About Me


Powered by Blogger.
Thursday, January 26, 2012

Thoughts on the Constantinian Shift

The uninitiated might think this blog is now venturing into the world of seismic geology based on this title, but alas I will be sticking with more familiar themes.  The Constantinian in the title refers to the Roman Emperor Constantine under whose rule the Roman Empire shifted to favoring, and ultimately making official, Christian faith, after three hundred years of disfavor and sometimes persecution.

Common Mennonite historiography holds that in Constantine, the church made a Faustian bargain (a deal with the devil) with the state, gaining the benefits that come with state favor, at the expense of being co-opted by the state as a tool for its competing agenda.  This view accurately reflects broad strokes of history, and is helpful in shaping our identity as Mennonites, but it also has some severe shortcomings that can impoverish our faith if we are not cautious in our embrace of it.

Some ten years or so ago, Notre Dame hosted a major academic conference on the work of John Howard Yoder.  After one of the sessions I came across Walter Sawatsky, history professor at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (of which I am a proud--in a Mennonite way--alum), who was beside himself at the tone of the discussion regarding this issue.  I remember him saying, "but we all come through Rome."  I have remembered that phrase.  We all come through Rome, meaning Roman Catholicism.

What Sawatsky critiques is the Mennonite tendency to think like the true and authentic church ended in the early fourth century with Constantine, then picked up again in January of 1525 when Conrad Grebel baptized George Blaurock in Zurich, as if the intervening 1200 years took place in an ecclesiastical black hole.  Peter Ochs argues in this recent book that for Yoder, the Golden Era of the church was limited to the primitive church of the first 125 years or so after Christ.  It is as if the 16th century Anabaptists, through sincerity, biblicism, and the power of the Holy Spirit, managed to pick up the lost thread of the Golden Era of the church, and revive its true narrative.  I suspect Sawatsky would call this nonsense or at least reductionistic.

The truth is far more nuanced.  Like it or not, the 16th century Anabaptists, and by extention 21st century Mennonites, were profoundly shaped by the 1200 intervening years which did not exist in a black hole.  The thread of church history linking the early church to the 16th century Anabaptists went through Hippo and Milan, Chalcedon and Nicea, Rome and Constantinople, Assisi and Aquino, Cappadocia and Canterbury. Even as the Anabaptists broke with Rome, they took most of their theological world view from the thought and practice of Christians who had gone before them.

What does this mean for us?  It means those 1200 years, for good and for ill, are our history.  It is disingenuous for us to dismiss the violent and unChristlike episodes of those years as somebody else's failure, but likewise we are able to claim the truly saintly figures of those years.  The rich history of music and worship is ours as well, as are the great thinkers and spiritual savants of those centuries.

To be sure, we look on the 1200 years through a unique Anabaptist prism, but we deceive ourselves if we pretend they are not relevant and distance ourselves from them.
Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Wealth Redistribution

The scriptures have much to say about redistribution of wealth.  Indeed, at times, it seems the scriptures have little to say on anything else.  Passages like Leviticus 25 and 1 Samuel 8 take this issue head on from a systemic standpoint, and of course the prophets rail like madmen against the abuse of the poor by the richest members of society.

The biblical mind is highly aware of the natural tendency for wealth to accrue into the hands of a few, who then develop structures that reinforce their wealth at the expense of others.  The Bible makes clear that the gifts of creation are intended for all people to live in health and prosperity.  The Torah, God's law in the Bible attempts to codified this theological understanding by regulating a society where wealth is managed in a way that all people live good lives, rather than a few living life in extravagance and luxury while the many struggle to survive.  One of the oddities of the Hebrew scriptures is that other voices besides the wealthy few emerge with vibrancy and strength.  Usually it is the wealthy few who get to write history.  Thanks be to God the Holy Scriptures have passed to us so that we have the language to name what is unjust both in history and our world today.

It would be nice to think that upward wealth redistribution does not happen in our own nation, but we would be deceiving ourselves.  Mitt Romney reminded us this week that unearned income is taxed at a much lower level than earned income, as he explained how it is that his effective tax rate is so low compared to a typical middle class person whose primary income derives from the productivity of mind and body rather than the productivity of money.  Mitt Romney did not bring this situation about, at least not single handedly.  It took decades of bipartisan political efforts to reduce the capital gains tax to the 15 percent it is today, while taxes on the typical worker stood relatively firm.

