist being egocentric and self-consumed to the hurt of other people. We strive for healthy, life-giving sexual relationships. We’re deeply committed to our spouses, our children, our families.

I see resurrection in our care for the broken parts and hurting places in our lives. I see resurrection in the tough love that sometimes says this is all we can give right now. There’s wisdom in recognizing that only God can fill some of our deepest needs. I see resurrection when we don’t give in to the compulsion of thinking we need to fix everything.

I see the victory of God when we resist consumerism. We all draw those boundaries at slightly different places but draw them we must. We can’t develop an appropriate relationship to things when we consume indiscriminately simply because we can. Kristen Grant says we’re witnesses to the resurrection when we can invite someone to look into our homes, our families, our friendships, our work, our checkbook, our daytimes—and find Jesus there (Christian Century, April 19, 2003: 19).

America as a Chosen Nation?

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Chiam Potok, Jewish rabbi and author of The Chosen, wrestled with the deeply held belief that we’re God’s chosen people. He said the problem is that we become a “self-choosing people.” It becomes easy to forget that, as the spiritual children of Abraham and Sarah, we’re called to bless and serve the whole world. It often gets ugly. Such a religious self-understanding becomes especially dangerous when it’s linked with the ethos and ambitions of a nation-state.

Examples litter human history. Here, we will look at it through our American experience. Our national identity is born out of the revolutionary struggle for independence; we have a deeply held historical conception of our nation as a republic opposed to British tyranny and colonialism. Another strand of our American identity is rooted in the religious faith of the first settlers who saw themselves as God’s chosen people in a new world.

The notion of being a people chosen by God has injected an intense religious quality into American nationalism sometimes called “American exceptionalism.” It operates even more effectively because it is defined as secular in American liberal ideology rather than being identified with a particular religion. We try to have it both ways as seen in the notion of being a secular nation with the soul of a church.

Its most destructive features have been our pervasive militarism and aspects of our corporate economy that exploit individuals and local communities both in our country and globally. The sheer size and dominance of American military and economic power skews international relationships and threatens to undermine our democratic institutions. On the other hand, our sense of being a people of God has also informed our national social conscience and related social movements in the struggle for civil rights, freedom, economic justice, and peace. Activists like singer, songwriter Pete Seeger have tapped into this more life-giving aspect of American nationalism.

The Church Conundrum

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Most people associate the church with a local congregation and its activities, especially the Sunday morning worship service. Beyond that, the church may be associated with a given denomination and its structures. That, however, is not how the church has always been experienced or understood. The denomination is an American invention that developed out of the unique experience of immigrant groups who needed to adapt their religious traditions to a new world where Catholics, various Protestant groups, and Jews had to learn how to coexist.

Denominations are an odd fusion of state-church structures historically related to Christendom and the more congregational free-church traditions that grew out of the radical reformation and the American frontier. These two models do not easily fit together. A basic problem is the inherent divide between denominational structures and congregational life. Denominational bureaucracies become a world unto themselves.

Innovative efforts to bridge that divide have included denominationally organized assemblies held every several years in a large convention center. Yet the divide persists. Now there are indications that our ability to organize such gatherings may have run its course along with other denominational structures such as publishing houses and mission boards.

As a consequence, congregations tend to morph into generic community churches with obscure ties to their religious heritage. They reflect the values of the larger society and lose the ability to critically and constructively engage social and spiritual issues from the perspective of their religious tradition. It goes beyond being unwilling to do so; we have become biblically and theologically illiterate, hence incapable of doing so.

The problem is exacerbated by the divide between local churches and denominational colleges and seminaries. Biblical studies and theology have become professionalized and speak primarily to the guild. This weakness is further exacerbated by the long-standing American belief that churches are spiritual rather than political. The spiritual is understood as private and the political is understood as the domain of secular government. Consequently, the churches lose much of their Christian content and become the spiritual supporters of what religious scholar Will Herberg has called the “American Way of Life.”

Beginning with the local church, we need to experiment with new ways of being church in response to this conundrum. From a radical free-church perspective, the church is understood as a people of God and followers of Jesus without any social or national boundaries. This distinct community has its own social and political reality with the purpose of serving God and the common good of all people around the world. To be this kind of community the church needs to be vigilant concerning its religious freedom and not be co-opted by any imperial power including the “American Way of Life.”

My next posts on this topic will look at the biblical precedents of being a people of God and explore different models for being that kind of people in our world today.