Monday, March 5, 2018

What Story Are You a Part Of?

What story are you a part of? When we find our life’s narrative in the story of God’s redemption in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we become Christians, part of the Jesus story, writes Neal F. Fisher in “Groundless absolutes?” (Christian Century, February 28, 2018). In one Jesus story, a lawyer asks, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) and Jesus responds not with a rule but with a story, Fisher tells us. The story, of course, is “The Good Samaritan,” one of the most beloved of Jesus’ parables. Presumably, the lawyer knows full well that the God, we are called on to love, has shown chesed (a Hebrew word that can be translated as “loving kindness”) over and over, not toward Jews only, but also toward “the nations” or gentiles, even the Samaritans. The Good Samaritan story is “a hard saying” for the lawyer. He is part of a story filled with ressentiment toward the Samaritans. As Don Cupitt points out in “Jesus and Philosophy” (2009 SCM Press, London), Nietzsche uses ressentiment to sum up the whole range of reactive or negative feelings, including scorn, disgust, dislike, envy, lust, disapproval, repugnance, contempt, impatience, malice, irritation, anger, rage, fury, fear, terror, hatred, boredom, indifference, recoiling, seething resentment, begrudging, outrage, indignation at, despair of, and many more. The lawyer likely has felt many of these feelings toward the Samaritans. Fisher writes that “Jews cursed Samaritans in the synagogues and prayed that they would have no part in eternal life.” And, in turn, … “Samaritans defiled the temple in Jerusalem by scattering bones in the temple area, making it impossible for the faithful to celebrate the Passover.” Each group played tit for tat, in its expressions of ressentiment. And, remember the lawyer first asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25) So maybe the lawyer feels that in heaven, we want us, but not the Samaritans. Heaven should be a gated community, keeping undesirables like Samaritans out. Thus, he can’t bring himself to say “the Samaritan” when Jesus asks him which of the three passers-by was a neighbor to the man beaten and left by the side of the road. The lawyer could only mutter, “the one who showed him mercy.” Mercy, by the way, is another translation of chesed. Jesus knows about chesed. His most authentic sayings, as determined by the Jesus Seminar, reflect a major innovation in ethics with a shift from realism to emotivism, in which the moral standard is brought down from heaven and relocated in the world of human feelings and relationships, or, in Cupitt’s words, the world of ‘the heart’. To break the culture of ressentiment, Jesus stresses the moral importance of a high level of critical self-consciousness: Get the beam out of your own eye, calculate, and then be extravagantly generous, because that is what melts the heart, and unfreezes human relationships. (Matthew 7:3-5) In the Good Samaritan story, Jesus urges us to be part of a story that illustrates positive feelings. Such feelings do not cloud or block our relation to the other person, Cupitt writes. These feelings are mostly very cool and transparent and not numerous. They include regard, attention, interest, sympathy, pity, respect, admiration, allegiance, friendship, and love. These feelings are found in tales of God’s chesed, and Israel has many such stories. For example, Phillip Jenkins, reviewing “The Exodus” by Richard Elliott Friedman (Christian Century, February 28, 2018), highlights Friedman’s point that “…only some recent memory of bitter slavery could have led ancient Israel to include in its laws such vehement assertions of the rights of aliens and such unusual limitations on the extent of chattel slavery.” Surely, the Exodus story is the foundational chesed story, expressing love of neighbors, even love of aliens. Maybe the lawyer had forgotten these chesed stories, or, more likely, he is unable to break out his ressentiment story. Today such ressentiment stories are everywhere, particularly about aliens, and we are relentlessly urged to be part of them. For example, we are asked to become part of stories about “Mexican rapists” and about people from “shithole countries.” These ressentiment stories can generate negative feelings that are often violent and a threat to social peace. To overcome such feelings, Cupitt writes that we must often be almost supernaturally “big” and generous, going beyond justice. So, be lead by the Spirit to leave ressentiment behind, to be critically self-conscious, and to become part of God’s story of big and generous chesed.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Christianity is dead.

