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Friday, October 28, 2011

Serving God and Money

Recently I read where a politician said he hopes all Americans want to get wealthy, as if it were some civic or moral virtue.  This sort of statement is not particularly new in this country, and fits neatly with a Weberian (as in Max Weber who wrote about the Protestant work ethic, Calvinism, and the drive to be wealthy among church goers) of American Protestant views regarding work and wealth.  But still, I was startled by the statement.  It seemed remarkably ignorant of the teachings of Jesus and the prophets regarding money.

I find nothing wrong with wealth.  Globally, we are the one percent, after all.  But it is the pursuit of wealth to the exclusion of other pursuits that is problematic in the Christian life. Indeed as a life priority wealth is down the list for healthy Christians.  When acquisitiveness and possessiveness move past God, community, honesty, integrity, family, justice, and peace, our souls become corrupted.

The scripture remind us, "the earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof."  "The land is mine, and you are but tenants on it," says the Lord.  We must all remember that wealth is a resource, weather it comes from land or intellectual property, that has been put in our care to use for God's purposes.  It is not our permanent possession.
Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What is Idolatry?

The post on leadership raised some questions about idolatry.  What is it?  In a time when the thought of making graven images as objects of worship seems absurd, what are our idols?  What might correlate to idolatry in our times?

As my blog post suggests, I have come to think of idolatry as forms of self worship, or selves worship.  Here is my thinking.  Idols are human projections.  The biblical language "idols they fashioned with their own hands," is no accident.  These projections can be human fears or aspirations, and the gods behave in some fashion or other like human beings.  The gods also play a role in maintaining a social-political order which can itself be an idol, and a manifestation of self or selves.

The Hebrew people take the astonishing step of rejecting idolatry, making the claim that YHWH-God is not at all like human beings, does not live in houses made by people, is a jealous god (demanding exclusivity in human-divine relationship), and cannot be turned into an idol.  The Hebrew understanding of YHWH-God is that God is not a projection of human aspirations, but that God's people become a projection of God's aspirations.  Of course, the Hebrew people are not always quick to embrace this vision, and it takes the persistent ministry of the prophets to keep the vision alive, but in the end it is this vision that shapes normative Hebrew faith, and ultimately Christian faith.

So I am always on the look out for self worship, in myself, and in the world around us. One form of idolatry we find in the church is found in the institutions we have fashioned for ourselves.  Certainly nationalism can be a form of idolatrous self worship, an absolute that will be second to none.  It is into this tradition of self worship that I put consumerism, the practice of which is filled with projection of aspiration as well as fear, turning stuff into an absolute, and source of salvation.

What idols do you struggle with in your own life?  What idols do you see in the world around us?
Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Servant Leadership in Crisis

When Mennonites talk about leadership, the conversation quickly turns to servant leadership, always described as a good thing.  I too believe in servant leadership, but fear that our understanding of it has slipped into idolatry, one of those clever ways we humans come up with to worship ourselves.

I suspect the emphasis on servant leadership in recent decades has its roots in a much needed corrective to abuses of authority and the ability of leaders to act with impunity.  This is a good thing.  The emphasis on servant leadership has also highlighted the fact that all Christians are ministers in their own way, and each is a necessary part of the body of Christ.

I am concerned, though, that the concept of servant leadership has become co-opted by an individualistic, consumer-oriented and materialistic culture that understands service or servant in light of the individual consumer.  For Pastors, we sometimes think servant leadership means satisfying the wants and needs of individual religious consumers in our congregation.  Servants serve at the pleasure of their masters.  Their job is to make those whom they serve happy.  We don't like poor customer service.

Jesus on the other hand was a servant leader who did not do what people wanted, often made them unhappy, surely was a disappointment to many, but yet gave of himself sacrificially in love.  Jesus acted out of a call to serve God and live out the Kingdom of God.  This sometimes converged with the desires of the people around him, but often involved challenging them to evaluate their sense of self and want and need, reorienting them to God.  That sure is a different model of servant leadership than we have in the late capitalism of the early 21st century.

