Monday, November 21, 2016

Fooling with Scripture, Ep 15 -- Kings and Court Jesters

This week's episode of Fooling with Scripture is about kings and court jesters; about power and foolery. Instead of focusing on a single text this week, we're going to start with a paradigmatic text in the Hebrew Scriptures -- 1 Samuel 8 -- and then watch its implications play out in a number of different texts in John's gospel.

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For more on the tensions between views of the monarchy in the Hebrew Bible, Walter Brueggemann is still the man. His Prophetic Imagination is still a classic, and it's relatively short and readable. The tension throughout the texts is really drawn out by Brueggemann, along with Bruce Birch, Terence Fretheim, and David Petersen, in A Theological to the Old Testament (Abingdon Press, 2nd edition 2005).

For a recent, concise, and excellently written take on the links between the cross and foolishness, check out Robert C. Saler's latest book, Theologica Crucis: A Companion to the Theology of the Cross, available through Cascade Books.

And on a 100% completely unrelated note, just absolutely nothing to do with this podcast why would you even think it would be, check out the Hamilton soundtrack. Just because it's good.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The violence that is in my hands

Crispin de Passe (1564-1637)
Jonah 3:6-9 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

There is an old, old story I think about often.

It's a story about an angry, sad young man from a backwater town in a occupied corner of a world-spanning empire. The story goes that God tells this young man to get up and go to the capital city of this empire -- this violent empire which has occupied and oppressed his people -- and tell them to be nicer and to say they are sorry and to stop committing violent acts. The young man, understandably, does not want to do this. He runs away. There is a storm. A big fish. A prayer. The young man, eventually, goes to the capital city. He tells the people there to stop doing the terrible things they've done. Amazingly, they listen to him. The young man doesn't feel any better, though, because all of the awful things that have happened in the past are not magically wiped away by the success of his mission. He is angry. And God talks to him about how angry he is, and why.

And that's how the story ends. We don't know what happens next. Probably because it's up to us to decide. In a way, it's like one of those old 'Choose Your Own Adventure' stories.

There have been times in my life where I have compared myself to this young man. There is something noble about it, a false humility to it -- to say, "Oh, yes, I ran from God for so long, and then I stopped running and reported for duty, and now I am doing what God wants me to do." That's a nice narrative.

But I am not that young man.

I am a citizen of that capital city. And there are a lot of angry voices who are telling me that this city, and what it represents, needs to change.

To repent. Which is a word, in Hebrew, that just means, "to turn."

In the story, the king of the city listens to the angry young man. In a silly and satirical scene, he orders everyone in the city, including the animals -- what have the cows ever done to anyone -- to put on mourning clothes. It is an act of repentance, at once somewhat foolish and yet powerful in its own right. And he says this: "All shall turn from their evil ways and repent from the violence that is in their hands."

The violence that is in their hands.

And that is the phrase that has been echoing in my head for the past week. Because I have been thinking a lot about what I need to repent from, what I need to return from. I have been thinking a lot about what I need to drop. About the violence that is in my own hands.

Here are a few things I think I need to repent of. Here are a few types of violence I think are in my own hands:

1) Cynical detachment
When I choose a cynical detachment over a critical engagement, I'm using cynicism to try to prevent myself from being hurt. Cynicism allows me juggle the violence in my own hands like a hot coal, trying to keep from being burned without dropping it. It won't work -- and it will burn others in the process. I think I need to repent of -- to turn from -- cynicism and turn towards engagement and connection.

2) Privileged hubris
When I choose snarky humor over real action, or when I dismiss the real concerns of marginalized people and groups because "I just don't think it will happen," then I am revealing the hubris that comes with privilege. I need to turn from privileged hubris and turn towards a posture of humble listening.

3) Standing By
When I choose not to interact and intervene in situations where someone is being hurt, I choose passive standing-by instead of active coming-alongside. I am preparing, this coming weekend, to lead a training for college students on what we call "pro-social bystander intervention" or "positive bystander intervention." We teach students that they have the responsibility to intervene to prevent interpersonal violence and abuse. It's a lesson we all need to learn, not just on a college campus, but in our society as a whole. We are responsible for each other's safety. We have a responsibility to intervene. I need to turn from passive standing by to active intervention and solidarity.