Christianity is dead. We hear this all the time, yet churches are open; people come. Despite this, I do believe Christianity is dead. Here is some evidence: 1) Man with semiautomatic rifle shoots at least 17 dead in south Florida high school. Semiautomatic rifles are available, no questions asked, at south Florida gun shows. Christianity is dead. 2) White cops who shoot and kill unresisting black people, go unpunished. Christianity is dead. 3) Men who rape, abuse, harass, and humiliate women have gone unpunished. Christianity is dead. 4) ICE rounds up, detains, and deports immigrants. Christianity is dead. 5) Report of sexual abuse of boys by priests and bishops is slander, says pope. Christianity is dead. 6) Police round up homeless people, and they “disappear.” Christianity is dead. Perhaps now you can see why I say Christianity is dead. When did you last hear a sermon on any of these atrocities? Never? People are suffering humiliation, injury, and death, and the church turns away from this suffering, because it may be “controversial,” “offensive,” or “not our problem.” The world returns the favor. The church just doesn’t get it, the church has nothing to say that’s real, or the church is an enabler of those who commit the atrocities. In any case, when suffering arises, the church is mute. Ironically, Christianity has at its heart a powerful resource that can help address the shock, grief, and disorientation brought on by atrocities. When faced with the atrocity of Jesus’ crucifixion, his followers, stunned, grieving, disorientated, soon began to hold memorial meals, telling stories and remembering Jesus, in spite of the Romans who wished to erase him by crucifixion. These memorials may be reflected in the Emmaus story in Luke 24. As the followers slowly recovered from their trauma, they began to seek meaning in these horrible events. For them, meaning was found by “searching the scriptures.” To do this, they used the Jewish tradition of midrash, which literally means commentary on Jewish texts. As they began telling stories about Jesus, they often told stories from the Hebrew Bible. In addition, as an aid to their oral story-telling, they often used a format, well known to all in Palestine in Jesus’ time: “The Tale of the Suffering Innocent One.” This provided the memory space to remember the death of Jesus. These memories are not “facts,” they are not “history.” Only to the extent that the crucifixion of Jesus is remembered, are they factual; all the rest is “fiction,” meaning that neither those remembering nor any one else available knew the facts of the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus. They told the story of Jesus crucified to give meaning to their feelings, not to leave a historical record. These ideas are laid out convincingly in a new book” Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus Was Remembered” by Arthur J. Dewey. So at the heart of Christianity is a resource that could help those who have suffered loss, grief, and trauma if the churches would tell their stories within “The Tale of the Suffering Innocent One.” The Passion is not just about Jesus back when with no meaning for us now. In its outline, it’s the story of all of those traumatized, injured, or killed by powers greater than they are, including gun victims; blacks killed by white cops; women raped, harassed, humiliated by powerful men; immigrants rounded up, detained, and deported by ICE; boys and girls abused and silenced by priests and bishops; homeless people who have been “disappeared” by the police. We know about these atrocities not only because of news reports, but because gun victims are calling for gun control; blacks are saying, “Black Lives Matter;” women are telling their stories on #metoo; the sanctuary movement is calling attention to the abuses of ICE; “The Voice of the Faithful” is telling the story of sexual abuse in the church; Hope South Florida is helping homeless people tell their stories about police harassment. Where we are not hearing these stories is in church. The church usually stands mute in the face of all these atrocities. The church doesn’t want to get involved. It relates Jesus’ Passion as if it were an antique curiosity with nothing to do with us now. But now, many people are telling the stories of the atrocities that they or those they know have suffered. They are, even today, using much of “The Tale of the Suffering Innocent One.” Christianity is dead, as long as it refuses to see these stories as continuations of the Passion and to incorporate these ongoing stories into the Passion. May our Lenten journey include not only the story of Jesus, but the stories of all for whom he suffered.

