February 21, 2015

On being the product of someone else's imagination

The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy-the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men. A weird life it is to be living always in somebody else's imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could become real.
Thomas Merton (1915 - 1968)


January 28, 2015

Where healing comes from is ambiguous

Living with ambiguous loss requires a spiritual tolerance -no, spiritual comfort-with ambiguity. Simply put, it requires faith.  Not all professionals are trained to accept this way of thinking, but pastors and people of spirituality have a head start.
However we come to find more comfort with the unknown and unsolvable-and temper our needs for control and mastery-that transformative growth will paradoxically increase our effectiveness to ease the suffering of others who must, through no fault of their own, continue to live with the pain of ambiguous loss. - Pauline Boss, Pastoral Psych (2010) 59:139
Jesus, at first glance, is the exemplar of this.  Can you imagine anything more ambigous than what His life must have been?  Certain of God's goodness, but without Siri to tell him where to go? The Gospels are so certain about some things, the important things, but God in human form automatically introduces ambiguity into the story of God, because humans are ambiguous and contingent people, no?  And yet, He can minister to us, because He knows us so.

Also, I think she just accidentally denounced the prince of evangelical theological commitments.

October 21, 2014

The black & white law.

It is difficult for white folks to “see” racism as something other than personal bias.  Seeing and perceiving structural inequalities is one of the most challenging barriers to white people engaging in a Godly, biblical justice-seeking.  We say “I’m not a racist” and assume that the problem must be one of “inner city culture” laziness, etc., to explain other groups’ struggles.  We explain that there are good ones and bad ones in every culture;  good ones unconsciously defined by the ability to get ahead and make nice with white culture.  You know how it goes:  KKK members are racist but I’m not.  I just think people are poor because they are lazy welfare queens with hypersexual partners.  The Evangelical church, with its emphasis on individual responsibility and a personal Gospel has helped reinforce the belief that racism is primarily interpersonal and relational.  Think, Promise Keepers. (We hugged; we cried.  Some of my best friends are black!)

How stunning to see it then, in our laws.

Our church has a little group reading The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.  It hits like a hammer. She spends the first two chapters outlining a brief history of the racialized policing of black people the sublimation of this policing as the war on drugs.  It draws out the staggering numerical difference in how black people are policed and sentenced. We just finished Chapter 3 which raises a powerful question:
“The central question, then, is how exactly does a formally colorblind criminal justice system achieve such racially discriminatory results.” p.103
I can see the problem of the cop on the street: it looks like we are deliberately policing some people more than others based on color & class, but I was stunned to learn of the systemic legal refusal to acknowledge a problem. 

The fourteenth amendment was passed  to protect everyone’s right to have full and equal protection and benefit of all the law.  It guards what the Civil Rights act of 1866 established.  But in 1987, the supreme court heard McClesky v. Kemp which argued there is clearly racial bias in criminal sentencing.  Statistics clearly demonstrated that crimes against white folk received far harsher sentences.  The Supreme Court however ruled against it, arguing that to “prove” racial bias exists under the fourteenth amendment,  you would have to prove intent.  Like a confession.  Alexander writes:
...in 1987, when media hysteria regarding black drug crime was at a fever pitch and the evening news was saturated with images of black criminals shackled in courtrooms, the supreme court ruled in McClesky v. Kemp  that racial bias in sentencing, even if shown through credible statistical evidence, could not be challenged under the Fourteenth Amendment in the absence of clear evidence of a conscious, discriminatory intent.  p.109
This, in effect means that the court only recognizes blatant, explicit bigotry.  When, Adolph Lyons was stopped by the LAPD for a blown taillight and ordered at gunpoint out of the car was choked out, he argued that his constitutional rights were violated in part, because of his race.  The court ruled against him, too, saying that :
Lyons would have had to allege that not only would he have another encounter with the police but also to make the incredible assertion either (1) that all police officers in Los Angeles always choke any citizen with whom they have an encounter whether for the purpose of arrest, issueing a citation for questioning, or (2) that the City ordered or authorized the police to act in such manner.  p.129 (cited)
Together, these cases create an environment where racial bias does not exist unless the policeman or the department says out  loud  “I don’t like black people and I am doing this because you are black.” 