3) White Supremacy
With the election into the highest office of the land of a man who used blatantly racist rhetoric, and that man's appointment to a White House position of another man who is an overt white supremacist, it would be easy for me to deny my complicity in white supremacy. Surely not I? I am no bigot. But there is more to white supremacy than open bigotry. Here is one definition from my friend Alicia at Chasing the Promise, from a dialogue I participated in at a recent conference:
White supremacy establishes whiteness as superior to other racial identities through the elevation of the needs, wants, concerns, perspectives, feelings, and desires of white people over that of people of color. This includes the centering of the theological, rhetorical, aesthetic, and economic priorities and preferences rooted in whiteness as well as the appropriation and rebranding of cultural expressions sourced from people of color.
At the conference which Alicia writes about, I shared one of the ways in which I participate in this system -- by centering my questions and efforts about the church in the issues facing predominantly white churches in this country. In their statement following the election, the Black Lives Matter movement said the following: "White supremacy fortified the decision to disregard racism and sexism as serious variables in the outcome of this election." So you see the tie between white supremacy, and my cynical detachment, and my privileged hubris. I need to turn from white supremacy and turn towards the centering of the needs of people who are different than me -- the centering of the needs, wants, concerns, perspectives, feelings, and desires of people of color.

4) Sexism
Again, with the election of a man who has bragged about sexual assault, and who uses gendered rhetoric that I literally train college students to interrupt and challenge, it would easy to say: not me! But when I fail to listen to the voices and stories of women, when I interrupt or talk over or pretend to have some sort of expertise that I don't, I participate in a sexist structure. I need to turn from misogyny and turn towards a centering of the stories of women.

What I've written here about sexism and white supremacy, I could also write about heterosexism, about ableism. About the hundreds of ways that I center the needs and concerns and stories of "people like me" over and against -- that last phrase is important -- the needs and concerns and stories of people who, in one sense or another, are different than me.

In the story, people put on sackcloth to indicate their repentance. This was a symbolic action which would have been widely understood in its time as a sign of mourning and a break from normal day-to-day activity. But our society sometimes lacks such commonly held symbolism; and, just as importantly, sackcloth would have been more than symbolic. It required a very real divestment of the regalia of power, including a disarming of the populous and the halt of normal economic activity. The symbolism was overt; but a concrete disruption accompanied it.

And so, as I consider what my sackcloth will look like over the coming days, weeks, and months, I'm thinking about action. I'm thinking about concrete attempts to release the violence that is in my hands.

Some of those actions are likely to be continuations of things I'm already doing. Like facilitating Bystander Intervention Trainings at Georgetown. Or working with Friends of Sabeel - North America, whose younger members and staff are working to make the organization more intersectional and more attuned to anti-oppression work in our organizing. Or working with some of the most vulnerable and marginalized members of our society, those who experience chronic homelessness and severe mental illness, in my job at the Georgetown Ministry Center.

But a lot of these actions are going to have to come from a place of humble listening and re-positioning. Some real soul-searching and internal work.

So I'm going to write a follow-up post to this one, once I've had a bit more time to do some of that internal work. But those two things -- the internal work of repentance, and the external actions of repentance -- don't happen in isolation from each other. They're not as easily split up as two blog posts.

They go hand-in-hand. And when we're hand-in-hand...well, it's a lot harder to hold on to violence, isn't it?

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Fooling with Scripture, Ep 14 -- Scapegoats, Breathing, and F Words

This week's episode of Fooling with Scripture is the last in a series brought to you through a partnership with Crossroads United Methodist Church. We've been focusing on texts from John's gospel. If you've tuned in because of the series at Crossroads, I hope you'll keep listening!

This week we're looking at John 20:19-14. In this story, Jesus appears to the gathered disciples (he's already appeared to Mary Magdalene, the first evangelist) while they are locked in a room out of fear that they will meet the same fate at the hands of religious and political authorities as Jesus had.

As I say at the very beginning of this week's podcast, I know people are feeling a lot of intense emotions right now, including fear, so this seemed an appropriate week to talk about fear, and scapegoating, and the need to keep breathing.