Church Speak

I am a failed evangelist. For 62 years of my 83 years, I have been a convinced, dedicated, even enthusiastic Lutheran, but I can’t think of anyone who has joined the Lutheran Church because of my witness. Even my two sons aren’t active Lutherans, even though they were raised in an ELCA church. My older son married a Roman Catholic, and they are attending a Catholic church, so that my 7 year-old grandson can have his first communion there. My younger son married a woman who finds religion of no interest or perhaps actively evil; as a result, my son no longer attends church, even on Christmas or Easter when I would particularly like company. I attend ELCA churches, not only on Christmas and Easter, but nearly every Sunday. I believe strongly in hearing the Word and receiving the Sacrament every Sunday. I look forward to being inspired by the Spirit and strengthened for the work ahead. However, no one attends with me. I wish I could find someone to go with, to introduce church to, but, in spite of asking, no one yet. More precisely, my husband did attend church with me, once or twice, early in our relationship. I wanted him to understand how central church is in my life, but he hasn’t been back in the seventeen years we’ve been together. This was because he reacted strongly to the liturgy: It made him very angry. How dare that man standing up there tell him what to believe? The creed was a particular flashpoint: It was unbelievable, and he felt the pastor was forcing him to say things that he didn’t accept. Needless to say, we had then and continue to have many long conversations about the meaning of church and what happens there. This entire preamble is an introduction to my reaction to “Church Speak,” the message in the January, 2018, “Living Lutheran” from Elizabeth Eaton, the ELCA’s Presiding Bishop. She points out that Christians speak a language that is unintelligible to non-Christians. They don’t have the vocabulary, but, more important perhaps, they’re not part of our Christian culture. Make no mistake; we do have a culture that we inhabit often without awareness. Many, if not most nonbelievers, feel excluded from that culture. The language of “repentance” and “salvation” that many Christians (including pastors) throw around so casually is often seen by those outside the Christian culture as insulting and condescending: “What do I have to be saved from? “Why to I want to go to heaven with those tedious, boring Christians?” “Clearly, all the interesting people are in hell, often consigned there by the Church.” Since I was drawn to the Lutheran Church in 1956, I’ve been trying to bridge the gap between our insular church culture and the wider world. I’ve resisted the call to turn inward toward churchly matters. I’ve strived to pop the church bubble that Bishop Eaton refers to in her message. I try to live in two worlds and attempt to do justice to each. I’m a biologist and that means I admire Darwin immensely. His discovery of natural selection has shaped completely, not only modern biology, but its practical offshoots, medicine and agriculture. Without Darwin’s insights, I’m sure we’d not be as far along as we are in applied biology and in our broader understanding of life. Can I be a follower of Darwin and a Christian, too? I believe fervently that I can, but I feel sad also that the idea of a Christian Darwinist is an oxymoron to most people. This is because most Christians don’t worship God, but the Bible. This is part of the Christian culture that separates us from others. Most prominently, the unsuspecting priestly scribe urging the faithful to hallow the Sabbath in Genesis 1, could not have realized the trouble that would ensue with the Bible worshippers from the 19th century to this day. Thankfully, religious academic work from at least the time of Darwin in the 19th century until now has produced a picture of the Bible as a human document, specifically as a Jewish document using peculiarly Jewish means to shape the biblical narratives. Unfortunately, rarely do I encounter pastors who will use this vast treasure of academic work to discuss the bible as a human document with their parishioners. The Bible, they claim too often in their preaching, means just what it says (in English translation). They do this, so as to not upset the faithful (who are the ones most faithful in their giving), thus reinforcing the bubble and turning away any who are not of the culture. Of course, the numbers of those who have turned away have now reached epic proportions, and church people are wringing their hands in despair. The people outside the church aren’t interested in the church; they don’t want to know the “in” language of Christians, and they think our culture strange, if not bizarre and dangerous. Yes, I’m a failed evangelist, but I keep hoping that the real point of church will somehow become apparent to those I talk to: You are loved. In life and death, you are loved. No matter what you do, what you say, what you think, you are loved. This means you can love others, give you self away for others, be present for others. You can emulate the One we follow. That’s the Gospel, the Good News. Sometimes it’s proclaimed in church. Maybe, just maybe, if we go to church, we’ll hear it. Come with me.

