Saturday, August 26, 2006

How long....

On Wednesday, those students who will be taking courses on campus arrived for the first day of orientation. Before I go on, let me say that they seem like a really good bunch of students. I am looking forward to the year with them and seeing all God has planned for their lives.

Orientation started at 11:00 am. At a few minutes to 11:00, I looked out over the room and say one woman and about 10 young white men, all sitting in the back row, waiting for the presentation to begin. An older black woman was sitting on the couch in the back corner of the room. She had arrived early. The room would eventually fill up and become slightly more diverse. But I couldn’t help feel for the young white woman and the older black woman sitting quietly by themselves. Maybe they didn’t notice it. Perhaps the others filtered in quickly enough to overcome the awkwardness. But I noticed.

I was grateful that as the day wore on there was more mixing among the students, older and younger, black, white, Korean, and Scottish. I am grateful that a back row of 20 something men doesn’t intimidate me. I would sit there myself given the opportunity. I am grateful that they are being welcomed into a community that is fairly diverse, but I also know that they will shape that community and I pray that it will remain welcoming. And I feel good about my decision to show the Sankofa video, highlighting our course about racial righteousness, to all incoming students. For some it is shocking to be faced with so much honest dialogue about race so soon after arriving, yet I think it prepares them a bit, plants some seeds for further discussions throughout their time in seminary.

Tomorrow is Convocation. The final event of orientation. A worship service to bless and invoke God’s presence for the new year. I will be having lunch with the platform party before the service. Five male administrators and their wives, the speaker and his wife, and me. Six couples all 10 to 20 years older than me. Eleven white faces from North Park and two African Americans, the guest speaker and his wife. I have been going to these lunches for six years now and they never get any easier. Perhaps I should have worked harder to find a date for these events. But who do you bring with you to such an occasion? (And let’s just say it… I am challenged in this area) I have to go. Politically and professionally it is stupid not to. And as a woman, I need all the politics I can get in my favor. As a woman, I need to represent. Yet the composition of the group has hardly changed over the years. And I am tired of waiting.

I know I must be patient. I know things are changing. But the process is more like erosion. Decades wear away inches of soil. Centuries widen one bend in the river. Thousands of years eventually bring about changes in course of waterways. And I am tired of being that force that is constantly pushing, moving, eroding by my mere presence. How long, O Lord? How long?

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Love and Justice

I am not sure how often I'll be posting in the near future... I preached last week at my church and tomorrow is the start of the new school year.
To tide you over, here is my sermon from last Sunday. It is a bit long, but I hope you enjoy it.

King David was anxiously sitting at the city gate awaiting word on the battle taking place to reclaim his kingdom. His mind swirled with thoughts of his son, Absalom, and the events that had led up to this day. How had they gotten to this place? David, hiding outside of Jerusalem. His son, Absalom, leading an army of Israelites against him. What had happened?

For the last four years Absalom had been cultivating his image, building a following within the country. It hadn’t been difficult. He looked like a king. The scriptures say that “from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him.” He was most known for his hair, so thick that when he cut it each year they would put it on a scale to see how much it weighed. He looked like a king.

Even so, Absalom worked hard to build his image. Each day he would ride out on his chariot with fifty men running ahead of him showing off his power and wealth. Not only that, but he would stand near the city gates and watch those who came to Jerusalem bringing a suit to the king for judgment. And in those days, there was rarely anyone there to hear their case. It seems that in recent years, David had abdicated his role as judge in the land. With no one there to hear their case, Absalom would approach each person and introduce himself. If you can imagine, the great Absalom, the man who looked like a king with his chariot and fifty men parked behind him, approaching every sheep herder, shopkeeper, and farmer that entered the city. He would ask them where they were from, listen to their concerns, wrap his arms around them and offer his sympathy. “If only I were judge,” he would say, “I would give you justice. I would listen to your plea.” By showing everyone that not only was he powerful and wealthy, but he was concerned for the people, a man of compassion and justice, he won the hearts of the people.

One day, he took two hundred men with him to a special worship service in Hebron. He said he was fulfilling a promise he had made to God. But really, it was an elaborate plan to overthrow the kingdom. He had secretly sent messengers all over the kingdom. On cue, they blew their trumpets and shouted “Absalom has become king at Hebron! Absalom is king!” And with that one cry, the people turned against David and he was forced to flee Jerusalem.

