Tuesday, January 31, 2017

ResistingTrump with Revelation (1)


The Book

The book of Revelation was likely written in the 90’s a.d. to seven communities of faith in Asia Minor in the Roman Empire under Emperor Domitian. Written by a Seer named John (probably not the author of the fourth gospel), it presents itself as a pastoral letter, a prophetic announcement, and an apocalypse.

-As a pastoral letter Revelation offers practical wisdom for churches in the crucible of living faithfully amid the most powerful empire on earth. Here we discover the focus of the book.
-As a prophetic announcement Revelation provides the content from which the Seer draws his pastoral counsel.
-As an apocalypse (a revelation, the first Greek word of the document, from which it gets its name) Revelation gives us an x-ray (as it were) into the character of the empire, the kingdom of which God is the King, and what it means to participate in God’s Kingdom). From this aspect of the book we get the necessary perspective from which to hear it content and counsel.

Pastoral counsel, prophetic content, and perspective – that’s what we get from this volatile mixture of genres. As such Revelation addresses our passions (apocalypse), priorities (prophetic), and practices (pastoral). It brings heart, head, and hands into an integrated whole. We must respond to it as a whole, heart, head, and hands.
The Empire

Like all empires, Rome ruled with an iron fist, for the benefit of the 1%, and with unlimited pretentions. And Rome, here, means the Emperor. It promulgates a totalizing ideology to justify its privileged, divinely ordained, place in the order of things. Michael Kruse writes: “The defining feature of Empire is its totalizing agenda. Everything and everyone must come under the service of the Empire. That certainly has implications for how empire relates to those outside its immediate influence but it equally involves hoe it subjugates those who reside in the empire.”

These are all features of the young Trump presidency. They apply in varied measure to all the expressions of American empire through its history but are being pushed with great vigor by Trump. Increased military spending, and likely use in the world, policies put in place to benefit business and the wealthy, unlimited pretentions (“Make America Great Again”) are evident signs of a beefed up imperial agenda. Further, Trump has made it clear that America needs a big change in its view of itself and its place in the world. American exceptionalism is getting a major makeover!

John writes primarily to contest the Empire’s ideology shaping the minds and hearts of Jesus’ people. This ideology was impossible to avoid. Currency, architecture, proclamations, festivals, and the like served as ubiquitous reinforcers of the imperial ideology (think “In God We Trust” on our currency). Their world was steeped in empire, as is ours. And we are assaulted by empire’s rhetoric, images, and ideology as thoroughly as those first century Christians in Asia Minor. It is primarily on this level, the apocalyptic, that we need to hear the Seer’s words to us.

John counters the ideology of the empire with the Old Testament. Though he seldom directly cites it, every letter and syllable of Revelation draw breath from it. One estimate I’ve seen is that there are over 500 allusions to the Old Testament in the book. That puts us American Christians at a bit of a disadvantage because we do not know the Old Testament well. Perhaps reading Revelation is a way to remedy that to an extent. If your Bible has cross-references it would be good to check out these references and allusions. I’ll comment on some of them but I don’t have the space to include all of them.
Reading Revelation “Resistically”

One crucial part of a comprehensive program of resistance to Trump is nurturing our memory of the events and traditions, especially the biblical, traditions from where we draw and sustain our lives as God’s people.[1] This effort to read Revelation “resistically” is part of that program.

I susspect Revelation will turn out to be more valuable to us Americans than we can imagine. Along with Dietrich Bonhoeffer I believe Revelation is an essential resource for our struggle. Perhaps most importantly, John’s visions can help us refuse to normalize this new expression of imperial ideology. That at least I my hope and prayer.

[1] I hope to shortly publish an overview of such a program.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Bible will not save us

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The Hebrew Bible and New Testament both say very unequivocal things in favor of helping the poor and excluded, welcoming the stranger, and a host of other topics immediately relevant to our political environment. But unfortunately, all of the people who should be receptive to those teachings have been systematically inoculated against them. The Bible is not a challenging word for any mainstream Christian, but rather a license for conformism. The existence of a few oddball radicals who actually take the biblical demand for justice seriously only serves to highlight the inert mass of Christians counting on a fix of cheap grace.
The situation is much worse on the conservative side. . .
Read more at https://itself.blog/2017/01/30/the-bible-will-not-save-us/

