Thursday, August 29, 2013

“Knitting While Detroit Burns?”: The Reformed “Both/And” versus the Anabaptist “First/ Then”

You’ve got to love the phrase “Knitting while Detroit burns?” Jamie Smith is one of the best at turning a phrase and this one beautifully visualizes what a lot of people think about Anabaptists and the push for the local. With regard to justice, we Anabaptists supposedly take the church into retreat from society at large in order to focus on the local. In pursuing all things local, we withdraw from engagement with macro policy concerns. This seems to be the worry behind Jamie engaging Brandon Rhode’s article in CT with his piece entitled “Knitting while Detroit burns?” Jamie is afraid the young Millennials’ push for local, and its reaction against their parents’ triumphalism, will eventuate in a rejection of macro civic/policy engagement. Instead he pushes for a “both/and” approach where the church engages society both through local work and macro civil policy.

Most ‘Neo-Anabaptist’ thinkers (I use this term to distinguish this group from purist historic Anabaptists. Yoder and Hauerwas being main influences here) agree with Jamie. For us the church’s engagement with the larger civil order is a both/and, local/macro endeavor. Nonetheless, there is a difference between how a Reformed person like Jamie and a Neo-Anabaptist like myself parse the both/and. For us it’s not as simple as “both/and.” We reject the “either/or” for a “first/then” approach. For us the engagement of larger civic policy concerns must first begin in local engagement and discernment. Then, out from the local hermeneutic of the community, we engage wider society concerns armed with the wise judgments and modeling made possible in a community committed to live (and discern) under the Lordship of Christ. Jamie articulates a “both local and macro” engagement strategy while the Neo Anabaptists prefer a “first local then macro” “local precedes macro” engagement strategy. Why is this important? I suggest there are a few theological reasons.
  1. Neo-Anabaptists see the civil order as preservatory. The church however is a direct participant in the redemptive order of Christ’s reign inaugurated in His life, death, resurrection and ascension to the right hand. Though the civil order, including the exercise of the sword, may have been instituted by God after the fall, it is still an accommodation to sin. It is therefore discontinuous with discipleship. It cannot be redemptive. It plays a role in redemption in that it preserves sufficient order to allow for the church to live and give witness in space and time. But it itself is not redemptive. It therefore makes sense we start by discerning the justice of the world via the redemptive order of Christ and then proceed out from there where indeed God can be working in the world. It is a “first/then,” not merely a “both/and.”
  2. Neo-Anabaptists understand that we have no direct access to the category of creation. Creation has been tainted by the fall. Our human reason is fallen as well. For sure, there is still good in creation. But Anabaptists take the Reformed understanding of the falleness of reason to its logical conclusion. We cannot know directly the will of God off of nature. We are prone to being submerged into the rebellious powers and principalities. Unless of course, we can gather, in mutual submission, to the Lordship of Christ working via the Spirit, to discern what God is doing here in our lives together and in the contexts around us. Here truth is ferreted out in a hermeneutic of the community. Here we can test and learn justice, recognize it when we see it in the wider culture, and bear witness to it and join in with it. This is why Hauerwas (along with Balthasar and others) says stuff like “We are sure Jesus is present in the world, but around the Eucharist we know He is present, and from here can discern Him in the world”(my paraphrase). So for sure, this is a “both/and” but this is also a “first/then.”
  3. Neo-Anabaptists understand the church’s entrance into culture as an incarnational process. Certainly I cannot speak for all Anabaptists on this one, but it seems the way of God as revealed in Jesus Christ is humility, vulnerability, presence and then of course embodied witness. Our engagement of culture comes first through humble service, presence, listening and embodying another way. Then, having discerned God at work, we can respond faithfully in wider cultural engagement. Our witness, embodied in the language and life lived together, lends power, integrity, credibility and even understanding to our engagement in the wider culture.
There can be no simple “cultural mandate” then in the sense that we get to sit from a perch overlooking the city and tell the people via our brilliant analysis what they should or should not be doing. There is no “culture war,” because God is in control of history, and the church is the bearer of that truth humbly without coercion. God will bring in His Kingdom through the way of the Lamb who sits on the throne. The provision of good ordered government is a sign of God’s patience. He preserves the world while the work of redemption and restoration patiently goes on His timetable. For these reasons, we Neo-Anabaptists think the words “cultural mandate” (often found in Reformed/Kuyperian writing) are dangerous. It too easily can forget the “first/then” of the church’s engagement with society. It too easily can lead to Jerry Falwell, George Bush or (dare I say) Jim Wallis.

None of this means that we do not vote or we do not work for good roads or a better banking system. We do not necessarily need community discernment every time we have a national election or a referendum for better roads. But we do now have the regular practice available, when an issue comes up, to discern it communally. Our church once discerned to work against a road being put in near our church building because of its effects on our neigborhood. We have the option available to withdraw from voting, war and even taxes when the system we are a part of has become so corrupt that we must resist it. We have good habits of being critical towards simply participating in and thereby supporting macro-policy systems that are corrupt.

