Friday, December 02, 2016

The kind of Lutheran we are

I'm kind of embarrassed to admit that conversations about our church or denomination often have to begin with simply explaining what Lutheranism "is." Because Lutherans have come to the United States from many countries of origin, and since arriving here have periodically split into smaller groups (or merged into larger ones), there are a LOT of Lutheran flavors.

There's really only one Lutheran group in the United States that comes close to my denomination, the ELCA, in size, and that's the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS). In Arkansas, if people have encountered Lutherans, more than likely it has been LCMS.

But the truth is, our local congregation, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, not only isn't like most of the Lutheran churches in those other denominations, it isn't even like many of the Lutheran churches in our own denomination. Although we're a denomination, we're also very congregational as a polity, which means the local church is free to be itself without having to imprint too strongly the denomination to which it is affiliated.

Some of the outward markers of the kind of Christian we are as a church and denomination are obvious, and are representative across our church. We ordain women as pastors. This aligns us with mainline Protestants more than the LCMS. We practice open communion, and host it weekly, which aligns us more with the Episcopalians. We have a liturgy, which makes us "Catholic Lite." We preach from the Bible and are Jesus-centric, which aligns us more with Christianity than with other progressive religious movements which, on another level, we share common cause (like Unitarian Universalists).

But then there are the things that make us quite distinct, and make me wonder whether it's right to call us Lutheran at all. For one, we practice full inclusion of the LGBTQ community in the life of the church. This distinguishes us even from many ELCA congregations.

But it's more than just welcome. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of our life together as a Christian community is our commitment to offering open space for doubts and exploration. That is to say, an atheist or an agnostic would not feel out of place in our congregation, and in fact many such folks belong here. Belief and doctrine are not gates for entry, but furniture to try out.

Which is not at all to say that belief and doctrine are unimportant. Far from it. A good rug really ties the room together. Everyone loves a comfy couch. But the system of belief that we host among us is subject to inquiry and challenge. It's okay not to believe everything. And it certainly isn't an expectation to conform to specific behavioral patterns or types of "decency." We're quite busy trying to be less and less bourgeoise, even if our denomination and urban context tips that direction.

And then there's one more thing, and maybe this is the central thing.

The center for us as a community of faith is reminding each other that Jesus is the subaltern.

That's a fancy (Spivak) word, but it's helpful. The subaltern is the marginal one, the one on the edges. You know, like the beatitudes--blessed are the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, which then gets expanded in Scripture to include the Gentiles, the eunuch, refugees, and so on.

Then we remind ourselves that we are the body of Christ in the world. So we are the subaltern. Living as a Christian community means living as the subaltern, with a deep sensitivity to Christ's solidarity with subaltern communities of all types.

This is why we're committed, sometimes at a cost, to speaking up and with specific communities--#blacklivesmatter, the Transgender network, Latinx, refugees, immigrants.

Of course as a community of faith, we still carry all the markers of our historical origins also. Our worship still looks on some levels like a Lutheran worship formed in the crucible of the 1950s. We host potlucks, play handbells, sing hymns. Every Christian community is always an amalgam of its history and culture.

But we are also free to indigenize, perhaps more than other rigid types of Lutheran. Our worship has Ozark elements. Our leadership includes folks formally excluded from other Christian communions. We are free to join other movements and share common cause with them.

And increasingly, we catalyze ministries that we ourselves do not own or possess. We're free enough in Christ to trust that we can initiate things without possessing them, encourage others even when we don't earn credit. In fact, that's precisely one of the most profound ways Jesus Christ was both God and human.

As Son of God, he didn't consider that sonship as something to be grasped, but released himself fully in the world to be the subaltern.

This has been a very long explanation, but I post it as response to those with questions. It's my way of saying, if you're an atheist, or gay, or exhausted by culture Christianity that equates faith with nationalism, or just a plain old person in the world curious about an alternative form of life together with others that is making an attempt to live as the embodiment of Jesus the subaltern in the world... maybe give us a shot.

There's so much good in the world to be done that happens when those of common cause come together. You don't have to do it alone, and we may very well be better together.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Refugee Resettlement Syllabus

As we have launched Canopy NWA, many volunteers have asked for a refugee resettlement reading list. Quite a bit of contemporary fiction has been inspired by the migrant experience, so such a list could become quite long. If you're looking for a few holiday reads that will deepen both your empathy for the refugee experience, and your understanding of it and how to advocate for and with refugees, I recommend:

The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which begins at the very end of the Vietnam war, and chronicles the refugee experience in what may be THE refugee novel so far of the 21st century. It won the Pulitzer Prize.

