Violence and Destruction: on hard lessons

Oof. I don’t know whether you noticed, but last Sunday’s readings were tough.

First, Jeremiah 20:7-13:

Oh Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed;
You have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me.
For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “Violence and destruction!”
For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and a derision all day long.
If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,”
Then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot….

And so on.

(The Lectionary informs me that we had the option of reading Genesis 21:8-21 instead. You know, the one where Abraham abandons his child and the mother of his child to die in the wilderness.)

And for the Gospel, we got Matthew 10:24-39, which lays out the cost of discipleship in bleak and uncompromising terms:

…Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

As always, it’s not all harshness and despair:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

And Jeremiah ends, however reluctantly, with praise and hope:

Sing to the LORD; praise the LORD! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.

For me, there’s always the temptation to skip right to these lines of consolation, passing by the swords and enmity, the fire and reproach. And I’m an avowed devotee of the hard pieces of the Bible. (I took a survey recently that asked me what three books of the Bible were the most meaningful for me. I listed Ecclesiastes, Esther, and 1 Corinthians.) But these passages are just so raw. Jeremiah spits and flails: at God, who forces him to speak words that sound like insanity, words of condemnation against the city and people he loves; at his “close friends,” who are the very ones watching and waiting for him to stumble; even at his own life. “Why did I come forth from the womb,” he cries at the close of this chapter, “to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?” For me, these are hauntingly personal words, echoing times too numerous to bear remembering when Jeremiah’s words could have been mine. They rip through the tranquil air of the sanctuary. They smell of hospitals and sting like wounds.

I happened to be the lector for that reading from Jeremiah yesterday. Listening to the words come out of my mouth, and minutes later listening to the words from Matthew rolling out from the priest, I found myself thinking about the lectionary–and about the place of scripture in the liturgy–in a new way. It actually struck me as being quite like the experience of talk therapy, in which part of the point is to provide a safe place to tell the impossibly hard stories. Let me explain.

Here we were, listening to Jeremiah tell me that being a prophet was like being raped by God, and to Jesus telling me that the cost of speaking God’s love would be slander, exile from my family, and violent death. But we heard these words, as always, within the context of safety that liturgy gives us: We come together in a place that we have deemed to be holy, in a time that we have set apart as sacred. We sing, bear candles, wear vestments, enfold ourselves in prayer. We have a time and a place appointed for the passages that trouble us as well as the passages that set us at ease. Within the safety of this ritual, the words are not made easy. We don’t get to skip ahead to the happy ending. But somehow, we are able to bear them.

I know what you need.

I’ve been thinking recently about evangelism. They haven’t been comfortable thoughts.

Evangelism weirds me out. I can’t get comfortable with the idea of going up to random people and telling them, “I know what you need [spoiler: it’s Jesus].” As a matter of fact, I don’t know what you need. I barely, if ever, know what I need. And people who are sure, without knowing me well, that they know what I need—church people, health care people, other people’s mothers—tend to be disastrously wrong, and to piss me off correspondingly.

A story: I was in the psych ward, again. I was sitting in the dining room, eating styrofoamy hospital ice cream and having a conversation with another patient about meds: bitching about prescribers, swapping side-effect horror stories, and sharing what has actually worked. This kind of low-key, repetitive insider bonding takes up a large percentage of one’s time on an inpatient unit, and forms a significant part of the healing process. For me, though, no meds had worked, and so I was telling my friend how my psychiatrist and I had decided to stop all my medications, and what a positive decision that had been for me. At this point a nearby staff member (a young edwardian-mustache-and-pocket-watch hipster) who’d been in the room but not part of the conversation interjected. “You know,” he said in a let-me-instruct-you tone, “A lot of psychiatric medications take a very long time to get into your system and take effect. So if you’re expecting them to start helping right away, you might be disappointed. You should make sure to wait a couple of months before you discontinue a medication.” Mental health crises tend to lower my bullshit tolerance dramatically, so instead of a polite “thank you,” I said bluntly, “Yeah. I know. After fifteen or so different medications, I did actually figure that out.”
The next day I pulled Mustache Dude aside and told him that it was patronizing, offputting, and unhelpful for him to barge into our conversation with his unneeded “advice.” I told him that it had already been heartbreaking for me to have my hopes for aid dashed again and again as one after another medication failed, without his implying that it was my own fault. I told him (maybe not in so many words) that his bedside manner needed work if he was going to be successful in mental health care. He apologized, but it was clear that he didn’t really understand what he had done wrong, wasn’t going to reflect deeply on it, and was simply humoring me. I let it go.

I think what Mustache Dude did here is sort of what we do with church, a lot of the time. We barge into other people’s lives without bothering to understand the context. “I know what you need: Jesus!” Never mind that it’s impossible to live in America today and not have Jesus (or something that gets called Jesus) be part of your consciousness whether you will or no. Never mind that, for so many people, faith communities have been loci of pain, shame, neglect, or hypocrisy, and asking them to come to church with you might well be asking them to relive trauma. Never mind that plenty of atheists and agnostics would say that they are quite happy and fulfilled already; that there isn’t actually a God-shaped hole in their lives, thank you all the same.

