Faith & Politics

donkeyelephantcrossChurches everywhere need help with faith and politics these days.  On the one hand, partisan perspectives seep into our faith communities without us looking.  There’s really nothing we can do about it.  The animosity between “liberals” and “conservatives” is part of our culture.  (I put them in quotation marks to remind us that these are labels, not people.)   It’s impossible for “independents” and “centrists” to even state their politics without them.  The opposition inherent in partisanship defines how people speak, think, and interpret any political statement or issue.  It’s nearly impossible to navigate faith and politics without it.

Pastors and leaders can try to mitigate the tensions by reminding members to leave politics out of the pews and pulpit.  They can try to keep church a safe place, reminding parishioners that the Gospel is neutral or knows no single party.   And, to some degree, this is partially right.

The Gospel doesn’t align with any one party or political ideology exclusively.  One way to interpret the history of Israel in the bible is to see it through this lens.  Proper worship and faithfulness to God’s covenant can’t be reduced to one form of rule or ruler.  Likewise, to allow God’s Word or will to be reduced to any one party, candidate, or ideology is equally objectionable.  It would amount to idolatry.

The second commandment is clear that we’re allowed no images or representations for God…as if they were God.   The effect of this commandment is far reaching.  For people of faith, there no place the prohibition of images makes more sense than in the realm of politics.   It holds theological truth and wisdom.  No idea, image, or representation of God can replace the mystery of God and humility before faith in a living God.  Reducing proper worship of God to belief in a political party, candidate, or ideology ultimately betray God and the heart of faith.

faithpoliticsscreenshotOn the other hand, no disciple of Jesus can cooperate with the belief that the Gospel is not political.   This is simply wrong scripturally, theologically, and historically.   The Gospel is political and always was.  Christianity has much to repent for in its politics.  But, simply erasing its political dimensions and calling is not acceptable or desirable.  The deep mystery of Christian spirituality and truth of faith in Christ only make sense when understood in political terms.  Faith and politics are something every Christian must wrestle with like Jacob and the angel (Genesis 32:22-31).  Jacob emerged from this wrestling as Israel, the name given to the people of God.  (He was also in a bit of pain.)   Faith cannot escape its relationship with politics, and it shouldn’t try.

There is great temptation in Western Christianity to “spiritualize” faith, which essentially has meant to erase its concrete political, economic, and social meaning.  But, this is nearly impossible.  Terms like “Lord,” “Kingdom of God,” “Prince of Peace,” even “Christ” make little to any sense without understanding them in their historical political context, and understanding them explicitly as political terms.

The term politics is related to polis, which is the ancient Greek term for the city-state.  This is where the term get its meaning for belonging to a people and land, and living under a rule or form of governance.  Western politics is deeply influenced by political concepts that permeate biblical scripture such as the rule of law, sovereignty, and freedom.

The question is not whether Christian faith is political.  Rather, the question is how is it political.  What kind of politics does God require?  What kind of politics does the Gospel make possible?  holy_week How do we interpret the Gospel’s invitation to live under the Lordship of Jesus as our true ruler and King?  How do we interpret scripture regarding the purpose and fulfillment of creation – including all human relationships?  What does Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection as Christ reveal to us regarding the way Christ’s community worships, lives, witnesses, and engages the world around it?   These questions go to the heart of the Gospel and its politics.

Ultimately, answers to these questions are not finally answerable.  What I mean is that these are not abstract questions with answers that are frozen – once and for all – in time.  Rather, these faith questions are essential for any disciple.  Asking them and answering them is a faith-task that is ongoing.

Any church that proclaims Jesus Christ or his community on earth must ask and answer these questions as a simple matter of discipleship.  In addition, Christians must ask them and answer them in the context in which they live their faith.  Political issues surround us, which call for the church’s witness.  The church must live out its own unique politics where it is.  This is the call of the Gospel and Christian discipleship: to be Christ’s community in the world and witness to what God has made possible in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In the end, faith is not separate from politics.  Quite the contrary, they two are intimately related to one another.

