If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Where Have All the Prophets Gone?

Where have all the prophets gone? A first response to the question of Marvin McMickle might come from an old Pete Seeger song: Gone to graveyards everyone. In his book on reclaiming prophetic preaching in America McMickle laments the decline in prophetic preaching from U.S. pulpits and calls for a renewal of preaching that addresses the moral, social, and political issues of our day.

McMickle contrasts prophetic preaching, which addresses the social issues of a society, to preaching which focuses upon the internal life of the church, like praise and worship, and has been hijacked by a "royal consciousness," that is, preaching that serves our national interests. The latter type of preaching has captivated the American pulpit. When moral issues are addressed there tends to be a myopic focus on abortion and homosexuality. Justice cannot be limited to these two issues.

McMickle wants a broadening of moral issues addressed in the church and pulpit. He points to the biblical witness for addressing distributive (economic), restorative (judicial) justice, and war. His overview of these issues is very brief. Peacemaking and restorative justice are fields Mennonites have developed extensively and their work would have benefited McMickle's summary.

"Patriot pastors" are a target of McMickle's critique, particularly those conservative, Evangelical leaders who align themselves with the Republican party and serve the interests of the state. He does note a "subtle transformation" among some conservative Evangelicals, like Rick Warren, who have started to address wider issues like poverty and AIDS. My own critique would be that few of these "new Evangelicals" are addressing the systemic, economic, and political roots of many of these social issues. Others who recieve his critique are televangelists, megachurches with a "mini gospel, and prosperity preachers.

The truncated focus upon praise and worship in some churches leads to "cheap grace" according to McMickle. Worship without justice is paricularly addressed by the eighth century biblical prophets. McMickle calls for a balance of praise and protest.

Prosperity preachers receive extensive critique from McMickle. They blatantly misinterpret biblical texts of blessing to indicate that God wants everyone, and especially the preacher, to be blessed financially. He views prosperity preaching as a major hinderance to the prophetic word.

Prosperity preaching comes from a particular wing of the church. I believe that there is an even greater danger in the more prevalant middle and upper-class capitalist consumerism that is taken as normative within the church and society. It has infiltrated the church. This broad cultural idealogy and practice seems to be a greater hinderance to prophetic preaching.

McMickle is to be commended for addressing social issues like racism, sexism, heterosexism and for viewing the antiwar stance as being prophetic. From an Anabaptist perspective I feel McMickle has not drawn out some of his prophetic vision to its radical conclusions. The sermon he added at the end of the book left this Anabaptist wanting. He addressed the phrase "under God" in the pledge of allegiance entitling his sermon Under God Is a Good Place. He notes those who are concerned about the separation of church and state, which would include Anabaptists like myself. As McMickle states, "The words 'under God' cause me the least concern" in the Pledge of Allegiance. I am with him as he goes through the pledge and offers his challenge to their truth in practice.

One nation. Are we really? When there are so many homeless and corporate executives plunder their companies and retire with exhorbitant wealth? When African Americans constitute 13 % of the population but more that 70% of the prison population? Republic. When thousands of votes in Florida were discounted in a presidential election? Indivisible. When we are divided by race, red and blue states and economics?

Under God. McMickle views these as the most important words of the pledge for three reasons. First, we are all under God as Creator of the world. Second, we are all accountable to God. Third, God is able to do more than we can do. My problem is that the context of these words seems to be ignored by McMickle. First, this is a pledge of allegiance to a nation. For Christians our primary allegiance is to God. And those two allegiances often come into conflict with one another. Second, the complete phrase is "one nation under God." Can Christians affirm that there is only one nation under God? Christians are citizens of God's realm and reign and members of the church, which is multinational, multiracial and multicultural. His concluding sermon could have been far more prophetic for my tastes.

Nevertheless, McMickle has provided another helpful resource for preachers and the church to renew the call to prophetic preaching.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Subversive Songs: a reflection on Revelation 5:6-14

At the beginning of 2008 I started a series of ink and scratchboard drawings I entitled with the acronym M.U.S.I.C: Musicians Undermining Social Injustice Creatively. In this series of drawings I have created images of musicians with a social conscience along with lyrics from one of their songs that speak about justice, peace, nonviolence, racism, worker’s rights, hunger and poverty. One of the drawings is of Billie Holiday, a jazz and blues singer with a unique vocal quality. Her music is not known to be subversive or politically provocative…except for her song Strange Fruit. It is a song about the lynching of African American men.

You wouldn’t expect Holiday to be singing protest songs. Strange Fruit is a song based upon a poem by a Jewish school teacher from the Bronx, Abel Meeropol. He wrote the poem, and later set it to music, to express his shock after seeing a photo of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith in Marion, Indiana. The song paints a dark picture of racism, hatred, and violence.

Billie Holiday heard the song and made it part of her regular nightclub performances. She approached Columbia Records about recording the song, but they feared backlash from Southern record retailers as well as from Columbia’s affiliates. It was eventually recorded and became one of Holiday’s best selling records. She closed her performances singing the song with eyes closed, as if in prayer, in a darkened room with only the single beam of a spotlight. The song became an anthem of the anti-lynching movement.

Where I would expect to hear subversive songs of protest would be during the era of social protest---the 60’s. I remember one poignant protest song that captured the minds of the 60’s generation, who were rebelling against the establishment and the political climate. The song was Eve of Destruction. It was written by a 19 year old and sung by Barry McGuire, a former member of a folk group, the New Christy Minstrels, and now a born-again Christian musician. The popular song Eve of Destruction was banned on many top 40 radio stations. The song protested against the Vietnam War and blasted the fears and hypocrisies of our society into our sleeping ears. The song moans the politics of war: the Eastern world it is explodin’/violence flarin’, bullets loadin’/you’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’/you don’t believe in war, then what’s that gun you’re tottin’? In apocalyptic images the song predicts that unless there is social and political change, the world is headed for nuclear annihilation. After describing the problems of war, segregation, religious hypocrisy, one haunting line repeats itself over and over: But you tell me over and over and over again, my friend/You don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.

The song Eve of Destruction stands in a long line of protest music.[1] In the 30’s a union worker may have stuffed in his pocket a booklet popularly known as The Little Red Songbook. It contained a number of protest songs written by Joe Hill, a labor organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World. In the 40’s, if you were a common laborer, you ears might have been awakened by a twangy tune of Woody Guthrie, known as “Shakespeare in Overalls.” His music dealt with the hard life of migrant workers, political peace, and other social commentary. Pete Seeger was an admirer of Guthrie. Seeger became known as the father of folk music, the seedbed of protest songs. If I simply mention the song If I had a Hammer, the tune might begin to ring a bell in you head of justice and freedom.

I could take you on a musical tour from Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On to Traci Chapman’s All that You Have is Your Soul. In Chapman’s song she sings like a prophet: Don’t be tempted by the shiny apple/Don’t you eat of a bitter fruit/Hunger only for a taste of justice/Hunger only for a word of truth/All that you have is your soul. It is a subversive song that calls us to resist the pressure of compromising our souls. The history of music is filled with subversive songs, songs of protest, songs of resistance.

But, I would like you to listen to some subversive songs that come from an unexpected place---the book of Revelation. It may come as a surprise to many of you, but the songs or hymns in the book of Revelation can be understood as songs of political resistance.

Oh preacher, you’re head is still stuck in the 60’s. Wake up and smell the cappuccino! The book of Revelation is about the future and not about politics. There ain’t no protest songs in the book.

The pluck of an angel’s harp may not sound like a folk guitar. And, of course, the voices of the twenty-four elders surrounding the throne don’t sound like the off key whining of Bob Dylan. We might imagine the sound to be more like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with pipe organ accompaniment as the symphonic sound is blasted: Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!

That sounds more like a song of praise to God than some weird protest music.

That might be so. Nevertheless, the heavenly songs in the book of Revelation are songs of political resistance. Let me explain.

The book of Revelation is itself a document of protest and resistance. Greg Carey, a personal friend from Lancaster Theological Seminary who is New Testament professor and a specialist in apocalyptic literature, once wrote that the book of Revelation is an example of resistance literature.[2] Resistance literature is a genre of literature found throughout history that is shaped by political protest. The book of Revelation, like other such resistance literature, was written to encourage the reader or listener to resist the power of an empire and its imperialism, a society and its systems, which subjugate, oppress, and cause dominated people to compromise their souls.

The social and political context of the churches in the book of Revelation might help us to understand why Revelation might be considered resistance literature. The seven lamps of the Asian house churches in Revelation burn like flickering flames in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea, while the boisterous wind of imperial Rome tries to blow their flames out. The Asian Christians in those house churches did not necessarily face the chopping block in any systematic way, as they later would. But, members might tell of relatives or a distant friend whose life was snuffed out by Rome for being a Christian and not bowing to Caesar and his Roman gods.

