Thursday, January 22, 2015

On Minimizing Black Pain

            Early in the rule of Adolf Hitler the magazine The Christian Century reported on the emerging persecution of the Jews in the fledgling National Socialist regime.  In response to the article one G. F. Hedstrand of the “Covenant Book Concern” in Chicago wrote a scathing letter to the editor.  “The Jews can squeal much,” Hedstrand wrote, “without meaning much by it, and he does not need to be hurt much in order to squeal much.”  He asserted “the Jews are not persecuted in Germany because of their religion, but because of their political and economic activity.  They are communists many of them and ‘persecuted’ the nationalists before the latter came to power.”  He concluded with this piece of advice: “They are children—reminding one of the coloured race—in their mental makeup.  They must be spoken to with authority or they will not believe you.  This is just what the nationalists are doing.  They are not persecuting the Jews—they are talking to them in the only language they know.”  One hopes that Hedstrand had the grace to experience deep shame when just over a decade later they were raking Jewish bones out of the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

            Since the murders of young black men in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere, evidently for the crime of looking dangerous, various mostly middle-aged and older white males have made it their task to lecture African-Americans on how they ought to respond to living in their own skins and confronting the pain of their own community.  In soothing, reasoned, and patronizing tones African Americans have been told that, after all, all lives matter and that if young black men would just do what the police say they would not be shot for no apparent reason.  We are all equal before God, they intone, and the color of our skin doesn’t matter.  Such statements are beyond insensitive and ignorant, they are inhumane and deeply offensive.  Those who make such statements are the heirs of Hedstrand in his insistence that the Nazis were just speaking to the Jews in the only language they understood.

            I am an older white male myself.  My generation of white males (baby boomers) is used to lecturing people on what they ought to think and how they ought to feel.  When it comes to race it has been called “whitesplaining” and we are the past masters of it.  But we also mastered the art of “mansplaining”, making equally offensive and idiotic statements to women.  So why do we do this?  I think we are trying to preserve the comforting illusion that there is a level playing field.  That women and minorities who “squeal”, to use Hedstrand’s word, are simply incapable of making it on their own.  And they need our infinite wisdom to see where they went wrong.  We want to hold onto the equally comforting illusion that we have really had no extraordinary privileges and have accomplished everything purely on our own merits.  So the pain of mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, grandmothers and grandfathers is frantically ignored or minimized to preserve our privilege and deny our advantages.  This is for me galling, humiliating, and frustrating.  We ought to have the integrity and courage not only to acknowledge our privilege but the reality of the suffering, grief, and justified fear of the black community.  Otherwise we are no better than G. F. Hedstrand and so many others. Dear brothers, in the face of pain of African Americans, women and so many others we have victimized, we ought leave off “whitesplaining” and “mansplaining” and for once in our long lives keep our mouths firmly shut and, for God’s sake, listen for a change.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

On Blessing the Pope, Sarah Palin, and Richard Dawkins

            The story of Balaam in Numbers 22-24 is perhaps most famous for the talking ass.  The Moabite king Balak is nervously watching the approach of the Israelite horde that had so recently laid waste to the armies of Sihon and Og.  Divining that military prowess alone may not do the trick he calls on the prophet Balaam for a curse to deter his enemies.  After the comic misadventure with his famous ass, Balaam arrives and proceeds not to curse but to bless Moab’s enemies.  A distraught Balak tours Balaam around the Israelite host like a real estate agent pointing out the advantages of a new property, but to no avail.  Balaam can only speak blessings, not curses.  Finally the exasperated Balak cries out, “Neither bless them nor curse them at all!”  But Balaam can only bless.

