First Monday in Advent

“Advent is a season of silence and rest with God. Take time to focus and examine your conscience. What is the shape of your emptiness? How are you still connected to God’s abiding beauty? This Advent, how will you fulfill the work of giving Christ life?”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“When Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.'” Matthew 8: 5-6

Advent is a time of ambiguity. It invites us to embrace conflicting images. Not to harmonize them into one, but to simply let our soul be tempered and strengthened by the fire this conflict creates.

In the story of the centurion asking Jesus to heal his servant, we have the warrior and the weak. Our imagination expects several things.

First, since Jesus has just healed a leper, one of the least of these, maybe he’s tired and doesn’t need to heal again.

Second, Jesus isn’t a collaborator with the Romans. Why would he even speak with a centurion—storm trooper of the state?

Third, we expect the mighty centurion to ask for something for himself or one of his family—not to act with compassion for a servant.

Finally, we don’t expect the Roman commander to become an occasion for Jesus to be amazed, saying, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.”

Today, pay attention to your response to ambiguity.

Breathe in. Breathe out. It’s Ad…..vent.

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

Martin Luther King: ‘Empire of Eternity’

“…although you live in the colony of time, your ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. … Therefore, your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to the nation, not to any man-made institution. The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will, it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it. You must never allow the transitory, evanescent demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of the Almighty God.”—Martin Luther King, “A Letter to Christians” (3 June 1958)

Jim Perkinson: The Social Movements of Jesus

catsJim Perkinson is a long-time activist and educator from inner city Detroit, where he has a history of involvement in various community development initiatives and low-income housing projects. He holds a PhD in theology from the University of Chicago and is in demand as a speaker on a wide variety of topics (especially race, class & colonialism). Our friends over at Radical Discipleship interviewed Jim on his 2014 work Messianism Against Christology: Resistance Movements, Folk Arts and Empire.

One could spend all of the season of Lent praying deeply with Jim’s first response:

Radical Discipleship: What’s the difference between “messianism” and “christology?”

Jim Perkinson: Messianism Against Christology: Resistance Movements, Folk Arts and Empire is a work committed to re-thinking the Christian tradition from the point of view of social movements rather than magnified individuals. Jesus was a movement man—as were Moses and Elijah before him, and John the Baptist alongside him. “Messianism” is a word drafted into service as a movement term. Rather than focus on a great individual called “Jesus” comprehended as “the Christ,” the book examines his effort as part of a broader resistance initiative. The social movement launched by John was already in motion when Jesus first opts to begin public action. Baptism under John’s hands meant plunging into a project centered on recovery of living relationship to the lower Jordan watershed. His movement “initiated” one into a new relationship with the land, based on much older traditions and skills of doing so, dating back to Israel’s “birth” as a maroon movement of slaves, walking out of imperial Egypt and being re-schooled for 40 years in the Sinai desert, under Moses. Re-imagined as “messianism,” “christo-logy”—the “logic” of the christos—is then profiled as referring to any initiative of courageous folk, who partially or fully step outside of an imperial domination system to begin recovery of a more just and sustainable way of dwelling in a local ecology or watershed. The focus is not on a “great man” idea of “salvation” (or “being made whole”), but on catching sight of the ways popular resistance can “open up” embodied memory of more indigenous ways of living in symbiotic reciprocity with a particular bioregion. “Salvation” or wholeness here is not aimed at some fraction of the person called a “soul,’ but an entire way of dwelling in a given locale. The emphasis is not on individual traits, but community relations between human beings and on that community’s return to a living relationship to local plants and animals, soils and waters, seasons and cycles. Any movement managing to invoke and partially embody that older ability (which we all shared at some point way back in our evolutionary history as hunter-gatherer peoples) is “read” as partially “incarnating” what we mean by “Christology.” I simply call it “messianism” to emphasize its movement character. …

Read the whole interview.