To get a sense of the social and political climate of the day and the pressures from the empire that tempted many Christians to compromise their faith, let’s listen in on a Christian as she walks down the streets of a Roman city. Her sandaled feet hit the cobblestones as she passes beneath magnificent columned buildings, marble temples, and statues erected in honor of Caesar and the gods. You can tell from her robe that she is from the lower class of Roman society. Her family makes a subsistence living. When she gets to the marketplace we know she will not be able to buy all she would like to provide for her family. There will be no meat on her table tonight. As she inspects the pomegranates and figs she thinks to herself:

If only Lucius would just join one of the Roman trade guilds, we might have a better life. I know that would mean he would have to meet in the dining room of the temple devoted to the goddess Roma and Augustus Caesar. Lucius always reminds me that if he joined a trade guild he might have to eat meat sacrificed to idols. I know we are new Christians, but our family has to face participating in a pagan empire when our friends invite us to the festivals, when we use money with Caesar’s image, or when we walk the streets protected by Roman soldiers. Our lives are surrounded by Rome and its gods. I don’t see how we can avoid participating in pagan lifestyle. So, what’s the big deal. Lucius should think about our family first and do whatever it takes to provide a good life for his children. By compromising just a little we would have it much better off. Besides, there are no gods, but only the Lord God. What does this have to do with our souls?

The woman pulls a Roman coin from her pouch. She glances at the image of the emperor and the words “To the divine Caesar” engraved on her coin. She pays for some figs and a dried fish and heads home down the winding cobblestone street.

The influence of the Roman empire upon urban life that caused many Christians to compromise their faith was a daily reality. The churches of Asia Minor were becoming so much a part of the culture that they were growing accustomed to Roman domination and were giving in to the cultural pressures to conform. But, like the slow tightening of a vise grip, it was crushing the spiritual integrity of some Asian Christians. They were giving in to imperial culture and becoming comfortable in Babylon.

Yes, yes, now, preacher, all that’s fine and good a nice history lesson, but who wants to stand out like an oddball in their community? We should raise our flag along with everyone. Who wants to be labeled “unpatriotic”? It’s no fun not having what your neighbor’s have and not doing what the Jones’ do. It’s easier to go with the flow, fit in to our culture’s values and prevailing attitudes. We aren’t Amish, you know. Why can’t Christians be part of our world without questioning everything we do? We have been saved by grace, not works. Our faith isn’t supposed to make our lifestyles like a hair shirt on a summer day. So,why can’t we just snuggle up to our consumerist culture?

John the Seer paints an apocalyptic picture so bold and bizarre that the Christians of Asia Minor sit up and take notice. A few probably cough up their mocha latte on their Wall Street Journal just hearing Revelation read. John wants the churches to view Rome for what it truly is. Rome sings a song of her own praise. O beautiful for Roman skies, for temples to the gods…She sings the song of Pax Romana, Roman peace and pride. I’m proud to be a Roman, where at least I know I’m free. But, if you listen closely you will hear the dissonant tones of a peace that was built on the foundations of threat, intimidation, and violence. One ancient observer said: The Romans rob, butcher, plunder and call it empire, and where they make desolation they call it peace.

Roma, the goddess who represents the empire, croons of prosperity and the dominion she has brought to all her subjects. She spreads her peace and freedom to the far flung regions of the earth. Roma only asks for us to bow before her, to wave her flag high, to pledge allegiance to her rulers, and worship her gods, then her loyal subjects can reap her bountiful benefits and privileges. Then, she sings, “We have to protect our Roman way of life.”

John wants to unmask Rome and show her true face, the face of a devouring beast, who conquers, dominates, and destroys like a hungry lion. Underneath the façade of Rome’s beneficence is the violent monster who nailed Jesus to the cross, no, not just Jesus, but thousands upon thousands of rebels, dissidents, or anyone who refused to sing along with her phony song of peace and prosperity, and who questioned the rule of Rome. John is warning Christians not to pet the beast.

John’s apocalyptic writing is protest music. He sings to the church of Jesus Christ: Don’t be tempted by the shiny apple. Don’t you eat from the bitter fruit. Hunger only for the taste of justice. Hunger only for the word of truth. All that you have is your soul. Revelation shouts like a doomsday prophet walking the streets of the city crying, “Have nothing to do with the Whore Babylon! Plug your ears to her siren songs!” Unlike the apostle Paul’s view of the state in Romans 13, Revelation sees no redeeming value in the Roman empire.

Revelation’s radical stance may not be what we modern Christians would want to imitate, but its message of resistance to the empire calls us to seriously re-evaluate our relationship to our culture, our society, and our nation as a modern empire far more powerful than Rome ever was. I hope that is why we, as Mennonites gathered at our national assembly in San Jose, passed a resolution calling the church to re-examine its relationship to the culture and empire under which we live.

It is within this social and political context of empire that we properly understand the praise songs of the book of Revelation. These songs of praise have a double meaning. In Revelation the songs of doxology are first and foremost praise to God in Christ. But, secondarily, they are songs of resistance, protest songs, as it were. These songs sing of allegiance to God above the Roman empire and its gods, praise to the nonviolent Lamb above the violent Caesar.

The scene in chapter five of Revelation is of heavenly worship. Four living creatures and twenty four elders surround the throne of God. The smoke of the incense clouds the worshippers. Harps strings are being plucked in a symphony of sound. Voices are ringing out in praise singing to the Lamb a new song: You are worthy…for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom of priests serving our God. Then, myriads of angels pump up the volume of praise singing in full voice: Worthy is the lamb…to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing! If the volume weren’t loud enough for Christian’s sitting under the rule of Rome to hear, every creature in heaven and on and under the earth and in the sea break the sonic barrier with a song of praise to the Lamb. And the four living creatures shout, “Amen!”

You see, that don’t sound like no protest song.

Neither do many of the African-American spirituals, unless you understand their social and political contexts. We may sing spirituals in white churches as quaint, folksy tunes. But, spirituals are rooted in the social, economic, and political struggles of an enslaved and oppressed people. African-American spirituals had a double meaning. When they sang of crossing the river Jordan, they were singing of crossing the river to go North to freedom. When they sang Go Down Moses, they were singing of their own liberation from slavery. We may find it cute when white children sing This Little Light of Mine. That same song was sung by African-Americans who had tasted the bitterness of segregation, but were determined to keep their witness burning bright as they marched in the streets for their civil rights. Sometimes simple songs may not sound like melodies of protest or resistance, until we place them in their proper historical, social, economic, or political context. Spirituals are subversive songs.

Such is the case with the songs in the book of Revelation. The myriad of voices of the elders and angels and creatures who sing a new song in Revelation sing a subversive song. They sing of one who is worthy, not because he is a conquering lion like Caesar, but because he is the nonviolent Lamb, Jesus Christ. This is a song that subverts the world order of power and violence, inequity and injustice.

Can you sing these kind of songs? Can we sing “Christ first,” while so many are singing “Country first”? Can you sing songs of a worldwide Christian faith amid the refrains of God bless America, but not other nations? Can you sing these songs while others rap lyrics of sexism and violence? Can you sing these subversive songs with all the pressures to hum the tune of conformity to our culture? We have been given other songs to sing, subversive songs, songs of resistance, songs of justice, songs of peace.

We have learned these songs since our childhood. No, I don’t mean songs like Eve of Destruction or Blowin’ in the Wind. We have learned the simple songs of our faith with melodies that are dissonant with the tunes of empire and injustice. I know a simple subversive song we can sing. But, we must be careful. It is a transgressive and dangerous song. This song has the imaginative potential to overthrow worlds of injustice and division. It’s stark, revolutionary truth could challenge the justification of any war, point a prophetic finger at the genocide of Native American peoples, condemn the Japanese internment camps, unmask white racism. It could break down the barriers that divide churches by race, class, and gender. This song could drown out the cries of child abuse. It calls for respect of all peoples and cultures.

We have sung this simple, subversive song since those days when we ran barefoot in the backyard and kicked our feet into the blue sky on the swings. We have forgotten the immense power of its message. Its simple tune has infiltrated our lives like sacred propaganda, subverting the world order.

And yet, this song raises no picket signs nor shouts in the street. It does not come like an armored tank, but can tear down walls. Like the songs of Revelation, it is deceptively political, while sounding like a nursery rhyme. If Christians around the world would sing this song with their hearts and with their lives, truly believe its message, give their lives for its truth, follow the lead of the song’s rebel hero, who knows, it might crack the foundations of empires. It might overthrow kingdoms. You know this revolutionary rhyme, this subversive song. You can sing it…. Jesus loves the little children/All the children of the world/Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight/Jesus love the little children of the world.