A man of justice… that was how Absalom thought of himself, wasn’t it. And that was how the people of Israel saw him. That’s why it had been so easy for them to follow him, to turn their backs on David.

David had once been considered a just man, a man after God’s own heart, but somewhere along the way it had gotten lost. David knew that he had acted unjustly years ago with Bathsheba. That’s putting it mildly. He had committed adultery and murder. But he had repented. He had turned back to God, asking forgiveness. There had been consequences. They had lost a son, but his relationship with God had been restored. It was behind him.

Then there was that incident with Amnon and Tamar, the incident that really started this whole civil war. Amnon, another of the king’s sons, had fallen in love with Tamar, Absalom’s sister. Well, love was probably not the right word for it. Rather than approaching David with his feelings, Amnon lured Tamar into his room and raped her. Then he threw her out. Tamar was left devastated, defiled in the eyes of the people with little hope for a future. She moved in with her brother, Absalom, and seemed to have just disappeared. David was furious when he heard what Amnon had done, but he just couldn’t bring himself to punish him. He loved Amnon too much. At least that’s what he told himself. How could he punish Amnon for a sin that he himself had committed?

And Absalom had watched it all and he had trusted David. Trusted that David would act justly. Trusted that David loved Tamar enough to respond to this attack. Trusted that David loved the people of Israel enough to uphold their laws. Trusted that David loved God to honor God’s laws. But David had done nothing… in the name of love. One writer comments, “… when his father fails to respond adequately, the injustice enters Absalom’s soul.” Absalom learned much about justice that day… and about love…

When David had failed to act, Absalom had taken justice into his own hands. He plotted for two years before he finally found the right opportunity and then, in front of all of his brothers and half-brothers, he killed Amnon to avenge the rape of his sister.

Absalom had been the man of justice while David had been what? The man of love? The man of inaction? In any case, Absalom’s act of justice was also an act of rebellion against the king. He had fled the country and lived in exile for the next three years. David had allowed him to return, an act of compassion, maybe? But he still couldn’t face Absalom. For the next two years, Absalom would live in Jerusalem but remain in exile from his family, from David. Perhaps, while Amnon had reminded David of what he had done, Absalom reminded David of what he had not done. He loved his children, but somehow he could not reconcile his love for them and the justice required of him as king, as parent, as one of God’s chosen people.

Now, four years later, David was anxiously awaiting word on the battle taking place and the fate of Absalom. The first messenger brought good news. Absalom had been defeated. The second messenger brought the news David had been waiting for. “May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.” Absalom is dead. Apparently, while riding through the forest under a great oak tree his beautiful hair got caught in a low hanging branch. He was left stuck in mid-air, defenseless. And though David had asked his men to be merciful, they struck Absalom down and killed him. It was not pretty. Full of rage and vengeance for their king who had been betrayed.

Upon hearing the news, the king retreats to a private room and grieves. It is known as one of the most sorrowful passages in the scriptures. King David, weeping for his lost son… “my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, Absalom, my son, my son!” So great is his grief that the head of his army must rebuke him and call him back to his duty as king of Israel.

What had happened? Somewhere along the way David’s idea of love was skewed. Somewhere along the way he lost his passion for justice. And somewhere along the way he passed these false ideas about love and justice along to his children. And his children, took those ideas and magnified them before his eyes.

Amnon would take David’s sin of rape one step further. While David would marry Bathsheba and repent before God, Amnon would send Tamar away. Absalom would take David’s lack of justice and flip it on its head using it to justify murder and rebellion. Both would end up dead as a result.

Somehow, in David’s mind, love and justice had become two incompatible actions. They had become set against each other and in choosing one, David denied the other.
In truth, though, in choosing one, David had denied both. In choosing love over justice, David had done neither.

In failing to act justly on behalf of Tamar, David had failed to love all his children. In failing to act justly, enforcing the laws of Israel, the laws of God, David failed to love God and to love his people. In failing to act justly, disciplining his son, David failed to love Amnon.

Absalom had erred on the other end. Absalom had pursued justice without love. In doing so, out of hate and anger he murdered Amnon… a clear lack of love. He sought to take over the kingdom in order to bring about justice through deception and war. Somehow when justice is pursued without love, it becomes unjust.