They Are Us: Lutherans and Immigration, by Stephen Bouman, which is not directly about the refugee experience, but is tremendous in understanding a theology of immigration and sanctuary from a Lutheran perspective. Makes a compelling case for the problems that have arisen in our nation when we began calling the undocumented "illegal."

The Lost Boys of Sudan: An American Story of the Refugee Experience, by Mark Bixler. Bixler, a reporter, chronicles the resettlement of Lost Boys in Atlanta, Georgia. This is the best and clearest description of refugee resettlement I've ever read. It really helps potential volunteers understand their role.

Longing for Home: Forced Displacement and Postures of Hospitality, by M. Jan Holt. "Longing For Home offers a frame for understanding how communities can respond to refugees and various homeless populations by cultivating hospitality outside of their own comfort zones. This essential study addresses an urgent interreligious global concern and Holton’s thoughtful and compelling work offers a constructive model for a sustained practical response."

City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World's Refugee Camps, by Ben Rawlence. Although many of us involved in refugee resettlement think about the experience once refugees arrive here in their "third" home, this book is direct description of refugee life in the camps.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson. Sometimes we forget that one of the most recent and major refugee crises happened within our own borders, with large portions of the African-American population in our country seeking refuge in northern cities.

Where the Wind Leads, by Vinh Chung. By a refugee, a memoir of his own experience entering the United States through Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, and thriving in his new country.

Strangers at Our Door, by Zygmunt Bauman. "Today we find ourselves confronted with an extreme form of this historical dynamic, as our TV screens and newspapers are filled with accounts of a 'migration crisis', ostensibly overwhelming Europe and portending the collapse of our way of life. This anxious debate has given rise to a veritable 'moral panic' - a feeling of fear spreading among a large number of people that some evil threatens the well-being of society. 

In this short book Zygmunt Bauman analyses the origins, contours and impact of this moral panic - he dissects, in short, the present-day migration panic. He shows how politicians have exploited fears and anxieties that have become widespread, especially among those who have already lost so much - the disinherited and the poor. But he argues that the policy of mutual separation, of building walls rather than bridges, is misguided. It may bring some short-term reassurance but it is doomed to fail in the long run. We are faced with a crisis of humanity, and the only exit from this crisis is to recognize our growing interdependence as a species and to find new ways to live together in solidarity and cooperation, amidst strangers who may hold opinions and preferences different from our own."

A few more novels:

Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue
What is the What, by Dave Eggers
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman (not a novel, but literary)

And for those looking for a biblical theology of refuge:

Unceasing Kindness: A Biblical Theology of Ruth
Or, just read Exodus, about Israel as refugee, or Matthew, about Jesus as refugee.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Election Apocalyptic: Revealing Signs of God's Kingdom as anti-dote to white nationalism

I think it is important to share with readers of this column that many, many of our brothers and sisters in minority communities are especially disappointed in white evangelicals this week. Some are scared. And it is our responsibility as Christians
to put away false theologies like ethnically based nationalism, and instead to remain faithful to the liberating gospel of God’s breaking down the dividing walls between us. “Build the wall,” or “send those people home,” should never be the chant of any Christian. Welcome the refugee, love the neighbor, honor the image of God in each other, these are the core commitments of Christianity. All hateful practices that violate such love and welcome and honor are 
disordered practices. It is a sin to confuse Christianity with whiteness, or America.

Yolando Pierce, professor of African-American Religion and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote, “Watching 81% of my white brothers and sisters vote for Trump has broken something in me. I do not know if I can continue to pay the cost of being a peacemaker and a bridge-builder with those who refuse to see how their actions have so deeply wounded minority communities. Something has been broken for me; a fragile hope that the work of racial and gender justice will be embraced by the larger church.

I am calling on evangelical Christians all across Northwest Arkansas to join Donald Trump in saying, “Stop it!” to the hate speech that has increased in our region since his election. We elected a man who used dog whistle race-based rhetoric to fuel his campaign, and the result has been harmful speech and actions against black and brown bodies all over our country. It is not just politically correct to speak out against racist and misogynist and homophobic slurs. It is human, and Christian, to do so. 