[1] For resources on protest music, see Sere Denisoff, Sing a Song of Social Significance. Bowling Green, OH: Popular press, 1972; Ray Pratt, Rhythm and Resistance: Explorations in the Political Uses of Popular Music. New York: Praeger Pub., 1990; Jerome L. Rodnitzky, Minstrels of the Dawn: The Folk-Protest Singer as a Cultural Hero. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1971.
[2] Greg Carey, Elusive Apocalypse. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University, 1999. On resistance literature as a genre, see Barbara Harlow, Resistance Literature. New York: Metheun, 1987.

Sunday, December 28, 2008


This afternoon I went with my wife to see the movie Doubt. The movie is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by John Patrick Shanley. It is set in a Catholic school, St. Nicholas in the Bronx, in 1964. The two main antagonists are Sister Aloysius (played amazingly by Meryl Streep), principal of the school, and Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman with another wonderful performance), the parish priest. Sister Aloysius is a hard-nosed, strict, pre-Vatican II, Old School Catholic sister.

She doesn't like Father Flynn, who is post-Vatican II, compassionate, sensitive, New School, nor the reforms he would like to bring to this stodgy, oppressive school. Sister James (played marvelously by Amy Adams), an innocent, believe-the best-of all-people teacher at the school, sees some incidents that may indicate an inappropriate relationship between Father Flynn and the school's first black student, Donald Miller. When she tells Sister Aloysius, hell (or heaven?) breaks loose. After Father Flynn explains things, she is willing to believe, for a while, but not Sister Aloysius. The good sister is from that point on out to bring Father Flynn down, even though evidence of child molestation is not clear and solid. There are doubts.

And watching the movie you are filled with doubts and questions. The movie begins with a sermon on doubt and ends with the doubts of Sister Aloysius. A sign of a good movie is that the audience experiences what the movie is about. In Doubt nothing is certain. There is subtley of word and symbol that points to one antagonist being right, then the other. Clues are dropped here and there leading you down one trail, then another, like a good mystery movie. You begin to sympathize with Father Flynn, then with Sister Aloysius. I wanted the movie to end with one person proved right and the other wrong (my preference was that the uncompromising Sister Aloysius be proven wrong), but I knew before the movie was over that to be true to its theme there would be no final certainty in the end.

This movie is not a simple morality play, nor a diatribe against child abuse by priests. It leaves too many questions, too many doubts. The doubts created by the story are not about morality itself, but about how moral certainty can be abused. And maybe it does call into question how power can be used to control and destroy others. I think. But, I'm still not quite sure.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Strangers in a Strange Land: Exile, Immigration, Survival and Identity

Judah has gone into exile with suffering
And hard servitude;
She lives now among the nations,
And finds no resting place;
Her pursuers have all overtaken her
In the midst of her distress.
----Lamentations 1:3

The experience of being foreigners, immigrants, refugees, and strangers in the land is a common theme in Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Joan M. Muruskin, Washington representative for Church World Service Immigration and Refugee Program, has described the Bible as “the ultimate immigration handbook.” Israel’s story is a story of migrations. The collective formation of Israel’s own identity is tied to their experiences of being strangers in strange lands. Israel’s experience of being slaves and foreigners in Egypt was seared on their moral conscience. Their status as strangers within Egypt became God’s reference point for legislating their own treatment of foreigners once they came into the land of Canaan (Exod. 22:21; 23:9; Lev. 19:34; Deut. 10:19).[1] God’s promise of their remaining in the land was contingent upon Israel’s treatment of the stranger in their midst (Jeremiah 7:6-7).

Hospitality to the stranger was a crucial cultural and religious practice in the ancient Mediterranean world. Abram’s welcome of three strangers by the oaks of Mamre became a tradition that reminded Jews and Christians that in welcoming the stranger one might be welcoming God or angels (Genesis 18:1-8; Hebrews 13:2). Among the transgressions the prophet Ezekiel recognizes as bringing Israel/Judah within God’s judgment and exile is mistreatment of the alien (Ezek. 22:29). In their exile in Babylon God’s people once again tasted the bitter brew of being strangers in a strange land. Within this exilic context elite Jews from Judah had to forge a new collective identity.

Survival and Identity in Exile

The experience of the exiles in Babylon was one of deep anguish (Psalm 137). Being uprooted from their homeland, culture, customs, and people tore at their collective identity. Those Judeans taken captive to Babylon were separated from land and temple, essential elements in their identity as a people. Loss of land and temple made a critical impact on the exiles’ collective identity, experience and understanding of God. How could they worship God in a foreign land? Even more so, who was God and where was God in this alien land? Had God been overpowered by the armies of Babylon? For a people whose spirituality was intertwined with their collective identity the dislocation of the exile caused a fracture in their self-understanding.

Migration of groups through a forced movement by a state or for economic survival to an undesired place has a significantly different impact on self-identity than the migration of individuals through personal decision to a chosen location. In forced migrations collective identities are tied longer to the homeland from which they were exiled. Their hope for return lingers. If there is an alienation from the new environment and strong identity ties to the homeland, integration into and identification with the new society is much slower. The exiles in Babylon experienced a forced migration, had string ties to their homeland, were alienated from the new culture, and longed to return home. These factors were ripe for reinforcing a separatist minority identity within the empire of Babylon. Maintaining a distinctive religious and cultural identity was a significant element in the survival of Judah in exile, but without becoming totally separated from the dominant culture of Babylon.

Preserving ethnic identity as a minority community within a dominant culture becomes a matter of a people’s survival. In their study on refugees and identity Ruth Krufeld and Linda Camino note:

Despite experiences of being violently or forcibly uprooted and plunged into discord and disorder, refugees demonstrate the strengths of innovation for survival, as well as the vitality to create and negotiate new roles and behavior to achieve both necessary and desired ends. By doing so, they reveal the multi-layered, richly contextualized meanings of their lives and traditions as they act to re-affirm self and community.”[2]

Self-preservation was a major concern of the exiled Jews in Babylon. It was not simply a question of physical survival, but how they were to survive as a peculiar people in a foreign land. A new identity, a counter-culture within the dominant culture, would have to be forged. Diasporic peoples must learn to reconfigure their collective identities in foreign lands in order to survive. How could the Jewish exiles preserve its own religio-ethnic identity, while at the same time engage the dominant culture?

Exilic Survival and Jeremiah’s Mandate

Standard schemas for understanding the relationship between immigrant, refugee, or minority communities and the dominant culture include: 1) assimilation- The melting-pot theory whereby immigrants blend into the dominant culture by shedding their own unique ethnic and cultural identity; 2) separation- The creation of distinct communities separate from the dominant society through discrimination and/or as a means of cultural self-preservation; 3) isolated integration- Selective elements of the culture of the dominant society are integrated into the lives of immigrants; 4) hybridization- The immigrant lives bi-culturally taking on two cultural identities. Preservation of one’s religious, ethnic, and cultural identity will take a different shape depending upon the relationship the immigrant has with their primary and secondary community and culture.

Preservation of self-identity among minority, immigrant groups within dominant cultures requires survival tactics. One major survival tactic is for immigrant groups to create collective enclaves as a form of self-chosen isolation. An alternative society is recreated like those in their homeland forming a type of subculture, in the manner of early Mennonite and Amish communities. Recreating social structures, leadership patterns, rituals, and storytelling serve to maintain clear religio-ethnic boundaries. The story of Daniel, a hero of the Babylonian exile, is a prime example of Hebrew resistance literature, exilic storytelling which functioned to reinforce self-identity within a dominant culture. Resisting the dominant ethos is easier within these self-contained, isolated “ghettos.” Self-identity is preserved within such diasporic communities, but often through isolation from the wider community.