The question is, how can we empower servant leaders to lead us toward God's vision, challenge us when we need to be challenged, yet still lead in a culture of accountability and a spirit of humility?  Critical to this, I think, is asking ourselves not what we want, but what God wants.  Anything less, I dare say, is idolatry.
Friday, October 21, 2011

Human Sexuality, Part 1

After Lukas was born, Beth and I decided not to have more children, so I looked into having my surgery.  Our health insurance was through Beth's public school, but our network was Loyola Health, as in Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order of the Roman Catholic Church.  I should note that we received exceptional care from Loyola during those years.  But, as a Catholic institution, they would not perform the procedure I desired.  After making a number of embarrassing, even humiliating, phone calls, I learned that our insurance would cover the procedure, but I would have to go to an abortion clinic way out in Downer's Grove (Chicago suburb).  It was indeed a Downer.

My experience reminded me that the use of contraception marks a radical departure from Christian theological and moral teaching and practice in the West, which still finds a home in Roman Catholicism (at least the teaching does, the practice not so much, at least in this country).  The purpose of sexual activity, in the traditional view, is procreation.  Any pleasure derived from the experience is collateral or incidental.  In this view, pleasure is never the end purpose of sexuality, nor is intimacy or union.  Indeed some Christians have argued at times that sexual activity between heterosexual couples beyond child bearing age is immoral.
As recently as the 1940s, Virginia Mennonite Conference and the Mennonite Conference of Ontario issues strong statements against "artificial" means of avoiding conception. (http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/contents/B541ME.html)

Mennonites and most other non-Catholics have done an about face on the issue of contraception, and abandoned the be fruitful and multiply ethic that understood procreation and sexuality to be inseparable.  Even the vast majority of sexually active Catholics in the U.S. use contraception, contra to Catholic teaching. We spend a great deal of energy as Mennonites debating abortion and homosexuality, but we have failed to deal completely with the acceptance of contraception among us.  No congregation of which I know is disciplining heterosexual, married couples of child bearing age that choose not to have children.  It is not a controversial issue.

Some Christians believe this dramatic change in sexual ethics among non-Catholic Christians is a mistake, and want to reverse it.  I am not among them.  We live in a time and place when be fruitful and multiply isn't the most responsible ethic.  Like most Mennonites, I believe the use of birth control is a responsible Christian ethical practice.  But this dramatic shift left us with a problem.  Our answers to young people's questions about why it is not appropriate for them to have sex before marriage have gotten a little shaky.

Under the procreation sexual ethic, answers to these questions were clear and coherent.  God created sexuality for the purpose of having children.  We believe children are best off if they are raised in families with married parents.  Sex outside marriage does not serve these purposes, and so is against God's law.  Contraception separated sex from procreation.  If the church believes that sex is acceptable for reasons other than procreation (pleasure, intimacy, union), then on what basis do we tell our young adult children to wait until marriage (especially as they wisely marry later and later in life)?  What do we tell homosexual couples who want the same intimacy as heterosexual Christians?  I want my children to wait for sexual intimacy until they are married.  But I also want to give them the best answers the church has to these questions, and in this regard, we are failing.

We do have answers to these questions, and some times they are pretty good.  But they aren't so clear or coherent as the days when sex was all about procreation.  The Bible is often used, but if you are trying to put together a biblical sexual ethic purely by looking at the array of passages dealing with sex, you may more likely end up with "Big Love," the TV show about a polygamist family in Utah, than "Ozzie and Harriet."  We need an ethic that is biblical, yes, but that is also theologically coherent, and respectful of the long history of Christian thought.