And yet–

And yet, when things in my life bring me great joy, I want those things for others; and I am sure that this urge to share what is good is itself a great good. And yet, Christians are called, by scripture and tradition, to evangelize, whatever that means. Euangelion, the Gospel, the good news. How do I take that seriously? How do I share the things that make my life good while still respecting other peoples’ autonomy and ability to know what is best for themselves? For me, this is part of a larger question: How do I reconcile ways that the church has been such a force for good in my life (and in the lives of so many) with the ways in which it has been such a cause of suffering? Books on what made the early Church successful, posts on earning the right to invite people to church, all the brass tacks that I originally set out to talk about here, they all come down to this: how do I–how dare I–invite others into this complicated relationship? How do I know whether it is what they need?

On this rock I will build my Church

The stench of urine is unmistakable and overwhelming.  As he shuffles through the serving line, there is no question that the smell emanates from him.  He fits the stereotype of a homeless person–baggy overcoat, long stringy hair, dirty hands and face.  His soft voice hesitates when I ask him what kind of cookie he would like, and the plate in his hand quivers as I place the dessert on it.  His name is Peter and I see him here at the homeless shelter twice a week, but he rarely meets my eyes when I greet him.

One of the very great privileges of my job is the opportunity to do service.  I accompany students to this men’s homeless shelter twice a week, where we distribute canned good from a food pantry and serve lunch to a group of homeless men.  It’s really enjoyable to watch freshmen and sophomores encounter homelessness and try to challenge them into thinking critically about it.  But the real reason I love it is selfish–service challenges me.  Greeting and serving these homeless men encourages me to grow and change too.

However, it’s not all rainbows and good feelings.  Daily life at a homeless shelter is not glamorous.  It’s nothing like those doey eyed images of helping the homeless–it is awkward and uncomfortable and at times, heartbreaking.  There are rigid rules and regulations that order things here.  In order to get lunch, the men must attend an AA style support group meeting where they hear about addiction treatment, job training, life skills, etc. It can be a good source for support, but for many, it’s just another hoop to jump through in order to get what they need.  Food is parceled out strictly–servers place food on the plate and the men may not touch their plate or the food until they reach the end of the serving line and the plate is handed to him.  The men get one plate and one set of flatware, which they must reuse if they want seconds. No one can take food to go.  Sometimes one of my students will break one of these rules and will get yelled at, either by a staff or a homeless man being served, and he will look at me, embarassed, as if to say, “I’m just trying to help!”

Beyond the few words exchanged over the serving line, I have chatted with and gotten to know a few of the men.  Some men are gruff and don’t want to talk to me; some men seem like they are begging for someone to listen to them and ask how they’re doing.  It is a men’s only shelter and I am one of the two or three women who pass through on a given day, so some men pay *too* much attention to me, which can be awkward.  Peter, however, is mysterious.  He doesn’t talk too much with the other guys, but sits alone in silence, eating slowly.  He looks to be about 65 or 70 years old, and I wonder about his family and how he came to be homeless.  I learned last week from the director, who meets with the men individually, that Peter is a graduate of Yale.  Yale University–one of most prestigious schools in the world.  Peter is also displaying some classic signs of schizophrenia.  Learning these two facts feels like a slap in the face.

I think about Peter a lot.  I think about how the city where we live has failed him, how our education and health system has failed him, how our Church has failed him.  It annoys me that our city has written him off and our mayor considers him a problem to be solved.  But what really breaks my heart is what our Church speaks around him and about him, but not to him.  For all our talk about a preferential option for the poor and our leadership by a pope who speaks out against inequality, we are here every week because we still haven’t figured it out yet.  Even though we know how men like Peter find themselves homeless, we haven’t worked to protect those facing mental illness from falling through cracks and losing their jobs and support networks.  We haven’t made the option for the poor such a priority that its part of every Catholic education and faith formation program.  We haven’t listened to the poor and responded to the call of our faith to make our Church of the poor and for the poor.

When I look around the homeless shelter, I am overwhelmed by both disappointment *and* hope.  I remind myself that we “accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work“.  I can’t solve poverty and homelessness.  I can’t change the priorities of our Church.  But Peter is with me always.  Knowing Peter’s story challenges me–I can’t pretend I am okay with the brokenness of our city and our Church.  This week is the last time I bring students to this shelter before summer break, and I can’t help but feel like there is so much left to be done.

This homeless shelter operates out of the basement of a Church.  When I first started coming here, I thought that was shameful–we ought to offer the poor the best of our resources, not the shoddy, dark basement to a gleaming Church of gold leaf and marble.  Lately, I’ve been thinking about it as a foundation.  It is here that the Church’s foundation takes shape.  It is here where all of us together are desperately trying to make life happen, to make Church happen.  It is on you, Peter, our rock, that we will build our church.  It is awkward and difficult.  We make mistakes along the way.  But we start here.  Here, we are building the Church together in this shelter–slowly and surely.  

On Taking Care, Part 2

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Sieger Koeder, “The Washing of the Feet”

Carmen, in her casually incisive way, responded to my last post on working as a nanny with the following:

My question for you is this: how does being an actual servant change the way you see the Christian vocational call to servanthood?

This made me realize two things. First, I’d done that thing I do where I talk around a topic, narrating all the peripheral events and the emotions it brings up, without, somehow, ever actually addressing what I’d set out to. And second, answering her question was going to require a new post of its own.

