Day 1 – Notre Dame: Teaching Peace in the 21st Century, Summer Institute for Faculty

Today was my first day at the Teaching Peace in the 21st Century, Summer Institute for Faculty hosted at the Hesburgh Center for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.  Our host is George A. Lopez, who is Professor of Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute and Vice President and Director of the Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington, D.C.   I’m hear with Community of Christ Seminary faculty, Priscilla Eppinger and Tony Chvala-Smith.

The purpose of our visit is to learn.  President of Community of Christ, Steve Veazey, met George A. Lopez at the US Institute of Peace, who invited us to participate.  The Community of Christ is called to peace.  Its Temple in Independence is dedicated to the pursuit of peace, reconciliation, and healing of the spirit.  Our visit is exploratory, to seek opportunities for connections and learn from scholars from others Peace Studies programs, to cultivate ideas and perspective about possible peace studies curriculum for Community of Christ Seminary and Graceland.

Today was orientation and introductions.  George Lopez gave two helpful presentations introduction to Peace Studies as an interdisciplinary and changing field of study, education, and action.   After dinner, we received a presentation on the History and Changing Themes of Peace Studies.  Both presentations offered practical advise and an outline of key components for developing Peace Studies programs, from undergraduate minors to masters level.

My goal is to chronicle key insights from the day.  Below are three things that I think stuck out as both insightful and critical areas for me/us to consider.

1. In developing a Peace Studies program or curriculum, integrate both your institution’s identity and mission.  Be able to express to students, administrators, and faculty what Peace Studies is, what the program’s purpose is, and why it reflects (or is essential) to your institution’s overall mission and educational goals.   Connecting your program to your institution’s mission and community is important.

2. Identify the academic niche your program offers.  Peace Studies is a challenging, interdisciplinary, and changing field of study.  It must include research, educational, and action-oriented components.  What is unique about your programs’ approach, emphases, and/or understanding of peace studies?

3. Take advantage of your faculty’s interests and strengths.   Because peace studies is a large interdisciplinary field, it is often difficult to find a focus.  But, it also means an entire university can be deployed in research, teaching, and developing aspects of peace studies at your college/university.  How do the sciences, economics, literature, and religious studies shape or contribute to peace studies at your institution?  How can your program take advantage of your faculty’s research and teaching interests?

Throughout our exploratory session tonight, I thought consistently about two things.  First was what Community of Christ offers the global and interdisciplinary search for peace?  What does Community of Christ theology, tradition, or perspective offer the global peace movement and our approach to peace?  Second, I thought about Graceland’s values:  learning, wholeness, and community.   To me, these values have always been more than a list.  They share an interrelated perspective on Graceland’s approach to education, formation and service to others.   Learning, wholeness, and community all increase with each other.  The more we learn, the more we integrate with others and become a whole person.

I’m looking forward to tomorrow and more time spent with the Kroc Institute faculty and faculty from other peace programs across the country and world.  We have an international gathering, here.

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the authority of scripture, or how not to read it

I’m teaching Restoration Scripture* this semester at Graceland University.   When I teach this class, I spend more time thinking about the role of scripture in normal life more than I usually do .

Restoration Scripture is an upper division undergraduate course.  For most students it’s their first disciplined introduction to Community of Christ scripture.  I don’t approach this class with one view or one approach to scripture.  Instead, I try to help students develop an integrated view that I have developed through my own years of study and practical experience in ministry.  My approach is not wholly different than other approaches to scripture.  I’m very critical of antagonistic “either/or” approaches to scripture that pit faith against modern critical methods of interpretation.  God’s Word is never just on the page or in the words.  Nor are scriptures just ancient documents or devotional materials.  Scripture are more.

I teach Restoration Scripture in a way that brings knowledge about scripture together with critical thinking about truth and authority.  I attempt to help students think critically about scripture, yet have respect for its tradition.  The point is to develop a creative openness to scripture.  I believe my approach fits well with Community of Christ’s Statement on Scripture.   It’s a relational approach in which students combine critical thinking and respect for its purpose as a communal authority.  This allows scripture to become a tool with which to think, imagine, feel, and learn the Spirit at work in the church and its sacred writings, present day and in the past.  It takes more time, effort, and discipline to think about scripture this way.  But, it is also what connects scripture with lived-life in community with others in an intellectually honest and life-giving way.

In the class, we confront the problem of scriptural authority.  We deal with it in a practical way.   This is particularly important in Community of Christ, which has unique scriptures as well as a strong position about the human role in creating and interpreting scripture.  Putting practical questions first, we start by asking the implicit question, “What is scripture good for?”  This question is important because many young adults simply haven’t developed an understanding of scripture outside their personal exposure (or lack of exposure) to it.  Like us, they see how too many Christians obsess over religion and scriptural authority in a way that alienates others. Christianity that worships the authority of scripture has alienated many of us from what it means to be Christian.  The humble call to walk and learn from the person and work of Jesus is quickly lost.  This is even truer of young adults in my experience.

Turned on to other mediums, many young adults don’t concern themselves with religion or the authority of scripture. So much focus on authority has given religion a bad name.  Thanks to media, extremism and violence control our image of religion today.   Such extremism is tied up in certain approaches to scripture.

In response, I want to get back to a more sensible and pragmatic understandings of sacred writings.  In the end scripture is not about literal authority, worshiping words, metaphysical secrets, or purely personal devotion.  Scripture caries more weight that any one of our personal opinions because scripture concerns itself with ultimate questions and endures through time.   Scriptures shape history and are about community.  It is about lived-life with others, our relationship with what’s ultimately important, and the enduring nature of those relationships.  For that reason alone, scripture is important.  Scripture can also bring us into a relationship to God.  Considering how to approach scripture is important to relating to these things in deep and life-giving way.

bible-silentThe problem is that most Christians get way too caught up in the “what” of scripture.   More fundamentalist and conservative Christians do it by overemphasizing the literal word and authority of the Bible.  Liberal Christians and pan-religious folk do it when they dispense with scripture by labeling it as personal devotional material, simply stories and moral teaching, or irrelevant historical documents.    When “what scripture is” becomes more important than what scripture points to, the “who” of scripture is eclipsed.  The message and purpose of scripture are lost.

