Becoming the Church of Creative Dissent

abu-ghraib-crucifixionMy friend Claire McKeever sent me a brilliant essay on the Church of Dissent. When we fail to live up to the calling and values of this church we end up with statistics like those from the recent Pew study that shows “Christians” in larger numbers support torture.

But we only get a Church of Dissent if dissent, revision, and creativity is what we preach from the pulpit and practice on the streets.

Read Claire’s theological examination of The Torturers’ Manifesto from Sunday’s New York Times.

The Church of Revision, Dissent, Prayer
A Constructive Statement on the Church and Government
by Claire McKeever

The New York Times reports in the The Torturer’s Manifesto that Jay Bybee, currently a federal judge of the United States, is described as writing “admiringly about a contraption for waterboarding that would lurch a prisoner upright if he stopped breathing while water was poured over his face.” Also from Sunday’s Times, it is reported that bills offering in-state tuition costs to illegal immigrants in New Jersey face strong opposition and that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, two of the wealthiest people in the world, have now dedicated their combined budgets to the fight against extreme poverty. As Bono notes in this op-ed, both Gates and Buffett are agnostic. Then, Bono ends his piece with, “Not all soul music comes from the church.” All you have to do is peruse the Times and it becomes glaringly obvious that the age-old faith of Christians seems just that—age-old.

What does Christian faith have to say to these issues? What do practices of torture in the United States imply for those of us who profess to follow a God of life? It is the scariest thing for me to sit in a church pew every Sunday morning, surrounded by people who profess to have faith in Christ, yet for this faith to mean nothing when we leave the pew, close the hymnal and take off our Sunday dress. Even more terrifying is for me to witness the voices and bodies of church members, purported faithful followers of Jesus, saying, “I don’t care.” It terrifies me that Bono may be right; that not all soul music comes from the church, and I want to scream in response, “Why?”

Dorothee Soelle reflected that it is the guilt of sin in Christians that creates apathy; yet, through justification and reconciliation in Jesus, we are freed from that guilt. We are able, then, to enter into what Peter Hodgson calls “The Freedom Project,” or what Walter Rauschenbusch called the “Kingdom of God.” Thus, it is when we move from this place of inaction and apathy, when we let go of the guilt that plagues us that this “soul music,” this “freedom project,” this “kingdom of God,” will be sung from the church once again. Christians, bound together as the community of Christ and within and through the Church , can and will affect social and political change, specifically when applied to the United States’ practice of torture. We, as Christians bound together in community, will affect this change by engaging in constant revision, by entering into practices of dissent and by engaging in “narrative and prayer” as forms of protest.

In Chapter Three of Ellen Ott Marshall’s Christians in the Public Square, Ott Marshall explains the first tenet of theological humility as “admitting limitations.” This theological humility, according to Ott Marshall, comes from the tradition and influence of liberal theology, which states, “Faith is always the starting point of a conversation, never the final word.” While I agree that faith is a starting point for conversation, the faith I purport should also be a faith in which an end is not necessary; or, a faith in which the language we use to discuss such things is transformed. If we truly enter into critical engagement and revisionist thinking, as Ott Marshall advocates, the process lends itself to such an outcome that will never throw the gavel down and call it a day. Instead, we work in and through our faith toward creation, new beginnings and renewal so our faith, as an end, is rendered impossible. Perhaps liberal theology and Ott Marshall could shift this statement to read, “Faith informs so that an end becomes the beginning.” Regardless of the semantics, this new creation is only feasible, as I agree with Ott Marshall, when “claims of faith are held accountable to other sources of knowledge.”

Take, for instance, the issue of torture as a welcomed, common and supported practice in the United States, especially during the Bush/Cheney years. In the op-ed previously mentioned, “The Torturer’s Manifesto,” the writer calls for an “equal commitment to accountability” from the current White House Administration and details the lack of accountability surrounding torture practices during the previous administration. When applying the practice of revision to the horror of torture practices within the United States, the imperative of faith becomes obvious. Faith must inform this issue if it is faith in a God who came to give life and life abundant. From that starting point, then, the Christian asks in relation to government how this faith not only informs, but moreso revises and renews this issue.

