Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Liberation of Frederick Douglass…and the Bible

I used to attend a Methodist church, in which my master was a class-leader…he could pray at morning, pray at noon, and pray at night; yet he could lash up my poor cousin by his two thumbs, and inflict stripes and blows upon his bare back, till the blood streamed to the ground! All the time quoting scripture, for his authority…
Frederick Douglass, National Anti-Slavery Standard (1841)

When Frederick Douglass ran away from slavery, dressed up as a sailor and boarded a train for freedom with fake papers (undocumented!!!) 186 years ago, it took him 24 hours to get from Baltimore to home base in Rochester. Today, as we officially launch RadicalDiscipleship.Net, we honor Douglass’ underground road trip and, how he utilized the Bible as a radical script to narrate the life of activism he was devoted to.

In addition to his more well-known abolitionist work, Douglass was the only African-American to speak at the women's rights conference at Seneca Falls in 1948, calling for an absolutely revolutionary proposal: full voting rights for all American women. As always, he spoke passionately and clearly:
In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.
He saved his most critical, anti-imperial words, however, for a speech delivered to the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society on July 5, 1852:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
From early on, Douglass learned to read and rehearse the biblical text as his world of language, reflecting on and critiquing not only the horrific nature of slavery, but also “the overwhelming mass of professed Christians in America” who, echoing Matthew 23:24, “strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.”

Douglass reflected the normative African-American biblical reading strategy which, living an oppressed experience, had a biblical perspective “from below.” Douglass could not help but characterize “the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” as the modern-day scribes and Pharisees. His own horrific experience in chattel slavery created a lens to interpret the text: every bit of Christian Scripture screamed for liberation.

Douglass lived in Rochester on and off until 1872 when his house was scorched by arson. He left for D.C. and frequent trips to Europe where he was greeted as a rock star. We must always remember, though, that here in the States, far too many Christian leaders (in both the academy and the church) awkwardly argued against Douglass, quoting the Bible to defend the Confederate “way of life.”
One of Douglass’ contemporaries was Princeton's Charles Hodge, perhaps the most well-known theologian during the mid to late 19th century. Much of his work was devoted to arguing for Princeton to adhere to rigid “biblical inerrancy.”

The Presbyterian Hodge, however, on the issue of slavery, was stuck between “biblical purity” and the fear of taking a side in his own denomination's debate (this, of course, is all too familiar for today’s Presbyterian leaders, especially in the suburbs).

Hodge wrote:
If the present course of the abolitionists is right, then the course of Christ and the apostles was wrong.
He rebuked the biblical reading strategy of the abolitionists as an “attempt to tear the Bible to pieces, or to extort by violent exegesis, a meaning foreign to its obvious sense.”

According to Evangelical historian Gary Dorrien, “[Hodge and his theological predecessors at Princeton] had aspired only to carry on the received doctrines of traditional Reformed orthodoxy, which included the doctrine of infallibility.” When this is the vocation, the seminary, sanctuary and street will never intersect.
In conclusion, I offer two simple historical lessons, borrowed from the proposals of two contemporary (and too-oft overlooked) biblical scholars. African-American Brian Blount’s conclusion in Then the Whisper Put on Flesh (2001) is that Christian communities need to have a “dialogue between spaces that enriches the process of meaning discovery.” Blount’s work analyzed biblical interpretation through the eyes of the African-American slave experience and beckons us to learn how to have biblical-ethical conversations with “the other” in the 21st, transferring the seeking of truth out of the lonesome ivory tower into a place where more voices can be heard.

The work of 5th generation Californian Ched Myers on the Gospel of Mark is quite similiar. In Binding the Strong Man (1988), he claims that all biblical interpretation rooted in the context of the American Empire must seek ‘the perspective of the periphery’ in order to faithfully hear the Word of God for our lives today. This entails listening to readings from the Third World (with their diversity of biblical reading strategies) as well as from the pain and suffering of inter-city America and other pockets of poverty and oppression.

Of course, no historian of biblical interpretation with any integrity can simply peer back into the 19th century and shun Hodge because he failed to seek the perspective of the periphery. Nor can we simply equate the biblical battle over slavery with, say, our present debates over biblical positions on homosexual marriage or the war on terror. However, these two interlocking proposals can give us more wisdom and discernment to uncover where our cultural worlds lead us to unfaithful interpretations in order that the diverse Body of Christ in America might interpret the text a little more faithfully.
On this anniversary of Frederick’s freedom, we lament what Dr. King called the “white moderate” Christian response to so many of the world’s controversial justice issues. Silence, straddling the fence, spiritualizing & personalizing Bible readings all lead to the continuation of the status quo. This is more bad news for all those shut out, locked down & cast aside in our world. Far too many professional religionists—from pastors to seminary professors—refuse to speak truth to power. After all, power is where they get their paychecks. Like Frederick Douglass, may we all be narrated by a text that beckons us into a vocation of liberating the least of these from oppression and abuse.

Monday, January 27, 2014


And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
Matthew 4:19-20

Life is pure adventure, and the sooner we realize that, the quicker we will be able to treat life as art.
Maya Angelou

After much spirited dialogue & spiritual direction, Lindsay and I have discerned a move to Detroit after the current school year is over. I will be retiring from teaching high school and we will dive into new Work. We’ve felt something stirring in our hearts for quite some time now. We’ve known that a change in vocation and location is imminent and finally we set out on a 75-day roadtrip this past summer to meet Christian pastors and activists who are following Jesus into soup kitchens and intentional communities and protests. These prophetic communities have pledged themselves to spiritual disciplines (prayer, Scripture study, song, meal-sharing, etc), but also have been committed to a ruthless solidarity with the poor and marginalized…no matter what the cost. These are some of the most interesting people we've ever met: treasuring both the prayer closet and political activism, proclaiming a God who is most clearly known in the dual vocation of confronting the hoarders of power, privilege & possessions while comforting the masses whom they exploit.

When we visited Detroit in early July, we met people like Jim Perkinson & Lily Mendoza who are seminary professors and political activists. He is a 60-something white dude who committed himself to African-American culture four decades ago and writes theologically about white supremacy (he got his PhD from University of Chicago Divinity School) and other urban theological challenges. He is a well-known spoken word artist in the city. Lily, a native of the Philippines, is the master of intercultural and indigenous studies. She earned her PhD at Arizona State and teaches at Oakland University in the Detroit suburbs. They live in Black Bottom, a historic African-American neighborhood decimated by the construction of the freeways in the 60s.

We also met Bill Wylie-Kellermann and the members of the Jeanie-Wylie Community on Larkins Street, in West Detroit. Bill is a long-time United Methodist pastor, author & nonviolent community activist in the city. He did his theological work at Union Seminary with Walter Wink and William Stringfellow and coined the phrase “public liturgy,” a compelling concept that spills theology & worship out of the sanctuary & seminary and into the streets. The Jeanie-Wylie community is a network of households on Larkins Street that gathers for meals, prayer, Scripture study, urban gardening and community organizing.

Before our road trip, our journey into “Movement Christianity” had been largely facilitated by a lot of reading (and writing) and dialogue with our cherished mentors Ched Myers & Elaine Enns of Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries in Oak View, CA. These post-seminary years (since 2008) have been intensified by more learning and discerning. Reading the works of Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, Elsa Tamez, James Cone, Jon Sobrino, Cornel West, Wes Howard-Brook, Walter Wink and, of course, Myers/Enns have opened our eyes to a radical (from the Latin meaning “roots”) form of Christian discipleship engaged not only with the redemption of our selves, but also the social, economic and political systems that determine the winners & losers of our world.

Meanwhile, we have felt a tension in our souls. No doubt, after 17 years of teaching adolescents subjects like Economics, AP World History & American Government, I have a deep respect for how vital and challenging the teaching vocation is. This semester, I have 150 students in my classes. They bring a lot of energy & diversity into my room: a dizzying blend of apathy, anxiety, attitude and amazement. I continue to love the art of teaching and the relationships I make with these students and, some days, I can literally feel the breath of God coming out of my mouth as I speak. Many days though, I feel a bit flat and overwhelmed with the enormity of the Task.