I am disturbed by the sexual practices among young adults which surveys describe.  Hook up sex, friends with benefits, as well as monogamous relationships outside of marriage are ways young people find to deal with sexual passion before their delayed marriages.  I think this is wrong, and I think life is much more than sexual fulfillment and pleasure.  I also think the church can do a better job articulating a sexual ethic that is strong, coherent, and clear, and that also points with hope to God.  Maybe if we spent more energy on the why of sexual activity rather than the who, we might make some progress.
Thursday, October 20, 2011

Fundamentalist Heresies Part 1, The Rapture

The word heresy has not usually generated positive associations for me.  I think of heretics burned at the stake, people banished or punished or shunned, solely on the basis of what they happen to believe, or powerful interests using religion as a tool for control.  Mostly I have thought of heresy as a term used by the religious right to undermine the legitimacy of those with whom they disagree.

But the more I learn about what is popularly called the religious right, and the more I read in the history of Christian thought, I realize that it has deviated in important ways from the historic core of Christian faith.  From time to time in this blog I will explore various aspects of Fundamentalism and right wing Protestantism that might be called heretical.  The first one is inspired by Harold Camping, the radio pastor who believes the rapture will probably take place this weekend.

The rapture is not to be confused with the second coming of Christ.  From the beginning, Christians have believed that Christ will come again as he promised, and this is our blessed hope.  The idea of a "rapture" was developed in the 19th century by a Plymouth Brethren man from England named John Darby.  This development, and later promotion, of a "rapture" is documented in Barbara Rossing's excellent brief book, The Rapture Exposed.  Rossing is a professor of New Testament at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

Darby included the rapture concept in his theological system based on dispensations, clearly defined epochs within history.  In this system God relates differently to people in each period.  Dispensationalism also developed a unique understanding of the end times, beginning with the rapture in which the church is secretly taken out of the world, followed by a period of "tribulation" for seven years, and concluding with the second coming of Christ and his 1,000 year reign (millennium).  Although the rapture and dispensationalism had no clear biblical reference, and was unknown in classical Christianity, the idea took hold, especially in the United States, and is a staple of belief for many Christians, often with little thought given to its credibility.  The Left Behind series of books is structured around a dispensationalist world view.

Rossing, and Mennonites Ted Grimsrud, Loren Johns, and Nelson Kraybill, have written on the book of Revelation, and considered thoughtfully the true significance of this book for Christians through the centuries, including today.  They have also exposed the ways that dispensationalist eschatology is dangerous in that it leads Christians astray from the Way of Christ.

Evangelical historian Mark A. Noll, now at Notre Dame, in an important, and by now classic, book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, exposes a number of heresies present among evangelicals.  Dispensationalism is one of several gnostic tendencies.  Gnosticism is an ancient Christian heresy which has taken many forms, one element of which is the claim that the physical, material, corporeal, natural world is evil, and only the non-material, sometimes called spiritual is good or redeemable.  Ancient variations of this heresy argued that Jesus was not really human, but only appeared to be (docetism); and that the supreme God could not create physical matter, but was created by a Demiurge; that Christ came with gnosis (knowledge) from the supreme God to help humans escape the material world.

Rapture theology, and dispensationalism, have gnostic tendencies in that the natural, physical world are viewed with disdain, and the Christian hope is to escape.  Classic Christianity has emphasized Christ's return as our hope, not the prospect of Christian escape. This matters, of course, because it profoundly shapes how we think about our lives as people of faith.  If we view Christ as the means for our escape from the physical world in which we live, we will have a rather different faith than if we believe in creation's goodness, and groan for its redemption through Jesus Christ as we long for his return.

I may chafe at the use of a word like heresy.  But I have come to recognize that orthodox faith was developed thoughtfully and slowly through centuries, and tradition often serves as a corrective to what might even commonly be called a conservative belief.
Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Whither Just War Theory?

