Unpublished: The Political Tragedy of America

Here's the political tragedy of America. Most of the poor people in America are White people. There are more poor rural Whites than there are poor urban Blacks. But those two groups are so separated by walls of suspicion and distrust that the greatest political force in America today--poor to middle class persons of all colors--remains divided and thus conquered by powerful monied and political interests.

America is built around two great ideas that sit in tension, democracy and capitalism. Tending to that fraught relationship is our Grand Experiment. It is, I would argue, the great question of our generation. Shall capitalism come to control democracy? Or shall democracy control capitalism? Over the last few decades capitalism has come to rule and dominate. The political and military machinery of America is increasingly being run by corporate and monied interests. America today is a corporate oligarchy.

--from an unpublished post pondering the divisions that separate poor and middle-class voters from becoming a powerful voting coalition

The Therapeutic is the Political: Sabbath as Spiritual Warfare

Let me offer some final reflections regarding my last two posts (here and here) about the relationship between scarcity, shame and exhaustion.

As I've argued it, following Brene Brown, many of us are operating out of a mindset of scarcity. What Brene calls the "never enough" problem. Physically and psychologically we feel exhausted and depleted, which interferes with our ability to invest in authentic community and prophetic ministry.

What is causing this exhaustion?

Some of it is caused by what I've described as "the scarcity trap," the way neurotic anxiety fuels basic anxiety. Facing what Brene calls "the shame-based fear of being ordinary" we push to be noticed, successful and significant. We work hard and over-commit because we want to matter. As I put it in yesterday's post, shame produces exhaustion.

Now, the solution to exhaustion, many will tell you, is the practice of Sabbath. And I agree. But that observation is missing something very important.

Specifically, we all want Sabbath. What stressed out and exhausted person isn't craving rest, margin and restoration?

So the issue isn't convincing us that we need Sabbath. We all know that. The issue is this: Why is Sabbath keeping so difficult? 

Why aren't we doing something we want to do? Something weird is going on. We want to rest. We crave it more than just about anything. But we can't, won't or don't rest.

What's going on? Why don't we practice Sabbath?

Here's why: Because to practice Sabbath means that you have to start saying "No" to create the margins you need to rest and rehabilitate. But with each "No" the shame increases. With each "No" you are backing away from something that would have made you important, noticed, successful, significant or more materially well-off. We don't practice Sabbath because when we stop the world starts rushing past us, making us feel like we're getting left behind, like we're losing, like we are missing something. Sabbath starts to feel like failure.

In short, we don't practice Sabbath because Sabbath is an assault upon our self-esteem. Sabbath shames us. Or, more precisely, Sabbath surfaces our shame.

So we need shame-resilience to practice Sabbath. That, in my estimation, is what has been missing in the ubiquitous calls to practice Sabbath. We all know we need Sabbath. We all want to rest. But our fears of failing and falling behind keep tempting us away from rest. Our culture shames us out of Sabbath.

Which is why I think Sabbath is a form of spiritual warfare with the principalities and powers. With the rise of capitalism our culture has been infected by what Alain de Botton has called "status anxiety." Which is to say, shame is the fuel of capitalism. Capitalism feeds off of this neurotic anxiety, using fear to create wealth and abundance but leaving us physically exhausted, psychologically broken and spiritually depleted. Which is why we call it the rat race.

Conservative Christians like to think that spiritual warfare is about the spiritual, psychological realm. Liberals like to think of spiritual warfare as being about the political realm. Both are missing the point.

Pay attention to what I'm saying here. The therapeutic is the political.

As Walter Brueggemann reminds us, Sabbath is resistance. Sabbath resists the spirituality of the principalities and powers--the capitalistic and consumeristic rat race--to nurture the physical and psychological resources to fuel further resistance, making us increasingly available for both community and prophetic ministry.

If shame is the fuel of capitalism then Sabbath is the fuel for the Kingdom of God.

But, and here's the big take home point, Sabbath-keeping requires shame-resilience. Sabbath requires relaxing into the "shame-based fear of being ordinary" as we allow the world to rush by as we settle into the humble, small and human rhythms of Sabbath. To practice Sabbath means to go quiet, to be less noticed, to rest into the ordinary. And it takes shame-resilience to do that.

The therapeutic is the political. 

Sabbath is spiritual warfare.

The Scarcity Trap

In yesterday's post I argued that scarcity is one of the if not the biggest obstacles facing ministry and spiritual formation efforts in our churches. Feeling depleted, run-down, tired, stressed and over-extended people find the way of Jesus too to exhausting to fit into their lives.

In that post I used the analysis of Brene Brown to describe this mindset of scarcity. In this post I want to describe what I'll call "the scarcity trap" by connecting some more things from Brown's book Daring Greatly with the analysis I give in The Slavery of Death.

What is the scarcity trap? Why are we so exhausted, tired and stressed out? Why can't we make room for ministry and spiritual formation in our lives?

The scarcity trap, as I'll describe it, is how our neurotic anxiety feeds into our basic anxiety.

Recall from The Slavery of Death that anxiety can manifest in one of two ways, basic and neurotic. Basic anxiety is fueled by worries about our physical and material well-being. Basic anxiety is triggered by feelings of scarcity--the feeling of "never enough"--in material or physical resources, like feeling tired or short of time or lacking in money to pay for important things.

As I've just described it, a lot of the scarcity problem in churches is associated with basic anxiety: feeling physically or materially depleted.

So a lot of our experience of scarcity is due to basic anxiety. And yet, one of the reasons we feel so over-extended and over-scheduled is due to our neurotic anxiety.

Neurotic anxiety is associated with our feelings of significance and self-worth. If basic anxiety is associated with materially or physically not having enough, neurotic anxiety is associated with the shame of not being enough. Neurotic anxiety is associated with what Brene Brown calls the "shame-based fear of being ordinary."

With these distinctions in mind we can describe what I'll call "the scarcity trap," how neurotic anxiety fuels basic anxiety.

So, back to the question: Why are we so busy and stressed out?

To be sure, a lot of our stress is due to real material scarcity. As we know, middle-class incomes have been stagnant for decades. In the meantime life has gotten more expensive, especially health care and college education. Consequently, people are working harder and harder for less and less. The scarcity here is real and the resultant basic anxiety is both legitimate and crushing.

However, a lot of our work-related stress and busyness is self-inflicted.

We want to be successful, to get ahead. Success, however that looks in your life and profession, is what fuels our self-esteem and makes us feel important. These accomplishments help us combat the shame-based fear of being ordinary. We can be a winner rather than a loser.

Why are we over-committed and addicted to busyness? Because saying Yes to everything makes us feel wanted, needed, important and vital.

In short, in our thirst for self-esteem--our drive to be noticed, needed or successful--we become over-committed and over-worked. Which causes us, at the end of the day, to become depleted and exhausted. The drive for success and significance, or the flight from shame and failure, exhausts us and runs us into the ground. Neurotic anxiety produces basic anxiety.

That is the scarcity trap, how our neurotic fears of failure and insignificance cause us to push harder and harder which, in turn, exhausts us.

The scarcity trap is how the shame-based fear of being ordinary tempts us into work and busyness depleting us of time, energy and resources.

The scarcity trap is how shame produces exhaustion.


For a final reflection on this topic see my follow-up post to this follow-up post: The Therapeutic is the Political: Sabbath as Spiritual Warfare

The Biggest Obstacle to Spiritual Formation

I've spoken at a quite a few churches over the last few years and have had even more conversations with ministers and pastors at churches. Most of these conversations have been about hospitality, about how we can create more welcoming and hospitable faith communities.

And over the years I've come to discern what I think is one of the biggest problems facing our churches when it comes to spiritual formation generally and hospitality specifically.

What is that problem?