            This passage cannot help but bring to mind the most startling thing Jesus ever said (well, one of the most startling anyway): “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heave.  He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends his rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44, 45).  Now of course this passage has been sonorously intoned and generally ignored over the first 2000 years of Christian history.  But it stubbornly, uncomfortably remains a command of Jesus, marked out in some Bibles in red letters.  It is the kind of passage, as Wendell Berry puts it, that gives rise to “biblical exegesis.”  By this he alludes to the tendency of my beleaguered discipline to evade or explain away difficult texts.  I would protest, but throughout those aforementioned 2000 years the critique has often been true enough, especially with regard to the Sermon on the Mount.

            And so the question remains: was Jesus really serious about our blessing our enemies?  Sadly (or happily) I think he was.  And this, I think, is a gift that we Christians, that is the church, have to offer to the world.  I fear this gift has often gathered dust in our theological and intellectual closet.  We have been embarrassed to share it; fearful once the ribbon and paper are removed we will be looked at with scorn or bemusement.  But the events of recent weeks in the Middle East have reminded me how desperately this gift of enemy blessing is needed.  Three Jewish boys are kidnapped and murdered in an act of inexcusable brutality.  The cries for revenge are as inevitable as they are understandable.  And then a Palestinian boy is found murdered and set afire.  As I write no blame has yet been assigned for that horror, but the suspicion is that it is yet another revenge killing.  In the face of such crimes to bleat about blessing and loving enemies may sound, to say the least, inadequate.  And yet, I have to ask if the cyclical Jewish/Palestinian story of bloodshed and violence, outrage and revenge has gotten them, or the world, anywhere.  What might it mean for them to step back and refuse to curse, but bless? 

            In the United States our political, religious, and social right and left wings have settled in a mutual mud-slinging contest that is as alarming as it is idiotic.  I say idiotic because it is frequently (or even largely) based on simplistic slogans, purposeful misapprehensions and out and out lies.   We, of course, have different kinds of enemies: political enemies, religious (and irreligious) enemies, and even intellectual enemies.  Depending on where we stand, those enemies have different names.  In his book Unapologetic: Why Despite Everything Christianity Can Still make Surprising Emotional Sense Francis Spufford argues that for Christians especially this means that we cannot look at other Christians and say “no kin of mine.”  He writes, “I find Sarah Palin, for example, ridiculous and terrifying . . . but I can’t just shun her. . . . I have to believe that she’s got something right, that she’s a member like me of the body of Christ, in need like me of the grace of God, and as sure as to receive it. She is, despite everything, a sister.  And I have to recognize her as such, while being very glad that Alaska is a long, long, way away; and to hope that, in the same way she would recognize a brother in me, despicable, gunless, high-taxin’ Euro-weenie that I am.” 

            So we bless our “enemies” even if we think they are wrong.  That is, I repeat, our Christian gift to the world. So God bless Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens; God bless Mark Driscoll and John Piper; God bless the bishop of Rome and the Archbishop of Canterbury; God bless John Boehner and Ted Cruz; God bless President Obama and Nancy Pelosi; God bless Israel and God bless Hamas; God bless the United States and God bless Iraq.  God bless red blooded, gun totin’ Americans and God bless “gunless Euro-weenies”; God bless you and God bless me.  Perhaps Tiny Tim had it right after all, “God bless us every one.”  With Paul, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:17).  In other words, bless, don’t curse.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Monday, May 26, 2014

To the Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans and Lutherans Contemplating Schism: Stop it. Just Stop.

To the Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, and Lutherans Contemplating Schism: Stop it. Just Stop.

            Recently a group of “traditional” United Methodists issued a statement that in effect calls for an amicable divorce over the issue of same sex marriage.  It was a document full of sweet reason.  Essentially it suggested that both parties in this conflict would be better off without the other.  And I am sure in one sense that is true.  I am certain it will be a relief for the advocates of same sex marriage to not have to listen to the biblical challenges of the traditionalists.  And certainly the traditionalists will be relieved to not have to confront the question of gay marriage and gay clergy once again at some local or national gathering.  It is the easiest, most comfortable response to this conflict to peacefully permit the others to go their own way.  And this, of course, is the Protestant way.  We have a long history of refusing to live together if we couldn’t agree on, well, just about anything: theology, sacraments, church order, the ministry, the place of women in the church, musical instruments in worship—the list goes on and on.  And we always have some biblical warrant for our position—whatever it is.