I transitioned into teaching and coaching immediately after I graduated from the University of Kansas in 1996. I was 22 years old—still an adolescent myself. I was thrilled & honored to come back to the high school I graduated from in ’92: Capistrano Valley HS. I got to coach with Brian Mulligan, a man whose unique blend of professionalism & playfulness has had a huge influence on my work with young people. I eventually got to be the Athletic Director and then Social Science department chair, in addition to coaching a variety of sports and hosting lunch-time workout sessions in the weight room.

Being a 3 on the Enneagram personality typing (“The Achiever”), I’ve spent my “free” time participating in a wide array of Christian ministry endeavors. In short, I've been busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. Over the past 7 years, during our slow exodus out of the popular conservative Evangelicalism of South Orange County, I’ve had the great pleasure of working as a “free agent” pastor: mentoring & counseling young adults, advocating for young undocumented DREAMers (a “people’s prayer breakfast,” legislative visits, rallies/protests, etc), blogging at EasyYolk, hosting married couples groups, giving occasional sermons & talks to churches and non-profits, performing wedding ceremonies and I even officiated the funeral of my college basketball coach, the legendary Bill Mulligan. These adventures have combined with “my day job” to amount to consistent 60-80 hour weeks.

No doubt, it’s been a labor of love. But it has been laborious. I’m tired, but also I’m a bit terrified of what my identity will be in this next season of life. There are plenty of question marks about the year that awaits us, but there are some periods and exclamation points too: more reading & writing, more political organizing & advocacy, more solidarity with the poor & marginalized, more time being mentored. I’m also looking forward to joining Lindsay in more pyscho-educational work with married couples. The more we get to do this, the more I am humbled by my own painful patterns & counterfeit copings.

We hear Detroit calling us to participate in a different kind of Campaign. This Divine whisper has been beckoning us to drop our frayed nets and familiar networks. We have felt this sacred, subtle call during this season of life, and have stuttered and staggered away from making a change. We are finally ready to leave what is secure & safe for a strange land afar. Change, as always, will bring challenges which will create change in our selves. Detroit will, indeed, be a laboratory for transformation. As we work for a whole new world it will work Something ever new in us. Our hope is that this socio-economic downward mobility will infuse a deeper sensitivity to the left out & the lost of our society.

We, in no way, are looking to save the city or even come bearing solutions (we wouldn’t even know where to start). We are looking to learn and be led. We are pledging, initially, a year to this work in Detroit. At the end of next summer, we may feel God percolating us to stay in Motown. Or, perhaps, we will feel a Gust blowing us elsewhere. We eagerly anticipate the coming months of preparation and covet your prayers & support. Thank you for being on this Journey with us.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The End is Here

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now...
Romans 8:21

Hope, for followers of Jesus, is intimately related to both our identity and vocaton as "children of God:" those committed to the Way of Brother Jesus, who taught and lived a radical brand of love, forgiveness, peace, inclusivity and solidarity with the poor and marginalized. We join God in giving birth to a whole new world. This will take sacrifice and suffering. Like an expectant parent, we know that what we do now will have profound significance for how things will be then. In fact, as the late theologian James McClendon wrote, "Then is now." In Jesus, the End of the world invaded the Present. And, so, we commit our time, energy & resources towards the Task of bringing heaven to earth.

Indeed, if...

God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

...then we must start living as if the least and lowest actually have more value than those who are on the cover of our magazines. Eternity will be a smooth transition for those who cut againt the grain in this world. Those who "beat their swords into ploughshares" in this lifetime will be secure in the Next. Meanwhile, "the wages of those who failed to pay the workers who mowed their fields are crying out against them." This can't be good.

No doubt about it, the End of the world will come. It will finally "bring out the prisoners from the dungeons" of torturous Gitmo and overcrowded California. Ultimately, the responsibiliy falls to all of us who Brother Howard called "the guards of the system," all of us middle-class white folk painfully committed to keeping things just the way they are. This is why Brother Martin put the focus on "not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people." Silence is violence.

And as Brother Gandhi taught, we'd all better make sure that what we think, say and do are all in harmony. The cobbled streets of gold shimmer with congruency: "whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light." All that bribery and corruption, those illusions and lies, will come out of the backrooms and be exposed in HD.

Yes, heaven and hell exist. But not the way most of us have been taught. They are not destinations for the next life. They are designs for this one. It's not just the hedonism and hatred. All this hoarding leads to hellish conditions all over the globe, no matter how much we try to cover it up with the invisible hand. Meanwhile, simple saints of all stripes are colonizing various contexts with heavenly acts of hospitality.

God's Creation is pregnant with powerful possibilities and it matters whether we are with the grain of the universe...or not. The Arc is slowly bending towards love and justice. Are we with it or against it? Our privilege, power and possessions will blind us from Reality--may we repent! Affluenza is spreading--vaccinate us! Tribal mindsets shortchange our lineage--all the way back to God!

When Jesus proclaimed that "the reign of God is at hand," he was testifying that God's Dream for the world was going be fulfilled by clusters of conscience who utterly refuse to believe that the nightmares of this world will have the final say. Behold, eternity is in the rearview mirror. Stop the vehicle, get out and breathe in her mysterious blend of Heaven. And then pass it on. Before it's too late.

In God's economy, life is a Gamble. There's no guarantee. But the grass is greener on the other side of the graveyard for those who bet everything on solidarity with those who struggle just to survive, the diseased & destitute, the lethargic & left out. Let's not spend time counting cards. We will win in the End. All we can do is recklessly play with the Hand we are dealt, doubling down on these ten:


God's Dream yearns for some prophetic imagination, some pastoral intentionality, some passionate intimacy and a whole lot of personal inventory. Victory will come with a vision that includes everybody. Heaven is not about souls. It is about a symbiotic relationship with every living Thing. We're weaved into a covenant of compassion. Interdependence is our Divine inheritance. Now is the Time to connect the dots. Now is the time to get saved. A whole new world is depending on it.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Love Proclaimed From The Rooftops

Empathy is not simply a matter of trying to imagine what others are going through, but having the will to muster enough courage to do something about it.
Cornel West

We have not come here to take prisoners,
But to surrender ever more deeply
To freedom and joy.

We have not come into this exquisite world
To hold ourselves hostage from love.


A couple of days ago, while celebrating 9 years of marriage with Lindsay, I was enjoying an americano and reading a piece in the San Francisco Chronicle about the gay couple who got married on the AIDS Healthcare Foundation float at the Rose Parade. Of course, there were plenty of supporters who cheered, there were some who opposed the exchange of vows, and even a Facebook group started to boycott the New Year's event due to threat to the sanctity of traditional heterosexual marriage (see this on what is really "traditional" or "biblical" marriage).

One innocent bystander had this to say about the whole affair:

We're a modern-day society, so accept it. Don't worry about what other people do.

This laissez-faire approach is a standard mentality for millions of Americans who envision the inevitability of "marriage equality" rapidly approaching: in faith communities, at the ballot box, in state houses and in courts all over the United States. It is a form of libertarianism that, often times, is coupled with a look of disgust about what might be happening behind closed doors during the honeymoon after the marriage ceremony or with words of assurance concerning their own (hetero)orientation (both of these stances come mostly from white males, in my experience). In my opinion, this is an unfortunately meager response and one that even persists within progressive Christian circles.

My disappointment is geared towards Christians allergic to a deeper theological narration of this issue. One example of this is the case of Frank Schafer, a United Methodist pastor who was defrocked last month for courageously officiating a same-sex marriage for his gay son a number of years ago. He was quoted by the NY Times at his press conference:

The church needs to recognize that things have changed and times are changing and people are changing.

No doubt, Schafer was probably the victim of establishment journalism sound-bites. He has surely given better defenses for why Christians ought to support their gay brothers and lesbian sisters at the altar. I merely present this as one snippet of many that I've overheard over and over in faith circles.

A very close friend of mine, a pastor who supports marriage equality and has officiated same-sex weddings, lamented to me recently about this lack of theological narration. Indeed, shouldn't those of us who have become compelled by the God-ordained dignity and humanity of sexual minorities swear off the "Don't Judge!" and "Stay Relevant!" rationales for "marriage equality," in both churchly doctrine and stately laws?