Here's how Brene Brown describes scarcity in her book Daring Greatly, a quote I've shared before:
We get scarcity because we live it…Scarcity is the “never enough” problem…Scarcity thrives in a culture where everyone is hyperaware of lack. Everything from safety and love to money and resources feels restricted or lacking. We spend inordinate amounts of time calculating how much we have, want, and don’t have, and how much everyone else has, needs, and wants.
Scarcity is the "never enough" problem. A mindset that is "hyperaware of lack." Brene goes on to share this assessment from Lynne Twist:
For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is "I didn’t get enough sleep." The next one is "I don't have enough time." Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don't have enough of…Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we're already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are racing with a litany of what we didn't get, or didn't get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to that reverie of lack…This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and our arguments with life. 
One of the  biggest obstacles to spiritual formation is this "reverie of lack," especially a felt lack of time, energy and resources.

That's the mindset people are carrying into church where they will hear calls to be more missional or more hospitable or a more radical, committed and fired-up follower of Jesus.

But do you know what the person in the pew is feeling when they hear all this?

This: You're making me tired. All that sounds exhausting.

Jesus = Exhausting. That's the equation created by the mindset of scarcity. That's the battle churches are facing when it comes to mission, ministry and spiritual formation.

For example. People at a church might complain about not connecting at church and about being lonely. They express a craving for deeper, more authentic community. So the church hires a small group minister to invest in small group ministry. And then guess what? No one has time for small groups! That's a weekly commitment that people just don't have time for.

We crave deeper community. We just don't have the time or energy for it.

How many initiatives and ministries have been started up at churches--often at the request of members--only to have staff people standing around waiting for the members to show up?

That's the paradox in many churches. Members and churches feel that they are spiritually sick and dying but no one has the time or energy to commit to the remedies, even remedies that we've requested and know that we need.

In many ways, it's our exhaustion that has made us sick and it's our exhaustion that prevents us from getting better. So we cycle downward, deeper into a mindset of scarcity.

More and more that's what I'm hearing from ministers, pastors and church leaders. We can't, they report, get our people to invest in the church, in ministries, in mission or in spiritual formation because our people report being exhausted, tired, stressed out and over-burdened.

Governed by a mindset of scarcity the way of Jesus just sounds way too exhausting.


For follow-up reflections to this post see first The Scarcity Trap and then The Therapeutic is the Political: Sabbath as Spiritual Warfare.

Progressive Evangelism

Progressive Christians aren't known for being particularly evangelistic. But over the weekend I had a conversation which made me wonder about the shape of a progressive Christian evangelism.

Jana was trying on some clothing in a small consignment store. I was the only one in the store with the owner while Jana was in the back. And, as always, I had a book with me.

(I always bring a book when shopping with Jana. It's amazing how cheerful and patient you can be if you have a good book. Hours can pass in a clothing store and I'll hardly notice. It's a win/win. I love shopping/reading.)

Anyway, the owner saw me reading.

"What book are you reading?"

"The Executed God."

"Huh? The Executed God? What's that about?"

"It's a Christian book about mass incareration and captital punishment. The argument is that since Jesus was arrested and executed by the state we should look for Jesus among those being jailed and executed by the state."

"That's a huge problem in America, all the people we put in jail."

"I know. The point of the book is that if we want to find Jesus in the world we should look for him among those being oppressed by the state."

And what followed was a very interesting conversation. The owner had never thought about Jesus in quite this way before.

As Jana and I were leaving the store she called to me:

"I'm going to by that book!"

The Subversion of the Creator God

One of the distinctive aspects of Israel's monotheism as it developed over time was the fact that Israel began to consider YHWH, the deity they worshiped, as not just another tribal god, one god among other gods, and not just the High god above lesser gods, but the one and only God, the God who was the Creator God, the One who created all things in heaven and on earth.

What struck me the other day about this observation is how worship of the Creator affected the theological imagination of Israel and how worship of the Creator God led to various theological innovations in the Old and New Testaments, some quite radical. In fact, I'd argue that the most radical innovation in the worship of the Creator God was offered by Jesus.

Specifically, what I'd like to show is how the worship of the Creator destabilized and undermined various theological arrangements and settlements. That is, once Israel began to see YHWH not just as a tribal god but as the Creator she introduced into her theological imagination a notion that would begin to work subversively against her religious attempts to own, capture and tame God.

At the start, the worship of YHWH as the Creator allowed Israel to disparage and demean her polytheistic neighbors. Because YHWH was the only God and the Creator God Israel's neighbors were in the grip of an illusion. In the eyes of Israel when the surrounding Canaanite nations bowed down to idols there was no god behind that figure of wood or stone. Because there was only one God idols were nothing.
Habakkuk 2.18-20
“Of what value is an idol carved by a craftsman?
Or an image that teaches lies?
For the one who makes it trusts in his own creation;
he makes idols that cannot speak.

Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Come to life!’
Or to lifeless stone, ‘Wake up!’
Can it give guidance?
It is covered with gold and silver;
there is no breath in it.”

The Lord is in his holy temple;
let all the earth be silent before him.
So at the start worship of the Creator allowed Israel to be pretty smug. Look at those stupid, blinkered idol worshipers bowing down to wood and stone!  

But Israel was in for a surprise. Because when you start worshipping the Creator you start thinking about that theologically. And the places those reflections take you can be pretty surprising and awkward.

How so?

Well, consider how worship of the Creator began to undermine Israel's own religious observance, calling into question the Temple and the entire sacrificial system. Consider, as an example, Psalm 50:
Psalm 50.7-15
“Listen, my people, and I will speak;
I will testify against you, Israel:
I am God, your God.
I bring no charges against you concerning your sacrifices
or concerning your burnt offerings, which are ever before me.
I have no need of a bull from your stall
or of goats from your pens,
for every animal of the forest is mine,
and the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know every bird in the mountains,
and the insects in the fields are mine.
If I were hungry I would not tell you,
for the world is mine, and all that is in it.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats?

“Sacrifice thank offerings to God,
fulfill your vows to the Most High,
and call on me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you will honor me.”
Suddenly, the smugness is gone. Here in Psalm 50 worship of the Creator isn't being used against Israel's neighbors and their idols but against Israel herself, against the very heart of Israelite religious observance. Does the Creator drink the blood of goats? Does the Creator need sacrifices when the Creator owns the cattle on a thousand hills?

Notice here how worship of the Creator has become a subversive theological resource. This wasn't, I'm guessing, what Israel was expecting. Worship of the Creator was exciting when it allowed you to make fun of foolish idol worshipers. But things didn't end there. The notion that you are worshiping the Creator has implications, not all of which, I'm guessing, were known or worked out in the minds of Israel when they make that radical move.

What I'm suggesting is that the worship of the Creator introduced into the religion of Israel a subversive element that began to slowly unwind the smug, insular, exclusive and violent imagination of Israel. Yes, worship of the Creator began to untangle Israel from idolatry, but it also began to untangle them, much to their surprise I'm guessing, from sacrifice.

And Jesus would take the idea even further.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus pushes the worship of the Creator to it's most radical extreme. Jesus says:
Matthew 5.43-
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
This is the distinctive heart of Jesus's teaching, the teaching that makes him unique in world history. Love your enemies.

And what is fascinating here is how Jesus grounds this teaching in the worship of the Creator God. Why love friends and enemies alike? Why love freely and indiscriminately? Why love without prejudice or bias?

Because that is how the Creator loves. Without bias or prejudice.

I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

So that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

For He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good.

He sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Jesus pondered the sun and the rain. And he discerned something about the Creator God in how the rain and sun fell upon the world, upon the good and the wicked.

The Children of God, Jesus concluded, should love like the sun and the rain. This--being sun and rain, loving indiscriminately--would make us children of the Creator. This would make us perfect.

And this, I would argue, is the subversive notion at the heart of the worship of the Creator God. Loving like sun and rain. I don't think Israel knew this teaching was coming when she turned from idols to the worship of YHWH. I don't think Israel knew the Creator would be used by the writer of Psalm 50 to attack the heart of the sacrificial system they had created, a system of religious gate-keeping, blood and exclusion.

Even less did they see the radical implication discerned by Jesus.

You can't be a gate-keeper of the Creator's love. No sacrifice is needed. God loves freely, generously and indiscriminately.

Like sun and rain.

And the Children of God do the same.

Is Porn the Soul of America?