Christ’s community is called to cultivate its own politics.  The church’s politics will be unique and related to, but ultimately different from, the world around it.  Why?  The church’s politics are founded on its best understanding of the Gospel.  The Gospel, simply put, is the God’s revelation of love and grace for the world  (this world).  This is the proclamation of the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ.  In him, all can be reborn to see the truth of themselves, what new is life possible, the fulfillment 0f creation and reconciliation of human relationships.   This is the Kingdom of God’s love and justice which the world has yet to fully know.

In addition, the church’s witness of faith draws it into the world of politics.  In other words, God’s love for the world draws Christ’s body today into the world’s political issues.  This includes its partisanship with all its tensions.  Here, the church’s call is to the witness of Christ’s peace and justice in the work for a new humanity.  This means the transformation of human relations and communion with the earth.  In Christ, ethnic and racial differences, differences in station or class, even gender and sexual differences are no longer (Galatians 3:23-29) decisive.  Likewise, partisan differences aren’t either.

What is decisive is the world God has made possible.  For the prophets, just like for Christians, that has everything to do with politics.  If Christian faith means anything today, it will find its expression in human politics.  That’s the call and witness of the Good News.

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A Walk with Jeremiah 6.1

Jeremiah 6I’ve not posted for some time.  But, Jeremiah called me back again.  I needed some time for meditation.

Once I start reading Jeremiah again, I was reminded how scripture continually calls us back.  This morning, I needed to connect to human experiences much older than my own.  I’m picking up my walk with Jeremiah with chapter six (6).

Who hasn’t felt madness listening to American politics?  It doesn’t matter which party or ideology you ascribe to.  The partisan nature of our political scene and the circus that money and media have made of public opinion and national feeling can leave anyone with this sense of grief.  Jeremiah apparently felt that way, too.

To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear?  See, their ears are closed, they cannot listen.  The word of the Lord is to them an object of scorn; they take no pleasure in it.  But, I am full of the wrath of the Lord; I am weary holding it in.  (vs 10-11a)

Most of us hold to our political perspectives with the same fervency Jeremiah did to God’s word and its clarity.  There is a reason why religion and politics equally offend in today’s dominant norms of decency.  Jeremiah’s religious language gives some of us a false sense of difference.  Forget that this is the bible.  Remember that Jesus hadn’t been born yet.  Remember, prophets were mouthpieces for the covenant of God’s people with God.  That is the contract that birthed their nation.  Jeremiah is explicitly talking about his political point of view, which he sees in relief of God’s vision for reality.

For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely.  They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace…[H]ear, o nation, and know O congregation, what will happen…(vs 13-14)

It struck me that the angst and helplessness we feel for the direction and politics of our nation, even communities, is ancient.  It doesn’t matter if you see our foundation as the word of God, the Constitution, universal human rights, or Locke and Rousseau’s social contract.  Who hasn’t grieved over the injustices and corruption they see?  Who hasn’t felt the fear from signs of instability, irrational decisions, and the plight of those powerless to rise up and correct inequities?  I hear this grief from both liberal and conservative.  Each has their definition of injustice.  Each has their definition of rationality.  Each has their definition of inequity.  Each has their scapegoat and theory of inequities.

As a Christian socialist and/or social democrat, I, too, fall on this spectrum.  And, I see the folly of our partisan blame-games.

They are all stubbornly rebellious, going about with slanders…(vs 28a)

In response, Jeremiah offers a strangely prophetic counsel:

Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it an find rest for your souls.

What are those ancient ways?  What, exactly, is this crossroads?  My soul seems to know without argument or passion.  Perhaps, a still small voice might say it this way:

It’s the humble way.  Neither self-righteous nor divided, the good way is neither silent nor partisan.  It is where justice entwines you and I in a common welfare.  It is where peace is waged for the sake of the most vulnerable, among which are each others’ elderly parents and youngest children.  It is where our trust merges in the form of a covenant, in which our wealth and welfare is not in competition, but where the only win is win-win.

