On the Outskirts of the Enlightenment: Prophets, Power, and Post-Modernism

Why is this issue of the end of modernism and the beginning of post-modernism of interest to Christians?  I’m working my way through an academic paper by Jesuit priest Hugues Deletraz on Post-Modernism Opens New Perspectives for Evangelization (see earlier post ‘Modernism has reached its limits‘) to understand what are the marks of this shift and how it helps us understand changes in institutional Christianity today.

While reading Deletraz’ paper, I also picked up Hopeful Imagination by Walter Brueggemann. I love Walter’s deep Bible study and contemporary wisdom drawn from the ancient sources. (I have the honor and pleasure of working right now as his editor at Sojourners while he’s writing Living the Word, our monthly lectionary reflections, for us.)

by Banksy

In Hopeful Imagination, Walter compares and contrasts the eras of the biblical prophets around the time of the destruction of the Temple in 587 BCE with our current shift from  modernism to post-modernism. His premise is that the loss of the authority of the priestly dynasty and the temple in Jerusalem is analogous to the loss of certainty, centralized authority, legitimacy, and dominance in our own times. Here’s what he says:

“A variety of scholars are calling attention to the prospect that Enlightenment modes of power and Enlightenment modes of knowledge are at the end of their effective rule among us.  All of us are children of the Enlightenment. That cultural reality of the last 250 years has brought us enormous gifts of human reason, human freedom, and human possibility. None of us would want to undo those gifts, but they are gifts not without cost. The reality of the Enlightenment has also resulted in the concentration of power in monopolistic ways which have been uncriticized. Moreover, it has generated dominating models of knowledge which have been thought to be objective rather than dominating.

The evidence grows that the long-standing concentration of power and knowledge which constitutes our human world is under heavy assault and in great jeopardy. God’s work at transforming our world is apparent in the rise of Third World nations, the emergence of Islam as a vigorous political force, and the visibility of a variety of liberation movements. In the midst of such realities, we discover the ineffectiveness of old modes of power. American military and economic power is of course considerable, but it is not everywhere decisive. The limit of such power is matched by the limit of Enlightenment modes of knowledge, for we are coming to see that such “scientific” knowledge no longer carries authority everywhere. There is increasing suspicion of such knowledge because it has long been in the service of domination. Such knowledge arranges reality in ways that are not disinterested. Technique becomes a mode of control, and that mode is no longer easily or universally addressed.

Trust in these conventional modes of power and knowledge is matched by a growing uneasiness when those modes are critiqued or rejected.”–Walter Brueggemann (Hopeful Imagination, p. 5-6)

The question that runs through the communities addressed by the biblical prophets — particularly Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and second Isaiah — during the paradigm shift brought on by the destruction of the Temple and the forced emigration of the Hebrews is this: Are the promises of God strong enough to deal with the current collapse of our “known world”?

It’s a question we are still asking.

Faith-Based Organic Farm in Central California Sets Table of Abundance

Ched Myers is one of my gospeler mentors. A gospeler is someone who sings the gospel – and Ched and Elaine do that with the way they live their lives. In their recent Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries‘ newsletter that Ched and Elaine are working with a local faith-based organic farm in the Oxnard Plain in Ventura County, California. It’s called the Abundant Table Farm Project. (I’m posting a couple of the Abundant Table’s inspiring videos below.

I thought the book introduction that Ched wrote for The Biblical Jubilee and the Struggle for Life by Ross and Gloria Kinsler was a nice set up for the Abundant Table story. He wrote:

“We read the gospel as if we had no money,” laments American Jesuit theologian John Haughey, “and we spend our money as if we know nothing of the Gospel.” Indeed, the topic of economics is exceedingly difficult to talk about in most First World churches, more taboo than politics or even sex. Yet no aspect of our individual and corporate lives is more determinative of our welfare. And few subjects are more frequently addressed in our scriptures.

The standard of economic and social justice is woven into the warp and weft of the Bible. Pull this strand and the whole fabric unravels. At the heart of this witness is the call to Sabbath and Jubilee, a tradition we might summarize in three axioms: The world as created by God is abundant, with enough for everyone— provided that human communities restrain their appetites and live within limits …

Here’s a 2-minute video about the Abundant Table Farm Project:

“We are a young intentional community of five interns (sisterfriends) living and working on a 10-acre family farm on the Oxnard Plain. Though we come from far and near, our internship grew out of the campus ministry founded by the Episcopal Church at California State University Channel Islands. To learn more about our organic farm and Community Supported Agriculture program, please visit www.jointhefarm.com.”