Pornography is a multibillion dollar industry in America. And since the 1970s it has become increasingly more abusive, exploitative, and demeaning toward women.

This trend, and the fact that more and more men are becoming addicted to porn's dehumanizing and violent content, is a key thermometer about what is happening to the American moral imagination.

Is porn the soul of America?
As porn has gone mainstream, ushered two decades ago into middle-class living rooms and dens with VCRs and now available on the Internet, it has devolved into an open fusion of physical abuse and sex of extreme violence, horrible acts of degradation against women with an increasingly twisted eroticism. Porn has always primarily involved the eroticization of unlimited male power, but today it also involves the expression of male power through the physical abuse, even torture, of women. Porn reflects the endemic cruelty of our society. This is a society that does not blink when the industrial slaughter unleashed by the United States and its allies kills hundreds of civilians in Gaza or hundreds of thousands of innocents in Iraq or Afghanistan. Porn reflects back the cruelty of a culture that tosses its mentally ill out on the street, warehouses more than 2 million people in prisons, denies health care to tens of millions of the poor, champions gun ownership over gun control, and trumpets an obnoxious and superpatriotic nationalism and rapacious corporate capitalism. The violence, cruelty, and degradation of porn are expressions of a society that has lost the capacity for empathy.

--Chris Hedges, from Empire of Illusion

N.T. Wright on Newsworthy with Norsworthy

I hope you're still following my friend Luke Norsworthy's podcast Newsworthy with Norsworthy. Luke continues to have fun and insightful conversations with a great lineup.

Recent interviews have included Rob Bell, Phillip Yancey, and a second podcast with Barbara Brown Taylor.

A few days ago Luke sat down with N.T. Wright to talk about his new book Simply Good News.

Luke and I chatted prior to the interview, bouncing around ideas to ask Wright. One of my suggestions was to raise the criticism Wright has received from those espousing an apocalyptic reading of Paul. Specifically, if you know Wright's work well he emphasizes Israel's grand narrative and how that story is resolved in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. As told by Wright how this grand narrative resolves in Jesus is almost perfect, a beautiful interlocking structure, like a fine, mechanical watch. By contrast, the argument from those who espouse an apocalyptic reading of Paul emphasize the radical and unprecedented rupture that was Jesus along with God's creative and elective activity outside of the covenant of Israel. In this sort of reading, to stick with my metaphor, Jesus smashes the watch and totally upends previous categories, expectations and narrative elements.

In raising this debate with Luke I'd feared that such a question would be a bit too nerdy and intramural to Pauline scholarship to be of interest in a podcast for general listeners. But Luke got that question into the podcast. Well done, sir, well done.

And I like Wright's response to the question. The story that is unfolding for Israel isn't chugging along fixed narrative railroad tracks, everything predictably flowing toward a clearly discerned outcome. Israel's story is one of stops and starts, dead ends and plot twists. It's a grand narrative, sure, but it's a story of surprises.

And for my part, if in the apocalyptic reading the cosmic and epistemological rupture is too great it undermines the Jewishness of Jesus, Paul and the New Testament. There needs to be some continuity even in the discontinuity.  

Finally, accompanying Luke to the interview was my own preacher Jonathan Storment (who you might know if you follow his installments at Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed blog). The podcast ends with Johnathan asking Wright a few questions about how his Kingdom vision might affect the life and often mundane work of the local church.

Jonathan, who grew up in a small church, calls everyone "Brother" and "Sister." I love this and he's gotten me taken with the practice.

Anyway, both Luke and I just love how Jonathan calls N.T. Wright "Brother Tom" at the end of the podcast. Classic Jonathan Storment. I love my preacher.

Enjoy Luke's podcast with Brother Tom!

"Martin Luther, Stand Up for Truth."

Back in 2010 I wrote about our "Civil Rights Family Trip." During the summer of 2010 on the way home from our family vacation we were driving through the Deep South and we took the opportunity to visit and scout out various museums and sites from the American Civil Rights Movement. We visited Atlanta, Montgomery, Memphis, Birmingham and Selma. The fruits of that scouting trip culminated in the ACU Freedom Ride the following summer, where David and Jennifer Dillman and I took a group of ACU students on a bus touring these same sites.

On MLK Day I always remember our family visit to Montgomery, Alabama, the city many consider to be Ground Zero of the American Civil Rights movement. Montgomery was where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated city bus. And the arrest of Rosa Parks kicked off the year long Montgomery bus boycott. A boycott run by the hastily formed Montgomery Improvement Association, the president of which was the new young pastor of Dexter Avenue Church. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Our fondest memories of the day my family spent in Montgomery were from our visit to the King parsonage, the church-owned home where the King's lived while he was pastor at Dexter Avenue Church.

On January 30, 1956, at the start of the boycott, King's home was bombed. On the porch you can still see a bit of the crater left from the blast which is also marked by a plaque (pictured here).

Our guide through the parsonage was Shirley Cherry, a retired school teacher who was then hosting the parsonage tour for the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Foundation. Although not a participant in the bus boycott (she was living in New England at the time), since running the parsonage Shirley had come to know many of the Montgomery citizens who actively participated in planning and executing the boycott. Mrs. Cherry regaled us with stories and was, all by herself, historian, tour guide, personal testimonial, teacher, evangelist, and interactive museum exhibit.

One of the nice personal touches Shirley added to the tour is allowing a person in the tour the honor of opening up the parsonage to let us all in. She picked me and handed me the key saying, "This is the highest honor I can give. Take this key and open the door using the very lock Dr. King used to open his door when he came home from work at the church."

I took the key and opened the front door of Dr. King's house.

The parsonage has been decorated circa 1955 and a great deal of the furniture was owned by the King's: Couches, dinner table, bed, King's office desk, his bookshelves.

The highlight I want to mention came at the end of the parsonage tour and was in the King's kitchen.

The whirlwind of events surrounding the bus boycott had caught King unawares. When he went to be the pastor at Dexter King was mainly looking for a quiet place to finish his dissertation and perhaps from there move into the life of college professor after a stint in the ministry. King was an intellectual, and he wanted to lead a quiet, academically-oriented life.

But then Rosa Parks happened and King found himself, as the newcomer in Montgomery (all the other pastors had too much water under the bridge with each other), elected President of the Montgomery Improvement Association. By accident, fate, or providence King found himself at the center of the advent of the Civil Rights movement.

But then the death threats started coming. Threats on his life and his family's. Slowly the fear began to overwhelm this academically inclined 26 year old. King hadn't signed up for this.

Plato, Niebuhr, Tillich, yes. Theology, that's what King wanted. Not death threats.

Around midnight on January 27, 1956 the parsonage phone rang. King answered it and heard a low voice say: “Nigger, we’re tired of your mess. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow up your house and blow your brains out.”

Shaken, King tried to go to back to sleep. His wife and ten-week-old baby girl, Yolanda, were asleep nearby. But King couldn't rest.

King got up and went to the kitchen where he made himself some coffee. There was something about that voice on the phone that King couldn't shake, a seriousness that he couldn't ignore. This time, King knew that the bomb threat was real.

The bomb would come. Sooner or later, it would come.

King began thinking about the life of his baby girl. The life of his wife. His own life.

As the coffee brewed in the dark kitchen the fears pressed in on King, overwhelming him. He sat down at the kitchen table and prayed:
"Lord, I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone."
And in that moment, sitting at his kitchen table, King had the most profound experience of his religious life. In the middle of that dark kitchen, alone and scared, King heard an "inner voice" speak to him:
"Martin Luther, stand up for truth. Stand up for justice. Stand up for righteousness. God will be at your side forever."
And with that assurance, King's fears lifted. His courage returned. And in that moment he firmly committed his life to the path of Civil Rights.

God had called him and he responded.

Three days later King's house was, indeed, bombed. Word about the bombing spread like wildfire that night and many black citizens descended upon the King home armed and ready for battle. But King's calm that night, addressing the angry group gathered on his lawn, prevented a riot from the outraged black community.

