As any long-suffering reader of mine will have noticed, I haven’t blogged in a while. As we came to Church of All Nations (CAN) more than a year-and-a-half ago now, I found not long after that I lost my writing “voice.” This was related, I think, to the process of becoming part of the CAN family. CAN is a “high risk, low anxiety” church that is unlike any other that I have ever been a part of. I struggled at first, even as we quickly became members of CAN, to understand what that phrase, “high risk, low anxiety” meant. I do not pretend to have fully grasped it now. I think part of what it means, though, is that CAN is a resilient, differentiated, embodied community of grounded people who are working together to follow Jesus into renewed village life. As I look at that sentence I just wrote, I realize how little justice it does as a descriptor of what and who CAN is- and it’s that same insight that best describes why I haven’t written in a while, for just as words alone can’t do CAN justice, they are poor descriptors of the journey I’ve been on of late.
I’m part of a men’s cell group at CAN, and at our last meeting someone talked about how long it takes us to “check in” with one another, to describe, basically, how we’re doing. He said that we use a lot of words to circle around what is essentially a feeling. In other words (no pun intended), what we’re after when we check in with one another is emotional connection. We want to bond with one another (in the best way possible), and we do that through our emotions. But we men especially are so poor (literally impoverished) at connecting with our own emotions, we have little hope of bringing that to the fore in a healthy way and offering it to one another. So instead we give each other words. I should be careful to say that there was and is no judgment in this assessment; it simply is, and thus this is perhaps the essential work of our male lives, to learn to grow up emotionally and offer our whole selves to one another, to our partners, and to a world in desperate need of emotionally mature men in public and private life. For point of reference, I offer you the opposite of emotionally mature men- see: Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump, or almost any “white” male in public life:
I think that I certainly use words like this- as a way of talking “around” what I feel. I’ve said before that I write to discover what I think, and this may be true. It makes sense to me that writing could be part of a reflective process, but I also use words to try to get at my own feelings, which I struggle mightily to be aware of and connected to. This is so for many reasons. As a childhood trauma survivor, I learned from the earliest age to protect my fragile child self by dissociating. I’ve done this now for basically all of my life and this practice of protecting my self by dissociating emotionally is so entrenched that not only do I so often not know what I’m feeling; I struggle perhaps too to even know who I am. Who am I, after all, apart from all my elaborate defense mechanisms?
Answering this question is part of that “essential work” I described above, and it is part, I think, of what makes CAN a “high risk” church, for if you want to stick around this community for any length of time you will, I suspect, invariably find your pretenses stripped away. I should say that pretenses are “stripped away” not through any willful act of violation. No, it’s quite the opposite. I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’ description of heaven in The Great Divorce, and forgive me if I get any part of this wrong; it’s been a long time since I read it. If memory serves, then, in the book of course heaven and hell are not mutually exclusive locations that residents of either “place” are barred from leaving or entering. Instead, residents of hell and heaven can leave at any time and there is a regular daily bus that travels between the two locales. Now this is where my memory may be fuzzy, but as I recall heaven is described as a place that anyone is free to travel to, but entering it is literally hard. The ground of heaven beneath one’s feet is literally harder that that of hell, more substantial, more real. The lights may be brighter. Entering heaven from hell is perhaps like emerging from a fog, waking from a dream into real life. To set one foot in front of the other as you walk into heaven requires a kind of commitment to what is real, for what is false and unreal can not survive there. (Again I apologize if I have gotten The Great Divorce wrong as I’ve recollected it here.)
Now, I’m not saying that CAN is heaven, but I do see the same kind of dynamic at play if you “really” enter into this community. Doing so means, as much as you can and with the help of those around you, laying aside your false self and making an effort to be authentically and truly oneself. This means a lot of other things that we often talk about among CAN, like being differentiated and living in the front of your brain (where higher thinking resides), not the back of your brain (where your “fight or flight” mechanism resides and where trauma can get “stuck”). In any case, this then is, by definition, a “high risk” endeavor. After all in this cruel world, who would dare to risk being truly themselves? And yet it is only authentic, healed, whole, and holy selves that could ever hope to experience life together in community without endlessly re-traumatizing one another. And it is only such a community that could aspire to renewed village life in the midst of cutthroat capitalism, in the middle of a rapacious, violent empire.
High risk though it may be, we do our best to approach this work with low anxiety. I know a lot about (living with) anxiety. It has marked my adult life, especially since my oldest son was born 4 months premature, but I’m sure it has marked my life since probably before I was born, maybe long before I was born (if epigenetic trauma is taken into account- and believe me I come from traumatized German, Jewish, Russian, and British people!). Anxiety has many causes, no doubt, including biology and brain chemistry, but part and parcel of those explanations is this one- that it is a defense mechanism born out of an instinct to protect a fragile self. I do not recall being aware of my anxiety as a child. I only know that every day felt like an intense exercise in survival. How could I make myself as invisible as possible so that my mother would not have cause to lose her temper at me and fly into a rage? How could I offer as few words as possible, or, when words were necessary, choose them so carefully that they could not later be used as ammunition against me? Harry Potter had an invisibility cloak. I’m no Drax, but I really didn’t need one. Like so many remnants of childhood trauma, however, the need for this coping mechanism has long since ended. But I still wear invisibility like a cloak.
Of course, if every day I tried to make myself invisible so that my mother would not have cause to be angry at me, every day I failed. As a result I turned to another kind of invisibility. If I could not be invisible to my mother, I would be invisible to myself. In other words, I dissociated from the “self” that received the brunt of my mother’s anger. I absented my own body so that there remained a part of me that was not actively being traumatized day after day after day after day. Consequently this coping mechanism, this remnant of childhood trauma, remains “hard-wired” into me even though the need for it too has likely run its course with me approaching my mid 40’s and my mother having been dead for nearly half my life. I’m learning, though, that dissociation and differentiation are perhaps very closely related. As I alluded to above, there’s a lot of work within CAN being done around differentiation. Differentiation, as I understand it, means knowing where I end and you begin, or perhaps more importantly, where you end and I begin. It means knowing that I’m me, not you. This may seem elementary and almost laughable on its face, but lack of awareness of this and poor differentiation likely lies at the root of many of the world’s ills, because differentiation means “owning” your own feelings and thoughts and not owning the feelings and thoughts of others, especially that of those closest to you. Scripture is rich with language of intense bonding. “Your people are my people and your god, my god,” Ruth told Naomi. And “there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” These are radical acts of self-giving love that we see represented best in Jesus himself. Yet self-giving love is impossible if you do not have a “self” to give, and you cannot fully have a self if you have not begun the work of differentiation.
This clicked for me in a powerful way today. I won’t go into details but my wife expressed via text that she was having a rough day. My initial response was one of stress/anxiety. How could I deal with her emotions when I’m just starting perhaps to reconnect with my own, the result being that yesterday, two days after the anniversary of my dad’s death 8 years ago, I sat at my desk at work doing everything I could to contain and repress an overwhelming urge to cry (this, by the way, was not a terribly therapeutic response on my part, but…capitalism). How could I deal with my wife’s emotions when I still feel that I’m in a “thin place” as I said to my therapist today? “Thin” places or spaces is a phrase that is sometimes used in theological language to describe the veil of separation between the physical and the spiritual. I’m using it here to describe the veil of separation between me and my own emotions. They seem more present to me now than they have in the past, perhaps because of some haphazard effort on my part of being “embodied.” Still, what happened today was that I had my response to my wife’s text, and crucially, I noticed it. I noticed that feeling and the thought that went along with it, and then I had another thought- I thought about differentiation. I remembered that I am not my wife. I remembered that I do not have to let her emotions inside me in a coercive way that would be indistinguishable from my own emotions. I remembered, to use language that my wife herself sometimes uses to describe how she tries to be differentiated from her patients at work, that her bad day is not my bad day. I was not trying to protect my “self” from my wife’s emotions; I was merely having a (differentiated) self. Nonetheless, the result was protective. Secure in my own self, I could risk being empathetic to her, and I was. After all, if empathy is about trying to imagine what it’s like to be in the (emotional) shoes of another, you have to have some sense of what it’s like to walk in one’s own shoes. So then empathy requires having a self too.
I said above that I thought differentiation and dissociation were closely related. The insight I recently had about this came as I reflected about traumatizing people in my life. In an undifferentiated state, their toxic thoughts and feelings felt as if they were inside me, as if I was having them too. For example, if they judge me as an unfit father, or worse, then I must be one. But how could I abide such a thought inside me as if it were my own when there was little actual justification for it? (A perfect father, I am not, of course, and no doubt the cycle of trauma and traumatization extends to my own children too, but I am working very hard to break this cycle and limit its impact. Am I unfit then? Not in the way that this toxic individual has judged me to be, at least.) In the face of this cognitive dissonance in my head, what do I do? I dissociate. Lack of differentiation has given this toxic individual prominence of place in my own head; so I again absent myself from my own body and am but a shell of the fully embodied person I could be. Tragically, it is this shell that I would then offer to my spouse and children as a “self” to attach to, and so the cycle of attachment disorder that is endemic to Western civilization continues. Thus the twin tasks of differentiation and embodiment is at the heart of the “essential work” of growing up emotionally I described above.
I may have more to say about what shape that “essential work” has taken in my own life of late- including some big news(!), but for now let me close with this. I think this, then, may finally begin to get at what is meant by saying that CAN is a “low anxiety” church. Differentiated, embodied selves are grounded, rooted and standing on their own two feet. We do not “need” each other in any existential sense. As I’ve long said, God made us in and for love, and so we are wholly for one another because love cannot exist in a vacuum. We likewise are meant to be interdependent, but we are interdependent in the way that a forest’s root system is interdependent. Individually the ground is solid beneath us, and beneath that ground, we share nutrients and resources so that together we can thrive. But these resources are given, not taken, and we do not anxiously seek our own self-protection. Living in the abundance of God’s abundant love and the more than ample resources of God’s good earth, we approach one another and build community and village life together because we like and love one another, not because we need one another to salve some deep-seated emotional wound or fill some psychological gap. I think our bulletin at CAN says that we are “a high risk, low anxiety church…so that we can be a church of all nations.” This is just so. As we brave the high risk of being our authentic, differentiated, embodied selves, anxiety dissipates on the high, hard ground of village life together. Such a life together is one in which capitalism is not really possible and violence is not necessary, and without capitalism and violence- that is, without empire- the “need” for nationalism dissipates too. Thus we can in fact be a “church of all nations.” Lord, let it be so.
Today on the Nomad Podcast I heard Shane Claiborne say that it was the belief in the early church that when Jesus disarmed Peter, he disarmed all Christians forever. I’ve heard this argument before (maybe from Shane, with whom I share Philadelphia roots, including in Circle of Hope), but it’s what he said next that brought tears to my eyes. He then talked about something that is a frequent conversation topic in my home and with my boys especially, the myth of redemptive violence. He said if ever there was a test case for the myth of redemptive violence, this is it- Peter defending the only truly innocent person that ever walked the face of the earth, Jesus. I then made the connection that may have been obvious to others but somehow escaped my visceral awareness at least, between the redemptive in the “myth of redemptive violence” and the redeemer, Jesus. When we talk about violence as somehow evil, regrettable, or bad- but as the lesser of two evils or as necessary to prevent a greater evil- we’re talking about the myth of redemptive violence. I think what we’re saying is that the use of violence is somehow redeemed by its necessity to restrain a greater violence or a greater evil.
What is missed in this argument is that if redemption is the end that the means are to bring about, there is no substitute for Jesus, and it’s terribly ironic that we would even try. One way of viewing the cross, after all, a way I increasingly prefer, is to see that on it Jesus absorbed the violence of the world without retaliating, thereby breaking the world’s endless cycle of violence forever. When we then take it (violence) up again, we commit a double offense. First, we (hopefully) unwittingly re-start the violent cycle the cross was meant to put an end to, and we commit idolatry by substituting a sinful tool for our savior, hoping that the tool (violence) can put a stop to sin (in the form of other violence), when in truth only Jesus can do that.
As we then try to find ourselves in the story of Jesus we forget who we are. We are not to be counted among the crucifiers; we are to be counted among the crucified. We don’t wield the violent Power of the state to restrain evil or for any other purpose. On the contrary, we take up our cross and follow Jesus to certain death. As I’ve also heard Shane say, we can’t simultaneously love our enemy and prepare to kill them (by taking up arms).
Lord, let us hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Dear Person I’m Close To Who “Loves Jesus and ‘Merica Too,”
First of all, wasn’t Tom Petty great? If you missed it, my salutation alludes to his song, “Free Fallin’.” Back in my more “fundagelical” days at Gordon College, an upperclassman once told me that he believed the music of Tom Petty would save the world, as it was blaring out his window toward the field outside our dorm. Maybe he was just trying to be provocative, but who can forget Tom’s memorable turn in The Postman (image above)? Anyway, there’s some growing tension between you and I as we share life together these days but have what seem to be wildly different values and mutually exclusive ideas about what it means to follow Jesus. So this is what I would say about all this to you, if I could.
I do believe that we have a common commitment to following Jesus, but what that life of discipleship looks like and where I think Jesus is heading is very different for me from what seems to be the case for you. For example, I don’t believe that the Christian life is primarily about escaping hell for a better life in heaven after we die. I believe following Jesus is about joining in the family business of reconciliation and renewal. Heaven isn’t someplace we fly away to when we die; heaven is the reality in which God’s rule is unquestioned, and at the end of time we don’t escape to heaven; heaven comes to earth. Jesus said the kingdom of God is upon you; it’s right here, even now. For those who would fully follow Jesus, heaven (the reality in which God’s rule is unquestioned) has already begun.