Senior producer Jim Melchiorre at Anglican Stories visited The Abundant Table Farmhouse Project, a young adult internship program of the Episcopal Service Corps. Below is his excellent 10-minute video.

Elizabeth Wilmshurst’s Testimony at the UK’s Iraq War Investigation Reads Like an Old Testament Prophet Battle

Elizabeth-Wilmshurst-001The UK is currently holding public hearings on the legality of their invasion of Iraq with the U.S. coalition. Was it legal to invade a sovereign nation without a resolution from the United Nations Security Council? Since I doubt we will ever have such an opportunity in the United States, I find it important to see what the Brits learn and what’s revealed as documents about the decision-making process are declassified.

Recently, Elizabeth Wilmshurst testified before the Chilcot Inquiry. She was the deputy legal adviser at the Foreign Office in the run up to the Iraq invasion in 2003. She was the only U.K. public official to publicly resign in protest after both she and Sir Michael Wood, the senior legal advisor at the Foreign Office, told the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith, that invading Iraq without UN support would be a breach of international law and Goldsmith advised Defense Minister Jack Straw and Prime Minister Tony Blair that it would not.

Her resignation letter was simple, but clear: “I cannot in conscience go along with advice – within the Office or to the public or Parliament – which asserts the legitimacy of military action without such a resolution, particularly since an unlawful use of force on such a scale amounts to the crime of aggression; nor can I agree with such action in circumstances which are so detrimental to the international order and the rule of law.

Goldsmith had flip-flopped on the issue. At first he agreed with Wilmshurst and Wood, but then changed his mind. In Wilmhurst’s testimony to the Chilcot Inquiry this week she explains his decision-making process. Here’s an excerpt:

SIR RODERIC LYNE: But then, on 7 March, [former UK attorney general Lord Goldsmith] came out with a different view [on whether the UK could invade Iraq without the permission of the UN Security Council], in which he stated that — he accepted that there was a reasonable case that could be made in favour of the revival argument. How did you see that position that he had adopted?

MS ELIZABETH WILMSHURST: Well, of course, I was sorry because I then had to consider my own position. But there were — there were two things that struck me about it. First, that he had relied, and he said he had relied, on the views of the negotiators of the resolution to change the provisional view that he had previously had, and the issue really is: how do you interpret a resolution or a treaty in international law and is it sufficient to go to individual negotiators, but not all negotiators, and ask them for their perceptions of private conversations, or does an international resolution or treaty have to be accessible to everyone so that you can take an objective view from the wording itself and from published records of the preparatory work? I mean, it must be the second. The means of interpretation has to be accessible to all. But the Attorney had relied on private conversations of what the UK negotiators or the US had said that the French had said. Of course, he hadn’t asked the French of their perception of those conversations. That was one point that I thought actually was unfortunate in the way that he had reached his decision, and the other point that struck me was that he did say that the safest route was to ask for a second resolution. We were talking about the massive invasion of another country, changing the government and the occupation of that country, and, in those circumstances, it did seem to me that we ought to follow the safest route. But it was clear that the Attorney General was not going to stand in the way of the government going into conflict.

In Wilmhurst’s written statement before the Chilcot Inquiry, she wrote:

I regarded the invasion of Iraq as illegal, and I therefore did not feel able to continue in my post. I would have been required to support and maintain the Government’s position in international fora. The rules of international law on the use of force by States are at the heart of international law. Collective security, as opposed to unilateral military action, is a central purpose of the Charter of the United Nations. Acting contrary to the Charter, as I perceived the Government to be doing, would have the consequence of damaging the United Kingdom’s reputation as a State committed to the rule of law in international relations and to the United Nations.

These testimonies read like the best of the battles between the biblical prophets. I’d liken Elizabeth Wilmshurst to Micaiah in 1 Kings 22:

Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, about four hundred men, and said unto them, Shall I go against Ramothgilead to battle, or shall I forbear? And they said, Go up; for the LORD shall deliver it into the hand of the king. And Jehoshaphat said, Is there not here a prophet of the LORD besides, that we might enquire of him? And the king of Israel said unto Jehoshaphat, There is yet one, Micaiah the son of Imlah, by whom we may enquire of the LORD: but I hate him; for he doth not prophesy good concerning me, but evil. … So he came to the king. And the king said unto him, Micaiah, shall we go against Ramothgilead to battle, or shall we forbear? And he answered him, Go, and prosper: for the LORD shall deliver it into the hand of the king. And the king said unto him, How many times shall I adjure thee that thou tell me nothing but that which is true in the name of the LORD? And Macaiah said, I saw all Israel scattered upon the hills, as sheep that have not a shepherd: and the LORD said, These have no master: let them return every man to his house in peace. And the king of Israel said unto Jehoshaphat, Did I not tell thee that he would prophesy no good concerning me, but evil?