            Stanley Hauerwas once said something like “Catholics need to be more like Anabaptists, Anabaptists need to be more like Catholics and nobody needs to be Protestant.”  I find the proliferation of Protestant schisms shameful and appalling.  I find it appalling because it suggests we find our unity not in Christ but in our theology, or liturgical practices, or organizational structures, or view of the Bible, or hermeneutics, or social location.  I find it appalling because we present ourselves as “ministers of reconciliation” but spend our time refusing to hear each other.  And, let me make it clear, this is a fault of both the “left” and the “right.”  Our behavior confirms the views of Rene Girard that human communities need scapegoats to foster identity.  We need enemies.  And so the “liberals” need the evil “fundamentalists” to mock and scorn.  And so the “conservatives” need the evil “liberals” to denounce and despise.  As Nathan told David, “thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme” (2 Samuel 12:14, KJV).  When we solemnly chide the Israelis and the Palestinians or, for that matter, the Democrats and Republicans, on the importance of reconciliation and living together with differences, our essential hypocrisy is exposed.  Jesus said something about splinters and beams and the Protestant church in North America, both left and right, is blinded by its own need to be right, to be in control.  And this control is foster by despising the alien other. 

            I confess that I have no idea what to do about this.  I have been a part of the Evangelical movement my whole life.  It is my home—not always a comfortable place to be—but my home.  I see a small cloud on the horizon the size of a human hand; a storm of division and despair is on its way.  And of course, this is always our way, isn’t it?  My own denomination began as a renewal movement in the Lutheran church of Sweden that ended up as a group of denominations in the United States.  We couldn’t agree on baptism, eschatology, or ecclesiology so each group went its own way.  Division is in the evangelical DNA.  These days the Internet is filled with evangelical heresy hunters who search for nuggets of heresy like old men scanning the beach with metal detectors for lost watches.  Incapable of living with mystery and ordinary human frailty they insist on no accommodation with what they considered error.  To be fair, the left side of the theological spectrum has its own heresy hunters—although they would not call them that.  The left is as likely to call someone out over incautious thoughts and careless words as the right—because both sides want to win.  If I have any hope it is in young people who want to follow Jesus—the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount and the Gospels.  If I have any hope it is not in national organizations and ecclesial hierarchies but in local congregations seeking to be faithful to our long heritage as Christians and the call to be true disciples.  My hope, you could say, is that Protestants can stop protesting so much and be, well, catholic and Anabaptist.  I am hopeful but, as they say, not optimistic, because the theological terrorists, both liberal and conservative, are fully armed and ready to blow up even more bodies of Jesus followers.

John E. Phelan. Jr.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving for Pope Francis

            The recent decades were painful ones for the church in the United States.  The Roman Catholic Church endured wave after wave of humiliating sex abuse scandals. The response of the hierarchy was frequently breathtakingly incompetent, further eroding its authority with ordinary believers.  The Protestant mainline tore itself apart with vicious public battles over human sexuality and suffered from dwindling numbers, declining influence, and disappearing financial resources.  Evangelicals were politicized, allying themselves with some of the most retrograde movements in American political history.   Younger Evangelicals, disgusted by their elders’ evident contempt for the poor, support for a murderous, unnecessary war, and their enduring political, theological and social intransigence, left in droves.   The church as a whole endured the mockery of the so-called “new atheists” who blamed religion for the varieties of human misery.   The fanaticism of a murderous few was attached to the horrified and bewildered many.  The hope of the gospel seemed to be in increasingly short supply.