This has dramatic consequences for how we live right now. My family and I are not trying to hunker down in a Christian bubble and wait for everything to burn. We’re trying to live as if the God of the universe has already saved us, and nothing can separate us from his love. Therefore, we have nothing to fear. We will not be afraid of immigrants and refugees, for example. Everyone with white skin like ours are immigrants to this land, and there’s a sense in which all citizens of heaven are immigrants to that land too. As Jesus followers we are called to welcome strangers and to love neighbors and enemies alike. We will do so.
As Jesus followers and citizens of heaven, we know that we cannot serve two masters, and we know that we must look with clear, unflinching eyes at the truth of our history. An honest look at U.S. history, for example, cannot end with the conclusion that the U.S. has been mostly good for the world, with a few faults along the way. The U.S. is an empire very much like Rome in Jesus’ day, and an honest, unflinching look at the witness of Scripture reveals empire as a primary force that the people of God are called to resist.
In the U.S., and- because of U.S. colonialism and domination- therefore throughout the world, capitalism and violence go hand-in-hand as the tools of empire, used for the purpose of ordering the world in opposition to the will and reign of God.
Capitalism forms people as consumers who endlessly envy what some neighbors have and fear what other neighbors lack and might take from us, thereby making the poor especially our enemies. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove says this best, and this is one of my favorite passages from his book God’s Economy:
Meanwhile, the worldwide U.S. driven economy is consumer based and has been for some time. It would collapse if we stopped buying stuff. Therefore desire is manufactured in us along with the stuff that we’re constantly being taught to desire. We window shop at the altar of our screens, and will click “buy” the moment there’s enough funds in the bank or in our credit line. This makes us good consumers, and bad Christians.
Capitalism would not be possible without violence. It is a system that was constructed violently on the backs of slaves and through land theft from and the genocide of indigenous peoples, and it is maintained violently as wars are fought over oil (and someday, no doubt, water) and through the everyday violence that keeps some people rich and many more people very, very poor. This everyday violence can be seen in the militarization of local police forces and in a culture that fetishizes gun ownership and thereby makes every protest and horn honk a situation rife with deadly potential. Everyday violence is seen in the availability of good jobs and pay for some, but not others. Everyday violence is seen in the imposition of contrived scarcity. Capitalism assumes a world with scarce economic resources rather than the abundance of God’s economy and provision. When resources are scarce, self-(ish) interest is incentivized because if I don’t get what I need and want, somebody else will and it may no longer be there for me. So in such a world there is only so much good land and only so many good neighborhoods and jobs. In a scarce world, if I share what I have, I have less and what I’m left with may not be enough. So I must take and keep what’s “mine,” by force if necessary. In a scarce world, it’s easy to value things over people. In a scarce world, the poor become an enemy because they might want what I have, and might take it.
Jesus lived, ministered, died, was resurrected, and lives on today to save us from all of this.
We must do everything within our power to live according to this truth and to teach it to our children. The house I live in, therefore, must be one of frequent shared meals with others, especially those with fewer resources. My house must be a house of hospitality, with a bed ready to share with the one who may not have one. God’s kingdom is upon us, after all, if only we’ll live like Jesus really is Lord here and now, not Trump, not Putin, not Hillary or Obama or anyone else. Jesus is our President. Jesus is the head of our International Monetary Fund. Ceasar’s face and inscription may be on the coin of the land, but Jesus made the metal the coin was printed on. As God has given out of God’s abundance more than enough for all of us, let’s give back to God what belongs to God, which is everything, but especially our lives and allegiance. With Jesus as Lord, the poor will indeed always be with us because we are the ones who share God’s bounty so that the poor do not remain poor long, and we rich do not remain rich long. Let’s resist capitalism and the violence that created and maintains it, and so let us live like God’s kingdom really is here. Amen.
The image above is an actual one from my brother’s Facebook page, as are the images below. When he isn’t re-posting brainless memes about Hillary’s emails, abortion, the Supreme Court, and how being politically “liberal” in the U.S. is some kind of mental illness, my brother is praising “America” uncritically…
…bashing the “mainstream media…”
…or offering vague religious platitudes…
Hopefully this would go without saying, but calling political “liberalism” in the U.S. a mental illness presupposes any number of things, including that such a political persuasion is so inconceivable that the only way to make sense of it is to believe that there must be something wrong with anyone so persuaded. It also presupposes that having a mental illness is some sort of character flaw, and that this “flaw” makes your political persuasions less credible. Aside from a passing “hello” by speakerphone while talking with others I think on Christmas day, the last interaction I had with my brother was via a now defunct Facebook account. He had re-posted something inflammatory probably having to do with immigration, and I (I thought) gently challenged the facts of the argument he was repeating. I don’t recall attacking him or making anything personal; instead I kept coming back to the facts of what he was saying (or not), expounding on the actual history related to his argument, which very much undermined the point he was trying to make. He responded by saying I was “full of hate” and then unfriended and blocked me on Facebook. I quit Facebook altogether a short time later.
Today I have another Facebook account with a new email address that Kirsten and I use solely at this point to relate to our local faith community. So with that Facebook account I can see my brother’s profile and posts, most of which are public, and occasionally I indulge the impulse to look at them. Sadly, it is more of the same with him these days. He claims he didn’t vote for Trump, but obviously supports him. It would be unfathomable to him that, as a friend of mine says, every Christian who voted for Trump and still supports him after all he’s done in office is in “unrepentant sin.” He says he’s following Jesus and working for the kingdom of God, but is so devoted to a “conservative” U.S. political ideology that it’s hard to distinguish his secular politics from his faith. He would probably accuse me of the same on the “liberal” end of the U.S. political spectrum. I would like to make the case that while that may have been true of me in the past, it is no longer. The failure of the Obama administration to live up to its own ideals, and the subsequent “election” of Trump, have served effectively to remind me of where my hope lies and what I am to expectantly work for- the coming of God’s kingdom, which is not of this world. Even as Trump separates refugee children from their parents, denaturalizes those already granted citizenship, and discharges members of the military who were promised citizenship in exchange for their service, it is nonetheless true that it is Obama who came to be known as the “deporter in chief.” It is Obama who ramped up drone warfare to unparalleled levels, handing off this death dealing apparatus to the Trump administration. It is Obama who fought hard to improve the economic outlook not of the poorest of the poor around the world and in the U.S., but of the “middle class” (which is to say nothing of the elites) who helped get him into power and keep him there. For all these reasons and more, it didn’t take long for me to be disabused of any notion that the election of Obama, however historic it might have been, would usher in God’s kingdom any faster.
In the end, it was evident that Obama was just another tool of empire, effectively used to mostly perpetuate the status quo for the powers that be. Now, it is undeniable (though some will try to deny it) that things are demonstrably worse under Trump and are getting worse still. Nonetheless, it seems clear now that we could not gave gotten to Trump without Obama. The domination system will have its way regardless of which U.S. political party is in power. For all these reasons, “our hope must be built on nothing less” than Jesus and his kingdom come.
That said, how, then, shall we live? I understand the partisan nature of almost all media. Some lean “right;” some lean “left.” (Almost) all are driven by the profit motive, and so serve the anti-Jesus powers that be. That is, they serve Mammon. That said, I believe my brother has been almost brainwashed by Fox News, Breitbart, and their ilk. He’s constantly lied to and shaped by the stories he’s told so that he will remain a good foot soldier for the cause of “American” exceptionalism and a kind of faith that (from where I sit) seems mostly about escaping hell, being nice, and earning your own way in “the land of the free.” For the record, to my knowledge, my brother doesn’t have a job, but I digress.
He might say that, to whatever extent I still tune in to MSNBC or watch Democracy Now!, I have been brainwashed by a steady stream of stories about Trump’s collusion with Russia, his constant scandals, his efforts to be the un-Obama which have the effect of rolling back many initiatives that might in some small way help the poor or marginalized, etc. I should mention that there’s a false equivalence there between MSNBC and Democracy Now! since MSNBC is definitely for-profit and Democracy Now! is not; still, my brother would say both lean “left.” He would call any reporting about Trump ties to white supremacists “fake news.” I would say the same of “birther-ism.” What, then, can we possibly have to say to one another?
Perhaps more importantly, why am I writing about this? I’m realizing that I’m angry at my brother, at least at some unprocessed surface level. His wild accusation toward me and abrupt ending of our relationship, at least on Facebook, stings, and this isn’t the first time he’s done this sort of thing. As our dad was dying, I led the way in really paying attention to what was going on, having frank conversations with the doctors, etc., and so was the first to advocate that hospice care should commence and no longer productive medical interventions should stop. I contacted a hospice agency, and started the ball rolling for services to start. As this was progressing, my brother and sisters (they’re all much older half-siblings) began paying attention and talked with one of the doctors separately. They said they believed they heard that doctor saying that we weren’t “there” (ready for hospice) yet, but in the event that things would progress to that point soon, they set up hospice care with a different agency. Along the way, they accused me of basically trying to kill our dad. My brother led this charge.
A very short time later, a new report from the doctor confirmed that treatments were not working and future treatments were not likely to. In other words, it was, indeed, time for hospice. My brother (and sisters) apologized to me, but it rang hollow, and I suppose it still does. Since my dad’s death 7 years ago, my subconscious at least has been trying to work all this out…in my dreams. I’ve dreamed, for example, that my dad had chosen to be cremated, and it was common practice for the family of those being cremated to place the bodies on a moving conveyor belt that leads directly into the furnace in which the bodies are burned. In my dream, I’m placing my dad on the conveyor belt…while he’s still alive. He does not seem alarmed about this, but my siblings are frantically trying to save him as I’m literally apparently trying to kill him. In another dream I had just a few days ago on the occasion of what would have been my dad’s 86th birthday, he’s dying, and he asks to come live with Kirsten and I and our family in the home in New Brighton we just bought…so that he can die there. We agree to this, but the only accessible bedroom (on the main floor with easy access to the front door, kitchen, living and dining room, a bathroom, etc.) is occupied, as indeed it is, by Kirsten’s mom. There’s a lot to be unpacked in both of those dreams, but going back to the first one, it clearly is related to my brother’s accusation I described above. This, I suppose, is no small part of why I may have some anger that I haven’t fully dealt with yet.
Be that as it may, I came across a saying recently (on Facebook, of all places) that I found revelatory. It goes: “I sat with my anger long enough, and she told me her real name is grief.” I read that and felt like I had been punched in the gut. How much of my anger is really grief related to un(fully)processed trauma? There is so much to grieve, after all, just in my own lifetime, which is to say nothing of the unprocessed trauma I carry in my bones as a descendant of British, German, and Russian Jewish ancestors. In my own lifetime, there was the loss of my childhood as I was parentified at the hands of my abusive, emotionally infantile mother. There was the fracturing of relationships among my dad’s first family after his first wife died and he married my mom. I do have siblings, after all, but their mother’s death and my mother’s abuse as she basically commandeered their family is a trauma from which none of them have ever recovered.
I know I can’t change my brother; yet I continue to find myself angered by his ignorant (to put it charitably) rhetoric, even though none of it is directed at me. His public support for Trump enables a would-be despot who is literally doing real harm to folks the Christian faith my brother and I purportedly share are called to love, serve, and be hospitable to. My brother’s castigation of those who don’t hold his views as “mentally ill” is demeaning to those who actually have a mental illness and betrays the feebleness of his point of view. If you can’t defend your opinions by citing actual (vetted) facts and hopefully with an appeal to what’s right and just not only for you but for your neighbor; if, instead, you have to resort to character assassination and bigoted attempts to destroy your opponents’ credibility, you probably need to rethink your opinions. All that said, no one could tell him any of that. He would deflect, defend, retrench, and probably lash out blindly. So it does neither myself nor him any good to talk with him about this, and we’re not exactly on speaking terms; thus, here I am blogging about it.
It probably goes without saying that the least, if not best, I can do here is to refrain from indulging the impulse to gawk at the car crash that is my brother’s Facebook feed. More than that, one of the appeals I would make to him, were we to ever have a constructive conversation about any of this, is to the notion that as Jesus followers we are called to love our neighbor (even/especially our globally poor ones), and as Jesus followers we are called to love our enemies. So however we might think of someone, our duty is to love them. Of course then I must apply this to myself. If, being brutally honest, I would think of my brother more as an enemy than a friend, my stance toward him should be the same. I must love him. What does that look like in this situation? We’ve never had a “regular” relationship. He’s nearly 20 years older than I am. He’s never taken an interest in me in the form of maintaining contact with me, checking in on how I’m doing, or otherwise being in any way invested or involved in my life. Does loving him mean that I should be the better man and make such efforts toward him, even if unreciprocated? I don’t know. Might loving him mean that I simply let sleeping dogs lie and grieve not only the loss of our father but also the relationship that I never had with my brother, and likely never will have? He’ll be 63 this year, and his health isn’t stellar. Shall I simply wait until he dies, and then wrestle with whether to make the journey to TX for his funeral, to formally mourn a man I hardly knew- and who certainly never really knew me- who therefore was never really a brother to me and who mostly acted in unloving ways toward myself and others? I suppose time will tell. What I know for sure is that whether he’s an enemy, a friend, or something in between, again I’m called to love him. Now I just have to figure out how.