The prophet Jeremiah called upon the exilic Jews to practice a particular form of exilic survival and religio-ethnic self-preservation. Jeremiah proposes an exilic model of engagement with the dominant culture. While the prophet Hananiah promised the exiles that they would return to their homeland, Jeremiah called upon the Judaeans to “build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce; take wives and have sons and daughters” (Jeremiah 29:5-7). “Build, plant, and marry” are a traditional formula of blessing within the land. They exiles are to participate in what blessings their new land has to offer. In Deuteronomy images of “building, planting, and marrying” are formulaic elements that construct reasons for military exemption from holy war (Deuteronomy 20). They symbolize nonviolent forms of engagement with the community. Jeremiah promotes a program of seeking the peace (shalom/welfare) of the city where they dwell in exile. Rather than a disengaged, isolated waiting for a return to the homeland, the prophet advocates a nonviolent engagement of the exilic community with the dominant culture.[3] The exiles turn their captivity into an opportunity for self-preservation and corporate mission. They learn the language and interact with the dominant Babylonian culture, while living without sovereignty and maintaining their own religious heritage. The creation of the model of the synagogue, collection of the Hebrew canon, and the maintenance of a diasporic identity during the exilic period speaks of a thriving community amidst a foreign environment. It is through a balance of preserving peculiarity along with peaceful, constructive engagement with the dominant culture that the exiles recreate their identity as resident aliens within a foreign land.[4]

Immigrant Survival and Identity in the United States

Economic survival is an overriding agenda of alienated and uprooted peoples who find themselves strangers and exiles in the land in which they live. Survival operates on both a cultural and physical level. The need of immigrant peoples to survive makes them vulnerable to economic exploitation by the dominant culture. Economic exploitation was at the heart of the experience of Judah in Babylonian exile. The empire of Babylon focused upon “the domination and exploitation of non-Babylonian populations for the benefit of the ruling elite.”[5] Exploitation of the Judaean exiles for their labor made them virtual slaves of the empire. [6]

There is a real sense in which many immigrants are in the U.S. as “economic exiles” or “migrant slaves.” I grew up on a lemon ranch in Oxnard, California that depended upon migrant workers to pick the lemons. My father moved our family from Oklahoma in 1955 (later than the “Grapes of Wrath Okies” that came during the dustbowl years in the 30’s) to become a tenant farmer among the lemon orchards. I remember the “braceros” (literally “strong arm,” refers to a “hired hand”) who regularly came to the ranch where I lived to pick the lemons. The Bracero program (1942-1964) brought Mexicans from across the border to work on farms, such as the one where I lived in my youth. It was developed due to the shortage of farm labor after WWII. Braceros accounted for 93 percent of the temporary work force. In 1954, the Department of Immigration reported 1,108,900 undocumented workers in farms in the U.S.

Mexican migrant workers in the Bracero program were exploited for their labor. Pay was extremely low, often based on the number of boxes of crops picked, and housing conditions were appalling. But, they endured these conditions in order to survive. Rigoberto Garcia remembers the bracero experience with a mixture of anger and resignation. “When you work for someone else, the profit from your work stays with them…Because here you work just to survive, and you don’t own anything. You just survive and survive, but someone else owns your labor.” [7] He recalls a rather humiliating experience:

Thousands of men came every day (from buses on the border to work places). Once we got there, they’d send us in groups of two hundred, as naked as we came into the world, into a big room, about sixty feet square. Then men would come in in masks, with tanks on their backs, and they’d fumigate us from top to bottom. Supposedly we were flea-ridden, germ-ridden. No matter, they just did it.[8]

In 1958, when I was 9 years old, César Chávez was sent by the Community Service Organization to Oxnard, California to organize “la colonia,” the Mexican American community. Chavez worked to document abuses by the Farm Placement Service, and organized a boycott of local merchants, along with sit-ins and marches to protest the lack of jobs for local residents. The exploitive Braceros program was eventually ended in 1964. The nonviolent resistance tactics Chavez used became standard techniques he would use with the United Farm Workers Union.

Exploitation of migrant farm workers for their cheap labor is common in the United States. The need among migrants for economic survival opens the door for exploitation and a virtual slave system. Many immigrants hired as nannies and maids in private residences in the U.S. are being forced into virtual bondage.[9] Recently a four-year boycott of Taco Bell by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in southern Florida was ended after immigrant tomato pickers won an increase in wages and a code of conduct for Florida tomato suppliers. Jonathan Blum, senior vice president of Yum, which owns Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut, A&W All American Food Restaurants, and Long John Silver’s, said, “Human rights are universal. Indentured servitude by suppliers is strictly forbidden.” A major corporation had to make an edict that forbad virtual slavery of immigrant workers.[10]

Living as economic exiles, resident aliens, and virtual slaves has been a significant part of the experience of many immigrants. Since September 11, 2001 there has been an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment. The dominant culture has created a xenophobic and racist environment in which undocumented immigrants, and other minority communities, find themselves acutely alienated and feeling in el exilio, strangers in a strange land. The profiling of immigrants and people of color for potential terrorist scrutiny has resulted not only in unnecessary detainment and false imprisonment, but the alienation of their communities. The call for “English-only” legislation and vigilante patrolling of the Mexican borders (and not the Canadian borders) are fueled by fears of the U.S. becoming an “Alien Nation.” Our post-9/11 environment has become a hostile environment for publicly advocating or advertising a collective self-identity that is distinct from the dominant culture.[11]

Survival and preservation of ethnic and cultural identity were key elements in the experience of the Judean exiles in Babylon. They are also key elements in the experience of contemporary immigrant populations. The prophet Jeremiah offers an exilic model of how strangers in a strange land can nonviolently negotiate engagement with the wider culture, while surviving and preserving their own distinct religious and cultural identity.

Living in el exilio

The exile can serve as a metaphorical lens to help us look at issues surrounding immigrants, refugees and the church’s place in the world. John Howard Yoder, Mennonite theologian, saw Jeremiah’s exilic model of “seeking the peace of the city” as a way of nonviolently engaging the empire. At the end of his essay he wondered if the Jewish exilic experience might speak to other migrant and refugees peoples.[12] Alain Epp Weaver brings Yoder’s exilic theology into conversation with Edward Said’s appropriation of the exile motif to speak to the displacement of Palestinians from their homeland. In his essay Weaver makes an important statement about the misappropriation of the exilic metaphor:

European-American Christians, particularly those in urban and suburban settings whose livelihoods are not dependent on the cultivation of the land, could be tempted to confuse Jeremiah’s vision for life in exile with the rootless, virtual reality of much postmodern thought.[13]

There is a new trend to identify the experience of the postmodern, white, Euro-American church with exilic images as a counter-culture of “resident aliens”[14] and “Christian exiles.”[15] Although the exilic metaphor may be helpful for the dominant, white, European church in constructing an identity counter to the empire, there must be care taken to understand that there are other peoples and communities whose lived experience more readily fits the realities of exile. Those who share the power and privileges of the dominant culture should take care to avoid a too easy appropriation of the exile as a metaphor for a church that is a primary beneficiary of the empire.

If the white, Euro-American church wants to identify with the realities of exilic experience, it should begin in solidarity with those whose daily existence more closely reflects the diasporic experience---immigrants, refugees, displaced peoples, and people of color communities. The spiritual, ethical, and political stance of the Euro-American church should be shaped by the biblical vision of hospitality to the stranger (Deuteronomy 10:19), justice for the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19), and resistance to systems that alienate people (Mark 11:15-17). The prophet Jeremiah provides an exilic model for immigrants, refugees, and other “minority communities” for survival, preservation of ethnic, cultural, and religious identity, and a way of nonviolent resistance and engagement with the dominant culture.

[1] A postcolonial reading of the Exodus story, which is tied to the conquest of Canaan, would question it as a liberative model from the perspective of peoples who have been displaced from their homelands. See, Robert Allen Warrior, “A Native American Perspective: Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians,” R.S. Sugirtharajah, ed., Voices From the Margins: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991), 287-295.
[2] As cited in Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, A Biblical Theology of Exile (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 78-79.
[3] I am indebted to the insights of Daniel L. Smith, The Religion of the Landless: The Social Context of the Babylonian Exile (Bloomington: Meyer Stone Books), 1989.
[4] For an application of Jeremiah 29 to Chinese refugees in Hong Kong, see Archie Lee’s essay “Exile and Return in the Perspective of 1997” in Fernando F. Segovia and Mary Ann Tolbert, eds., Reading from This Place: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in Global Perspective, Vol. 2 (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1995), 97-108.
[5] David Stephen Vanderhooft, The Neo-Babylonian Empire and Babylon in the Latter Prophets, HSM 59 (Atlanta: Scholars, 2000), 6.
[6] Daniel L. Smith argues that the Jews were “slaves” in Babylon. Daniel L. Smith, The Religion of the Landless, 38-41.
[7] “Immigrants: The Story of a Bracero,” Riboberto Garcia Perez, interviewed by David Bacon, April 18, 2001, http://dbacon.igc.org/Imgrants/24Bracerostory.htm.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Stephanie Armour, “Some Foreign Household Workers Face Enslavement,” Common Dreams News Center, www.commondreams.org, November 20, 2001.
[10] Eric Schlosser, “A Side Order of Human Rights,” Common Dreams News Center, www. commondreams.org, April 6, 2005,.
[11] In an environment of xenophobia, racism, and cultural homogenization Latino scholars have proposed an agenda of “cultural citizenship.” It is the utilization of cultural particularity to claim political rights within the wider dominant culture, while maintaining a distinctive local identity. See, William V. Flores and Rina Benmayor, eds., Latino Cultural Citizenship: Claiming Identity, Space, and Rights (Boston: Beacon), 1997.
[12] John Howard Yoder, For the Nations: Essays Public and Evangelical (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 78.
[13] Ben C. Ollenburger and Gayle Gerber Koontz, eds., A Mind Patient and Untamed: Assessing John Howard Yoder’s Contributions to Theology, Ethics, and Peacemaking (Telford:Cascadia, 2004), 173.
[14] Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abindon), 1989.
[15] Erskine Clarke, ed., Exilic Preaching: Testimony for Christian Exiles in an Increasingly Hostile Culture (Harrisburg: Trinity), 1998.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Virgin, the Baby, and the Christmas Sex Scandals: My last controversial Christmas sermon before leaving pastoral ministry 7 years ago

Believe it or not, Christmas in early America was a scandalous holiday. It was not a celebration for families and children, particularly since it had strong sexual overtones. Christmas as it was practiced in the 17th century so offended the Puritans that the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony outlawed its observance in 1659. The fine for observing Christmas in Massachusetts was 5 shillings. Most people did not celebrate Christmas for the first two centuries in New England.

