Thursday, March 5, 2015

Until All People Are Truly Free: On Going To Selma, Fifty Years Later

One Monday at supper in March of 1965, my father, having watched on television the police attacking nonviolent protesters on the bridge at Selma, blurted to my mother that he should go.

Expecting her to discourage him, he was surprised when Barb and their close friend and neighbor Anne Marie encouraged him. With help from Steve Rose, he found himself on a red-eye flight to Atlanta, then connecting flight to Montgomery, and finally a carpool to Selma. His type-written unpublished essay on this journey shaped me and continues to shape me.

My parents’ involvement in the peace and civil rights causes of the 1960s and 70s has had such a huge impact on me that it continues to focus my spiritual journey, as well as my writing and research interests, to this day. Although in retrospect, Ken’s spontaneous decision to join the movement in Selma is remarkable to me, he always downplayed his role in civil rights to us when we were growing up. This coming weekend, I will make my first trip to Montgomery and Selma in part to recommit to civil rights, in part to lead a trip of college students, and in part to honor Ken’s witness 50 years ago.

Although I have been the teacher of record in the college classroom every regular academic semester since the late 1990s, it’s taken me all this time to finally organize a proper “alternative spring break.” About five years ago, two Tennessee Tech students joined my wife and me in our car on a Presbyterian church mission trip to West Virginia, with about a dozen others, mostly retirees from our local congregation. But this weekend we will be pilgrims with a vanload of college freshman and sophomores on an official field trip from our living and learning village, dubbed the Tree House. This weekend, we are going to Montgomery and Selma.

Thanks to the influence of my parents and others, I have been an activist my entire life and a peace and civil rights activist in particular with a profound personal debt for the work and witness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When Lewis Baldwin, my professor in King studies from Vanderbilt Divinity School, came to speak to my class at Tennessee Tech last year, he asked if I would be going to Selma for the bridge crossing jubilee. I told him I would like to go. Back in 1965, my father Ken Smith, only 24-years-old and my older brother Arthur just a baby in Barb’s arms, joined the Tuesday, March 9 march, the second of the three major Selma-to-Montgomery marches. Ken’s struggle with Parkinson’s disease, which finally took his life last May, means that Barb and I will need to make this pilgrimage back to Alabama without him and in his honor.

We know that politicians and celebrities will be there. We also know that some of our mentors through the last several decades in a grassroots Christian witness for peace and justice and antiracism and in a liberation theology for North America, people like Ed Loring and Murphy Davis and Jim Wallis, will also be there.

As we met with colleagues and students over the last few days in Cookeville, we discussed our motives for going. In each case, the students expressed their desire to be a part of the ongoing history of this country’s struggle with race relations, and they also demonstrated an acute awareness that work of the dream remains incomplete and carries on.

After returning from Selma to our home then in the city of Chicago, Ken wrote about his experiences. I have treasured that typescript for years and recently transcribed some of my favorite quotes. As the Selma struggle marked a time when white allies like Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo joined the too long list of martyrs from the movement, it’s clear that Ken took a risk in even going, and it’s clear talking to Mom about this most recently, that they both believed the risk was worth it. As he emphasized in his reflections, Ken still wondered why more people didn’t go. Some excerpts from Ken’s notes summarize the passion I inherited and the debt I owe to my Daddy for bringing me into the movements for peace and justice. I will conclude this meditation with four of those quotes. March on!

1.      “The question of course is asked, ‘Why did you go?’ There are of course many answers to this question, but basically it is quite simple. I went in response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for ministers and laymen to join in the struggle. I went because I was appalled at what happened on Sunday. I went because I feel so strongly that all men have a right to be truly free, and until this is the case, my freedom is also limited. However, I feel that everyone has really been asking the wrong question. We should be asking why people didn’t go, and more basically, why most people didn’t even consider going. For God was calling us in this situation to make a decision. Unless we really make a decision on Selma, we are really avoiding what life is all about. I didn’t want to make a decision, but when I did I found that there was only one way I could turn.”

2.      “I went back in the church and heard Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King’s organization, make an impassioned plea for the march to go on. Concern was definitely growing whether or not the march would go on in the face of a federal injunction. This personally created no problem for me. I had come to Selma to do my small part for the ‘Movement’ and had long ago accepted the fact that civil disobedience is often a necessary part of this course of action.”