I’m probably a bit late in seeking to chime in on Trump’s latest immigration atrocity (including, now, his administration’s efforts to discharge immigrant members of the armed forces and to mobilize a “denaturalization” task force), and I don’t think I have anything substantive to add to the conversation, especially as a middle-class (by USAmerican standards) “white” male. Still, I’m reminded of something that A.J. Muste (pictured above) is reported to have said. According to Wikipedia, Muste “was a Dutch-born American clergyman and political activist…best remembered for his work in the labor movement, pacifist movement, antiwar movement, and the Civil Rights Movement.” In other words, he’s my kind of guy. I heard it reported that Muste, while demonstrating during the Civil Rights movement, was asked if he thought his demonstrating would change the country. He said that’s not why he was doing it. Instead, he said, he was “demonstrating so that his country wouldn’t change him.” I think the same logic applies here too. I’ve said before that I often write to discover what I think. Perhaps I also do it to remind myself, if no one else, of who I am. I do it, on the rare occasion I do these days, not because I think my writing will change the country or even a single other person’s mind, but instead so that in these perilous times “my” country doesn’t change me. I started this post two weeks ago, and said then that I don’t know how you can observe the pictures and stories in the news of late and not be moved by them. I certainly am. Kirsten had asked me then how I was doing, likely referring to the pain and swelling from my torn left meniscus (I had surgery on a torn right meniscus a couple of years ago; now I need it on the left), which was recently exacerbated dramatically by all the heavy lifting and physical labor I’ve been doing to get ourselves moved into our new home and then to get Kirsten’s mom moved in too. She might also have been referring to the stress and fatigue of all those transitions just mentioned, especially related to integrating Kirsten’s mom into our new home and figuring out all of the “new normals” that go along with that; she could have meant any number of things. What I told her was that I was feeling alternately sad, angry, and determined. Interestingly, that range of emotion is probably appropriate for all of the circumstances outlined above, not the least of which is Trump’s family separation (and now, indefinite family detention on military bases) policy.
The cold calculation of Trump’s policy is, indeed, infuriating. This land is not my land, or your land, or anyone else’s. The indigenous people of North America regard it, unless I’ve misunderstood, as sacred unto itself. Christian Scripture speaks of it as “groaning” in anticipation of its own redemption. There is an obviously alive quality to it that gives one pause when thinking of it as, indeed, an “it” rather than an “other.” Regardless, for (some of) my ancestors to claim this land by force, commit genocide against its native inhabitants, cultivate and develop it with slave labor in order to turn it into the wealthiest country the world has ever known, and then for their descendants to have the gall to hold it by force and draw lines and erect boundaries in order to decide who can come here, and when, and under what circumstances is an affront altogether worthy of my anger, sadness, and determination. Whey they enforce these arbitrary “laws” with a “zero tolerance” policy that rips babies from their mother’s breast and separates children from families with no plans or infrastructure for ever reuniting them, it is all the more galling still, especially because there is a causal link between our relative affluence and safety here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. and the poverty and violence in other countries that would cause some to undergo the dangerous trek to get here in order to seek asylum. (See, for example, this now 4 year old story that only begins to explore the U.S.’ destabilizing and impoverishing effect on its southern neighbors.)
And I can’t help but see a causal link between all that and what’s happening in my own home. As I alluded to above, we have a new home. After spending the past year working so hard to “get small” by giving up as much power, privilege, and possessions as we could so that we could get closer to experiencing life from “under” the oppression of the dominators (of whom we are a part) rather than “over” it, which is our default stance given our inherited “white” privilege and economic power; after coming to learn that solidarity with those under the oppression of the dominators requires proximity to them; after realizing how selfishly we had been living for so very long and making all the changes necessary to get out of debt and move into position to be radically generous and hospitable once we had done so; after all that, here we are as home”owners” again with a house in the ‘burbs, smartphones, two cars, etc. Granted, our second car before was a very expensive one with a very bad loan that we would have spent years repaying, but with the help of our faith community we paid it off and sold it, and our second car now is 11 years old with over 140,000 miles on it which we paid for all at once in cash. Still, we have all the trappings of a very privileged life.
And traps they most certainly are. We cut short our plans to be fully debt free (except for student loan debt, which we may die with) by the end of this year when Kirsten’s younger sister moved away, leaving us as the only viable family nearby both able and willing to give care to Kirsten’s mom. Then, the owner of the house Kirsten’s mom has been living in said she needed to sell it, and suddenly we found ourselves springing into action. Kirsten’s mom has declining health and mobility, and it just seemed to be obvious that we should try to get into a house that she could move into with us. She has lived with us before; so we knew there would be challenges, but it seemed to be the right thing to do. One of the commands of Jesus that we’ve come back to time and again over the past year in our journey of “getting small” is his directive to give to those who ask of us. We felt ourselves being asked, even if implicitly. So we got ourselves in a position to give. When we found a small house with a finished basement and attic that had been divided into 6(!) bedrooms with three small ones in the basement that our little family of four could live in; one main floor bedroom with a bathroom and the kitchen and living room nearby that Kirsten’s mom could live in; and two more upstairs bedrooms that could serve as a guest room and maybe an office, we believed we had found a house that aligned with our values of radical generosity and hospitality, even if it was in the ‘burbs and would make us more proximate to the dominators than those dominated. The house is still very close to our faith community, and by all accounts it’s a modest home (by “white” USAmerican standards). Its footprint is small (though there is a big back yard); there’s nothing “fancy” about it. In fact, it needs some work, but our hope is that it will serve us well as Kirsten’s mom lives with us for now by allowing us to still be hospitable and generous, and in the future, it could give lots of options for communal living.
So by the grace of God and in recognition of our “white” privilege, we secured a loan, bought the house, and moved in. Since then we’ve worked tirelessly to get it ready for Kirsten’s mom: painting her room with multiple coats; ripping up carpet and refinishing her wood floor; replacing a door I had broken while ripping up carpet; replacing the main floor bathroom vanity, sink, and faucet to make the bathroom more accessible to her and then dealing with the resulting plumbing issues; replacing some non-functioning kitchen appliances; and the list goes on. Kirsten’s mom moved in now a few weekends ago. She’s coming from a three bedroom house that was entirely full of just her stuff, and moving from that whole house with all those rooms into basically just a bedroom in our house, and a smaller one at that. She’s made a genuine effort to pare down and give away some of that stuff she had, but our now shared home has still been awash in the sea of all the stuff she brought, and daily it’s been a struggle to bail out. Part of the “paring down” process she’s engaged in has involved offering random things to our kids, including a jar full of sea shells, some framed nondescript scenic background pictures, etc. This all led to a situation recently in which our Xbox owning, expensive YMCA summer program attending boys were arguing over who was getting which of grandma’s framed random scenic pictures; meanwhile, migrant 4-year-olds from Central America are sleeping in cages courtesy of the U.S. government and “my” taxpayer dollars, while their parents are on the fast track to deportation, all so that coal miners in W. Virginia can be distracted from learning the real reason for their declining job prospects, and my heart is ready to burst.
God, help us. Forgive us for all the times our actions make clear that we value things more than people. Forgive us for all the ways we continue to benefit from privilege afforded to us unjustly. Forgive us for how easily we fall back under the spell of Mammon, for how readily we accept a wealthy lifestyle afforded by capitalism and created and maintained by violence. Many, many times over the past year I spoke of capitalism/Mammon and violence as the two forces I saw most powerfully at work these days (and probably in all days) doing all they can to thwart and resist the ever coming kingdom of God. It’s actually kind of ironic. We who would resist the “new world order” are seen as just that, resisters working over and against the dominant forces in the world today. Confoundingly, in truth it is those who seek to maintain this brutal world order founded on that which is not God’s rule, that which is not God’s economy of Jubilee- it is they who are the resisters; they are the ones fighting an inevitably lost cause. It may not seem that way most days, but I don’t doubt for a second that it’s true. God’s kingdom of love and justice will come. God’s will, will be done on earth just as it is in heaven because heaven will come to earth and is doing so even now. We who would really follow Jesus then must be constantly reminded, and must remind ourselves as I hope I am doing now- that we are people from the future; we are a foretaste of the feast to come. We are to embody the new reality that God is birthing by being an alternative to what the sin-sick world has to offer.
Wake us up, Lord, and give us boldness to live with radical generosity and hospitality, with radical love and acceptance, in S. Texas, in the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem, in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., and in my own little home in the ‘burbs. Amen.
Note: I wrote this post a year ago on Palm Sunday. I confess that I haven’t been feeling very free of late, and any dutiful reader of this blog is well aware that my writing has been sparse lately. I’m not a musician, but I can relate to the singer whose song has been taken from him. I will find my voice again soon, I pray. Meanwhile, this is as relevant as ever.
I woke up primed for Holy Week, which begins today with Palm Sunday and the remembrance of Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. The crowds were ready to anoint him king in their hope that he was the Messiah, the one who would violently overthrow Rome’s occupying power and “make Israel great again.” Of course, once they realized that his “kingdom” was simultaneously “upon us” but also “not of this world-” and that therefore he would not overthrow the Roman occupiers violently- the crowd quickly turned on Jesus and would soon join in encouraging that same foreign occupying power and the complicit religious leaders of Israel in their plan to execute Jesus. Usually we rich would-be “Christians” of European descent spiritualize all this, taking it to mean that the kingdom Jesus inaugurated, the love revolution he began, is a strictly a matter for the heart in the present age as we await the age to come “in the sweet by and by.” But as with so many things, this is more of a “both/and” than an “either/or.” We cannot take the inauguration of Jesus’ kingdom- symbolized in the inauguration of Jesus’ ministryas he announced the fulfillment of “good news to the poor,” the proclamation of “freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,” the setting free of “the oppressed,” and the proclamation of “the year of the Lord’s favor”- to mean simply that God wants to save us from personal immorality so that we can enjoy a heavenly retirement plan. Nor, on the other hand, can we take it to mean that God has nothing to say about spiritual realities and our own broken spirits.
Surely Jesus wants to save us from the “sin that so easily entangles” so that we can “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” This “salvation” is very “personal,” indeed. Likewise, it is very communal, and very, very political. This is the tension we must always keep before us, and it was with that tension in mind that I read Circle of Hope‘s daily prayer this morning, which focuses, rightly, on Jesus’ “triumphal entry” to Jerusalem that we remember on Palm Sunday. The post is good enough to join the featured poet, Malcolm Guite, in envisioning the…”final leg of the journey of Lent” and reminding us “that Holy Week is both about the Lord’s outward, visible, historical entry into Jerusalem for Passover Week and what he did there; but it is also is about his entry into the city in each of us where God claims his residence and what he will do there.” The post…
…lets the outer story of Palm Sunday present some questions to our inner lives. Will I welcome Jesus to be the King in my heart? Is my inner city occupied and governed by a foreign power? Are inoffensive rituals practiced in my temple that do not offend the rulers? Has buying and selling colonized the space where there should be prayer? Are there crowds in me who are swayed this way and that by whoever seems most compelling or powerful? Can I welcome Jesus into all of that?
Something powerful is happening here. The tension I spoke of above is held and allowed to speak to us all the more powerfully because it is maintained. Yes, we must welcome Jesus to be “King” in our “heart,” but to do so requires us to wonder if our “inner city” is “occupied and governed by a foreign power,” if “inoffensive rituals” practiced in our temple “do not offend the rulers,” and if “buying and selling” has “colonized the space where there should be prayer.” These are terribly communal, political realities.
Then, of course, the post ended by reminding us that it’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer day over at the Transhistorical Body of Christ blog that Circle of Hope maintains. Being a Bonhoeffer “fan” and appreciating the witness of the “great cloud of witnesses” that Circle reminds us of through this blog, I clicked over to read about Bonhoeffer, again. Guess what the “Bible reading and excerpt” that most of these Circle of Hope devotional posts start with was? I can’t make this stuff up; it was:
Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
If you’ve been reading this blog for the past few months, you’ll know that I can’t turn around these days without bumping into this passage. It forms the basis of probably the most memorable part, for me, from God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel, in which Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove said:
Whatever our political persuasion, we’re always tempted to blame our political enemies for the troubles in the world and think that real change will happen when the policies we endorse are put into practice. But whatever good we might effect on a national or global scale, we can be sure that it will come with unintended negative consequences. Not so with relational generosity, however. Jesus doesn’t teach us to practice relational generosity because it will “fix” the poor. He invites us to give to whoever asks so we might be children of our Father in heaven. Yes, God’s love transforms lives. We know this from our own experience and from the testimony of others. But God doesn’t ask us to change people- God asks us to love people. When we share with one who asks, we are changed. Little by little, we grow into the love of our Father, whose love is perfect.
Here’s Jonathan talking about this, in a little video about, of all things, Lent:
Jonathan’s good to remind us that the passage from Matthew in which Jesus tells us to give to the one who asks comes in the midst of Jesus talking about enemy love. He says this is a “cue” to those of us who have money that in some way the poor are our enemies. I have felt this to be true in my own life, to my great shame. I may not want to think of the poor as enemies, but because like the rich young ruler I have so much (worldly wealth) to lose, I see the poor and am afraid, afraid that they may in some way take what I have (illicitly) gotten. Sharing with those in need invites me to have my imagination renewed and my mind transformed so that I can see that I have something to learn, to see that I am in my own way just as impoverished as those who lack the basic resources I so readily take for granted. I like the quote Jonathan speaks of in the video above as well, that “People come to Christian community because they want to help the poor; they stay in Christian community because they realize that they are the poor.” We are, indeed.