The other-worldly calm and courage King exhibited the night of the bombing was the product of his midnight epiphany three evenings earlier, a strength of purpose and resolve he carried all the way to his death twelve years later. It was a courage he described in the final words of his final sermon:
"Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I'm happy, tonight.

I'm not worried about anything.

I'm not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"
My family lingered a long time in the kitchen of Dr. King's house. This was holy ground.  Mrs. Cherry let us each sit at the coffee table where King's epiphany had occurred, sitting in front of the very coffee cups used by the King family. It was a wonderful moment, sitting there imagining what had occurred in that small, dark kitchen.

Unpublished: In the Final Analysis Does the Bottom Line Win Out?

I've been thinking a lot, for years actually, about the nature of Christian institutions and organizations. I ask myself all the time, beyond mission statements, what makes an organization, especially one that is a business, Christian?

More specifically, what makes a Christian organization Christian in how it goes about its business? What makes a Christian organization unique in how it hires, fires, allocates resources, makes hard decisions and cares for employees?

Even more specifically, when push comes to shove and we're down at the bottom line does a Christian business do anything differently? Or in the final analysis does the bottom line win out?

--questions from a start of an unpublished post I never finished as I pondered issues of downsizing and budget cuts at my Christian institution

Waiting to Enter a Prison

the sun
dances sparkles
along razor
wire like water
sharp liquid beautiful
gazing looking back
at white still clouds frozen
painted on a taut
blue canvas
held up by green fields
framed broken
in a thousand octagon windows
the silver web of chain
link interposed between
this world and the other
a click
and a door
heavily sliding 
open now
for me blinking
to enter
the darkness

An Interruptive, Disruptive Force

A few months ago one of my most talented, thoughtful and compassionate students send me an email. He had read my post Your God Is Too Big and was asking me about, if God was weakness and love in the world, then how does God work in the world?

I didn't have any great answers. But this was the email I sent him:
Hi W.,
Great questions. I'm just figuring this stuff out myself, so all this is very tentative and provisional. I'm feeling my way forward here.

You might want to check out my series "On Weakness and Warfare" on the blog, or revisit it if you've read it before as it tries to get at some of these questions.

But my basic answer is that if God is love/weakness then God is experienced in this world as an interruptive, disruptive force that comes from the "bottom up" rather than as a coercive force that comes from the top down. This means that "the Kingdom of God" or the "Rule of God" is episodic and transitory. The Spirit blowing here or there in an unpredictable way.

So, to switch to mission, I think what we do is try to interrupt and disrupt the world--the principalities and powers--with love. This requires tactical imagination, improvisation and creativity. Artistically inserting ourselves into the gaps of the world the way Jesus did. Like a flower growing in a crack of a city sidewalk. Love is weak, but it interrupts the world with beauty, grace and mercy.

The big eschatological question is can the weakness of love, given its light touch, "win" in the end? Or, at some point, will God have to knock heads together to force things to come out right in the end? Especially given the biblical witness?

Those are hard questions. I don't have great answers. But we're called to hope. That's what I hope for. That love wins in the end. And that's enough for me to love today.

Grace and peace,

Holiness Among Depraved Christians: Paul's New Form of Moral Flourishing

I hope you stay with me to the end of this post. I want to give you something rather ambitious, a new way of thinking about Paul's letters. Paul's moral vision in particular.

Many of Paul's letters are a strange combination. Part A is a theological treatise showing how grace comes to us through faith in Christ rather than by the works of the Law. Part A is then followed by Part B where Paul turns to a list of moral imperatives that Christian communities should follow.

It's a weird mixture that creates some whiplash. We are saved by faith but there are still all these moral things you still have to do. So which is it? If you want to preach a sermon about grace you pull your texts from Part A of Paul's letters. And if you want to preach a sermon about discipleship and holiness and moral purity you pull texts from Part B.

What can account for this strange mixture?

The traditional way of handling the disjoint is to discuss the relationships between justification and sanctification. Justification is the subject of Part A in Paul's letters. We are declared "righteousness" by God through faith in Jesus and not by the works of the Law. By contrast, Part B of Paul's letters deals with sanctification, the ongoing pursuit of conforming our lives to the example of Jesus. Justification starts us on the journey and sanctification keeps us on the path.

I don't wholly disagree with this way of handing the theological (Part A) and moral (Part B) aspects of Paul's letters. There is some truth here. But there is also much distortion.

Much of that distortion has to do with how we understand what Paul means by "works of the Law." As work in the New Perspective on Paul has shown, in Paul "works of the Law" doesn't refer to a legalistic moral effort aimed at "earning" our salvation. "Works of the Law" doesn't refer to the human conceit that we can, all on our own, become morally perfect and, thus, "earn our way" into heaven. "Works of the Law" doesn't refer to merit, a sort of moral currency we can collect through good deeds that can be used to purchase our salvation.

"Works of the Law" has nothing to do with any of that.

And yet, you will note, this is the very assumption that creates the disjoint between Part A and Part B of Paul's letters. If the "works of the Law" in Part A is referring to human moral effort to justify ourselves before God then, yes, there is a bit of whiplash when Paul apparently shifts and starts demanding moral behavior. True, the justification/sanctification frame helps a bit but it doesn't completely alleviate the tensions.

Many now think that this tension is being produced by a misunderstanding of what Paul means by "works of the Law." The tension between Part A and Part B in Paul's letters isn't a problem with Paul. The problem is with us.

If so, then what does Paul mean by "works of the Law"?

As the new Pauline scholarship has helped make clear, "works of the Law" mainly means circumcision, the means by which a person becomes a participant in the covenant of Abraham.

Salvation comes to us via the covenant God made with Abraham. Consequently, the critical question for Paul and the early Christian community was how the Gentiles gained access to that covenant. Among the early Christians there were two schools of thought.

The first school of thought was that the Gentiles had to convert to Judaism and be circumcised. This is what Paul is referring to by "works of the Law." It's not too much of a simplification to simply read "works of the Law" as "circumcision" when reading Part A of Paul's letters.

The point for our discussion is simply this. With this new understanding in hand we see that in Paul "works of the Law" isn't about human moral effort (trying to earn our salvation) than it is about identity, Jewish identity in particular. The only way to get access to the promises God made to Abraham was to become a part of Abraham's offspring. Thus, Gentiles needed to become Jews. Jews, yes, who believed that Jesus was the Messiah and that God's promises to Abraham were inaugurated and fulfilled in Jesus, but Jews nonetheless.

In contrast to this circumcision-based vision there was another school of thought, the gospel proclaimed by Paul. According to Paul, faith in Jesus--a circumcision symbolized by Christian baptism--was sufficient to gain access to the covenant of Abraham. Through faith the Gentiles could become Abraham's offspring and be grafted into the covenantal promises made to Israel. A Gentile didn't need to be circumcised. We are justified--brought into the family of God--by faith alone.

In short, Part A of Paul's letters isn't about the human effort to earn salvation. Part A of Paul's letters is about the inclusion of the Gentiles into the story of Israel via faith in Jesus Christ. And this issue was, we know, the central debate of the early church and the question at the heart of the first apostolic counsel recounted in Acts 15.

Readers well-read in this area will have been nodding along. Nothing I've just written is new. I'm just summarizing it for others to get everyone on the same page.

Because what I want to do in this post is shift focus to Part B of Paul's letters, to get a better vision of how what Paul is doing in Part A (his theological account about how Gentiles get included by faith) informs what he's trying to do in Part B (all his moral imperatives).

Specifically, how does Paul's rejection of circumcision specifically and Torah obedience generally inform what he's trying to do in Part B--the moral vision--of his letters?

The answer goes to how the Jews saw obedience to the Torah as an agent of grace in distinguishing them from the moral depravity of the Gentiles and pagans. The Torah made the Jews holy, separating them from the degeneracy of the world.

Read Psalm 119. Psalm 119 is an ode to God's laws, commandments, precepts and decrees. God's law set the Jews apart, creating a holy people characterized by moral integrity, an integrity that made Israel distinctive in contrast to the depravity of the pagans. God's law made Israel morally special, set apart and distinctive. The end of Psalm 147 sums it up well:
Psalm 147.19-20
He has revealed his word to Jacob,
his laws and decrees to Israel.