This issue is highly emotional for a reason: people of faith & conscience must be either vociferously for or vehemently against same-sex marriage. Really, there's not a lot of room for a middle ground on this issue. The Christian arguments against same-sex marriage are well-known because they've dominated mainstream society for so long now: (1) the Bible condemns "homosexuality" at least 6 times; (2) same-sex orientation is both a choice and a destructive behavior that must be prohibited through law and doctrine; (3) same-sex parents will cause harm to their children; (4) marriage was created primarily for pro-creation.

Debunking these arguments goes beyond the scope of this post, but briefly, (1) the Hebrew and Greek words that English Bible translators/interpreters equate with the general concept of "homosexuality" would have meant "non-consenual sex with minors," "sex slaves usually kidnapped," or "same-sex prostitution, usually used for religious ceremonies;" (2) both the plentitude of scientific evidence, as well as the testimony of actual gay friends, have compelled me that folks are born gay or develop this orientation very early; (3) both same-sex and heterosexual parents cause plenty of harm to their children; and (4) if marriage was created primarily for pro-creation then what the hell have my wife and I been doing these past 9 years (we are child-free)--perhaps our "marriage" is illegitimate?

My grave concern, and the purpose for this post, is that so many default arguments in favor same-sex marriage and the blessing of same-sex love as a gift to society have stemmed from lowest common denominator rationale: basically, tolerating other people's differences no matter what the outcome or influence and an attempt to keep up with societal trends. These soundbites have their merit and are certainly better than being "intolerant" and completely "irrelevant," but they have absolutely nothing to do with who Jesus was or what it might mean to follow him, as some of my conversation partners--Christians far more committed to the status quo--have rightly pointed out to me.

The Jesus of the Gospels explodes on to the scene condemning only the hypocrites who abuse their power, privilege and possessions. Meanwhile, he stands in ruthless solidarity with the poor, marginalized, oppressed and those whom society deems unclean and inhuman: prostitutes, tax collectors, "sinners," demon-possessed (the mentally ill?) and women, in general. Jesus' birthday celebration is marked by angels proclaiming to shepherds (more "unclean" folk who were prohibited from testifying in a court of law) that God's "good news" is extended to ALL people.

As it turns out, God's love lathers the lowest and least, screaming for all God's children to bring dignity and respect to everyone, regardless of ethnicity, gender or orientation. The Greek word often used to drive home this point in Jesus' parables is σπλάγχνα (and its correlates), unfortunately translated into English Bibles as "compassion" or "pity," but better rendered "a love so deep that it burns one's bowels." This σπλάγχνα characterized the feelings and actions of both the Good Samaritan and the Running Father who smothered his prodigal son with hugs and kisses after the little bastard squandered all his inheritance money on hookers (the subtext of both of these stories makes members of the powerful elite look foolish). This is empathy on steroids: a power exponentially stronger than tolerance & trends.

Personally, I'd like to see those of us who are Jesus followers and advocates for marriage equality embrace a form of communication that is more empowering and in solidarity with gays and lesbians, and at the same time, one that is more adamant in awkwardly placing the focus on those who Howard Zinn calls the "guards of the system," (basically, middle class white folks who benefit from the status quo). As the end of each Gospel account attests, it is the crowds who determine the outcome, whether life or death, justice or injustice. These guards of the system are slowly being converted (I was 6 years ago!) as thousands of people (who happen to be friends, family and co-workers) are finding the courage and support to "come out." Politics becomes personal and projections are exposed as pathological. Indeed, the "issue" has become flesh and dwelt among us!

To be like Jesus is to step up to the challenge of being prophetic. And to be prophetic, as Walter Brueggemann wrote 35 years ago in his ground-breaking The Prophetic Imagination, is to both energize those who have been abused and sidelined and to criticize those in power who are complicit or indifferent to the suffering of society's marginalized. If grace & truth came to us through Jesus, then should we not be committed to extending grace to all and calling out bullshit no matter who it exposes. This prophetic mentality is vastly different than riding the cultural wave of tolerance and trends. Now's the time for all of us to "come out," advocating for the full humanity of gays and lesbians passionately & prophetically, because what we have whispered behind closed doors must be proclaimed from the rooftops.

The point of Christianity is that the pulse of the universe is beating to a Love that is so consistent & congruent that it would rather die than kill or project or scapegoat or demonize. It calls us to drop the paranoia and rigorously trust that God is desperately conspiring for a world put back together again. And for this kind of world to become a Reality, God will have "brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly." I believe that the hatred & bullying that sexual minorities have endured over the centuries is a kind of death that, like Jesus, exposes the vicious animosity that has targeted this vulnerable people group for so long. When we gaze upon the humanized effects of this fear-based exclusion, our hearts are penetrated and we must own up to our complicity in the continuation of this horror.

Sure, God cares about sexual ethics (anything that is violent, non-consenual or commoditized), but a society's definition of "marriage" really isnt about sex at all. It is about the right for those in power (the scribes, pharisees and rich young rulers of Pax Romana and the politicians and their wealthy benefactors in the Pax Americana) and those with privilege (the guards of the system: teachers, lawyers, business owners, clergy, police, firefighters, accountants, doctors, nurses, etc) to control who is a legitimate member of society...and who is not. It is driven by fear & anxiety. Christian marriage ought to be defined as a laboratory of Love, an experiment in mutual service, forgiveness & acceptance.

Some folks (the ones who have power and control over who is "forgiven" and who's included in decision-making) will resist this with every tool and weapon at their disposal. Power grabs always end up sacrificing some particular members of the human family. Jesus' death reminds us of this nearly universal compulsion and of our need to resist these violent tactics with our whole minds, hearts & bodies. This is why we must abandon the script of tolerance and trends and fully be storied, in both word & deed, by the energizing and criticizing of the self-donating Love defined by the cross of Jesus.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Jose & Maria Go To Hollywood

La solidaridad es mas que un derecho. Es un deber. Es el amor hecho public, colectivo, politico.
Pedro Casaldaliga

The Gospel According to Luke, Chapter 2: Re-Contextualized for 21st Century Southern California

In those days a decree went out from President Obama that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Jerry Brown was governor of California. All went to their own towns to be registered. Jose also went from the town of San Juan Capistrano in Orange County to Los Angeles, to the city of the stars called Hollywood. He went to be registered with Maria, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in a thrift store blanket, and laid him in a horse trough, because there was no vacancy in any of the hotels.

Just east of that region there were undocumented workers living in the barrio, earning money washing dishes at a restaurant on Sunset. While they were working late into the night, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—-I am bringing you good news of great joy for everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation or nationality: to you is born this day in the city of Hollywood a Savior, who will deliver real Hope & Change. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in a thrift store blanket and lying in a horse trough.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth dignity & a path to real citizenship among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the undocumented said to one another, “Let us go now to Hollywood and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Maria and Jose, and the child lying in the horse trough. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the undocumented told them. But Maria treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The undocumented returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

*Inspired by Clarence Jordan's Cotton Patch Gospel & Ched Myers' Our God Is Undocumented: Biblical Faith & Immigrant Justice.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Questions From The Womb

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
Isaiah 7:10-14

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.
Psalm 24:1-2

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit...
Matthew 1:18-23

...the world hears the birth stories only to discount them as myth, or legend, or sheer fabrication, or alternatively it convulsively embraces them for what they are not--clubs with which to cow unbelief or bludgeon half-belief into full submission. One can only deplore this misuse, and hope for a rising generation better suited to receive the true value of the story Christians recall at Christmas.
James McClendon, Doctrine (1994)

The Christmas story begins with a knocked up teenager and a shotgun wedding. Imagine the stories told behind closed doors about the eventual Mother of the Lord. Yet, what better picture of a God who is truly with us no matter how messy it gets? If the earth and everything in it is, in fact, the Lord's, then why wouldn't God take his talents to Bethlehem in this most unconventional gossip-induced fashion?

At the beginning of this story, though, we must not forget that the author(s) of Matthew's Gospel is writing some 5 decades later with a post-resurrection perspective, portraying a Jewish peasant hero whose teachings and lifestyle will one-day turn the world upside and inside out in the most unimaginable way possible. Truly, we become transformed when we are so caught up in the Script that the story becomes our own.