Lest someone think this is ineffective, let he or she should look at where the hospital system came from, where democracy was learned (according to Yoder at least), where the current hospice system ideas came from, where the first colleges and universities came from. They came from the church not government. If we look at what provoked the civil rights movements, we see the practice of non violence and social justice learned and developed within the Black churches. MLK may have learned non-violence via Gandhi, but Gandhi learned it from Tolstoy :). These tactics, locally born, have proved their merits in the changing of society for God’s Kingdom purposes. Yet it starts local first, then moves to the wider macro concerns of society.

As opposed to Smith’s “both/and” for Detroit, can we imagine what would have happened to Detroit if several thousand Anabaptist radicals had moved in, developed local employment, repaired homes, nurtured urban gardens, found ways to repair roads with less expense etc. etc.  Indeed this is exactly the kind of justice activism Detroit and the United States as a whole is in sore need of in our current history.

For all these reasons, it seems that James K A Smith’s Reformed “both/and” requires the Anabaptist “first/then.” What say you?

Miley is Us!

          Among the plethora of things I have read about Miley Cyrus in the last few days (which is but a fraction of what’s been written), some is profound, some predictable and pedestrian, and some sophomoric, and even silly.  I advised on FB a couple of days ago that it was time to move on from her.  But the more I thought about her performance and the reaction to it, I found something more to say.  I think one of the primary significances of Mikey is that she is us!

          Her seamy performance undoubtedly displayed the poor judgment of a young adult, the cynical manipulation of said young adult by market forces, misogynistic and racial exploitation, and moral decadence noted by many observers.  This 20 year-old woman’s morphing from Disney child role model Hanna Montana to her “twerking” it out on the MTV VMA stage a few nights ago is a work in progress that many have also noticed over the last several years.  Cyrus is trying to figure out who she is and has the dubious “privilege” of doing it in the public eye.

          I suggest that America is also trying to figure out who we are at this stage in our national life.  The “W’s” years were filled with prognosticating, posturing, and policy-making around an identity as an empire.  And yet, as we learn near the end of that administration and to the present day that even our empire is at the mercy of market forces and manipulations.  Global capital is the real empire here!

          Our history over the last several decades has also been an often seamy performance.  I call the 60’s – “I gotta be free,” the 70’s – “I gotta be me,” the 80’s – “I gotta get mine,” the 90’s – “I gotta get more,” and the 2000’s – “I gotta get yours” decades.  And that’s just from an economic perspective.  From our postwar position of world supremacy and moral beacon of freedom and hope, one can track our decline into simply a big bully, and a not very nice one at that!

Poor judgments have been plentiful during these years, particularly in military and economic matters.  Women, children, and non-whites continue to be underrepresented among and devalued by the successful. 

Moral decadence is too prevalent to even need documentation.  No matter what group(s) one examines, it does not take long to uncover frequent, longstanding, and often systematically undealt with cases of moral turpitude and scandalous behavior, usually of a sexual or financial nature.  It doesn’t end there though.  The sexual revolution, the rising gap between the haves and have-nots, the systematic stripping of supports and services for the needy and for children by politicians and legislators, prevalence of drugs and drug violence, and on it goes in a too familiar litany.  Outrageous, disgusting, absurd, destructive behavior seldom surprises or alarms us anymore.

The many contradictions and conundrums that riddle Miley Cyrus’ performance and search for a post-adolescent identity are mirrored by the tensions and struggles in America’s search for a national identity at any uncertain time in our history in a fast-changing world.  That’s a take-away from the Cyrus episode, I believe, and why I claim that Miley is us!   

