Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Seeing the Neighbor: Immigration, Race, and the Good Samaritan

note: this is a presentation I am working on; all comments would be much appreciated. I've also added Roman numerals to help you navigate through this longer piece:
I. Focuses on Ellis Island and the history of excluding immigrants by race;
II. connects the exclusionary practices ("optics") of Ellis Island to earlier slave auctions and to present day practices of racial profiling.
III. Looks at the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), alluding at points to the discussion in Part I
IV. Examines more closely how the story of the Good Samaritan challenges the "invulnerable seeing" discussed in Part I
V. Concludes by looking briefly at how working with refugees--work that I do--fits within this discussion.


On January 1st, 1892, Ellis Island officially opened. In the following three decades, over 70% of immigrants to the U.S. would be processed there. The decades preceding and following this moment were marked not by an open, receptive embrace of the “tired, poor, huddled masses.” Instead, these decades were filled with an increased focus on immigration, race, and citizenship, and with the refinement of techniques for excluding those deemed unworthy to belong.

In 1870, twenty-two years before Ellis Island opened, Congress passed the naturalization act. Previously, one could not become a “naturalized” citizen--meaning a citizen of the U.S.A. despite being born in another country--unless one were a free white person. The act in 1870 did not erase the qualification of being white but was expanded to include immigrants from Africa. The act was intended to complete what began with the 14th amendment: to grant citizenship rights to those who had been enslaved. However, by not erasing the racial component of citizenship but expanding it, Congress tried to answer the problem of slavery while still continuing racist policies of exclusion. By specifying that free whites and persons of African descent could become citizens, the 1870 Act solidified the link between race and citizenship, for it excluded a growing immigrant population, the Chinese. In 1875, five years after the 1870 Naturalization Act and 20 years before the opening of Ellis Island, Congress passed the Page Act. This act, as well as some legislation following it, focused on “oriental women,” women who disrupted the white social body by supposedly carrying diseases and working in the U.S. as prostitutes. These acts began a more intensified classification of “undesirable immigrants” by focusing on nations and races; the Page Act explicitly declared its focus on “subjects of China, Japan, or any Oriental country.” In 1882, ten years before Ellis Island opened, Congress passed two acts that helped further expand the notion of undesirable immigrants: it passed the “Chinese Exclusion Act,” which completed what began 1870--the exclusion of Chinese immigrants and the denial of American citizenship to Chinese persons. The other immigration act in 1882 barred “lunatics, idiots, and persons liable to become public charges,” meaning those it deemed unemployable, from entering the States. In1891, one year before the opening of Ellis Island, Congress modified this act by adding to the list polygamists and those carrying contagious diseases.

The focus on health, as should seem obvious from preceding summary, is not just an isolated health issue but one that is intertwined with issues of race, national identity, gender, and the social body. Immigrants were consistently seen as threatening to contaminate, whether by altering the “racial” identity of the American public or corrupting “American” morals and political ideals. In 1891, immigrants became marked as the corrupters in a different sense: they were a threat to the physical health of the American social body. The operations at Ellis Island continued to heighten these associations of race, class, and disease.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Strangers Welcoming Strangers: reflections on Matthew 25:31-46

I spent this Thanksgiving with my uncle; we are the closest family he has (a four hour drive away), my aunt (his wife) having died a couple years ago and his son (my cousin) spending the holidays in jail. It's a long story, the details of which don't need to be divulged. For my uncle, what mattered was that he was still able to share the Thanksgiving meal with family. It also helps that he loves food and Skyler (my wife) is an amazing cook.

The holidays bring with them an increased awareness of family. However, for me, this focus on family began a couple months ago, in relation to my work with refugees. Familial relationships matter in working with refugees. Some refugees have left their families to flee; some have family members who are in "no contact," meaning, for instance, that a brother left the Bhutanese refugee work to find work in India and has not been heard from since he left, three years ago. The government regulates how we house families (how old children can be before they must be in "same gender" bedrooms...I'll withhold comments on this governmental investment in constructing "proper" familial structures).