The “what” of scripture is almost always wrapped up in questions about its authority,    Authority, of course, is the relentless modern question.   The impetus of our modern world was to free persons from every form of historical authority in order to free the human subject to make their own history.   Religion, in particular, had to be overcome in order to raise up a free world of reason and self-determination.   As a result, both conservative and progressive politics and religion concerns themselves with issues of authority.

The birth of Christian fundamentalism in the 19th century was as a reaction to modern society.   Its belief in the absolute authority of scripture, its literal approach, and unquestioned faith in the truth-power of words still influence Christianity today,   This obsession over authority also shapes liberal Christians and contemporary approaches to religion today.   Ironically, this relentless questioning of authority has led to authority everywhere.  Today, the individual is told relentlessly that s/he is the final authority.   Every opinion and perspective must be respected.  It’s the doctrine of our self-fulfilling consumer-oriented world.  In practice, many of us feel anxiety, out of control, isolated, and search for a deeper sense of relationship and community.  Scripture actually speaks to this search in a compelling and novel way.

I’m not the first to say that the constant assertions about the bible’s authority over science, personal opinion, and “man’s truth” are tiresome.  They are centuries old and weather worn.  They’ve passed the edge into absurdity.   It’s no mystery that churches formed around this approach to authority reflect this very description: closed-off, oppositional, and advocates of absurdity.

The future of scripture will grow out of a fuller understanding of its past.   Interestingly, Restoration Scripture lends itself well to this approach. Community of Christ has an open canon of scripture that evolves.  (Other traditions also have an evolving understanding of scripture and its interpretation; its the canonization of new scriptural material that makes the Community of Christ unique.)  With all the traps and dangers of having an open canon of scripture, it also has its advantages.  The same traps and dangers that come with an open canon also illuminate the all-to-human processes from which the scriptures come. Because of historical proximity, the emergence of Restoration scripture helps us appreciate how scripture emerges as crystalizations of collective (and collected) human experience.  They do not drop out of the sky or emerge pristine out of an arc or from the ground.  Scriptures are products of divine-human encounter.  They are a human endeavor.  They come out of the circumstances that created them and carried them to us.  And, they testify of God’s activity midst human experience in ultimate proportions.   “God,” in scripture, is a sign and object of ultimate meaning.

When we read scripture, we commune with the dead.  We glean their wisdom and read their witness of ultimate concern in their lives.  In scripture, diverse voices and circumstances come together to convey a semblance of God’s active presence in the mess and mystery of life.   They are stories and life-lessons of survival, life’s search for meaning, the waxing and waning of civilizations, war and peace, and life and death.  All come to us through scripture.

Scripture is also a particular kind of literature.  It is literature that personifies God.   In scripture, God is personified because God and human beings constantly interact.  They fight, deny, adore, return, struggle with and depend deeply on God.  God is strangely present and beyond these entanglements.  God is wily and faithful, powerful and vulnerable.  God is vengeful and gracious.  God is the beginning and the end, whose name is simply “I am.”  (Exodus 3:14)  This God communes with human beings and  is terribly interested in our lives and welfare.  God persistently reaches out to us at great personal expense.

When we approach scripture with narrow personal interests or uncritical assumptions about its authority and content, so much gets lost.   Any reader can slip right past the message within scripture, finding only what they set out to find. This is how we approach restaurants and government – expecting to get what we’re promised and what we want.    But approaching scripture this way avoids a deeper relationship.  I avoids questions about who it comes from, to whom it testifies, and who it’s for.  So much of what scripture is comes from our relationship with it.

Practically, scripture contains wisdom of the ancients and a living message for today.   The ancient church is always also us and not us.  The faith community that practices reading and discerning scripture together will be shaped by its message.  Reading scripture together is a particular experience that shapes a common memory and a community.    This living memory is lived and repeated in the sacraments and rituals that shape the community.  This approach to scripture gets much closer to its purpose and message.   Jacob wrestled with God; I wrestle with God.  Jesus was baptized; I was baptized.   The disciples broke bread and drank in Jesus; we break bread and drink in Jesus.   Job suffered and searched for meaning; we suffer and search for meaning.   Israel longed for a messiah; we do, too.

jesus gift bagsConsumer culture tends to make us think that religious resources are actually spiritual consumer goods.   This, too, influences how we see the authority of scripture.    Consuming scripture goes beyond using scripture as personal devotional material.   Scripture becomes only good for “what I get out of it” and “what it means to me.”    This diminishes the community-shaping power of scripture.   But, it can also lead to abusing it.    When scripture is a consumer good, it’s authority is in what I can get out of it.   In an anxious world, we have all seen alarmists and charlatans use scripture to propagate fear, manipulate persons, and create false security.   Used as a consumer good, the ultimate nature of the human problems and difficulties addressed in scripture can become a weapon.   Consumer culture does not cultivate a relationship with scripture or shape the kind of community its message conveys.

Practical wisdom leads to an understanding of scripture that liberates us from extreme and uninformed approaches.   What is scripture good for?  It’s good for reading.  It’s good for reading in community with others.  The authority of scripture is not in literal truth or infallibility.  Nor is the authority of scripture limited to what you or I can get out of it for our own benefit.  The authority of scripture lies in our ability to encounter, grasp, and be changed by its message.  In scripture, diverse voices and circumstances come together to convey God’s active presence in the mess and mystery of life.   The stories, testimonies, and life-lessons of survival, our search for meaning, the waxing and waning of civilizations, war and peace, and life and death all come to us through scripture.   Reading it together forms relationships and a common memory of stories, life-lessons, and language to express the meaning and mystery of life – which otherwise is nearly impossible for us to express.  Read this way, scriptures do not exert authority.  Their authority is evident.

*  Restoration Scripture is an undergraduate course that targets Community of Christ students at Graceland University.  The class covers historical setting, development, and interpretative approaches to the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible.

The Cross, or Why We Need It

ImageOne of the most awkward silences in liberal Christianity is its relative silence on the cross.   Far too many of us avoid discussing the cross, the meaning of the cross, and how sin shapes our lives.

