Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Who’s Really Running the World?

October 31, 2012

To everyone who has ears to hear, let them hear:

When read carefully, none of the biblical apocalypses, from Ezekiel through Daniel to Mark 13 and John of Patmos, is about either pie in the sky or the Russians in Mesopotamia.  They are about how the crucified Jesus is a more adequate key to understanding what God is about in the real world of empires and armies and markets than is the ruler in Rome, with all his supporting military, commercial, and sacerdotal networks.

Then to follow Jesus does not mean renouncing effectiveness.  It does not mean sacrificing concern for liberation within the social process in favor of delayed gratification in heaven, or abandoning efficacy in favor of purity.  It means that in Jesus we have a clue to which kinds of causation, which kinds of community-building, which kinds of conflict management, go with the grain of the cosmos, of which we know, as Caesar does not, that Jesus is both the Word (the inner logic of things) and the Lord (“sitting at the right hand”).  It is not that we begin with a mechanistic universe and then look for cracks and chinks where a little creative freedom might sneak in (for which we would then give God credit): it is that we confess the deterministic world to be enclosed within, smaller than, the sovereignty of the God of the Resurrection and Ascension.  ”He’s got the whole world in his hands” is a post-ascension testimony.  The difference it makes for political behavior is more than merely poetic or motivational.

J.H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, pp. 246-47.

Halloween’s Big “O”

          The imagery and mythologies surrounding Halloween are numerous, multilayered, and full of multiple significances.  In the West, the rites and liturgies of this day cumulatively gesture towards what I am calling “Halloween’s Big ‘O’.” 

          No, it’s not THAT “Big O”!  Rather I mean the Big “O” of Otherness, the Other, and Ourselves.  As fallen creatures we have fallen into fear – fear of Otherness, of the Other, and of Ourselves.  Halloween objectivizes these fears and externalizes them in the macabre creatures we fear in movies and books and seek to tame through costumes and toys.

-We dread the sense of Otherness in the world and universe we experience as sheer transcendence, a nameless, faceless, weighty presence that neither knows us or cares for us.  Aliens in particular express this fear of Otherness.  We cannot help but recoil and hide from this oppressive presence.

-We fear the Other, the particular people we encounter from day to day.  We experience them as threats to us, not gifts.  Ghosts, vampires, zombies externalize this fear.  All these “creatures” want something from us and give us nothing.  In fear we treat others with suspicion, distance, and in the extreme, with violent resistance.

-We fear Ourselves.  Broken, divided, enigmatic, untamable selves, we look in the mirror each day in fear of “who” we see there.  We can put on a good cover, most of the time.  But there are those moments when that terrible other self we fear breaks out in unfathomable and usually destructive ways and leaves us in shambles.  The Werewolf is the paradigm monster here.

          We do fear that sense of Otherness, the Other, and Ourselves.  Halloween is the time of the year we allow ourselves to act out, usually in harmless or comic ways, these fears (though terrible cases of serious acting out these roles are not uncommon).  Each is a broken form of how things were meant to be.

-We were to fear that sense of Otherness of the world and universe we live in.  This fear, however, was meant to be a sense of awe and wonder because we knew we were not alone and that One who had made all this made us too and committed himself to care for us and it with love and wisdom.

-We were to fear the Other as one “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps.139); a gift to us as we are to them.  Together, with our various gifts and talents, we were to serve God by protecting and nurturing his creation to its full flourishing.  Communication, communion, and community were to be our mode of life in this world (as in the next).

-We too were to fear ourselves, as creatures gifted with the inestimable privilege to bear and live out God’s own image – his own wondrous loving and wise care – in our world and to one another.

          If this is the case, Halloween can be a teaching moment for those of us in the church.  Fear preys on our brokenness from God, ourselves, each other, and the creation to drive us in all sorts of silly and self-destructive ways to project our brokenness in the world in the form of lethal fear of Otherness, the Other, and Ourselves.  The monsters and goblins of this day can teach the way fear presents itself in this way and offer us a chance to reflect on both who we have become and who we are in light of God’s intentions for us and our creation.

A Zombie Is a Slave Forever

ZOMBIES will come to my door on Wednesday night — in rags, eye-sockets blackened, pumping devices that make fake blood run down their faces — asking for candies. There seem to be more and more zombies every Halloween, more zombies than princesses, fairies, ninjas or knights. In all probability, none of them knows what a zombie really is.

Most people think of them as the walking dead, a being without a soul or someone with no free will. This is true. But the zombie is not an alien enemy who’s been CGI-ed by Hollywood. He is a New World phenomenon that arose from the mixture of old African religious beliefs and the pain of slavery, especially the notoriously merciless and coldblooded slavery of French-run, pre-independence Haiti. In Africa, a dying person’s soul might be stolen and stoppered up in a ritual bottle for later use. But the full-blown zombie was a very logical offspring of New World slavery.