Similarly, as my Lenten journey has been about, in part, learning better to follow “that preacher of peace” so that I may be discipled in the ways of nonviolence and peacemaking, I’ve found that there is an inextricable connection between peacemaking/enemy love and the call to participate in God’s economy that so much of the Sermon on the Mount deals with. This has come up over and over again in the books I’ve been reading for Lent: A Farewell to Mars and Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace and now as I’ve started The Politics of Jesus. It came up in Circle of Hope’s Transhistorical Body of Christ post about Bonhoeffer today too. They note that we remember Bonhoeffer today because he “was executed on this day in 1945, two weeks before US soldiers liberated his prison camp. He is largely considered a martyr for the faith, for peace, and as a Nazi resister. Among two of his most influential works are Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship.” This takes a little teasing out, but bear with me. The post also says the following in speaking of Bonhoeffer’s response to the rise of the Nazi party:
Bonhoeffer was overtly critical of the regime and a resister from the beginning. While Hitler and the Nazis infiltrated and found a stronghold in the German church, Bonhoeffer was building something new in Germany through the Confessing Church. After only a few months under Nazi control, Bonhoeffer moved to London to work on international ecumenical work, highly frustrated with the state of the German church.
Two years later, rather than going to study non-violent civil disobedience under Ghandi he returned to Germany at the repeated pleading and demanding of Swiss theologian…Karl Barth. The Confessing Church was under fire by the Nazis. Barth was sent back to Switzerland. Bonhoeffer soon lost his credentials to teach because he was a “pacifist and enemy of the state.” He began underground seminaries and further resisted the state.
Bonhoeffer became more involved in direct resistance and was arrested in 1943. He was part of a group that was responsible both for attempts at liberating Jews and attempting to assassinate Hitler. His pacifism has been widely written about, especially in light of this glaring contradiction.
Bonhoeffer’s whole life was pointed in the direction of nonviolent resistance to state power, precisely because of the way in which Jesus had “saved” him. Obviously, there was a notable exception to this direction in which his life pointed, and responding to that is beyond the scope of this particular post. But I do want to highlight the link between Bonhoeffer’s life of peacemaking/enemy love, and the “life together” which is a necessary component of it. As the Transhistorical Body of Christ post from Circle of Hope noted, Bonhoeffer’s short and powerful book Life Together is one of the two that he is most known for, and I suspect that Christian community was so important to him because Bonhoeffer knew, as I keep saying, that we just can’t do this alone. Following Jesus means continuing to resist “the powers” that he has already defeated. To do so without resorting to “cheap grace” quite simply “takes a village.” As Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove reminded us in the quote he spoke of in the clip above, “we stay in Christian community” when we realize that “we are the poor.” Participating in God’s economy requires us to pass on the many good gifts God has given us, and as Miroslav Volf reminds us, this is a communal act. And it is an act that is as hard for we rich as peacemaking and enemy love are for we who have been brought up in a culture as violent as the U.S.’ Isn’t it clear that we need a Savior?
The writer(s) of the “Transhistorical” post about Bonhoeffer end it with the following “suggestions for action:”
Bonhoeffer applied himself to unmasking the lies of his culture and the ideologies that took God’s place. It was not easy, since the church was generally in line with them. In spite of state threat and lack of support from the church, he took risks to teach the truth, even moving back to Germany when it was not safe and he would have been safer elsewhere.
That kind of courage is demonstrated in the Bible repeatedly by people whose loves (lives?) are trained on God. What threat do you feel from those you know and from the great “other” of the powers that be when it comes to expressing your faith in word and deed? Pray for courage.
All these thoughts were again swimming in my head as I did a little more reading and research about Palm Sunday this morning. While doing so, I came across this amazing post, “Palm Sunday is the Most Political Sunday,” from Trip Fuller’s blog. It’s short and worth a read, in fact so short and so worth the read that I give you most of it here, in which the author, Bo Sanders, begins by discussing the “politics of Palm Sunday:”
The Jewish people were under occupation. Roman occupation was especially repressive and brutal.
The last time that the Jewish people had been free and self-governed also meant that they had their own currency. On their big coin, a palm branch was prominently displayed.
Laying down palm branches ahead of a man riding a colt/donkey was an act of defiance and an aggressive political statement…
(like saying)… “We want to be free. This guy is going to change things and restore what was lost.”
Having children wave palm branches in the equivalent to teaching a child to stick up her middle finger in anger… only more political.
I am troubled by the lack of context regarding the palms of Palm Sunday. It reeks of both willful ignorance and religious disconnect.
In so many ways we have sanitized, sterilized and compartmentalized the teaching of scriptures. We proudly and loudly defend the Bible – all the while neglecting the actual reality talked about in that Bible.
We complain that Christmas and Easter have been commercialized and secularized all the while partaking of the consumerism and cultural complacency that those two celebrations are meant to challenge!
Palm Sunday might be the most flagrant example of this ignorance and misappropriation. Palm Sunday is call for revolution against the powers of oppression, the systems and institutions that occupy foreign lands and repress its citizens with unjust practices and economic policies.
Palm Sunday is the most political Sunday of the year – but in our more therapeutic approach that assumes empire and concedes political realities in favor of spiritual ones, the meaning is lost.
This is not just symbolic but emblematic of our watered-down, imperial, and impotent brand of christianity.
We do this with everything. Cornell West and Tavis Smiley are talking about how we will do it with the Dr. King celebrations this coming year. They are calling it the Santa-Clause-ification of MLK. He will be a man with dream but little else … and his politics will be lost in the focus on children not being judged by the color of their skin but on the content of their character.
Just think about this: what would it take for us next year, to teach our children to drop the palm-branches and lift their middle fingers? What would we have to believe about oppression and empire to reclaim the original intent of the palms on Palm Sunday?
I’m not saying that we should do that – I am trying to utilize it to get at how much we have assumed, conceded and ignored about the political realities that we find ourselves caught up in.
What conversations would we have to have with our kids about:
politics of empire
in order to explain why they were laying down palm branches or raising their middle fingers to the powers that be?
There seems to be a theme here, doesn’t there, in the all these Palm Sunday musings? Do you want to continue participating in a “watered-down, imperial, and impotent brand of christianity” that “assumes empire and concedes political realities in favor of spiritual ones?” I, for one, can’t and won’t, and so was compelled to share on Facebook (again, God help me for even being on FB again at all) that post from Trip Fuller’s blog and say about it:
Palm Sunday is the most political Sunday. If only the palms our kids will wave were understood to be middle fingers waved at the powers-that-be…Of course, it bears noting that the U.S. is an occupying force not just in countries around the world, but in North “America.” To really understand the political implications of Palm Sunday, we’d have to imagine a charismatic Indigenous leader processing into Washington, D.C. over trampled U.S. flags, or something like it. This might help us understand what was expected of Jesus, and how he defied those expectations with a revolution that was no less “real” or significant because it was non-violent.
As Kirsten and I discussed this on the way to Mill City Church‘s worship gathering, I noted that whether the power in question is Rome or “America,” Jesus has defeated them through the inauguration of his kingdom and especially through his death on the cross and resurrection which we look forward to in the coming Holy Week. Their reign is at an end. Jesus is Lord; Caesar/Obama/Clinton/Trump/Wells Fargo/Google are not. Jesus is “one like a son of God;” Caesar/the U.S. are not. Again as I said above, Jesus defied the expectations of those who hoped during the triumphal entry that he would violently overthrow Rome with a revolution that was no less “real” or significant because it was non-violent. In fact, because it is non-violent it is all the more powerful. If you live by or secure your “power” by the sword, you can die by it and lose your “power” in the same way. But if you are a citizen of God’s kingdom, a subject of the one true King and so have been “freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to you” and so are “a grateful slave to the salvation that Jesus is working into us,” then “the powers” have suffered a fate worse than military defeat. They have been made irrelevant.
Those who have been so freed will indeed have the courage of Bonhoeffer, or a MLK, Jr., etc. They will have the courage to “get small” because “solidarity requires proximity” as I and my family have been learning. They will have the courage to give to whomever asks and see the poor as their teachers and friends because those so freed have been so faithfully sharing what God gives them that they don’t have so many material goods to “lose” anyway. They will have the courage to see that capitalism is just another ‘ism Jesus wants to save us from (like socialism and all the others you might name). If the Son has set them free, they will be free indeed. It’s why I’ve been thinking a lot about this old song from the Circle of Hope community that they were good enough to put online. Give it a listen, will you? Freedom is coming. Thanks be to God.
I’m still long overdue for a post of my own. Meanwhile, I came across this piece this morning by Christopher Lebron in the Boston Review. It’s a powerful critique of the new Black Panther film. I confess that I’ve been tempted to see Black Panther, despite my ever challenging commitment to resist violence in all its forms, including and especially the way I choose to entertain myself. Violence is so utterly pervasive in our society, and the myth of redemptive violence so firmly entrenched in our culture that it is never given a first- let alone a second- thought (even/especially by would-be Jesus followers). Thus it is not surprising that a movie that purports to be at least in some way about black power would necessarily also be a movie about black violence. Unfortunately, Black Panther turns out to be a movie that reinforces tropes about black-on-black violence. Haven’t we had enough of those already?
Black Panther is, of course, a comic book/superhero movie, and thus could not exist without again reinforcing the myth of redemptive violence. As Christopher Lebron says in the Boston Review piece linked above, “After all, what else do comic-book heroes do but dispense justice with their armored fists and laser rifles?” I’ve read other reviews, such as this one in the NY Post, that inevitably compare T’Challa, the title character of Black Panther, to MLK, Jr. and Killmonger, the black villain, to Malcolm X. As the NY Post author says: “T’Challa, though, is a pacifist, the Martin Luther King Jr. to Killmonger’s Malcolm X.” Missing here is any thoughtful nuance, such as the recognition that MLK, Jr. was no mere pacifist, but a practitioner of nonviolent resistance. This is a distinction with a monumental difference. Moreover, in the very next sentence, the Post author, Sara Stewart, writes: “Killmonger and T’Challa face off in combat for the crown” (of Wakanda, the fictional African country that Black Panther calls home). If T’Challa were truly the Martin to Killmonger’s Malcolm, he would not have engaged in a brawl to get/maintain power. That’s violent resistance, not nonviolent resistance. But I digress. The Boston Review piece is really worth the read. I recommend it heartily.
I’m long overdue for a post, and one is coming. Meanwhile, Advent is here, and once again amidst all the distractions, we wait expectantly for something new to be born in the world, for love and peace and joy and hope to come anew, for God to be with us. Lord, let it be so.
If my math is right there are over 30 (nearly 40, if memory serves) posts on the Circle of Hope blog about “alternativity.” I now have a few posts as well in which I mention or allude to it. What is alternativity? Responding to the blatant racism of the current presidential administration (as opposed to the more subtle racism of some of the recent previous ones), Rod White, the Development pastor of Circle of Hope, tries to answer the question of “what do we do?” in response to the oppressive domination of “the powers” and the complicity of all too many would-be Jesus followers in that oppression. He says:
The answer comes from being the Body of Christ, not just a reaction or a resistance, but an alternative reality.
Scarcity is met with mutuality and generosity in the body of Christ. We will have to do better than to think about it. But we are trying.
Fear-mongering is met with trust in what God puts together, not in what the invisible hand creates. We’ll need to integrate our faith into the actions of our daily life more. But we are trying.
Foolishness is met with truth telling, just like Paul boldly states the new reality Jesus is making. We’ll have to listen to the Spirit directly and in one another and test it out, not just flee, resist and resent. But we are trying.
Alternativity is the word we use to sum it all up. We are trying to live in it. Deactivating Twitter is my act of defiance as much as self-preservation. Tackling the health care debacle is about perseverance as much as survival. Writing this little post, complaining about our terrible experiences, griping about Charlottesville, denouncing Trump, quoting Paul, insisting that there are better ways and that we are living them right now is how I keep myself on track. And I hope it has helped you, too. We have an alternative reality to build with Jesus, and it can’t wait for things to get better.
Circle of Hope has a habit of getting together face-to-face from time to time to “do theology.” The results of some of those conversations show up on their The Way of Jesus site (an incredible resource for Jesus followers worth plumbing the depths of). Thus, in May of last year, as primary season was winding down during the presidential election, they posted on The Way of Jesus a reflection based on their conversation about the relationship between God’s kingdom and the powers. They say:
When we do theology about elections we run into the line that has always separated Reformed Christianity from Anabaptist. The Reformed Christians can be called part of “magisterial” Protestantism, retaining the sense of “magisterium” that also marks Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox members of the Church. Alistair McGrath says that reformers like Luther and Calvin, who had a huge influence in European and American forms of the church, taught that, “The magistrate had a right to authority within the church, just as the church could rely on the authority of the magistrate to enforce discipline, suppress heresy, or maintain order.” In addition, the term magister relates to the emphasis on authoritative teachers. Often this is seen in the names of theological schools descending from magisterial reformers (i.e. Lutheran and Calvinist).
“Radical” reformers, who were later called Anabaptists, thought the church had fallen from grace and wanted to restore it. They traced the root of the fall to point of the fusion of church and society of which Constantine was the architect, Eusebius the priest, Augustine the apologete, and the Crusades and Inquisition the culmination.
When Constantine claimed Christianity, he turned the church right-side up, so to speak, from its former upside-down reputation. He consciously thought he was baptizing the empire. Perhaps his motives were good. Many Christians in his day, like the historian of the Church, Eusebius, thought he was the gift of God to end persecution and to honor the faithfulness of the church as it triumphed over the evils of Rome. Christians in Constantine’s empire extolled him as their champion. Bishops personally escorted him into battle against rival nations. The church quickly adapted to this new opportunity and used empire means to achieve Kingdom ends. The adaptation meant the end of God-ordained, missional non-alignment with imperial powers.