A few months ago, I met with a refugee who has been in the U.S. for many years now and is working on an masters degree in refugee public health issues. He told me about how, when he came, he had a family member here to welcome him and help him navigate the complexities of adjusting to life in the U.S. We talked about how much harder it is for refugees who have no family, no one to welcome them, and how we both wished the church would become family to these refugees and welcome them.

I've started using this discussion, coupled with a few verses from Matthew 25 ("I was a stranger and you welcomed me"), to begin my orientation with new churches and volunteers. Every time I do it, though, I feel dishonest. I know the scripture is more complicated than I make it seem.

For instance, Jesus never tells us to seek him in the stranger (or sick, hungry, thirsty, naked, or imprisoned). Nor does Jesus ever promise that we will see him in these people. In fact, the story of judgment presupposes that those who served these people did not know they served Jesus, nor were they expecting to find Jesus there at all. Those who ignored these people likewise did not know who they were ignoring.

What bothers me the most, however, is that the story is not about generic individuals but about two peoples, "the nations" (v. 32) and the king's "family" (lit. "my brothers," v. 40), Gentiles and Jews.

The image of the shepherd separating the people comes from Ezekiel 34, where the prophet rages against the "shepherds" of Israel, who not only neglected the sheep (failing to strengthen, feed, heal, search, find, and guide the sheep) but actually fed on the sheep (v. 4-8). God will reject these shepherds (v. 10) and will come and be the shepherd (v. 11) of these scattered and abused people (Israel). In this process, Israel will "no longer suffer the insults of the nations. They shall know that I, the LORD their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people" (29-30).

Given this background, the strangers, hungry, sick, and imprisoned should be seen as specifically the scattered and abused people of Israel, Jesus' "brothers," or, as Paul puts it in Romans 9 (an important text to keep in the back of our minds here), "my brothers according to the flesh."

Matthew 25, then, retells a story about Israel's failed leaders, God's assumption of that leadership, and the people of Israel being rescued from these poor leaders and the abusive nations into which they were sent. If this is the case, then Jesus' retelling of Ezekiel's story of judgment implies that the most important thing we do is not taking care of our own people, or of all generic people, but of this particular people, the people of God, Israel. Our service to, or neglect of, the least of Israel determines our status before God. To neglect Israel is to neglect Israel's King, and hence to neglect God. Likewise, to serve Israel (the lowliest among them) is to serve Israel's King, and hence to serve God.

If this were all Jesus meant, then it would be surprising that, upon finishing this story, Jesus is compelled to talk about his crucifixion (26:2) and the leaders begin conspiring to kill him (26:3). What is so scandalous is Jesus' assertion that he is this Son of Man (a term he uses for himself throughout Matthew), and thus that Jesus is the embodiment of God's rule, the replacement of the false shepherds ("chief priests and elders" 26:3), and the one through whom Israel and the nations will be blessed. Those who serve him by serving the lost sheep of Israel will "inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (25:34). Jesus has the audacity to declare not just what will happen at the end of time but that he is the one who determines what will happen. Jesus does not just see what will happen; he is what will happen. He is the kingdom, the true ruler, the one who has authority to declare the truth of the end times.

Scripture often plays with the tension between the hidden and revealed, the present age and the age to come. This passage pushes that tension further: for it reveals the basis of judgment that was hidden until the time of judgment. Neither the sheep nor the goats thought that their salvation hinged on what they did with the least of Jesus' family. Both are surprised--the basis of judgment was hidden from them until the time of judgment. But in the story, in which the basis of judgment is only revealed at the time of judgement, the basis of judgment becomes unveiled before the time of judgment. Unlike the sheep or the goats in the story, we are explicitly told that our judgment depends on serving Jesus through the service to lowly Israel. Through Jesus, we now know what he teaches nobody knew until the time of judgment.

In the story, we are never told why the "righteous" served the lowly of Israel. By telling us--Gentiles!--the basis of judgment, Jesus provides us with a new way of seeing our action. We, the nations, are not left in the dark but are allowed to see the truth of our actions. In Jesus, we outsiders are welcomed into the family of God; in Jesus, we are given access to what has been promised to Israel, the blessings of God's kingdom. In Jesus, we see that we are in fact bound to Israel, and hence welcomed into the eternal life prepared by Jesus' Father.