According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The state which endangers the Christian proclamation negates itself.” From Bonhoeffer’s point of view, when the state ceases to serve certain ends, the church has a right to do certain things. Thus, neither the church nor the state exists apart from one another; rather, they are in relationship with each other. In this case, the Church’s purpose is to call attention to the issue of legally supported torture practices in the United States. Torture clearly “endangers the Christian proclamation” of love. A call to accountability and transparency from a perspective of faith is necessary. When people are dehumanized, brutalized and tortured at the hands of a government that claims to be for and by the people, it becomes the duty of the Church (the community of believers in Christ) to ask for whom the government is for and by. It becomes the call of the Church to bring forth alternative arguments and a voice of accountability to the wrongs that are incurred in the name of democracy. Bonhoeffer also continually asked what it meant to be the “living, confessing, struggling church” in a time of political and social unrest. For Bonhoeffer, the Church’s place “is that place of Christ present in the world.” Therefore, it is our duty, as the community of Christ, to continue manifesting Christ’s presence in the world. This means that when the world accepts torture, we, as Christians, do not condone it and speak out against it. Following a God of life in the midst of a life of death forces the Church to discern Christ’s presence in the world through revision, accountability and alternate vision.

Next, as the Church responds to practices of torture in the United States, its engagement in dissent is necessary. The Church of Dissent is the Church I wish to join. Martin Luther King, Jr. helps inform this conversation in his essay, “A Testament of Hope,” in which he claims, “This dissent is America’s hope.” What he means by “this dissent” are the voices asking, “[Is] security for some being purchased at the price of degradation for others?” King describes this as a question that defies evasion. Indeed, it is a question that while King meant it in the context of race and class issues, applies now to the issue of torture policies in the United States.

The New York Times op-ed reports, “After all, as far as Mr. Bush’s lawyers were concerned, it was not really torture unless it involved breaking bones, burning flesh or pulling teeth.” Here, King’s hope for dissent becomes the Church’s imperative. For, when it becomes acceptable to do everything but breaking bones, burning flesh and pulling teeth, the Church must engage in the practice of dissent in order to provide an alternate vision and voice to the principalities and powers that govern our lives. While I agree with Dr. King, I take the idea of the Church of dissent further to be not only the Church of dissent, but moreso the Church of creation through dissent. It is one thing to present an opposing voice and quite another to present an opposing viewpoint that also has a solution and a new construction. The Church of Dissent must show that the only reason we dismantle systems in the first place is so that we can establish new, more just ones in their stead.

King ends A Testament of Hope with a picture of Jesus of Nazareth, one who “wrote no books, owned no property to endow him with influence, had no friends in the courts of the powerful.” This Jesus, from King’s perspective, with no power and no influence, “changed the course of [human]kind with only the poor and the despised.” As the Church claims to follow this Jesus of whom King speaks, it is paramount to pay attention to whose voices are present in the conversation. The Church, as it engages in dissent, only works when the voices of those oppressed and ignored are included. The Church “avoids becoming established in some privileged place, ” and, indeed, seeks to establish itself in the midst of the poor and oppressed so that we become co-laborers, co-creators, co-conspirers in this practice of dissent. The Church of Dissent that I propose is the Church engaged in a radical politics that sees this as a form of the Gospel. If Jesus is on the side of the oppressed, then so are we.

Furthermore, the Church of Dissent engages in “means that are as pure as the end.” Therefore, any attempt of the Church to dismantle torture cannot, at its center, engage in violence. This includes violent actions towards all of God’s creation. The means by which we arrive at newly created systems, structures and practices must employ, at its root, an ethic of preservation, respect and care for all involved in this thing we call life. So, when we gather every November to protest the School of the Americas we stand in dissent towards not only the torture practices taught by the school, but also to torture inflicted on all inhabitants of the earth. The telos, for King, was one of nonviolence. Therefore, the Civil Rights movement employed thousands of people in the practices of nonviolence in order to present an alternative to the ferocity inflicted upon Black people in the United States. Indeed, when Christ said, “Turn the other cheek,” King took it seriously. This, then, is the Jesus we, as people of dissent, as the community of believers in Jesus Christ, should take seriously when we live in a country who excuses practices of torture as commonplace and acceptable.