Star of David

A few weeks ago, at the Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale, my husband, Franklyn, and I saw the movie, “Call Me by Your Name.” It is an intensely beautiful, erotic (not pornographic) gay love story between a precocious seventeen-year-old American-Italian boy, Elio, (played superbly by Timothée Chalamet) and an American man in his twenties, Olivier, (a very sexy Armie Hammer). They meet in the summer of 1983, at Elio’s family’s home in Northern Italy where Olivier, a graduate student in Greco-Roman culture, has been invited to spend six weeks studying with his professor, Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg). Elio is smitten with Olivier from their first meeting, but disguises his attraction, not very successfully, with irritation at Olivier’s blunt American ways. Soon, however, Elio’s growing interest is signaled when he begins wearing his own Star of David, very like the one Olivier wears on a chain around his neck. When Olivier asks whether Elio is a Jew, Elio says his mother (Amira Casar) calls the family “Jews of Discretion.” This very short exchange passes quickly, and their love grows, even as they attempt to reassure themselves of their heterosexuality through sexual encounters with some of the girls and women they meet. The six weeks go by quickly, and they spend their last days together on a hiking trip in the Alps, where we see a roaring waterfall symbolizing their now passionate love. Soon, however, they part; Olivier must go back to America, leaving Elio devastated. We later see a beautiful snowfall on the lake where Eli and Olivier once swam. Coming into his house, Elio revels in the smell of latkes frying; we see the menorah’s glow. It is Hanukkah. The phone rings, Elio answers. It is Olivier who announces his upcoming marriage to the woman he left behind when he came to Italy. As the movie ends, Elio is looking into the fire, crying. Why does the movie make Elio and Olivier Jews? The movie is certainly not about religion. Their Jewishness seems at first unnecessary to the story of their love, but as Franklyn and I talked about it, a parallel emerged. For many people, religious or ethnic identity is a given; it is just the way things are. This is probably true for many, if not most, Jews, like Olivier, for example. By contrast, in Elio’s very intellectual, upper-middle class family, it was a matter of “discretion.” Elio choses consciously to claim his Jewishness by wearing his Star of David in response to his love for Olivier. Some people have homosexual feelings; such feelings come unbidden. However, being gay is an identity, one that can be claimed or not. Elio and Olivier clearly had homosexual feelings for each other, but Olivier used his “discretion” to “be straight.” He ended his affair with Elio, went home, and was getting married. It is 1983, after all, and his career it likely to go better if he’s married, rather than if he is out as a gay man. What’s in store for Elio? The movie doesn’t tell us. His love for Olivier led him to claim his Jewish identity. Will it lead him to claim his gay identity?

Lunch with Bill

I had lunch with Bill this week. We have lunch every so often to solve the world’s problems. How are we doing? This week we circled around the problem presented by a new book we’re reading together. It’s “Inventing the Passion” by Arthur J. Dewey. Dewey explores the Passion narratives in the five (sic) Gospels. Are they eye witness accounts? Memories? History? Imaginative constructions from remembered stories? Or? We didn’t spend much time delving into the book. Instead we told each other stories from our lives about coping with pain: small, local Passions. Bill mentioned a woman who lost four family members within a very short time. She had questions. Why had this calamity happened? Why had God let it happen? How to cope? How to go on? He gave her Rabbi Kushner’s book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” May it help her. What helped the followers of Jesus to cope with his arrest, trial, and crucifixion? Interestingly, Dewey writes that no early depictions of the crucifixion have been found; while depictions of Jesus, the Good Shepard, have been. Why one and not the other? Was the crucifixion too painful to remember? Who hasn’t been told after a painful event: “Just put it out of your mind.” Forget about it. Don’t let it get to you. Maybe the followers tried to do that. Jesus had been murdered, so that he would be forgotten. Crucifixion was the way the Roman rulers tried to erase dangerous low-life scum. They were dead and, the Romans hoped, forgotten; never to be remembered. That’s what they wanted from crucifixions. Did Jesus’s followers think he was low life scum, after all? Even though once, they had hoped he was the Anointed One? After a while, after the crying, after the anger, the followers did something unexpected. They had dinner together; they had memorial dinners in the Roman tradition of eulogizing heroes at parties. But how could someone crucified be a hero? To his followers, Jesus even crucified was a hero, and they ignored what the Roman authorities wanted and remembered him. The dinners were political acts; being remembered, Jesus was not erased. In fact, as Luke 24 has it, he was not only viewed as the host, but he fed his followers, as he had the night before he was handed over. Jesus is still remembered at table; he hasn’t been erased. However, erasure continues to be the favored method for disposing of pesky people. For example, one church I know called the police on the homeless people congregating there. The vans came, the low life scum were put in, away they went, problem eliminated, and the people forgotten. And yet, some of us still remember.