For the slave under French rule in Haiti — then Saint-Domingue — in the 17th and 18th centuries, life was brutal: hunger, extreme overwork and cruel discipline were the rule. Slaves often could not consume enough calories to allow for normal rates of reproduction; what children they did have might easily starve. That was not of great concern to the plantation masters, who felt that children were a waste of resources, since they weren’t able to work properly until they reached 10 or so. More manpower could always be imported from the Middle Passage.

The only escape from the sugar plantations was death, which was seen as a return to Africa, or lan guinée (literally Guinea, or West Africa). This is the phrase in Haitian Creole that even now means heaven. The plantation meant a life in servitude; lan guinée meant freedom. Death was feared but also wished for. Not surprisingly, suicide was a frequent recourse of the slaves, who were handy with poisons and powders. The plantation masters thought of suicide as the worst kind of thievery, since it deprived the master not only of a slave’s service, but also of his or her person, which was, after all, the master’s property. Suicide was the slave’s only way to take control over his or her own body.

And yet, the fear of becoming a zombie might stop them from doing so. The zombie is a dead person who cannot get across to lan guinée. This final rest — in green, leafy, heavenly Africa, with no sugarcane to cut and no master to appease or serve — is unavailable to the zombie. To become a zombie was the slave’s worst nightmare: to be dead and still a slave, an eternal field hand. It is thought that slave drivers on the plantations, who were usually slaves themselves and sometimes Voodoo priests, used this fear of zombification to keep recalcitrant slaves in order and to warn those who were despondent not to go too far.

In traditional Voodoo belief, in order to get back to lan guinée, one must be transported there by Baron Samedi, the lord of the cemetery and one of the darkest and most complicated of the religion’s many complicated gods. Baron is customarily dressed in a business jacket, a top hat and dark glasses; he’s foul-mouthed and comic in a low, vicious way. One of Baron’s spiritual functions, his most important, is to dig a person’s grave and welcome him to the other side. If for some reason a person has thwarted or offended Baron, the god will not allow that person, upon his death, to reach guinée. Then you’re a zombie. Some other lucky mortal can control you, it is believed. You’ll do the bidding of your master without question.

Haiti’s notorious dictator François Duvalier, known as Papa Doc, who controlled Haiti with a viselike grip from 1957 until his death in 1971, well understood the Baron’s role. He dressed like Baron, in a black fedora, business suit and heavy glasses or sunglasses. Like Baron at a ceremony, when Duvalier spoke publicly, it was often in a near whisper. His secret police, the Tontons Macoutes, behaved with the complete immorality and obedience of the undead, and were sometimes assumed to be zombies under the dictator’s control. I once heard a Haitian radio announcer describe Klaus Barbie, a Nazi known as the Butcher of Lyon, as “youn ansyen Tonton Makout Hitler,” or one of Hitler’s Tontons Macoutes: a zombie of the Reich.

The only way for a zombie to have his will and soul return is for him to eat salt — a smart boss of a zombie keeps the creature’s food tasteless. In the 1980s, with Duvalier’s son ousted from power and the moment ripe for reform, the literacy primer put out by the liberation theologians’ wing of the Roman Catholic Church in Haiti was called “A Taste of Salt.”

There are many reasons the zombie, sprung from the colonial slave economy, is returning now to haunt us. Of course, the zombie is scary in a primordial way, but in a modern way, too. He’s the living dead, but he’s also the inanimate animated, the robot of industrial dystopias. He’s great for fascism: one recent zombie movie (and there have been many) was called “The Fourth Reich.” The zombie is devoid of consciousness and therefore unable to critique the system that has entrapped him. He’s labor without grievance. He works free and never goes on strike. You don’t have to feed him much. He’s a Foxconn worker in China; a maquiladora seamstress in Guatemala; a citizen of North Korea; he’s the man, surely in the throes of psychosis and under the thrall of extreme poverty, who, years ago, during an interview, told me he believed he had once been a zombie himself.

So when kids come to your door this Halloween wearing costumes called Child Zombie Doctor or Shopko’s Fun World Zombie, offer them a sprinkling of salt along with their candy corn.

Amy Wilentz, the author of the forthcoming book “Farewell, Fred Voodoo,” teaches in the literary journalism program at University of California, Irvine.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The William Stringfellow Project: Free in Obedience, Part 2
Posted on 10.30.2012
This is Part 2 of my review of William Stringfellow's book Free in Obedience (an installment of my William Stringfellow Project).

Part 1 (for future readers finding this post) can be found here.