He has done this for no other nation;
they do not know his laws.

Praise the Lord. 
In the eyes of Israel the pagans were depraved and perverse, especially when it came to sexuality. Pagans were unable to control themselves, almost bestial in nature and appetite.   

But because of God's law Israel was spared this fate. Torah obedience gave Israel a moral integrity that the pagans lacked.

Suddenly, we can see Paul's problem and why Part A flows into Part B of his letters.

If "faith alone" in Jesus Christ jettisons Torah obedience then Paul faces a quandary. Without the Torah how are all these morally depraved Gentiles going to be a people of moral integrity? Where is this moral integrity to come from if the Torah is marginalized? Because most of Paul's contemporaries would have felt that without the Torah it would be impossible for the Gentiles to become a people of moral integrity the way Torah-obedience Jewish Christians were.

In short, Paul's gospel of "faith alone" inaugurated a grand moral experiment. Perhaps "faith alone" in Jesus Christ could function as a sort of "circumcision" grafting the Gentiles into the promises made to Israel. But how could that "faith alone" gospel transform morally and sexually depraved pagans into a people characterized by holiness and moral integrity?

If the inclusion of the Gentiles was Paul's first big issue then the moral integrity of depraved pagans was his second big issue. Paul generally deals with the first issue--inclusion--in Part A of his letters and the second issue--moral integrity--in Part B of his letters. But the two parts are related in that they are both working through the implications--theological (Part A) and moral (Part B)--of marginalizing Torah obedience and the "works of the Law."

So there is no disjoint in Paul's letters. Paul is trying to bring the Gentiles into Israel ceremonially (through baptism rather than circumcision) and morally. Paul's letters are working both aspects of the problem.  

With this in mind I want us to step back and ponder what Paul was trying to do and the skepticism he faced in starting these Gentile churches. Paul was setting up these Jesus-communities whose members consisted of, in the eyes of skeptical Jewish onlookers, morally depraved and wicked people. To Jewish onlookers it looked like Paul was handing the keys to the liquor cabinet to a bunch of alcoholics. Morally speaking, this was a recipe for disaster. Paul was hopping around, going from city to city, setting up these communities. And then leaving them! Without the Torah, and the habits of spiritual formation embedded in the culture of faith communities who had been shaped by Torah obedience generation after generation, how were these new Gentile Christians going to lead holy lives?

This was the great moral experiment of Paul's gospel. Could a new form of moral flourishing emerge among the Gentiles separate from the Torah?

Given how the Jews regarded the moral depravity of the Gentiles the prospects of Paul being successful looked bleak. There was no way pagans could become holy without the Torah.

But Paul took a shot at it.

So, how'd he go about doing it?

By way of summary I think we can note three things as being at the heart of Paul's moral vision.

First, there is Paul's pneumatology. Paul felt that, rather than the Torah, the Holy Spirit, having been poured out upon the Gentiles, would give them the capacity to be moral.

Second, and presumably taking a cue from Jesus, Paul reduces the moral code of the Torah to the Golden Rule:
Romans 13.8-10
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Galatians 5.14
For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: "Love your neighbor as yourself."
Finally, rather than pointing to the Torah Paul points to the example of Jesus. For example, Philippians 2.5: "In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus." Paul also points to how that example is manifested in his own life: "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ." (I Cor. 11.1).

In a nutshell this was the heart of Paul's vision for morally forming Gentiles: The Holy Spirit, the Golden Rule, and the Imitation of Christ. This, Paul felt, would be enough to transform depraved pagans into a "holy people."

And yet, these general principles couldn't cover all the moral situations Paul's fledgling churches would face. For example, consider the situation in 1 Corinthians 5 where a man is sleeping with this father's wife.

This was the nightmare scenario for Paul, the thing everyone predicted would happen if you tried to get sexually depraved Gentiles to be sexually pure without the Torah. See, the critics of Paul would chirp, Paul has always been on a fool's errand! Look at the sexual depravity of the Corinthian church! That's what happens when you don't follow Torah!

The catastrophe Paul faced in that situation--calling into question his entire mission and gospel--goes a fair way toward explaining the harsh measures Paul recommends in dealing with the situation:
1 Corinthians 5.9-13
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”
Paul doesn't care about outsiders. It's not his concern to judge those outside the church. But Paul's entire gospel hangs in the balance--this crazy moral experiment he's attempting--with the moral witness of his faith community. If they can't get their act together then Paul's gospel is discredited. The rival and alternative gospel of Torah obedience will win the day. Gentile Christians must become Jews.

It's all coming apart at the seams in 1 Corinthians 5. Paul's calling, mission and gospel hang in the balance. So we can, perhaps, understand a bit of Paul's severity and forcefulness.

All of this brings me to my final and concluding observations. The point of the post.

First, the reason I've gone into describing all this is that I think it helps us understand Paul's harshness, Jewishness and conservatism. Specifically, Paul's Gentile churches were moral demonstrations to Jewish skeptics. And I think this explains a lot of why when Paul gets outside the core of his moral vision--the Golden Rule, the example of Jesus--he falls back upon Jewish (and Greco-Roman) visions of moral flourishing. I think this is why, for example, Paul's household codes are patriarchal. That's what Jewish moral flourishing at that time looked like. And given the skepticism Paul faced he was keen to make Gentile households look like Jewish households, seasoned albeit by the love ethic of Jesus (e.g., mutual submission).     

Still, despite the Jewish flavor Paul occasionally inserts, the moral flourishing in Paul's Gentile churches was different from the moral flourishing found in Jewish communities. Which brings me to my final and more provocative point.

While Paul's moral directives have a Jewish and conservative bent (in relation to the surrounding pagan culture) it remains a fact that the moral flourishing observed in Paul's churches was not Jewish or conservative, at least by orthodox Jewish standards. Paul was doing something risky and experimental, cultivating a new form of moral flourishing with a group of people considered to be morally and sexually depraved. True, Paul was morally demanding of these communities, but this was necessary to create the moral distinctiveness his gospel needed to legitimate itself before Christian Jewish skeptics.

In short, by failing to understand the backdrop of Jewish skepticism about Paul's churches Paul's moral conservatism and harshness can mask just how novel, liberal, uncertain, innovative and experimental these communities were in creating a new form of moral flourishing. They were trying to be holy Gentile communities. And that idea was both radical and outrageous.

In the end Paul was vindicated in that a new form of holiness--Gentile Christian holiness--did emerge out of his missionary efforts. Morally speaking, Paul's gospel had created something new and unprecedented.

And Paul's moral experiment continues. Every time the gospel message enters a new cultural context a new form of moral flourishing has to be worked out. At this time and place and with these people what shape will a Christ-centered holiness take?

And taking a cue from Paul here's what I think about how we should approach that question.

As the early Jewish criticism of Paul's churches has waned I think we can revisit the core of Paul's moral vision: the Holy Spirit, the Golden Rule and the Imitation of Christ. That is, as new forms of moral flourishing emerge with the advance of the gospel we go back to these central elements.

Now, of course, some might also want to carry forward, piecemeal, Jewish (and Greco-Roman) particulars that Paul used in various instances to resolve specific issues his churches faced (e.g., the household codes). But I think that would be missing what Paul was doing. Paul wasn't demanding that his churches be morally identical to Jews. His churches were experimental and different from Jewish communities. But Paul did need to show, in the defense of his gospel, a least a family resemblance between the two communities.

Again, what Paul was after was a moral demonstration. Paul wasn't trying to give timeless laws. He was trying to show that Gentiles could be holy, albeit in their own distinctive way.

In short, the moral flourishing among the Gentiles was innovative, unprecedented and not a legalistic adherence of the Torah. And this suggests to me that insisting upon the cultural practices rooted in Torah observance within Paul's moral teaching--that we must follow these parts slavishly, literally and legalistically--ironically misses the point that Paul was resisting a slavish, literal and legalistic observance of the Torah.

Legalistically and literally following Paul's specific moral directives misses the point that Paul was cultivating, tweaking and experimenting with a new, innovative and unprecedented form of moral flourishing.

