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[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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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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I’ve been thinking a lot about poverty and the responses I hear from time to time in my work as a professor and in my life as a member of the trying-to-be-faithful community of Jesus’ followers.

Two responses from students over the past few years have made quite an impact on me. Both were very honest statements, but both troubled me deeply. In responses to study abroad trips I led to Latin America, I received responses I hadn’t anticipated (this often happens!)

The first: the student told us (the class) and me (the prof) that for years s/he had desired to work among the poor and to be  an advocate for them, living with them. However, as a result of our trip and after having actually spent time with people who were poor (not the most desperately poor, I might add), s/he concluded there was no way s/he could do it. How could they live the way they do? How could they dress, act, smell, the way they do? And why do they beg and ask me for money?

S/he confessed to feeling shocked and horrified by his/her reactions. Nevertheless, they were real responses, very honest, and I have no doubt that this student returned home having learned something about the world and about his/her own self that was quite unexpected…and troubling.

Secondly, another student, after returning from a study abroad trip I led, came to the conclusion that in the face of poverty and the “underdevelopedness” we saw, s/he was ” glad  to be an American” where we enjoy certain physical comforts and social benefits.

Again, this was some honest reflection, but not what I would have hoped.

Two initial comments: first, neither of these students is a bafoon. Both are intelligent, thoughtful adults, both well into middle-age. Secondly, I’m glad I teach at a seminary where there is not as much peer pressure to appear pious and holy as there is in other settings. It is not institutionally dangerous for a student (or a faculty member, although a little more here) to say, “I don’t believe that just because it is in the Creeds,” or to conclude that they struggle to do what they think they’re supposed to do.

The first student’s response has caused me to think about how even the very good hearted among us often regard persons as categories (I’ve been helped here by Jeorg Reiger’s challenging book, Remember the Poor). No one wants to say out loud, “I don’t care about the poor.” Of course not. Of course we “care about the poor.” However, the social realities of many of our lives is such that most of us don’t know the name of a single person who is, in fact, poor. The poor people are: “the poor.” They are not, my friend, Dania, or even, my enemy, that nameless kid who held a pistol to my head in Cuernavaca. They are abstractions and, as such, they do not really exist.

When faced with the real opportunity to touch humanity as a person with a face and a name, the terms of the experience change dramatically. There are no longer “the gays and lesbians,” for example, but rather, my friend David and his spouse, Jeff. They are not abstractions. All those who are so easily and quickly reduced to non-existence spring to life.

However, from time to time, when we actually meet a real person who concretizes a category for us we are not always prepared. They are not saints–sometimes they are not even nice. They are people. Sometimes we like them and sometimes we don’t. But who can ever be prepared for an ideal to materialize? A romanticized (positively or negatively) vision will rarely disappoint, if we can keep it as a vision.

Many of us, for example, are unprepared for the latent racism that simmers and swells from time to time within us–and I’m not talking about “those bigoted folk.” I’m talking about those of us who, on a good day, believe we are shining examples of evolving humanity!

What do we do with this when it comes?

Of course, the easiest thing to do…and potentially the most visibly pious thing to do, is to support “the poor.” Preach/speak/teach about the value of “the poor,” “the oppressed,” “the widows and orphans,” etc., and even make them the objects and recipients of our charity and financial generosity. But for God’s sake, don’t get close.

A couple years ago a speaker came to our seminaries and spoke eloquently and inspiringly about the work his congregation was doing in the greater Washington, DC area in lobbying congress on behalf of the rights of Latino immigrants. But my level of impressedness sunk to UNimpressedness after I heard this pastor’s response to my question. I asked, is anyone in your congregation learning Spanish (or does anyone already speak Spanish) and how much direct contact does the congregation have with the Latino community? Nada.

The second student’s response has also given me much to think about.

Why was I disappointed with the “I’m glad to be an American” response? Am I hoping my American students will be ashamed of their citzenship and consider renouncing it? Do I hope they’ll be indifferent? I wonder about this about about my motivations, but I don’t believe it is shame or indifference that I’m after. However, some reflection is in order. Is it really so simple as “God has blessed us?” (we’re rightly hesitant to finish what could be a complete thought: “…and has not blessed them.”)

I’m not an economist, but have a friend who is so I’m hesitant to play in the backyard of a discipline about which I know very little. Nevertheless, a simple meditation on what is required to have some of the things which I enjoy as an American ought to give me pause.