What has my experience as a servant taught me about Christian servanthood?

First off, I’ve learned a lot about the mutability of human power structures, about their underlying falseness and even absurdity. People react fairly differently when I tell them I’m a nanny, versus when I used to tell them that I was a Ph.D. student at a high-prestige school. It’s absurd. I’m the same person–at least, mostly–as I used to be. I still like knitting and sewing, cheap red wine and expensive beer, and talking really loudly about theology on the train. (Sorry, people on the Red Line who didn’t really care about Open Table at 10 last night.) There are some ways in which the Mary of today is fairly different from that of two years ago–I have a lot less data on languages and biblical scholarship at my fingertips; on the other hand, I’m better at cooking healthy meals quickly and with the minimum of pots to wash, and I know a lot more about the range of human responses to suffering. But when people first meet me, their expectations are set in clear ways by my job title. And sometimes (not always, but often enough) actually getting to know me isn’t enough to overcome that powerful image of what a low-income domestic employee must be like.

This should not be new information for me. There is no reason for me to be all shocked and pearl-clutchy that people might make assumptions about my intelligence, ambitions, and drive based on my work. This was something I thought I already knew. And yet, I myself bought into the system. I made being a scholar the center of my identity. I thought I was detached about the academy and my place in it, that it wouldn’t matter to me where I was as long as I was doing good work, but (I have ruefully come to understand) I was one of the least detached people I know. So it’s been very difficult, but quite salutary, to learn–with the intimate knowledge of experience–how fallible, arbitrary, changeable, and ultimately absurd all of these power roles are.

Second: I’ve learned that I actually do like taking care of people. I sort of knew this already–it’s why I applied for the job–but it’s not just that I like the kids. I like taking care of the family. I like that my role makes the kids’ lives better (caregivers are better at it when they have breaks! Who knew!) and the adults’ lives easier. Being someone who helps others become all that they might be–this is my vision of personal vocation, and it’s good to be doing it in this immediate and concrete way.

There’s a line from Gosford Park that I have been thinking of while planning these posts. At the very end, Helen Mirren’s character, Mrs. Wilson, is speaking to a young woman in service for the first time:

What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others? It’s the gift of anticipation. And I’m a good servant. I’m better than good. I’m the best. I’m the perfect servant. I know when they’ll be hungry and the food is ready. I know when they’ll be tired and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves.

Without spoiling the plot, I’ll just say that this line is spoken in great bitterness and vexation of spirit. Mrs. Wilson takes pride in her skill, but you can feel, underneath the quiet resignation, rage that this anticipation of others’ needs has taken up her whole life. (Side note: Helen Mirren and everyone in that movie are SO WONDERFUL. GO SEE IT [again, if necessary]. It’s on Netflix!) But honestly, I don’t share her bitterness. I like being able to tell what people need, and being able to give it to them. And being good at this seems worth working toward.

Third: I think the difference between Mrs. Wilson and myself has to do with mutuality. My work is (at least much of the time) joyful, because the family I work for also takes care of me, in big and in small ways. They pay me a fair and steady wage that includes paid vacations and sick leave. They respect me as a person and, ultimately, as an equal. They have gone above and beyond in their support of me during my ongoing health issues. They don’t ask me to do work that they themselves are unwilling or unable to do. These things matter. And also: the kids love me. They are happy to see me, and they miss me over the weekend. They freely share with me what children have to offer, their goofiness and sly humor, their interminable and confusing stories, their hopes and fears, their desire to hang out with me, and their trust that I think they’re awesome. Which, conveniently, I do.

Mrs. Wilson is not so lucky. Her existence is wholly devoted to serving her employers, without their ever recognizing her humanity or caring about her well-being. Her sacrifices go unnoticed, taken for granted. Even that which makes her a good servant, her ability to anticipate what people will need, receives a cursory “I don’t know what we’d do without you” (a phrase which, it seems to me, tends to erase rather than recognize work). She is necessary but not appreciated. I’ve worked in these situations (cough *Starbucks*), where I was taking care of others without being taken care of in turn. No one knew or cared what it cost me to work grueling shifts at unpredictable hours, during a time when I was barely hanging on. I wasn’t being paid enough to support myself. Whether customers were polite or rude had, it was clear, virtually nothing to do with me. I felt trapped: I didn’t know how and when I would be able to find another job, but the work I was doing was physically exhausting and emotionally depleting. With mutuality of care, I find pride and satisfaction in taking care of others. Without it, I feel myself to be exploited.

 

 

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Vermeer, “Diana and her Companions”

The passage I think of when I think of Christian servanthood is always the pericope from John 13, usually read at Maundy Thursday services:

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him…

 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.     (John 13:1-5, 12-17, NRSV)

What I like about this passage is that Jesus isn’t erasing or eliminating or ignoring structures of power and authority. They exist. They are a fact, and he’s not trying to make them go away. He talks, indeed, about the ways in which his life has conformed (in some ways) to power roles: “‘You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am.'” The disciples are his true and intimate friends, but they are also his disciples, his students, and those divisions are real. Real, but, as he shows, not solid. Real, but not immutable. Jesus can be their teacher, the example they strive to emulate, and also the person who cares for them in these inescapably awkward and close ways. Jesus does not erase power; he plays with it, upends it, shows the gap between the roles we give one another and the true tender selves who inhabit those roles. In his hands, power structures become the very locus of intimacy, where before they were the barrier to it.