To follow Paul slavishly, literally and legalistically misses the risky, daring and experimental nature of what Paul was doing. Now, does that mean anything goes? No, Paul had some central principles that he kept coming back to. We have to do the same, over and over again.

But let's be clear, Paul took a risk. Paul didn't know how it was all going to turn out. Neither will we. You can only judge by the outcomes by the degree to which they conform to the self-giving love of Jesus and the fruits of the Spirit. At the end of the day, that's how Paul assessed his own moral experiments.

Paul wasn't getting his churches to follow a new set of rules, a new Torah of his own making. Paul wasn't trying to be Moses. So we shouldn't treat him as Moses. Paul was curating, nurturing, shaping and cultivating communities to bring into existence a new and innovative form of moral flourishing where pagans could become shaped into the image of Jesus.

And I think that adventure continues.

Along with all the uncertainty, open-endedness, controversy, innovation, experimentation and risk that characterized the ministry of Paul.


I live in a small town so the movie Calvary never made it to local theaters. But Calvary, starring Brendan Gleeson as Father James the Catholic priest of a small seaside parish in Ireland, finally showed up in the Redbox kiosk.

For fear of spoiling the movie I don't want to say much about it. Perhaps a few months from now I might return to say more after more people have gotten a chance to watch it.

For now, just a few comments.

I was profoundly shaken, emotionally and theologically, by Calvary.

Beware, Calvary is a very disturbing movie which hits you with the darkness right at the start. And yet, Calvary is also beautiful and tender. Calvary is horrific but it is also one of the most profoundly Christian movies I have ever seen.

At the heart of the movie, which basically follows Father James through a type of "passion week", are soteriological questions:

What can save us and what can save the church from our sins, our depravity and our evil?

What can save us? How are sins forgiven?

Without spoiling it too much, I think the movie has a very clear answer.

The only thing that can save us from sin and evil and bring about forgiveness is the loving sacrifice of Calvary.

Unpublished: Being Biblical Means Being Doctrinally Tolerant

People who claim to literally interpret the inspired and inerrant Word of God do not agree on what the bible says.

Christian Smith calls this "pervasive interpretive pluralism." And this pervasive interpretive pluralism isn't just found among progressives and liberals. It is found among evangelicals and fundamentalists, among the very people who claim that they are reading the bible very, very literally. Pervasive interpretive pluralism exists among biblical literalists.

Which brings us to the problem at the heart of Protestantism.

The problem at the heart of Protestantism is that the bible is unable to produce consensus. This isn't a theological claim. This is an empirical fact.

Sola scriptura produces pluralism. The "bible alone" creates doctrinal diversity. Biblical literalism proliferates churches.

And five-hundred years of Protestantism is Exhibit A.

The only way to get a single, unified church, as the Catholics will tell you, isn't the bible. What you need, rather, is a magisterium, a teaching authority that says, for everyone, "this is what the bible says."

And that's why there is one Catholic church and tens, thousands or tens-of-thousands of Protestant churches (depending upon how you count them).

A magisterium gets you one church. A literal reading of the inspired and inerrant Word of God gets you many, many churches.

That's a fact with an important moral implication.

Which is this: If your are going to accept the burden of being of Protestant, of living with sola scriptura, then you are going to have to learn to welcome doctrinal diversity.

If you want to be biblical you're going to have to reconcile yourself to pervasive interpretative pluralism. That's life being biblical. Being biblical requires a fair amount of tolerance for doctrinal diversity. Being biblical means creating a big tent.

So if you want to be biblical--if you want to go sola scriptura and drop the magisterium--then you are morally obligated to assume the burden and responsibility of welcoming the doctrinal diversity you will create.

The alternative is to be delusional, pretending that opening the bible brings everyone to a consensus. Unfortunately, that just doesn't happen. And pretending otherwise just sets you up to be judgemental and condemnatory. It tempts you into using the word "biblical" as a weapon.

In the end, if you're going to be biblical you're going to have to learn to be tolerant.

--from an unpublished post ranting about the delusional nature of doctrinal gate-keeping within conservative, fundamentalist and evangelical churches

Schindler's Lament: Love, Sacrifice and Death

In my book The Slavery of Death I argue that our fear of death is the greatest obstacle to love.

A common response I get back about that claim is that people don't report consciously fearing death. And if people aren't fearing death--at least consciously--how can I claim that this fear is interfering with their ability to love others fully and freely?

As you know, if you've read the book, I tend to answer these sorts of questions by analyzing neurotic rather than basic anxiety in our relationship to death. That is, our fear of death is often experienced unconsciously and neurotically, mainly when we are thinking about what makes our life worthwhile, meaningful and significant, the things that feed into and prop up our self-concept and self-esteem.

And yet, we also struggle with basic anxiety--worries about physical survival--even in affluent parts of the world. True, we don't worry about being killed. But we do worry about becoming depleted, exhausted and used up. It's hard to make room for others in our lives because we have no margin. We feel that if we "add one more thing" to an "already full plate" we'll be pushed too far, pushed over the edge.

And these worries, if you ponder it, are expressions of death anxiety. We are worried that we don't have the resources to carry on or forward. And that fear--a depletion of vital resources like time and energy--is rooted in survival concerns.

And these fears, I contend, undermine our ability to love. We don't love freely or fully because we feel we'll be used up and depleted.

I bet you've experienced this fear. For example, if you've ever felt called to share your possessions with those in need you quickly encounter the basic anxieties associated with self-preservation and survival.

Because as we all know, the material needs in the world are so enormous that when we encounter them we begin to balk at the demands they place upon us. Just how much should I give and share to house the homeless or feed the hungry? Children starved to death today and I bought a $4 drink at Starbucks. Should I not have given that money away?

And this is what we all know: once we start asking questions like these they never stop. There is always something more we could have given, some other sacrifice we might have made. So where do we draw the line?

I am put in mind here of the last scene from the movie Schindler’s List. After saving over 1,100 Jews by keeping them in his factory Oskar Schindler laments at the end of the war:
“I could have gotten more out. I could have got more…If I had made more money. I threw away so much money…I didn’t do enough…This car. Why did I keep this car? Ten people right there. Ten people. Ten more people. This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. They would at least have given me one. One more person…I could have got one more person. And I didn’t. I didn’t.”
One more person. I think any compassionate person in a world of hunger and homelessness can identify with Schindler’s lament. This sharing with others is no easy thing. How far do we go? How far do we go in sharing, in laying our lives down for others?

On the surface sharing doesn’t seem to illustrate the connection between love and death. But the attendant anxieties about our own well-being—If I keep giving will there be enough for me, for my family?—in the face of sacrificial sharing quickly reveal the connection.

This is a point powerfully made by the theologian Arthur McGill. According to McGill, when we tell others and ourselves to practice a life of love we often fail to point out the consequences of love. Love is costly. McGill explains:
[The love which is proclaimed in many churches] carefully disregards the outcome of love. These churches speak of love as helping others, but they ignore what helping others does to the person who loves. They ignore the fact that love is self-expenditure, a real expending, a real losing, a real deterioration of the self.

…Too often in our churches we hear the gospel of love without the gospel of need. Too often we hear the lie that to love is to help others without this help having any effect upon ourselves.
I don't have any easy answers here. I don't know where to draw the lines in response to Schindler's lament.

But I think I know these two things.

First, you might claim that you don't fear death, but once you start loving others you'll quickly find out that you do. 

And second, love is very much about our ability to transcend that fear.

My 2015 Wish for the Progressive Christian Internet: More Conversation About Justice

Over at Slate Jordan Weissmann nominates the graph above as the "Best Graph of 2014" documenting "The Rise and Rise of the Top 0.1 Percent."

This graph from economist Pavlina Tcherneva has also gotten "best graph of the year" attention:

This graph shows income growth for the bottom 90% compared to the top 10% as each group bounced back after great US recessions. Note how since the 1980s recoveries from recessions (bouncing back) have been disproportionately experienced by the top 10% with the bottom 90% bouncing back from recessions less and less, falling further and further behind.