Finally, we engage in “narrative and prayer” as forms of protest. The Church, instead of sitting quietly within its four walls, engages in liturgy that resembles the prophets of the Hebrew Bible—those individuals, called by God to edify, exhort and console. The Church’s liturgy becomes public through creative endeavors that are no longer confined to church buildings and pews. Practicing narrative and prayer as forms of protest forces us to think outside of the box. Within this framework we begin seek an alternative vision. We envision church members building community gardens on their church lawns, organizing a prayer vigil the night before and the day of a capital punishment killing, uttering poetry of protest through both prayer and song in response to the acquiescence to torture of any kind.

Both Soelle and Desmond Tutu advocated this practice. Tutu practiced liturgy as a form of exorcism. Engaging in the life and worship of church life, for Tutu, was his way of emptying his heart, soul and mind of the evil of the world and filling it with the love of God. Tutu’s church was one involved with the world. In fact, Tutu claimed, “The church which seeks to be uninvolved with the world is one that worships a God other than the God found in Christ.” The God found in Christ, for Tutu, is one “who has created us for the divine life.” It is this divine life that we, according to Tutu, bring to the world as Christians and as the Church. For Soelle, engaging in poetry as prayer was essential to living a radical Christian life. She saw it as an “enormous affirmation of human creativity” that every human being can pray. Within prayer that is inherent to our humanness, protest to things counter to prayer, poetry and song occurs. Thus, in response to torture, we, as the Church not just of dissent, but now also of creativity, poetry, narrative and prayer, stand in opposition through our public liturgy. We offer, at the School of the Americas protest, a vision and a voice through song, poetry and prayer. According to Soelle, “When people try to say with the utmost capacity for truthfulness what really concerns them, they offer prayer and are poets at the same time.” As a result, when we stand in opposition to torture, our very attempt to stand in “truthfulness” is our prayer and poetry of protest offered to God and for others.

Even now, as I sit writing this paper, I listen to Tracy Chapman sing “Don’t you know I’m talkin’ bout a revolution/sounds like a whisper/Poor people gunna rise up and get their share.” Her words invoke protest through their poetic form. Her words speak outside of the walls of the church to a world in desperate need of something creative, real, true. Opponents to this way of thinking might ask, “But what will your practices of revision, dissent and prayer yield? How will this really affect the government’s practices of torture?” If the community of God in Christ is one that truly exists to love, then this love must be a love that constantly seeks justice. The practices of revision, dissent and prayer have at their very root the essence of love and justice. We revise in order to ask questions and remain in relationship with the state. We dissent in order to create new systems; systems that do not tolerate violence and torture of any kind. We pray through song, poem and narrative in order to think outside of the box, in order to push the limits of our creative ability.

The Broadway musical, Rent, proclaims, “The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation!” I am convinced that until we engage in practices of revision, dissent and creation the Church will remain irrelevant and dead to a world that desperately needs alternative solutions to the problems it faces. The Church should never operate from a place of fear; for, if, as liberal theology claims, that God is a God of freedom, “the perfect instantiation of freedom,” then God also grants freedom from a state of fear. Furthermore, because God in Christ frees us from guilt, apathy and inaction are no longer possible. Rather, we work as the community of Christ to create anew. To the supported practice of torture, we not only say, “No,” we also propose a different way—a way of love and justice; a way that engages in means that are as pure as the end. In the end, the Church of Dissent is one which stands in solidarity with one another, constantly asking how its faith is confessed in the world, and when it sees that its faith becomes stagnant and uncreative, it revises, shifts, moves to a place of new beginning, new dissent, new construction. Indeed, if the Church wishes to preserve its relationship with the state, if the Church seeks to have a voice within the walls of power and privilege then it must be willing to engage in the practices of revision, dissent and prayer in order to survive. Perhaps this is what will create “soul music” that originates in the Church. A Church that is not confined to walls, pews and hymnals of old, but a Church that is active in the world seeking peace that creates and justice that restores. –Claire McKeever

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