On Taking Care

Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ for you?

Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.


“You don’t look like a nanny,” says the Doctor to Clara.

I am catching up on Doctor Who. We’re with the Eleventh Doctor: manic, boastful, a bright and petulant child making up imaginative games with arbitrary rules; how convenient that this new companion be a nanny. Or, well, not exactly a nanny, because she’s way too pretty and quick-witted and shiny-haired and young to be anything so mundane as just a nanny. She takes care of children whose mother died a year previously; she meant to travel the world, but then the friends she was staying with suffered this loss, and out of the goodness of her heart, she’s stayed on. As a sort of…nanny. Only not.

What does it mean to be a servant today? “Domestic employee” is the official parlance; I know this because, unlike Clara, I am a real live nanny. And this is a puzzling place for me to be.

Let me be clear: I really, really like my job. I’m proud of the work that I do, and I dearly love the family I take care of. Also, my boss cares a lot about employee rights, so they take pretty great care of me as well. I have a deep gratitude for my specific situation.

But when I take the kids out and about, I see some interesting sides of people. For example, the majority of people tend to think I’m the mother of my charges. I assumed that it would be obvious that I’m not—for starters, I’m white, they’re South Asian. But no. On my charitable days, I think, “Wow, isn’t it nice that people are comfortable with the possibility of interracial families.” When I’m feeling bitter, I reflect that we all just assume that brown people serve white people, not the other way around.

What I find working in this job is that I’m in a sort of liminal space. Like Clara, people tell me that I don’t “look like” a nanny, or that I’m not a “typical” nanny; or they ask me what I’m planning on doing next (because this obviously isn’t a career for me). These are not-unkind comments, coming from good people, and in a sense they’re absolutely right. I’m white, and I’m highly educated, and (my financial insecurity notwithstanding) I know how to speak the language of wealth. I learned how to ski as a child. I studied Latin at a prep school. I myself had a nanny growing up. And these things matter. One way to express the divide that I feel is to say: on the playground or in the children’s room at the library, the mothers tend to talk to one another, and the career nannies tend to do the same. Whom do I talk to? With whom do I have more in common?

Which brings me back around to the quote with which I began. When we think of Christian servanthood, we think, as Carmen put it in a Gchat conversation, of “doe-eyed paintings of Jesus washing people’s feet.” We think of Pope Francis, causing a scandal by washing the feet of women and non-Christians. We think of the Maundy Thursday liturgy. Perhaps we think of mission trips to far-flung places, and building schools for bright-eyed children to sing songs in. I’m not sure that we think very hard or very often about what it is like actually to be a servant; to be someone who makes her living by taking care of people’s most basic needs. I know I never used to.

It is difficult to be a poor person in a wealthy church. It is difficult even for me, who is probably not technically poor. It’s not supposed to be difficult, but it really is. It was difficult, when I was searching fruitlessly for work, to sit patiently through sermons on how “we” are all so busy that we don’t have time for contemplation; it remains difficult, when even thrift store clothes shopping feels like an unwarranted luxury, to listen to sermons on how “our” lives are full of material distractions but empty of spiritual fulfillment. It is difficult to make the decision that no, we genuinely can’t afford to pledge this year, and to feel like a freeloader, and to feel guilty when I choose to spend $3 on a cup of tea rather than put it in the collection plate. It is difficult for me to talk about these things. Perhaps they are personal and specific to my situation, or perhaps they are symptomatic of a larger pattern. I suspect the latter, but I do not know.

Before working as a nanny, I worked briefly at Starbucks. I’d worked in coffee shops in college and enjoyed it, but doing it full-time was pretty awful. I remember an exchange with a friend from church, who is ordinarily deeply kind and empathetic. I told him where I worked. His response: “Wow, that must be such a tough job, having to be on your feet and talking to people all day. I could never do that kind of work.” I thought (but did not say): You know what? You really could. If that was what it took to pay the rent, you could do it.

So many of my posts end up feeling like the fragmentary start of a conversation rather than a completed thought, and this one is especially so. What do you think—about what being a servant is, and what it means? About what it can teach us as a church?

Cui Bono?

This week I am teaching one of my favorite topics to discuss–the death penalty.  We begin the chapter by watching Dead Man Walking and then get into the moral arguments and the practical realities of the death penalty in America.  This chapter comes near the end of a year long morality class, so we’ve been practicing all year how to identify and analyze moral arguments.  As we discussed some statistics about prisons and the justice system, we started talking about the why.  Why are American prisons beset with recidivism? Why is the greatest concentration of crime found in predominantly black neighborhoods? Why are the conditions in American prisons so terrible and how did they get to be so corrupt?    While my students are becoming adept at parsing moral issues, the questions they ask aren’t usually about morality–they are usually about power.  