3.      “As we walked back, I was on the outside and passed very close to the troopers with their billy clubs held behind their backs. Sometimes I had to change my course as I passed by to avoid running into one of them. I looked at them, but found it difficult to ascertain their feelings; some fear, some hate, but mostly professional stoicism. The singing on the way back was much freer. On the way, we sang verses like ‘Black and White Together’ of ‘We Shall Overcome,’ which must really make those Southern gentlemen feel ungentlemanly.”

4.      “The 3000 of us who assembled in Selma last Tuesday, March 9th, in a space of less than 24 hours from distances of more than 2000 miles, were a living demonstration that freedom must come to all. I still have doubts and questions but I was deeply moved and may well return to Selma again.”

Sunday, July 6, 2014

God, Presbyterians, and Sex, Oh My!

Originally written as a guest-post for The Rude Pundit on July 3, 2014. Reposted here in part for archival purposes. 

This is a (probably-not-rude enough) guest post on God and sex from a Presbyterian pal of the Pundit—hope you enjoy!

Because of our mainstream American media—and that may include some of the posts on this potty-mouthed blog—it’s easy to stereotype Christians in this country, painting the social construct of their God as the gun-toting, bomb-dropping, cage-fighting, woman-hating, earth-raping, gay-bashing, sex-fearing, duck-hunting Jesus. But that leaves out the enlightened, queer, feminist, antiracist, peacenik, treehugger, economic justice Jesus that I’ve encountered and followed for most of my life.

Facts are that the historical Jesus of Nazareth as depicted in the gospels never encountered the nasty realities of napalm and atom bombs, of dirty bombs and drone warfare and drug overdoses, of global climate change or global economic injustice or the current global population of 7.2 billion and climbing. Jesus never faced the problems that we do, but He had the Roman empire and the religious hypocrites of his day to deal with. In light of pressing contemporary issues, isn’t it strange how some of my fellow Christians seem like they want to boil down the Bible into a book of stringent prohibitions regarding human sexuality?

I grew up in church in the 1970s and 80s, and the most memorable advice about the Bible and sex I ever heard came from a counselor at a Bible-beating summer camp. The sage and simple suggestion was: don’t read Playboy; read the Song of Solomon instead. Have you ever read the Song of Solomon? Lovely, lusty luscious love poetry—those verses are hot, what a student of mine recently called Fifty Shades of Yahweh!

Surely, the fundamentalists were teaching abstinence before marriage even then, but it never came across (at least to me) that this was because sex was forbidden and wrong and worth repressing, just that it was so unbelievably sacred yet salacious that it required reverence. As far as I know, in the 70s and 80s, those creepy daddy-daughter date-nights where young women pledge to protect patriarchy’s plush property for future papas had not been invented yet.

For many progressive Christians, our view of the Bible as mythopoetic mystery is shared by secular readers, critical thinkers, and even folks from other faiths. Most Christians I know read the Bible as an anthology of ancient literature, not as a rulebook resulting in arcane romantic restrictions on the daily lives of consenting adults. It’s a book inspired by God—not a bully’s whip required by law. The spirit of its law is love, no matter how the rigid readers try to torque it.

The church where I was baptized in Chicago in 1968 sang a song at that ceremony called “The Lord of the Dance.” This God I learned about through songs like that—this God is a liberating dance not an authoritarian trance. That same year, people from that same church took stands for peace in Vietnam, being part of a cluster of urban churches that let antiwar activists sleep in their buildings during the tumultuous actions outside the Democratic National Convention, with some preachers going so far as to join the melee in the parks, trying to bring peace between protesters and police.

After moving to Cleveland in 1970, we joined the Congregation of Reconciliation, a small, experimental Christian group committed to antiracist and civil rights work. This group was part of a small house-church movement and had “rap groups” to focus on various issues. My surprisingly vivid, yet scattered, early memories suggest that we also sang “The Lord of the Dance” in Cleveland, and I recall learning to take communion by intinction, where we would tear a piece of bread from a loaf and dip into a chalice of real wine. Doing research years later, I learned that our pastor at the Congregation of Reconciliation, Bob Hare, had risked his career and faced criminal charges for counseling and aiding a young woman in obtaining an abortion out-of-state, this in the years before Roe vs. Wade. It’s comforting for me to remember his prophetic witness for reproductive choice at a time when many Christians wish to roll back those rights for women.