I’m reminded of Community of Christ’s Doctrine and Covenants 163:4a-c:

God, the Eternal Creator, weeps for the poor, displaced, mistreated, and diseased of the world because of their unnecessary suffering. Such conditions are not God’s will. Open your ears to hear the pleading of mothers and fathers in all nations who desperately seek a future of hope for their children. Do not turn away from them. For in their welfare resides your welfare.

The earth, lovingly created as an environment for life to flourish, shudders in distress because creation’s natural and living systems are becoming exhausted from carrying the burden of human greed and conflict. Humankind must awaken from its illusion of independence and unrestrained consumption without lasting consequences.

Let the educational and community development endeavors of the church equip people of all ages to carry the ethics of Christ’s peace into all arenas of life. Prepare new generations of disciples to bring fresh vision to bear on the perplexing problems of poverty, disease, war, and environmental deterioration. Their contributions will be multiplied if their hearts are focused on God’s will for creation.

Day 2 – Teaching Peace in the 21st Century: John Paul Lederach, How Peace? Why Peace?

Day two of the Summer Institute for Faculty has been both rewarding and personally important.  I’ll share a bit why.

The day began with a presentation by John Paul Lederach.  If you’re not familiar with Lederach, he is a among the most well known and respected scholars/practitioners in peace studies.  He’s the author of several influential books:  The Little Book of Conflict TransformationBuilding Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societiesand The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace.   John Paul Lederach graciously accepted the Community of Christ Peace Award in 2000 at our Peace Colloquy.

John Paul Lederach’s presentation was on not on a new topic, but one that is important to the development of peace studies as a field of research and practice.  It’s the transition of “conflict resolution” to “conflict transformation.”   He gave an overview of several conceptual and practical differences between conflict resolution and conflict transformation. What stood out the most was the critique of conflict resolution that led to this change.

John Paul Lederach shared experiences he’d had working as a mediator and conflict resolution specialist. To paraphrase, he’d been often asked, “What Is conflict resolution? Because, if you are interested in just coming to solve our problems and not changing anything, we’re not interested.”  In other words, conflict resolution without attention to the underlying desire for needed changes, changes parties aimed for or already underway, in a conflict situation is not helpful.   Resolution that “fixed” problems by aiming toward agreement or compromise by de-escalating conflict, but changes nothing is inadequate, even undesirable.  Conflicts can be, and are often, productive.  They aim at change.  The shift to conflict transformation aims at processes in which conflict is addressed and the dynamics of change are kept in focus.

John Paul Lederach identifies four areas or kinds of change in his book, The Little Book of Conflict Transformation (linked above).  They are personal change, relational change, structural change, and cultural change.  Peace studies cannot loose sight of this aspect of creative potential in conflict, which is often the aim of conflict. Conflict transformation is controversial for some in peace studies because it appreciates the importance of conflict, even the need for its agitation or escalation, in processes of change.   Without resorting or allowing conflict to transform into violence, the escalation of conflict can be, and often is, a necessary part of justice and peace….or a just peace.

In my second session, I had the opportunity to listen to faculty in the Kroc Institute share the interdisciplinary aspects of peace.   E. Mark Cummings, Professor of Psychology, shared about his research in Northern Ireland on the effects of political violence on children and development.  Atalia Omer, Associate Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peace Studies, shared about her research on the role of religion in shaping ethnic and national identities, and its influence on interpretations of justice and political conflict.  Scott Appleby, Professor of History, shared excellent reflections on the intersection of history and peace studies.  His work in religious fundamentalism and violence is integral work in peace studies.  Sandra Gustafson, Professor of English, shared about her work in the intersection of peace studies and literature.