            For right-wing Catholics and conservative Evangelicals the world was turned into a battleground.  Life was a constant conflict between good and evil, right and wrong, us and them and neutrality was impossible.  Hierarchies, both official and self-appointed, were ever vigilant for deviance.  Departures from the party line were exposed and ruthlessly attacked.  Official sanctions were endured by some, public humiliation by others.  A dreary paranoia afflicted both the watchers and the watched.  Gloom, rather than hope and confidence, seemed the order of the day.  Our leaders told us we were under attack.  Grim faced and stern they called us to battle an implacable foe.  And scapegoats abounded: liberals, Muslims, Democrats, feminists, homosexuals, socialists, and so on.  Some Christian leaders made sure their enemies knew how they felt about them! Among the Evangelicals, at least,  certain leaders seemed to go out of their way to find the harshest words available to demonize their opponents and then complained bitterly of their poor reputations—predictably blaming the media for their plight.

            And then something amazing happened.  Benedict XVI, that brilliant and troubled man, stepped down and the college of cardinals elected Jose Mario Bergoglio pope.  From the first moments of his papacy Pope Francis let the world know that a different spirit was now blowing through Rome and, indeed, through the entire world.  His simplicity, his humility, his generosity caught everyone off guard.  We had gotten used to the sober keepers of the sacred flame.  We had gotten used to the chiding, the warnings, the frowns, and finger wagging.  And here came a man who eschewed the papal apartments, worshipped with the housekeepers and gardeners, and made phone calls to single mothers and recuperating critics!  He seemed cheerful, at ease, confident and hopeful.   He denounced greed and indifference to the poor, suffering and desperate. He called the church away from obsession with moral, theological and political squabbles and back to the good news of the Gospel: that this world and its people are beloved of God, who redeemed it through Jesus and intends to make all things new.

`           The response has been stunning.  Almost overnight he changed the tone in Rome and, indeed, the entire Christian world.  Anyone who thinks he is going to substantially change Roman Catholic doctrine will be disappointed.  But he has shown what a genuinely caring and simple human being in a place of religious leadership can do to open doors and hearts.  He has even found a hearing among non-believers and people hostile to the church or faith of any kind.  It is clear that people have been longing for a religious figure who would demonstrate true humanity, humility and love. They have found in Pope Francis such a man.  He reminds me of that cheerful Italian peasant who loved God and people: Pope John XXIII.  Protestants in general and Evangelicals in particular have always had their disagreements with Rome.  I am no fan of the rigid top-down hierarchical structure, the marginalization of women, or the elevated role of the priesthood.  But this Protestant Evangelical is thankful for Pope Francis: his concern for the poor, his love for the other, his insistence on the beauty and hopefulness of the gospel.  For the first time in a long time I feel the stirring of hope.  And for that I am thankful to Pope Francis and to God.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

What Can Christians Learn from the Jews?

“Christianity . . . may be entering the equivalent of its own ‘Rabbinic Era’, a age marked less by direct revelation and less hierarchically controlled channels to God.  In this scheme, the lay people of God play a more influential role in discerning God’s purposes and carrying out divine mandates.”
Rabbi Irving Greenberg

            Rabbi Irving Greenberg is a pioneer in Jewish/Christian dialogue and has thought deeply about the brutally failed relationship between Christianity and Judaism.  That relationship has been undergoing a slow, cautious renaissance with many fits and starts in the aftermath of the murder of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis.   It became appallingly clear in the wake of the Shoah that Christian teachings of contempt for Jews and Judaism had at the very least rendered millions of Christians indifferent as their neighbors disappeared and at worst encouraged and enabled their slaughter.  Greenberg suggests that a chastened and more reflective Christianity could emerge from this tragedy—an outcome that would be good for both Jews and Christians.  But this would require Christians seriously rethinking their relationship with power.