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Have a question, a comment, or a scripture you'd like "fooled with"? Send me an email!

If the piece about scapegoats and scapegoating caught your interest, you might want to check out the work of French anthropologist and theologian Rene Girard, in books such as I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning and The Scapegoat. James Alison is a Catholic theologian and a contemporary interpreter of Girard's work; check out his Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay. I first learned about Girard's theories through the writing of Tom Fox, a Quaker and member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams who was killed in Iraq.

For a powerful read on the care we need to take in approaching the concept of forgiveness, particularly for traumatized individuals and communities, I'd recommend the concluding chapter of Pamela Cooper-White's book, The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church's Response. It's a timely read. The chapter actually begins with a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship, which is a book I'm going to be reading over the next few months because I think it has a lot to speak into our current situation. Another timely book that I'm picking up to re-read is Parker Palmer's Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. If anyone is interested in some sort of online reading group, feel free to email me.

Last week, Leigh preached at Crossroads on the same text the podcast was about. You can read her sermon here or listen to it here:

Also, I had a few people mention that they'd like to words to our new theme song, written by the fantastic Pat Dupont. So here you go:
The sound of the world is so loud
I'm trying to hear you over the crowd
'Cuz everybody says, everybody's always saying that
You've gotta be strong and popular
But I'd rather be weak
Which means that success for me
Is if the whole world thinks that I'm a fool

But I'd rather be weak
Which means that success for me
Is if this podcast only gets one star

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Fooling with Scripture, Ep 13 -- Bodies, Limits, and God's Weakness

This week's episode of Fooling with Scripture is once again brought to you through a partnership with Crossroads United Methodist Church as part of their Faith Beyond Belief: Reclaiming the Art of Christian Practice series.

Each week for the next few weeks we'll be fooling with a text from John's gospel. This week we're looking at John 1:9-14, which tells us that the divine logos (remember the first episode of this particular series?) "took on flesh and lived among us." So we're talking about flesh this week -- about bodies, limits, and divine weakness.

A quick note about the translation I just linked to -- it uses the male pronoun to talk about the logos (Word), but it doesn't have to. If you want to hear more about that, and about some of the other details of this text, you can check out the short intro I did for this week's Faith Beyond Belief session.

Like this blog and the podcast? Please consider becoming a Patron!

Have a question, a comment, or a scripture you'd like "fooled with"? Send me an email!

A few references came up in this week's podcast that I wanted to say a bit more about.

There are hundreds, even thousands, of possible resources I could point you to if you're really interested in the historic debates within the Church about how Jesus can be both human and divine at the same time. If you really want to get into the weeds on this, I'd suggest Jurgen Moltmann's critical take on it in the second section of his book The Way of Jesus Christ. And if you're really, truly, irredeemably geeky, email me and I'll send you the Christology I wrote up for my systematic theology class in seminary. [[nerd]]

I once again relied on Dr. Sharon Ringe's excellent book, Wisdom's Friends, for this episode -- this time in reference to connections between Wisdom (hokhma/sophia) and Word (logos) in John's gospel. If you're interested in that, she does a much better job than I at explaining it, so check out Wisdom's Friends.

Here's a Huffington Post article by Rabbi Arthur Waskow about the Jewish festival of Sukkot and its connections to vulnerability and fragility. He writes:
Every night, Jews pray to YHWH, the Holy Interbreathing of all life: “Spread over us the sukkah of shalom.” Not a fortress of invincibility, a palace of triumph and security, a temple of orderly and muttered prayer — but these huts where anything might happen. From outside, a storm. A robber. From inside, an “O!” of radical amazement at the awesome beauty, awesome terror, of the world around us. A breath of some new way of praising the One Who Breathes us. The teaching: We, all humankind, live in a sukkah, vulnerable. No great Twin Towers, no Pentacle of Power, is invincible. Only the shared knowledge of that truth can bring us peace.
Next week will be the last week of the John series in cooperation with Crossroads UMC, so be sure to tune in next week to talk about breath and breathing. And remember to breathe, and to take care of your fragile, vulnerable body and the fragile, vulnerable bodies of those around you this week, especially as this anxiety-inducing election season comes to its climax. Be gentle with yourself and with each other. Peace.