The most important experience for me today, however, came from personal reflection.   The panel discussions and insightful conversations faced me with personal questions:  “Why peace?  Why peace and justice?  Why peace studies?”   I could write papers and give presentations on these broad questions from my a theological and ethical perspective.  But, why is it a personal call?    The answer may seem obvious.  Yet, when was the last time any of us stopped to ask ourselves if we are committed to peace and justice as a matter of personal conviction, and why?  When was the last time you clarified and articulated why peace is important enough to confront others with it?  Below is a list of my responses:

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  1. Human beings are a global family, not discrete individuals.  We belong to each other.  Materially, we are dependent on human activity and the environment.  Human life, therefore, is finally life together, not individual life.  A sustainable peace is a necessary personal and corporate commitment for developing sustainable life and a culture of life together.
  2. Sustainable peace requires justice.  Justice is not simply justice for me and mine, but considers my intimate relationship – personal and impersonal – with others.  Justice begins with the most vulnerable.
  3. Given the world in which we live, we no longer approach individual or corporate life, vocation, and formative education without a conviction for sustainable peace.  Without a commitment to justice and sustainable peace, norms and values devolve to a culture of individual beliefs and behavior acculturated around “me” and “mine.”
  4. Conflicts are good.   They are transformational.  Conflicts are a necessary passage for becoming whole persons, growing in community, and all kinds of learning.  When we resort to violence, all of this suffers. Conflicts devolve every human endeavor to domination and survival rather than the pursuit of truth, wholeness, community, and learning.  Peace makes conflict possible.
  5. Peace, for me, is faith based, faith-driven, and culminates in a life of faith. However, it is not limited to religion and faith. Peace is inclusive, invitational, and universal in scope and human concern.

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.

God, or belief

Lately, I’ve felt the need to clarify some things.  Parker Palmer helps me understand this feeling in terms of my soul (Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness).  I believe my soul yearns to speak.  Writing is a way I can listen, and listen deeply.

My search for faith is central to my life.  It is a search that continues even as I write.  My search continues to lead me into some kind of testimony.  Some who read this might think that I’m talking about personal religious convictions.  But, that risks misinterpreting me.  It misses the depth of my search, its personal costs, and its impact on all that is.   Faith does not occupy some corner of my life.  Faith is not limited to religious identity, abstract doctrines, and metaphysical questions.  Life is experienced.  It is concrete, relational, sensuous, and palpable.  Faith embraces all these things.  In my soul, I want to express my life in terms of faith.   My heart quietly aches to express how I understand life  – who I am, who I am in this world, and who I am in relationship with others.  God is the one thing that makes any sense out of all these things.  So, that’s where I’ll begin.

I believe in God.  But, as important as my belief might be, it does not answer the right question.

American culture approaches religion in a particular way.  Historically, it obsesses on questions of belief.  When I was a child, believing in God was important.  I was asked about it alot.  I grew up in a Christian community.  It was dominated by a particular Christian denomination.  The church I was born into didn’t quite fit in.  My father was a committed Community of Christ member.  My mother was also a member of Community of Christ, but she grew up in the dominant church in our community.  It was a costly change of membership for her.  I was often asked about my belief in God from family, friends, and other church-goers.   A lot seemed to hang on this question.  My answer conveyed the state of my eternal life or immortal soul.  It also revealed what team I was on.  If I said I believed in God, I was at least in the right game.  I may not be a true believer, but at least I was not a lost soul needing salvation or, at worst, the enemy (atheist, humanist, pagan, even Mormon or Catholic).  A true believer meant that I believed in God, and I was a Christian like them.

No one ever said it to me as a child.  But, I learned early on that Christians often ask others about their belief in God not for theological dialogue.  Rather, it tell believers where others stand – where they stand with God, stand with religion, and which religion.  Belief in God is an important faith question.  But, when it’s asked primarily to determine someone’s identity, it betrays the question.  At some point, questions about faith and God went deeper than religious identity for me.  As I struggled with deeper questions, the distinction between faith and religion became clearer.   The longer I labored, the distinction between religious questions and questions of faith grew.  My questions changed and the answers changed.