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Runaway World - It Is Here

The following quote comes from Runaway World: How Globalization is Reshaping Our Lives. It was written in 1998, by British sociologist, Anthony Giddens.
41UAff5SOsL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_What Globalisation is, and whether it is in any way new, are the focus of intense debate. I discuss this debate in Chapter I, since much else hangs upon it. Yet the facts of the matter are actually quite clear. Globalisation is restructuring the ways in which we live, and in a very profound manner. It is led from the west, bears the strong imprint of American political and economic power, and is highly uneven in its consequences. But globalisation is not just the dominance of the West over the rest; it affects the United States as it does other countries.
Globalisation also influences everyday life as much as it does events happening on a world scale. That is why this book includes an extended discussion of sexuality, marriage and the family. In most parts of the world, women are staking claim to greater autonomy than in the past and are entering the labour force in large numbers. Such aspects of globalisation are at least as important as those happening in the global-market place. They contribute to the stresses and strains affecting traditional ways of life and cultures in most regions of the world. The traditional family is under threat, is changing, and will change much further. Other traditions, such as those concerned with religion, are also experiencing major transformations. Fundamentalism originates from a world of crumbling traditions.
The battleground of the twenty-first century will pit fundamentalism against cosmopolitan tolerance. In a globalising world, where information and images are routinely transmitted across the globe, we are all regularly in contact with others who think differently, and live differently, from ourselves. Cosmopolitans welcome and embrace this cultural complexity. Fundamentalists find it disturbing and dangerous. Whether in the areas of religion, ethnic identity or nationalism, they rake refuge in a renewed and purified tradition – and, quite often, violence.
We can legitimately hope that a cosmopolitan outlook will win out. Tolerance of culture diversity and democracy are closely connected, and democracy is currently spreading world-wide. Globalisation lies behind the expansion of democracy. At the same time, paradoxically, it exposes the limits of democratic structures which are most familiar, namely the structures of parliamentary democracy. We need to further democratize existing institutions, and to do so in ways that respond to the demands of the global age. We shall never be able to become the master of our own history, but we can and must find ways of bringing our runaway world to heel. (3-5)
This short collection of essays has stuck with me ever since I first read it years ago. As I have reflected on the American political scene of the past two years, the insights of this book have become ever more prescient. I see the rise of Trump nationalism as a reactionary response to globalization. (This is not conservatism vs progressivism as we have recently understood them.) It is the death throes of the 20th Century world order. It may be short-lived. It may last a generation. But I suspect that it is ultimately doomed. Over the long-haul, globalization is an inescapable dynamic. However, that does not mean that great harm to human well-being and to the planet will not happen during these death throes.
Since at least the 18th Century, we have seen an unprecedented improvement in human well-being, accelerating through the 19th Century down to the present, spreading around the world. But we should not forget that this improvement was punctuated by a retreat from globalization, resulting in two destructive world wars bracketing a global depression. One hundred years from now, I suspect global human well-being will have made substantial strides over our present living standards. I think globalization is virtually inevitable because we have amassed enough information and experience to see that a globalized world, for all its present vagaries and challenges, is the path to mutual common good. What is much less clear is what happens in the short term. I suspect that this is the biggest turning point in world that most of us now living will ever experience. (from Michael Kruse)

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Three Cheers for Our Post-Factual Turn!

          One thing our post-factual age has made clear is that we do not live by the “facts” at all. No, we live rather by the stories that have and continue to shape our lives. We may not be aware of them. They seem to us to be just the way things are. The “facts” as we see them fit the contours these stories have already etched into our hearts, minds, and bodies. And it remains so until enough challenges to the truth and reality of those stories accumulate. Thomas Kuhn taught us that science progresses by following the accepted findings of the science of the time until enough “anomalies,” that is, experimental results that don’t accord with the accepted scientific findings, accumulate that make it impossible to accept the science of the times with intellectual honesty. And the paradigm of science changes taking on a new shape that becomes the reigning description of science until the next paradigm shift.

          Now that we no longer even pretend to live by “facts,” it will not be they that provoke a paradigm shift in our societal or individual ways of construing reality. Oh, at some point reality will impose itself in such a way that we will have to change or substantially modify our stories under its pressure. For instance, if climate change is true, generations not too far hence will be forced to accommodate how they understand the world under its crushing, even mortal press. Until then climate change remains a debating point for which “facts” can be marshalled for divergent points of view.

          A “modern” response, which most of us are still inclined to resort to in response to these kinds of issues, is to try and debate these “facts” and prove theirs and dispute the other side’s. As most of us know now, this approach seldom if ever accomplishes every much.

          Today, however, our post-factual turn might provoke us to a “post-modern” (if I may use the term) response. We might choose to hear the “facts” presented for a given perspective as thumbnail versions of longer stories that lie behind them rather than discrete, provable, “things” that either are or are not true. We might then respond by asking about what such “facts” mean to them, why they seem important, and what would we lose by coming to see things differently. We might then share the same things about why and how we see the world the way we do. Such an approach holds far more promise for building understanding and relationships through conversational story-telling than the so-called modern response.