Of course, some Christians will not be able to see the forest for the trees on this 4th weekend of Advent 2013. For them, the doctrine of the virgin birth is of utmost importance and it remains a key litmus test of who's in and who's out of the Body of Christ, clinging to right belief as the true moniker of faith. Take Mark Driscoll, the pastor of Seattle's Mars Hill Church for example:

If the virgin birth of Jesus is untrue, then the story of Jesus changes greatly; we would have a sexually promiscuous young woman lying about God’s miraculous hand in the birth of her son, raising that son to declare he was God, and then joining his religion. But if Mary is nothing more than a sinful con artist then neither she nor her son Jesus should be trusted. Because both the clear teachings of Scripture about the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life and the character of his mother are at stake, we must contend for the virgin birth of Jesus Christ.

First, this analysis strikes me as inconsistent with the Bible's Main Character whose will is achieved through the most sexually mischievous of supporting cast members, as noted in Matthew's geneaological episode immediately prior to the conception account: Tamar, Bathsheba & Rahab. God certainly does not condone their sexual behavior, but transcends it, bringing healing through pain and brokenness. Why would it be any different with the very mother of Jesus?

Second, when Driscoll refers to "clear teachings" (in all of his writings) he can only be referring to what is "clear" to him (and those who have been ideologically trained to read Scripture exactly like him) and he should remember that bible scholars through the ages have claimed "clear teachings" to support all sorts of agendas ranging from slavery to excommunicating heretics like Gailileo.

Third, when we spend time and energy "contending" for the virgin birth or other doctrinal debates (with opponents whom Driscoll refers to as "educated beyond their own humility"), we take upon ourselves an embattled mentality that steers us away from the gentle dialogue that requires followers of Jesus to listen and seek understanding. Driscoll's name-calling and overgeneralizations are contagious with his passionate followers, but quite uncompelling to anyone else.

However, Driscoll's account of the virgin birth makes perfect sense to millions who view Christian faith through a Fundamentalist theological and philosophical prism. These followers of Jesus believe that Truth (the capital T is important) can be accessed (indeed, proven) through a self-evident reading of the inerrant Bible. Fundamentalists propose that everything in the Gospels--indeed everything in the entire Bible--happened exactly the way it was written down and we can trust it for its absolute reliability. If Jesus' mother was not really a virgin then it is possible that other events and sayings in the Gospel stories did not really happen (including the resurrection) and therefore the whole thing is a myth and not worthy of our attention. In other words, like a big game of theological Jenga, if you pull one block out, it leads to the other tower of truth crashing down.

If we took a road-trip from Driscoll's church and drove south 4 hours to visit Marcus Borg, the retired professor of religious studies at Oregon State University in Corvallis, it would be an entirely different conversation. For Borg, the Gospels are literary creations, "metaphorical narratives using ancient religious imagery to express central truths about Jesus' significance." He points out the various differences between the birth accounts in Matthew and Luke (including but not limited to: the genealogy, the home of Mary & Joseph, the birth visitors & the use of the Hebrew Bible), some of which can be creatively harmonized, but some of which are just, quite frankly, irreconcilable. In other words, Driscoll and the Fundamentalists have to do some serious hermeneutical gymnastics to make it all fit.

Driving even further south and time-warping towards the end of the 20th century, we find systematic theologian James McClendon, researching and writing in Berkeley and L.A. during the last two decades of his life, who noted that the virgin birth episodes of Luke and Matthew never propose that Jesus is divine or sinless (these are claimed elsewhere in the New Testament) and the virgin birth did not become a touchstone of Christian "orthodoxy" until centuries later (earlier New Testament documents say nothing about it). Like Borg, he proposes a deeper reading of the birth narratives that show continuity with the God-infused stories of the Hebrew Bible (a lot of remarkable births throughout Israel's history) and that, quite simply, God was actively participating in the events leading up to Jesus' conception and long after his resurrection. These strange stories prepare the reader (Borg calls them "overtures") for what will come later in the ministry, teaching, death and shocking climax of the story: the resurrection. In short, God's Hand is at work in scandalously mysterious ways and we are invited to consistently and intentionally seek it and find it and be ushered into adventurous service.

The Virgin Birth is not about what we "believe in" or a boundary marker (an doctrinal moat) for true faith in God. McClendon charted a course for Christian faith that placed a priority on "what we do" before "what we believe." The order of his Systematic Theology volumes was intentional: Ethics (1986), Doctrine (1994) & Witness (2000). He beckoned readers to learn from the wayward decisions of the first "Christian" Emperor, Constantine, and powerful Christian leaders in the 4th century, who conducted councils to unite the Empire under the banner of Christian beliefs:

Is it not worth considering, finally, how different might have been the history of Christianity if after the accession of the Emperor Constantine the church’s leaders had met at Nicaea, not to anathematize others’ inadequate Christological metaphysics, but to devise a strategy by which the church might remain the church in light of the fateful political shift—to secure Christian social ethics before refining Christian dogma?

McClendon yearned for a "rising generation" of Christ followers who abandoned the counterfeit certainty of modernity for a radical postmodern obedience, holistically bound by how we relate with God as creatures (the embodied strand), as social persons (the social strand), and as witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus (the resurrection strand). Our whole world is marked by "the new in Christ" because God's Rule has invaded human life with a new order, a fulfillment, that transforms everyday life. This authentic Christian mentality reframes the questions that beautifully interrogate us during this Advent season, as Borg writes:

The truly important questions about the birth stories are not whether Jesus was born of a virgin or whether there was an empire-wide census that took Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem or whether there was a special star leading wise men from the East. The important questions are, "Is Jesus the light of the world? Is he true Lord? Is what happen in him 'of God'?" Answering these questions affirmatively lays claims to our whole lives.

This Christmas, let's consider a post-Jenga reading of the conception and birth of Jesus. The point of this kingdom episdode is not that every "real Christian" should believe that God supernaturally impregnated this 1st century Jewish teenager, but that that every "real Christian" ought to be ready for God to show up in the most awkward and surprising places to heal the world. No place is safe from God's transforming touch. Not even a womb.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Baptized Into The San Juan Creek Watershed

The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.
James Baldwin

I can't save the world on my own. It'll take at least three of us.
Bill Mollison

Just five miles south of where we live in Southern California's San Juan Creek watershed is a freeway off ramp called Cristianitos ("little Christians"). As it turns out, this road, leading into the northernmost gate of the Camp Pendleton Marine Base, was the site of a baptism of two girls of the Acjachemon tribe in 1769. They were deathly ill and the company of soldiers and priests traveling through colonizing the region could not heal they converted them.

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, there were roughly 550 natives scattered throughout the local area. By 1790, almost 15 years after the induction of the San Juan Capistrano Mission on All Saints Day in 1776, the number of converted Christians in the San Juan Creek watershed had grown to 700. By 1796, 1,649 baptisms were conducted.

The Natives of the San Juan Creek watershed had been there for thousands of years. Called the "Juanenos" by the Europeans, they organized themselves into two slightly different communities: referred to by the Spanish as the Playanos (beach) and the Serranos (mountains). The Playanos, who lived close to beaches that today are called Doheny, Poche, Strands, The Hole and T-Street, were a deeply spiritual people, believing in an all-powerful and unseen being called "Nocuma" who brought about the earth and the sea, together with all of the trees, plants, and animals of sky, land, and water contained therein.

Father Junipero Serra (a freeway ramp just 5 miles north of us is named after him), and his fellow priests at the Mission, followed a blueprint for colonization agreed upon by the Spanish Crown and the Catholic Church, calling for a parent-child relationship between Indians and missionaries, listing crimes that required physical punishment: including adultery, sex between unmarried people, homosexuality and desertion from the mission.

The missionary and ethnographer Geronimo Boscana chronicled the lives of those native to the San Juan Creek watershed in the early 18th century:

The Indians of California may be compared to a species of monkey; for in naught do they express interest, except in imitating the actions of others, and particularly, in copying the ways of razon [men of reason] or white men, whom they respect as beings much superior to themselves; but in doing so, they are careful to select vice, in preference to virtue. This is the result, undoubtedly, of their corrupt and natural disposition.