Utterly ridiculous.   We have made race legally impossible to see outside of explicitly stated personal intent.

I find it fascinating (horrifying) that our inability to see race is reflected in our laws.  The only racism that exists in white society is clearly expressed interpersonal hostility.  What does this mean?  How should we understand this?  A deep psychoanalysis seems in order.  Is there is a deep epistemological problem of whiteness in here, or is it just a natural function of power?  When your world is the norming norm, you can explain everything and narratives that disturb it are outlawed for convenience.  

So much so, it seems that even Christians submit to western explanatory power over the Gospel.  "We're all God's children" becomes a way to ignore difference instead of a reason to listen to other narratives.  And there is a deep way we ignore, systemically, that we are still the ones who put Jesus on the cross; we are the Romans.  Our best laws and order still kill the Christ.  We believe in our rightness, not our forgiven wrongness.  Anyways, it was stunning to be talking about the difficulty whiteness has in seeing structural injustice and then opening the book and seeing it in our laws.  There's really no new news here, so in summary and in conclusion, I find these three things at work together somehow; an emphasis on personal interaction, a private salvation, and our societal legal structure; but only God can save.

August 21, 2014

10 Confessions

Ok, to keep the blog rolling, some things that I have been chewing on, in addition to Ferguson, over the past few weeks: a little narcissistic sketch of my inner life.

1. I may be a theobrogian by birth.  I grew up on the CA coast: everyone I knew was a dude or bro. brojah, brojicima, lamer, boze, barn' - a host of local talk.  But I don't want to be a theobrogian unaware of my social position and white-supremacy in the world; not rigidly unable to decenter my own views and position, not tone deaf to other voices, especially those oppressed or hampered by the societal system I profit in.  

2. Last Sunday I tried to speak on Ferguson.  Woke up that morning from terrible nightmare.  Right before service, our host church had a domestic violence confrontation, but did so in a way that moved the conflict right in the middle of our Sunday school. Coincidence? There is a deep spiritual component to racism.  Prayer and action are inseparable.  I want to talk about it at church, but not online.  There are more, better places to learn from people who know.  Ill try and post up a bunch of links, but until then, check the Twitter.

3. But of course all that happened was normal: this is the way the world is, and church has to be a choice between escaping and dealing with the way this world is.  I am excited to study The New Jim Crow together.  The immigration issue still looms large for us.  I don't know how to grow in a way that brings folks along in this, and wonder why the Holy Spirit doesn't convict more.

4. I really don't know enough about Bultmann and Husserl.  I have always aspired to.  Now? Not so sure.  It really doesn't mean much to my church in a practical way, and I don't see it addressing the world's problems. What I really lack is any kind of political theology at all.

5. Weird conversations with family ahead around 2A supporters as racist - look how they abandoned Ferguson.  Also that the Washington football team name is racist...  People are quick to regard the power inherent in language as "P.C." to dismiss it.

6.  ISIS seriously challenges my nonviolent convictions.  Is it right to stand by without intervening on behalf of the Yazidi?  Are there other ways to intervene while people are being beheaded?  Is this, as the Pope opined, a justifiable use of force?  For how long?  What is a faithful, responsible nonviolent strategy?

7.  My inner life theology is screwed up.  I hear the call to lose my life as a denial that life is good.  So give it away.  By this distortion, it would be better if I were not here; more resources for everyone else.  I sometimes relate to God as a consumer of souls, not a provider.  Sin.  And weird sin.  I dont hear people talk about this feeling.

8. My fear is that people who are in ministry and screwed up are ultimately more successful and effective (faithful?) in the Kingdom of God.  It seems the more rigid and assured you are, the more you can accomplish.  I often feel like deep seated unresolved issues work themselves out as passion, dedication and energy for the mission.  So I know all these amazing people doing great things, with great platforms, but I don't trust them or feel safe around them.  But then, I don't feel effective, either.  I also feel too damn old to be worried about this.

May God bend out the kinks.

July 11, 2014

a book review: Playing God

Things I learned about Andy Crouch in Playing God:
·He is a white man in a traditional family.
·He listens to classical music.
·He voted against Obama in 2008
·He believes institutions are vital 
·He believes privilege is good, if dangerous
·He believes power is good.