Even though I left the Christian church in 1988 for a spiritual adventure that flirted with New Age, neopagan, Taoist, Jedi, Buddhist, and other teachings, I kept up with the goings-on in the liberal progressive church, mainly thanks to my parents, now living in Michigan. By the early 1990s, gay-rights had become the domestic civil-rights cause of our times, and my folks were actively crusading for what they called “full inclusion” for LGBTQ persons within their denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA). Fast-forward to 2009, and I reconverted to Christianity and became an active member (now elder) in a PCUSA congregation.

Through study groups and activism at the local level, my parents and their colleagues made great strides for change within PCUSA for more than 20 years. But for decades at our national polity gatherings called General Assemblies, votes hindered and all but halted progress on LGBTQ civil rights. As Presbyterians, we are part of what’s called the “reformed” tradition within Protestantism, which means that we are always reforming, but for some smaller Presbyterian groups that means becoming more clearly right-wing conservative, in part in reaction to PCUSA’s recent redefinition as a more liberal, progressive place within that tradition. (For non-Christians to understand the splintering of denominations within the church, I find the “People’s Front of Judea” scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian explains it best.)

My father Ken Smith died at home in the Detroit suburbs on this past May 8, a few weeks before the historic June 14-21 General Assembly in downtown Detroit (in all the years Dad attended, GA had never been in his hometown). When the GA arrived in June, it was cushioned by Ken’s memorial service on June 7 and the interment of his ashes on June 21. And it was in his spirit that Mom and I attended, for my part as a volunteer blogger and editor with the More Light Presbyterians, carrying on the struggle for equality within PCUSA.

On June 19 (the day of African-American civil-rights celebration called Juneteenth at that), the PCUSA affirmed pastoral discretion for our teaching elders (ministers) to preside over same-gender civil marriages in states where it is legal and changed the description of marriage in our church’s constitution to say “two people,” where it previously made the opposite-genders of those people explicit. The latter change carried a 71% majority and awaits ratification by a majority of our regional bodies called Presbyteries. The very next day, PCUSA voted by a much slighter margin to divest from three companies that profit from the Israeli occupation in Palestine.

Christ’s law of love, often called the Golden Rule, finds correlating teachings in most other religions and would rarely be disputed by sensible secular thinkers, not even by the rude host of this blog. It’s an uncompromising ethic of love and forgiveness that attracts some of us to Christ (still a majority of Americans, according to surveys) and yet fewer of us to church (the fewest ever in the pews in recent history).

That some Christians cannot measure the law of love against today’s hateful legislation and come out the other side with logical conclusions of peace and tolerance baffles me. Of all the teachings in the Bible that people might choose to apply to their lives today, conservatives tend to ignore those overwhelming ones about war and poverty, and instead focus on taking teachings on sex far outside their intended contexts.

It’s in the Christian spirit of repentance, I would like to say “I am sorry” on behalf of the bigoted actions that some of my Christ-following kin have taken against personal freedom, especially as it pertains to trying to legislate the private lives and health decisions of people that might not share our religious faith, in this our allegedly pluralistic society.

It’s probably worth noting that for some leftish LGBTQ activists, marriage equality feels like a conservative concession to mainstream values. And for some in the PCUSA, its passage means that folks can focus on what they perceive as the more pressing peace and justice issues.  

While I hoped with a sense of humor that this guest post might better reflect the Rude One’s consistently lewd and crude tone, at least this blog’s readers may realize that not all Christians are prudes. It’s not that we don’t restrict some of our choices based on a relationship with God or even our interpretation of biblical teaching, it’s just so far from the far right extremes, that to some, progressive and conservative Christianity seem like different religions altogether. While I am much more modest and conservative today on some issues than I have probably ever been, my views are a far cry from the caricature of the religious right. Happy holiday weekend and here’s hoping for some fireworks with the consenting romantic partner of your choosing.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

When I Woke Up This Morning (#love221 #GA221)

Posted on June 19, 2014 at the beginning of marriage deliberations at the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). 

When I woke up this morning, my mind was stayed on freedom. When I woke up this morning, I poured the coffee and put on the headphones and began to play songs that put my heart on freedom, especially the freedom to love.