In addition to this hideous paternalism, the colonizers brought with them horses, oxen, cows & pigs, as well as common venereal and respiratory diseases, pneumonia, tuberculosis, small pox, and measles. By the 1830's, as much as 80% of the Native population had been killed off by European diseases, while the Land was divided up into ranchos, originally promised to Native converts to Christianity, but instead awarded to political appointees & Spanish settlers who joined the soldiers and missionaries. Over time, much of these ranchos have been sold to private developers, converting the Land to housing tracts, commercial real estate and golf courses.

Before the European invasion, the San Juan Creek watershed was teeming with Life, with sixteen major plant communities and hundreds of species of birds, invertebrates, mammals, and others. However, the watershed is projected to be 48 percent developed by the year 2050. Many reaches of open land in the San Juan watershed are now heavily developed, and urban runoff coming from residential communities is taking an increased toll on the creek and its tributaries.

The colonization project continued over the centuries. Thousands of acres of orange, palm and eucalyptus trees were planted as cash crops. The eucalyptus, which could grow 60 feet in 6 years, was initially planted in response to wood shortages: for houses, furniture, telephone poles, wagons and rail ties.

The bubble soon burst, however, when a 1913 U.S. Department of Agriculture report confirmed what others had long known: that eucalyptus wood warped, cracked, and twisted as it dried. Investors were ruined, and eucalyptus groves reverted to farmland as steel, concrete, and other artificial materials made up for the hardwood shortage.

Eventually, farmers and orange growers planted endless miles of eucalypti to protect their crops from the wind. Today this non-native, highly invasive tree lines highways, roads and open land all over the San Juan Creek watershed. As they age, these giant trees can be quite dangerous:

Orange County has removed 137 blue gum eucalyptus trees after the Sept. 15, [2011] death of Haeyoon Miller. Local arborists and tree care specialists said blue gums were not meant to live in Southern California and are failing.

The Eucalyptus is an apocalyptic parable for all of us living in the colonized SJC Watershed. It represents a violent, overlooked takeover of Nature. It is just one rather disastrous species of many introduced by "job creators" all over Southern California.

Meanwhile, the final three miles of San Juan Creek has been laid with concrete for flood control and, in 1964, the Dana Point Chamber of Commerce sought and received $1 million from the federal government to build a recreational harbor, wiping out the epic waves of "Killer Dana," one of the best surf spots on the California coast. According to the Surfline website, pollution added insult to injury:

With the disappearance of Killer Dana, water circulation in the bay decreased. Resultantly, as pollution from San Juan Creek continued to flow freely into the bay, it stayed there for a longer period of time in comparison with that if the harbor had never been built. The pollution problems are ongoing, posing problems at Doheny Beach, where the 850,000 annual visitors are threatened by the continuing pollution from San Juan Creek.

Heal the Bay comes out with an annual report card for all 413 California beaches. Doheny Beach, at the mouth of the San Juan Creek, received an F in 2013, the 7th most polluted beach in the state. The 170 square mile SJ Watershed runs through dozens of municipalities collecting urban run-off and other pollutants along the way, throwing them up into the ocean.

Perhaps the most notorious colonizers of the Land have been the housing developers, making hundreds of millions of dollars by systematically converting this bioregion into a suburban "paradise" (I grew up driving past countless billboards advertising my hometown: "Mission Viejo: The California Promise"). As slow-growth initiatives failed at the ballot-box and in court, the post-war cancerous growth of neighborhoods covering the Land stretching from Saddleback Mountain to the sea has been nothing short of ignominious.

The San Juan Creek watershed has endured a brutal legacy of almost 250 years of European Christian and capitalist colonization. Political and economic policies (decisions made by elected officials & sanctioned by families & faith communities) have shielded or quarantined racial minorities (out of the top 50 metropolitan areas within the U.S. Orange County is the only one with an African-American population under 5%). And churches have given their blessing or remained "neutral" in the face of this massive devastation. As Wendell Berry wrote:

It has, for the most part, stood silently by while a predatory economy has ravaged the world, destroyed its natural beauty and health, divided and plundered its human communities and households. It has flown the flag and chanted the slogans of empire…In its de facto alliance with Caesar, Christianity connives directly in the murder of Creation. For in these days, Caesar is no longer a mere destroyer of armies, cities, and nations. He is a contradicter of the fundamental miracle of life… .He prays, he says, and churches everywhere compliantly pray with him. But he is praying to a God whose works he is prepared at any moment to destroy.

This colonizing brand of establishment Christianity has been confronted by Native Americans who have since spoken out dramatically against the vicious irony of followers of the nonviolent Jesus who have wreaked havoc on global neighbors and the Land. Two decades ago, Native Americans in South America symbolically returned the Bible to Pope John Paul II:

John Paul II, we, Andean and American Indians, have decided to take
advantage of your visit to return to you your Bible, since in five centuries
it has not given us love, peace or justice.

Please take back your Bible and give it back to our oppressors, because
they need its moral teachings more than we do. Ever since the arrival of
Christopher Columbus a culture, a language, religion and values which
belong to Europe have been imposed on Latin America by force.

The Bible came to us as part of the imposed colonial transformation. It
was the ideological weapon of this colonialist assault. The Spanish sword
which attacked and murdered the bodies of Indians by day and night
became the cross which attacked the Indian soul.

A 21st century brand of Christian faith & praxis--a Watershed Discipleship--must come to terms with this history by reciting & lamenting this history (re-membering) and envisioning a new way forward for both the people and the Land (re-placing) of the San Juan Creek watershed. There is no room for apathy, cynicism or indifference. This passionate & prophetic proclamation will involve warning, hope & demand, requiring many creative & consistent disciplines & practices including:

-"Public liturgies" (Scripture reading, Eucharistic celebration, singing, prayer, dialogue) conducted at key places of colonization (SJC Mission, Doheny jetty, Shorecliffs Golf Course, etc). These will work to educate and allow for lamentation.

-Financially supporting and building relationships with local farmers, through farmers market exchanges and CSAs.

-Learning to recognize native species of plants and birds.

-Building gardens committed to growing native plants, including milkweed which helps sustain migrating Monarch butterfly populations.

-Speaking on behalf of the Land at city council meetings and writing op-eds in local newspapers & OC Register.

-Making a list of local, independent businesses that commit to sustainable practices and advertising these to friends and family.

-Tearing out lawns and replacing them with native plants and trees (see Surfrider's "Ocean-friendly Gardens").

-Advocate for the large undocumented population within San Juan Capistrano, especially the undocumented youth of ACLAMO.

-Join in with the Friends of the Foothills to stop the toll road expansion on the southern edge of the SJ Watershed.

-Participate with the creative endeavors of the SJC Ecology Center.

-A voluntary corporate tax taken up by our intentional community that levies a $.25 fine on purchases at businesses with a D or F in the Better World Shopping Guide. Revenue will be donated to a local organization advocating for the indigenous and/or the Land.

-Prayer walks on the beaches of the SJC Watershed, using the Acjachemon name for the Creator God: Nocuma.

-A commitment to an alternative church calendar, remembering these key dates: July 22: Commemorating the 1st Baptism in the SJC Watershed (the start of an epidemic of a colonizing brand of Christianity); August 29: Lamenting The Death of Killer Dana; October 14: Indigenous Peoples Day (formerly Columbus Day); November 1: All Saints Day (the opening of SJC Mission in 1776); The Day After Thanksgiving: Buy Nothing Day

These practices and disciplines can begin a unique life of following Jesus into the San Juan Creek Watershed. It's a start. After all, the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.
Epilogue: A Prayer of Walter Rauschenbusch
O God, we thank you for this universe, our home; and for its vastness and richness, the exuberance of life which fills it and of which we are part. We praise you for the vault of heaven and for the winds, pregnant with blessings, for the clouds which navigate and for the constellations, there so high. We praise you for the oceans and for the fresh streams, for the endless mountains, the trees, the grass under our feet. We praise you for our senses, to be able to see the moving splendour, to hear the songs of lovers, to smell the beautiful fragrance of the spring flowers.