Richard Rohr: Losing Nonviolence … And Finding It Again

“I’m told that the word “nonviolence” did not exist (at least in the English and German languages) until the 1950s. There’s a reason for that: the notion didn’t exist in our consciousness. We didn’t create a word for it because we didn’t get it yet! When Gandhi came along, he pointed out that every religion in the world knows that Jesus of Nazareth taught and lived nonviolence except one religion—Christianity. In very short order, after Gandhi, this became obvious to many wise people throughout the world.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was the one who most influenced our American culture regarding nonviolence. That’s why I speak of it as a recovery of nonviolence. We had it, but we couldn’t hear it, especially after Christianity became the imperial religion. When you’re imperial, you can’t hear any talk of nonviolence. You have to be violent to be an empire. So after 313 AD, we pretty much lost the nonviolent teaching of Jesus and it was not recovered until the twentieth century. It’s sort of unbelievable, but in between, nonviolence was almost universally forgotten, denied, or ignored as Christianity needed to justify its own violence.”–Richard Rohr, OFM (Adapted from Fr. Richard’s teachings on his lineage)

Richard Rohr: The Political Subversion of ‘Jesus Is Lord’

“Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:10) was proclaimed by the early church as their most concise creedal statement. No one ever told me this was a political and subversive statement, until I studied the Scriptures. To say “Jesus is Lord” was testing and provoking the Roman pledge of allegiance that every Roman citizen had to shout when they raised their hand to the Roman insignia: “Caesar is Lord.” Early Christians were quite aware that their “citizenship” was in a new universal kingdom, announced by Jesus (Philippians 3:20), and that the kingdoms of this world were not their primary loyalty systems. How did we manage to lose that? And what price have we paid for it?

Jesus showed no undue loyalty either to his Jewish religion nor to his Roman-occupied Jewish country; instead, he radically critiqued both of them, and in that he revealed and warned against the idolatrous relationships that most people have with their country and their religion. It has allowed us to justify violence in almost every form and to ignore much of the central teaching of Jesus.–Richard Rohr, OFM

Adapted from Spiral of Violence by Richard Rohr.

Pete King is on the Wrong Track

Pete King is on the wrong track. In America, we don’t segregate people by where they go to church.

Faith leaders in New York, organized by Pax Christi/Long Island, sent a public letter this week to Rep. Peter King (R-NY) asking him to call off his hearing on Capitol Hill that promote Islamophobia. (Additionally, 50 Members of Congress did the same.) More than 80 religious and peace leaders signed the statement saying:

Protecting our nation requires allegiance to the fundamental values that give life to our democracy. A commitment to pluralism and respect for diversity are strengths in the fight against terrorism. We agree that law enforcement must find practical solutions to stop terrorism, whether these threats come from religious or non-religious extremists. Muslim-Americans have consistently denounced terrorism and worked closely with law enforcement to prevent violence. Building and maintaining trust with the Muslim community is crucial to furthering this cooperation, and we fear your hearings will only sow greater distrust and division at a time when unity and moral courage are needed. …

Let us remember the lessons of history. Entire communities should never be targeted for suspicion of disloyalty. During World War II, Japanese Americans were deprived of their rights and forced into internment camps because of blanket distrust of their commitment to our country. The McCarthy hearings became a shameful national spectacle that falsely impugned the loyalty and destroyed the lives of many Americans. Catholics were once demonized as threats to democracy beholden to a foreign power. Jews and African Americans have faced centuries of suspicion and prejudice. Today, Muslim-Americans in many communities face fierce opposition when they propose to build mosques and worship peacefully. A growing number of Muslims are victims of hate crimes. This bigotry and discrimination, rooted in fear and ignorance, diminishes us all and unfairly maligns Americans who teach our children, serve our country, live peacefully and believe in the American dream.

“I am disappointed that these religious leaders and peace advocates wish to obstruct my search for the truth,” King responded. “Obviously, I am going forward with my hearings into Muslim radicalization.”

Sr. Jeanne Clark, a member of Pax Christi/Long Island, has spoken eloquently about why Catholics should be very clear in condemning religious intolerance and should instead hold up examples of interreligious partnerships.

Over 80 religious leaders, social justice advocates and people of faith on Long Island sent the congressman a letter urging him to cancel these misguided hearings. Many of us recently gathered in prayerful protest in front of his office.

Although Congressman King has insisted that his hearings will focus on Islamic extremism, his own rhetoric suggests that he will cast a cloud of suspicion over the entire Muslim community. He told a radio host that radicals lead 80 percent of mosques and once described Muslims as “an enemy living amongst us.”