We have no right to hear what Jesus says. We have no right to know about eternal life, or judgment. We have nothing of our own that would make us legitimate heirs. We are reminded at the beginning that we are the nations, those into whom Israel was scattered and by whom Israel was trampled. As these people, the sinful nations, we are now reordered and called into service. We are told to do what we did not know we ought to do--serve God's people, Israel. We are told to believe what was beyond our knowledge--that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel, and hence the ruler of the whole world. We are welcomed, now, to do what was beyond our ability to do--to love (and not seek to destroy) the elect people of God. No longer are the scattered and rebuked people of Israel a sign of our rejection (even their judgment testifies to the fact that they are, and we are not, the people of God). In Jesus, we see that these people are a sign of our hope. In Jesus, we see that they are not a sign of our rejection but a sign of God's gracious presence to us. In Jesus, we who were "far off" see that we are no longer "foreigners to the covenants of the promise" (Eph 2). Jesus tells us what we had no right or ability to know--that we are bound to Israel, to Israel's King, and hence to the true God of all creation.

It is through our call to welcome scattered Israel that we are also called to welcome the strangers among us, for me specifically, refugees. We approach the refugees, however, not as those on the inside who are gracious enough to welcome them in. We approach them through the knowledge that we ourselves are strangers bound to a people who are not our own, Israel. Our lives are not just open and receptive, capable of accommodating (and assimilating) the "aliens" in our midst. Our lives exceed our control, overflowing our own boundaries. In being bound to Israel, our existence is ecstatic, standing outside of itself. We do not need to guard our own identity; it is already mixed. By being bound to Israel, we are free to be all things to all people: we have nothing at stake in being a pure people, in having a distinct identity, in being peculiar or noteworthy. We have no ability to control or shape our identity; we are bound to another people and told that this binding is an act of grace. We believe, and thus we serve the lowly in Israel, and through this service, we find our lives flowing out into the lives of those around us, to those who are strangers among us, including refugees.

Serving refugees reminds us that our lives are not just supposed to be open but ecstatic, not just receptive but transgressive ("stepping across"). We are called to live in an uncomfortable exchange, a series of flows and leakages. Our lives are to be marked by seepage, by moments that escape our own confines, and we find our own lives strangely intermixed with those beyond our normal boundaries. We do not need to distinguish ourselves from anyone else, for we have already been marked as strangers welcomed into the household of God and therefore we know that nothing is alien to us. The most ungrateful and belligerent refugee is not our project but our brother or sister, another Gentile, a fellow foreigner, called by Jesus into the blessings of God's people, Israel. We welcome them as family, as one who like us has been called and bound to another people, the Israel of God. We welcome the stranger not just because we were strangers but because Jesus continually calls to become strange again, to recognize and rejoice in our status as foreigners blessed in Israel through Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of Man, the creator of heaven and earth.

with thanks to Micah D., for his friendly critiques.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Mexican and Arabic Bread

I keep looking up syllabuses online, using google to search for things like "race and u.s. immigration syllabus" or "refugees and american cultural studies syllabus." I want to find the right books, ones that will help me theorize the connections between imperialism, racism, immigration, assimilation, gender, etc. I work with refugees; in fact, I often work with white churches, trying to help them work with refugees. I should also say I work in the South.

A week ago, I woke up at 7 am in a panic. I had a day off and I wasn't stressed by the amount of work I still had to do. I was stressed by the kind of work I was doing. I thought to myself, "my job is to help white southern churches establish paternalistic relationships with refugees." I had been listening to Timothy Tyson's __Blood Done Sign My Name__, a memoir set within a larger portrait of the history of racism in North Carolina. At one point in the book, he describes white middle class Christians who felt good about themselves and their charity as long as the African-Americans displayed the appropriate gratitude. They gave, out of their abundance ("blessed to be a blessing," some might say). They gave in a way that made them feel better about themselves while simultaneously masking the violence that structured white-black relations (and also produced the wealth, the blessing, out of which they gave). The white benefactors could feel good about being on top because they were generous and were "well liked" by their black servants. The charity actually served as an attempt to restore the fact of mastery ("they" depend on my kindness) while hiding its violence. It was a violent charity, so to speak, and I woke up fearing I was producing a new form of it, no longer with African-Americans but with newly arriving, dark skinned refugees.