Give us, we pray you, a heart that is open to all this joy and all this beauty, and free our souls of the blindness that comes from preoccupation with the things of life, and of the shadows of passions, to the point that we no longer see nor hear, not even when the bush at the roadside is afire with the glory of God. Give us a broader sense of communion with all living things, our sisters, to whom you gave this world as a home along with us.

We remember with shame that in the past we took advantage of our greater power and used it with unlimited cruelty, so much so that the voice of the earth, which should have arisen to you as a song was turned into a moan of suffering.

May we learn that living things do not live just for us, that they live for themselves and for you, and that they love the sweetness of life as much as we do, and serve you, in their place, better than we do in ours. When our end arrives and we can no longer make use of this world, and when we have to give way to others, may we leave nothing destroyed by our ambition or deformed by our ignorance, but may we pass along our common heritage more beautiful and more sweet, without having removed from it any of its fertility and joy, and so may our bodies return in peace to the womb of the great mother who nourished us and our spirits enjoy perfect life in you.

Friday, October 18, 2013

A Watershed Imagination For A Watershed Moment

The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.
Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (1978)

Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.
Wendell Berry

In 1964, the contemplative prophet Thomas Merton invited leaders like John Howard Yoder, A.J. Muste and the Berrigan brothers to the Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky to discuss "The Spiritual Roots of Protest." This conference took place at a watershed moment, at the intense intersection of what King called the "giant triplets:" militarism, materialism and racism. Vietnam was escalating, civil rights protests were intensifying and poverty locked far too many "in an airtight cage." 40 years later, our world is once again at a watershed moment. This watershed moment longs for an authentic Christian response.

A group of three dozen leaders from Portland to Philly gathered in Southern California's Ventura River Watershed last weekend to catch the vision of what Ched Myers called "a hand-made, home-based, cooperative” brand of Christian community. These disciples, from ages 27 to 72, represented all sorts of communities from all sorts of Christian denominations, bound together by a deep longing for a theological engagement with the Land that connects us all.

Myers, a long-time activist and Bible scholar, began this 13th Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries Institute ("Coming into the Watershed: Permaculture, Ecoliteracy, & Bioregional Discipleship") with a few important disclaimers: "This is not a conference for churchly entertainment” nor is "this just tree-hugger discipleship." The eco-faith gathering was, instead, an apocalypsis: the unveiling of a dire situation that demands a response ("response-ability") from people of faith and conscience. We must not waver, Myers exhorted, from a critical engagement with the central crime of humanity (since the birth of civilization and hyper-eccelerated since the invasion of 1492): the dispossessing people of place—-all for the profit motive.

Living in the hangover of the virtual eradication of indigenous people and their customs all over the globe, we groan through symptoms of mass unemployment, polluted and wasted sources of water, hunger & starvation, unacknowledged racism, sexism & homophobia, widening income inequality, the demonization of the common good, violent weather patterns and skyrocketing cancer rates (just to name a few).

Myers' thesis was that the start of global healing (a cosmic salvation) must be rooted in a radical (Latin for "root") commitment to our watershed, a "region governed by Nature, not legislature." Thus Watershed Discipleship: an intentional double-entendre referring to this watershed moment (a crisis of global proportions) and a dignified and disciplined movement centered on the oldest way of understanding place: the watershed. This Moment requires a Movement.

As it turns out, when we reject political borders created by Empire, we can better examine the spiritually and physically sustainable ways of the indigenous who have always relied on their local Source of water for their survival & well-being. No water, no life. Yet our creeks are being drained and/or polluted while corporate media obsess on federal government shutdowns, pennant races, celebrity meltdowns and red state vs. blue state cultural distinctions.

Myers was joined by his partner Elaine Enns, a Canadian veteran practitioner of restorative justice, and by Chris Grataski, a specialist in permaculture design, particularly from a Christian theological perspective.

Grataski, a New Jersey native, posited that every space we inhabit is shaped by theological, social and ecological assumptions which have led to the present crisis we are currently confronted with. He lamented that humanity can and does imagine just about anything (video games, smartphones, nuclear weapons) except for a world outside of capitalism. But, behold, we are not destined for catastrophe. In fact, the hope of the world relies on this kind of prophetic imagination, following the biblical Script's call for a people defined by manna & mercy, not hoarding & hubris.

Grataski homed in on the fundamentally flawed mentality handed down by civilization, citing Duke Divinity School's Willie Jennings who has narrated the white man's capitalist delusion as a “shift from what land they belonged to towards what land belongs to them." Our own conversion of the imagination, from ego-centric to eco-centric, starts with a deep eco-literacy characterized by an itimacy with the place we inhabit. It involves what Grataski calls an animality: truly experiencing the interdependency of all Nature as the human animal we are, surviving and thriving only due to the generous Presence of the flora and fauna all around us.

Enns used victim-offender analysis to engage with the exploitation of the Earth and her native children. The healing and reconciliation of this primal offense must begin with the humble acknowledgement that we are all indicted, especially the Church which has blessed the extraction of precious resources, the exploitation of "the least of these," and the forced conversion of indigenous peoples. The rape and pillage of the Land and her people (for profit) is a multi-faceted offense that is coming back to haunt humanity, echoing the cry of the 12th century German mystic Hildegard of Bingen:

All of creation God gives to humankind to use. If this privilege is misused, God’s justice permits creation to punish humanity.

Or, from the late Japanese farmer-philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka:

If we throw Mother Nature out the window, she comes back in the door with a pitchfork.

Yet we are all victims as well. We subconsciously carry the grief of our destroyed watershed. We, too, have been displaced by a consumer capitalism seeking to commodify everything in its wake. The process of re-placement is a three-step journey of the heart, mind and body:

1. We won’t save places we don’t love.
2. We won’t love places we don’t know.
3. We don’t know places we haven’t learned.

Enns shared from her own historical work on Mennonite communities that displaced indigenous people of the Ukraine (beginning with the reign of Catherine the Great) and Canada (after the Russian Revolution). The Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission has pioneered courageous experiments for the restorative healing of First Nations victims and settler offenders. While the federal governments of Canada and the United States live in denial, refusing to officially recognize both historic and contemporary abuse of native peoples, people of faith and conscience can organize a whole movement of restorative justice within respective watershed contexts everywhere.

For all those looking for biblical legitimacy, Myers scripted a watershed discipleship from Genesis to Revelation. Key texts included Genesis 2, I Kings 17-22, John 1, Romans 8 and Revelation 22. Highlighting the theological theme of creation in Genesis 2:7, Myers got deductive:

We are birthed from the earth.
We can only be truly human in relationship to the earth.
We can only be connected to the earth if we are committed to our place.

But interweaving creation with incarnation is a vital exercise in this movement away from escapist and empire theologies. In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, the Word present at creation (1:1) comes into our watershed and pitches a tent among us (1:14; Revelation 21:3). We are talking about a God intimately connected to us and the uniqueness of our bio-regions. This God, like the original People of the earth, makes a dwelling out of the flora and fauna of that specific place called home.

A legitimate soteriology shifts away from our souls towards the rehydration of our watershed. It confronts narcissistic salvation narratives and seeks to heal all of creation. Ultimately, the entire created order has been "groaning" (Romans 8:18-25) under the curse of civilization for thousands of years, "waiting patiently but anxiously" for the apocalypse: a conversion of human beings who are awakened to the curse of civilization and are commissioned to save their watershed. This ministry is energized and inspired by a Love that the Creator has for all of creation that cannot be hijacked by all those hoarders of power, possessions & prestige--including corporations, governments or any other powerful organizations, including churches (Romans 8:38-39).

Myers called on participants to embrace Elijah (I Kings 17-22) as the mascot of the Watershed Discipleship Movement. This "troubler of Israel" confronted empire by invoking drought. He survived by trusting in the provision of his watershed, seeking shelter in caves, fed by ravens, passing on this lifestyle of simple living to feed the widow and her family.

Elijah doesn't live a long life (most prophets don't!), but is taken up into heaven by Mother Nature in a whirlwind. The Christian Old Testament ends with Malachi's prophetic utterance that Elijah will return to "turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse" (Malachi 4:6). The salvation of the world depends on converted imaginations. This can only happen with prophetic action. The haunting Elijah cycle becomes embodied in that other "troubler of Israel" Jesus of Nazareth who passes along the prophetic way to all his followers.