          A couple of days ago I posted this on FB: If your worldview does not include the blessing and peaceful existence with all others, you should ask yourself why. You may need a new worldview. These are the kinds of questions we ought to hope to raise in our time. The post-factual turn has made this not only possible but almost inevitable. So lament the demise of the factual if we must, but let us also embrace the possibilities it opens for us. The most important voices in any culture are those of the story-tellers. Christians are God’s story-tellers and the impact of our witness will be measured by the paradigm shifts our story-telling provokes in both individuals and larger groupings in our culture.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Varieties of atheistic experience

There are three varieties of atheism. Only one of them is actually interesting.
  1. “Matter of course” atheism — this is the position that belief in God is clearly superfluous, both for explaining the natural world and for developing a coherent moral code. It’s not a matter of deep conviction, hence not very interesting in itself.
  2. “Smarter than you” atheism — this is the worst kind, represented by the New Atheists. It goes beyond “matter of course” atheism by supposing that atheism can be a positive doctrine that must combat benighted religious doctrines. It always threatens to veer toward racism, because when they notice societies where atheism has failed to make major inroads, they start to wonder if there’s something… intrinsically wrong with them, you know, as a group.
  3. Protest atheism — this is the only kind worth discussing, because it calls the God of monotheism to account for the injustice and suffering in the world. Interestingly, from my perspective, it continues along the path laid out by monotheism itself, whih is grounded in a demand for a divine principle of justice. Protest atheism holds onto that demand while pointing out how monotheism itself failed to deliver on its own promise . . .
Read more at https://itself.wordpress.com/2017/01/05/varieties-of-atheistic-experience/?utm_content=buffer4cd27&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer

Review of David Fitch's "Faithful Presence"

David Fitch’s Faithful Presence sketches a vision of church oriented around the presence of God. God’s “real presence” to steal a trope from Eucharistic theology. Filled with both analysis and anecdote his work helpfully weaves a tapestry of church life that fills out a genuinely missional understanding of the church in practice, something which missional theologians have struggled to do. Among the many virtues of Faithful Presence are

-a biblical theology oriented around God’s presence,

-a vision of life in Christ rooted in radical trust in God’s actual presence in our midst leading us mediated by the Eucharist and the faithful practices of gifted koinonia, and

-a threefold differentiation of sites of ministry/mission into the close circle, the dotted circle, and the half circle.

Within this overall profile Fitch offers seven disciplines that train and position Christians in their churches to grow toward the vision he sketches. The seven disciplines – the Lord’s Table, reconciliation, proclaiming the gospel, being with the “least of these,” being with children, the fivefold gifting, and kingdom prayer.

I have been working on a proposal for biblical theology (marginalchristianity.blogspot.com 8/13/16) for a while now that centers on the temple and the theme of divine presence with kingdom and covenant as its chief carriers). I was gratified to see Fitch working along similar lines.

He proposes that God’s presence with his people is “the” point God is working towards and intends from all eternity. He notices that “with,” “in the midst,” “present,” and “dwelling” are key words signaling this intent. “God’s presence is so viscerally real that they must all know how to approach God” (22) is his assessment for Israel. Jesus Christ is the restoration and fulfilment of God’s presence with his people and world. God’s presence will fill the while world in his new creation (Rev.21-22).

Fitch proposes that God changes the world by establishing a people in a place and inviting others to join them. A people with God alive in their midst. His presence in their presence in their world creates currents of justice, reconciliation, renewal, and healing. This is God’s strategy for fulfilling his purposes.

I notice many similarities between Fitch’s thought and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s in his proposal. This, for me, is a real strength. Perhaps nothing is more radical and renewing than this. In both Bonhoeffer and Fitch this point gets to the heart of the matter. Is God alive and active in and through his people or is he not?

“For most Christians in the West, God is an individual belief, a personal       relationship, a private experience, something we fit in between all the                          other things in our lives. The notion that we can be present to God and                          he to us, is not on the horizon of our awareness. We do not imagine that                   God is present outside of me or between me and the other person I’m                           with, that he will confront me in the middle of my world if I will open myself             to him.” (20)

This really is where the rubber hits the road! Apart from an embrace and nurturing of God’s present reality, there is little point in the rest of it. Fitch repeatedly points out the consequence of not doing this: the church lapses into maintenance mode. The church becomes preoccupied with serving its members and procuring its survival. This is the church we have known in American for quite some time.