When I woke up this morning, my mind was stayed on freedom—singing a movement song I learned from the SNCC freedom singers. I am singing that movement song for this new civil rights movement whose time has come.

When I woke up this morning, I put on my wedding ring, knowing that the bonds I celebrated and consecrated in a PCUSA church with my partner who happens to be a different gender than I am are strong bonds and will be even stronger if similar bonds may be celebrated and consecrated in a PCUSA church for sisters and brothers whose partners may be the same gender as they are.

When I woke up this morning, I put on my Pentecost clothes, flames of orange and yellow and red, the flaming fire of freedom for my queer—yes not just LGBT but also Q for queer—family.

When I woke up this morning, I was reminded by friends online that this day is Juneteenth, a day to celebrate the end of slavery for our African-American brothers and sisters, a day to celebrate the importance of freedom.

When I woke up this morning, I meditated on the marriage committee meetings where we spent much time making clear that we want to comfort and keep those conservative folks in our family that disagree with marriage equality, so that they might not leave our church if marriage equality passes at this assembly, and I also meditated on those LGBTQ Presbyterians who already left our church because they felt alienated and excluded and not sufficiently comforted or reconciled by the actions of previous assemblies.

When I woke up this morning to the Detroit rain then fog, I felt the misty night clear, so that we might cling to the day, for it is this day when we choose whether or not to walk in the light of More Light Presbyterians, to ride the winds of change and unfurl the rainbow flag among us, declaring that the loving bond is between two people, any two people who know and feel it to be true and from God, declaring that this bliss is the joy of being one in the mystery of Christ’s body and this love fills us with a foretaste of heaven.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Why I Am Still In Detroit (for #PCUSA #GA221 advocating #Love221)

Nine days after my Dad’s memorial service on June 7, I am still in Detroit.

I am still in Detroit to volunteer as a member of the More Light Presbyterians communications team at the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

I am still in Detroit because, for the better part of three decades, my father was an active member of the progressive movements within PCUSA for affirmation and inclusion, for peace with justice.

I am still in Detroit because my dear friends who got married on my former land in rural Tennessee could not have their vows acknowledged by church or state because they are both men.

I am still in Detroit because my heterosexual marriage with my wonderful wife Jeannie means more if it is not a categorical privilege denied my same gender loving friends in Tennessee who now need to leave the state to affirm their relationships.

I am still in Detroit because I believe the church should be more inclusive and progressive than the state on the civil rights issue of our time.

I am still in Detroit because I believe the moral arc of the universe is bending towards justice on the issue of marriage equality.

I am still in Detroit because I am sick and tired of the beatings and the bullying, the bigotry and the bloodshed, the shame and the suicides.

I am still in Detroit because as Matthew Vines so explains in his recent book, biblical marriage is about love, joy, and unity with God not about gender binaries or sexual practices per se.

I am still in Detroit because I follow what Jesus did in every context before I listen to what Paul said in a different context.

I am still in Detroit because Jesus is love, God is love, and we in the PCUSA are love. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Flexibly Faithful: A Dispatch from Divinity School

“Blessed are the flexible, for they will never be bent out of shape.” With those words, the host preacher opened our Saturday “Next Church” conference. I will spend the day doing church instead of doing homework for divinity school. A flexible faith seems like a prerequisite for theological education in the 21st century.

Last week in one of my seminars, I learned that most did not consider Vanderbilt a seminary at all because the distinction for a divinity school comes with its secular location and its scholarly credentials. I never got that memo and had been telling all my Facebook friends & Twitter followers that I was a seminarian. One of my fellow students delicately explained that seminaries were denominationally and doctrinally affiliated and required confessional faith from their students. When I replied that our school’s “Living The Commitments” document had a kind of confessional aspect to it, I am not sure that folks understood what I meant.

When I got my first exam handed back in the history of Christianity class that occupies more of my time than any other course this semester and for which I am composing this blog, I was emotionally distraught, disappointed, and on-the-spot decided that evaluative, numerical grades were proof of the persistent atheism inherent in studying the divine in any kind of systematic fashion. How could we measure comprehension of the incomprehensible!?!?