In Part 1 of this review I discussed the first two chapters of Free in Obedience. Here in Part 2 we'll discuss the final three chapters in the book.

In Chapter Three of Free in Obedience--"Christ and the Powers of Death"--Stringfellow turns to a discussion of the principalities and powers. Much of Stringfellow's notoriety among theologians is due to his particular take on the principalities and powers. Stringfellow's great treatise on this subject is his book An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, published in 1973. But we we find the seeds of this later work in Chapter Three of Free in Obedience. Because of this I won't go too much into Stringfellow's analysis, saving that for when we get to An Ethic for Christians. But I would like to draw attention to Stringfellow's analysis of institutions as principalities and powers and how they can be death-dealing and life-stealing.

Here is Stringfellow on the survival ethos of institutions and how that ethos leads to bondage:
The institutional principalities also make claims upon us for idolatrous commitment in that the moral principle which governs any institution--a great corporation, a government agency, an ecclesiastical organization, a union, utility, or university--is its own survival. Everything else must finally be sacrificed to the cause of preserving the institution, and it is demanded of everyone who lives within its sphere of influence--officers, executives, employees, members, customers, and students--that they commit themselves to the service of that end, the survival of the institution.

This relentless demand of the institutional power is often presented in benign forms to a person under the guise that the bondage to the institution benefits the person in some way, but that does not make the demand any less dehumanizing...

...In the end, the claim for service which an institution makes upon an individual is an invitation to surrender his or her life in order that the institution be preserved and prosper. It is an invitation to bondage.
I don't know about you, but I think that passage should be posted in every employee bathroom. People should also read it before saying, say, the Pledge of Allegiance. In fact, Stringfellow goes on to say:
Americans are now constantly, incessantly, and somewhat vehemently assailed with the word that the ultimate moral significance of their individual lives is embodied in and depends upon the mere survival of the American nation and its "way of life"...[Consequently] the survival of the nation as such becomes the idol, the chief object of loyalty, service, and idolatry.
But all these institutions, ideologies and nations will eventually give way to death. Thus, service to the principalities and powers won't, in the end, allow us to escape death:

Death is greater than any of the principalities and powers, and none of them prevail against it. The whole of creation exists under the reign of death. Men die. Images, though they survive us for a time, also die. Institutions and ideologies, though they have immense survival capabilities, eventually die. Nations die. The reality which survives them all is death itself. Death, it seems, is the decisive, ultimate and dominant truth in history. No man is safe from his own death who looks for his salvation in idolatry of some principality, whatever it may be.

Opposed to death is the reality of resurrection in Christ. But resurrection for Stringfellow is less about life after death than about life in this world free from power of death.

[Christ's] power over death is effective, not just at the terminal point of a man's life, but throughout his life, during this life in this world, right now. This power is effective in the times and places in the daily lives of individuals when they are so gravely and relentlessly assailed by the claims of principalities for an idolatry which, in spite of all its disguises, really surrenders to death as the reigning presence in the world. His resurrection means the possibility of living in this life, in the very midst of death's works, safe and free from death.

The experience of the resurrection, then, is essentially about being freed from idolatry. That said, Stringfellow is a bit vague about how all this works. Sometimes Stringfellow just asserts the reality and experience of the resurrection without tracing out how one steps into this experience, what it might entail. I've done a lot of thinking and writing of my own in trying to connect these dots a bit more concretely. But I think the basic idea is discernible in Stringfellow. Specifically, as I've argued it (leaning on Ernest Becker and Arthur McGill) the issue has to do with identity. Being "free from death" in this world involves a renunciation of an identity founded upon idolatrous service to the principalities and powers (the cultural "hero system" as described by Ernest Becker). Receiving our identity from Christ allows us to have a sense of meaning, significance and purpose that is immune to the power and fears of death. And this immunity allows us to overcome self-interested fears ("perfect love casts out fear") when we give our lives away for the sake of the world.

In Chapter Four of Freedom in Obedience--"The Resurrection and the Church"--Stringfellow turns to talk about how the church should exist as a witness over against the principalities and powers. And yet, far too often the church has failed in this task. For example, Stringfellow talks about how the church has often been called upon to justify and bless the political status quo.

The essential claim with which the principality of the nation addresses the Church in America is, simply, that the Church stand ready to serve the national self-interest at any given time, however that interest may be defined.