What’s fascinating is how little both sin and the cross come up, even when progressive Christians passionately speak of peace & justice.   It is difficult to impossible to understand the path to peace, and the work of justice, the nature of oppression or consequences of poverty without reckoning with sin, the meaning of sin, and the death of God in our world.

Christians committed to seeing God in creation, other religions, the arts, and human experience might consider the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, written in a letter from prison less than a year before his death by the Nazi’s.  It is dated July 16, 1944.

Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison)

One of the reasons liberal Christians struggle to talk adequately about sin and the cross is the loud voice of American Evangelicalism.  Evangelicalism in America projects a well-known and well-funded salvation formula.  It is fear-based, triumphalist, and relies on our culture’s rampant individualism, self-interest, and personal choice.

The traditional evangelical message drowns the cross in bloody images.  It narrows sin to rhetoric about Jesus’ gracious death for our personal salvation.  The greatest tragedy of this message is its violent theology and contorted invitation:  “God so loved you and me that he sent his son to death.  Don’t you want to be one of God’s children, too?”

Another problem is that this message assumes God’s complete control over human life and the effects of sin in the world.   It presents the power of God in absolute categories: God’s unqualified love for us, God’s absolute control over human life, over-and-against our hopeless and irredeemable human depravity.   The “good news” of the Evangelical formula begins with certain bad news:  In sin, there’s no way out.  The threat of hell makes the bad news both personal and emotional.  Then, the invitation to salvation follows.

ImageWe must believe the story of Jesus behind the formula to receive salvation.  But, the whole transaction is in the abstract.  The story explains our dependence on God for grace in order to overcome our abysmal sin.  Yet, the whole transaction is based in a metaphysical drama.  There is an unpaid debt that everybody (and we personally) hold with God.  God is demanding and has an unappeasable sense of justice.  So, God sacrifices his son to appease himself.   Somehow, that’s grace.  If we personally believe this  backstory then the transaction is secured; hell is averted.  The heaven we imagine is also ours, albeit after death.

I have a problem with this transaction.  But, the best response to the story is not to reject it out of hand.  Certainly, a formulaic transaction that meets both our own and God’s self-interest has deep-seated problems.  Not the least is its spiritualization of American self-interest in one’s own personal salvation.   But, the story conveys both a witness and wisdom from the ancients.  There is theology to mine from this story, and it is a gift.

Against the dismal view of human nature in this salvation formula, many Christians believe human beings are essentially good.    Individually, this may be true.  However, history paints a picture of collective human life that perennially descends into epic violence, power struggles, and unnecessary injustice.   The story of our sin and the cross speaks directly to this history.

Individuals may be generally good, fair, and generous.   But, zoom out and consider the global economic and political structures that shape human relationships, and a more difficult picture of human life appears.   The disparity of human conditions, inequality of power and life’s resources, and the suffering of masses while a few benefit paints a tangled world.   In our society of abundance, oppression far and near reflects the emptiness, struggle, and longing we often suppress in ourselves.

As individuals we might hold to the belief that we are born good, but sin is inextricably embedded in the structures of our world.  The economic and political relations that make up the world, materially and spiritually, make this so. Sin is relevant because we are inescapably in relationship with each other and every other human being.  Globalizing economic and political realities ensure this.  Even those who’ve gone before us and will come after are affected by our spiritual and material relations.  The cross holds the truth about God in this web of human history.  The unnecessary deaths of poverty and genocide, our dependence on economic luxuries and a lucrative weapon’s industry, and our need for wealth shape a world where sin and the effects of sin hold sway.  Even our definition of freedom, which often stands behind our political and economic arrangements, enmeshes us in sin. As long as freedom means freedom from responsibility for others and the world we create, sin twists freedom into human indifference.

Only a God who knows the suffering of such indifference can save us from our want for that kind of freedom.

Metaphysical answers and narcissistic guilt distract too many Christians from deeper considerations of the material relations of our world and spiritual realities of our shared life.  The ancient world, like our modern one, was a world of empire.  Empires persist, then like now, on an order enforced with violence.  They were sustained through economies driven by disparity and exploitation, as well as power relationships in which power was distributed by privileged access.  Whether Pax Romana or American Freedom, the promises of empire are never universally fulfilled or equitable.  Power & privilege define peace, what is just, and who receives justice.  Some conform and cooperate to thrive, other to survive.  Others challenge and resist the spiritual and material order.  The cross is a potent and public reminder of what happens to those who disturb the peace of empire or challenge power.

In Jesus, God was and is inextricably entwined in this world.  In this world, individual sins are inseparable from structured sin.  The fate of God in our world is told in Jesus’ story.  The awaited messiah, Word of God made flesh, came to bring God’s reign without weapons or worldly power.  But, God in Jesus was “pushed out of the world on to the cross.”

Many Christians, like me, live privileged and abundant lives.   My education, healthcare, legal protections, and economic access are privileges.  It is not that I don’t “deserve” them.  Rather, they are privileges by definition that not everyone enjoys them.  Many of us are shielded from the material conditions and political realities of others who afford us our privileges.  In America, freedom also means we can drown our perceptions in a world of media, personal desires, and accomplishments that reinforce our belief that we are innocent, free, self-made individuals.   Such are the doctrines of classical liberalism (both “liberal” and “conservative” varieties) and consumerism.     Sin and the cross deeply challenge people like me to consider whether my sense of innocence, personal freedom, and individuality are God’s gift to me or a result of history – a history of conquest, empire, and enforced peace.

The nagging questions of Christian faith are unpopular in an opulent age like ours:   “What is sin?”, “Do we need salvation?”, “Why the cross?”, “Did Jesus have to die?”  Regardless whether I see my life of privileges as the gift of God or the gift of empire, this life is my inheritance.  What is my responsibility?  Should others share in my life’s abundance?