We could debate the merits of such a tax policy on the whole of the economy, and it might prove to be a good thing.  Many of us, myself included, have benefited mightily, in a variety of ways, from low capital gains taxes.  But the situation smells a lot like the kind of circumstance that enrages the biblical mind.  Wealthy people controlling a political culture to ensure that their acquisitive aspirations bear fruit, while the access of others to the God given resources of creation decreases.

Those whose wealth is wrapped up in what they can do with their minds and hands, earning them wages or salaries, see that wealth either decline or get siphoned off to others.  The reasons for this are complex, of course.  But the reality of it is immoral.
Thursday, January 12, 2012

Does Preaching Matter?

This also appears in the CMC Newsletter this week, but this is longer with more reflection.

Preaching for Social Transformation was a required course in my Doctor of Ministry program.  The title of this course is audacious in that it assumes preaching can make a difference in society.  As Mennonites, we sometimes say that actions matter, words don’t.  But words have a profound impact on actions.  What we say and hear in the public arena matters.  As a reminder of this fact I look for inspiration to a speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Riverside Church, New York City, on April 4, 1967, one year before he was assassinated.  The speech, Beyond Vietnam—A time to break silence, weaves together concerns about civil rights, social inequality, and militarism, in a way that was new to many people.  King’s rhetoric is not particularly soaring in this speech, but its content is profound and its impact lasting.  King asked his friend, Dr. Vincent Harding, to draft the speech for him, which Harding did, and King gave the speech with few changes.  Harding, a former Mennonite pastor and service worker, with his wife Rosemarie, will be our preacher on Sunday.  Certainly this is a special occasion for its historical significance, and one not to be missed.  But I also look forward to a word that will change us, that will make us different on Sunday afternoon than we are today, that will further awaken us to God’s reality.

"Beyond Vietnam" is called the Riverside Speech rather than the Riverside Sermon, in that it did not take place as part of a worship service, and was not drawn from a particular biblical text.  In this regard it is accurate to call it a speech and not a sermon.  But it is a sermon in the sense that its task is to awaken us to God's reality.  (The primary task of a sermon in my mind is not to explain the meaning of a text, but to point to the reality of God.  The biblical text is not an end in itself, but a witness to God's reality.)

The Riverside Speech confronted head on the violence of American society, and the links among different kinds of violence, and the ways they feed on each other.  It also looked forward to different vision, God's vision, firmly rooted, for King in the Christian revolution.  "...I cannot forget that the Nobel Peace Prize was also a commission, a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for the 'brotherhood of man.'  This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ.  To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I'm speaking against the war.  Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men--for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative?  Have they forgotten that my ministry is  in obedience to the One who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?  What can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this One?  Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?"

For me, the high point in the speech is this riff near the end, where King articulates the revolutionary vision of the gospel, using the imagery of the the Parable of the Good Samaritan as a starting point.  The rhetoric here suggests that the gospel is a revolution under pressure from counterrevolutionary pressures, but sees the gospel through those pressures, "beyond Vietnam" to the reality of God.

"A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

"A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

"A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

"America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.

"This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and, through their misguided passions, urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not engage in a negative anticommunism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice, which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops."

To be sure, some of this language is dated.  But by and large this speech is standing up well in the face of time, and remains relevant to us today.  For a figure as public as King to name the realities of violence so forcefully, yet insist on a nonviolent Christian response, introduced the gospel into American society in new ways which could not be ignored.  This is my reason for calling it the most influential sermon of the 20th century in the United States.

You can find the text of the speech here.

The Fruits of the Spirit

This is also coming out in the CMC newsletter this week, but I thought I would post it for those of you who do not receive the newsletter.  This also has links!

Beginning January 22, our worship services will focus on the fruits of the spirit, continuing through February and March.  The Apostle Paul lists the fruits of the spirit in Galatians 5:22-23 as love, joy, peace patience, kindness generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  These nine attributes are signs of the Spirit’s movement.  We will take one each for nine Sundays, with the tenth Sunday looking at the whole.

We tend to look at the these fruits of the spirit in and individual sense, that is we see them as characteristics of individuals.  But I am wondering if we might try instead to look at them as characteristics of a community.  What kind of community might be marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control?  The Apostle Paul in his writings calls churches, communities of faith, to this vision, which contrasts markedly to what social life was like for most people in urban environments in the first century Roman Empire.