One way the church has served the national self-interest is in staying silent about political issues and restricting its interests to how worship is conducted on Sunday mornings:
...the principality of the nation is served by the silence of the Church on issues confronting society; the nation willingly tolerates a silent, uncritical, uninterfering Church concerned only with such esoteric things of religion as public worship.
Of particular interest in this chapter is when Stringfellow turns to consider the church to be itself a principality and power, an institution that becomes concerned with its own success and survival:

Sometimes the Church yields or gravely imperils its integrity as the Church by becoming the handmaiden of the ruling principalities of race, class, or commerce. At other times the Church becomes so preoccupied with the maintenance and preservation of its own institutional life that it too becomes a principality. 
When this happens the church is governed by the same ethos of death that possesses secular institutions:

When churches are principalities they bear the marks essential and familiar to all other principalities of an institutional and ideological character. The moral principle which governs their internal life, like that which governs a corporation or university, is the survival of the institution. To this primary consideration, all else must be sacrificed or compromised.

I'm sure we've all had experiences with churches like this. But Stringfellow's point isn't to throw the institutional church under the bus. It's mainly a warning that service to the institutional church can be a location of life-sapping idolatry.

In the final chapter of Free in Obedience--"The Freedom of God"--Stringfellow returns to his themes from Chapter One, the sacramental witness of the church and the witness of mere presence. The basic idea is the same, but having discussed the power of death in Chapters Three and Four along with the witness of the church, the discussion of sacramental presence in the final chapter is more clearly a communal witness of resurrection over against death. And this witness is mainly exhibited in freedom.  Freedom to live for others. Freedom from service to the principalities and powers. Freedom from the anxiety and need to justify our lives before others. Freedom in the face of death. All this culminates in the final two paragraphs of the book:

The Christian goes about--wherever she be, which may be anywhere, whomever she is with, which may be anyone--edified and upheld by the sacramental community which is the Church in the congregation. The Christian is ready to face whatever is to be faced knowing that the only enemy is the power of death, whatever form or appearance death may take. The Christian is confident that the Word of God has already gone before us. Therefore the Christian can live and act, whatever the circumstances, without fear of or bondage to either our own death or the works of death in the world. The Christian is enabled and authorized by the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church and to each of us in baptism to expose all that death has done and can do, rejoicing in the freedom of God which liberates all people, all principalities, all things from bondage to death.

That being so, the Christian is free to give his or her life to the world, to anybody at all, even to one who does not know about or acknowledge the gift, even to one whom the world would regard as unworthy of the gift. The Christian does so without reserve, compromise, hesitation, or prudence, but with modesty, assurance, truth, and serenity. That being so, the Christian is free, within the freedom of God, to be obedient unto his or her own death.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The William Stringfellow Project: Free in Obedience, Part 1
Posted on 10.29.2012

This is a continuation of my William Stringfellow Project where I read through all of William Stringfellow's books in chronological order in their first editions. This is the fourth installment of this series. We've already done the first three of Stringfellow's books: A Private and Public Faith, Instead of Death, and My People is the Enemy.

In this post we turn to Stringfellow's fourth book Free in Obedience. Given the rich content of this book I'm going to do this review in two parts. Here in Part 1 I'll share from the first two chapters of the book. In Part 2 I'll discuss the final three chapters.

Free in Obedience was published in 1964 by Seabury Press. Unfortunately, the first edition copy I purchased didn't have the dust jacket. But pictured here is the title page of the first edition.

Free in Obedience is a book written for the church. The book is an attempt to call the church to faithful witness in the world. In making this call Stringfellow's task is both descriptive and prophetic. Descriptive in helping the church clearly discern death and resurrection in the world. Prophetic in calling the church to becomes a sign of life in the midst of death's works.

In the first chapter--"The Scandal of the Churches"--Stringfellow starts by calling the church to participate in the everyday experiences of the world, to participate in what he calls "the real issues of faith":
[T]he people and the things which an ordinary Christian comes into contact from day to day are the primary and most profound issues of her faith and practice...For me, the day to day issues are like these:

--a young, unmarried, pregnant girl--who says she is afraid to confide in either her parents or her minister--comes to see me to find out how her unborn child can be adopted.

--a convict writes to ask if a job might be found for him so that he can be paroled from prison.

--a college student, unable to find summer work, borrows twenty dollars.

--a woman, who has found another man, wants a divorce from her alcoholic husband.

--a Negro is arrested because he protested discrimination in the city.

--a seminarian is discouraged and disillusioned about the churches and thinks he cannot and should not be ordained.

--an addict want to get out of the city to try again to kick his habit.

--a family is about to be dispossessed from their tenement.

--somebody is lonely and just wants to talk.

These represent, in my life, the real issues of faith, just as the daily happenings in your life, whatever they may be, are the real issues of faith for you. The real issues of faith for the Church have to do not so much with the nature and structure of the ecclesiastical institutions as with illegitimate childbirth, or imprisonment, or with the problems of those who are unemployed, broke, estranged, persecuted, possessed, or harassed by the premonition of death. The real issues of faith have to do with the everyday needs of [people] in the world and with the care for and service of those needs, whatever they may be, for which the Church exists.