The Anabaptist’s disgust with Constantinianism is not about the sincerity with which Constantinian Christians use top-down, coercive, worldly power or about the goodness of the ends toward which they wield such power. The shift labeled “Constantinian” is the willingness of God’s people to deform their specific God-given identity by merging with worldly power structures and using top-down, coercive, worldly power to accomplish what God has given his people to do without such power.
How do they know that the Constantinian way can and must not be equated with “the way of Jesus?” Well, they look to Scripture, for starters:
Jesus demonstrably did not take the same route as Constantine, although he received the title king.
When the Messiah came, he distanced himself from the Jerusalem establishment (John 2:13–21).
Jesus did not reconstitute Israel land-based empire based in Palestine but prepared his people to be scattered across the world by his Spirit (John 4: 21– 24; Acts 1: 8).
Jesus unmasked the powers’ claims to be benefactors and self-consciously adopted the suffering servant posture (Luke 22:25– 27).
Jesus proclaimed a kingdom whose citizens are committed to peacemaking, enemy love, and transnational disciple-making (Matt 5: 38– 48, 28: 19).
Previously scattered Jews from as far back as Jeremiah’s time formed synagogues throughout the world that became central to the church’s missionary expansion (Acts 9:19-22, 14:1, 17:1– 3).
The earliest Christians viewed themselves as aliens, exiles, strangers, and dispersed ones (Jas 1: 1; 1 Pet 1: 1, 2: 11-12) whose citizenship is in heaven as opposed to Rome or Jerusalem (Phil 3: 17-21).
Finally, then, they conclude that “We are pretty much descendants of Anabaptists and the pre-Constantine church.” Then, while offering some ever helpful reminders such as “The Bible can’t really be seen if it is read from an empire perspective,” they offer this nugget, which brings us back to alternativity:
The main way we respond to the ways of the world is to build the alternative: the Kingdom of God being lived out as the people of God, the church. We go to the system from the church and return to the church. We hope the grace we bring transforms and changes the world, but when we are not assured of that, we know who we are and where we come from and we preserve the possibilities of a better world by existing.
That’s it, right there. To the extent that we as the church and the Bride of Christ embody an alternative reality to the powers, principalities, and systems of this age, then we live into our prophetic calling to declare with our very lives, as Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove wrote and I discuss elsewhere, that “the end of our story has interrupted us in the middle” (italics added).” Though we live yet “between the times,” we are to be an outpost of God’s kingdom come. Thus,
In the midst of violence, we bring peace.
In the midst of (perceived) scarcity, we bring abundance and generosity.
In the midst of fear-mongering, we bring fearlessness.
In the midst of so much foolishness, we bring wisdom.
In the midst of domination by the powers and principalities of this age, we bring alternativity.
Consequently, as Rod White writes in the title of another post that has been a touchstone for us in our season of “devolution” and “getting small,” “for the slaves of Christ, existence is resistance.”
Thus, I suppose it should come as no surprise that the Bruderhof has been on my mind of late. As our year of devolution and learning to be peacemakers winds on, and most recently as we’ve felt called to move on from Mill City Church and explore becoming part of Church of All Nations, I’ve found myself returning for inspiration again and again not only to Circle of Hope but also to the Bruderhof. They, of course, are the community of 2,000+ Jesus followers on several continents that not only resist capitalism in order to follow Jesus- as we feel called to do- but almost reject it altogether (collectively, they own some businesses, all the proceeds from which go back into supporting the life of the community). They were founded by Eberhard Arnold in Germany just as Hitler was coming to power, and today, nearly a century later, they live together in rural villages around the country and around the world, and even have some community houses in urban areas like the Bronx. Everything they do, they do together. They literally sell all their possessions and give any proceeds to the church, which is a requirement for any person or family that seeks to join the Bruderhof. Thus they live into God’s economy in a more real and tangible way than scarcely anyone else I’m aware of or could imagine. Since those who join the Bruderhof don’t engage in capitalism, they hold everything in common and do not earn wages. The necessary work for their life together is divvied up among the members, and each does his part. No man or woman is richer or poorer than any other. All belongs to all and is received from God as a gift for all. They practice communal discernment and decision-making, and hold one another accountable to Jesus and one another as they practice their way of life together. As they say of themselves here:
We are an intentional Christian community of more than 2,900 people living in twenty-three settlements on four continents. We are a fellowship of families and singles, practicing radical discipleship in the spirit of the first church in Jerusalem. We gladly renounce private property and share everything in common. Our vocation is a life of service to God, each other, and you.
The Bruderhof was founded in 1920 by Eberhard Arnold in Germany. None of us owns anything personally, and our communal property belongs not to us as a group but to the cause of Christ. Anyone who has decided to become a member freely gives all property, earnings, and inheritances to the church community. In turn, all necessities such as food, housing, and health care are provided for. Members generally work for and in the community, but none of us receives a paycheck, stipend, or allowance. In our homes and daily lives, we try to live frugally and give generously, to avoid excess, and to remain unfettered by materialism. In these practical ways we seek to witness that under the stewardship of the church, everything we have is available to anybody in need.
I’ve probably known of them, at least dimly, for a while, but their faithful witness lo this past century as a distinct community of Christ that stands in contradistinction to that of empire- whether that of Nazi Germany as they were being founded or the U.S. today- is striking and admirable. They are themselves an embodied word of truth spoken to power. So my dim awareness of them has come alive of late as I’ve been reacquainted with Eberhard Arnold, whom I wrote about here. On Circle of Hope’s Celebrating the Transhistorical Body blog, they remembered Arnold on Nov. 22 of last year. I was surprised when reading their post about him to be reminded that it was Arnold who said that “Truth without love kills, but love without truth lies.” This quote can be found in the header for Rod White’s blog and is one of Circle of Hope’s proverbs. I was also surprised, though in hindsight I shouldn’t have been, to learn that it was MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) that helped the Bruderhof escape Nazi Germany. For those who don’t know, “MCC is a global, nonprofit organization that strives to share God’s love and compassion for all through relief, development and peace.” Thus, they are the relief, development, and peacemaking arm of those from the Mennonite and other Anabaptist traditions, and Circle of Hope contributes a significant percentage of their tithes and offerings to MCC.
Anyway, there is much affinity between Arnold/the Bruderhof and Circle of Hope. Both have Anabaptist roots. Both strive for alternativity, though in very different settings. Thus, on MLK, Jr. Day of this year, Rod White re-posted on his blog a piece from the Plough (the publishing arm of the Bruderhof) titled “Alien Citizens: Karl Barth, Eberhard Arnold, and Why the Church Is Political.” I urge you to go read it. Above I spoke of the Circle of Hope writer who wrestled with the implications of a Trump presidency not by saying that this administration is “bad” while some others were better and the alternative potential Clinton presidency might at least have been better than this Trump one; rather, they said that any secular administration can only ever be the latest attempt by the powers to secure their rule. Meanwhile, what we really need and are to strive for is the alternativity of the kingdom of God, a truth which would be no less true if Hilary were president. Similarly, in the piece from the Plough by Will Willimon, he writes about the questions surrounding how to respond to the Trump presidency. He says:
For Christians, these questions, while interesting, are not the most pressing. Jesus’ people participate uneasily in American democratic politics not because we are torn between the politics of the left and of the right, but because of the singular truth uttered by Eberhard Arnold in his 1934 sermon on the Incarnation: “Our politics is that of the kingdom of God”.
Because Arnold was a man of such deep humility, peacefulness, and nonviolence, in reading his sermons it’s easy to miss his radicality. How well Arnold knew and lived the oddness of being a Christian, a resident alien in a world where politics had become the functional equivalent of God. How challenging is Arnold’s preaching in our world, where the political programs of Washington or Moscow can seem to be the only show in town, our last, best hope for maintaining our sense of security and illusions of control.
Christians carry two passports: one for the country in which we find ourselves, and another for that baptismal nation being made by God from all the nations. This nation is a realm not made by us but by God; Arnold calls it a “completely new order” where Christ at last “truly rules over all things.”
As storm clouds gathered in Nazified Germany, and millions pinned their hopes on a political savior who would make Germany great again through messianic politics, Arnold defiantly asserted that the most important political task of the church was to join Paul in “the expectation, the assurance of a completely new order.” How quaint, the world must have thought; how irrelevant Christian preachers can be.
Rather than offering alternative policies or programs to counter those of the Nazis, Arnold made the sweeping claim that “all political, all social, all educational, all human problems are solved in a concrete way by the rulership of Christ. This is what glory is.”
This, again, is alternativity in a nutshell. And what a bold claim it is! Could it be that “all human problems are solved in a concrete way by the rulership of Christ?” Is it possible that to whatever extent humanity’s problems have not been solved is the exact extent to which we do not truly or fully subject ourselves to Christ’s rule instead of that of Washington, D.C.? Notice that Arnold says such problems are solved “in a concrete way.” This is no abstract theologizing in a blog post, as I may be accused of doing here. In yesterday’s worship gathering among the people of Church of All Nations (more about Church of All Nations later), the worship leader alluded to the recent trip by some 17 folks from Church of All Nations to the Bruderhof to learn from and fellowship with them. He said that their theology is a “lived theology.” In other words, they spend much less time talking about it than they do simply doing it. As they say in response to the question “Are Bruderhof members religious?”:
We are religious in the sense that our Christian faith is of utmost importance to us. That said, most Bruderhof members are not religious in the sense of highly developed or frequently displayed personal piety. We are extremely ordinary, and tend to speak less about our faith than some other branches of Christianity.
To live in a Bruderhof community you have to want to follow Jesus. Whether you call that being a Christian is not so important – but you have to want to follow Jesus and live the way he showed people how to live.
Much of the world thinks (so-called) “Christianity” is about believing certain things (giving intellectual assent to a set of propositions) and being sure to utter a single prayer at least one time to make sure you get your “fire insurance” and thereafter is about imposing your beliefs and morals on others through the power of the state (how very Constantinian!). What if we were instead known by our love for one another and those around us? What if our efforts were directed at living the kind of life Jesus embodied and taught us? What if we rejected not just empire and the politics of the powers but also the economics of the powers? In the face of the oppression of the powers that divides us into “haves” and “have-nots” be it via capitalism or any other worldly economic system, what if we shared everything and thereby made not only such oppression irrelevant, but also made irrelevant whatever worldly economic solutions the powers allow, again because we renounce the world’s economic systems and share everything? It is just such questions that the Bruderhof attempts to answer not primarily with their theology, but with their lives.
Willimon touches on this in the Plough piece when he says, “As Hauerwas famously puts it, the church doesn’t have a social policy; the church is God’s social policy.” Indeed. I alluded above and have written elsewhere about our recent entrance into Church of All Nations. There are many reasons for this. I’d like for now to note that, as we’ve participated in a couple of worship gatherings and the simple community meals that follow and as we’ve listened to sermons and read articles written by Pastor Kim online, I’ve been struck by the lack of publicity at the very least regarding any sort of social outreach or justice related initiatives. I don’t mean to needlessly be critical of any other church we’ve been a part of or other churches like them, but the study in contrasts is, literally, remarkable. Whole swaths of “Christianity” out there adopt “missional communities,” for example, to marry the mission to somehow “be the church” through service and outreach to others, with community. It seems to me, though, that this is a marriage of convenience that is nonetheless necessary if you’re still trying to “do”‘ (or even “be”) “church” within the convenient folds of Christendom. If you don’t even realize the extent to which you’ve been compromised and perhaps literally “owned” by empire, then it’s hard to see how all your outreach programs and justice initiatives, as well-intentioned as they may be, merely perpetuate the rule of the powers, principalities, and powers over/against that of Christ and his kingdom. Meanwhile, instead of “having a social policy,” we’re supposed to be one. To the extent that we embrace alternativity by renouncing perpetual temporal power grabs in seeking to influence society through elections, to the extent that we embrace alternativity by renouncing violence in all its forms and, to the extent possible (ha, hear my compromising fearfulness?), resist capitalism and participate in God’s economy by sharing possessions and giving to those who ask of us- to whatever extent we do all this no “social policy” or program is necessary. From what I can tell so far, this alternativity is something that Church of All Nations is going for too. I’ll have a bit more to say about this below.
Returning for now to Eberhard Arnold, the Bruderhof, and Willimon’s Plough piece, I’ll say again that Arnold founded the Bruderhof about a hundred years ago. Like I and my family, Arnold became convinced that the Sermon on the Mount was to be lived, not just “loved” as some idyllic dream to aspire to. He likewise learned that living the Sermon on the Mount could not be done alone. Community was required. As I’ve said, you can’t follow Jesus alone, especially not if you’re trying to follow him down the narrow path of radical discipleship, through the narrow door of enemy love and participation in God’s economy. Thus, the Bruderhof was born.
Willimon’s Resident Aliens piece in the Plough has much to contribute to this discussion, and bears further quoting at some length. He writes:
Asked by The Christian Century to respond to the twenty-fifth anniversary of my book with Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, a dozen reviewers dismissed the book as politically irrelevant, sectarian escapism from the great issues of the day. None noticed that the book was meant to address the church, not the US Senate. Resident Aliens was a work of ecclesiology that assumed that when Christians are pressed to “say something political,” our most faithful response is church. As Hauerwas famously puts it, the church doesn’t have a social policy; the church is God’s social policy.