As you might imagine, discussing a topic as sensitive as death penalty with teenage girls is difficult, but not because it is too serious or potentially political (though it certainly is).  It is difficult because they don’t quite know how to analyze power yet.  We got into a contentious discussion yesterday about voting rights for incarcerated and convicted felons.  Most of the conversation revolved around how unfair it is that a felon who has served his/her sentence can’t vote–which is great.  Having a student voice frustration around an injustice means that she’s successfully understood the justice concerns and may have emotionally invested in the issue.  But I tried to push them into deeper analysis of the issue by asking–who do you benefits if convicted felons don’t vote?  Crickets.  Blank faces.  You could hear a pin drop.

However, I can’t blame my students.  Asking who benefits is actually just asking–who holds all the power in this circumstance?  And who is trying to hold onto their power?  I’m not surprised they first, don’t know how to analyze power, and second, don’t know that they *have to* analyze power.  I don’t think I really understood politics or how to analyze power until well into college or graduate school.  Even now, compared to my more politically engaged friends, I don’t always immediately see the political ramifications of new laws or alliances, and I find shows like The West Wing and House of Cards stressful because I constantly have to be pointedly thinking…cui bono?  But this conversation with my students really struck me because I left the classroom thinking–they should be able to do this, and I should be able to teach it to them.  And it definitely belongs in a religion class.

What I think I was lacking in my conversation with my students was a solid, faith based explanation of power.  I can explain political power, or economic power to a group of students.  But the nexus of faith and power is trickier.  Essentially, the Church needs a theology of power.*  Power is intricately related to how we behave in the world and what our lives are like.  Power can be economic, social, political, moral, structural, intellectual–it affects nearly every area of our lives.  So it is only natural to conclude that power impacts our faith lives.  So my basic questions that lead me to consider a theology of power are:  how does the fact that we profess a faith in Jesus affect how we see power?  And conversely, how does the way we use power affect our faith?  Christianity has pretty clear articulations on justice and how to act justly in the world.  But what about power?  Power, quite often, is the foundation of justice–power used appropriately brings about justice, and used inappropriately, it perpetuates injustice.

Now, I am not one of those theologians who believes that we need A Theology of Everything (a theology of sitting!  a theology of 15th century women poets!  a theology of that one time you saw God in a grilled cheese!)  God can indeed be found everywhere and every created good does point back to the reality of God, so a good theologian could write a theology of everything.  But, good theology doesn’t just ask and answer theoretical, academic questions.  Good theology advances our understanding of God in the world.  So  when I say “we need a theology of power” I am not trying to say “here, theologians.  You’re probably bored–write this theology.”  I really do think that attempting to understand how power works in the world can say something about God, and looking at how God works in the world can tell us something about power.

I learned the phrase “cui bono” through my studies in feminist theology.  Feminist theology does a really great job of asking–who benefits from women’s oppression?  Whose power increases when women’s power decreases?  Similarly, black liberation theology asks those questions of racism and racial prejudice.  But what I’m asking for is a look at power as a whole.  Feminists have already written extensively on structural power and its damaging effects.  But power isn’t always oppressive, and a theology of power wouldn’t necessarily conclude that the exercise of power is always negative.  Indeed, the fact that God acts in the world powerfully and exercises power on behalf of God’s people (i.e.: the Exodus story, the destruction of Jericho, the “power of God” that is the cross, as referenced in 1 Corinthians 1:22, etc) is already an indication that when God acts powerfully, the results can be confusing.  It’s definitely good, for example, that God freed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery…is it good that God intervened so that Israelites could murder Canaanites in the Battle of Jericho?  Maybe not.  So I think we need to take a step back and look more critically and power as a whole, not just examples of oppressive power or power over someone, structurally or otherwise.

I think because of the breadth and depth of this topic, this will not be the last I write about a theology of power, but rather, a beginning to the conversation.  My goal in trying to articulate a theology of power is two fold: first, to understand something about God and about power, and second, to be able to explain to my students what power and God have to do with one another.  I’m driven to this discussion because, if it deals with justice, it influences how we can live out our Christian commitment to love our sisters and brothers.  And if it confuses my students, then it matters to people of faith, people trying to understand how to live according to our faith.  I’m not sure there are two better reasons for a theological reflection than those.

 

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*If you know of a good theology of power that has been written already, do share!

Vigil

I tell people that the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night is my favorite service of the year. This year, a friend invites me to put my money where my mouth is: why don’t I join him for the Easter Vigil with the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, the Episcopal monastery a few blocks from my apartment. The service starts at 4:30 am Easter Sunday, but, he tells me, the cool kids start gathering before 4.

I set an alarm, but I am keyed up, and find myself awake a few minutes before it goes off. I crawl out of bed, trying not to wake my husband, slip into last week’s jeans and a thick red sweater. I wonder, sleepily, what I am trying to prove here. Does it even work to do Easter Vigil twice? At what point do I reach liturgical overkill? My friend is a master of the virtue which my father terms “cheerful persistence.” While I am drinking that first, necessary, silent cup of milky Irish Breakfast, my phone rings. I assure him that I’m still coming, am almost out the door.

Heavy socks, sneakers, scarf and mittens: it may be April, but this is still Massachusetts. As I tie my shoes clumsily in the dark, I find myself humming, internally, the chant from a few hours before: Come ye, take light from the light that is never overtaken by night; come glorify the Christ, risen from the dead.