I have three books on my mind as I prepare for this series.  I am just beginning to read Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty,and the Greco-Roman World, by Bruce Longenecker, which draws heavily on a reading of Galatians.  Some years ago I read In Search of Paul: HowJesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom, by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, which contrasts a Christian vision for social and cultural life with the vision of imperial Rome.  And on my radar screen is Invisible Romans, by Robert Knapp, which looks at the lives of the ordinary Romans (the 99 percent), whose story the great chroniclers of the day do not tell.

The fruits of the spirit are not saccharin sweet traits meant to foster a life of tranquility, but radically counter cultural characteristics meant to shape communities that stand in marked contrast to the imperial society around them, a non-violent Christian revolution.  I pray that this worship series will revive our sense of the revolutionary nature of the fruits of the spirit as we try to live this revolutionary story in our own time.
Monday, January 2, 2012

More on Imagination

One of the critical, perhaps the most critical, tasks of Christian faith is to know and love God.  In my own thought, the lines of inquiry that interest me are those which deal with knowing and loving God.  So when I read scripture, I read it with this in mind.

This means I have little interest in ways of studying scripture that might distract me from this critical task.  Many Christians, for example, feel a great need to prove that creation happened in six days, or that a primordial flood happened just as it is described in Genesis.  But these efforts, and this way of approaching scripture, teach me little about who God is and how I might love God.  Perhaps they help some people to have faith in the supernatural who might not otherwise have faith.  But I already have faith.  And the prospect that the world was not literally created in six days sometime within the last 10,000 years, or that a primordial flood did not really happen as described in Genesis, does not disturb me.  The Bible was not written to tell us that a flood really happened or that creation happened within a specific frame of time.  The Bible came into being so that we might know and love God.

Regarding the creation story, Walter Wink demonstrates the approach I favor in his now classic Engaging the Powers and the more readable Powers that Be.  The ancient Hebrew people took the dominant creation myth of the day, found in the Babylonian epic, the Enuma Elish, and transformed it through an act of astonishing and inspired imagination into a story which proclaimed a revolutionary new vision of life's purpose and meaning, and introduced the world to a living, loving, creating, beautiful God.

The debate between modern six-day scientific creationism and evolutionary alternatives allows Christians to completely miss, and avoid if they wish, the truth of this radical story.  Conor Cunningham in Darwin's Pious Idea:  Why the ultra-Darwinists and Creationists both get it wrong, calls creationism heresy, and claims Darwin, properly read, expresses Christian truth.

My faith does not rest on the ability to prove the full historicity of scripture as modern humans might understand it.  It rests on a vision of God, and of the purpose and meaning of life, that I find coherent, compelling and true.

The Noah story is another delightful illustration of the theological imagination of the Hebrew people.  Several years ago when doing research for a sermon, I came across a version of the Gilgamesh Epic (another Babylonian classic), in the Moundridge, Kan., Middle School library.  Tellingly, this book was published by the Christian publisher Eerdmans.  Why would Eerdmans want middle school children to learn the Gilgamesh Epic?  I leave that one to you, but I have an idea.  Included in the Gilgamesh Epic is a primordial flood story involving a heroic man who builds a boat to escape the flood with his family.  The details of the story bear remarkable similarity to the Genesis account.  It is clear that the Hebrew people were aware of the Gilgamesh version, and borrowed it for their purposes.

What is stunning, though, is not the similarity, but the difference.  Yet again, the Hebrew people took freely available ancient literary material and revolutionized it to proclaim their own unique vision of God and the meaning and purpose of life.  Debates about whether or not there was a primordial flood, and efforts to find the lost ark are tragically misguided, in that they distract from the truth proclaimed in the biblical text.

The vision articulated by the Hebrew people, and their spiritual kindred, the early Christians, spoke into the world a radical new vision of God and of the meaning and purpose of life.  This vision, and this understanding of life's meaning and purpose has shaped us, each of us, to some degree or another.  We have not invented ourselves, but it is through their eyes we understand ourselves and the world around us.  At the very least, we are wise, honest, and humble, to respect this heritage, and acknowledge our debt to the biblical imagination.  I am grateful that, through the biblical imagination, I get a glimpse of God, and some early lessons on how to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.