I never got around last year to blogging about Thomas Piketty's book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The book is a long and detailed historical analysis of capitalism, but the overarching conclusion and implication of the book are easy to summarize.

The overarching conclusion is this: wealth grows faster than income. Phrased more precisely, capital grows faster than wages.

What this means is that over time capitalism creates increasing inequality between those who possess wealth versus those who earn wages. This is the mechanism--the different growth rates of capital versus income--that creates the "Main Street" (wages/income) and "Wall Street" (wealth/capital) divide.

The implication of this is also simple to summarize: these different growth rates create democratic instability. That is, the inequalities produced by capitalism put pressure and stress upon democracy. By creating economic inequality capitalism fuels class resentment placing increasing strain upon the social contract.

Now, perhaps the mechanisms described by Piketty are at work in the graphs above. Perhaps not. Piketty and his book have received a great deal of pushback and criticism. Regardless, and following the argument of Piketty, I think it safe to say that the graphs above do point to pressure and stress that our current economic arrangement is placing upon the democratic social contract. As wealth grows and grows at an ever accelerating rate wages continue to remain stagnant. That divergence, if it continues, is not sustainable and will fray to the breaking point the social fabric of America. The middle-class is rapidly evaporating in America. And when the middle-class evaporates the democratic and social infrastructure that holds us together evaporates. 

What to do? Again taking a cue from Piketty, democracy has to reassert itself to reduce the gap between wages and wealth. This can happen in a variety of ways, all of them controversial and political quagmires. But all have the same goal: democratic redress of the inequalities produced by capitalism. Throughout its history America has had to do this work. And if Piketty is right that work never ends. It's time to do some more of it.

Now I'm sure politically conservative readers will have a range of negative reactions to everything I've just written. We'll just have to agree to disagree. What I'd like to do is end this post with some comments for my more liberal and progressive Christian readers looking forward to 2015.

The year that was 2014 for the progressive Christian Internet was a year that focused a great deal upon the oppressions related to race, gender and sexuality. Conversations about "checking privilege" abounded. Great effort was spent upon "centering," especially centering those for whom various oppressions "intersect" and stack up to create extremes of marginalization.

I applaud and have contributed to all those conversations. And yet, often missing from the progressive Christian Twitter and blogosphere in 2014 was a similarly robust, broad, sustained and energized conversation about class, labor, economic inequality and poverty.

For example, in discussions about racial reconciliation, centering and checking privilege many progressive Christians fail to attend to the issue of class and how it affects race relations. The issues in places like Ferguson have as much to do with economics as they have to do about race. I think it's vital that we check privilege and center voices at the intersections of oppression, but unless we deal with the structural economic issues our social media activism can devolve into to moral signaling and posturing.

I believe in and participate in all sorts of efforts aimed at reconciliation within my faith tradition (we have the same racial segregation on Sundays as many traditions do). And a pressing concern in these conversations is justice. And justice, as was pointed out to me recently by a group of African-American church planters, is fundamentally an economic issue.

To give a concrete example. I think it is critical and important to note how many women or persons of color are included as speakers at Christian events and conferences. We should take note and criticize when the speaking slate is full of white men. But let's not miss the forest for the trees. We can create an inclusive, diverse and multicultural event that de-centers and checks white privilege. But unless those de-centering and privilege checking efforts are leveraged toward addressing economic inequality we remain a far cry from justice.

Symptomatic of this is how progressive Christian activism can become a largely linguistic activity, focused upon policing, correcting and calling out how and when people speak and write (or don't speak and write) on social media. Progressive Christian activism is often strangely decoupled from the concrete particulars of economic policy. Which is to say that progressive Christian activism is often failing to have a conversation about justice biblically conceived. 

I take my cue here from Martin Luther King, Jr.. In the wake of the historic Civil Rights legislation passed in 1964 and 1965 the plights of most black Americans remained largely unchanged. Thus the disillusionment post-1965 that grew among the black population and civil rights activists, fueling race riots and the rise of the Black Power movement. So much had changed with the demise of Jim Crow but in so many important ways nothing had changed at all. And King saw economic inequality as the root problem. Thus, after 1965 King increasingly focused upon economics as the key factor in race relations. King was assassinated in the midst of organizing the Poor People's Campaign.

As King saw more and more clearly, there can be no "racial reconciliation" without (economic) justice.

I fear many progressive Christians are forgetting King's message and hard-won insight. Let us be students of history. Let us listen to what Dr. King was teaching in 1968. Let us remember the role of the charkha in the teachings of Gandhi. Let us go back to the socioeconomic origins of South American liberation theology. Thousands of words have been shared on progressive Christian social media about privilege, centering, diversity and reconciliation with very little associated conversation about economic justice.

Calls to "check privilege" and "center the margins" become ciphers for tolerance rather than clarion calls for justice when they are disconnected from the economic forces driving income and wealth inequality. Issues of race and class need to be intimately and repeatedly connected in these conversations. They rarely are.

So that is my wish for the progressive Christian Internet in 2015. Alongside and informing conversations about centering, privilege, diversity and reconciliation let us have more conversation about class. More conversation about wages. More conversation about labor. More conversation about economic inequality. More conversation about poverty.

More conversation about justice.

Update and Invitation for UK Speaking Tour June 2015

An update regarding my speaking tour this summer in the UK and reminder for your church, university or organization if you'd like to host an event involving me during the month we'll be in the UK, June 2015.

Right now, on June 3-5 I'll be with Business Connect on Jersey Island.

After our time on Jersey we'll be spending the weekend of June 12-14 with the Citygate Church in Brighton, England.

After that we're waiting to finalize an engagement in Aberdeen, Scotland.

All that to say, dates for our time in the UK are starting to fill up. So if you'd like to explore booking me for a speaking event this coming June please contact me at beckr@acu.edu and I'll connect you with Hannah Bywaters from Citygate church who is helping me coordinate events.

Looking forward to seeing UK readers and friends this June!

A New Friday Series: Unpublished

Dear Readers, what shall we do with Fridays?

Two years ago I blogged through the Rule of St. Benedict on Fridays. Last year I created "Search Term Friday," using weekly search terms to highlight and revisit old blog posts.

But it's a new year so we should start something different.

What I'd like to try to do is a series I'll call "Unpublished." Behind the scenes of this blog are years of unpublished drafts. These drafts consist of poems I didn't like. Rants I decided I shouldn't publish. Posts that didn't evolve the way I wanted them to, failed theological experiments. And a lot of partial and unfinished posts I started writing but never finished.

Here and there in all that material are some good paragraphs and sentences expressing an interesting or provocative idea, insight, opinion or perspective. So what I'd like to do on Fridays is publish some of this material. Not the bad, incoherent or inflammatory parts, but the kernels of the good stuff that might be harvested from all this unpublished material.

I hope that on Fridays these fragments will make for provocative, tantalizing and enigmatic reading.

Experimental Theology 2014 Year in Review

Happy New Year!

Following tradition on New Year's Day I like to take a look back over the previous year, gathering popular posts and personal highlights.

Before I do that I want to thank all of you for reading, many of you daily and weekly.  You've made this blog what it is.

And thanks to all of you who have taken the time and the risk to comment on the blog. I've learned so much from your insights, perspectives, knowledge, criticisms and stories.

Finally, a big thank you to everyone who took the time and effort to Tweet or link to this blog. It's an honor that you've found posts worth sharing. And your kindness in linking has helped this blog grow every year.

So thank you. I'm so glad you are here. I'm looking forward to 2015.

And now a look back at the year that was 2014 here at Experimental Theology:

1. The Slavery of Death
My book The Slavery of Death went on sale at the start of the year. Over the year the book has received some very nice reviews on Amazon: 
"...illuminating and provocative..."
"I can't recommend this book highly enough."

"Wonderful, thought provoking, challenging and liberating....Will leave you with a whole new perspective on your world..."

"A fantastic dialogue of the Christian faith and psychology..."


"One of the best books I've read in recent years."

"Powerful and evocative."