The real issues of faith have to do with how people are "harassed by the premonition of death." The premonition of death takes many forms--from addiction to unemployment to loneliness to marital conflict to paying the bills to disillusionment with the church. Here is where the church should be active. The problem, according to Stringfellow, is that Christians and non-Christians have come to believe that "the Christian faith has nothing to do with the ordinary issues of daily life."

Stringfellow's response: "Witness to the faith means loving and serving the world."

In Chapter Two--"The Scandal of Palm Sunday"--Stringfellow turns to talk about the temptation the church faces in wanting to use ideologies and institutions--the principalities and powers--to save ourselves and the world.

(Incidentally, or perhaps very much to the point, in my opinion this is why American political discourse is so toxic. Americans are demonically possessed by politics. There is a devil inside of us. That's why we can't talk calmly and rationally about something like affordable and universal healthcare in this nation. We don't need more cable TV or talk radio. We need an exorcism.)

The "scandal of Palm Sunday," then, is the crowd (Christians often at the forefront) calling out for a political savior. Instead, the world was given the cross on Good Friday.

And the cross doesn't poll well.

Stringfellow describes the cross as giving our lives away as a sacramental sign of life in the midst of death. Bringing life, as much as we can, into those situations listed above. Stringfellow describing this:

[The Christian is to demonstrate an] utter and radical involvement in the existence of the world, an involvement which does not retreat even in the face of the awful power of death.

The counsel of Palm Sunday is that Christians are free to enter into the depths of the world's existence with nothing to offer the world but their own lives. And this is to be taken literally. What the Christian has to give to the world is his very life. The Christian is established in such an extreme freedom by the power of Christ, which is so much greater than the power of death, that the Christian lives secure from any threats which death may make.

It is in exercising this ultimate freedom in her involvement in the world that the Christian also understands how to use whatever else is at her disposal--money, status, technical abilities, professional training, or whatever else--as sacraments of the gift of her own life. The daily witness of the Christian in the world is essential sacramental, rather than moralistic. The public witness of the Christian is a symbol and communication of her death in Christ every day in each situation in which she finds herself. She thereby demonstrates her faith in God's triumph over death in Christ. The ethics of witness to redemption are sacramental ethics of grace...

[T]he Christian is free to enter into the midst of all or any of these ordinary realities of the world's existence, knowing what they truly represent, without succumbing either to their lust for idolatry or the fear of the work of death of which they are evidence. The Christian is so empirically free from the threat of death in his life and in the existence of the rest of the world that he can afford to place that life at the disposal of the world or anybody in the world without asking or expecting anything whatever in return.

Stringfellow describes these sacramental ethics of grace as "the witness of mere presence."
[T]he Christian (the Church) must simply be in the world, sharing in and caring eloquently and honestly for the life of the ordinary world--or the life of any person--just as it is.
This witness points to a freedom from our slavery to the fear of death, a freedom observed in our ability to overcome self-interest in loving others:

Whoever the outcast is in given circumstances, the Christian is free enough from his own self-interest, from the necessities of preserving his own life, to intercede for another and to take up the other's self-interest as over against the rest of the world.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Living Between the Font and the Table: Why Only the Sacraments Can Save Us Now

          A short summary of the biblical story is this:

-God created his dream in the beginning but his creatures revolted seeking to enact their own dream instead but ended up with a disordered, damaged nightmare;

-God chose a people through Abraham and Sarah through whom he would demonstrate how intended his creatures to live and set right all that had gone wrong – let’s call this people God’s Subversive Counter-Revolutionary Movement (GSCRM);

-even when Israel failed at it task, Jesus, the one faithful Israelite came, served, died and was raised from death and vindicated as God’s one true and faithful GSCRM;

-as Jesus’ people, the church is now GSCRM implementing and extending the fruit of his victory at the cross and resurrection;

-as Jesus’ people who live between his resurrection and his return in a still-not-yet-fully-redeemed world, we are like soldiers in World War II who served between D-Day and V-Day – still fully engaged in the struggle though aware that the outcome of the war has been decided in our favor;


If we re-conceptualize[1] both the church and God’s gifts and graces as GSCRM[2] and the equipping such a movement needs to carry out its part in God’s ongoing work, the sacraments will take on new life and perhaps rise to their crucial place in the life of God’s people.

This sort of imagery has been used in the past largely as a rhetorical flourish to appeal to younger adults who were supposedly attracted to it.  I intend, though, to take this image with utter seriousness and use it as a lens through which to rethink the sacraments as a part of the equipping God gives his people to sustain them as GSCRM.
If we are indeed GSCRM, I would say that most of this movement for most of this century has been dehydrated and emaciated.  As such, this movement has proved unable to effectively or fruitfully engage the struggle to which God has called it.  A chief reason for this, I contend, is that we have tried to live and grow and minister without availing ourselves of his most important gifts to us, those that God has provided precisely for our growth and sustenance.  These are, of course, baptism and Eucharist or the font and the table. 