Leaders across the political spectrum agree that we must work together to prevent terrorist attacks. My opposition to King’s hearings isn’t motivated by “political correctness” or a naïve belief that evil does not exist in the world.

Rather, we need a different approach because I fear these hearings will undermine practical approaches to confronting violent extremism in all its forms and threaten our most inspiring ideals as a nation. –Sr. Jeanne Clark

No person who has sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution should be allowed to targeting a single religious group. It threatens democratic values and let’s the terrorists win.

As Christians we can read King’s approach through the biblical lens of empire. King’s rhetoric and actions are part and parcel of imperial projects bent on a strategy of “divide and conquer.” As Christians we hold an alternative vision, we practice a “divine counterstrategy” that elevates rich cultural diversity as part of what strengthens the human family.

Read all of Why Catholics Must Speak Out Against Islamophobia.
Read the letter sent by religious leaders to Pete King.

Jason Goroncy on Resisting Evil

New Zealander Jason Goroncy blogs down under at Per Crucem ad Lucem. I greatly appreciated his riffing off my earlier post Guantanamo: When Will it Get Foreclosed? and providing the deep theological framework necessary for understanding the times in which we live.

Jason is a Presbyterian Minister of Word and Sacrament who teaches theology, church history, and pastoral care, and serves as Dean of Studies, at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, the ministry training centre for the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. He writes:

Vince Boudreau’s book Resisting Dictatorship: Repression and Protest in Southeast Asia begins with these words:

There are times and places about which nothing seems more significant than the sheer energy and violence that states direct against basic freedoms. The snippets of information that filter from these dictatorial seasons – tales of furtive hiding and tragic discovery: hard times and uneasy sleep – describe lives utterly structured by state repression. Authoritarians bent on taking power, consolidating their rule or seizing resources frequently silence opponents with bludgeons, bullets and shallow graves, and those who find themselves in the path of the state juggernaut probably have trouble even imagining protest or resistance without also calculating the severity or likelihood of state repression. Such considerations surely influence whether individuals take action or maintain a frustrated silence, and will over time broadly shape protest and resistance. (p. 1)

My long interest in the people and politics of Burma, in particular, means that I think a lot about this kind of stuff, and particularly about how the community of God might witness to and in the midst of such situations where the abuses of authority birth such blatantly evil fruit and where the climate of hope has been beclouded in fear. [Rose Marie Berger’s recent post on Guantanamo: When Will it Get Foreclosed?, for example, recalled such fruit in another part of the world]. Certainly, all human relationships and institutions live under the constant threat of the abuse of power. And even a cursory reading of history will reveal that the Church too has been both victim and perpetrator of such abuse. (I am aware that already I have used the words authority and power interchangeably here. Certainly they are at least related, and the proper understanding and use of each will decide whether the ways being pursued bring the fragrance of life or the stench of death to a situation.)

The question Jason raises is this: How does the Church or Christians resist the Powers’ abuse as described by Boudreau? Do we take action or “maintain a frustrated silence”? And what are the “weapons of the spirit” with which God arms the friends of Jesus?

Jason explores the role of worship and deep relationship with those who are dispossessed in confronting the death-dealing forces in our world.

Read Jason’s whole post here.

What Wikileaks is Teaching Us about Empire

I’ve been going back and forth on what I think about the Wikileaks release of State Department cables. I generally come down on the side of Wikileaks, but the State Dept memos dump seemed more like a stunt, as opposed to the earlier release of Iraq material. Francis Shor’s essay, WikiLeaks, Ideological Legitimacy, and the Crisis of Empire, excerpted below, helped me analyze the information release and especially the dangerous backlash through the lens of how empires operate. Empires are almost always antithetical to the dreams of God for how humanity can be. They sacrifice human dignity and feed on fear.

Shor teaches at Wayne State in Detroit and wrote “Dying Empire: U.S. Imperialism and Global Resistance” (find more on the web site I particularly appreciate Shor bringing in Filipino scholar-activist Walden Bello, a leading defender of empowering the Global South.