Why was Christmas such a scandal? In his Pulitzer Prize nominated study Stephen Nissenbaum reveals how Christmas was once a peasant celebration marked by excess drinking, gluttony, carousing, cross dressing, and lewd sexual acts. In 1725 the Reverend Henry Bourne called the way most people commonly behaved during the Christmas season “a Scandal to Religion, and an encouraging of Wickedness.” Peasants practiced a kind of trick-or-treat. While “wassailing” they would forcibly enter the homes of the wealthy and demand to be treated to food, drink and money, or else. “Mumming” was a common practice at Christmas with men and women going door to door dressed in one another’s clothes. Singing Christmas carols was considered a “disgrace,” since it was generally performed in the midst of rioting, fornication and wantonness. No wonder Christmas was such a scandal!

By comparison to these early Christmas celebrations, our Christmases are pretty tame. Christmas has been domesticated into a sentimental season for children and for celebrating consumer capitalism. The transformation of the carnival of Christmas in early America was accomplished by some New York aristocratic gentlemen known as the Knickerbockers. The group included such men as Clement Moore, author of The Night Before Christmas, and Washington Irving, who popularized Santa Claus. These wealthy, elite men were politically conservative, fearful of the working class and opposed to democracy. In their hands the once wild and scandalous Christmas celebration was creatively domesticated.

Even as a religious holiday Christmas has become pretty tame. There is little hint of scandal in present day Christmas celebrations, if you exclude all the drunken Santas. Like sugar plums, Christmas card images of Christmas dance in our heads----humble Mary, wise Joseph, meek-and-mild Jesus in a manger, star with kite tail, three wise men bearing gifts to the baby in the manger , which is biblically inaccurate, and the snow falling gently on the ground. Just a simple scene of dad, mom and the newborn stranded away from home on the holidays. This Christmas scene would warm the heart of most red-blooded, middle-class, suburban American families. The whole story of Jesus’ birth has become a Hallmark snapshot of sweetness, nostalgia and wholesomeness. Christmas is pictured as American as apple pie and presents under the tree on Christmas morn. We can thank God that we don’t have to view scenes of lewdness on our streets or men dressed like Ru Paul showing up at our front door on Christmas day! Who would be so shameful as to include sexual scandals in the Christmas story?

Well, how about Matthew, the writer of the first Christmas story? In his telling the birth of Jesus was surrounded with scandal and strong sexual overtones. It all begins with the genealogy of Jesus in the first chapter of Matthew. Matthew traces the royal lineage of Jesus the Messiah all the way back to King David and beyond. Normally women were left out of the family records. Strangely enough, Matthew includes five women in Jesus’ genealogy----Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. Not only is it unusual that these women are included as branches in the family tree of Jesus, but they all share in common the taint of some sort of sexual irregularity in their stories. There is scandal woven like a string of popcorn through this Christmas family tree!

Just look at the family tree of Jesus. On one limb we have Tamar. Quite an ornament. Her story sounds like some headline in a supermarket tabloid. But, there it is, right there in the pages of the Bible. Don’t let your kids read this stuff! It could corrupt their innocent minds. The story begins with Judah, who went out and got his youngin’, Er, a wife. Before he could have any children God struck poor ol’ Er dead as a door nail, ‘cause he was a bad dude. So, Judah told his other son, Onan, to go and sleep with Tamar, which was his brotherly duty according to the law. As weird as it may sound, Onan has sex with Tamar, his brother’s widow. But, he performed coitus interruptus. Let’s call it, in banking terms, an early withdrawal.

Onan knew that the child he would help create would not be considered his. That is why he did not totally fulfill his brotherly duty. Well, God bumped off Onan for not getting Tamar P.G. Then, Judah refused to offer his third son, Shelah, to Tamar, ‘cause he was only knee high to a grasshopper. Besides, Judah was afraid his last son might get iced by God. Judah said to Tamar, “Why don’t you go live with your dad awhile. Wait ‘til my son gets rid of his peach fuzz. Then, you two can tie the knot and have a kid.” Two dead sons at the hands of one God was enough to leave a bad taste in Judah’s mouth and make him just a little suspicious of Tamar.

As the story goes, Judah’s wife up and kicks the bucket. After the funeral and a lot of Kleenex, Judah heads off to a sheep shearers convention. Tamar hears about his away-from-home trip, puts on a sexy veil and a lot of red lipstick and heads off in the same direction as that there convention. She’s ready to pull the wool over some shepherd’s eyes. Standing alongside the road leading to the convention Tamar hides her sheepish grin beneath her veil. Tamar spots Shelah, who by now has growed hisself a full man-beard. Tamar looks at Shelah and remembers her empty crib.

Then, along comes big daddy Judah. He’s checkin’ out Tamar, thinkin’ she’s a lady of the evening, a “prostitory.” Judah propositions Tamar: Voulez vous couche avec moi, which translate loosely as “bleep, bleep, bleep.” They go get a cheap hotel room. He wants to pay with a sheep. She thinks that’s a ba-a-a-a-a-d idea. Tamar asks for his big man ring, the one with Judah engraved on it. Look out, man! To make a long and even more sordid story short, young Tamar ends up having a bun in the oven by her creepy old father-in-law. She also becomes one of the beloved ancestors of Jesus hanging around on his Christmas family tree.

Next, we have hanging on the tree---Rahab. She was a foreigner, a prostitute and a traitor to her people. Three strikes, you’re out. Or so you would think. As the story goes, Joshua sent out some spies to check out the land of Canaan. These spies end up checking out Rahab. I imagine her in a tight miniskirt, stiletto heels, trying to eek out a living by walking the mean streets of Jericho. Immediately upon entering the land of Canaan the Israelite spies spend the night at her home. Hmmmmm. Now, how in the heck did these upstanding young men know where a prostitute lived? What, in God’s name, were Joshua’s spies doing at a Canaanite brothel? I thought they came to check out the lay of the land. And I’m not referring to Rahab! Maybe Rahab was a counter intelligence agent and they were gathering strategic military information. Yeah, that’s the ticket! She hid the spies from the king of Jericho and her household was spared when the city was finally conquered. There she is, Rahab, in all her glory. A Canaanite prostitute. As proud as punch to be there on Jesus’ family tree.

On another branch of the tree is Ruth, another foreigner. She is a Moabite. Moabites were descendants of Lot’s incestuous relationship with his daughter. The scandal just gets thicker. Ruth is also a widow. Her husband and sons all died leaving Ruth with no social security. All she had left was her mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth hooked her destiny onto the tailgate of Naomi and they headed off for the land of Judah. Remember him…and Tamar?

After getting their suitcases unpacked and pots and pans in the kitchen, they went to work in the fields of a rich dude by the name of Boaz, kinfolk of Naomi. Ruth caught the wandering eye of Boaz. I guess he liked the way she gleaned. He invited her over for lunch. Bread and wine. Later Naomi tried to play the matchmaker. She told Ruth to go get spruced up, put on a nice dress, fix your hair, and go down to Boaz’ bread factory. Naomi says to Ruth, “After Boaz finishes eating and drinking, watch where he goes to bed. Then go uncover his (snicker, snicker) “lower parts,” and lay with him. He’ll know what to do.” Unmarried and sleeping together. Scandalous! Shame on the family of David, husband of Bathsheba. I’m getting ahead of myself.

From a roll in the grain, Ruth has a bun in the oven. That bun would grow up to be king David’s grandpa. A Moabite widow not only gets a book written about her, she has her name proudly hung up there on the Messiah’s family tree.