But read the whole story for yourself, it’s breathtakingly current.




























Haiti: What Happens When A Fault Line Runs Between the Rich and the Poor?

LES MARCHANDES by Mari Hall
LES MARCHANDES by Mari Hall

Earlier I excerpted a section of Simon Barrow’s nice commentary over at Ekklesia in the U.K., titled Why Poverty and Wealth Remain the Issue.

I also wanted to run this section on “class quakes” as it relates to the horror we are seeing unfold in Haiti. “The most vulnerable,” writes Barrow, “are always in danger of being asked to bear the heaviest burden proportionately – in the same way that those at the bottom of a ladder engulfed in water will always have the most to lose from ‘everyone needing to step down a rung’.”

Very nice analogy. Here’s another excerpt from Simon’ piece:

…The values of the dominant political party system remain deeply warped by non-recognition of the real distortions that massive gaps between the rich and the poor, those with much power and those with little power, make in the real, workaday world. There is an air of profound unreality about our prevailing ‘realisms’, as there was about the ones that got us into a massive economic and environmental hole in the first place.

The one thing that can be guaranteed is that the most vulnerable are always in danger of being asked to bear the heaviest burden proportionately – in the same way that those at the bottom of a ladder engulfed in water will always have the most to lose from ‘everyone needing to step down a rung’. The impact of an appeal for ‘the same sacrifice from everyone’ is not equivalent, fair or just when the starting points and levels of exposure are so at variance.

This is most starkly evident in the horrific scenes we are witnessing from the Haitian earthquake zone right now. For the unspeakable catastrophe unfolding in one of the poorest places on the planet is not, pace the headlines, “a natural disaster” alone, and certainly not “an act of God.” On the contrary, while many would die in a 7.3 scale ’quake anywhere in the world, it is in a city built for and by the poor that the most people are destined to suffer beyond all measure. So, long after the initial horror, people are languishing and dying needlessly in Port au Prince simply because there is no infrastructure (social or otherwise) to speak of, there are virtually no foundations (literally), there is no insurance, there are no ambulances, no emergency supplies and no reserve resources to fall back on. Just misery and dependence on outside charitable assistance, in the short term at least. It is scandalous as well as humanly (and spiritually) harrowing to behold.

Back in the 1970s, I recall, the radical charity War on Want got into hot water for describing the seismic impacts in the Ancash region (Peru), in North Pakistan and in other poor regions as “class quakes” compared to those in developed countries, because economic vulnerability made such a huge difference to the size and extent of the resultant human suffering and death. They were quite right, however.

This is why, in so many areas of life, the rich-poor divide matters deeply, unfashionable though it is to say this in a world where many politicians consider themselves ‘post ideological’ — and by that mean that they see such ‘divisive’ talk as ‘rabble rousing’. Which brings us, by a circumlocutory route, to the Bible.

The biblical texts of Christians and Jews have more to say about the iniquity of wealth and the oppression of poverty than they do on any other ethical issue. When liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez first spoke of God’s corrective ‘bias to the poor’ and the corresponding ‘option for the poor’ required of the church, it was not Marx they were referencing but the deep wells of scripture.

Yet today, when it comes to the Bible, many Christians choose to argue about a handful of texts allegedly concerning sexuality (a concept that was actually unknown in the ancient world from which they derive), rather than focusing on a multitude of verses describing and condemning the lesions of those who suffer injustice and deprivation – sometimes on a scale, as in Haiti, which modern secular vernacular still ironically refers to as being “of biblical proportions.”

The American evangelical social activist, Jim Wallis, sometimes still tells the tale of how, upon realising the scale of biblical concern for the gap between rich and poor, he decided, as a student, to try removing with scissors every single scriptural phrase about wealth and poverty. What he ended up with was a ‘hole-y Bible’, one shredded of both content and meaning.

Faced with deprivation, marginalisation, inequality, injustice and the shrinking of life circumstances wherever they may occur (‘poverty’ is a word that points to a host of these symptoms of exclusion, all with a root in economic life), Christians today should recognise a clarion call to action, to the building of alternatives, to the holding of power to account, and to the development of different viewpoints and practices from ‘the norm’.