When I was a child, religious questions and faith questions were more or less the same.  But, faith led me beyond religion, itself.  My search for faith took me beyond the religious questions that were once defined for me.  Life led to religious crises and other crises.  The need for faith moved beyond religious answers.  Life posed problems that made the need for faith more urgent, more encompassing, and distinct from strictly religious answers that limited God to religious problems, abstract ideas, or personal beliefs.

I am at a point in my life when I feel the more important question is not whether I believe in God.  The more urgent question is whether God believes in me.  Does God love the world?  Is God in everyday life and its vast imperceptible web of relationship?  What relationship do I want with God (the incredible possibility of God!)?  Do I seek God in daily life?  What is God’s Spirit doing?  Will I allow faith to affect me – how I look at myself, interact with others, and act in the world that shapes me?  Is God at the center of my relationships?  How much of all that is in my control?  How much is totally out of my control?  How much of the world is God and how much is the world bearing down on me?  After I answer these questions, what do the answers really mean?  Does the faith I was born into and its resources shape some answers or who I yearn and strive to be?

This brings me back, once again, to religion in search of new answers with different questions.

The subtle shift from focusing on my belief in God to God’s belief in me and the world is profound.  The change in orientation is a turnaround.  It requires a different way of thinking.   Me, my identity, the religion I come from or now belong to is no longer the chief starting point.   Instead, the scope is broader.  Life dictates where I start, then I must consider what faith asks of me.  Where is God, the possibility of God, and the meaning of God in the world?  I find myself less concerned with religious questions – if that means topics that limit God to religion, isolated communities, abstract ideas, or personal beliefs.  I am more concerned with what faith means in life.  There are so many questions.   I must consider the struggles over the fundamental relationships that define me and my life.  Faith reaches beneath the world’s definitions, its definition of religion, and religious appearances.  Religion eventually turns into faith questions.

My life’s journey has been a path of conversion.  I was born Community of Christ.  I was born a Christian.  I am now a convert to the search for meaning in God.  Born a Christian, I later discovered Christ.  I made the religion of my birth my own by transcending it, then returning to it.  I have a new relationship with Christianity and the world from which it comes.  Instead of having faith in my religion, I seek its source of faith.  This means going beyond our world’s way of knowing and its categories – including that of religion.  Neither I nor the world can limit God to religious spheres and mere personal perspective.  All this betrays the call to faith before it’s begun.   While the word “wrong” my scare some, I’m not interested winning a war of words.  Rather, I fight to defend the true meaning of faith.  We cannot simply constrain faith or God to narrow religious definitions or isolate them to personal opinions.  To do so is a distortion.

Do you believe in God?  As important as it seems, this may not be the primary or final question.  Does God believe in us?  Does God believe in the world?  Does God persist in the world despite our efforts to control and deploy its resources in our own way and for our own purposes and advantages?  To even consider “yes” as an answer requires the seed of faith, whose growth will bring you well beyond narrow definitions of religion.   That’s where conversion and reconversion begins.

God’s Cathedral of Prayer

A version of this testimony was first printed in the Lamoni Chronicle, December 8, 2011 edition, in the section”Everyday Blessings.”

satellite view of southern Lake Michigan (taken from nasa.gov)

In 2007, my family and I left home for Thanksgiving.  We were living in Chicago.  We were traveling to Michigan to have the holiday with my family.  Margo, my wife, was a Chicago public school teacher and having a stressful year.  She wasn’t feeling well that day, but we hoped that some rest would be good and help her feel better.  The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Katy and Kenzlee (my daughters) piled in the car with Margo and I, and we left for a three-hour drive along Lake Michigan’s coast to grandma’s in Grand Rapids.

We arrived safely at my mother’s home.  The day of Thanksgiving, Margo still wasn’t feeling well.  She slept through most of Thanksgiving.  Friday evening, her headache and stomach pain worsened.  On the way to the bathroom that evening, she collapsed to the floor.  A friend and I immediately took Margo to the closest emergency room.

Within an hour, our family’s life changed.   We learned that Margo had a dangerous and rare blood disorder.  She was admitted to the hospital.  I didn’t know it, but I began thirty of the most grueling days of my life that day away from home and in an out-of-state hospital.