Many of our critics showed that they still live under the Constantinian illusion that the United States is roughly synonymous with the kingdom of God. Even though the state alleges that it practices freedom of religion, the secular state tolerates no alternatives to its sovereignty. Christians are free in American democracy to be as religious as we please as long as we keep our religion personal and private.
Contemporary secular politics decrees that people of faith must first jettison the church’s peculiar speech and practices before we can be allowed to go public and do politics. Many mainline Protestants, and an embarrassing number of American evangelicals, cling to the hope that by engagement with secular politics within the limits set by the modern democratic state, we can wrest some shred of social significance for the Christian faith. That’s how my own United Methodist Church became the Democratic Party on its knees.
Saying it better than we put it in Resident Aliens, Arnold not only sees Christ as “embodied in the church” but calls the church to go beyond words and engage in radical, urgent action that forms the church as irrefutable, concrete proof that Jesus Christ really is Lord and we are not: “Only very few people in our time are able to grasp the this-worldly realism of the early Christians.… Mere words about the future coming of God fade away in people’s ears today. That is why embodied, corporeal action is needed. Something must be set up, something must be created and formed, which no one will be able to pass by,” on the basis of our knowledge of who God is and where God is bringing the world. Our hope is not in some fuzzy, ethereal spirituality. “It takes place now, through Christ in the church. The future kingdom receives form in the church.”
In his sermon, Arnold eschews commentary on current events, as well as condemnation or commendation of this or that political leader, and instead speaks about the peculiar way Christ takes up room in the world and makes his will known through the ragtag group of losers we dare to call, with Paul, the very body of Christ. “It is not the task of this body of Christ to attain prominence in the political power structure of this world.… Our politics is that of the kingdom of God.”
Because of who God is and how God works, the congregation where I preach, for all its failures (and I can tell you, they are many) is, according to Arnold, nothing less than “an embassy of God’s kingdom”: “When the British ambassador is in the British embassy in Berlin, he is not subject to the laws of the German Reich.… In the residence of the ambassador, only the laws of the country he represents are valid.”
Arnold’s sermon is a continually fresh, relevant rebuke to those who think we can do politics without doing church. Among many pastors and church leaders, there is a rather docetic view of ministry and the church. We denigrate many of the tasks that consume pastoral ministry – administration, sermon preparation, and congregational leadership – because we long to be done with this mundane, corporeal stuff so we can soar upward to higher, more spiritual tasks. Arnold wisely asserts Incarnation and unashamedly calls upon his congregants to get their hands dirty by engaging in corporate work: to set up, create, form, and learn all those organizational skills that are appropriate for an incarnational faith where we are saved by the Eternal Word condescending to become our flesh.
There’s so much to unpack here, but I trust I’ve already done some of that work and could do no better than Willimon, to be sure. I do want to highlight some things, though. Willimon notes that Arnold describes the church as being “an embassy of God’s kingdom” and reminds his readers that in an embassy the only “laws” that apply are that of the kingdom/state that the embassy is from. Thus, we are to live as if the authority of Christ and his kingdom “trumps” that of any secular power. Where the state tells us to keep the economy (and all its related wars) going by consuming ever more, Jesus calls us to sell our possessions, share God’s gifts which were given to all for all, and give to those who ask of us. Where the state devalues black and brown lives through its racially biased education, housing, employment, and criminal “justice” systems; and through the mass incarceration of people of color via the school to prison pipeline (in order to keep profits flowing to the prison industrial complex), we are to assert and live as if black lives matter.
I could go on, but I also want to echo Arnold in saying that “Mere words about the future coming of God fade away in people’s ears today. That is why embodied, corporeal action is needed. Something must be set up, something must be created and formed, which no one will be able to pass by.” Likewise, he said, “The future kingdom receives form in the church.” Doesn’t this sound a lot like “the end of our story has interrupted us in the middle?” Indeed.
Willimon goes on to allude to the Charleston church massacre and its aftermath. He says:
I know a pastor who began his sermon after the Charleston massacre by asking, “How come our Bible studies in this church have not been truthful enough, intense enough, for anybody to want to kill us? Church, we need to figure out how to be so faithful in our life together that the world can look at us and see something that it is not. Our little congregation is called to be a showcase of what a living God can do!”
It’s a profound question Willimon’s pastor colleague asked. Why don’t more people want to kill us? The “politics of Jesus” were sufficient to get him executed by the state, and he promised that we would be persecuted too. May I suggest that if we (European American) U.S. residents who want to follow Jesus are not being severely persecuted, it’s not because of the “freedoms” that U.S. soldiers are said to die for. Rather, I would argue that it’s because we spend most of our days pledging allegiance with our lives to the ideals, dreams, and aspirations that are symbolized in the U.S. flag, rather than to Christ and his kingdom.
So then, as I’ve been re-acquainting myself with the Bruderhof of late, I’ve been surprised to see what a vital presence they have. Despite the pastoral setting of most of their communities, they have not retreated from the world (because the Sermon on the Mount cannot be put into practice in isolation from one’s actual and metaphorical neighbors). They operate the Plough magazine and publishing house, which I’ve quoted at length above and am glad to subscribe to. They have a vibrant presence on social media, especially Youtube, where one can find a plethora of explainer videos and vignettes from their life together. Take this one, which explains who and what they are in their own words:
I also want to show you this one, titled “Living in Community is Not the Answer:”
This several minute long video by Melinda, a young woman from the Bruderhof, is a profound meditation on life in community and what it’s for, and on our relationship to the powers as we seek to embody alternativity, though of course she doesn’t quite put it that way. In the video Melinda is answering the question posed by a commenter, Christian, which he describes as a “haunting question.” Christian asks: “Is community an end in itself, the cause for dedicating your life, or is it preparation for the mission?” Melinda answers by saying that we are called to life together, but such life is not an end in itself. She says that “community is the vehicle by which we can help and uphold ourselves in our dedication to the cause” (of following Jesus, together). She concludes by stating essentially that the life of alternativity that we are called to must be a life together because we can not do it alone. She says that Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves means that we can not be richer than our neighbor and can not turn a blind eye when our neighbor struggles or falls into sin. She says, “Show me a way of doing all that without full Christian community, and I’ll consider it.” Then comes the coup de grace, as she repeats what I think another Bruderhof member must have said in responding to Christian’s “haunting question.” She says:
“I’m not sure why this is a haunting question. My haunting question for Christian is why he feels like owning his own stuff and living for one’s self is preparation for mission.”
It’s an incisive rejoinder which I, putting myself in Christian’s place, do not have a good answer for. So, as the Bruderhof was on my mind, and given my knowledge that some folks from Church of All Nations were at the Bruderhof over the past week, I looked for a Church of All Nations (CAN) sermon to listen to last Sunday when we couldn’t make it to their worship gathering because one of us was sick. I chose this sermon, titled “Saved from What?” I already knew enough of CAN and Pastor Kim to know that this would likely touch in some way on radical discipleship as an alternative to the “traditional” USAmerican presentation of the gospel that I’ve described at length on this blog, including above. I wanted to hear it and expected to view it as something of an answer to another recent sermon I heard about what following Jesus means. That is, I had a pretty good idea that this sermon would be about alternativity. Gratefully, I was not disappointed.
I was surprised, however, as the sermon, from May of this year, was in Pastor Kim’s words, “essentially all about the Bruderhof.” Pastor Kim speaks at length about the call to community and alternativity as embodied and practiced by the Bruderhof, and holds it up as something to be strived for by CAN. As Kirsten and I sat listening to this, when we heard him mention that the sermon was largely about the Bruderhof we looked at each other, a bit stunned. We had spent much of that day reacquainting ourselves with them. Arnold had already risen up as a guide to our next steps in our journey of “getting small” that we keep talking about, and again I’ve written about that. I had likewise been pleased to find all the resonance between how the Bruderhof embodies alternativity and the way Circle of Hope strives to do so in a very different, urban context. And I knew that Church of All Nations currently (at the time, a week ago) had a delegation visiting the Bruderhof, but I did not expect this sermon from May to be largely about them too.
We’ve had several moments in our journey over the past year in which we felt like it was very hard NOT to say that God was somehow speaking to us. Several times we heard the same piece of scripture, for example, from several different, diverse sources, all coming to us at the same time, a time in which we had ears to hear that bit of Scripture anew. This moment as we listened to Pastor Kim preach online about the Bruderhof felt at the very least like another one of those bread crumbs along the trail we are to follow. It was confirmation that we were paying attention to the “right” voice(s) at the “right” time. Imagine my delight, then, when I came across this article online, written for the Plough by Pastor Kim, no less, for the upcoming issue. Bear with me as I give you the whole thing below, because it’s worth it. It’s not really that long, and if you’ve read this far, I appreciate it, for starters, and you’ve shown yourself to be committed to seeing this through to the end. I’ll have just a few words to add of my own below. Pastor Kim writes:
In October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther ignited a movement in the Western church that would lead to the Protestant Reformation. It was a bold response that captured the people’s yearning for comprehensive reform of a church that seemed to have lost its moorings. In modern times it has become apparent to more and more Christians that the church seems to be obsessed with its own institutional survival, which is akin to a dog chasing its own tail. What kind of reformation do we need today for the church to remember its identity and pursue its mission?
Every few months at Church of All Nations (CAN), we offer a class for visitors who want to become members of our congregation, and by extension, of the church catholic. In the class we discuss discipleship, membership, and the theological concepts at the core of our community. But the majority of class time is devoted to a two-thousand-year overview of the Christian story. Why do we spend so much time discussing history? We see no other way to know who we are as a church, and where we are going, apart from knowing how we got here.
It doesn’t take long for our new member candidates to see that our congregation, though part of the mainline Presbyterian family, draws its inspiration from the radical reformers persecuted as “Anabaptists” by Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists. The Anabaptists’ clear identification of church–state collusion as idolatry made them a threat to both the Catholic Church and the fledgling Protestant movement. At CAN, our commitment to costly discipleship doesn’t come from Reformed catechisms and creeds, but from the way that the Confessing Church emerged to challenge Nazi rule in Germany, and the daring witness of Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer – their courage, “real world” theology, and pastoral insights.
Today, we are seeing growing impatience with the institutional church’s accommodation to temporal power. Younger generations, no longer willing to give the church the benefit of the doubt, are driving the mass exodus out of the Western church, which they see as a primary source of pain and abuse in the world. But for those who have not given up on the church as a vessel of God’s grace and transformation, the contours of a new reformation are beginning to surface.
Our congregation, for instance, is trying to root itself in the anti-imperial gospel community that Jesus inaugurated in Galilee. We hope to be heirs of an unbroken tradition of radical faithfulness to the God of Israel. Though the church has given in to the temptations of empire throughout her history, we are encouraged by the long and continuous witness of uncompromising faithfulness to Jesus as well.
The Early Church
What can we learn about reformation today from the early church? The Gospel of Mark opens with John the Baptist proclaiming “repentance and the forgiveness of sins.” John was consciously harking back to the traditions of Moses and Elijah, legendary leaders of Israel who practiced the dual roles of prophet and pastor. They boldly entered the courts of Pharaoh and King Ahab and demanded justice. They re-taught the people how to live as family, how to practice hospitality, and how to rely on God for their daily bread. John the Baptist had a simple message: The kingdom of God is just around the corner, so you better get your act together. At the core of his teaching was an ancient biblical ethic of mutual aid and restorative justice: Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; whoever has food must do the same.
Jesus opted to be baptized into the radical wilderness movement that John had faithfully stewarded for years. The Gospels give us a portrait of a scandalously loving and spirit-filled messiah who healed those plagued with evil spirits. He dared feed the hungry whose common lands had been gobbled up by massive estates. He taught the Galileans how to live with one another like Moses had originally taught them. God’s law was to love one’s neighbors as family, to not scheme about tomorrow, to not give in to the strife and petty jealousies that fracture communities and make them easy to divide and conquer.
When Jesus died, his followers experienced his presence among them. The brutal execution of their Lord could have ended the movement. Instead, they saw that Jesus refused to counter violence with violence. When the women reported an empty tomb, they took it as a sign of Christ’s vindication. The story of the resurrection and ascension of the Lord to “the right hand of the Father” became a rallying cry for those who knew Jesus in his life. Jesus had stayed faithful to the Father, the God of his ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, even on pain of death. Rome had done its worst, its most terroristic act, and Jesus turned the whole spectacle on its head with the words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” For the disciples, death had truly lost its sting.
Paul, the “strict constructionist” rabbi who sought to protect the integrity of Pharisaic Judaism by any means necessary, was also a privileged Roman citizen. He was interrupted on his way to Damascus by the stark presence of the resurrected Messiah. Blinded by the Lord’s presence, Paul went from being the chief enforcer of temple law to “least of the apostles.” As an alternative to Caesar’s patronage in the imperial familia, Paul could now offer a place in the loving family of God, the body of Christ.
For most of its history the institutional church has been both the master and servant of Western empires.The church has been a force for good in countless ways, and it is right for Christians to celebrate that heritage. But an honest accounting also requires us to admit that for most of its history the institutional church has in alternating ways been both the master and servant of Western empires. Is there another way? Can modern disciples truly follow the Way of Jesus over the American Way?
A New Generation
The church continues only as the next generation accepts the call to be Christ’s body, and his hands and feet to the world. As a pastor in a mainline church for twenty-five years, I have noted the dwindling numbers of young people in the local church. The children of boomers see the church today as complicit in, and co-opted by, the ways of the world. They have little interest in perpetuating the Constantinian arrangement in which churches produce loyal foot soldiers for the empire du jour.
