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Archive for January, 2011

[A chapter selection from  Quakering Theology]

The most penetrating sound of September 2001 came not on Tuesday the 11th but on Sunday the 16th.

In November of 1963, only two days after Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, gridiron warriors assembled on one hundred yard fields and pushed, and tackled, and punted, and passed. Near capacity crowds were somber, but nevertheless cheered on seven NFL games; Pittsburgh tied Chicago 17-17, Cleveland trounced the Cowboys by ten points. On a Sunday afternoon in late January 1991, while soldiers were engaged in a Storm in the Desert, the most creative television commercials of the season were shown during breaks from Super Bowl XXV. Allied troops fought Saddam; the New York Giants beat the Buffalo Bills 20-19.

The most penetrating sound of September 2001 came not on Tuesday the 11th but on Sunday the 16th; in stadiums across the country there was no football, there was only silence. The silent stadium was a more truthful witness to the moment than were the immediate demands for war; the silent stadium spoke more poignantly than the immediate calls for peace.

It was the simple-minded naiveté of both the hawks and the doves that first made me uneasy. It was all so simple. Too simple. “Steer clear, dear Odysseus, steer clear and save your life!”

On one hand, there was the immediate response to “kill them,” “retaliate with everything we have,” “unleash the dogs of war.” We are victims, they are the enemy! On the day after, Lance Morrow wrote in Time magazine, “A day cannot live in infamy without the nourishment of rage. Let’s have rage. What’s needed is a unified, unifying, Pearl Harbor sort of purple American fury—a ruthless indignation.”[1]

At the same time, another chorus of voices sang a dirge of national self-loathing. Here the model of blame is inverted…they are the victims and we are the enemy. “Our foreign policy has alienated and disenfranchised and, therefore, the actions of the terrorists, while horrible, were certainly understandable.”

It was all so simple.

But it was precisely the simplicity of the solutions that convinced me of their impossibility. From the “war on them” to the “war on us” everything had the ring of sanctimoniousness and superficiality.

Blaming clogged the internet, but empty football stadiums spoke more truthfully.

Each year in the liturgical rhythm of the Christian calendar a little noted day is lodged between two more celebrated days—Holy Saturday. It is often neglected, but it speaks to this moment in our history. Our time is a Holy Saturday. The horror of the crucifixion is over; the image of the embodiment of our hopes broken and bleeding and dead still lingers fresh and raw. In the liturgy, Holy Saturday reenacts a waiting for something we know has come. Our waiting is different. In agony and in fear we want to rush into the tomb and rescue Jesus, to save him from the chill of the tomb. But when we remove Jesus on Saturday we have nothing but a corpse. Easter has not yet come. And who knows, maybe Easter will never come. But, if it does, who can know what form it will take?

Plato spoke of metaxy as an in-between place, a place where humans meet God. We are standing now between horror and hope in a chasm of betweenness, uncertain, messy, dangerous, ambiguous. Yet, this metaxy is the place where God is. On the lengthy Holy Saturday following September 11th I did not stand with chattering academics nor with military advisors nor with spin doctors nor with resolute pacifists; I chose to stand in-between, beside the padded shoulders of a silent line backer.


[1] Lance Morrow, “The Case for Rage and Retribution,” Time (September 12, 2001). http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/ 0,8599,174641,00.html (accessed January 5, 2011).

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Following the recent announcement of changes to the Zodiac calendar, a denominational watchdog organization, Denomawatch, made a surprising announcement of its own today.

“We have long suspected that there was a misalignment of denominational identities, but weren’t certain until earlier this week,” said Dr. Cambio, Associate Director of Denomawatch.

The confusion is due to a miscalculation of Luther’s posting of the 95 thesis at Wittenburg in 1517.

“Everything was completely then misassigned in the sixteenth century and, consequently, into the English Reformation and beyond. We are only now beginning to see the first effects of this problem,” Cambio remarked. “It will likely be years before the full impact of this travesty will be known.”

The entire constellation of Protestant identity has been affected by this miscalculation, experts at Denomawatch reported.

“Mormons, for instance, are actually Assemblies of God, while Unitarians have been Southern Baptists all along.”

A number of religious leaders have reacted strongly to this week’s announcement. Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, when asked whether the worldwide Anglican Communion would surrender its property to the United Methodists who are now, according to new calculations, the rightful Anglicans.

“No. Definitely not,” he replied. “Those bastards left us a long time ago.”

Pope Benedict XVI would not comment directly on the matter citing that this was a “Protestant issue.” An official statement assured that, “His Holiness is aware of the recent developments concerning denominational reassignment and will hold a special mass later this week.”

Scholars are investigating the roots of the miscalculation.

According to Marcia Rivera, Professor of Reformation Studies at the University of Chicago, it is unclear whether the error was due initially to human error or to a deliberate sabotage.