Watershed discipleship is committed to an ecclesiology that organizes a network of alternative Christian communities committed to Something bigger than big buildings and butts in the seats. These communities will pledge to the fierce energy of indigenous people which always comes from a struggle for something--for the struggle of a place! It is a different kind of energy than most communities committed to activism and dissent. Watershed discipleship communities primarily ask questions in the positive:

What am I struggling for?
What am I saying "Yes" to?
What would I be willing to die for?

This prompts us all to ask very basic questions about our watershed:

-What time is sunset today?
-When you flush, where do the solids go? What happens to the waste water?
-Can you name five native edible plants in your watershed?
-Where does your garbage go?
-Who uses the paper/plastic you recycle from your neighborhood?
-Can you name five birds that live in your watershed?
-After the rain runs off your roof, where does it go?

These questions lead to answers that lead to more questions that lead to a deeper knowledge and love for place. Only this can lead to a biblical understanding of salvation.

Watershed discipleship communities resolutely reject apathy, indifference, resignation and cynicism. A re-placement theology dedicated to the watershed will ultimately take a full commitment to education, advocacy and an openness to a full-fledged re-orientation of our relationships to Nature. These daring communities will be committed to permaculture: designing human habitats that are characterized by ecological and social flourishing. This intentional design looks out for what is the very best for everyone and every living thing: from the homeless to the halibut, from the lawns gardens to the grandmas. These habitats (in need of new designs) are everywhere: from homes to highways, from libraries to lunch counters.

We've come upon a watershed moment. The curse of civilization plagues us. As King lamented 40 years ago, we continue to live in a situation where "machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people." We need a conversion of the imagination. It starts with our watershed.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Ted Cruz, Stop Making Up Your Own Version Of Jesus

Update: I pulled the Ted Cruz quote from Chris Hedge's column this week. It appears that he was fooled by a satire website that made up the Cruz quote. Pretty clever. Of course, what makes websites like this and The Onion (and everything Stephen Colbert does) so genius is that they so closely parallel real life. I've added a real quote from Ted Cruz and some additional comments below.
As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
Luke 17:11-19

What we have here is our core values as Americans and Christians slipping away into this facade where we should take care of our poor, sick, and disabled. It is disheartening to know that the nation our forefathers built is no longer of importance to our president and his Democratic counterparts. Not only that, we are falling away from core Christian values. I don’t know about you, but I believe in the Jesus who died to save himself, not enable lazy followers to be dependent on him. He didn’t walk around all willy-nilly just passing out free health care to those who were sick, or food to those who were hungry, or clothes to those in need. No, he said get up, brush yourself off, go into town and get a job, and as he hung on the cross he said, ‘I died so that I may live in eternity with my Father. If you want to join us you can die for yourself and your own sins. What do I look like, your savior or something?’ That’s the Jesus I want to see brought back into our core values as a nation. That’s why we need to repeal Obamacare.
Ted Cruz, on the floor of the Senate, September 25, 2013

Lo and behold, this week's Gospel passage (Luke 17:11-19: read by Christians all over the globe this coming weekend) tells the story of 10 lepers who confront Jesus on the road, calling for free health care. And Jesus delivers. These lepers were not just following the Law (Leviticus 13:45-46), they were going beyond it. They were not simply warning the approaching pilgrims of their uncleanliness. They were calling for Jesus ("The Master") to bring them mercy. To do something about it. Anything. This only meant one thing: healing.

And this happens all over the Gospel narratives. It is a vital aspect of Jesus' Campaign. His compassion abounds and he even breaks the law to do it. Over and over. The inbreaking of the kingdom of God is intricately tied together with bringing health (physical, mental, emotional) and restoration to everyone. Those of us rugged committed to following faith and conscience with everything we've got pledge solidarity to all those afflicted with disease, disorder and the discrimination & demonization that comes with it.

The gospel according the Ted Cruz is so far off in his depiction of Jesus that phDs and pastors from all across the theological spectrum must be straining themselves to make any sense out of it whatsoever. Perhaps, Cruz just thinks he can get away with counterfeiting Jesus by placing his theological remarks in the middle of his 21 exasperating hours of Senatorial delay over Obama's signature policy victory: the Affordable Care Act. Incidentally, he also read from Green Eggs & Ham when it was time for his kids back in Texas to go to bed.

This can't possibly be what our theological and political debates have come to. Can it? Leaders can just say whatever it takes to fire up their base? Lies. Deception. Bullshit. Just say it and people will flock. And if people factcheck you, then you can just scream "liberal agenda." But it's one thing to claim that Obama is going to pull the plug on Grandma, this is Jesus he's fictionalizing.

I'm all about appreciating the diversity of biblical interpretations, but there are limits. It's not anything goes. Never has been. Never will be. The interpretive spectrum on any biblical passage goes from (A) absolutely compelling to (B) benign to (C) caught-being-too-creative to (D) down-right-harmful to (F) utterly fucked up. Cruz gets an F.

But the casualty of biblical untruths spouted by the rich and powerful has serious consequences in the lives of everyday people. They hear grown-ups wearing suits claiming insane things and take it for face value. Then they shout it from the mountaintop (or Facebook wall or bumper sticker) and use it to justify their own destructive mission in life. It keeps their own souls from being aligned with Reality. Cruz is immature, irresponsible and needs to be held accountable.

Turning Jesus into a capitalist superhero that looks like you and your corporate backers is not courageous faith. Cruz and his ilk do not take the Bible seriously. They refuse to read it critically, carefully or contextually. Cruz' Jesus walks around telling poor people to get a job. In the Gospel According to Cruz, Jesus sermonizes against being lazy and getting caught up in dependency. Cruz' Jesus dies on the cross telling his followers they will meet God in heaven if they get off their asses and start working hard for once in their lives. Perhaps, Ted Cruz was simply spending too much time reading the Republican Platform instead of the actual Gospel accounts. Whatever the scenario is, he's disastrously confused.

Towards the end of Jesus' journey to Jerusalem, he is confronted by 10 hollering lepers. Much to the horror of Ted Cruz, Jesus heals them all. A free handout. And if things weren't bad enough for Cruz, the only one that comes back is a foreigner. When we, once again, hear the ancient story of the undocumented, physically disabled, unclean man getting free health care, we can rejoice that the unconditional, overflowing, generous, loving heart of God is nothing like what Ted Cruz says it is.
Here's a real quote from Ted Cruz (courtesy of Morgan Guyton over at HuffPost):

Priests were anointed primarily to minister the glory of God. They were anointed to pray for the people, to offer sacrifices, to care for the temple, to be God's representatives before the people... Kings were anointed to take dominion. Kings were anointed to go to war, win the war, and bring the spoils of war to priests so the work of the kingdom of God could be accomplished. The king needed the blessing of the priest in order to be successful in battle... The priest also needed for the king to be successful in battle because the priest needed the spoils of war in order to repair the temple, in order to carry out the ministry that God had entrusted him....Our churches unfortunately are very focused on only one of these anointings and that is on the priestly anointing... Those of you who think you don't have the anointing to teach the word of God, to be teaching Sunday school, you're second class citizens. And so you begin to lead frustrated lives... The majority of you... your anointing... is an anointing as king. God has given you an anointing to go to the battlefield. And what's the battlefield? The marketplace. To go to the marketplace and occupy the land. To go to the marketplace and take dominion.

Again, as stated above, Cruz' Dominionist brand of Christianity is far more capitalist than anything Jesus actually advocated for. It turns followers of the servant-king (who washed his disciples' feet before he gave his life for them) into Masters of the Universe. It's a religion hand-crafted for free-market fundamentalists.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Always: When Faith Means Prophetic Practice

The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you. ‘Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table”? Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink”? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”
Luke 17:5-10

The gospels present a depiction of Jesus' ministry as sharply prophetic and part of a long line of such pointed prophetic challenges to concentrated wealth and power, and his death as deplorable and damnable and part of a long line of prophetic perishing at the hands of the well-to-do and rapacious.
Jim Perkinson

Those in power…are those for whom the status quo is working, so they always see civil disobedience as a bad thing…But the majority of the public is exploited by the status quo far more than they are benefited by it.
Tim DeChristopher

When the followers of Jesus beg him to increase their faith, we ought to be reminded of the champions of “faith” throughout the Lukan narrative: the paralytic, the centurion, the woman (a prostitute?) anointing Jesus’ feet with perfume, the woman hemorrhaging for more than a decade, the leper, the blind beggar. Indeed, the disciples are asking to be join a team of the scandalous faithful.