What is a Sacrament?

God Word comes to us in aural, liquid, and edible forms.  We have tried for the most part to live off the aural Word (sermon, Bible study) without integrating then liquid Word and the edible Word into our lives.  But it is just these forms of the Word that offer help for a dehydrated and emaciated church.

The sacraments,[3] according the PC(U.S.A.)’s “Directory for Worship,” “are God’s acts of sealing the promises of faith within the community of faith as the congregation worships and include the responses of the faithful to the Word proclaimed and enacted in the Sacraments.” (Book of Order, W.3.3600).  Through these actions of washing and sharing a meal God through the Spirit communicates the reality of Christ’s presence in and among us.[4]

While this is all formally correct, it leaves open the very matters that need concretization:  what promises?, which community?, what does God do here, and how do we respond?  These are the things I want to reframe for us in light of the nature of the church as GSCRM.

A Fresh Image

          Most of us neither grasp much about what the sacraments mean or experience much from participating in them.  At best they are seen as occasions for individual piety (usually of an overly solemn and sentimental “remembering” of Jesus death and our role in putting them there[5]) and worst an add-on to the service that threatens our arrival at the restaurant in time to avoid the crowds or at home to catch the opening kickoff of our favorite team.  This is also why I suspect there is little enthusiasm in most churches  for more frequent, even weekly observance of the Eucharist (as most of the rest of the world does).  It doesn’t “mean” enough to stir them to take on the added tasks of preparation and cleanup and recruitment of servers that more frequent observance would require.

          If we consider the church as GSCRM, I propose we can and should see the sacraments, the font and the table, as “Boot Camp” for induction and training for the task we are called to undertake.  Before you laugh and blow this off, read on and let me unpack this proposal a bit.

          What happens in Boot Camp?

1.    You get a new “Father” (actually in the U.S. military you get a new “Uncle”!)
2.    Your old civilian identity is broken down
3.    Your new identity is inculcated
4.    You become part of a new family
5.    You have a new inheritance (or goal)
6.    You receive new resources and learn new skills
7.    You have a new vocation and way of seeing the world

          Living wet under the liquid Word of the font of baptism delivers to us an identical set of realities and thus, I would argue, serves admirably as an induction and boot camp training for those baptized/inducted into GSCRM.

          This statement on baptism from the Presbyterian A Declaration of Faith (ch.6, par.5, ll.111-120) summarizes the biblical material very well.

“We believe that in baptism
the Spirit demonstrates and confirms God's promise
to include us and our children in his gracious covenant,
cleansing us from sin,
and giving us newness of life,
as participants in Christ's death and resurrection.
Baptism sets us in the visible community of Christ's people
and joins us to all other believers by a powerful bond.
In baptism we give ourselves up in faith and repentance
to be the Lord's.”

          It is not difficult to see the seven items listed and illustrated above from Boot Camp.  Let’s look at them.

1.    You have a new “Father”
2.    You old identity and way of life is done away with
3.    You are given a new identity
4.    You are part of a new family
5.    You receive a new inheritance
6.    You get new resources and new skills                                
7.    You have a new vocation and way of seeing the world
“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Jesus, Matthew 6:33)

“Pray then in this way: Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from evil.”  The Lord’s Prayer  (Jesus, Matt.6:7-13)

          Like induction into the military, baptism is a decisive change in a person’s life.  This change is profound and follows one throughout their lives.  If we do not continually refresh ourselves by memory and reaffirmation of our baptisms, we rapidly dehydrate and grow useless.  Let us, then, call baptism the “beginning that never ends.”  We can illustrate it like this:

             Baptism/The Beginning that Never Ends . . .

          The first verse of the hymn “At the Font We Start Our Journey”[6] captures this well:

                   At the font we start our journey
                   in the Easter faith baptized;
                   doubts and fears no longer blind us,
                   by the light of Christ surprised.
                   Alleluia!  Alleluia!
                   Hope held out and realized.

The Eucharist

          Baptism (both experienced and remembered) slakes our thirst for a whole new way of being.  It inducts us into a new community, GSCRM, intent on journeying toward God’s new creation and setting up signposts of and toward it on the way.  While on the way it the Eucharist that are our “rations,” our nourishment and sustenance.

          This edible Word and the community which shares it together experience the various graces of the table. 