 


 

It is, as promised/threatened, a long service. We start in the emptiest dead end of the night, with a brazier of great leaping flames in the monastery garden. On the other side of the wall, an occasional car is heard rushing down Memorial Drive. We light candles from the Paschal candle, and hold them in our seats, watching the wax dwindle and spill onto our fingers and the cardboard holder, as we meander through scripture. The Creation. The Flood. The Aqedah. Through Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, into Zephaniah’s promise. Our second tapers are burning low when we stand to chant the baptismal covenant, claiming anew what seem to me to be some awfully stark and uncompromising statements about who God is and how the world works. To my delight, the celebrant dips what looks like a paintbrush into water taken from the baptismal font and walks around the sanctuary, flicking it over our heads. The drops hit me, hard, in the forehead, and trickle down into my eyes. I love this about my tradition, that it loves words and also matter: stories and fire and water and song.

Meanwhile, the black circles of stained glass high on the walls have slowly turned to glowing blue; outside, the sun is rising. Finally, finally, it is Easter. The lights come up, the candles on the altar are lit, and we sing and say and sing again “Alleluia,” and ring bells, louder and louder. We are back in the familiar terrain of the Eucharist, and I love this, too, that the impossibly strange can be so familiar, such a comfort. (And yet there’s always something new: this morning my chunk of bread breaks off and falls into the chalice of wine. I look up at the deacon in panicked hilarity. He tells me, kindly, not to worry, “just reach in and fish it out.” I return to my seat and giggle through the ravishing first verse of “Now the Green Blade Riseth.”)

Slowly, the world is returning to normal: normal church time (Sunday morning); normal hymns–familiar tunes, polished phrases, played just a bit too slowly for my poor breath control; and the normal gentle hubbub as the congregation makes its cheerful way outside. But for me, at least, that glimpsed mystery adheres to all things, to the sung dismissal and the sunshine outside and the churchy chit-chat with friends over coffee afterward.

 


 

There is not a useful way to be detached or ironic about Easter. Like many people I know, I often cultivate a dryness, a deprecation, about matters of faith, born of the fear of sentimentality, or of fear that it will turn out not to be real, or that people will think that I’m deluded, or of fear of something else. There are so many shapes fear takes, and always with the result that I disavow my own deepest life. Here, though, there is no place for this fear. I am laughing immoderately, and weeping, and possessed by that rich solemnity of joy, in turns and then all at once. What can I say? Christ is risen. For me, it’s not about believing it; what I believe is that I don’t have to believe it for it to be true. The resurrection is the shape of the world. It just is. And sometimes—as this morning—it is given to me to experience.

 

 

Rejecting Exile

My home parish hosted Walter Breuggemann for a weekend recently. And yeah, I geeked out over that about as much as you might expect. For someone like me, who spends a whole lot of time thinking about biblical scholarship and also about theology and also about mainline Protestant culture and about how to get these different worlds talking to one another, this was excitement on a par–dare I say it–with the release of a new Harry Potter book. (Not Deathly Hallows, though. Let’s not exaggerate here.)

Saturday’s lecture was a sweeping introduction to the prophetic texts of the Hebrew Bible, centering on the prophet as a voice subverting and resisting the dominant narrative of empire. The ideas were pretty basic, in the best way, and were thoroughly grounded, beautifully and clearly explained, and peppered with sharp wit. (One of the most pitch-perfect images came out of a digression into the importance and sacredness of the biblical canon: “It’s like having a family album. There are more attractive pictures of other people elsewhere…but this is our family.”) It was a lovely and inspiring day, and I strongly encourage you to listen to the whole thing, and honestly, that’s about all I have to say about that.

Sunday’s lecture (which you can and should watch here)–how do I put this–gave me considerably more grist for the mill. Breuggemann moved from talking about prophecy generally to talking more specifically about exile as a metaphor for the current state of the gospel community in America, and…I just didn’t quite buy it. I feel like it wouldn’t really be fair to fuss at specific pieces of his argument, since he made it pretty clear that his emphasis was more on the metaphor of exile than on the historical reality of Jewish exile which gave rise to that metaphor. He noted furthermore that no metaphor is going to fit its historical antecedent (is that the word I want?) precisely. Also, it’s cheating to attack specific points without first comprehensively paraphrasing his argument, which latter seems too much like work.*

But taking the historical argument apart piece by piece isn’t the point here. Breuggemann’s lecture got me thinking: is the metaphor of exile an authentic one for Christians today? Is it fair to think of ourselves, as Christians both individually and communally, as displaced, cut off from our “home,” isolated within a foreign community that is indifferent or hostile to us and that seeks at all costs to assimilate us to itself, or even to erase us altogether? Is it useful to envision ourselves in this way? Does it open us up to God and to other people?