The Protestant Reformation and the Radical Reformation were supposed to inaugurate a new era of integrity and faithfulness for the church. But today we see that, whether a congregation is Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Quaker, Mennonite, or Presbyterian, they are overwhelmingly white, old, and declining. Such is the fruit of the Reformation after five hundred years.
The church I currently serve was founded in 2004 with a demographic of mostly Korean- American immigrants raised in this country, roughly twenty-five to thirty-five years old. In recent years, CAN has become a slightly majority-white church, although our members still hail from over twenty-five nations and cultures. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that two-thirds of our congregation is made up of twenty- to forty-year-olds. Ministering to a mostly millennial congregation has given us some insights about the future of the church in a postmodern context.
What is it that our young people don’t buy anymore?
Uncritical patriotism and American exceptionalism (“my country, right or wrong”).
Unexamined white supremacy, both the nativism of the Right and the paternalism toward people of color by the Left.
Unfettered consumerism at the expense of global fairness and environmental sustainability, and endless consumption as a personal coping mechanism.
Rugged individualism and the subtext of the American dream – the accumulation of enough skills and wealth so as to be completely independent.
Christian denominational sectarianism, parochialism, and triumphalism in the face of religious pluralism.
Young people today are desperate for what only the church can offer:
Our young people are searching for their vocation. Many are educated enough for a job or career in the present order, but are desperately searching for a calling.
Our young people hunger for healthy relationships, to meaningfully and deeply relate to another human being (half grew up in divorced or single-parent homes, and others in dysfunctional households).
Plagued with loneliness, isolation, and alienation, our young people are seeking enduring Christian community that functions like a diverse yet intimate family.
Our young people are looking for stability in a highly mobile world, and concreteness in an increasingly virtual and socially networked existence.
Our young people desire authentic faith. They are prone to agnosticism or even raw atheism, as they see little evidence of a God that makes a difference in the religious institutions of the day, namely the local church. If local churches would respond evangelically to these needs, they would open the possibility of spiritual renewal for this searching but confused generation.
A New Reformation
Many professional religious leaders are working tirelessly for the church’s “renewal,” hoping that a new reformation might save the institutional church from demise. But people today are not interested in institutional score-keeping like membership, attendance, budgets, and square feet. If the only motivation for reformation is preserving a middle-class lifestyle for the clergy and preventing the sanctuary from turning into a condo, then people are saying, Let the temple be torn down, for Jesus can raise it up in three days. Amen, so be it.
We firmly believe that, after five hundred years, the Protestant Reformation is giving way to another tectonic shift in what it means to be church. A new reformation is coming indeed.
One element of that reformation will be learning to live together in intentional Christian community. Our congregation has been forming households of unrelated people almost from our beginning, and now we have multiple community houses that are structured, ordered, and thriving. We were making steady progress, or so we thought, until we began to learn about the Bruderhof way.
We were blown away by this community that goes back almost a hundred years – the lifelong commitment to the community, the common purse, working for businesses that are owned and operated by the overall community, the care of its members from cradle to grave (if they choose to stay). CAN is in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, a highly urbanized area, and cannot as yet match these characteristics. But we have been inspired by an actual community that has done it and is living out the Acts 2 way of being church – of sharing all things in common in an age of individualism, greed, loneliness, and despair.
For us, a radical reformation in our time demands that the church live into its vocation as ecclesia, meaning the “called-out ones.” Christians are to be called out of a sick society built on the evils of racism, sexism, militarism, exploitation, and destructive competition. We are to create a new community of love. This does not mean withdrawal from society or indulging sectarian impulses. Church of All Nations is in the middle of an urban and suburban landscape, and hopes to witness to God’s love for the world, right here where we are.
With this goal, we seek to pool our people’s resources, talents, ideas, and labor for the common good. We want our members to feel that their work is rewarding, that the fruit of their labor is being shared justly, that they work together, live together, play together, and worship together because it is very good and pleasant when kindred live together in unity. We will have to participate in the broader economic system, but we will not allow capitalist dogma to influence our internal economics. We will draw people from our immediate context of great brokenness, but our mission will include the casting out of imperial demons and the healing of bodies and souls so that we can relate rightly to our God, our neighbors (human and non-human), and God’s good green earth. We aspire to create an urban village founded on the love and teachings of Jesus Christ our Lord, a type of Bruderhof in the city, and to share God’s abundance with an impoverished world.
Is this part of the next reformation, or just a pipe dream? We’re not sure, but we are grateful for the witness of the Bruderhof, and pray that Christians can live together in harmony as a counter-witness to a world falling apart.
Pastor Kim offers a compelling vision, does he not, of a kind of Bruderhof in the city? Is it any wonder that we feel drawn to CAN just now? We can’t escape the haunting questions asked above by the pastor colleague of Willimon and by the member of the Bruderhof. Why, exactly, is it that that the way we not only study but live out Jesus’ teaching in the Bible has not “been truthful enough, intense enough, for anybody to want to kill us?” Why haven’t we more fully figured out “how to be so faithful in our life together that the world can look at us and see something that it is not?” Or, as the Bruderhof commenter challenged, why do we “feel like owning (our) own stuff and living for (ourselves) is preparation for mission?” Quite simply, it’s not.
Thankfully, we do have the witness of the Bruderhof, whatever unavoidable shortcomings their life together may entail. I can’t help, though, but wonder if Pastor Kim is aware of Circle of Hope. Their life together has shortcomings too, but they’re the only urban church I know of that is really going for alternativity in the way that Pastor Kim seems to want to be a part of, and I and my family do as well. From the very intentional way they go about being the church together through cell groups and a network of congregations that form one church, to their frequent witness and action against the powers in solidarity with marginalized groups, to their willingness to boldly renounce capitalism and violence and share the resources they develop freely (see here, for example, or read about how they share resources here and the power that unleashes here), to their Bruderhof-like subversive use of the world’s economic system to generate resources for their life together (go here and here, for example)- all of this seems to me to be an embodiment of what a “Bruderhof in the city” might look like. Like CAN, Circle has folks that live together in community, so much so that Rod wrote a resource for them as they do so way back in 2004. CAN was a “sponsor” of the Carnivale de Resistance that we attended last year, which I wrote about here and for which our former Circle of Hope pastor Joshua was a member of the Carnivale team. Naturally, Circle of Hope has a Carnivale de Resistance support team, and the organizers of Carnivale spoke at a CAN conference a few years ago. Circe also has a Watershed Discipleship team and as a community has been profoundly influenced by Ched Myers. Meanwhile Ched, of course, also came to speak at that same recent CAN conference. I could go on, but for now suffice it to say that there’s much resonance among Circle of Hope, the Bruderhof, and CAN. Therefore, with Circle of Hope and the Bruderhof as inspiration, I and my family are glad to enter into the life that CAN is having together. We pray that we will ever more fully embody, together, the alternativity that we are called to. Lord, let it be so.
Enjoy the clip above from the film Gladiator, if you can. I pray, literally for Christ’s sake, that you can’t. In our year of “devolution” and “getting small” so far in 2017, we’ve been repeatedly confronted by the link between Mammon (which wears late capitalist clothes these days) and violence, and somehow we’ve been consistently surprised by the extent to which both are embedded not only in the culture of U.S. empire, but also in the church. I’ve written a lot this year about our efforts to resist Mammon, however halting they may be, and I’ve written a little about our efforts to resist violence. It’s actually pretty interesting. Both efforts- to resist Mammon, and to resist violence- are apparently offensive. What’s interesting about it is the fact that it seems that they’re most offensive to “church people,” to otherwise well-meaning would-be Jesus followers. It seems that if we say, as we now do, that we think it’s utterly essential to following Jesus that we recognize that the U.S. is a violent, Mammon-serving empire more powerful than violent, Mammon-serving Rome of Jesus’ day and that therefore our relationship to U.S. empire must be similar to that of Jesus and his first followers in regard to their relationship to Rome, then such a stance is received as implicit judgment. We do not mean for our actions to imply such judgment, but the fact of it is revelatory. That said, this is not the focus of this post.
What I do want to focus on is violence, and specifically violent entertainment. It has become clear to us this year that, as Brian Zahnd says, “God is like Jesus; God has always been like Jesus. We haven’t always known this, but now we do.” At the core of this truth is the fact that Jesus is the Prince of Peace and therefore among the many meanings of his death on the cross is this one- that on the cross Jesus absorbed the world’s violence without retaliating and so violence was put to death along with Jesus. Thus we knew that in a multitude of new ways we had to re-double our focus on peacemaking and nonviolence. It only followed then that if we were to be transformed in this way, our minds needed to be renewed, as they have begun to be. For this to fully take effect, though, we knew we needed to stop filling our minds with violent entertainment. If violence is something we are to renounce and resist so that we can better join God in restoring his image in us and in all whom we meet, then it cannot be a source of entertainment. It’s no coincidence that our violent culture is filled with so much violent entertainment. The two go hand-in-hand. Violent images and words normalize violence. They re-wire our brains to accept it as a fact of life.
Even if we try to take what amounts to the moral high ground in this culture by asserting that violence is to be avoided when possible but is nonetheless acceptable as a last resort when confronted with violence, we still wind up condoning some measure of limited, hopefully proportional violence. This is the myth of redemptive violence, and it is a fallacy. Violence begets violence, after all, because the means are the ends in the process of becoming. Some folks misread Scripture and think it tells us to spank our children. It does not. However, for the sake of argument let’s say it does. Remembering that spanking can only ever be punishment, not discipline- for the only thing it can possibly “teach” is how to avoid getting hit by your parents in the future- would you then hit (spank) your child for hitting another child on the playground? Of course not. It makes no sense to do the thing you’re trying to get your kid to stop doing in order to get them to stop doing it.
The myth of redemptive violence is pervasive, however. From “The War to End All Wars” (it didn’t) to the NRA promulgated argument that “good guys with guns” can stop “bad guys with guns,” we see it everywhere. The crowd’s endorsement of this “logic,” however, does not actually make it logical, and I give you Star Trek of all things to make this point:
As the alien said, “your good and your evil use the same methods (violence), and achieve the same results.” What are the results? Well, for starters:
“He pulls a knife; you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital; you send one of his to the morgue!” So again, violence begets violence, but though one might hope that the violence that violence begets would be proportional and limited, it seems to me that it usually does not work out this way, as the “Untouchables” clip and quote above reveals. The only way that violent force can overcome an opposing violent force is if one side escalates the force. This “win” by one violent side can only ever be temporary, however, and at the very least the threat of overwhelming violent force must be maintained by the victor perpetually. It’s why nation-states maintain standing armies, and the U.S. empire seeks to maintain the biggest, most violent military of all. Gandhi knew this, of course, when he said: “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary. The evil it does is permanent.” This pernicious myth of redemptive violence must be rejected outright. One of Dr. King’s most famous quotes is that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Often missing, though, is the context:
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
So the quote isn’t just about darkness being ineffective in driving out darkness or hate in driving out hate; it’s about violence being ineffective as a means of stopping violence. But I digress.
So then, if following the Prince of Peace must mean resisting violence in all its forms, especially the form that lays neural pathways in our brain without us even being aware of it (visual entertainment), how can we do so, when the culture of U.S. empire is saturated with so very much violent entertainment? Until I find something better, I propose a violent entertainment decision-making framework that involves asking three questions:
Is the violence gratuitous and unnecessary? Can the same story be told without it?
Related to #1, what do I most look forward to about the entertainment? Is it the violence? (Think light-saber duels or space battles.)
Does the entertainment promote the myth of redemptive violence?
If the answer to any of the above is yes, I shouldn’t be entertained by it. Let’s unpack these questions, though, and try applying them.
Question #1: Is the Violence Gratuitous?
Answering this question seems fairly straightforward. A proxy question might be: “Was the movie directed by Michael Bay?” If so, being entertained by it can’t be a faithful choice, it seems to me. Bay is famous for making needlessly violent movies full of “big explosions.” The violence in his films, of which I’ve seen probably more than a few, in my experience almost never moves the story very well. It may heighten the tension, but only artificially, and it makes the storytelling disjointed at best. You don’t learn much you didn’t already know about the characters, and I suspect many viewers would have to admit that what they’re most invested in is not a positive outcome for the “good guys with guns” in the story. Rather, what’s most interesting is how big the explosions are, how many things get blown up, how amazing the violent special effects are, etc. This brings us to question #2.
Question #2: Is the Violence What I Most Look Forward To About the Entertainment?
This question is very much related to question #1 above, but I think it must be addressed as well. (As I write, I’m aware of the violence in language. In writing the sentence just above, I wanted initially to say, “but I think it must be tackled as well.” When I realized that didn’t work, the next phrase that came to mind was “wrestled with.” It was only on my third try that I came up with “addressed.”) Let’s continue using Michael Bay as an example. You would have a hard time convincing me that most people who are most excited about his films aren’t most excited about the “big explosions” in them. The man likes blowing things up on film, and he has legions of fans who are ready to pay top dollar (ah…there’s that ever-present link between violence and capitalism) at the multiplex to see him do so. I used to be one of them. I’ll talk more about Star Wars later, but I think this is at the heart of why I’ve had to give up my life-long love of Star Wars, and try to quell my sons’ growing love of it. When I think about a Star Wars movie, I have to admit that what most excited me about seeing one is a “good ol’ fashioned” light-saber duel, or a “force fight,” or an epic space battle. I have to, therefore, conclude that being entertained in this way is not a choice that is faithful to the Prince of Peace.