When we read about the orthodox roots of our faith, I worried I could never be orthodox enough. When we read about the heretics, I was sure I might possibly be one. When we read about the martyrs, I first confessed my lack of faith and fear that I could never be one. Then I confessed that the martyrs creeped-me-out anyways and were evidence of a selfish deathwish among early followers. Why would anyone today want to die for their faith when we are still learning how to live our faith in a profoundly disorienting postmodern period?

I remember posting on Facebook about some of my frustrations with the orthodoxy versus heresy discussion and getting rhetorically blindsided by a conservative Catholic friend. I’m grateful that my professors, two wildly intelligent and compassionate chaps who are both historically grounded yet faithfully flexible in their own regard, seem to appreciate some pushback against the ancient texts—even though my pushback is usually too speculative and contemporary and editorial and not nearly historically grounded enough.

It seems each ancient text we’ve read presents me with new challenges. Despite my best efforts to gently wear the historical lens suggested by my teachers, I always ended up in the rose-tinted goggles of a deep and desiring interpretation, as if these early Christian texts were being presented to me as is for immediate immersion, investigation, and evaluation. Which brings us to my encounter with Basil of Caesarea, a fourth century church father. From reading our required text Basil of Caesarea: A Guide to His Lifeand Doctrine by Andrew Radde-Gallwitz, I gleaned several key nuggets that confirm Basil as a liturgical, theological, and monastic badass.

Radde-Gallwitz’s introduction begins with Basil standing up to power to defend his understanding of the Trinity. According to the author, “Basil was calling the emperor’s religion a sham maintained by force rather than genuine faith.” Radde-Gallwitz goes on to frame Basil as a people’s theologian, wrestling with doctrine in a dynamic, communal, and practical context. Foreshadowing today’s “sermon series” shtick with a string of homilies to shame the rich, Basil’s faith fought famine. Basil wasn’t above using slick deception to prompt a meeting with his close colleague Gregory, a sign to me that piety sometimes takes the form of trickery. But the best of what Basil brings can be found in a brief statement by Radde-Gallwitz regarding Basil’s “stance of theological humility” suggesting “we not claim to know more about God than we can.” This admission of knowing what we don’t know about God as well as what we do know about God can be profoundly liberating regardless of the era in which we believe. This sense of humility serves us well when we arrive at the creeds.

Over the summer, I attended the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina. We had the joy of hearing the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weberwhen she was interviewed by Krista Tippet from the NPR program On Being. In the course of the conversation, they addressed the creeds. Bolz-Weber shares this insight concerning parishioners who might resist reciting creeds. She explains how it might go: “I can’t say the Creed because I don’t know if I believe every line in the Creed. I'm like, oh, my God. Nobody believes every line of the Creed. But in a room of people, for each line of the Creed, somebody believes it. So we’re covered, right? So it’s not — this is Western individualism run amok in religion. It’s not your creed. It’s the church’s creed . . .”

When I reconverted to Christianity after a spiritual awakening in 2009, I spoke the creeds in church as though my life depended on it, because to me in a very real sense, it did. I’ve never tested or tried to prove each line of the creed in an abstract or rational manner, for the meaning seems written in a different language, composed in the contrast of salvation and sin, in the light and dark places of the human spirit. But at the same time, the intellectual skepticism and doubt of an academic approach to theology suggests that we might simultaneously inhabit more than one space. 

If I’ve learned anything about the spiritual stance one should claim to maintain sanity while pursuing theological education, for me it’s that we need a simultaneously high Christology and low Christology, a firm yet flexible faith. Nothing less than such a dramatic dance in both extremes allows me to enjoy the academic adventure of advanced theological education without engaging in an endless inner duel to destroy all duality and do all doubt.  

Saturday, June 8, 2013

There Will Be Blood: A Recovering Alcoholic’s Theory of the Atonement

Theological and spiritual ideas about the ultimate philosophical meaning of the cross—usually called atonement theory—never reached the level of denominational dogma or doctrine, and recent discussions in my Sunday school class and in an online forum of emergent Christians showed me why. The cross as Christ’s preemptive payment or atonement for our personal sins remains the most common conception of the crucifixion—yet seems to be unpopular among liberal and progressive followers of Jesus, especially in the notion known as “penal substitution,” that is, the idea God punished Jesus as a substitute for punishing the rest of us.