Of course, there is much more he reveals about himself, but I suspect that how you view the list above will determine how you receive the book.  Many will find it an affirmation of what they already believe and many will dismiss it out of hand – which would be a shame.  It has a lot to offer, particularly for  small groups and various church discussions.  For this I am excited.

The argument of the book is that power is basically good, but fallen in our world.  He tugs at scripture to demonstrate that God’s power is creative for our flourishing with the Imago Dei but distorted by the Fall.   Thus, he links idolatry and injustice in a clear fashion in the first section.  The next section details how power moves in people, hidden or not, and claims that force, coercion and violence are not synonymous with power.  I especially liked his examination of short-term missions here.  Because of these lexical distinctions, he can affirm coercion as moral suasion, a necessary use of power, if only to limit evil.  In the third section he highlights how institutions are vessels of power meant to help humans flourish and this I think is probably the section that raises the most eyebrows. 

The final section is an familiar IVP ending, full of personal anecdotes and practical disciplines meant to tie people to the great themes explored earlier.  It feels oddly disconnected from the rest of the book and the typical study guide questions sure to follow conjured in my head.  Honestly, for a book that so easily dismisses Nietzsche, Foucault, and much of the 20th centuries’ philosophical achievement, it would have been nice to read a more robust engagement instead of the tried and true IVP formula of; Bible talk-big idea with illustration-personal anecdote, stir to taste.  I’m not saying it’s bad-it’s probably pedagogically effective, but after decades of reading IVP, its too familiar… There seems to be a disconnect between the books form and the gravity of the subject.  (Interestingly, this final section is really the place the church is mentioned as a witness to an alternative kind of power.)

Allow me to say something unfair:   I am not sure how Jesus is required to make sense of power in “Playing God.”  Jesus does not seem material to the discussion. Of course, triumphing over the powers is mentioned, but there is not enough analysis of how Jesus' power might be different from the world's, and this creates confusion in light of the emphasis on institutions.  In fact, it is striking that such a book does not waste much ink portraying love as the ultimate expression of power; naming power as love, or defining  power as God’s self-giving.  The emphasis falls instead on a human flourishing that makes space for others creatively.

So"Playing God” describes power in fashion recognizable to anyone regardless of creed, which leads me to wonder what is specifically Christian about the book's notion of power.  Now of course, that's unfair to say - clearly "Playing God" is rooted in the Christian Story- but other then affirming God wins, is the New Testament needed at all to describe power as Crouch does?  The Barthian in me wants to call it an Old Testament consideration without enough reference to revelation, and the Anabaptist in me wants to examine the role of institutions, especially the church (!) in participating in this power.  Is the problem with power in the world simply that it strays and we just need to set it back on track?  Was Jesus only operating with power that was already in the world?

In the end I am uneasy about this book.  I am uneasy with a white evangelical author discussing power without examining how power shapes perceptions and epistemology.  I am uneasy with US citizens asserting the necessity and good of institutions without discussing the genocide of Indigenous Peoples here.  Racism as  way of knowing is not addressed, important, I think, for a white author asserting things about power.  There are big questions of immanence and natural law in the background, here, of theodicy and the substance of Christ.  Of course, he did not set out to write a systematic theology, so my expectations may be unfair, but I think we must at least address Christendom if we are to talk about power.

At its best, the book stands as a subtle rebuke to evangelicals for losing hope and not pursuing justice; not hoping for local and large scale change.  It might be a good example of Brueggeman's theology from above. At worst, the book serves as a defense of an improved status quo.  It puts a lot of eggs in the evangelical basket of culture making; placing our hopes in whether or not we can get institutions to roll over and make nice.  Interestingly, it might be a return to an earlier progressive, Christianity. 

And yet for all my concerns about the theological shortcomings of the book, I paused and wondered if I should comment at all.  When I read of the work Crouch does with International Justice Mission, a strange stillness crept over me, an awe about the effective application of love in our world, practical and liberating.  His description of World Vision’s work, both good and bad, was honest and compelling.  I cannot fully agree with his vision of power, but I cannot dismiss it either, and am grateful for his thoughtful work in the name of Jesus.