Question #3: Does the Entertainment Promote the Myth of Redemptive Violence?
I spoke at some length about redemptive violence above. It’s the idea that essentially “good guys with guns” can stop “bad guys with guns-” that violence, while regrettable, is sometimes necessary as the only possible way to stop violence. The logic of this argument is flawed, short-sighted, and betrayed by experience. The “war on terror” is an Orwellian perpetual war for lots of reasons, but one of them is because for every alleged terrorist blown up by a drone strike, many more are made. This is true not least because of the “collateral damage” such strikes inflict, and perhaps most because of the horrifically evil practice by the forces of U.S. empire of blowing up an alleged terrorist first and then when not just his associates but family and children and neighbors and friends gather for a funeral, your secular government (if you’re a U.S. citizen) then will often blow up the people at that gathering too. This practice is so evil that one wonders if it isn’t intentional. It surely insures that the “terrorists” (and let’s be clear, the violent forces of U.S. empire are no less terroristic than any violent jihadi) will keep coming, and therefore insures that the ever hungry military-industrial complex will continue to have a steady market for its products. And there, yet again, is the link between violence and capitalism.
Making Decisions With This Proposed Framework
I’ve already said above that I concluded that I couldn’t be entertained by Star Wars any more, because I had to admit (question #2) that what I most looked forward to about a Star Wars movie was the violence. Whatever else I would say here, I won’t say it as well as Roy Scranton did in his seminal New York Times essay, “Star Wars and the Fantasy of American Violence.” Scranton, an Iraq War vet, writes:
“Star Wars” managed a remarkable trick. Two years after the fall of Saigon and America’s withdrawal in defeat from a dishonorable war, Mr. Lucas’s Wagnerian space opera recast for Americans the mythic story so central to our sense of ourselves as a nation.
In this story, war is a terrible thing we do only because we have to. In this story, the violence of war has a power that unifies and enlightens. In this story, war is how we show ourselves that we’re heroes. Whom we’re fighting against or why doesn’t matter as much as the violence itself, our stoic willingness to shed blood, the promise that it might renew the body politic.
The literary historian Richard Slotkin called this story “the myth of regeneration through violence,” and he traces it from the earliest Indian captivity narratives through the golden age of the western, and it’s the same story we often tell ourselves today. It’s a story about how violence makes us American. It’s a story about how violence makes us good.
Looking out over Baghdad on the Fourth of July, I saw the truth that story obscured and inverted: I was the faceless storm trooper, and the scrappy rebels were the Iraqis.
Indeed. What Star Wars may get right is that there is an evil empire that should be resisted. What most Americans get wrong is that we are that evil empire. Moreover, as Chris Hedges makes clear in the title of his book by the same name, “War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning.” Ask any U.S. President with a flagging domestic policy agenda; what better way to boost your poll numbers is there than getting involved in a war somewhere? Scranton’s essay is worth the read and I urge you to do so. I think it’s clear, though, that Scranton is talking about the myth of redemptive violence and how it sits at the heart not only of Star Wars, but the collective consciousness of U.S. empire. Thus, my family has given it up.
I grew up in the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex. Therefore, loving the Dallas Cowboys was as central to the identity I was nurtured into as viewing Texas as better than other states but otherwise being a patriotic, flag waving, apple pie loving “American.” So, for the first time in conscious memory now 2 years into my fifth decade, I am not following the Cowboys this season. (Again, I’m aware of my own language. Why would I have “followed” them in the first place? Aren’t I supposed to be following Jesus?) I do not know what their record is. Sundays are not spent hoping the Cowboys are on national TV or wishing I had NFL Sunday Ticket instead. No longer do I even put on a game I might be less interested in simply so that I can stretch out on the couch on a Sunday afternoon and fall asleep to it. Why? Because “American football” is needlessly violent (question #1), and again if most fans were honest, I think they’d have to admit that the violence is among what they most look forward to about football (question #2). It’s needlessly violent because the sport can be played without violence. Pudgy middle-aged guys like myself (well, almost middle-aged) play touch football in parks across the country nearly every day, and especially on Thanksgiving. Kids and adults play flag football frequently too. Tackling and hitting need not be part of the sport, though the NFL would not be the billion dollar industry it is without the violence, and there again is the link between violence and capitalism (do you see a connection here, as I do?). What’s more, the evidence is daily mounting that there is also a link between the violence in “American football” and devastating health effects on those who participate in it, including violence on the part of those afflicted by CTE towards others and themselves. Finally, while I may not follow the Cowboys any more, I do follow the news; so I know that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones recently, though unsurprisingly, picked sides in the debate surrounding activism and free speech as it has surfaced in sports especially since Colin Kaepernick began protesting violence, discrimination, and the devaluation of black lives during the national anthem when it is played during football games. Jones recently said that team unity was not nearly as important as “respecting the flag” and so any player who he thought was disrespecting it would be benched. This patriotism toward the symbols of U.S. empire over/against any symbolic resistance to the evil that empire has subjected its citizens of color to is abhorrent, and it makes it that much easier to not be a Cowboys fan any more.
Can you tell I’m a sci-fi fan? I’ve loved Star Wars from a young age, but that love was nurtured by my older siblings, who probably love it more. I came by my love of Star Trek, though, all on my own. My mother liked it, if memory serves; so I suppose that’s a characteristic that I’m willing to admit I share with her (my long dead mother was the abuser in my dysfunctional, though “Christian,” childhood home). Still, I appreciated Star Trek for lots of reasons that were all my own. For starters, there was simply literally more to love. With now 6 live action television series, 1 animated one, and I think 13 movies, I’ve been exposed to a lot of Star Trek in my life. Gene Roddenberry’s (Star Trek’s creator) progressive vision of a multi-racial future in which everyone (at least on Earth or in the United Federation of Planets) largely gets along or at least tries to and (by the second television series) in which war and famine and poverty have been eliminated on earth even had a fledgling critique of capitalism, as again by the second television series it was stated that most Earth citizens lived enlightened lives in which they were free to pursue their most meaningful life. As Captain Picard said in the episode “The Neutral Zone:”
A lot has changed in the past three hundred years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy.
It’s quite debatable whether this ideal is carried through throughout the series, but it’s at least posited as an ideal that humanity achieved to some degree. Still, there’s plenty of conflict in Star Trek, even war (apparently not all species and cultures are as enlightened as futuristic humanity), and though I like Star Trek just a little more than Star Wars, I must be consistent and ask of it my three questions above.
Regarding question #1, I think some Star Trek is certainly needlessly violent. I will confess that I like the revival of the movies that J.J. Abrams started before moving on to Star Wars, but they’re violent, and probably gratuitously so. Thus, I won’t be watching them again. Likewise, I was excited about the latest iteration of Star Trek on TV, the capitalistic snare it represented (you have to sign up for CBS’ streaming service to watch it) notwithstanding. So I watched the first couple of episodes. It quickly became clear that the new series would be set in a time of war. That doesn’t automatically mean that it fails my violent entertainment decision-making framework, but it doesn’t make for a good start. By the second episode, though, a full on special effects laden space battle had occurred with many casualties. Lots of money was no doubt spent on those scenes, and they were no doubt very entertaining. For some viewers, those “big explosions” may be what they most liked about that episode, and thus question #2 is failed. Really, though, I only needed to get as far as this scene in the first episode, in which the central character said:
240 years ago, near H’Atoria, a Vulcan ship crossed into Klingon space. The Klingons attacked immediately. They destroyed the vessel. Vulcans don’t make the same mistake twice. From then on, until formal relations were established, whenever the Vulcans crossed paths with Klingons, the Vulcans fired first. They said “hello” in a language the Klingons understood. Violence brought respect. Respect brought peace. Captain, we have to give the Klingons a Vulcan “hello”.
This is the myth of redemptive violence in a nutshell, literally. In the quote above there are only four words between “violence” and “peace,” and they’re packaged in a nice little chiasm:
Thus, I won’t be watching the new series. There’s still some question, though, of re-watching some of the older series, particularly Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). My boys and I have been re-watching this show together. They look forward to it immensely. My stance since our conversion to rejecting violence in all its forms, including violent entertainment, has been to withhold judgment regarding TNG. There is certainly some violence in it. What may be redeeming about at least some Star Trek, though, is that this is not the focus of the show. Many episodes are spent on character development with little violence thrown in, even for “good” (not really) measure. And when violence does come up in TNG, so far at least as we’ve re-watched most of the first three seasons, there’s some actual thoughtfulness involved, and even some questioning of the myth of redemptive violence. Take, for example, the third season episode, “The Enemy.” Wikipedia describes the episode:
So on the planet two enemies must work together to survive, challenging their stereotypes about the other along the way. Meanwhile, Worf must decide whether to help save a Romulan’s life, a decision made all the more difficult by the fact that Romulans killed his family. Finally, Picard must work to avert a violent confrontation with a Romulan ship. In this exchange Commander Riker and Worf (indirectly) discuss the myth of redemptive violence:
Lieutenant Worf: I am asked to give up the very lifeblood of my mother and my father to those who murdered them!
Commander William T. Riker: That’s what your people said a few years ago, about Humans. Think how many died on both sides in that war. Would you and I be here now like this, if we hadn’t been able to let go of the anger and the blame? Where does it end, Worf? If that Romulan dies… does his family carry the bitterness on another generation?
And then, in this exchange Captain Picard interrupts a potential cycle of violence before it begins by choosing to extend trust to a would-be enemy threatening violence:
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Commander, both our ships are ready to fight. We have two extremely powerful and destructive arsenals at our command. Our next actions will have serious repercussions. We have good reason to mistrust one another; but we have even better reason to set those differences aside. Now, of course, the question is… who will take the initiative? Who will make the first gesture of trust? – The answer is, I will. I must lower our shields to beam those men up from the planet’s surface. Once the shields are down, you will, of course, have the opportunity to fire on us. If you do, you will destroy not only the Enterprise and its crew, but the ceasefire that the Romulans and the Federation now enjoy.
I was very grateful when the boys and I watched this episode. Though clothed in futuristic storytelling, this is at least to some degree not only a serious show wrestling with serious issues, but is one that is at least in part willing to question the myth of redemptive violence. For that reason, we will warily watch on.
Not a Rule, a Guidepost
As Captain Picard himself said, “There can be no justice so long as laws are absolute. Even life itself is an exercise in exceptions.” Or, as I like to say, “rules are for relationship.” So is every war movie out for me? No. It’s possible, I suppose, to tell a war story that is not needlessly violent because the violence is an essential part of the story and the story could not be told without it. Questions 2 and 3 above then would still apply. If I find myself being entertained or most looking forward to the violence in our proverbial war movie, then I probably shouldn’t watch it. If not, I look toward question 3 for guidance. Does the movie promote the myth of redemptive violence? If not, if it ultimately tells a tale that shows how violence does not achieve its stated ends, that it only perpetuates itself, then this proverbial war movie may be one I can still watch and think myself faithful to the Prince of Peace as I do so.
Nonetheless, these are hard questions to ask, let alone answer. It takes work to resist violence in all its forms, but it’s necessary work that I’m glad to do. I follow the Prince of Peace, and I want to be transformed by him, to have my mind renewed. Lord, I ask that you would “make it so.”
P.S. Let’s Not Forget The Doctor
In all my geekiness, I came to enjoy Doctor Who as I binge-watched it during a particularly cold Christmas break some years ago in NE Ohio. The show can be scary and is known for featuring monsters, and yet is quintessentially British, which maybe is part of its appeal for me. Notably, The Doctor does not usually employ violence. He does not have superheroic powers (except the ability to “regenerate”), and does not carry a weapon. His tool of choice is a “sonic screwdriver,” which is good for making sounds, unlocking things, and scanning things, but often is not very good even at that. The Doctor’s most powerful “weapon” is his tongue, and his monologues are epic. Anyway, while researching for this post I did a search for “Dr. Who Nonviolence.” That search led me to this post, at what is now one of my favorite blogs, “Experimental Theology” by Richard Beck. His site is worth checking out. I especially appreciate the header at his site, a quote by Thomas Merton:
You are not big enough to accuse the whole age effectively, but let us say you are in dissent. You are in no position to issue commands, but you can speak words of hope. Shall this be the substance of your message? Be human in this most inhuman of ages; guard the image of man for it is the image of God.
Perhaps you might imagine why this quote would be meaningful. “You are not big enough to accuse the whole age effectively” is a good word to one who is trying to “get small,” and the encouragement to speak words of hope in “this most inhuman of ages” is a helpful reminder. Anyway, in the short post I referenced above, Richard tells a story about an interaction with his son regarding Dr. Who and nonviolence. He thought it worth sharing, and so do I:
Let me quickly apologize to Doctor Who fans for the title of this post as it might have excited them. I’m sorry that this post isn’t a theological analysis of Doctor Who and non-violence. But please link to good work in this area in the comments.
This post is simply a funny exchange I had with my son Aidan on this subject.
Aidan loves Doctor Who. I’ve only watched one episode. So the other day I was asking Aidan lots of questions about Doctor Who and what he liked about the show.
As Aidan shared I quickly discerned that in most episodes the good Doctor has to deal with a variety of creatures, aliens and monsters.
And then Aidan says, “But Doctor Who doesn’t use violence.”
I’m intrigued, “He doesn’t use violence?”
“Well,” I ask, “then how does he fight all these creatures if he’s non-violent?”
Aidan pauses and then says, “Well, he runs away a lot. There’s a lot of running away.”