As I write, there is still a hemorrhaging oil pipe in the Gulf of Mexico which is not only threatening US coasts, but also coasts in the Mexican states of Tamaulipas and Veracruz. The image of this pipe is, for me, a profane modern Crucifix. “The pipe is bleeding for you and for me. ” It is, in all the terms appropriate to some theologies, an offering for me on behalf of my actions.

I realize full well that staring into the face of poverty is painful, particularly when one meditates on the possibility of being complicit in its existence.

Where is grace and how do we think about grace in such matters?

….more to come

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God’s remarks to Job:

“My thanks are to you for releasing me
From moral bondage to the human race.
The only free will there at first was man’s,
Who could do good or evil as he chose.
I had no choice but I must follow him
With forfeits and rewards he understood–
Unless I liked to suffer loss of worship.
I had to prosper good and punish evil.
You changed all that. You set me free to reign.

You are the Emancipator of your God…”

A Masque of Reason
by Robert Frost

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Constructive Theology  (August & Fall)

Rita Nakashima Brock & Rebecca Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of this World for Crucifixion & Empire. Boston: Beacon Press, 2009. (0807067547)

Serene Jones & Paul Lakeland, eds., Constructive Theology: a Contemporary Approach to Classical Themes. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2005. (0-8006-3683-x)

George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion & Theology in a Postliberal Age. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 2009. (0-664-23335-x)

Jeorg Rieger, God and the Excluded: Visions & Blindspots in Contemporary Theology. Minneapolis: Augsburg/Fortress Press, 2001.  (0-800-6325-40)

PLUS: Each student must select one theological text from his/her own confessional communion (Methodist, Quaker, Roman Catholic, Episcopal, et al.) This book should be a representative work in his/her tradition.

Introduction to Theological Reflection (Fall online; Spring on campus)

S. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice: a Theology of the Cross. Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2006.  (0802832156)

Elizabeth Johnson, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God. New York: Continuum, 2007.  (0826417701)

Catherine Keller, On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.  (0800662768)

Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: an Introduction to Christian Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids. MI: Eerdmans, 2004.  (080282787X)

Donald Musser and Joseph L. Price, eds., New and Enlarged Handbook of Christian Theology.  New and Enlarged Edition.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.  (0687091128)

Jeorg Rieger, Remember the Poor: the Challenge to Theology in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Continuum, 1998.  (1563382563)

Comprehensive Seminar (year-long online)

Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity. New York: HarperOne, 2009.

Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003. (0745624898)

Eddie Gibbs, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005. (0801027152)

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We should not write theology in pen.

Theologians are not the only ones who fall into the trap of writing/thinking/speaking with permanent ink, but it is a besetting sin of many of us. Handling such topics as “the Divine,” “eternity,” or even more pompously stated, “the counsels of God,” we can fool ourselves into thinking we are working with realities fixed and certain. Words spoken in ink sound confident and assured but they are not honest and can actually diminish the liveliness of faith when over time we believe in them more than in the Spirit that moves as it will. Barth provides both comfort and challenge on precisely this point: “The one who is awakened and gathered into being in the Church has every cause for the full assurance of faith, but none at all for certainty or over-confidence.” (CD I/1, 49)  Full assurance, yes. Certainty, no.

When Moses asked to see God he didn’t quite get what he had hoped for…he saw God pass before him. And really, that’s as good as it gets. There is no holding on to a moving and living God, no pinning God down, no snapping photos and capturing the essence of the Holy One. Nevertheless, when such a phenomenon is expressed it is often done so with much more  triumphalism and self-assuredness than the reality permits.

We need to write theology in pencil and keep a thick eraser handy. This work is provisional, tentative, and always unfinished. There is no word or concept or beautifully crafted theological exposition that will sustain us through this life and the next. The Word can do this, however. The living, pulsing, and vibrant Presence of God is what animates words, inspires creation, offers hope, and births a people. Staying close to this Reality that–as Moses discovered–doesn’t stand still, will require revision, restatement, remaking, and renewal. It is smuggy, messy, and incomplete–it’s fulfillment may be written boldly in pen, but that day is not yet.

Returning to Uncle Karl: Barth was asked once about why he did not finish his magisterial work, Church Dogmatics. “There is a certain merit to an unfinished dogmatics…it points to the eschatological character of theology! (Barth, How I Changed My Mind, 86)

Rigidity and fixity in theology (and other matters) may address our ill-at-ease-ness with ambiguity and our discomfort with chaos, but whatever is its subject it can never be the Reality that is God.

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