For as Leo Tolstoy once put it (and here again, I paraphrase): “food purely for my own contentment is a material concern; but food for my hungry neighbour – that’s a spiritual issue.” The same aphorism may be applied in many different situations, wherever deprivation and disadvantage reigns: in absolute poverty, and in the relative kind too. In Africa and Asia, and in an American ghetto or a European sink estate as well. Dividing the poor from one another is wrong. What we need to do instead is to share the wealth around.

Read the whole commentary here.

Gustavo Gutierrez: Who Are the Rich?

Gustavo Gutierrez
Gustavo Gutierrez

Simon Barrow over at Ekklesia in the U.K. has a nice commentary Why Poverty and Wealth Remain the Issue.

Simon’s got a great anecdote about Gustavo Gutierrez, the “father of Liberation Theology” (or “really just the uncle,” as Gutierrez told me once).

In my experience, where you talk about wealth and poverty makes a huge difference in the conversation. A conversation that happens in a corporate board room at the World Bank will come to a radically different conclusion than the one had in a tin-roofed home in Sonsonate, El Salvador.

Here’s an excerpt:

Some years ago the Latin American theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez, was addressing a large international Christian audience on the subject of biblically-informed responses to poverty. Someone got up from the audience and asked pointedly, ‘But really, professor, who are the poor these days?’

This was a question he was often confronted with, Gutierrez noted. But it was invariably asked by a particular kind of person. Namely, someone who was not in any sense in danger of falling into poverty themselves!

Sit a group of wealthy people down and ask them to identify the poor, suggested the Peruvian “father of liberation theology” (who has spent a good deal of his own time and ministry working among the most vulnerable, oppressed and on-the-edge), and “they will argue about it until the cows come home, or until the kingdom of God comes, whichever is first.”

They will split opinions over ‘relative’ and ‘absolute’ poverty. They will earnestly ask whether someone living in a shack who has a small TV can really be classed as poor. They will debate measurements, guidelines, axes and thresholds for arriving at an adequate definition of ‘the poor’… before deciding, in all probability, that it is too complicated, that no-one really knows the solution, and perhaps that “poverty isn’t the only or even the most important issue” when confronting human need today.

Then they will most likely retire back to their own comfortable lives and put some money into a charity box dedicated to “those less fortunate” than themselves (ourselves).

By contrast, remarked Gutierrez, if you were to get together a group of people who know themselves to be poor – who struggle for daily survival, who are left out, who are made dependent because of their lack of resources – it will usually take them only a matter of seconds to answer the parallel question, “Who are the rich?” They will take one look at you, in comparison to themselves, and point their fingers of recognition.

Read the whole commentary here.

Why So Glum, Climate Change Movement?

happyplanetSo, the planets in peril. Yeah. That’s bad. But hand-wringing never solved anything. U.K.’s Giles Fraser, canon chancellor at St. Paul’s cathedral in London, says the motto “Let’s make huge sacrifices in order to make nothing happen” is not the way to run a successful social movement!

“The climate-change campaign needs a sense of can-do enthusiasm”, says Fraser.  The language of “hope” and “salvation” comes to mind as a way religious folk can contribute to a global shift in consciousness about all of us living lightly on the earth.

Here’s an excerpt from Fraser’s recent speech:

Why is the climate-change campaign failing to change hearts and minds? Or perhaps it is chang­ing hearts and minds (we all do our little bit: recycling, green toothpaste, and so on), but is failing to affect our fundamental thirst for energy which drives the deeper changes that are taking place. Why?

One explanation is that many climate-change campaigners sweat gloom about the future. That hardly gives them a Henry V leadership style. It can sometimes seem as if their message is that if we try extremely hard, then we can just about stop any more changes. In other words: let’s make huge sacrifices in order to make nothing happen. With that message, it is hard to imagine how you might persuade someone to get out of bed.

At Lambeth Palace last fortnight, religious leaders got together to press a different message. We are the generation that is being called on to be heroes, to make a difference, to save the planet. Now that is the right emphasis.

The climate-change campaign needs a sense of can-do enthusiasm. It would be really something if that was what faith leaders were able to add to the mix: replacing gloomy defeatism with a secularised version of something we call hope.

Moreover, we may find that those who have sneered at the very idea of salvation will come to see the importance of this type of language. A biblical-sounding crisis requires a language and a philosophy commensurate with the size of the threat.–Giles Fraser

Read the whole speech here.