“There is some evidence that an early chase (the forms in which block print were placed on early printing presses) was simply scrambled,” Rivera stated. “It could have been as innocent as someone stumbling with the chase on the way to the press.”

But at least one other historian suspects the error was deliberate.

“I believe the handwritten document used to set the type was incorrect,” said Dr. Hugh Zimmerman, Associate Curator of Special Collections at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.

The document can be traced to a small monastery north of Wittenburg which was extremely hostile to the new reforms that swept through the area following Luther’s bold move.

It will take some time for the details to be clarified. In the meantime, Dr. Cambio advises, “We had better all get used to singing someone else’s hymns from now on.”

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I watched with gratitude and no small amount of nervousness, as thirty-three miners (thirty-two Chilean – one Bolivian) were hoisted more than two thousand feet to the surface. After sixty-nine days they were each stepping foot again on the earth under which they had been buried since August 5.

There are many examples of heroism, creativity, raw determination that are part of this story. I’m quite taken by Luis Urzua, the fifty-four year old shift leader who was, at his insistence, the last of the thirty-three men to be rescued. Urzua was the first to contact those on the surface, seventeen days after the mine’s collapse. He divided cans of tuna fish that helped keep the men alive while they waited supplies from the surface. He organized the workers into three work shifts, and he poured over diagrams that helped the rescuers in their plans for assisting the thirty-three.

According to an article on CNN.com, the rescue ended “a saga that gripped a nation that never gave up hope.” When Luis Urzua emerged from the red, white and blue steel tube that hoisted him to the surface he said: “ I hope this will never happen again.” (“Everyone out of the mine in Chile” accessed 10/13/10 CNN.com)

The wife of one of the miners, Lillian Ramirez (sixty-three year old, Mario Gomez) echoed the Hebrew Bible – Daniel Chapter three when the fiery furnace contained more than Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Ramirez told reporters: “To say there were thirty-three trapped in the mine is wrong. There were thirty-three men – and God.”

Hope is a kind of confidence that does not give up – even when perhaps we think it should. Even when circumstances might warrant despair, hope is the unseemly response that something awaits that we cannot fully anticipate or name.

“Hope is nothing else than the expectation of those things which faith has believed to have been truly promised by God.”

This is what grants hope its audacity. “Faith believes God to be true, hope awaits the time when this truth shall be manifest.” (Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 20) Audacity is made possible because hope is rooted in the promise of God whom we have through the centuries known to be faithful – even when humans have forgotten, turned away, crafted idols, and done everything in our power to extinguish the hope of the world.

One theological problem haunts us constantly, whether we are doing theology as an academic subject or whether we are living it in the day to dayness of life in the trying-to-be-faithful community called church – this is the problem of the future. We do not know the future and are not yet there – but this is not the problem – it is not a lack of knowing nor a limitation of location. Rather, the problem of the future – theologically speaking – is the struggle for what remains after all else passes away…the struggle for hope.

We have possessed since the beginning of time the capacity to extinguish the future. Cain’s slaughter of his brother marked the human family’s first mythic entry into the destruction of hope. Each act of violence robs someone of the future – and to live under the threat of violence steels from us hope that a future can be. Cain’s sin was murder – yes – but the sons and daughters of Cain – you and me – do more than take a life when/if we slaughter Abel. We destroy hope in concentric circles around Abel and fuel the growth of despair and cynicism, of anxiety and of hopelessness.

The pain of hope’s demise is sharp. In fact, what burns so deeply in despair is its close proximity to hope. Despair sees hope and can almost grasp it, but it is frustrated, or its grasp of hope forbidden or refused or suppressed or delayed.

This is so true with violence as well. From the beginning violence – the destruction of a future – has always rested side by side with life – it has been literally “in the space” of the future. But Cain killed his brother not far from life and clearly “in the space” of the future. “Cain said to Abel his brother, ‘let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.” (Genesis 4:8 RSV)

The field is a space of the future – it is the context of life and promise, sustenance, and hope. By inviting his brother there he invited him into the space of the future. By murdering him there, Cain took the gift of God, the promise of life, hope, and the future, and he desecrated it – making the promise of life a lure toward destruction – making the future collapse in upon him burying him under its weight.

A simple and tragic story – one repeated hourly in one of a thousand forms – each version, in its own way, extinguishes the future, smashes hope, and replaces it with despair, or with what Gustavo Gutiérrez calls “submissive resignation in the face of historical events.” (God of Life, 107)

From the beginning, faith has been rooted in today but a today textured with promise – held up and drawn into the future of God – whether it was the command to press into the future with confidence: “be fruitful and multiply,” or whether it was the parting words of Jesus: “I will be with you even until the end of the age.” Present action, and grounded ness is built upon the promise of a future which, if God can be trusted to be faithful, would be a “behold it is very good” even as was each day of creation.