Many Christians dodge the cross and Evangelical salvation formula by emphasizing the Good News revealed in the life of Jesus.  Emphasizing the miraculous life and ministry of Jesus, instead of focusing on the “good news” of his bloody death, is important.  It bears critical insights.  Certainly, Jesus’ promise of eternal life is not simply afterlife; it is now.  Luke is clear: the Kingdom is within us; it is in our midst.  (Luke 17:21) In our lives, we do meet the Christ of the gospels.  We certainly meet a living God alive in the life of Jesus Christ.  Discipleship means believing upon him.

ImageBut, on the cross we also see God crowded out of this world.  The cross is God’s death.   The cross is not an indictment against the Jews.   It is a prophetic message to all of God’s people in every time, particularly Christians.  Christians profess they have ears to hear the story of Jesus.  Jesus’ cross is the naked truth about the peace and promises of life together under empire.  It reveals worldly power in its naked structures of exclusion, abandonment, and death.   The cross reminds us that we live in a world where God’s justice has yet to reign.   The blood of Jesus is the blood of every forced and unnecessary death.  The blood of Jesus is the suffering let from every false choice the world gives:  Jesus or Barabbas, empire or chaos, you or me.  The cross is the story of every victim, prophet, teacher, and martyr who seeks eternal life here and God’s Kingdom now.  Jesus’ blood is the blood of the poor and impoverished that flows in silence in the noise of consumer culture.  It is also the blood of those who rise in protest, only to be put down by force of those who reign.

The cross stands against our culture of individual isolation, personal privilege, and limitless consumption.  It also stands against religion shaped by our culture: its personal salvation formulas, self-interested transactions, and overinvestment individual will.  The cross is a symbol that disturbs our conscience.   On the cross, Jesus is both God and flesh.   His death is the death of every person.   (Consider II Corinthians 5:14)

Eventually, all – even God – come to the cross.   Some come as victims.  Some come as casual observers.  Some come awakened from their isolation and innocence.  Others come as the soldiers and servants of empire.   We come not because we are individually guilty or to blame, but because we cannot make a new world alone and need a way beyond sin and death.    Jesus lifted up the invitation, “Take up your cross and follow me.” (See Matthew 10:38, 16:24; Luke 14:27; John 21:19)  Without knowing the sin and cross in our lives, resurrection loses is meaning.

a powerful positive witness…without exclusions

At what point did sharing a personal testimony get caught up in sticky traps of “who’s right and who’s wrong?” Why can’t I share my search for God or love of church without fear that I sound like some close-minded religious fanatic? When did sharing my discovery of the Gospel become so complicated…complicated by those who would spin my story into some lecture about my religion or my church or my God at the exclusion others? And…what about those who don’t care, who share their faith and testimonies without grace and reinforce religious stereotypes? Today, the atmosphere around sharing a personal testimony or religious conviction has become a barrier for the church, corporately and for individuals. When did talking about faith became such a minefield?

If we look deep into the fabric of our world, we could go back to the Enlightenment for an answer. That was the period centuries ago in which the measure of truth in our Western world became fundamentally different. The Enlightenment was a turning point in the scientific revolution.  It marked a seismic shift in the authority of religious truth. Today’s politics of truth are shaped by this shift, especially the politics between religion and science. The Enlightenment opened the door to the idea that each mind, equipped with the power of observation and reason, could question and apprehend the truth and reality.  Truth, in this way, became distinct from its foundation in the church, revelation, theologians, and traditional authorities. The politics of truth between religion and science shape how religion and religious people are perceived today. It shapes our stereotypes about religious fanatics and their fanaticism. But, this doesn’t provide the whole answer.

The tension we feel about sharing our personal testimonies of God and religious convictions today are also shaped by the culture of the previous generation.   The 21st century is deeply shaped by end of the 20th.  While the Enlightenment raised the ongoing problem of “What is the truth?” and “How do we know it?”    The tension today around sharing our faith with others is less about how we know the truth and more about the question, “Who’s truth?”   It’s a question of religion and individualism. A generation of Babyboomers, born after WWII, struggled against nearly all external forms of authority – the authority of their parents, society, its institutions, even the past.   We live in the wake of that culture struggle. It shapes our world’s strong sense of individualism.  Today, the individual holds sway over all matters of religion, spirituality, morality, and society.  Individualism is a conviction that shapes both the Right and Left politically, our views of government, as well as most popular churches and forms of spirituality.

This is the reach of individualism.  After the Babyboom, personal testimonies, if they are more than personal stories, are subject to politics, i.e. the politics of religion and individual authority.   Individualism assumes religious testimonies and convictions belong to personal experience.  The truth of our faith and testimonies raise the question of “who’s truth?”   The politics of individualism are inherently defensive. Religious passion and conviction elicit this cultural clash between religious authority and personal experience or opinion. To guard ourselves against outside authority – whether other individuals, society, religion, traditions, institutions, or government – individualism tells us that personal experience and perspective shape reality. The politics of individualism puts tension between us and others because others are external authorities.  They are part of the world outside. Such individualism and its defensive politics muck up almost all possibility for any open exchange or trusting environment for people to talk about their life-changing experiences, faith, love of church, even God.   Being positive is good; too much religion is bad.

The problem is that personal testimonies cannot be more than personal under the sway of individualism, no matter how transforming, how convincing, how important, how deeply felt or how certain. If we push our faith or spiritual experiences off on others, it causes problems. If we share a personal testimony about God, church, or the Gospel, and generalize the certainty or power of our experience onto others, we simply do what many people – inside and outside the church – expect.  Religious people tend to be fanatical, self-righteous, and  judgmental.  Religion leads to close-mindedness and unilateral politics and truth-claims.  It’s inherently antagonistic to dialog and mutuality.  There is no room for differences.  Organized religion, especially, lacks integrity and limits individuality.

The challenge, of course, is that sharing our testimony is the heart of evangelism!   On the one hand, many of us who have experienced God, rapturous love, formerly evasive self-acceptance, or saving grace overflow ourselves.  The desire to reach out can bubble up.  On the other hand, we are also called to invite others into life with God’s hope and affection.   But, the difficulties individualism, defensiveness, and our politics of truth live in our skin.   Also, many of these barriers are our own making as Christians. How do we start all over? How do we take our testimonies beyond the church and its internal dialog? How do our message, mission, and identity reach beyond our community of the like-minded? Why has sharing our faith or witness with others become so offensive?