My response was not surprising: initial shock, and then, research. I could see that race, immigration, assimilation, American culture, Christianity, gender, and imperialism were all somehow tied together. I knew that one could not talk about refugees without talking about the history of American immigration (which cannot be understood apart from race, gender, and imperialism). But I wanted help in seeing how it all worked together. I wasn't seeking knowledge to gain simple mastery; I wanted to know because I wanted to help others--and myself--to move beyond it. I didn't want my work with churches to become another form of violent charity. But perhaps I'm still a bit too much of the academic, thinking that books are the solution to everything.

On this past Friday, a little over a week after my terrifying realization, I was driving an Iraqi refugee home. He often helps me move heavy furniture (though he refuses, as do I, to move any more of those $10 dressers we found). We've become friends--he's now been to my apartment and met "my family" (he laughed, likening our dog and our cat to "tom and jerry"). On Friday, as I was driving him home, he asked if we could stop by a Mexican bakery. Apparently, Mexican bread is pretty similar to Arabic bread and he wanted to pick up a few roles. We pulled into the parking lot; I advised him before he stepped out to make sure he didn't walk into any potholes filled with water. I sat in the car while he ran into the store, obviously hurrying, either to make sure he made it in before the store closed or so as to minimize the inconvenience for me.

He came out of the store with a couple of bags of bread; I thought it was a bit excessive (he doesn't live too far from the bakery, he could certainly come back in a few days). He got into the car, tied one of the bags closed, and then pushed it by my backpack in the backseat: "This is for you, Tim." I have worked with him enough to know not to argue. He is on food stamps and cash assistance, still waiting for us to help him find work. Yet every time I come to pick him to help me move furniture, he insists that I first sit down and drink juice. If I refuse, he will insist.

I wanted to offer him money but I knew that would only insult him. I thanked him for it. And I thought to myself, I am so stingy, I am so dominated by fears of scarcity that I would never think of doing that. Both my wife and I work, and I would probably debate whether to spend a couple of bucks to buy someone bread just to see if they like it. I have to force myself to offer my favorite teas to guests instead of being thrilled to share with them something that I love. It's not just a deficiency in the "spiritual gift" of hospitality. My imagination has been thoroughly shaped by ideas of scarcity and self-preservation.

Though it is enormously frustrating, I don't know how much time I will have to read all the good books I found. However, that one interaction with my refugee friend taught me a lot about immigration and assimilation. Though I don't know how race, gender, and imperialism shape the way we think about immigration and assimilation, I pray that my friend will resist all our efforts to make him a "self-sufficient" individualist. I pray that he will continue to disrupt the ways in which we--at least I--so often live in the mode of fearful self-preservation (a fear which is, I think, connected to forms of mastery, for fearful self-preservation only makes sense if I am still under the illusion that my life, and the world around me, are in some way under my control). I needed that witness; I needed to be given a few Mexican rolls that apparently taste like Arabic bread (and tasted to me a lot like standard dinner rolls). It was an act of charity that had no trace of violence; and for that, and for the rolls, I am grateful.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Foreign in a Domestic Sense

Two days ago, I went to a food bank for the first time in my life. I was so new I hadn't even considered that there might be a line. There was, and since I arrived right when it opened, I was at the very end.

I stood there, silent. Some people talked to one another; two women who hadn't seen each other in a while started catching up. A man sat in the shade, away from the line, waiting for the door to open. I thought he had the right idea. Even though it was October and the morning looked like it would rain, the clouds kept pulling back, letting the sun heat up the air. I wondered how quickly the line would move, and whether I should have put on sunblock. My poor, fair, white skin--it burns so quickly.

I was the only white man there and one of three white people. I saw one of the women accompany another person inside--a caseworker. I remember thinking, people who oppose affirmative action and want "race neutral" criteria should stand in this line. Being "color blind" just turns a blind eye to the reality that our country is still deeply shaped and scarred by racism.

I was not there with a client. But I was not picking up food for myself. Eight refugees from Congo (they had fled to Gabon) needed food. The previous week, one of them had told me they had no more food; I gave him some money and then 20 minutes later found out from the landlord he had been looking for a ride to buy wine the day before. He found one, apparently, and now had wine but no more money and no more food. So I was there, standing in line, waiting to get my bag.