3000 Years

“ …from iron sword to atomic bomb in about 3,000 years.” This is the short time humans have taken to escalate violence against our perceived enemies in our delusion that global control will lead to nonviolence. John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan remind us of this sad fact in their article in the January 31, 2018, issue of the “Christian Century,” entitled “Rising Up with Christ.” The Crossans have toured churches in the East and photographed some of their magnificent frescos, showing the Anastasis (Ana/stasis: Greek for up/rising) or the resurrection of Christ. These images are different from western depictions of Christ’s resurrection, where Christ rises alone in an individual resurrection. In the East, Christ invariably rises up with others, notably Adam whom Christ grasps by the arm with Eve following, as Christ guides them up out of Hades, out of death. Thus, in the East, universal resurrection is proclaimed. Christ takes all of humanity with him, past, present, and future, even as his cruciform halo reminds us that the resurrected is also the crucified: distinguishable, but never separate. “All religion is metaphor,” and, as the Crossans reminds us, “ …universal Anastasis is not a literal vision; it is a metaphorical vision. And—at least for our species—metaphor creates reality.” But for whom is this metaphor? Does it have meaning only in the church or for the public at large? Does it relate to the historical development of humanity? In the Neolithic period 5000 years ago, agriculture developed in the fertile crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. As agriculture became the main hallmark of civilization, violence escalated. This escalation is reflected in the story of Cain, a farmer, who kills Abel, his brother, a shepherd in a fit of rage when God accepts Abel’s sacrifice over his (Genesis 4:15). Violence, as the Crossans write, became civilization’s drug of choice. As we have gone from sword to atomic bomb in a mere 3000 years, we still are deluded that violence will bring us peace – or at least the cessation of violence. Even as civilization has saved us from barbarism, what will save us from civilization and ever escalating violence? The Crossans point out that the only credible answer is “Programmatic nonviolent resistance to violence….” They claim that nonviolence “… alone can end civilization’s trajectory of escalation.” Universal Anastatis pointedly contrasts Rome’s kingdom of violence with Jesus’ kingdom of nonviolence. Only nonviolent resistance to the normal violence of civilization, as exemplified by Jesus, can move us away from destruction toward a world transformed by the refusal to use violence to solve our problems. Thus, if civilization can will it (with the Spirit’s help?), the metaphor of universal Anastasis can lead to the reality of a nonviolent world, where we wean ourselves off of the drug of violence as the solution to our problems.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Stories of Gay Love

The latest issue of Out magazine features 26 gay love stories, telling of couples who’ve found each other and formed a loving relationship (http://www.out.com/). Each of these stories is inspiring, but I was particularly moved by the story of Samuel Colt and Chris Porter, who are gay porn stars. They have sex for a living, yet they say that they are faithful to one another.
On Gay.com, Colt explains: “"The heterosexual view of being faithful is so outdated.” “We don’t have to have sex only with each other to be faithful. I’m completely faithful to him, emotionally and with my heart. I can still get gang-banged and want to go back home to him."
Porter adds that they didn’t want a monogamous relationship because it didn’t fit their lives. That said, he adds that they have rules they both follow. "We don’t hook up with someone if we’re in the same city without the other one being involved,” he explains. “But if he’s out of town, I’ll hook up with someone. I’ll call and be like, 'Is that OK?' We’re honest and communicate."”
This is a refreshing antidote to the poison Paul spewed out in last week’s second reading (I Cor. 6:12-20), denouncing fornication and prostitutes. Not all fornication is evil, and God loves prostitutes. The Bible is filled with stories of prostitutes who saved the day. We should stop letting Paul’s repression and nastiness define sexuality.