1.    At this table celebrating this meal we experience and provide a preview of the great banquet Jesus promised when he told his followers:

“. . . many outsiders who will soon be coming from all directions—streaming in from the east, pouring in from the west, sitting down at God's kingdom banquet alongside Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Jesus (Matthew 8:11)

2.    At this table celebrating this meal we experience provision for present need:

“But Jesus didn't give an inch. "Only insofar as you eat and drink flesh and blood, the flesh and blood of the Son of Man, do you have life within you. The one who brings a hearty appetite to this eating and drinking has eternal life and will be fit and ready for the Final Day. My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. By eating my flesh and drinking my blood you enter into me and I into you.” (John 6:53-56, The Message)

3.    At this table celebrating this meal we practice the skills needed for carrying out the subversive counter-revolution for which God has called us.  I note four here:[7]

-In a world of alienated and lonely people, we learn the grace of undeserved welcome and friendship at the table of the Eucharist.

-In a world wounded and terrorized by violence, we learn to make peace at the table of the Eucharist.

-In a world discouraged and haunted by futility, we learn hope at the table of the Eucharist.

-In a world reckless and wasteful of creation’s resources, we learn stewardship at the table of the Eucharist.

       “The Eucharist,” writes Peter Leithart, “is not merely a  ‘sign’ to be examined, dissected, and analyzed but a rite whose enactment disciplines the church in the virtues of Christian living and forms the church and thereby molds the world into something more like the kingdom it signifies.”[8]  This is, as he puts it, “how the Eucharist makes the church.”[9] Harold Daniels summarizes the impact of sharing the Eucharist regularly with a striking image:  “It transforms us into icons of Jesus’ compassion in the world seeking to heal it of its brokenness.  This is the mark of living in the reign of God into which we are called, and which is yet to be in its fullness.”[10]

       A somewhat whimsical (though no less true) way to illustrate this is to take the four actions of the Eucharist as Kingdom or Communion Calisthenics.  Jesus institutes this meal with four actions:  receiving, thanking, breaking, and giving.  Let’s imagine them as a patterned set of calisthenics. 

-We begin by lifting our empty hands out over our heads with our palms up.  By this we embody the emptiness, openness, and receptivity that begins everything Christian.

-Our next move is to lower our arms and bring our hands together in front of us in a posture of prayer.  Thanksgiving is first response a Christian makes to the gifts and graces received from God.

-Next we move our hands apart as if tearing a loaf of bread.  We signal with this action our commitment to be broken, to die both figuratively and, if necessary, even physically in following Jesus Christ and serving God’s mission in the world.

-Finally, we spread open out to our sides, a gesture of the giving which constitutes the lives of witness. Sharing, and caring we offer to others in and for the sake of Jesus.

       Next, imagine going through these gestures repeatedly in sequence and at an ever faster pace.  With enough practice and time such actions will be inscribed into our muscle memory and become more and more second nature to us. 

       And that’s just the point, isn’t it?  Eating these “rations” of the Eucharist with the rest of GSCRM is a necessary part of the equipping/training for faithful service.  Leithart sees this clearly when he describes how this meal witnesses to Christ’s death:  “. . .  there is no reason to assume that the proclamation takes place by the minister’s manipulation of the elements.  Since the Supper is the communal meal as a whole, the fact that we eat together and the way we do it, that is what “proclaims the Lord’s death.”[11]  Without these rations we will quickly become famished, emaciated, and unable to act!

      Regular (weekly?) celebration of this feast, then, is a non-negotiable for God’s people.[12]  Since it prefigures and provides a foretaste of the great banquet, when God’s kingdom is fully come, let’s call the Eucharist “the end that has already begun.”
                                                   . . . Eucharist/The End that has Already Begun

      The hymn “At the Font We Start Our Journey” sings the Eucharist this way:

“At the altar we are nourished
with the Easter gift of bread;
in our breaking it to pieces
see the love of Christ outspread.
Alleluia!  Alleluia!
Life embraced yet freely shed.”

Living Between the Font and the Table

        All this, then, bring us to the final stage of my proposal.  Imagine you worship space.  The pulpit, the place where God’s Word is heard (the aural Word) is the first and primary “space” where GSCRM gets its “marching orders.”  Next, imagine the space between the font and the table as a kind of “force field.”  The graces of the font (as outlined above), our “beginning which never ends,” interpenetrate us from one direction.  Those of the Table (as outlined above) do the same from the other direction.  This is the “space” from which we receive, learn, practice the graces to align our priorities, passions, and practices with God’s and engage the struggle with the principalities and powers for which God called us and which constitutes our subversive, counter-revolutionary action on God’s behalf.