We ought also to be reminded that these disciples in Luke 17 are presently sitting at the feet of Jesus, who is teaching them about the demonic gulf between rich and poor and instructing them to forgive anyone who has hurt them and is willing to try again (Luke 16:1-17:4). End affluence! Pardon the criminals! These are hard teachings, relegated to the back burner of most Christian households and churches.

“Faith” for too many today centers on belief, a mental assent to the existence of God and His rules. Confess the right things in the head and heart and things will work out alright in this life and the one to come. Have simple trust in a Divine provider and forgiver and one will be favored for evermore.

In the ancient world, “faith” (pistis in the Greek) meant something akin to “allegiance,” a stance, or mentality, that led to both symbolic and practical actions from the faithful (which often led to animosity from others). Throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus teaches that contemporary conditions are all upside down and inside-out: the very presence of the poor and prisoners is a sign that redemption is surely needed.

Sure enough, matters of income inequality and forgiveness of “offenders” continue to be vital matters of allegiance that result in tension and distrust amidst often slanderous debate. These are issues of safety and security for all of us on the upside of the American Dream (and the downside of The Kingdom of God). Fear keeps us “neutral” and legalistically rigid with our policies, both personal and political. If the prisoners are pardoned and the undocumented aren’t deported and the poor get equal access to healthcare and education, then there won’t be enough for “the rest of us.” Right?

Deep down, most of us are scared shitless and never even consider how, as Gandhi put it, there might actually be enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed. Our fear keeps us “neutral,” which always means that those “dressed in purple and fine linen and who feast sumptuously every day” (Luke 16:19) will keep their privilege, possessions and prestige in place while millions rot in prison and poverty. The late Howard Zinn prophetically started calling for a “revolt of the guards” three decades ago:

In a highly developed society, the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going: the soldiers and police, teachers and ministers, administrators and social workers, technicians and production workers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, transport and communications workers, garbagemen and firemen. These people—the employed, the somewhat privileged—are drawn into alliance with the elite. They become the guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system falls.
This civil disobedience is nothing less than “faith” in a Lord who prayed, preached and practiced a new System that privileged those sidelined by the strategies of the wealthy and powerful, just as Tim DeChristopher testified at his sentencing: the majority of the public is exploited by the status quo far more than they are benefited by it.

Yet faith-as-allegiance-to-a-new-Way doesn’t just mean breaking unjust laws and getting arrested. After all, we are called to be “as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves,” creatively and consistently practicing the upside-down kingdom. It means boycotting and divesting from companies producing goods & services by exploiting people, animals and the Earth. It means having gently awkward conversations with friends & family, connecting the dots with how we are all implicated in the painful plight (prisons & poverty!) of those who look different and believe differently than we do. It means planting tiny mustard seeds of communal practices and spiritual disciplines so that one day the mulberry tree of violence & injustice will be uprooted and planted in the deep blue sea.

If this isn’t what it means to deny ourselves, take up the cross and follow Jesus (Luke 9:23) then what exactly does it mean?

In this parabolic preaching, Jesus scripts us away from the master mentality (“Who among you would say to your slave…?”) towards a downwardly mobile solidarity with the slave (“…we have done only what we are supposed to be doing!”). The coming revolt of the guards of the system will only happen when we refuse to identify with celebrities and corporate executives and find ourselves in the stories of those abused, expendable and left out of the system. Peace & justice does not trickle down. It rises up.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Taking the First Step…Addiction, Ecology and Recovery

This is a beautiful contribution from Rev. Solveig Nilsen-Goodin of the Wilderness Way Community in Portland, a team of Jesus-followers committed to "discovering wisdom for our time, healing for ourselves and our planet, and the power of untamable (resurrection!) life!" She and her partner Peter are also active participants with Eco Faith Recovery, a growing network of faith-based people and institutions within the Christian tradition, waking up to the enormity of the ecological-economic-spiritual crisis before us. Their children, Soren & Stig, recently interrupted our dinner conversation with chants of "We hate coal! We hate coal!"
The profound ecological degradation we are currently witnessing and the rise of addictive behaviors such as alcoholism and drug addiction are two sides of the same coin.--Albert LaChance

Waking up to the developing global ecological crisis is like moving from being a child in an alcoholic family to growing up and going into recovery.

In an alcoholic family, especially if the addict is “functional,” the addiction socially acceptable, or the majority of the damage successfully hidden from the public or the child’s eye, children often “know” that all is not well, feel that something is wrong, intuit that a crisis is coming, though they do not understand it and the severest consequences of the addiction are not yet fully manifest.

In the same way, though many in the developed world have yet to experience the severest consequences of climate change, and though most of us do not fully understand the root causes of what is happening and why, still there exists this nagging feeling, this intuitive sense, this pit-in-the-stomach-sort-of-but-not-quite-allowable-fear-and-recognition that all is not well, that something is terribly wrong, and that a crisis – a devastating crisis – is coming.

In an alcoholic family, when the spiral of addiction begins to spin, when that intuitive knowing that something is wrong can no longer be denied, children often respond by escaping: holing up in their rooms, obsessing about school, immersing themselves in activities, losing themselves in video games, anything, anything, anything to distract themselves from what is happening, numb themselves to the pain, attach themselves to something they can control.

Likewise, when the information is overwhelming and the evidence can no longer be denied:

when there is this drought and that hurricane and another enormous glacier breaking off into the sea;

when there is this toxin and that oil spill and another school of dead mutant fish;

when there is this friend and that loved one and another parishioner being diagnosed with cancer;

when there is this river dammed and that forest clear cut and another animal species becoming extinct,

we, too, often respond by escaping…getting very busy with our exceedingly important work, our children’s exceedingly important activities, our mountains of exceedingly important stuff. We, too, often escape by making our worlds very small and our anxiety about them very big. And, let’s admit it, we, too, often escape by numbing ourselves with prescription drugs and street drugs, with meaningless activity and mobile technology, with needles and smokes and bottles and bottles and bottles and bottles and bottles.

Or…we try to fix it. A child believes, “If I am good enough … if I just get straight A’s, if I just keep the house clean, if I just stay out of dad’s way, if I just make mom happy, if I just…, if I just…, if I just…THEN everything will be o.k., right?”

So we too believe…if we are good enough, smart enough, technologically savvy enough, we will be able to stop the catastrophic damage from climate change and go on with our lives as usual, and everything will be o.k.

If everyone just ate organic and composted…
if we all just drove Priuses or took public transportation…
if people would just bring their own bags instead of using paper or plastic…
if everyone would actually reduce before they reused or recycled…
and if fast food would just stop being so convenient…
and if people would just start using cloth napkins and cloth hankies and cloth diapers and cloth menstrual pads, and stop buying the 12-ply super-cushy-comfort-plus toilet paper, and stop taking so many squares of it while they’re at it…
and if we could just convince Wall Street to have the values of Main Street…
and if the Democrats and Republicans could just all get along…
and if those giant corporations would just stop being so damn greedy
THEN everything will be o.k. Right?

The air will be fit to breathe again, right?

My children can drink the water again, right?

The leaves of the trees will be for the healing of the nations again, right?

There will be trees, right?

“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” The first step according to Alcoholics Anonymous.

“We admit that we are powerless over an addicted society, that our lives and all of life have become degraded.” The first step according to EcoFaith Recovery’s GreenSpirit 12-Steps.

A child grows up and finally realizes that all her desperate attempts to either numb or distract herself, to either deny the problems exist or fix the alcoholics in her family, have kept her on the same downward spiral of addiction she abhors. And so she takes the first step.

And when we finally see how all our desperate attempts to numb and distract, deny or fix, keep us on the same downward spiral of addiction that is destroying our planet, our selves, our future…we too take the first step.