In the disciplines and particularly the Eucharist (“the ground zero of faithful presence,” 67) we have the opportunity to nurture our sense of God’s presence with us. The latter is especially the discipline of presence. Presence to Christ and to one another. “If we can recognize his presence at work around the table,” writes Fitch, “we will be able to recognize his work in the rest of the world as well.” (51). Again, I concur with this (see my blog post for 8/19/16). I believe Fitch is on to something crucial here.

Each of the other disciplines discussed rely on the conviction that God is present in, with, among, and through the people involved. In essence, every relationship we enter is a three-member relationship. Me, the other person, and God. This reflects Bonhoeffer’s Christological anthropology which sees Christ at the center of all our relationships, standing at the boundary between us which turns out to be the center between us. Fitch deploys this kind of understanding to great effect. An understanding most individualistic North American Christians need to learn and experience.

 Bonhoeffer’s last writings from prison emphasize Jesus as the “man for others” and the church as the “church for others.” Fitch draws out this emphasis in a practical and fascinating way. Fitch proposes we imagine three circles, the close circle, the dotted circle, and the half circle.

-the close circle is gathered community of the committed. Perhaps this would be Bonhoeffer’s “arcane discipline,” his term for the worship of the church in a world-come-of-age. Note Fitch does not say a “closed” circle. He focuses on the quality of relationship in the group rather than its boundaries.

-the dotted circle is a place in the neighborhood where Christians host others beyond the close circle. Perhaps it’s a home gathering, or perhaps a gathering in some other place where Christians offer others the chance to see and experience what goes on in the circle.

-the half circle encompasses the places of hurt and brokenness we encounter. Here the Christian is a guest who extends the presence of Christ into a situation where it may or may not be accepted.

          All three of these “sites” (perhaps we could call them “Jerusalem,” “Judea,” and “the ends of the earth” following Acts 1:8) are part of what Fitch calls a church “on the move” (41). The question for such a church is always about discerning Christ’s presence wherever we go and the character of the witness to his presence we bear.

          These three “sites” provide a faithful way for us to envision being Bonhoeffer’s “church for others.” Faithful because it is driven by the central dynamic of “mutual submission.” Mutual submission, in turn, is a correlate of the kingdom of God. The latter bears God’s presence and that presence is embodied in the seven disciplines which function in terms of mutual submission. Fitch describes it like this:

“The disciplines gather people together in a circle of submission to his                        reign. Submission to the king defines each subject, and the kingdom                                       is composed of the king’s subjects. Each discipline then creates a                          space for surrendering our control. Each works against the impulse to                              take control and impose my will on a situation. In this process a marv-                            elous space is opened for Jesus to become Lord. We can then tend to                         Christ’s presence among us.” (37)

Mutual submission, I take it, is the practice that attends the radical trust in God’s/Christ’s “real” presence guiding and ruling the people mentioned earlier. This “founding principle” of God’s kingdom (38) roots the life of God’s people and, indeed, creation itself in a peaceable, nonviolent order. Mutual submission, then, is the central feature of God’s own life reflected in all he makes.

Fitch makes the point, but it needs to be strongly reiterated, that mutual submission must be aware of the power dynamics of each particular situation so that it not become a hidden pattern of abuse toward powerless and voiceless “others” in that situation. God’s presence exposes these patterns and calls on us to put processes and protocols in place to resist and defeat them.

Though I will not discuss the disciplines in detail here, the heart of these practices is opening up a space through mutual submission where Christ’s redeeming and reconciling presence can do its work. When the “church on the move” loses this reality of God’s presence as its animating center it lapses into maintenance mode, tending to its own member

s and focusing on its own survival. This means, in effect, the loss of that community’s capacity to be a bearer of God’s presence in its time and place. And that’s a tragedy we know all too well in North America.

Faithful Presence is a timely and provocative volume. It takes the road less travelled in developing an ecclesiology that I have suggested stands in the trajectory toward which Bonhoeffer pointed in his prison letters. While his descriptions of the disciplines can certainly use extension and refinement, it is a great start in the right direction in my judgment.

In many respects Fitch’s book furthers the work of his mentor in Anabaptism John Howard Yoder. The latter’s book Body Politics is a similar kind of exercise in describing some “social sacraments” that make the church the church. Fitch’s treatment of these repeatable disciplines (that’s why baptism and marriage aren’t included) also aim to explore the practices that make and keep the church the church. Faithful Presence is a worthy companion to Yoder’s Body Politics.

Much more could and should be said about this book. But it needs to happen in churches, study groups, small groups, etc. Not in a more extended book review. I hope this review whets the reader’s appetite to dive into for themselves. Faithful Presence is a faithful presentation of the way forward toward a renewed church in North America. It is not the last word (no such thing exists) but it is more than a first word. May it please God that it find open hearts and ears to hear its message!