            The seduction of Christianity by the imperial power of Rome in the aftermath of Constantine’s conversion is a common enough trope these days.  Some lay the blame for everything wrong in contemporary Christianity at the feet of the servile bishops of the imperial church.  Others contend Constantine’s influence is overstated or was, in fact, a good thing.  But there is no doubt that the Christian Church in the West (and in the East, for that matter) greatly benefited from the support of emperors and kings.  The benefit was mutual.  Rulers wanted a unified state and this was enhanced by a common religion.  So emperors as diverse as Constantine and Justinian weighed in on the Christological conflicts of their days.  The goal of such interventions was one God, one Lord, and one king or Emperor ruling over one people.  For centuries, in Europe at least, this was more or less the case.

            Now, however, it has become clear that the influence of the church in the west has been in decline for the last two centuries at least.  European countries have disenfranchised their state churches or marginalized their influence.  Even in the United States the moral and spiritual influence of the church has been compromised—in spite of the quadrennial orgy of civil religion we call the presidential election.  We have, as Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon famously said, lost our home field advantage. Realizing this, some religious leaders have been reduced to the equivalent of toddler-like temper tantrums to get attention.  This has, to say the least, been ineffective and more than a little embarrassing. 

            Greenberg suggests Christians pay attention to what happened to the Jews.  By the time the second temple was destroyed in 70 CE the Jews had been without real political power for more than a century.  The Torah, of course, had been and remained central to Jewish life and experience.  But the temple, its priesthood and rituals had long been a critical element of the glue that bound Jews together--whether they lived in the land itself or in the diaspora.  Following the disastrous rebellion the Jews were forced to rethink the nature of Judaism.  What did it mean to be a Jew when the temple was destroyed and the land was lost?  This was the burden of the “Rabbinic Era.”  The courage, foresight and genius of the ancient rabbis enabled the Jewish people to survive through centuries of powerlessness and oppression.  The rabbis were not priests.  They served no sacerdotal function. They were teachers and interpreters of Torah. They were men of prayer and learning, bearers an ancient and flexible tradition.  They served the community as a whole, not a church or even, for that matter, a synagogue.  Through them Jews inculcated a way of life, a culture, rooted in the very words of Moses and the prophets. 

            What have Christians done as their political and cultural power disappeared?  Roman Catholic leaders like John Paul II and Benedict the XVI marched into battle against the evil secular world and attempted by dint of their intellect, and in the case of John Paul II at least, their charisma to turn the tide.  In the United States the “religious right” has regularly and frantically denounced people and practices they deem contrary to Christian faith.  They appear incapable of recognizing the loss of political and social power and the realities of a diverse society.  And they have largely succeeded in making themselves and their views odious to a large number of American people.  The more liberal, mainline tradition dithers, unsure of its message and place in the world.  It too seems to cling to the old illusions of power and influence as the tide inexorably moves out.  Perhaps the “mega-churches” are the most obvious sign of Christian attempts to restore power and influence.  The massive complexes seem to shout, “See, we are still important!  We are still a big deal!”  All of this is the equivalent of running down the aisle of a train in the opposite direction it is travelling.

            As long as Christians were supported by the wider culture of Europe or the United States, the church was satisfied to “form” individual Christians, not a genuine community of faith and practice.  Among Evangelicals it seemed that a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” was enough.  Add to that a few significant do and don’ts (mostly don’ts and mostly associated with sex) and you’re good to go.  Mission was about converting individuals and producing places of worship, not forming communities and following the commands of Jesus.  Perhaps it is time, as Greenberg suggest, for Christians to move away from “hierarchies” and orthodoxies.  Perhaps it is time to move toward the formation of a people.  Christianity has a rich tradition to draw from.  Followers of Jesus are not without resources or examples of such communal formation.  But this will require church hierarchies and pastoral leaders letting go of their power.  It will require them permitting and even encouraging some of the messy realities of life with people in community.  It will require the church giving up on the Constantinian vision of one church, one emperor, controlled from the center.  And, perhaps most important, it will require paying attention to the actual teachings of Jesus and what he expected of a people committed to representing in their communal experience the presence of the kingdom.  The rabbis provided a way forward for the Jewish people.  Can they, perhaps ironically do the same for Christian