Then, there’s the wife of Uriah. One starry night king David takes a stroll along the palace rooftop at just the right time to see a lovely young woman, Bathsheba, taking a bubble bath. He gets all hot and bothered. This married man, this king of God’s people, has his servants go fetch her. As if she would refuse to come. She is a pawn in king David’s game of lust and power. David commits adultery with her and murders her husband. Bathsheba’s unwitting husband is a foot soldier in David’s army. David tries to get Uriah sauced so he will have sex with his wife and cover up David’s dirty deed. Uriah is too loyal a man to leave his post to be with his wife, so David has him put on the front lines in the heat of battle. Uriah finally comes home….in a body bag. David now has this poor man’s wife dangling on his arm. Bathsheba is a victim of sexual lust and political power. She’s an angel with a crooked halo on the Christmas family tree of Jesus, the Messiah.

Finally, we come to Mary, the mother of Jesus, the shining star at the top of the tree. I should say “virgin” mother of Jesus. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t recollect meeting any mothers who were virgins. And you can bet I would bust a gut if some teenage mother with a baby perched on her cocked hip said to me, “You got it right, Jack. I’m still a virgin. And guess who the pappy is?” Virgin and mother? Yeah, right! And you’ve been smokin’ what?

Well, check this out. This is how the birth of the Messiah happened. Mary, a teenager, is engaged to this old geezer Joseph. He finds out (maybe through one of those home pregnancy tests) that Mary is “with child.” And old Joe know it ain’t his. Divorce court would only cause this scandal to hit the headlines. Can’t you just see it, right there next to the headlines of Elvis sightings and the three-headed alien? It reads: Virgin teenage mother gives birth to the savior of the world.
Joe had a good heart and wouldn’t put Mary through that kind of public scandal. On one of those tossin’-and-turnin’ nights an angel sneaks into a weird dream of Joseph and says, “Go tie the knot with Mary, ‘cause that baby’s real daddy is the Holy Ghost!” Ooooookay. Sounds like a Clinton spin doctor at work. Later, some rumors spread around the gossip mill that the father was really a Roman soldier by the name of Pandira.

Anyway, as the story grows, Joe and Mary head off for the chapel. A wedding snapshot might show old Joe at the altar dressed in a tux with graying temples with his blushing bride, a round yon virgin, at his side dressed in a white wedding gown and the unseen father, the Holy Ghost as best man. It all seems to fit the family tree. The Messiah, born of a virgin mother, comes from a long line of sexual scandals and irregularities. And believe it or not, this is the child who will be called “Immanuel, God with us.” Lord, have mercy.

Amid all those scandalous incidents, sexual innuendos, and social embarrassments, Jesus is born. Immanuel, God with us. And isn’t that just the way Jesus would enter the world, right smack in the middle of the messy human predicament. Not like some scene on a Hallmark card with pristine snow, proud papa, haloed mother, and neon-glowing baby, but in a barnyard of bleating sheep, steaming cow dung , sweaty teenage mom, and a family tree with bent branches. It all fits.

That child in the manger would grow up to carry on his offbeat family heritage. Jesus stepped right into the muck and mess of human life, not fiting in, breaking custom and tradition, for the sake of sharing the love and grace of God with all people regardless of their gender, sexual history or orientation, social class, or failed moral lives.

He welcomed those who didn’t fit into the social and religious boxes of his day. Jesus was known to talk publicly with women about God and truth. Scandalous! He even let one woman intimately bathe his feet with her tears and hair. Blush, blush. He wined and dined with tax-collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. Shocking! Hesus preferred to be with the poor, sick, lepers, lame and blind, than to hob nob with the religious elite at the temple. In the end, this child from a broken family tree would die a scandalous death on the cross.

From the scandal of the crib to the scandal of the cross this child, this messiah, revealed the presence of God with us, Immanuel. Into the brokenness, the scandal, the sexual irregularities, the untidiness of human life, God is with us.

Jesus, the Messiah, is born under a odd Christmas family tree. The needles are fallen off in places, like a dog with mange. Some branches are crooked, while other branches we would like to hide. The Messiah is born amid scandal, irregularities and the disorder that is humanity. Isn’t that the good news of Christ’s birth? God is with us in the muck and mess of it all. God dares to enter this weak, fabulous, frail, longing, lovely, hungry, abused, pierced flesh of humanity in a child born in a manger.

Now, we all have our scandals and irregularities in our own family trees. Neither our own families or our own personal lives are Hallmark cards. There’s the alcoholic uncle who embarrasses everyone at the Christmas get togethers. A grandma whose lately been saying some weird stuff that don’t make a whole lot of sense. The teenage niece who had the child out of wedlock and parades it around like a trophy. That adult cousin who acts like a 9 year old. The daughter who came out of the closet and her parents feel like hiding in it. They are all part of our family tree.

And still, we love them. Sometimes because they are family. Sometimes we love those who don’t quite fit the mold, or have messed up their lives, or have been messed up by life, not because they are family. We love them because we have been touched by the grace of God, a God who is with us and who loves us like a parent, even though we may not have fit the mold. A God who is with us and loves is irregardless of our own hidden scandals. A God who is with us and loves us with our own peculiarities and warped ways. This God, who is with us and loves us, has come in our own skin, into our own cockeyed history. That is surely the good news of Christmas.

God’s love and redemptive plan throughout the long stretch of history will not be thwarted by the scandal, the disarray and disorder of the human condition. Jesus, the Messiah, is born unto us. All of us. No matter who we are, what we have done, no matter how far we have fallen short of what we should be, or from what others think we should be.

God is with us and loves us, in all our humble and humiliating humanity. For God has chosen to come to us all wrapped up in that baby born in a manger bed. And God will continue to be with us in the vulnerability of human life….there….amid the sheep and the smell…in a makeshift crib….in a makeshift world….Jesus is born. Immanuel. God with us.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Four Alternative Books for Christmas

If Christmas has become too crassly commercial or sappily sentimental for you, I have several books to recommend that will sober up your Christmas spirit the egg nog of a churchified and commercialized Christmas.

The first book is entitled The First Christmas by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. Borg and Crossan are premier New Testament scholars. They have also collaborated on a book about the end of Jesus' life----The Last Week. Their forte is examining the socio-political context of the birth narratives of Jesus in Matthew and Luke and painstakingly placing the texts in their context. The result is a clear-eyed presentation of the Christmas stories which point us to a new world of justice and peace. This is a more popular read.

The second book, The Liberation of Christmas, is one of my favorite Christmas books written by one of my favorite biblical scholars, Richard A. Horsley. Like Borg and Crossan, Horsley places the infancy narratives in their socio-political context, but with much greater historical detail. The reader will soon see how these texts present Jesus as an alternative to the Roman Caesar, who was depicted as the "savior of the world." The ruthlessness of King Herod is heightened by historical background. We learn more about the peasant society, women's roles, popular resistance to Rome, Mary's song of liberation and social transformation, and modern analogies to these narratives in their socio-political contexts. This is a more scholarly presentation, but worth the effort.

Another book, edited by Richard Horsley and James Tracy, is Christmas Unwrapped: Consumerism, Christ, and Culture. The essays included in this book cover the history of Christmas in the U.S., the culture of Christmas, social, historical, and political contexts of the biblical birth narratives, and theoretical and theological relections on Christmas. This easy read book will get you to re-examine the cosumerist wrappings of this holiday of excess.

The last book I would recommend about Christmas was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. The book is The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nussbaum. This study is an amazingly detailed historical analysis of the emergence, or should I say "invention," of Christmas. He tells the story of Christmas once celebrated as a kind of scandalous, bawdy type of Mardi Gras to its domestication and commercialization by a group of New England businessmen. It's a tale filled with intriguing history and origins of cultural icons and practices like Santa Claus and wassailing across racial lines. You will never look at Christmas the same way again.

So, if your egg nog notions of Christmas have become sickeningly sweet and you can't stand listening to Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" another time, put on your pajamas, light a fire, get one of these books to read, and get your hair singed (from the books, not the fire).

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

An Advent Prayer for Just Peace

God, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, we live with images of war dancing in our heads. Car bombs. Billowing smoke. Red spattered bodies. Tanks rolling down the streets. We live in a world of terror.

Your beloved Child, Jesus, came into a world of terrorism from the Roman empire. A stiff-necked, ruthless leader used the military as a way to ensure peace and Roman freedom. The streets ran red with the blood of innocents. Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus had to flee the violence as refugees into another country.