"Definitely one of those few books that really does change how you see everything..."
In the fall I spoke at the The Fuller Integration Lectures with the lectures summarizing the main ideas in The Slavery of Death. Returning from Fuller I summarized some of the conversation given by the respondents to my lectures, conversations that deepened and expanded the content of the book. Those Fuller posts were: Can We Believe in God Non-Violently?, Monuments of Self-glorification in the Face of Death, You Are Beloved and Kenosis as Pouring Out and Vomiting.

Books are time capsules, but the ideas contained therein are not. So during the year I continued to think about what I wrote in The Slavery of Death. Two popular posts in this regard were Death and Love on (Cormac McCarthy's) The Road and Renunciation.

Finally, during the year I had readers submit questions about the book and I responded to those in a post: Slavery of Death Reader Q&A.

2. The Theology of Johnny Cash
The most popular series I did during the year was "The Theology of Johnny Cash." I've really gotten into the music of Johnny Cash and this series was a quick survey of some of the theological riches that can be found in his work. This month I'm going to be teaching a class at my church Freedom Fellowship entitled "The Gospel According to Johnny Cash." With great fear and trembling I'm going to try to actually play and sing the Johnny Cash songs I'm going to be talking about each lesson. Also, this year at the Pepperdine Lectures Mark Love and I will be doing an evening session about the theology of Johnny Cash. "The Theology of Johnny Cash" series:

Part 1: I Walk the Line, Part 2: Sinner & Saint, Part 3: The Man in Black, Part 4: Bitter Tears, Part 5: San Quentin You've Been Living Hell to Me, Part 6: I Will Make You Hurt, Part 7: The Anawim, Part 8: A Whirlwind in a Thorn Tree        

I concluded that series with a post for those who haven't listened to a lot of Cash but would like some guidance in where to get started: Exploring the Music of Johnny Cash.

3. The Charism of the Charismatics
The second most popular series I did this year was "The Charism of the Charismatics." These posts were prompted by my biography. I'm a skeptical, progressive Christian who struggles with doubt and metaphysics. Thus, my theology tends to be disenchanted and demythologized. And if that last sentence doesn't make any sense to you it simply means I struggle with believing in things like demons, angels and miracles.

And yet, because God likes to mess with me, I've found myself sharing life with friends and fellow believers--out at the prison and at our church plant Freedom Fellowship--who are guided by a charismatic and pentecostal worldview. I've discovered that charismatic and pentecostal theology is the theology of the margins, worldwide and in my own local experience. Thus, a skeptical, doubting Christian like myself will experience some pretty significant theological culture shock as you start to share life at the margins. You have to figure how to share and speak this theological language in a way that has intellectual integrity while also being honoring, humble and open. Concretely, you have to learn to lay on hands, anoint with oil and speak of the devil in a way that isn't fake, ironic or paternalistic.

So this series was sharing my journey in learning how to connect with charismatic and pentecostal theology in my own local contexts:

Part 1: Holy Ghost Conga Lines, Part 2: The Pentecostal Worldview, Part 3: Surprised by God, Part 4: Hermeneutics as Enchantment, Part 5: Bodies and Souls, Part 6: The Heart Has a Way of Knowing, Part 7: The Preferential Option for the Poor

4. The Prison Bible Study
I continue to share stories from the prison. Every Monday night Herb Patterson and I teach a bible study at the maximum-security French Robertson prison for a group of 30-40 inmates. I've heard from many readers that these stories have became your favorite posts on the blog.

Some highlights from the last year:

To Make the Love of God Credible
In Prison with Ann Voskamp
There Is a Balm in Gilead
God's Unconditional Love
The Philosopher

5. Ferguson
The events in Ferguson roiled the nation and continue to do so. A lot has been written on social media about how Christians and the church should respond. I added a few posts to that conversation:

The Passion of White America
More than Three Minutes
The Only Way I Know How to Save the World
Honor the Outrage: A Reflection on 1 Corinthians 6 and the Ferguson Grand Jury Decision

6. Eccentric Christianity
Another popular series I did this year was entitled "Eccentric Christianity." Borrowing the term and concept from David Kelsey I've been struck with the theological fruitfulness of the concept of "eccentricity." I used the notion of an "eccentric identity" in The Slavery of Death, but this series was an attempt to use eccentricity as a way to explore God, the church, Christian mission, the Holy Spirit and belief:

Part 1: A Peculiar People, Part 2: The Eccentric God, Part 3: Welcoming God in the Stranger, Part 4: The Porous Self and the Spirit, Part 5: Doubt, Gratitude and Eccentric Faith, Part 6: The Economy of Love, Part 7: The Eccentric Kingdom

7. Friendships at the Margins
Beyond the prison I continue to write about my small attempts to give and receive friendship "at the margins" as a part of my life with our church Freedom Fellowship, a worshiping community that serves a weekly meal to friends and neighbors on the South side of Abilene.

Some of the popular posts that originated from Freedom over the year:

Anointing With Oil
Our Lady of Guadalupe
This Morning Jesus Put On Dark Sunglasses
Wiping the Blood Away
Gerald's Gift
Giving a Friend a Lift

8. The William Stringfellow Project
In the summer of 2012 I started The William Stringfellow Project where I read all of William Stringfellow's books in chronological order and in their first editions. You can check out all those installments on the sidebar.

This year we covered (chapter by chapter) what many consider to be Stringfellow's best book, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land. This year I also reviewed the book Conscience and Obedience.

Only two more books remain in this series--A Simplicity of Faith: My Experience in Mourning and The Politics of Spirituality. I hope to cover these two books in 2015 and bring The William Stringfellow Project to a close.

9. Popular Posts
An assortment of posts went "viral" to greater or lesser extents over the year, getting shares on Facebook or Twitter. The most popular posts from 2014 have been:

Social Media as Sacrament
Playing God: Using Power to Empower
On Christian Celebrity
How Friendship Saves the World: Sacramental Friendship and the Strength of Weak Ties
All the Sick and Twisted Ways Power and Victimhood Have Screwed Us Up: On Kenosis and Contemplation
Doubt and Cognitive Rumination
Empathic Open Theism
Wearing a Crucifix
The Meanings Only Faith Can Reveal
Why I Talk About the Devil So Much: The Devil, Enchantment and Non-Violence
Visiting and Evolving in Monkey Town
Roller Derby Girls
Icons of God in Marriage: Nature and Election
Incarnational Theology and Mental Illness
Barbara, Stanley and Andrea: Thoughts on Love, Training and Social Psychology
Faith as Quantum Superposition
The Weakness of God and Sin
You Kiss What You Love
When God Became the Devil

10. Blogging About the Bible
Finally, I continue to write a lot about the bible, sharing insights and thoughts about biblical texts, from the quirky to the profound. I often float interpretive innovations, hermeneutical "experiments."

Because of my teaching in the Sojourners adult bible class on Sundays the first part of the year saw a few posts about Ecclesiastes, much of it connecting with The Slavery of Death: Life is Fleeting: Hebel in Ecclesiastes, The Heart of Wisdom: Chasing and Rest in Ecclesiastes and Gain Versus Gift: The Slavery of Death in Ecclesiastes.

Popular posts connecting Psalms to issues of oppression were The Psalms as Liberation Theology and Quit Tone Policing the Psalms.

Attempts at non-violent interpretations of various biblical texts and the atonement included On Religious Commitment and Violence: A Reading of the Akedah, A Christological Reading of Psalm 68, The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 and Redemption and Goel.

This year I also began to explore preterism and how it might be used to think about the Second Coming and Judgment. Two posts exploring this where On Preterism, the Second Coming and Hell and The Things That Make For Peace. Keep your eye on this topic as I'm continuing to ponder preterist perspectives and have already written some posts scheduled to come out in 2015.

Other popular posts exploring biblical texts during the year included Lord of the Flies, Hell On Earth: The Church as the Baptism of Fire, Be Holy to Love Each Other, The Metric of a Prophet, Be Baptized and God's Golden Rule.

So there it is, the year that was 2014 here at Experimental Theology! Hope to see you around in 2015.

Grace and peace,