Hope is essential for all – but such an essential reality can be and has been trivialized, as have its companions: faith and love. It is a promise of life and future, but it is rooted in the faithfulness of God – call to press into life abundant in God’s future of justice. It is not a neo liberal economic promise, nor a support to capitalistic visions of a better tomorrow; it is a righteousness, and peace.

It is rooted in the kingdom of God, which is breaking into history in every moment when love is permitted to trump hate, and in every moment when violence is overwhelmed by peace.

Gutiérrez writes:  “If the church breaks its link with the Kingdom, it will by that very act lose its transcendent purpose and its ability to be critical of the present.” (God of Life, 107)

I think of the many who are, like Abel, lured “into the space” of the future only to find that future taken away – lured into places of promise and life only to find that they have been seduced into a place of destruction.

The most vulnerable among us, the poor, the immigrant, they are literally tending fields of promise, serving the food of life, caring for the children who are the future of families. These settings, however, have become places where hope is visible and the future in view. Yet, this hope and this future are for many crushed, forbidden, suppressed. “But the needy will not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the afflicted be crushed forever.” (Psalm 9:18)

Hope is audacious not because it is too stupid to know when to give up. Hope is audacious because it is grounded in God who is too faithful to ever let go. We cannot give hope or be hope by promising what we cannot. We can have hope and be hope when we live into the life and promise of the Kingdom of God.  (Today is lived in the reality of God’s presence today and tomorrow.)

As the church became more and more indistinguishable from the Empire, such hope was cast into Chrono’s future, not God’s. Chrono’s future was another time, another realm. The Kingdom of Empire tended to one’s needs and the justice, peace and order of God’s Kingdom was erased and displaced – “come back in tomorrow’s tomorrow.”

It is, as we are reminded in liberation theology “aquí y ahora” – here and now. It is a future of Jubilee. But the future of God is a future that is today as well as tomorrow – and it is a future that does not play well with those who seduce the hopeful into a space of life only to crush them and steal from them the future God has promised.

As I watched the miners lifted from a tomb in which they had been buried sixty-nine days, I felt as though I was celebrating Easter – the day of the resurrection. In the end, the news report announced: “The last rescuer has surfaced. The mine is empty.” I felt I could reply with integrity – “He is risen, indeed.”

Imagination, ingenuity, determination, and hope brought to a miraculous conclusion a threat to a future – to many futures.

We have had since the beginning the capacity to extinguish hope. But we have had since the beginning the capacity to walk along side God into God’s future – and we have had since the beginning the capacity to do this together.

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[There has been a lot of talk this week about the coarseness of public conversation. Here is a selection from my book in progress (*Quakering Theology*) about the importance of learning the language of blessing to counter the language of curse.]

The language we use in our conversation concerning peace and social justice (tone and intention) may be as critical as the actual content of our conversation. Combative, vitriolic language characterizes the left as well as the right. Public conversation is becoming more coarse, increasingly aggressive, even violent. If language is viewed primarily as a vehicle whereby experience is articulated in a descriptive fashion, then the language used to speak of our world, ourselves, will be violent. In fact, we could conclude that our speech must be aggressive in order to “speak truthfully” with integrity.

[However] … language does not simply describe reality, it evokes reality. Our speech may actually create new and inhabitable worlds, not simply describe presently existing ones.

Rooted as Friends are in the narrative of Christianity, the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus—our discourse ought to be the language of and practice of blessing. The aggressiveness of societal discourse speaks a curse—so much easier to utter in many ways; one that condemns, that dismisses, that diminishes, that sends away. “Send the children away, the Lord is tired.” How ought Friends to respond to groups whose demeanor is aggressive, belligerent, bellicose, dismissive, or even violent (even when—especially when—those groups are activists whose social agenda many Friends share)?   Shaped by this narrative and inspired by language birthed from the experience of a violent world, we may well follow suit.

In blessing the children Jesus speaks a language of a “less traveled vocabulary.” Perhaps the language of evocative, world-creating vision is more properly the language of poets and artists, musicians and lovers. If so, Friends may have some difficulty entering such a practice, schooled as we have been by the sentiment of William Penn, for example, who dismissed the arts as distractions from the pursuit of things spiritual: “These were never invented, but by that mind which had first lost the joy and ravishing delights of God’s holy presence.”[1] A distressing lack of imaginative incarnational vision.

We may enter with wobbly knees, hobbling on crutches, but it is into this place we should enter. Speaking blessing rather than curses, the blessings of a new covenant, the blessing of a vision of a new heavens and a new earth. In so speaking, we may even give birth to a new world.

[1]Penn, No Cross No Crown, 236-237 (XV.7).

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