Ever since I joined an AMIA church (Anglican Mission in America), I've been bothered by a simple observation: we are a nearly all-white church under the leadership of an African church (the Rwandan Anglican church). Working at World Relief (refugee resettlement) has only made that question more intense: why are predominantly white churches eager to make space for Africans and Burmese Christians, yet often detached from Hispanic and African-American congregations? The question took on a more subtle emphasis while I stood waiting: what am I doing, standing here in line, disconnected from the African-American congregations all around me, picking up food to help an African family?

The African family speaks French; only the dad speaks a little English. It makes having a conversation quite difficult but between my broken, high school french, lots of gestures, and repetition we manage. At least I think we do. Yet I could not think of anything to say to the two men standing next to me in line. Later in the day, in a different line, I joined in the common conversation, telling what food banks I had been to that day, whether there were lines, and learning where I should go if I still needed more food. The time went much faster than when I stood in the first line--my first time in a line--struggling to think of something to say to my neighbors.

I started a book--I know, a surprise--called "The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture," by Amy Kaplan. The first chapter is titled "Manifest Domesticity," and looks at the way "domestic space" and "foreign space" are intimately connected (as she puts it in the last sentence of the chapter, "'Manifest Domesticity' turns an imperial nation into a home by producing and colonizing specters of the foreign that lurk inside and outside its ever-shifting borders," p. 50). She begins the book through a discussion of a famous case regarding Puerto Rico's status as neither a full-fledged state, nor a sovereign nation. It was, as the case said, "foreign in a domestic sense." Strange, but close to home.

I had read that introduction the day before I went to the food bank. It didn't help me find something to say, but it gave me a new way to approach the questions I had been asking since I started at World Relief. It's often easier for white people, like myself, to strike up new ground with foreign foreigners, Africans or Burmese, than with those who are "foreign in a domestic sense." As I stood in line, I knew I was connected to the other people in the line, that my story intersected theirs in very real ways. But I can't tell that story. I've been trained to ignore it--and it has taken the patience and kindness of others to help me realize that much. But I've also been raised to be the master narrator, to tell the story--sing the song--of myself and all others. I've been raised to think that all other stories fit within my own and that I am capable of telling a story that includes them all. But there, in that line, I could not figure out what to say. I needed someone else to begin the story, to start the conversation, so that I could finally speak.

Perhaps we, white American Christians, find it easier to go to Africa than to the African-American church in our own city (perhaps even in our own neighborhood) because we feel we can start fresh there. It's easier to pretend (please note the emphasis on pretend, fantasize, imagine) that our interaction is fresh, that it is free from a long horrible history of violence and injustice. We can engage in dialogue--mutually beneficial dialogue--because we (think we) know what we ought to say. We can speak of "cultural differences" because the boundaries seem clear: Rwanda is foreign in a foreign sense (which, as Kaplan will argue, isn't actually as foreign as we think--but it is still easy to see it that way). The African-American congregation who hosted the food bank and let me stand in line is certainly much closer to home.

Jesus calls us Gentiles to join a people who are not our own, to let another people tell our own story for us, and to realize that we only know God as guests in another house (for the stark presentation of it, read Mark 7.24-30). I felt something of how uncomfortable that can be.

In the 1930's, Karl Barth wrote that "salvation means alienation, and 'salvation is of the Jews' (Jn. 4.22). And because people will not be alienated even for their own salvation, they roll away the alienation on to the Jew" (CD I/2, 511). Salvation, according to Barth, means something like becoming foreign in a domestic sense. If that is so, then my hope for salvation is in fact deeply connected to the African-American, Hispanic and other "domestically foreign" congregations around me. I depend on them to continue to confront me with the good news of alienation--and I hope that Jesus will graciously prevent me from rolling away that alienation onto others. I depend on them to teach me just how far my alienation must go. And I depend on them to continue to show me that even, or precisely, in this liminal space, Jesus offers a joy so deep it will outlast and finally heal the deepest wounds, even the wounds sustained by being marked as foreign in a domestic sense (let us not forget that crucifixion was reserved for domestic foreigners, non-citizens under Roman rule).