It’s an odd place to be, but I find myself to be more to the ultraleft politically (or more peacenik radical, tree-hugging, dirt-loving, gay-ally fringe) than many of my liberal-progressive Christian peers, at the same time I’m theologically or spiritually more conservative than the same friends. I actually take great comfort in numerous Pauline passages in Romans and First Corinthians that speak to the power of the cross and invoke the construct of atonement, such as Romans 5:8 that sums up so much for me: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Not only did Jesus die in such a horrifying way, he did it with love and purpose. Not only did Jesus die for sinners in general, he died for me, for my stupid selfish sins in particular.

To be blunt about my need for the cross and the empty tomb, about my hunger and thirst for the communion meal, about why I am not a Taoist or a Buddhist or an agnostic or new ager: I am a recovering alcoholic. As a sober drunk, the language of sin and salvation or the story of crucifixion and resurrection so integral to the Christian communal narrative, these speak directly to the core of my being, to a rooted sense of truth and knowing so beyond mere intellectual comprehension or so-called belief. Practicing drunks face their own near-death experiences, and sober drunks overcome these through surrender, through giving up before getting up, as if resurrected.

On a Saturday in April 2007, I left a conference in Knoxville around mid-day. I had big plans to see one of my favorite bands in Nashville that night. My (now ex) spouse wouldn’t be attending because of a birthday party for a close friend that would take up the afternoon and evening, and I had to push through the guilt of putting my music fandom before my friend’s birthday. I knew I would stop at my house in the hills on the way: to drop off some things, grab some other things, shower, and change clothes.

That day, I decided to start drinking when I departed east Tennessee. I drank while I drove home. I drank while I got ready for the concert. I drank all the way to the show. I ingested other strong special-occasion substances to give me that oh-so-familiar bump before the show. I drank during the show. I drank after the show. Even though I hung out with friends at the show, I was still solo for the night and entirely selfish, and I had plans afterwards to hit up another bar that also had wireless internet, in order to buy some tickets for a festival that went on sale that night at midnight.

Because of my buzzing state, I forgot to account for the time adjustment between the Eastern and Central time zones, because the coveted event would be EST. Inevitably, we didn’t get tickets for the fest, and I fought off more guilt (since my spouse was looking so forward to that event) by spiraling into a self-righteous drunken rage. I was stupidly angry at the snobby event-promoters for not saving me a ticket. I proceeded to get in the car drunk and start driving the 70 miles home in the pouring rain. Then, I picked up my cell phone, called a friend, and preached at him about how the festival had lost touch with its DIY ethic (and other assorted notions of intoxicated nonsense) by not allowing me to get tickets.   

After my friend, probably a mixture of humored and annoyed if not disturbed, had let me go, I drove home in my manic state of high and drunk and angry, far above the speed limit, in a Tennessee springtime downpour.

It’s a miracle I didn’t die on Interstate 40 and take out some other probably sober drivers with me. Only on the backroads near my former home, going about 30 or 40 miles-per-hour instead of 80 or 90, did I finally flip and total the car into a ditch. Thanks be to God, only me and the car were victims. No witnesses. My former spouse miraculously answered the phone in the wee hours and came to retrieve my bruised pathetic self. Early the next morning, a Sunday, I called a local mechanic who agreed to tow the carcass of my car to his shop. Later in the week, he offered me a couple hundred dollars for the remains.

That Sunday afternoon I had a revelation. I would quit. I obviously had a problem with driving too much. I would quit driving. I would get an apartment closer to my job and not plan on replacing the totaled car. I could carpool, bum rides, take taxis. I relished the reactions I got from friends when I told them with some drama the big news about my decision—to quit driving which I hated and keep drinking which I loved. It would be two more years before I finally surrendered and embraced sobriety from alcohol.

The basic chronology of this part of the story illustrates the depth of denial present in my incarnation of the disease of alcoholism and addiction. Drink had become my religion. In those days, I even went so far as researching the gods of wine Dionysus and Bacchus (or Boxus, the god of box wine) and fashioned myself to be a kind of pagan evangelist who would perform a hedonist’s communion for any who asked. I even had a trinitarian rap—the holy trinity of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. Meeting the resurrected Christ in the rock bottom of early sobriety changed everything, and for some reason, I needed the full throttle version of religion even as I would once gulp the full bottle of rebellion. Due to the progression of my recovery going in tandem with falling back in love with Jesus, I’ve formed new habits of spiritual discipline where Christianity is a not just a faith journey for me, it’s a survival strategy.