One of the things that concerns me about the metaphor of exile is the variety of ways in which various people talking about the lecture before and afterward paraphrased it. As I heard it, Breuggemann’s argument was that Christians feel as though we are in exile due to an increasing sense that our baptismal values–the values of the gospel–are no longer (if they ever were) the values of the dominant culture. That is, we live in a world dominated by the cruel exigencies of the market rather than by the Christian virtues of generosity, hospitality, and self-giving love. Okay, cool! That is a sentiment I can get behind. But when I heard other people describe what they were hearing, there was a subtle difference: people talked about the demise of Christendom, that is, a world in which Christian culture was the default setting. People talked about feeling pushed aside, displaced, misunderstood. And I think these are two ideas which are fundamentally very different, but which bleed into one another incredibly easily. We need to distinguish between “We have an abiding sense that our baptismal values are not the values of the dominant culture” and “We’re anxious about not being quite as much the center of our own universe as we used to be.” The former is a deep concern for me. The latter is a grief that I think is probably understandable, but that, honestly, I really struggle to understand or sympathize with.

So, here’s a more tentative question: What does it do to other people to claim the language of exile? We claim a metaphorical exile; is that–can it possibly be–a neutral act with regard to those among us who are literally in exile? As I listened to Breuggemann’s lecture, I thought, What would a refugee with no support network and little English think of this? And honestly, I don’t have any idea. (Which is something I need to sit with.) Are we taking on the romance of exile without being privy to its disorienting, devastating grief?

And my last, still-more-inchoate thought: It seems to me that exile as a concept depends on the idea of a pre-exilic existence, a home that exists, somewhere, to which you maintain your loyalty, on which you pin your hopes. You used to be in control, have self-determination, live in your homeland. You used to be part of the dominant culture. Though it looks forward to the future, the exilic imagination necessarily has strong roots in the past. And I want to say that my identity as Christian is fundamentally at odds with this sense. The Kingdom of God is always already-but-not-yet, always looking forward, never looking backward. I guess this is where one could bring in Paradise and the Fall and say that really, we’re exiled from Eden; but that’s not a story that gets me very far. Because to me, saying “I want to return to Paradise” is like saying “I want to turn away from this world,” and I will always reject that. Always. The Kingdom of God, as we imagine it, is not some other place, from which we have been exiled, to which we will return. It is this place, transfigured into what we can even now see that it might be. This place is our home. That is the whole point.

 

 


*Okay, I’m going to cheat, just a little: 1. Breuggemann’s sweeping dismissal of empires as culturally sterile, homogeneous entities (“If you’ve seen one empire, you’ve seen all the empires;” “By and large empires do not have any visions; they just imagine keeping doing what they’re doing, but they do it better”) is just…not true. The Babylonian empire =/= Persian =/= Roman. There were definitely some strong similarities in the ways those empires chose to administer their vassal states, but that’s mostly because the Babylonians were really freaking good at it to begin with, is what I dimly remember. 2. He characterizes the formation of the Torah during the Persian period as a straightforward rejection of the culture of empire, rather than a complex borrowing, transformation, and appropriation of the high culture of the ancient Near Eastern powers. He cites Genesis 1 as a text that develops in order to show that “the world does not belong to the gods of the Persians, or the gods of the empire, but the world belongs to the God who has long loved the Jews”; but the very thing that makes this text work in that way is its total saturation in the mythology and literature of the powers it seeks to supplant.** 3. This is a little further out of my (former) area of expertise, but every time he draws a sharp dichotomy between the gospel community and the “market ideology” of contemporary global capitalism, I think, “Wait, didn’t capitalism develop within a Christian society? Do we really get to wash our hands of this market ideology?”

**WRT 1 and 2, I feel moderately confident that he knows that the historical situation was much more complicated than he’s making it out to be, and is simplifying for the sake of telling a coherent story to a non-specialist audience. Which opens up whole new vistas of puzzlement and frustration for me.  It just hurts me inside when people dismiss or malign the monumental achievements of human civilization to make a rhetorical point.

You, too, are the Body of Christ (part two)

So, in my previous post, I wrote about the dynamics at play when a sheltered Catholic (me) decides to attend a non-Catholic worship service.  In this post, I’ll share my reflections on the actual service I attended–a weekday low mass at an Episcopal church.  In general, I would say that the service itself was incredibly similar to a Catholic mass, the language was noticeably formal, and the people I met tried incredibly hard to be welcoming.

I had been thinking about going to a service at this particular church for a long time, and one night while walking back from the farmer’s market, I decided to make the time and just headed in, vegetables and all.  I was struck by how similar the church looked to the chapel at my undergrad–a little spare but beautifully decorated with stained glass windows and a little marble.  There were about 6 or 8 people there and a few more trickled in after the mass started.

One thing that I immediately noticed was the language of the mass.  The structure of liturgy of the Word then liturgy of the Eucharist and the call and response were very familiar–almost identical to a Catholic service.  But the language was so formal.  So many “thees” and “thous” and “speakest” and “hast”–I suddenly understood how very English the Episcopal Church is (or rather, how very Latinized the Roman Catholic Church is).  These language differences also made me think of the recent retranslations of the Roman Missal that caused so much uproar in the Catholic Church.  I, like a lot of Catholics, wasn’t a big fan of them when they first came around, for a number of reasons (some theological, some sentimental).  Though the retranslations intended to solve a number of errors and mistranslations, they have been widely criticized because of their clunky, formal style (“chalice” for “cup” and “enter under my roof” for “receive”, etc).  What is frustrating about these translations is that I work really hard to teach high school students that prayer (and liturgy) is simply a form of communication between God and humans, just like a conversation one would have with a friend.  When they finally believe me (it takes a lot of convincing) and see prayer that way, they inevitably are far less intimidated by prayer and are encouraged to treat their relationship with God like one of close friendship.  So here’s my problem: we don’t use words like “chalice” and “thee” and “hast” in conversation, least of all, conversation with our friends.  So can this kind of formal language create distance between the worshipper and God?  Does this kind of language adequately express how the average Catholic or Episcopalian would choose to converse with God?  I couldn’t help but feel alienated at this mass, like I felt alienated during the first few weeks of the Catholic retranslations.