Sunday, September 20, 2009

On Faith and Doubt

Thursday evening, Skyler (my wife) went to a healing service--not an Anglican, Book of Common Prayer type of service, but a charismatic, revivalist type of service. I stayed home, tired, still trying to adjust to my new job and not wanting to be around any more people.

The service, apparently, was one of the best she has ever been to--and Skyler has been to a lot of these kinds of events. The speaker told some typical stories about healing but changed the script when it came to the actual healing portion. Instead of calling out certain people to come up and receive prayer from himself, the speaker started bringing up people from the audience to pray for sick people. It was, I think, an important reminder that it is God who heals the sick, not the charismatic leader. Skyler said she saw a small, quiet woman who had never received a "word of knowledge" get a picture of a 50 year old man with a throat problem. The speaker asked if this picture described anyone in the audience, and an older gentleman walked up to the stage, untied the bandana around his neck, and revealed to everyone a tube going into his throat. The speaker then asked the woman to pray for the man, in her own words. The woman gently placed her hand on the man's forehead, asked that God would heal this man, and immediately, he falls backwards (into the arms of the body catchers required at any charismatic service).

As Skyler was telling me, I started joking that it was an elaborate ruse--you know, where the speaker plants a couple of people in the audience to help make a dramatic presentation. I didn't actually doubt the prayer service; it just seemed humorous to describe the service as well-scripted hoax. It reminded me of a Flannery O'Connor novel, Wise Blood, which describes the desperate and ultimately unsuccessful attempt of a young man, Hazel Motes, to lose his faith. One of the main characters in the story is a street preacher who pretends to be blind, Asa Hawks, or, more accurately, pretends to have blinded himself, which he had promised to do as an act to "justify" his faith, to demonstrate his devotion. Only, on the night of the event, he preached on the blindness of St. Paul, poured wet lime on his face, but never managed to get it in his eyes. He spent the following years pretending he succeeded, roaming the streets as a blind evangelist.

Saturday, two days after Skyler's experiences at the healing service, I sat drinking coffee with a friend I hadn't seen in a few years. After doing the normal "what have you been up to, what are you planning to do, and do you still keep up with this person from our shared past," we started speaking more openly about how we were actually doing. She shared with me that she hasn't opened her Bible in over a year, that she had been in a really unhealthy relationship, and that for the first time in her life, she finds herself doubting God. I sat across from her, sipping my coffee, praying desperately that God would give me something helpful to say. I couldn't think of anything that wasn't trite, superficial, or downright insulting. So I just told her that. I told her that I wished I could find a way to bring some healing to those wounds, to lessen her pain, to help her see Jesus in this mess, but there wasn't time and my words would be insufficient. We talked some more, about doubt, about God, and about our lives. I finally told her I thought she was angry at Jesus and that if there is anyone it is safe to be angry with, it's Jesus. Jesus has a peculiar ability to enter right into our anger, our despair, our doubt, and our outright disbelief.

When people doubt God and seem to be about to "lose their faith," we normally panic. We try to diagnose the problem as quick as we can, and then find the solution. It's urgent--their salvation is at stake. We start quoting them our favorite Christian slogans; perhaps we buy them some books on Christian apologetics, or, we tell them that their doubts are only an intellectual veneer covering a deeper, more personal matter. It's not that the beliefs are now questionable; they are just angry, or selfish, or scared, or determined to sin and so they shut out God with these intellectual defense mechanisms. To us, the doubter is a problem, to themselves, and to us. We need to fix them, or help them fix themselves--fast.

It's a humorous response, when it isn't actually harmful. It's humorous because we ought to know better. The moment we see doubt, we panic, and lose all of our theological sense. We start acting as if faith were our own intellectual commitment, the product of our will, a result of our ethical behavior. We start acting as if faith wasn't a gift from God, completely out of hands and beyond our control. We start demanding that the doubter believe even though we know that No one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3).

Ten years after Wise Blood was published, the second edition came out, with no changes except the addition of a single paged preface. She mentions that many interpreters found Hazel Mote's integrity to lie "in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind [Christ]. For the author Hazel's integrity lies in his not being able to."