Love and justice. These are not separate ideas, rather they are two concepts that are intricately bound together, two sides of one coin. The one who acts in love acts in justice. And the one who acts in justice, acts in love.

Why has it become so difficult for us to hold these two ideas together? And it is difficult for us… most of us have chosen the language of justice or love to describe our faith, our relationships to other people, our understanding of God.

Several years ago I co-taught a class on racial reconciliation at North Park Theological Seminary. The class is usually about half African American and half White. As the students talk about their faith, especially their concept of discipleship, most of the white students focus on language related to the idea of love. A Christian is to be kind, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in love. They emphasized right emotions and right beliefs. Most of the African American students use the language of justice. A Christian is to set the captives free, bring sight to the blind, cloth the naked and feed the hungry. They emphasized a different set of emotions and right actions.

Our tendency to separate the ideas of love and justice often gets communicated in this way. We tend to emphasize either right beliefs or right actions. In truth, though, these ideas are not separate. Our actions tend to reveal what we truly believe. Our actions tend to betray what we truly feel. David’s children learned from his actions. There were dozens of psalms proclaiming what David believed. An entire book of worship proclaiming right belief, but David’s children did not learn from what David proclaimed to believe, they learned from how he lived out what he believed. They learned love and justice from his action and lack of action. Our actions tend to reveal what we truly believe. To say that we love and to act unjustly is to reveal that we do not really love at all. To say that we believe in justice, but to act unlovingly is to reveal that we do not really understand justice at all.

Our tendency to separate the ideas of love and justice is also often revealed in our tendency to emphasize either the individual or the community. Those who speak of love often do so by speaking of their own personal relationship to God, of being personally holy and pure in their living. They speak of loving another individual, of forgiving another individual, of reconciliation between them and their brother or sister. Those who speak of justice often emphasize the community. They speak not just of feeding one person but of feeding the world. They speak of systems of relationships and struggles for power. They speak of powers and principalities. They speak of the need for the kingdom, of a right community, of a just community.

Yet for love and justice to remain united, two concepts intertwined together, both the individual and community must be emphasized. David was only able to think of the individual, in doing so he lost sight of the community. Absalom perhaps only thought of the community and in doing so he lost sight of individual relationships. Absalom’s passion for the community may have been in response to the lack of love he felt when David chose Amnon over the rest of his family, over the rest of his people.

This world tries to pull the concepts of love and justice apart. It is easier that way, safer that way, less painful, perhaps. But we, as people of God, believe that these two concepts must be held together because we follow a God that held these two concepts together. In Jesus Christ we see the perfect example of a loving, just God. Jesus death on the cross was both perfectly just and perfectly loving. In his death, Jesus satisfied the need for justice in this world, the need for sinful humanity to be reconciled to a perfect and holy God. And he did so because of his great love for us. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. Christ offered his life for the world because of his great love for the world. And because of his great love for each one of us. Christ’s death on the cross was both deeply personal and profoundly communal. Christ’s love and justice for you, for me, for us, for the world.

This morning we baptized Grace, welcoming her into this community. In doing so we have committed to creating a community that is both loving and just, that will teach her about God through both word and deed. May God give us the courage, the strength, and the wisdom to live what we believe, to be both loving and just to one another and to the world.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Harvest of Empire

As noted in my last blog, I am currently reading Juan Gonzalez’ Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America. Some of the history I am already familiar with. Some is new to me. All of it paints a picture of how Latino/as have been a significant part of the formation of the United States and how in our quest for empire we have significantly shaped the culture of Latin America.

One of the fascinating things early on in the book was how it traced the parallel histories of the English and Spanish colonists during the formation of this country. It traced similarities and differences in the cultures created and the interactions with those already living in this land when the colonists arrived. It was helpful to me in integrating the two histories I had been taught as a child… that of the British colonists that created the United States of America and that of the Spanish colonists that created California, the land I grew up in.

It is perhaps too simplistic to say that one group arrived to be a new Christian nation and one arrived to create one. Yet the British arrived hoping to become themselves the people of a new Christian nation with a manifest destiny to conquer much of the world. They were the chosen people of God, the new Israel. Those in the way, those already occupying the land, were treated much like those living in the promised land when Israel arrived under Joshua to claim their inheritance. They were often treated as enemies and driven from the land or destroyed.