While empires try to maintain their hegemony through economic and military prowess, they must also rely on a form of ideological legitimacy to guarantee their rule. Such legitimacy is often embedded in the geopolitical reputation of the empire among its allies and reluctant admirers. Once that reputation begins to unravel, the empire appears illegitimate. …

Given the battered economic and military standing of the United States over the past several years, the hysterical reaction of the American political class over the recent release of State Department cables by WikiLeaks is not surprising. However, it is instructive to note the response of those in the West to such “displays (of) imperial arrogance and hypocrisy” as reported by Steven Erlanger in The New York Times. Erlanger cites an important editorial from the Berliner Zeitung that underscores the question of ideological legitimacy: “The U.S. is betraying one of its founding myths: freedom of information. And they are doing so now, because for the first time since the end of the cold war, they are threatened with losing worldwide control of information.” …

In their desperation to retain the empire, the US political class is undermining the remaining vestiges of the empire’s legitimacy over the WikiLeaks affair. They may also be preparing to expand the definition of treason to include those who are dedicated, as is Assange and WikiLeaks, to freedom of information, especially when it reveals the duplicities of empire. Beyond WikiLeaks, the crisis of empire, according to Filipino scholar-activist Walden Bello, “bodes well not only for the rest of the world. It may also benefit the people of the United States. It opens up the possibility of Americans relating to other people as equals and not as masters.” …

Read the full essay here.

Christian Support for Repealing DADT Is a Double-Edged Sword

Most Americans – including Christians – now support equal rights for gays and lesbians serving in the US military.

A new poll by the Pew Research Center indicates that 58 percent of Americans support equal rights for gays and lesbians in the armed forces. Large majorities of Democrats (70%) and independents (62%) favor allowing gays to serve openly. Republicans are divided (40% favor, 44% oppose).

But let’s look at the religious breakdown too:
62 percent of white mainline Protestants support equal rights for gays in the military
52 percent of black Protestants support equal rights
66 percent of Catholics favor allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly

Let me be clear, I’m very glad to have Christians moving toward a strong stance in support of equal rights for gays and lesbians in all sectors of society. This is a positive step forward for the society at large and Christians should be part of it.

The Pentagon report released yesterday finds significant support for repealing DADT among the the younger “blue collar warriors,” while a vocal minority of top brass will be uncomfortable with the shift. And don’t get me wrong, I want the churches to continue to support fair and equal treatment for gays and lesbians.

However, there are other sticky questions I want to raise.

Are the Christians that want a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell also supporting gays and lesbians within their own churches? Do they advocate for LGBT justice and liberation? Do they invest in and promote gay and lesbian leadership and open their congregations to new, liberating ways of reading scripture in the context of the LGBT life experience?

Secondly, are the Christians that want a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell also calling into question military service in a era when the U.S. has the second largest standing army in the world (behind China) and has troops stationed on all 6 inhabited continents?

I can support equal rights for gays in the military – but there’s the bigger question: As a Christian should I be supporting military participation at all? And how do Christians critique the prevailing “Empire consciousness” and offer instead our “prophetic imagination” or “alternative consciousness,” as theologian Walter Brueggemann calls it, on issues of war and peace?

If Christians are supporting the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, then are they also advocating strong teaching in their churches on the Christian pacifist tradition or the rigorous moral “just war” process that any Christian – gay or straight – must go through before participating in any given war?

When Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God,” what does he mean? Or when he says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you”? Or “To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic”?

Early generations of Christians refused to participate in war (though those who did were counseled and sometimes asked not to seek communion for a period of time, but were not cut off from community). Soldiers who subsequently converted to Christianity often left military service, viewing it as incompatible with their new life.

Why? Largely because of idolatry. Military service forced them to put the gods of nationalism ahead of the God of Jesus Christ. Military service also fostered hatred for an enemy, an attitude viewed as antithetical to Christ’s teachings. “Love of enemies is the principal precept of the Christian,” said the Tunisian theologian Tertullian in the first century. Until the time of Constantine no Christian writing allowed for Christians to participate in war. Military valor was not a virtue. True victory was won through love.

In a democracy that enshrines civil rights and “justice for all,” it is right and good for Americans to support the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and promote LGBT civil rights in the society at large.

Christians, however, have another set of values to examine. For traditionalists it may be whether you can be gay and Christian. For progressives, it’s whether you can be Christian and ‘Army Strong.’

Rose Marie Berger, author of Who Killed Donte Manning?, is a Catholic peace activist and regular writer on faith and justice.