Theologians often intervene here, too.  They reshape the problem of individualism in a different way.  Theologians remind us that the authority of religious tradition, scripture, and church leaders endure.  We are often unaware of their deep roots and history, and are important.   Scripture, tradition, and the church’s collective life put our individual convictions and personal experiences in perspective. Individuals, by themselves, don’t speak for the church or all faith. But, this often ends up being a theologian’s argument. In our everyday world, we are called to share our testimony and invite others to Christ in a culture where the individual reigns and is held in utmost importance.  Even those of us in the church reflect this cultural conviction. Backed in a corner or disagreement, most of us aren’t afraid to assert our own authority. Most of us defend our personal convictions and spiritual experiences as individuals. We react strongly to anyone that seems to limit us – whether it’s church leaders, liberal or conservative Christians, atheists, or anybody else. In this way, even the church is shaped by individualism and its politics. The politics of truth are inside and out.

Individualism keeps us all safe from religion and outside authority by keeping faith personal.   Church leaders, as well as individuals in the pew, aren’t afraid to argue that personal testimonies and convictions don’t escape our experience and opinion. These are the very dynamics that make it difficult to share our personal testimonies, whether in the church or without.  If I share my testimony with too much passion or too much certainty, with too much conviction and push it off on others, it creates problems.   It gets in the way of anyone actually hearing my testimony. Defensiveness against authority colors everything.  Moreover, bold and forceful Christians reinforce the stereotypes. They are ambassadors of the truth – a truth that is self-righteous and exclusive.  Those who don’t want to be this kind of Christian let others define evangelism. We stay in our communities with like-minded people talking about outreach, but struggling to practice what we preach. We share our faith amongst ourselves. What about sharing it with others?

It’s been months since I’ve last posted. Life’s been full of busyness, changes in large and small proportion. But, the challenge to increase my witness has been brewing in me for some time.   It’s occupied my soul and mind as I’ve spent time alone with God, gone to meetings with church leaders, preached at services, and listened to the Spirit stirring beneath the surface. I’m in a period of transition in my life and I feel the challenge to focus my life and respond more fully with a greater sense of witness. There isn’t a better time than Easter morning to share the simple invitation again:

Share a positive witness of God’s boundless Love in Christ.  Share it honestly and vulnerable, in love and without exclusions.  Hazard your testimony.  Venture your witness.  Learn to tell your story in act and word – in public, with a friend, an acquaintance, online, at work, or in a moment when the Spirit leads you. Pray for that moment.

The way we share our testimony says as much as what we say. We can shape a new politics of love in Christianity, one that shatters the culture of individualism and old politics of truth. Let the church let go of forced choices – who’s right and who’s wrong, us versus them, my truth versus yours.  This is not God’s power struggle.   God is a God of new beginnings, spontaneous interactions, uncommon relationships, vulnerable opportunities, and new expressions.   Christ is our example of this vulnerability, risk, love and its mission. Welcome others’ reactions, their objections, different experiences and perspective. If others object or suspect us of forcing ourselves on others or begging a debate, share honestly. Deny the false choice. Our testimony just is, in all its vulnerably.  It bears no burden of proof other than its effect on us, so we don’t need to become defensive. There is nothing to defend.

Resurrection, itself, is a symbol of powerful positive witness…shared honestly and vulnerably in Christ, with love and without exclusions. Individualism and its politics of truth present us with a problem, but a new politics of love in the church doesn’t have to.  It can overcome.

gospel = good news…for whom?

I was moved this week by an encounter I had at a grocery store.   I posted it on facebook.  An interesting discussion of Christians, ministers, and non-church-goers ensued.

I was at the store helping a church member and friend.   A disease was changing his life and his family’s.  He had not been able to work for three weeks due to this disease.  It made him chronically sick.  He was just starting to think about applying for disability.  His wife and four kids had run out of food.  The lack of income was beginning to cave in on them.  We were out at the grocery store getting food for the next week before some other aid kicked in.  The difficulty of the whole situation was really heavy on he and his family.  We talked about what was harder:  the emotional stress of the family’s financial crisis and no longer being able to work, or just suffering through the disease that was making it all happen.

Shopping at the store, I overheard another young woman near crying to a store associate.  She was a young mother.  All I heard of the conversation was this as I passed by filling our cart:  “…and the churches kept saying that they would only help out their own members.  I have three kids.   What am I supposed to do?…”  I immediately felt convicted by her words.  I am a full-time minister.  I was helping friends that were members of my church.  Even though they had not attended for a while, the situation they were in was not – and is never – the time to talk about how often they had been attending.   I had a relationship with them.   I care for them.  It had been years since we saw each other, but we shared a heartfelt connection.   But, what about this women at the store?    I thought about the verse in Luke:

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.”  (Luke 6:32-33)

This was the same passage in which Jesus teaches to give without expectation of return and to love our enemies.   This is the heart of Jesus’ gospel.

The women I overheard was now down the aisle.  I opened my wallet.  All I had was $20 in cash.  The $20 was neither guilt money or anything to get puffed-up about.  It was simply a matter conviction, a matter of principle.

I chased her down.  I gave her the $20 and said, “I’m a Christian.  I don’t believe churches should just look after their own.  It isn’t much, but please take this.”  I put it in her hand.   She received it.   No angels sang.  No crisis averted.  It was no great act of generosity.   It was simply a moment of awkwardness between strangers, but also a moment of graciousness.   Maybe not all churches and church-folk were the same.  Or, that’s what I hoped.  I walked away with a feeling I still can’t explain.

I get the arguments.  I’ve been a church administrator.  Church’s could not help anyone if they practiced no discretion in offering financial help.  But, can we justify restricting generosity to our own membership?  What do church’s say about Christ, Christ’s message, and God’s mission when they only support their own?   I think this is the deepest betrayal of the gospel, and I think Luke’s gospel supports that way of thinking.