The Spanish, on the other hand, “saw colonizing and conversion as a unified effort.” Those already in the land were baptized by the thousands and the two cultures mixed together much more fluidly than in the British colonies. A caste system still existed, with those of pure Spanish blood at the top of the hierarchy and those of native blood still at the bottom. The group in the middle, the mestizos, those of mixed blood, though, would become a significant new race in this new world.

Neither story is ideal. Both point to the arrogance and sin of a people who felt called by God yet failed to see the image of God in those they were called to. Both stories are necessary. They muddy the mythical creation stories of the United States making them more complex and more reflective of the true identity of this nation. We are a very human nation, created with a blend of faith, idealism, greed, and arrogance. These strands of identity cannot be easily disentangled. Instead, we must constantly follow each thread seeking to move forward in ways that honor the good and seek to make amends for the bad.

Border Thinking

I am in the midst of reading the book Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America by Juan Gonzalez in preparation for a Latino/a Theologies course I’ll be taking this fall at Garrett for my PhD program.

Some of you may be wondering why I am taking a Latino/a Theology course when my major is congregational studies and my focus will be women and pastoral identity in the Evangelical Covenant Church, an historically Swedish denomination. This past spring, when selecting my final five courses, I struggled with that exact same question. My minor is theology and while I have focused on feminist, womanist, black liberation, and other contemporary theologies, I have done little work in the classical theologians such as Augustine (granted, he is from North Africa), Luther, or Barth. Why continue pursuing these contemporary and intentionally contextual theologies?

First, I know that in the course of my academic career I will come across the classical theologians again and again. Their resources are readily available and the need to be familiar with them will most likely drive me to study them on my own. However, the same cannot be said of contemporary theologians. It takes much more intentionality on my part to pursue these resources and so I am choosing to focus on them at the moment hoping that I will achieve some sort of balance along the way.

Second, I think that it is unfair to expect me to do the equivalent work of a doctorate in classical theology (or at least a minor) before I pursue contemporary theology. Once classical theologians know as much as I am learning about contemporary theology, I’ll learn as much about their area of expertise. Plus, while I understand that most contemporary theology builds on the classics, I also know that it should not all be read through classical eyes. One of the great contributions of contemporary theologians are the new insights about God that come from perspectives shaped outside of the classical stream of history.

Third, to be honest, I just enjoy contemporary theology more than classical theology at the moment. Many contemporary theologians have begun to develop the concept of “border theology” or theology at the margins. Nancy Bedford, one of my professors from Garrett, has done significant work in this area as she explores her own experiences as an American missionary kid who grew up in Argentina, was trained in Latin American and Germany, and now teaches in the United States. She writes of the border as a place full of life, a place where one makes space and thinks in new and creative ways. In particular, she quotes Walter Mignolo who writes that border thinking allows us to move beyond the simplistic either/or thinking of our culture. Bedford describes it as “a way of knowing that disrupts dichotomies from within a dichotomous situation.” Bedford also cites W.E.B. DuBois’ concept of “double consciousness” and writes that border thinking is “an epistemology that avoids being entrapped within the logic of the dominant world view while still able to make use of critical instruments forged within that world view.” In other words, it is a way of thinking that has possibility. It draws on the best of the dominant world views and seeks a way beyond.

It seems to me that this should be the stance of all Christians. We are border thinkers, aliens in this world, seeking not to be entrapped by our cultures and our limited understand, but seeking a way to move beyond, to grasp a bit more of the mind of God and to be formed by the culture of God’s kingdom.

A few books and articles on Border Thinking:
“Making Spaces: Latin American and Latina Feminist Theologies on the Cusp of Interculturality” by Nancy Elizabeth Bedford. Shared in a contemporary theology class at Garrett, Fall 2005.

“To Speak of God from More than One Place: Theological Reflections from the Experience of Migration” by Nancy Elizabeth Bedford. In Latin American Liberation Theologians: The Next Generation, edited by Ivan Petrella. Orbis, 2005.

Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking by Waler Mignolo. Princeton University Press, 2000.

Journeys at the Margin: Toward an Autobiographical Theology in American-Asian Perspective, edited by Peter Phan and Jung Young Lee. The Liturgical Press,1999.