In my first course in seminary, I learned about some alternative but less known approaches to the cross, or as theologians say, theories of the atonement. These include aspects of God’s solidarity with all human suffering, sacrificial surrender, and the penultimate divine gesture of loving reconciliation and liberation. Most impressive, we find the work of 20th century thinkers who place the cross in our context without recoiling from human realities of violence or turning God into the punisher. A former Nazi German soldier and POW who once read Nietzche but then converted to Christ as a captive, theologian J├╝rgen Moltmann writes in his book The Crucified God:

“If that is to be taken seriously, it must also be said that, like the cross of Christ, even Auschwitz is in God himself. Even Auschwitz is taken up into the grief of the Father, the surrender of the Son and the power of the Spirit…As Paul says in I Cor. 15, only with the resurrection of the dead, the murdered and the gassed, only with the healing of those in despair who bear lifelong wounds, only with the abolition of all rule and authority, only with the annihilation of death will the Son hand over the kingdom to the Father. Then God will turn his sorrow into eternal joy…God in Auschwitz and Auschwitz in the crucified God—that is the basis for a real hope which both embraces and overcomes the world, and the ground for a love which is stronger than death and can sustain death.”

Not unlike Moltmann, the black liberation theology of James Cone places atonement theory right in the center of humanity’s collective sin, in this case the sin of racism and white supremacy. Cone writes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree:

“I accept Delores Williams’s rejection of theories of atonement as found in the Western theological tradition and in the uncritical proclamation of the cross in many black churches. I find nothing redemptive about suffering in itself. The gospel of Jesus is not a rational concept to be explained in a theory of salvation, but a story about God’s presence in Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed, which led to his death on the cross. What is redemptive is the faith that God snatches victory out of defeat, life out of death, and hope out of despair, as revealed in the biblical and black proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection. Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus. The lynching tree is the cross in America. When American Christians realize that they can meet Jesus only in the crucified bodies in our midst, they will encounter the real scandal of the cross.”

Many mild and modern minds tend to recoil at any cultic notion of a blood sacrifice—or worse yet the image of an omnipotent wrath-master who brutally abandons and punishes his own son to please his own lust for punitive justice purveyed as violence. There’s a section in the novel Life of Pi that shows how sadistic and absurdist this so-called penal substitution theory really is.

In Yann Martel’s novel, we find this: “Humanity sins but it's God's Son who pays the price? I tried to imagine Father saying to me, 'Piscine, a lion slipped into the llama pen today and killed two llamas. Yesterday another one killed a black buck. Last week two of them ate a camel. The situation has become intolerable. Something must be done. I have decided that the only way the lions can atone for their sins is if I feed them you.' ... 'Yes, Father, that would be the right and logical thing to do. Give me a moment to wash up'. What a downright weird story. What a peculiar psychology.” 
While we should cringe at the horror of the execution, it’s Christ’s profound capacity for nonviolence that we confront at the cross, and it’s the perpetrators of violence that present a vision not of God but of unchecked political power and organized brutality.

Denying the cross for me would be like denying my drunken debaucherous past. Denying the cross for us as a society and world would be like denying all the human horrors of barbarity that litter our past and present. Accepting the cross as a political but not spiritual fact and then denying the resurrection—that for me sounds hopeless, like utter defeat. As magical as a literal cross and resurrection with theological justification for both may appear to many modern minds, for a Christian, I find faith and comfort there, and I find the downgraded theories I encounter in the likes of Borg and Spong as somehow fake.

At once too sensational and too sanitized, too supernatural and too sedated, like processed meat at the supermarket that we’ll never know came from an animal that bled and an animal that died. It’s not wrong to wonder how God allowed or required Jesus to die, nor wrong to suggest that the political motives underpinning the parlay between imperial power and inspired powerlessness influenced the mode of execution or example made of this unlikely messiah.

It’s not wrong to probe this profound story both philosophically and historically or to confront it with the fullness of our God-given doubt and skepticism. But at the end, I prefer to embrace the full robust drama and complete cosmic audacity of Christianity, and some aspects of the liberal alternatives strike me as a watered-down unwelcome detour. Sure, I am sober from alcohol today, but I am not about to start drinking decaf coffee or embrace a decaf Christianity, a bloodless cross without its bloody core.