On the facebook discussion about the experience of this young mother, there were several insights.  They came from good friends and ministers in the UCC as well as some ministers and volunteer pastors in Community of Christ.  One was from my friend Derek Sanders, who said that he is more interested in relationship than membership.  I believe Christ’s example is precisely that relationships are the fabric of the gospel and his ministry.  To that, I say, “Amen.”   Nan, another pastor of a Community of Christ congregation, talked about her struggle with how many people were reaching out to her small congregation for aid.  She said her congregation was going to have this conversation about building relationships soon.  Others talked about how congregations they knew cooperated with local agencies to pool resources and centralize ways to help.   These are things that, I think, churches can and should do – not proselytize to those in financial crisis or only help their own.

In the end, for churches, the question of helping others in material ways comes down to a simple matter of Christian identity and mission.  What are churches, really?  Why do Christians comes together in “churches”?  For themselves? What is their gospel and who is the good news of the gospel really for?    Matthew’s depiction of Jesus’ judgment of the nations in chapter 25 should not be read as a scriptural scare-tactic for church folk, as much as a humble moment of clarity.   When churches reach out to those in need, the good news of the gospel come to both.

31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory…34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,you did it to me.”  (Matthew 25: 31,34-40)

What is the future of the Community of Christ in a North American post-RLDS perspective?

Update (11/19/10):  I am grateful for a note from a friend who reminded me of the problems of the term “North American.”  North America refers to not only the U.S., but also Canada, Mexico, Central American and the Caribbean.  By using this term in my blog post, I risk a long-standing imperial practice of defining “North America” under largely U.S. history and experience.  I appreciate this sensitivity to language.  Community of Christ/RLDS practice is certainly not innocent of this tendency.  To clarify, when I use the term “North American church” I am inclusively referring to the U.S. and Canada, those areas of the church in which I have my religious experience and heritage.

I’ve given this question attention since as early as I can remember, or at least since I started learning and doing theology.  It seems to me that Community of Christ, when considered from the vantage point of our RLDS memories and experiences, faces decisive identity questions as it moves into the future.  These are inescapable theological problems that are deeply related to our past.

On one hand, identity issues emerge because the Community of Christ has become an international church with a diverse membership across many cultures.  Many North American church members have no direct access to the true diversity of worship practices and beliefs that make up the Community of Christ today.  Instead, we in North America are more deeply rooted in our RLDS upbringing.  This RLDS upbringing shapes our sense of solidarity with one another, holds memories of defending or explaining ourselves to others…but without ever the satisfaction of that deep connection within the church.  This experience structures our deep sense of intimate community.

On the other hand, I also believe the North American church struggles with theological issues and dissension regarding basic issues of Community of Christ identity, message, and beliefs because too few of us truly grasp how the internal logic of RLDS identity has reached its logical limits.  The identity structure that held the RLDS message, identity, and experience together for much of the 20th century came to a kind of impasse.   To blame changes in RLDSism on apostate church leaders or ecumenical conversations that lured the church down the path of destructive liberalism to generic Christianity, as some conservatives and Restorationists believe, is intellectually short-sighted and reactionary.  Scapegoating does not stand up to a more faithful exploration and there are better explanations.

The Community of Christ does not emerge as a global Christian church because church leaders didn’t do enough to protect RLDS dogma and tradition.   In fact, the RLDS dogma and tradition that many cling to today belongs to the early and mid-20th century, while emerging Community of Christ identity flows from deeper currents in our North American Restoration heritage.  The post-RLDS nature or feel of Community of Christ identity comes from the internal structure of RLDS identity, which over the last 100 years has reached interminable and decisive contradictions.  The Community of Christ has responded not by diluting, but prophetically embracing the positive (verses negative) aspects of RLDS identity and heritage.  We still need to hone and clarify these positive aspects of our Restoration heritage today.

Identifying the decisive identity issues in the North American Community of Christ today is, itself, a difficult task.  But, I think its essential if the North American church is going to understand and fully embrace the transformation of the RLDS to global Community of Christ identity.  By limiting the scope of our perspective to a North American perspective, it helps provide some focus on the problems we face finding unity (let alone consensus) around theological and ethical issues that involve basic identity questions.  Some of the identity issues we struggle with emerge directly from within our North American post-RLDS context.

Taking a look at the church’s current identity issues, there are some things that become apparent.  First, the Community of Christ emerges out of its roots in early American Christianity.  Still claiming our Restoration heritage, the Community of Christ has distinct roots in American Christianity.  The same early American mythos and post-Enlightenment ideas that shaped America’s sense of promise, exceptionalism, and manifest destiny also shapes Community of Christ faith and history.  Liberal democratic principles, economic freedom, communitarianism, and our expectation that God’s promises and authority remain in human reach all shape RLDSism and the post-RLDS Community of Christ identity.  These are the legacy of our 19th century Restorationism.   Simply, the American belief in a promised land predestined for liberty and expansion only needs to be radicalized a bit to become the Restoration belief that the restoration of God’s authority, people, and promised is at hand for Christian Americans.  The RLDS focus on a Kingdom-building faith, reshaped today by critical theology and lessons from the past, remains deeply ingrained in this history.  Christ’s Kingdom as the cause of Zion remains a key witness of Community of Christ message and identity.  But, this vision is tempered by the church’s also classically held liberal beliefs: the worth of persons, personal faith formation, and non-credal tradition.  These things come together to create some of the basic challenges and tensions of Community of Christ identity today.