Yolando is not alone in feeling like something broke this week. Many of us feel like things broke. Others are celebrating. But the shared narrative is one with which many of us are familiar. This election felt, on some levels, apocalyptic.

When you hear the word apocalypse, you might think about the end of the world. That’s the popular definition. So apocalyptic films and literature tend to be about the end of the world, or at the very least the end of the world as we know it.

But when I hear the word apocalypse, I do not think about the end of the world. Instead, I think about the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. I think about the arrival, advent, and recapitulation of all things in Christ. In other words, apocalypse is really about revealing, showing forth the signs of God’s kingdom here and now.

Ask yourself: Where can I see glimpses of God’s kingdom? How can I help make them a reality? That’s apocalyptic. One of my favorite theologians said: “Apocalyptic is the mother of all Christian theology” (Ernst K√§semann). What he meant by this is that almost everything we read in the New Testament, from the teachings of Jesus, all the way to the letters of Paul, is informed by this lived anticipation of the arrival of the kingdom of God. Jesus himself constantly points toward the kingdom. When the Son of Man comes, he says, and then he has very specific things in mind that happen in that coming kingdom. The thirsty receive water, the hungry are fed, the naked clothed, repentance and humility are practiced, the poor are lifted up, the rich are brought down from their thrones. 

The outposts of this coming kingdom (of which churches are called to be the foremost) will be notable for taking up their cross and following Jesus on the way of the cross. This is not cross as tool of the oppressor (like the way the cross is used in white supremacy), but cross as a public sign of Christ’s love made perfect in and through our weakness and vulnerability.

That phrase, Son of Man, which so frequently occurs in Scripture, especially on the lips of Jesus, comes to us first in a great apocalyptic book, Daniel. In Daniel, God gives dominion to “one like a son of man” (7:13).  It’s a phrase that could perhaps be better translated: The Human One. The one who will rule over heaven and earth is the truly Human One, the one in whom the authentic image of God is restored. 

Christians perhaps uniquely among people of faith look at this Human One and see Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ we see the humanity of humanity restored. Paul talks about him as the New Adam, restoring what had been lost in the Old Adam. Making humans human again (and so humane). 

Not only that, but this Human One, that Jewish brown-bodied Jesus, reigns in a peculiar way. He ends up executed at the hands of the empire, persecuted by the religious authorities, victim of a rigged trial, with a mocking title above his head—King of the Jews. 

And there, precisely in that moment, the kingdom of God is revealed. Jesus reigns from on high, on a cross. The suffering servant is our vision of the kingdom of God. There are historical moments when it is sometimes easier to be a Christian, because the culture simply aligns with your perspective and protects you. In a moment when all kinds of vulnerable people are more under threat and in need of loving neighbors, the responsibility of Christians becomes much more clear. Take up the cross, and endure being maligned by others, maybe even your fellow religionists, for associating with those who are being hated.

That’s what apocalypse looks like.

[Published today in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette Faith Matters Column]

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Dis-establishmentarian Jesus

I'm enough of a dis-establishmentarian to have been perhaps more ready than some for the emerging political climate we find ourselves in. I'm not at all pleased to be living in a nation with such a hawkish military. I tend to think we've allowed the plutocrats to divide the demos and order most of government and "the system" towards their benefit, padding the pockets of the rich.

So, as a pastor committed to not only raising a voice in solidarity with the poor, but also living into the reality where class war is no longer waged and all people are free to thrive, I try to find a third way beyond the tired tropes of the system.

In this sense, the anti-establishment movement (which was also a populist movement) that elected Trump and I share common cause. We think the system is rigged.

The difference, though, between our sense of how it is rigged is rather profound. Whereas they prefer nationalism, tend to use rhetoric against ethnic and various minorities as a way to consolidate and emphasize what might be better about our nation, I find myself seeing our diversity, our offering of refuge to strangers, our democratic process of always seeking more ways to engage and give voice to those on the margins, as our greatest strength, our sources of resilience.

I'm at work, always, striving to amplify the practices that encourage our resilience. It's why I march against plutocracy, it's why I gather with intentionally diverse and ecumenical communities, it's why I try to learn about my forms of complicity in the system that is, and repent of it.

This is what I think it means to listen to Jesus, to love my neighbor as myself, and to very clearly, articulately, and steadily, distinguish myself and my movement from the interests of Empire.