God, the world hasn’t changed much in 2,000 years. Violence displays its claws. The streets are not safe. Rulers forget the folly of war. Refugees and immigrants flee their homes for security and hope. And yet, as you called those early disciples, you still call us to Christ’s way of peace in a world of violence, to the way of justice amid a world of imbalanced scales.

We pray for peace. Not the kind of peace divorced from justice. Not the kind of peace that frees us from seeing the horrid costs of war. Not the kind of peace that allows us to shop and turn off the news and avoid the images of war. We pray for peace with justice, compassion with a social conscience, faith with toughness, love with tenacity, and bodies that stand up and speak out. Merciful God, hear our prayer. Amen.

Secret Lives of Great Artists

When I took several art history courses in L.A. City College in 1968 I got D's, even though I was an art major. Those bad grades were part of what caused me to lose my college deferment and to get drafted into the army during the Vietnam war. I never got bad grades again! And yet, I still remember the artists and the major art movements to this day.

I just finished reading a book that has inspired me look at art history afresh. It is entitled Secret Lives of Great Artists by Elizabeth Lunday. What makes it interesting is the odd angle she takes on well known artists. She tells some bizarre stories that I don't remember from my college art classes. Maybe I would have paid more attention if the professors would have spiced up the history with these oddities.

I don' remember hearing that:

* Leonardo Da Vinci was publicly accused of sodomy and was notorious for leaving work undone.
* Sandro Botticelli tried to crash a large rock on his neighbors roof for making too much noise.
* Michelangelo Buonarroti had such bad body odor, from not bathing, that he drove his assistants away while painting the Sistine Chapel, which was not painted lying on his back.
* Michelangelo Merisi Da Caravaggio was constantly in fights and even murdered a man in a bar room brawl.
* Rembrandt Van Rijn, whose was inspired by Mennonites and even painted a Mennonite minister and his wife, did not follow their morals. He had several lovers and was dragged before a church council for "living in sin."
* Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a Pre-Raphaelite painter with serious addictions, dug up his dead wife
to retrieve personal poems he had placed in her coffin.
Paul Cezanne had an inflammatory temper and hated to be touched.
* Henri Rousseau was jailed for bank fraud.
* Van Gogh performed missionary work among the poor. During his periods of insanity he would eat paint directly from the tube! Yummy.
* Edward Hopper was a wife-beater and his wife a husband-beater.
* Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo...well, their sexual escapades are no secret, even Frieda's trist with Leon Trotsky.
* Georgia O'Keeffe often painted in the nude and chased off nephews and nieces who spied on her.
* Jackson Pollock's couldn't draw so he dripped. His alchoholism killed him in a car crash.
* Andy Warhol was shot by a radical feminist. He turned back to religion and painted a series on Da Vinci's Last Supper (I just bought a book about this entitled The Religious Art of Andy Warhol by Jane Dillinger).
* Salvador Dali, who I have been aware of since high school, was so bizarre it would take a book to write about his weird antics (May years ago I read his autobiography. This was one strange dude. Maybe that's why I like him so much).
I have always wondered why so many artists seemed to live such tortured and bizarre lives. There must be something in the psychology of creative people that lends itself to this. Anyway, this book by Lunday highlights the strange aspects of artists lives. Unlike art history in college, it kept my interest.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Word Became Flesh: A Christmas Poem

Jesus Christ,
where do we begin?
In the beginning,
which wasn’t a beginning.
At a time
when there was no time.
Long before the morning stars sang together.
Before God’s body
warmed the cool air of stellar space.
Before the world was hung
on invisible string
and spun like a top on its axis.
Before the seas roared in angry voice,
and the trees laughed in the wind.
Before the mountains proudly lifted their heads,
and the deserts cried out in thirst.
Long before an Unseen Hand
scooped up a batch of clay
from a muddy stream
and molded a living sculpture
that caught the breath of angels.
Before pain was etched on the brow
of a solitary face,
or a tear dropped crystalline
from a single eye.
Before the first cry was heard to burst forth
from between a mother’s legs,
or a note was plucked
upon the string of an angel’s lyre.
When the world was but an egg
incubating in the mind of God.
In the beginning.
When all there was
was silence….
and the Word.

The Word.
In the beginning
without beginning.
Eternity spinning in upon itself
and out again.
The Word was as timeless
as God,
as a clock with no hands or face.
As endless as Life.
Without lips to loose labials
or tongue to grunt gutturals.
Without teeth to sing sibilants,
or mouth to speak it into being.
The Word was.
Ready to communicate
Ready to speak
the first stammering,
s…s…stuttering syllables.
The Word hung on Sacred lips,
for the moment it would speak itself
into words that form sentences of reality.
Then, the silence will be broken.
The Word will speak universes, galaxies,
a tiny rotating blue orb,
and finally….
a word of skin and speech
not unlike itself….
a babbling being.

the Word as
Divine Wisdom.
She waits to woo and win the world,
even before She walks
into the room of time.
One with God,
like two peas in a pod,
twins who wear the same clothes
and think the same thoughts.
distinct from,
yet, fully God.
Very God of very God.
One with the Word.
And yet, other.
As other as the babe nestled in Mary’s womb
waiting on the edge of the world
to be born.
In a word,
to be heard.

Without throat, teeth, or tongue,
the Word spoke….
And silence shattered
into a billion stars,
like broken glass
from an opera singer’s high note.

A world was expelled
by a cough from the lungs of God,
spoken into being.
Tinier than a mustard seed
caught in God’s teeth,
it was flung into space
by one able to move mountains
with the blink of an eye,
fill seas with her tears,
create canyons with her footprints,
who says “Be!”
and it is.
After speaking a six-day sentence,
the tongue of the Word rested,
then tasted what She had made
with one luscious lick.
The Word said,
“It tastes mighty good!”
And the Word became

One day in time,
in eternity
spinning in upon itself
and out again,
Adam’s hand
snapped the string that held the world.
The wobbling world
fell from Eden’s perch
with a CRASHHHH!!
and cracked like a fragile vase
from a Potter’s wheel.
In pain and anguish
the Potter spewed forth colored words
over the broken, gray world.
The words landed
on the tongues of poets and prophets,
who cried out
in the desert
of punctured promises,
wilderness wanderings,
corrupted kings,
tainted temples.
God’s tongue
tasted the nation of her choosing.
It had gone sour.
The Word kept crying out
word upon word upon word.
The stammering, stuttering Word
stuck on the same sounds,
a broken record,
playing over and over
for a broken world
lying on the dying floor.

From deep within the bosom of God
the Word prepared to speak
a word unlike any word
that ever fell on human ear
or rolled off prophet’s tongue.
The Word rumbled around
in the belly of God
a mouth to speak it,
a tongue to articulate it,
a body to dance it,
a womb to birth it.
Then, the Word found
an open door into the world,
the only way to enter
the blood and bone sanctuary.

The Word became flesh.
Not like the putting on of clothing
to walk into the cold of winter.
Nor like an ancient actor wearing a mask
that displays personae and hides identity.
The Word became flesh,
vulnerable and vexed,
weak and wearied,
finite and fragile,

Just to speak the word
grates across the tongue.
Paraded and pink
on long legs looking for lonely lovers,
pleasure for pay.
Tan and taut
as leather stretched over a cage of bones
lying on the streets of Calcutta.
Bruised and battered
by angry hands
in a home bittersweet home
where Sophia cries.
Pale and pocked
By a four-letter disease
that numbers your days.
Wrinkled and wormed
lying in a satin-lined box
dust to dust.

The Word became flesssshhh.
Tormented and tempted,
tried and tested,
and tight enough
to be pierced
and hung out to dry
on two crossed sticks.

The Word
packed up its heavenly tent
and moved to a new home
sweet home
in the belly, of all things
…. a virgin.
From flesh came flesh.
In a barnyard of beasts.
Pushed out onto the hard earth
like raw meat
hanging in the window of a butcher shop.
The screaming wonder
wrapped in strips of cloth,
a mummy for the tomb.
The Word entered the world
of babbling beings
unable to speak…a word.
While angels bent over the earth
silent as a whisper.

Wrapped up tight
in the humanity of that child,
a future of unborn days,
when that fine hair will glisten
with water from the Jordan river,
when those tiny hands will scoop up mud
and heal hollow eyes,
when those lips will drip words of honey
on the tastebuds of hungry ears,
when those two round eyes,
as big as worlds,
will look upon the multitudes
hungry for more than bread,
thirsty for more than wine,
longing for true communion.
The day will come when those small ears
will hear the whispers of heaven
and clothe them in words.
The Word pitched a tent among us,
stretched out the cords of a sacred temple,
nailed them down,
and made our home his home,
our sod his sod,
our God his God.
Even death,
the end of speech,
could not silence him.
The Word still speaks.