It is his incapacity, his inability to get rid of Christ, that defines Hazel Motes. His faith is not some heroic work but an event that occurs to him, something he endures and even resists, but something he cannot escape.

There is a lot of theological debate regarding whether it is "faith in Christ" or the "faithfulness of Christ" that is central to Paul's theology (in passages like Gal. 2:15-21). I think it might not be as big of an issue as we think. Perhaps our faith is not something we produce, whether on our own or through grace. Perhaps it is closer to something that occurs to us. It is not our act, but a continual disruption of our lives. It is not an ability, but an inability. Even in our doubt, we find the obnoxious, ragged figure of Christ flitting about. Jesus isn't disturbed or bothered by our doubt, disbelief, or rebellious sin. He has placed himself on that path, becoming sin for us, so that we no longer have anywhere to hide from him. He entered into our damnation--as the Apostle's Creed says, he descended to hell--so that, even at what would seem to be the place furthest from God, hell, we would still find God. His faithfulness to us produces our faith: he continually shows that we no longer have any place to hide from God. We have no way out, no escape; faith is simply the recognition that even our path away from God is precisely the path on which Christ encounters us. It's not our triumph, but Christ's: it is a gift, that is, grace.

And so, to my doubting friend, after some thought, what I would like to say, is simply, that it's okay. Jesus can handle your doubts. And my prayer is that you would know Jesus is with you in your doubts, and that you are not alone, even there, even in the loneliness, even in the anger, even in the disbelief. I pray that you, and me, would see that our faith is not the outworking of our inner resolve but the result of Christ's refusal to be without us. Faith is not a boundary marker of who is in and who is out; faith is our recognition that Christ has not left anyone out, including us. As Paul puts it Christ died for all; therefore all died (2 Cor. 5:14). Or, as Desmond Tutu put it, In God's family, there are no outsiders. All are insiders. Even in your doubt, or, especially in your doubt, you are not outside of or apart from Christ. I pray that Christ would continue to haunt you and me, and that at every wrong turn, we would meet the one who tells us that every path now points us back to him. Even the path of doubt.

Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and for ever. Amen. (Jude 1:24-25)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Two Tongues Behind These Teeth: reading scripture beyond mastery

Sometimes it's easier to begin with words that are not mine, but belong to another--foreign, in a sense. Outside (foris), on the other side of the door (fores), coming from a far and distant land. In a quotation, the outside becomes my own, or, from the opposite side, perhaps I am forced to walk through the door. But neither option interests me here. I am seeking something else, something that is neither inside nor outside, neither the air coming in nor passing out. The words I want to quote are words that can never become my own; I can never bring them in, nor can I ever fully exit into them. They have a different master.

To quote words that are still being spoken, no, that are still addressing, no, confronting, interrupting my own speech. I can never begin, or each beginning is just a stutter, a gasp of breath as I prepare my monologue, only to be silenced before the first word passes through my lips. The momentum cut short--silence! Listen to me! The shout muffles my exhale and hinders my speech. I am not mute, only speechless, but it is uncomfortable nonetheless.

A confession: the interruption is probably only vexing because I think I have the right to speak and to be heard. To get a word in edge wise, to have to insert my voice in a gap, to make a claim with my posture because my voice cannot be heard are not skills I have had to learn. I presume from the beginning to be a master over the words. I was born into that position, and it has always been cultivated. Gifted and Talented, Honors, AP, a B.A. with a thesis, a Masters degree. As a small boy I sat in the back of the class, ignoring the teacher--with her permission--to work at my own, accelerated pace. I have been reared to think that my voice ought to rise above the rest, and so, I take a deep breath, as I have been prodigiously prepared to do, and start to form the first word in my mouth, with my jaw pulled back and my lips parted to say what I have been taught to say--I--when, from somewhere beyond me, a shout--listen to me!

These words I cannot quote because they are addressed to me. I cannot bring them in, I cannot analyze them, I cannot exercise control. They are a command that renders me powerless. Whose tongue is trying to enter my mouth? Note: my mouth.

It is not with a word, a shibboleth, that we will manage to pass. Tongue in our mouths, we must change tongues, another tongue must come into our mouths, and into our bodies another body (Cixous, __Stigmata__, 107).