The second thing that becomes apparent is that RLDSism is defined by its inability to transcend its particular position within Mormon history.  I’m convinced that the reason the RLDS church is undergoing its transformation toward a new identity as Community of Christ is because RLDSism’s position between Utah Mormonism, on one hand, and American Protestantism, on the other, has reached its limits.  The liberalism that clearly sets the RLDS church apart from its Mormon cousins pushes RLDSism away from its historical sectarianism.  For the RLDS, this liberalism is expressed and felt in the RLDS emphasis on individual spirituality and internal dissent from spiritual authority, which makes the RLDS more Protestant than Mormon.    This is what has made critical scholarship (theological and historical), theological evolution, critique of authoritarian leadership, and critique of the authority of tradition possible.   Those who who reject this liberalism adhere to RLDSism’s sectarian strands, which continues to unfold in conservative RLDSism.  In the Community of Christ, however, the historical tendency toward sectarian belief and identity (i.e. the righteous remnant) is overcome by the universalizing logic embedded deep within liberal Christianity, as well as in biblical Christianity through Paul.   The theological significance of this inclusive and universal vision for Christ and Christ’s Kingdom has moved late RLDSism, its sense of community, and mission toward a more universal and inclusive center of identity.  Against the negativity of a RLDS sectarian identity structure, the Community of Christ finds its mission, message, and future in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  In this way, the church is becoming “more Protestant,” but only because the roots of the Restoration movement are in the universalizing vision of biblical theology and American Christianity, which shares in the universal spirit of modern Protestantism.  In this sense, the Community of Christ is not a break with RLDSism, only RLDS sectarianism and its negatively-structured identity.  It is, in fact, historically the fulfillment (cf. D&C 164:9a) of its essentially Christian Restoration vision and heritage in American Christianity.

However, the universalism of the Community of Christ’s essential Christ-centered Restoration identity bumps up against these limits when Community of Christ leaders and members, remembering their RLDS heritage, ask themselves, “What is particular about the Community of Christ?”, or ” What sets the Community of Christ apart from American Protestantism?  What about our distinctives?”  Another way to ask these questions is, “What endures of RLDSism amidst Community of Christ’s relationship to American Protestantism?”   The problem with these questions is they are reminiscent of RLDS identity in its essentially negative structure, which fueled its sectarianism and structured itself negatively between Mormonism and American Protestantism.  So, the question is better stated, “What endures of RLDS tradition, theology, and identity in the Community of Christ?  What endures positively?  In light of our roots in American Restorationism (Mormons, Disciples of Christ, congregationalism, etc.), what remains of our RLDS heritage and testimony in the Community of Christ – if RLDSism is essentially neither wholly Mormon nor Protestant.  This is what is being asked when North American church members ask, “What is distinctive about the Community of Christ?”

Here we reach the current impasse.  The problem with RLDS identity is that it has historically always been negatively defined between Mormonism and American Protestantism.   Furthermore, I believe this negativity – especially for the early and middle 20th century of the RLDS church – has been the most important and influential aspect of RLDS identity.  Identifying our distinctive place is what has kept the church alive in the 20th century as it vied for denominational legitimacy amidst American Christianity.  The negativity of RLDS identity has been reinforced by both Mormon’s and Protestants.  Historically, both have rejected core RLDS positions with regard to fundamental identifiers of Mormonism and American Christianity:  what defines scripture,  what and who defines religious authority, who are God’s elect, and perspectives on salvation and salvation history.  It is our deep emotional attachment to this negative identity and its sectarian-esque feel that leads some to schism and others to question our basic identity.

There were clearly divisive controversies with regard to each of these defining aspects of RLDS theology and identity in the decision to accept women in the priesthood in 1984.   In 1984, the issue of scriptural authority and forms of church  religious authority split the church, which separated along more sectarian and liberal lines.  More conservative RLDSers rejected the leadership of both the 1984 Conference (the church’s liberal-democratic side) and the defining leaders of the church (the church’s theocratic side) in order to preserve the traditional forms of RLDS sectarian authority:  the belief in the one true church, in the sole election of the RLDS church as righteous remnant of God’s Restoration, belief in salvation through the church and an RLDS Zion.   This dissension, tragically, culminated in the divisive question of the church’s ultimate form of spiritual authority, women or men.   More sectarian RLDSers separated from the more liberal RLDS who accepted the change in form of authority, the shifts toward ecumenism in the church, and the move toward a more inclusive sense of religious identity and salvation history.

Here, I think, we see the negative structure of RLDS identity in the relationship between the more conservative, theocratic, and sectarian tendencies of RLDSism (that resembles Mormonism) in contrast with the more liberal, democratic, and ecumenically Protestant tendencies of RLDSism which, against Mormonism, resembles American Christianity.  Against those who would claim otherwise, I’m arguing both are essential aspects of RLDS identity.

After the split of the conservative Restorationists from the more liberal-democratic RLDS, I think the negative identity structure of RLDSism has reached its culmination and its limits.    Positively, instead of refocusing the future of the RLDS church on redefining RLDS identity negatively against the schismatic Restorationists, against the Mormons, and against Protestant Christianity, the emerging post-RLDS church prophetically moves toward a positive identity.  It is symbolized powerful in the name change to Community of Christ.   Emerging out of its essentially negative position against Mormons, congregationalists, and Protestantism, the Community of Christ is now a global church that seeks a positive relationship (not merger) with American Protestantism equipped with a positive identity that is Christ-centered, community focused, and aspiring for peace and justice missionally.  (This is how the powerful counter-narrative of the Temple unfolds against the schismatic tendencies of RLDS sectarianism in light of D&C 156.)

The problem that haunts the Community of Christ internally, however, is the ghost of its negative identity.   Historically, the negative relationship of RLDSism to both Mormonism and American Protestantism is what structured RLDS sectarianism with a cherished sense of community and essentially negative identity.  The Community of Christ’s sense of community cannot be separated from its lived historical experience as a marginalized movement negatively positioned in obscurity between Mormonism and American Protestant Christianity.  The challenge, therefore, is to shape the negative aspect of this marginalized experience of community in a positive identity position.  I believe, consciously or not, this process has already been taking place in the church for a few decades.   As we face the future, however, I want to suggest a few places where, I hope, the positivity of RLDS identity can emerge with both historical and theological integrity.

1.  Community of Christ proclaims Jesus Christ and community as it is lived, experienced, and understood among those who are marginalized.   Moreover, the agents of Christ’s salvation community are common folk, ordinary sojourners in search of salvation with one another in their walk with Christ. The RLDS church emerged out of the American wilderness among many poor and dispossessed.  Its early communitarian experiments emerged out of concern for the poor.  The spiritual experiences of Joseph Smith, Jr and the early church testify of the Holy Spirit’s activity and testimony of Jesus Christ amidst such communities.  The Community of Christ has its roots among farmers, frontiersmen and women, and immigrants who saw God’s community brought forth by and for common women and men.