The Word that was
and is
and is to come,
is with us.
When we toss and turn
in the sheets of pain,
sit in solitude,
hold the crumbs of our future
in our trembling hands,
or when life bursts through our door
with party horns blaring
and rainbow streamers flying
curly-cue in the air,
or when sitting
on the edge of the world
watching the dying sun
paint the sky with invisible brush
colors that pale the palette of Picasso.
The Word is with us,
when little ones make their singing debut
in the maternity ward,
or when a wrinkled hand drops limp
at the side of a rocking chair
in a rest home,
sweet rest, home.
The Word still speaks
in words wrapped in the swaddling clothes
of the human .

The Word became flesh.
With human face.
Have you seen the Word?
broken smile,
broken spirit,
begging near the freeway off ramp.
looking for cans in the park,
a sleeping place in the dark.
The Word with a face
seen between empty spaces
of iron bars
or at empty places
like local bars.
To miss the face,
the other,
the Word,
among the least of these,
is to stop the ears
to the sound of sacred speech,
and to end up as guilty as a goat
on judgment day.

O, Wondrous Word,
Let us see your face.
As black as night
in a Savannah swamp,
as pale as the moon
on Chesapeake Bay,
as red as mud
on an Oklahoma road,
as brown as earth beneath
Mexican sandals.
O, wonderful Word,
Will we listen for your voice
only in soaring song and silent sanctuary,
in petitioning prayer and preacher’s proclamation,
in bound Bible and believer’s bosom?
Or will we tune our ears
to listen for the Word
in the lost and lonely places,
the forgotten and forsaken places,
the marginal and manger places
of this turning orb?

The Word still speaks
from as far away as forever
or as near as a neighbor.
The Word still speaks
louder than dividing walls that fall.
Quiet as a flower budding
on April’s first birthday.
The Word still speaks
in eternity
spinning in upon itself
and out again
and in the still, small voice
of this moment….
The Word
is with us.
And we behold the glory,
full of grace and truth.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Public Church, Public Preaching

The public church is a family of apostolic churches with Jesus as the center, churches which are especially sensitive to the res publica, the public order that surrounds and includes people of faith.---Martin Marty, The Public Church: Mainline-Evangelical-Catholic (New York: Crossroad, 1981, p. 3)

25 years ago Martin Marty painted for us a vivid portrait of the public church. His three assumptions about the public church were that it: 1) expresses itself in discriminately engaging the secular order or disorder; 2) interacts in meaningful ways with religions outside biblical faith; and 3) provides a counterforce to religious communities that impose a complete set of norms on its people, form tribes who reject outsiders, or practice a privatistic faith of individualism.

Marty further suggested that the public church need not rely upon a Christianization of American culture, but can draw resources from those who preach a justitia civilis, a civil righteousness. Preaching in the public church proclaims the intrinsic values of grace and hope for the world. There is still wisdom today in Marty’s description of the public church and public preaching.

More recently, in her book Public Church: For the Life of the World (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2004), Cynthia Moe-Lobeda illuminates the significance of the North American church’s public identity and vocation in an “age of privatization.” The church of Jesus Christ cannot be a place for privatized spirituality, a personal religion that does not impact the public good. She presents proclamation of the good news as being “in and to the world.” A public church calls for public preaching.

These and other reflections on the public church incite the need for further reflection on the relationship between an understanding of the church as a public assembly and the shape of public preaching.

Public Church

Distinctions between what is public and what is private go back to political philosophy in ancient Greece. Aristotle distinguished between the polis, public or political space, and oikos (i.e., household), familial or private space. In his understanding the family existed for the sake of the polis, not the polis for the sake of the family. Personhood is to be defined by the polis. Human identity is shaped by the public sphere.

As Western Christianity took on many of the assumptions of the 18th century Enlightenment, the church’s identity became defined more by the private individual or the personal family than by the polis. Over time the understanding of the church shifted from being a public space to being a private space. As a private space the emphasis within the church has been upon responding to the felt needs of the individual believer, ministering to the family, and creating an intimate environment for worship and fellowship. The Western church has fallen into what Richard Sennett has called “the tyranny of intimacy.”

To understand the church as a private space for the individual or family has had a profound impact on the proclamation and mission of the church. As private space the church focuses its energies on nurturing individuals and families. Theology is replaced by therapy. Mission is replaced by maintenance. Public worship is turned into a private, intimate affair. Preaching seeks to meets the ever changing needs of the individual believer.

The public church is the church in mission, the church empowered by the Spirit and turned toward the world. This does not mean the public church neglects to meet the needs of individuals and families, but its raison d’etre is its mission to the world. For God so loved the world… To use the imagery of Aristotle, in a real incarnational and missional sense the church as oikos (i.e., household) exists for the sake of the polis (i.e., public).

James Fowler has offered us a significant list of characteristics of the public church (Weaving the New Creation: Stages of faith and the Public Church. San Francisco: Harper, 1991, chap. 6). His list grows out of observations of particular congregations. I will offer my own list of characteristics of the public church. My short list is intended to focus on a few of the characteristics of the public church that connect with its practice of public preaching.

* The public church has a clear sense of mission- The public church is a missional church. Mission is not relegated to a special committee or project. All that the church is and does in worship, discipleship, practices, education, and ministry is permeated by its call by God to be salt of the earth, a light of the world, a “city set on a hill.” As salt and light the public church’s witness penetrates to world in which God has placed it. A city on a hill is not a private enclave, but rather a collective public witness to the world around it.

* The public church engages in public witness and the common good- The public witness of the church involves social responsibility within the wider community and world. This takes the form not only of acts of charity, like soup kitchens and food banks, but in the work of resistance to systemic powers of injustice and active engagement in social and institutional transformation. Some theologians have proposed a type of “sectarian future of the church” in which the church’s primary focus is upon living in the world as “resident aliens.” The public church seeks the common good not only of the body politic of the church, but also the res publica, the world that surrounds the church.

* The public church is hospitable and diverse- If North American society is pluralistic, one should expect that the church within such a context would reflect cultural, racial, economic, and social diversity. Hospitality, an open welcome to strangers and a cultural value in the ancient Mediterranean world of the Bible, has to be recaptured in new ways by the public church. Hospitality to the stranger has profound social and political implications for the public church in a religiously pluralistic world where there is talk of the “clash of civilizations.”

Public Preaching

Homiletics and ecclesiology are inextricably linked. How we understand the nature of the church and its mission will shape our practice of preaching. If our concept of the church is parochial and self-referential, our preaching will be circumscribed by constricted ecclesial boundaries. The public church, as I have characterized it, engenders preaching which engages the public beyond the walls of the church.

Preaching in the public church is, in the words of Arthur Van Seters, a “social act.” As a social act preaching is consciously aware and shaped by the social contexts or “publics” in which it is embedded. These social contexts include the communities within the biblical texts, the local congregation, ecumenical, and universal church, other faith communities, the nation, and the wider world.

Preaching that addresses a diverse public demands a polyvalent voice. The good news will fall on ears male and female, young and old, liberal and conservative, rich and poor, powerful and oppressed, and people from a various races, cultures, and ethnicities. Public preaching will seek to tune its voice to speak to the rich diversity of its audience. That does not mean the message will be the same for all, particularly if it is “good news to the poor.”

The characteristics of the public church I have previously outlined lend themselves to shaping some characteristics of public preaching. The following list is a brief sketch of what public preaching that grows out of the public nature of the church might look like.

· Public preaching is missional Mission-oriented preaching is not about telling exotic stories of foreign missionaries in strange cultures or using the Bible as a thin springboard from which to leap for support of missionary institutions. Missional preaching illuminates the connection between the church as an apostolic (i.e., sent) community and the public as the arena of its mission.

* Public preaching is emancipatory and political- Public preaching involves more than widening the audience of the Christian proclamation. Preaching that addresses the common good and witnesses to the public of the reign of God will of necessity proclaim the prophetic message of “good news to the poor, liberation for the captives, and freedom for the oppressed” (Isa. 61:1-2a; Luke 4:18-19). Public preaching is political not in a partisan sense, but in the sense of being good news that shapes the body politic of the church and its engagement with the wider polis or world.

* Public preaching is communal and conversational. Monological preaching that is lodged in the solitary preacher and isolated from dialogue with its communal context loses its public character. If preaching is a practice of the church for itself and the world, it will be shaped by diverse public conversations. It is the challenge of the public preacher to form practices of biblical study, contextual analysis, and sermon preparation which are in dialogue with a diverse persons and communities within and beyond the church.

A congregation focused on its individual members and families or even buzzing with social ministry and political activism will not suffice for a polis needing to hear the good news of God’s reign. A public church instigates a practice of public preaching.