Rand Paul and Other Sad Examples of Dehumanizing Empire

Sometimes everyday life is just a little too coarse, a little too violent. Rand Paul’s ignorant undermining of the Civil Rights Act makes me feel terribly sad. The guys who whip through stop signs in their $40,000 Lexuses stun me with their arrogance, smallness, and stunted sense of generosity. The fact that the families of the 11 oil roustabouts killed in the BP rig explosion had no bodies to bury (see a moving NPR report here) makes me irrationally angry. I want BP and Transocean and Halliburton executives to have to look on the bodies of the men they killed.

"Bleeding World" by Salvador Dali

And yet, I’m trying to hold all this in biblical context. These are all examples of  the excesses of Empire. This is the absurdity or vanity or meaninglessness that Qoheleth addresses at the opening of Ecclesiastes. “Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” (1:2).

One of the products of Empire in the bible is a constant dehumanizing pressure on the people that leads to a “culture of despair.”

“Anguish reigns, the spirit is crushed, life is diminished and paralyzed. All of us, in some way, for different reasons, have felt this sensation of closed horizons. For this situation, even though it seems incredible, the book of Ecclesiastes has something to say,” writes Mexican liberation theologian Elsa Tamez.

(For more on this, read Tamez’s brilliant interpretation of Ecclesiastes called When the Horizons Close.)

The opposite of the “monoculture” demanded by Empire is the Pentecost movement that blows uncontrollably, creating a generative “togetherness” out of dizzying diversity. It’s this violent Wind of God that blows down the idols of Empire and restores the unique “tongues of the people.” The Spirit undoes the Empire’s “cash English” (see Acts 2) and restores the parlance of poetry.

Into this context comes Benedictine Joan Chittister’s reflection  from her new book Uncommon Gratitude: Alleluia For All That Is .

Unity is more than solidarity and more than uniformity. Unity, ironically, is a commitment to becoming one people who speak in a thousand voices. Rather than one message repeated by a thousand voices, unity is one message shaped by a thousand minds.

In times of great social change, as now, in times when the very foundations of life are in threat of collapsing, as now — when the very nature of life and death, of spirit and matter, of mind and body, of technology and people — are in question, the temptation is to avoid the ambiguities of the future by requiring the institutionalization of the past. Then churches tell people what they can think and governments tell people what they can’t do, the courts make law and the military makes weapons. Then everything is made to look united again, but nothing really is.

The kind of unity that is born out of differences and becomes the glue of a group has four characteristics: it frees, it enables, it supports, and it listens. A group that is genuinely unified is a group that has freed every member to be themselves. In fact, the truly united group knows that every idea, every voice, counts in the process of idea formation.

Without the collection of ideas, no consensus is possible. Then the group is reduced to the kind of compliance that wilts in the noonday sun.

Then we begin to hear: “Well, I never thought it was a good idea in the first place.” Then we know that even at the height of its power, underneath it all the group lacked heart.

For the freedom to ask questions without reprisal in the face of contrary concepts, sing alleluia. To seek unity means that enabling people to speak without fear and without hesitation must become the cornerstone of discussion. Ideas must be sought out. Answers must be elicited. Hesitations must be defined. Cautions must be honored before unity in diversity is possible. But when it comes, sing alleluia because then all the talents of the population are wholeheartedly engaged in the enterprise.

For a people to know unity they must also know the support that comes when people who speak another truth are as respected for that perception as they would have been for agreeing with the majority in the first place. I can only give myself to a group that not only tolerates my differences but seeks them out. That way, when a decision is finally forged out of the fire of differences, there is no doubt that it carries within it all the passion the group has to give.

Finally, unity depends on listening, not only to begin it but also to sustain it. No decisions are made once and forever. No unity can be perpetual if it revolves around a changing center. No good thing can be guaranteed to stay good throughout time. It is so easy to make an idol out of a time, a place, a decision, a group that once was united but now, in the light of another, newer day, is not.

Then it is time to begin again. Then the unity must be tested and reshaped. It is a very holy process, the search for unity. It is an alleluia moment made for eternity but welded and rewelded by time.

I’m hungry for that renewal of Spirit that leads to authentic human freedom. I need to be in that “holy process.” I’m clinging to the tail-end of the Alleluia and praying for a high wind.