2.  Community of Christ is not a church unto itself.  Community of Christ identity does not stand alone, but is always expressed positively in relation to other Christian denominations and movements.  It would be an error for the Community of Christ to revision or reimagine its identity in a sectarian manor, negatively defined and independent of American Protestantism or global Christianity.  In truth, RLDS identity has always been defined in relationship to other Christian denominations and movements, especially when defined negatively.  The RLDS legacy has been its search, from generation to generation, for a positive expression of God’s Christianity between Mormonism and American Protestant Christianity.  What is emergent and unique in Community of Christ identity today is that this identity is now positively positioned in relation to other forms of Christianity.  Identity in Christ is understood in a Pauline way, in relationship to Christ’s body as it is understood internationally and denominationally, to break down barriers of the flesh that separate God’s people into righteous and unrighteous, saint and sinner, oppressor and oppressed.  In this way, Community of Christ seeks to understand itself globally as both a Christ-centered people amidst other Christians, but also unique in its history and testimony of community.

3.  Community of Christ understands salvation in light of God’s Restoration.  The cause of Zion – temporally and spiritually – is the call to discipleship in light of God’s Kingdom among us, both heavenly and earthly. RLDSism’s emphasis on the cause of Zion and its experience of community shapes both its understanding of scripture and salvation history.   Scripture is more than revelation.  It is community forming.  The millennialism and Christian primitivism that shapes Community of Christ heritage among America’s early 19th century great awakening focuses Community of Christ understanding of church and faith on living the reign of God.  This reign is wherever Christian discipleship and faith in the life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is made real in the relationships of sacred community.  In this sense, the Community of Christ shares a realized eschatology, which is the experience of Zion that is available to human experience when faith and mission in both church and world.  The mission of the church to proclaim Jesus Christ and establish the cause of Zion flow from this understanding of Gospel-Acts.  That is the active presence of the Holy Spirit through the ministry of Christ’s church, its sacraments, and priesthood.

There is certainly much more that should be addressed, here.  There are many questions about RLDS particularity (or distinctives) that could and should be explored.  What is important, however, is to first sketch out what  are the foremost aspects of emerging Community of Christ identity as they emerge out of North American RLDSism.  It is my contention that it is not only possible, but its necessary for RLDSism to be fulfilled in order to realize the coming of the Community of Christ.  The Temple, I believe, marks that transformation.  RLDSism is attempting to move beyond its 175 year legacy of negative identity between Mormonism and American Protestant Christianity to a positive identity among the world’s 2000 year old Christianities.  In this global community, the Community of Christ reflects a unique and prophetic sense of American Christianity.   In terms of Community of Christ identity, theology, and mission, I believe what I have identified here flows from the Spirit and prophetic message of our most recent sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, 161-164.  Certainly, by the grace of God, each generation is “poised to fulfill God’s ultimate vision for the church.”  (D&C Section 164:9a)  This sense of expectation and spiritual anticipation, matched with uncommon devotion, is the character of Restoration Christianity today.

wrestle until you’re blessed

From Genesis 32:24-30

24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So the man said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”  28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.  30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face…”

This is one of the most memorable stories in Genesis.   It’s also one of the most interpreted.

Who is the man Jacob wrestling with?  Is it God?  An angel?  His own conscience?  A thief?  A demon?  And, what is the

struggle over?   Is it preparation for reunion with his brother Esau?  Is Jacob wrestling for his life?  For a blessing?

The passage is also about naming.   When spoken, Jacob’s name resembles the Hebrew word “to wrestle.”   The man asks Jacob his name, but he renames him Israel, which means “God strives” or “‘the one who strives with God.”   Jacob also asks the man his name.  But, no name is given.  We are only told that Jacob is blessed.   Then, Jacob names the place he wrestled a name that means “the face of God.”

When I was at a week of church meetings a couple of weeks ago, I was struggling.   The meetings I was a part of were very institutional.  They dealt with administration, policies, funds and fund raising.   The meetings were important from an institutional perspective.  But, the meetings also went 8-10 hours a day for three days.  They were so large that there wasn’t an opportunity to disagree, question, or participate in the decisions being made.  Though, an invitation for feedback was made.    I was around friends I loved and respected, but I felt very alone.  A depressing question kept haunting me, “Is this life with Jesus?”   Despite all the opportunities afforded me through church, I wondered again if there was really a place for me?   This seems to be an ongoing spiritual struggle.  At a low point, I remembered the  story of Jacob wrestling.  It was as if the Holy Spirit befriended me and slipped me a note.  “Wrestle until you’re blessed,” were the words I heard.  These words came to me in a way that I knew they should define my entire relationship with church.  “Wrestle until your blessed.”  Do it at every service, every meeting, each week, each day.

I’ve had similar struggles when I am in local congregations.   On the one hand, I’m lucky.  I enjoy many different kinds of worship.  I enjoyed mass for four years in Catholic school and fell in love with the tradition.  I spent years going to church with my Dutch grandparents at a traditional Reformed service.   I spent four years attending high Methodist liturgy in seminary, another 6 years at lively congregationalist services at another.   I’m comfortable around people whoopin’ or being slain in the Spirit.

But, I also am in an age group  that really never claimed church or recreated it in its own image.   The examples are sparse.  Compared to generations before me, most of my peers abandoned church or at least denominational committment and congregational life.  By in large, they have not stayed around to create churches that reflect GenX skepticism, spirituality, or sense of relationships.  I’m very much in touch with that part of myself, too.   This explains why I’m never fully at home even in congregational life and worship services.  Like everyone else, I’m looking for my place.

Most of us have a complicated relationship with church, if we have a relationship with it at all.   As a professional minister, theological-type, and aspiring disciple of Jesus, I even do.  As I struggle to feel at home or find space for myself in denominational life or congregational settings, this ancient story of Jacob wrestling brings meaning to it all for me.

Wrestle until you’re blessed.  Even if you get kicked in the groin (see Gen 32:25 above), stay with the struggle.  Expect to be blessed.