Video: Bartimaeus Institutes and that Really Old Time Religion

bartimaeuslogo2There is no better Bible-buster/activist teaching today than Ched Myers and the good folks at Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries. Here are two up-coming residential week-long intensives–the Bartimaeus Institutes–in lovely Ventura County, CA, for you to check out. And watch the fantastic video! It’s visually rich and theologically exciting.

January 18-22: “A N.T. Theology and Diverse Practices of Restorative Justice and Peacemaking.” We are pleased to announce that Revs. Murphy Davis (right) and Eduard Loring of the Open Door Community in Atlanta will be joining Rev. Nelson and Joyce Johnson of the Beloved Community Center and Rev. Geoff Broughton from Sydney, Australia as special guests. Murphy and Nelson were interviewees for the second volume of Elaine & Ched’s Ambassadors of
Reconciliation project.

February 22-26: “Ecojustice, Sabbath Economics and Luke’s Gospel.” This Institute is co-sponsored by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, whose missionary Dorothy Stang (right) was martyred in Brazil five years ago. We’ll hear her story and Ched will look at Year C lections from the third gospel as they relate to our economic and environmental crisis.

Watch the video!

Merton on Falling Through the Roof

Thomas Merton was an Trappist monk, mystic, and writer who shaped modern American Catholicism. He lived in Kentucky for most of his life.

In the afternoon I went out to the old horse barn with the Book of Proverbs and indeed the whole Bible, and I was wandering around in the hayloft, where there is a big gap in the roof. One of the rotting floorboards gave way under me and I nearly feel through.
gingrich-farm-crop2 Afterwards I sat and looked out at the hills and the gray clouds and couldn’t read anything. When the flies got too bad, I wandered across the bare pasture and sat over by the enclosure wall, perched on the edge of a ruined bathtub that has been placed there for the horses to drink out of. A pipe comes through the wall and plenty of water flows into the bathtub from a spring somewhere in the woods, and I couldn’t read there either. I just listened to the clean water flowing and looked at the wreckage of the horsebarn on top of the bare knoll in front of me and remained drugged with happiness and with prayer.–Thomas Merton

Entering the Silence, Journals Volume 1. Jonathan Montaldo, editor (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997, p 363)

Second Wednesday in Advent

"The Holy Thing" by Bruce Manwaring
“The Holy Thing” by Bruce Manwaring

“Everyone should open their heart very wide to joy, should welcome it and let it be buried very deeply in them; and they should wait the flowering with patience. Of course, the first ecstasy will pass, but because in real joy Christ grows in us, the time will come when joy will put forth shoots and the richness and sweetness of the person who rejoiced will be Christ’s flowering.”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, ‘Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.’”Luke 1:26-28

The eight-day Jewish “Festival of Lights” called Hanukkah just concluded. It commemorates the victory of the Maccabees in reclaiming the temple in Jerusalem’s from the Greek-Syrian ruler Antiochus IV. As the people prepared to dedicate the temple, they realized they only had enough purified oil to kindle the menorah for a single day. Miraculously, the light continued to burn for eight days. Each evening of Hanukkah one more menorah candle is lit with a special blessing. The candles are not to be “used” for light, but only for enjoyment, savoring their beauty.

“We will prevail through the dark night,” sings Rabbi Shefa Gold in her Hanukkah song from Zechariah, “but not by might, and not by power, but by Your Spirit. These are the words of God.”

Jewish midrash tells an interesting story on how the first menorah was made. Apparently, Moses had a difficulty remembering God’s instructions on menorah making. Every time Moses left the mountain he would forget the pattern, so God engraved the design into the flesh of Moses palm. Torah scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg says that after this experience Moses’ hands took on new power. Later, when Moses instructs Joshua to lead the Israelite force against Amalek, Moses does not direct with his staff but only his open hands. “In this gesture, according to one midrash,” writes Zornberg, “ Moses models prayer to his people fighting below. In a surrealistic description, their involvement in battle is refigured as a miming of Moses’ prayerful gestures: ‘they saw Moses kneeling down, and they knelt down, falling upon his face and they fell upon their faces, spreading their hands to heaven.’” Whenever the people modeled Moses, they prevailed.

What a powerful image of nonviolent resistance! In the midst of a battle, all the Israelites knelt down to pray as Moses instructed them. “As long as the Israelites gazed upwards and submitted their hearts to God in heaven, they would prevail,” says the Mishna Rosh Hashana, “and if not, they would fail.”

What healing of the masculine to you need in your life?

Ad … vent. A d v e n t (slowly breathe in on the “Ad” part and out on the “vent” part)…There! You prayed today. Keep it up!

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..