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Refrain from Trampling the Sabbath
A sermon on Isaiah 58:9b-14 & Luke 13:10-17
I have a couple of fund raising ideas I’d like to run pass you this morning. What do you think of this? I have a niece who is a very good dancer – very good. One of the kinds of dance she does is tap dancing. I think it would be great to have her come and perform here at St. Barnabas. We can sell tickets and raise money. The best venue would probably be right here in the worship space. But, I was wondering where might be the best place for her to dance so everyone can see her and especially her feet. It seems the obvious platform is right over there [motion toward the altar which is made of dark granite]. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? We’d take the Fair Linen off, of course. I can see many of you have a problem with that. Raise your hand if you don’t like this idea. I see.
Well, then, how about this? Every other year, the Outreach Commission sells crafts and jewelry from Kenya to raise funds for the Africa Team Ministry to assist victims of AIDS. I’m thinking that next time we do that we should have the tables of merchandise around the outside of the altar railing [the railing at St. Barnabas in circular]. And whoever is collecting the money can stand behind the altar using it as a counter with the cash box and everything. Who has a problem with that? I see.
You people are so disagreeable, it is making me thirsty [I pull out from the pulpit a bottle of 7–UP and a chalice and make like I am going to pour the soda pop into the chalice]. What?
OK, so you’ve got some scruples about how we treat some spaces and things. How about these? Does it bother you to . . .
Work on Sunday?
Buy stuff on Sunday?
Run errands on Sunday?
Curious, isn’t it? We understand the sacredness of some spaces and some things that have been consecrated for set apart for holy use, but we have largely forgotten the idea of sacred time which is fundamental to both Judaism and Christianity.
There might not be any more telling sign of the Church’s capitulation to secular culture than the fact that outside of sometimes coming to church on Sunday mornings, most American Christians behave on Sunday pretty much like everyone else. Secularism says that all days are the same, one following another in a pointless sequence. That we often live as though we agree is a problem. I’ve become convinced that this is a more serious problem than we have come to think.
It certainly sounds pretty serious in this morning’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah:
If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the LORD honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests,
or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the LORD,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth
(Isaiah 58:13 – 14a)
“Refrain from trampling the sabbath.” Wow! Like, “Refrain from tap dancing on the altar.”
In the Old Testament
·         The sabbath is coded into creation – God created the Sabbath and ‘rested’ contemplating what he had done in all its goodness.
·         The sabbath was a great leveler. Whether you were the king or the poorest peasant, on the sabbath you were equal in dignity and obligation.
·         Relatedly, keeping sabbath was a matter of justice. Slaves and servants could not be made to work. On the sabbath there were no masters or no slaves, no employers or employees. Even animals and the fields got to rest without human interference.
·         There was no buying or selling on the sabbath
·         The sabbath was a reminder that God is in control and you are not. Lauren Winner has written, “When we cease interfering in the world we are acknowledging that it is God’s world.”
·         The sabbath was also reminder of liberation. In Deuteronomy 5, the sabbath is connected to God's deliverance of the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt.
·         Early on, for reasons we don’t have time to go into, the Church shifted its observance of sabbath from Saturday to Sunday (See: Eight Days a Week). I will just say that given that it was on a Sunday that Jesus rose from the tomb liberating us from the bondage of sin and death and inaugurating a new creation, it makes sense.
And it makes sense that we not treat this day just like any other.
In Exodus 20:8 – part of the Ten Commandments whose authority we still claim to recognize – we hear, "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy." Keep it holy, set apart. Like a chalice. Like the altar.
Jesus does not contradict this basic Old Testament revelation. He reorients it. He asserts that the sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath. It is not a day to obsess about many detailed rules. Certainly not a day to obsess about whether your neighbor is doing it right – no “pointing of the finger” like the synagogue ruler in this morning’s gospel.
It is a day when it is good to do good like Jesus did. And it is a day when we can be liberated from the burdens we bear like Jesus liberated the bent over woman.
Some of the early teachers of the Church interpreted this gospel passage metaphorically in ways that are instructive when thinking of the Sabbath:
St. Augustine suggested that the woman represents humanity that has bent itself over looking at the world and temporal concerns rather than looking up to God. The result is crippled souls.
Augustine’s mentor, St. Ambrose, likened the woman to people who are weighed down with the burdens of this life – money, family, work, school, etc. Worry over these matters weighs people down.  We all know the feeling, “It feels like a giant weight on my shoulders.”
Maryann McKibben-Dana, in her book Sabbath in the Suburbs, describes this well, "Life felt like a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle with 600 pieces."  She was caught up in a frenetic suburban existence –a relentless list of work, errands, carpool, dishes, email, bills, yardwork, etc., etc., etc.
Weighed down, with our eyes on our own temporal concerns, serving our own interests, and pursuing our own affairs without interruption will bend our spirits and make it more difficult to see God.
If we really want to be counter-cultural, if we really want to resist the secularization of the church, if we really want to “ride upon the heights of the earth”, if we want to stand up straight, one place we should start is by reclaiming the liberating discipline of keeping Sabbath.
That discipline might well take various shapes. Given the realities of the society in which we live it might be truly difficult for some, if not impossible, to dedicate all of Sunday. But, I doubt that there are many here for whom that is the case. For almost all of us it would require a kind of commitment, discipline, and planning that we are not used to. So take baby steps if you need to. But here are some ideas to refrain from trampling on the Sabbath:
·         Attend worship. Be here on Sunday morning.
·         Refrain from paid employment,
·         Refrain from commercial activity – no buying, no selling
·         Refrain from running errands – pursuing your own affairs
·         Refrain from the Internet – This is one I have found particularly difficult, but also one that I have come to value. I dare you to try it. And that means your iPhone as well.
·         Refrain from watching the News – turn off CNN. Turn off Fox. Turn off MSNBC. The usual madness of the world will go on whether or not you witness it or worry about it. Remember, the world is in God’s hands.
But keeping Sabbath is not just about refraining from some things, important as that is. It is also about investing in other things – investing in things that matter.
·         Invest time in relationships
·         Take a nap – some rabbis have suggested that if you are married, you might do more than nap.
·         Celebrate creation – go for a walk in the woods
·         Do things that refresh your spirit
·         Meditate on God’s goodness and give thanks
·         Reflect on the past week – did you tend to things that really matter? Pray for the week ahead
·         Feast – Sunday is not a fast day. Enjoy some good food.
·         Invest in intentional acts of kindness.
·         Rest. Be refreshed.
Saint Augustine famously wrote in Confessions, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."
If we want to rest in God, why not start by “refraining from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing our own interests on God’s holy day.”