 Baptism/The Beginning that Never Ends. . . Church . . . Eucharist/The End that has Already Begun

      Between the Font and the Table is the place where the Church is made and kept the Church; the place we know we will meet the Risen Christ and receive his life for us and for the world.  In other words, it is between the Font and the Table, where in baptism, Christ’s life becomes ours, and at the table, our lives become Christ’s, that we are formed into Christians and learn how to live faithfully in the world.

       The final verse of “At the Font We Start Our Journey” follows us from the font and table into the world:

“At the door we are commissioned,
Now the Easter victory’s won,
To restore a world divided
To the peace of Christ as one. 
Alleluia!  Alleluia!
Easter’s work must still be done.”


       Our lack of a vital sacramental life in North American Christianity (even for many in “high” churches that practice weekly Eucharist) has several roots.  Our (mis)understanding of the church is the one of the primary ones.  If we envision the church as a settled institution to which we seek to attract others with the larger goal of extending the expanding the institution’s life, the sacraments can be little more than opportunities for private devotion, rites of passages, or meaningless relics we observe to satisfy some antiquarian rule or principle. 

       Until we see the church in its biblical profile as at least something like what I have called GSCRM, the sacraments cannot attain their full importance or vital function.  A richer sacramental life will not happen simply by instituting weekly Eucharist celebration or calling more attention to baptism.  Those are things that need to arise out of a new vision of who and what the church is and what it is called to do.  The agonistic[13] vision I have sketched is something like a view of the church in which such rituals have a large and critical role to play.
       This brief essay cannot deal with all the questions, observations, or criticisms it is likely to occasion.  But there is one further question I want to leave you with.  Is it not possible, even likely, that if you cannot envision the sacraments functioning as I have sketched here in your church, if, in other words, there is not a “fit” between the sacraments (as outline here) and ethos and life of your church, that something is fundamentally wrong with the vision of church at work in your congregation?  And if so, might not the sacraments be a catalyst to a rethinking of the way you are and do church?  It is in this sense that I intend the subtitle of this essay:  “Why only the sacraments can save us now”!

[1] It is necessary for each age to carry through such a rethink of the nature and shape of the church in the new time and place where it finds itself.  Mine is not the only way this rethinking can be done.  However, I think it captures the necessary (though admittedly dangerous) martial imagery that is found from Genesis to Revelation and creates the critical distance from our culture the church in North America today so badly needs.
[2] I expound the church as GSCRM further in my free pdf titled The Incredible Shrinking Gospel:  The Crisis of Evangelism in the 21st Century at and in my forthcoming ebook Churchiness:  Why Only Dietrich Bonhoeffer Can Save Us Now and various pieces at my blog
[3] We’re not going to discuss the proper number of sacraments here.  If we can get our heads and hearts around these two, the font and the table, which everyone considers sacraments or special in some fashion we will have taken a major step in the right direction.
[4] A common misconception needs to be disposed of here.  And that is that the actions of the sacraments are simply “symbols.”  They are indeed symbolic but through them God also communicates the reality to which they point.  Flannery O’Connor, in her usual direct and frank way, cut through flowery talk about the wonderful “symbolism” of the Eucharist among some of her social circle in New York.  “If it is just a symbol, to hell with it,” she said.
[5] See Peter J. Leihart’s wonderful essay “The Way Things Really Ought To Be:  Eucharist, Eschatology, and Culture,” which incisively debunks this notion in his Blessed Are The Hungry:  Meditations on the Lord’s Supper (Moscow, ID:  Canonpress, 2000), 174f.
[7] Leithart’s essay (see note 5) is excellent on this point and adds some detail I don’t have room for here.
[8] Leithart, 180.
[9] Leithart, 178.
[10] Harold Daniels, “Feasting on the Bread of life in the Reign of God Now and the Yet-to-Be,” Call to Worship 46.2 (2012), 22.
[11] Leithart, 175.
[12] The most frequent argument against weekly observance of the Eucharist is that if celebrated too often the Supper will no longer be “special.”  This is specious, of course.  First, who ever said it was to be “special” in the sense that frequency of celebration ruins its effect?  It is “special” in the sense that God has given us this gracious and remarkable provision that enables just what asks us to do!  I would think we would be eager to eat this “special” meal as often as possible!  And secondly, the Eucharist is a meal of communion and intimacy with the triune God.  I don’t want to be indelicate here, but I wonder what we would make of a couple who only shared marital intimacy once a month in order to keep it “special”? 
[13] Though I call this “agonistic,” I do not, emphatically do not, a rejection of involvement with or the artifacts of culture.  The struggle to which we are called involves discernment as to what in our culture may and needs to be affirmed and supported and what needs to be critiqued and or rejected.  And on a deeper level, it is the basic convictions and drives that energize our culture that we must contest.  Baptism and Eucharist are forms of the Word of God that shape and form us into a people we can so resist.