I recently finished reading The Myth of Religious Violence, by William T. Cavanaugh, which looks at the way secular nation states have used a particular historiography of the wars of European wars in the 16th and 17th centuries as a kind of founding or self-justifying myth.  In short the myth is, only the secular nation state can save the world from the tendency to violence inherent in religion.
            Cavanaugh argues that the concept of religion is a social construct, largely used by the nation state to serve itself.  Significantly, he questions the moral claims the secular nation state makes for itself to exercise violence with impunity.  Those claims are rooted in this belief:  Only the secular state can determine whether it is right or not to go to war, or to punish criminals violently, because only it can be trusted to act rationally.
            Cavanaugh’s deconstruction of one of secularism self-serving myths sends my mind in several directions.  One of them is personal, and takes me back to my first encounter with classical Just War Theory, when I was a student in Ralph Beebe’s War and Peace class at George Fox College (now University).  The failure of Just War Theorists to make meaningful and vigorous critiques of the state’s claims to exercise violence with impunity, led me to take seriously the claims by the peace church traditions that the use of violence is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus.  The only people, it seemed to me at the time, who publicly questioned the exclusive right of the state to discern the morality of the use of violence were to be found in the peace churches and among their sympathizers.   So I cast my lot with Quakers and Mennonites, and here I am.
            Just War Theorists have, at times, been effective at reining in state violence.  Perhaps the most dramatic instance of this was in the late fourth century when Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, denied Emperor Theodosius entrance into the Cathedral in the aftermath of a horrific attack on thousands of civilians at an arena in Thessalonica, until the emperor had done adequate penance.  This is such a noteworthy event it has been the subject of several paintings, including one prominently displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago, by Allesandro Megnasco (c. 1700).  Imagine a U.S. president denied entry to the National Cathedral because of a wartime atrocity.
            Here is where I am going with this.  Imagine a vigorous and highly functioning Just War Theory among the Christians of our nation.  As Mennonites, we often find ourselves on the defensive because our theological heritage calls us to question the claims of the secular nation state.  The flap over the national anthem at Goshen College is a recent example.  This often leads to a conversation about pacifism or non-resistance, the impractical nature of our position, and the fact that it is a minority position within church history.  I suspect most Mennonites have been in these sorts of conversations.  But I am interested in a different conversation.  Why have do many Christians abandon their own traditions’ teaching on violence, and instead offer the secular nation state their wholesale allegiance when it comes to exercising violence?  What if Christians actually took seriously the classical teachings of their own denominations and movements when it comes to the use of force?  What if we Mennonites would spend less energy defending our distinct position, and more energy calling our brothers and sisters in other Christian bodies to embrace their own?

Thoughts on hate

Mennonites do not look kindly on hate.  Even our broader society describes hate in pejorative ways: hate speech, hate monger, hate crime.  Even if we are not always the best at practicing love over hate, we our faith has made us deeply aware that we are not to nurture hate within ourselves.  Jesus is clear in the Sermon on the Mount that we are to love our enemies rather than hate them.

But the events of last weekend here in Goshen have me reflecting, not just on the biblical exhortations to love and forgiveness, but also of the biblical exhortations to hate.  "Hate what is evil and cling to what is good," Paul writes in the epistle to the Romans (NRSV, 12:9), echoing Amos 5:15.  Proverbs 8:13 counsels, "The fear of the Lord is the hatred of evil."  (NRSV)

The context of these passages suggests to me that hatred here means turning our backs on evil and choosing love and justice instead.  This is the sense of the traditional baptismal vow renouncing evil.  I can accept this as one layer of meaning in these texts, even as I also see another layer exhorting us to hatred in a different kind of way.  The Psalmist boasts of hating God's enemies with perfect hatred.  The prophets hate injustice.  Jesus hates hypocrisy.  

The danger with hatred is that the object of our hate is personified.  That is we come to hate hypocrites rather than hypocrisy, failing to recognize hypocrites as victims of hypocrisy.  This week I wonder if it is possible to hate murder but not murderers, the same way I hate tornadoes that wipe out whole towns and destroy lives, or unjust economies that weigh down the poor with grinding poverty.

This is a fine distinction, I know.  Is it possible to hate murder while loving and forgiving murderers?  Perhaps it is only possible when we are willing to look into our own souls, and realize most of us have not wholly forsaken evil ourselves.