To suggest that blood is unnecessary or imply that death is optional—why? How squeamish we are about an embodied savior, a bodily God, a human light & logos because as man his death is not so much required or accidental but inevitable, as all death is, even as compost, even as food, death as one of those most essential ingredients to life.

Those liquor stores don’t sell “Wine and Spirits” by accident. The noted psychologist Carl Jung wrote the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous Bill Wilson a letter in 1961 that contained the following premise, “You see, ‘alcohol’ in Latin is ‘spiritus’ and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison.”

Perhaps all this helps explain why my theology is surprisingly ‘conservative’ when it comes to sin and the atonement. As a practicing alcoholic, I sought deeper doses of depravity as though drugged-out decadence for its own sake was delight and not dirt. As a practicing alcoholic, sins could not be sinful enough, bottoms could not be low enough, and many bottoms had trap doors.

As a recovering alcoholic, I need a most powerful elixir to transform my reality. I have found the blood of Jesus—on the cross and as grape juice in a communion chalice—to be just that potion required. And I have also experienced recovery—not just my own sobriety but the fellowship with others in recovery—as resurrection. I feel truly born again. And for that, I give thanks and credit not to an abstract concept of an ethereal out-there God, but to a God with a body down-here, a body that hung on a cross and rose from the dead as a radical testimony of hope, hope for everyone, for victims of war and racism and addiction and more. Hope for a world without end. Amen.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Will the real ‘God’ please stand up?

On the eve of today’s Sunday school class, my Mom called me with a story. A little girl was dancing joyfully, perhaps one could even say ecstatically. A man approached. ‘Who are you dancing with?’ he asked. ‘With God,’ she replied. ‘I’d give you a nickel,’ he retorted, ‘if you could show me where God is.’ ‘I’d give you a dollar,’ she shot back, ‘if you could show me where God is not.’

In today’s reading from Speaking Christian, Marcus Borg addresses the concept of—and our problems with the concept of—God. As he does with much more depth and deftness in his treatise on panentheism called The God We Never Knew, Borg debunks and deconstructs all variety of anthropomorphic god-ideas in favor of a suffusing and saturating sacred presence, not unlike Paul Tillich’s “ground of all being.”

A scripture Borg leans on to illuminate this notion is the expansive and eloquent Psalm 139, interestingly a favorite of the ‘right to life’ movement. We also encounter this always-already-in-everything God in the Gospel of Thomas, saying 77: “It is I who am the All. From Me did the All come forth, and unto Me did the All extend. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find Me there.”

We like this God, because our everyday experience, regardless of dogma, often affirms it, if we’d only tune into it. Liberals like what Borg says God is because of who Borg says God is not; He’s not exclusively anthropomorphic, authoritarian, and androcentric. In Trinitarian sensibility, I gather that this sacred energy constitutes the creative crux and core of God and is discernible at least theologically and metaphysically from the Son and Holy Spirit.

But why, then, when I attended the Festival of Homiletics—an annual kind of preacher’s Woodstock for liberal, mainline pastors from the likes of Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian traditions—did it seem like Marcus Borg was the butt of all our jokes? Two of my top talks from the week included incisive slights and sarcastic slags at Borg and the Jesus Seminar and what I presume mainline preachers think is a low—just a man and a mere prophet—Christology. It seems a belief in the literal resurrection of Jesus is the hinge on which the rest of our faith swings.

I am convinced one can have what we could call a consistently and simultaneously high and low Christology. There’s no need to show the historicists the door nor for us to sneer at the arm-waving spirit-folk and turn ourselves into anti-mystical bores. I also think it’s perfectly acceptable for Christians to admit that we do not “know” in any bulletproof, scientific, historical, or factual sense what we know in matters of mysterious reality, faith journey, and spiritual encounter.   

We are Christians because we preach a crucified and resurrected Christ. We are not not Christians if we also teach the historical Jesus. I interpret Borg’s project as illuminating and not emasculating of Christ and Jesus, though I know how and why some people find his overtures off-putting. Without the historical Jesus, we too easily lose the revolutionary kernel of his prophetic message; without the resurrected Christ, we certainly lose the rest, the mystical and metaphysical, and many would argue, the truth.