Things really got interesting after the service.  I gathered my things to go and was greeted near the door by the pastor who celebrated the mass.  I chatted a little bit with him about what brought me there, my job, etc and he invited me downstairs where they were having fellowship, and the other parishioners there echoed the invitation.  I was a little hesitant but genuinely felt welcomed, so I went.

The fellowship downstairs was a lovely expression of Christian hospitality.  There was a simple meal of wine, cheese, crackers, fruit, etc.  Everyone brought something to share and everyone pitched in to set up the table.  We sat down to eat and discuss some Bible passages the pastor printed out to share.  I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was quite sure this had never happened at any Catholic parish I had ever visited.  (Talking with people you don’t know after Mass?  MADNESS.)

The Bible passage was a Psalm and it was wonderful to simply listen to what others thought of the passage.  Most of those present were older, so I was captivated by their listening to where they are on their faith journeys and how the Psalm could speak to them.  The conversation meandered, and eventually, we came onto the topic of the Catholic Church.  A few of those present appeared to be ex-Catholics and bore some pretty serious wounds from their histories with the Catholic Church.  Finally, the question came up as to why non-Catholics are not permitted to take the Eucharist in a Catholic Mass, i.e.: why belief is a prerequisite for partaking.  One woman spoke up and explained, “well, that just goes to show how differently we think about the Eucharist.  Catholics don’t believe in the power of the Eucharist; they think it’s just a symbol.  We think it’s effective and it makes us into the Body of Christ.”

At this point I should mention that I hadn’t been “outed” as Catholic yet.  Rather than serve as a mouthpiece for all things Catholic or violate what might be seen as a safe space to discuss painful experiences with Catholicism, I chose not to jump in and declare my Catholic identity.  However, Catholic educator alarm bells were ringing in my head at the characterization of the Eucharist as a symbol.  And ironically, this argument from effect is exactly what Catholic theology uses to explain precisely why non-Catholics cannot take communion–Catholic eucharistic theology also holds that because the unity among the churches of the Body of Christ does not exist yet, we cannot share the same Eucharist as if we did.  So the woman who spoke up really called Catholic theology to task in an important way, one that I hadn’t considered before: if we really believe the sacrament is not just a symbol, if we take serious its efficacy, can’t it make us into the Body of Christ?  Aren’t we saying that the Eucharist is just a symbol when it is shared only by those who are already united in faith?  Perhaps that is an overly simplified way to think about the effect of sacraments, but I couldn’t help but notice that from this Episcopalian perspective, Catholic theology looks like it doubts the efficacy of the Eucharist.

So I left that evening wondering–what will make us into the Body of Christ?  I don’t have a magic solution to that problem, but more than anything, I am glad that I went to this mass and glad I can continue to discuss theology with my non-Catholic brethren.  Such a rewarding experience is a great reminder for me to step outside the Catholic bubble more often.  It seems to me that sharing in the Eucharist, even with some restrictions, and trading ideas in theology is the best way to effect the Body of Christ here and now.

 

The Academic is Personal

One of my favorite passages of all came up in church this morning: Deuteronomy 30. It’s from Moses’ deathbed speech, meant to reassure the Israelites that they will still be able to have a relationship with God without his prophetic leadership, and to exhort them to follow the commandments that will keep them in this right relationship: “For this commandment which I am giving to you is not too difficult for you, and it is not too distant. It is not in the heavens, [for you] to say, ‘Who will go up for us to the heavens and take it for us, so that we may hear it and do it?’ And it is not beyond the sea, [for you] to say, ‘Who will cross for us to the other side of the sea and take it for us, so that we may hear it and do it?’ For the word is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it….

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.” Deuteronomy 30:11-14, 19.

I wrote a paper in grad school about these verses–more specifically, about the ways that Paul interprets them in Romans 10:5-10 as a way of exploring what “the righteousness from faith” means for the Christian community. And when I got home from church, on a whim, I pulled up the file on my computer and started reading through it. Reviewing long-ago papers is a salutary experience. I recommend it for anyone who needs a little dose of humility. There’s nothing like a long-ago typo to remind you of human frailty.

What strikes me most forcefully is how personal my argument is. Despite the academic subject, the occasionally convoluted phrasing (sorry, MRDA; not my best prose ever), and the carefully distanced scholastic voice, I can see in these words the topics that burned in me four years ago. Discomfort with the idea of a preacher mediating between the congregation and God? Check. Fascination with the role of language in my spiritual life? Check. Anxiety about never quite being able to believe hard enough? Check. Conviction that more careful exegesis is the answer to all of my problems? Check. In the end (and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised here), I managed to say a little bit about Paul and a whole lot about myself. There’s a lot more to say about this, but that’s what I have for now.