Unfortunately, Margo didn’t respond to standard treatment for her disease and she ended up being unconscious for over two weeks.  During those weeks, I lived on a 36-hour cycle of staying up with her at the hospital for twenty-four hours and going to my mother’s to sleep for twelve.  The entire time, no one knew the outcome of our hospital stay.  I was learning through chatting with survivors of her rare disease on the internet that the disease was unpredictable.  Both survivors and Margo’s specialists assured me things would be OK, but day after day her blood work did not improve.  The feeling of the doctors and nurses went from serious to somber.

With two daughters and my wife’s prognosis unsure, I turned more and more to others for support and prayer.  Physically and emotionally, I felt indescribable stress.  I was without any control, helpless to do anything except watch the doctors hook her up to machines and wait for her blood work each day.  I talked to Margo and prayed with her, even though she was unresponsive.  I tried to calm her to keep her from seizures, which seemed to help.  I cried with her and prayed for her.

Before she went to ICU for the second time, one morning at 5:00am, I turned my face to Michigan’s gray sky and began to pray.   I felt as if I was going to break.  I turned to God in prayer desperate for direction and help.  During my prayer, something happened that I can only describe as a vision.  It forever changed the way I think about prayer and Christ’s church.

Eyes closed and deep in prayer, I wearily watch the sky open to behold a cathedral.  The inside of the cathedral was tall and immense.  I stood in the cathedral and saw the faces of people, some I knew and some I didn’t know, pass through the sanctuary’s open space.  I saw each one in their various settings.  I saw a woman praying for our family over her morning coffee.  I saw a man offering prayer as he was driving to work.  I saw a woman in a congregation standing in prayer, and a parent pushing a stroller silently holding a loved one before God in her thoughts.

The scenes of people praying and their faces continued to pass through the sanctuary several at once.  Somehow, I knew these images passing through the sanctuary were coming from all over the world.  It filled the space with the feeling of worship.  Somehow, I also knew that God was being glorified in each prayer, and what I was witnessing was God’s church in its invisible spiritual reality.

Later, I learned that prayer requests for Margo had spread through our church to Asia and Australia.  Friends and members were praying from far reaches of the globe.  One of our Jewish neighbors in Chicago also had her synagogue praying for our family down the street from our home.   Some of our non-religious neighbors were praying for us from the living rooms.

In that moment, I knew God was near me and that God was hearing not only my prayers, but the prayers of others.   The vision did not give me answers to my questions about the outcome of Margo’s hospital stay.  My terrible fear of the unknown and the incredible stress of our situation did not come to an end.  But, at some level, I received an indescribable peace knowing that God was present with me in my darkness and unknowing.  Somehow, I knew I was in God’s hands, buoyed up by the prayers of others.

I learned in the moments of that vision that God’s church exists far beyond our perception.  I learned that the church is spiritually gathered whenever and wherever we come to God and pray.

The persons and faces continued to pass through the sanctuary of that cathedral.  The earnest prayers of all who passed through its space made it holy.  As the vision closed and my prayer came to an end, I had the feeling of just being in worship.

Margo, my girls, and I went home near the end of December.  Margo was released to outpatient services in Chicago.  We fought the disease at home for another few months.   Today, Margo is living with her blood disorder and is doing well.  She experienced another episode in May of this year.  This time, she was not unconscious.  We came through it, again, together after a few months.

Life is uncertain, yet I remain changed by the vision I received that day in prayer in the hospital.  I know God hears our prayers and the prayers of others.  I know prayers are answered, not by receiving whatever we ask for, but by sustaining in God’s presence and promise.  I also know Christ’s church is gathered whenever and wherever, across the world, people turn to God and pray.  The spiritual reality of God’s church goes far beyond its physical presence and our worship goes beyond ourselves and the assurances of our five senses.  There is a spiritual reality in which God draws near to us whenever we draw near to God, who gives life-sustaining peace.