A living tongue in my mouth, a tongue that silences me and claims my speech--my mouth is no longer my own, and yet, do I not have the same tongue? A single mouth occupied by a foreign tongue, a tongue from outside that now dwells behind the wall, behind my teeth. A tongue that claims my own tongue, that has the power to render me mute, that does render me mute (or, what amounts to the same thing, for Paul, that blinds his eyes), and yet, commands me to speak. My words are still my own, and yet, strangely, they have been taken away from me.

Part of me wants to claim that I am brought into a kind of liminal existence (ex-sistere), between two tongues, but that is too easy. And false. I still have my same tongue, and, after all, we can never stand (sistere) in the pause between each breath. But now, with my tongue, or, in fact, my tongue itself, is claimed by another tongue, brought under its authority and freed--yes, freed--to do what it could not do on its own, that is, to respond.

For Christ's sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him (Phil 2:8-9). Or perhaps Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant (2 Cor 3:5-6). And again, I will boast all the more gladly of my weakness, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me (2 Cor 12:9). I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified...My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God (1 Cor 2:1-5). And most clearly: we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake (2 Cor. 4:5).

It is not a matter of being silenced, of possessing a new tongue, but of being freed from attempting to master this other tongue. The one who speaks to me does not ask me to drop my own language, to abandon my tongue, but claims my very words for his and her own purpose (presuming you are willing, as I am, to refer to the Spirit in the feminine). My speech and my proclamation are not an exhibition of my mastery, Paul declares, but were hollowed out and made weak so that Christ's power would be manifest.

I take this to be a hermeneutical principle. As Karl Barth puts it (yes, again with Karl Barth), Scripture itself is a really truly living, acting and speaking subject which only as such can be truly heard and received by the Church and in the Church (CD I/2, 672). Scripture is not a dead voice. I cannot imprison it in a forgotten past or absorb it into my own poetic or mystical or ethical present. It stands outside of me, yet within me. I neither go out nor absorb--I am wounded by it: stigma stings, pierces, makes holes, separates with pinched marks and in the same movement distinguishes--re-marks--inscribes, writes. Stigma wounds and spurs, stimulates (Cixous, p. xiii). I have suffered the loss of all things. Which means, as Paul makes clear, freedom, life, joy, salvation: wounded so the power of Christ may dwell in me.

It would be foolish to make concrete proposals here--as if, after all of this, we could list off a series of hermeneutic principles. I do not mean that there are no principles, but only that the principles come later, to help us when we tire of the voice and want to find new ways to claim those words as our possession. They help us resist the urge to rip that foreign tongue out of our mouths. The fact that we--confession, that I--so quickly want to find some stabilizing principles reveals just how uncomfortable I am when I discover that I am not the master. But fortunately, Scripture resists all of my attempts to bring it under control, for it does not claim to exist for itself but to point away from itself. It points away to the one who brings freedom and joy to all those he wounds--a new name and a new life to those rendered incapable of mastery (and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him, Gen 32:25).

It seems fitting to give the final word to someone else, and so I will quote a passage I have quoted before, but to which I keep returning:

Writing is a passageway, the entrance, the exit, the dwelling place of the other in me--the other that I am and am not, that I don't know how to be, but that I feel passing, that makes me live--that tears me apart, disturbs me, changes me, who?--a feminine one, a masculine one, some?--several, some unknown, which is indeed what gives me the desire to know and from which all life soars. This peopling gives neither rest nor security, always disturbs the relationship to "reality," produces an uncertainty that gets in the way of the subject's socialization. It is distressing, it wears you out; and for men, this permeability, this nonexclusion is a threat, something intolerable (Cixous, Sorties, in __The Newly Born Woman__, 86).

Friday, September 11, 2009

Scripture, Sinners, and the Fractured Anglican Church

I have spoken, frequently, of the sinful nature of the church and Christianity. I have posted a Barth quote on a few occasions: The "sum total of even the Christian religion is simply this, that it is idolatry and self-righteousness, unbelief, and therefore sin. It must be forgiven if it is to be justified" (CD I/2, 354). I have hinted at and made allusions to the present separation between Anglicans and Episcopalians. But I have skirted the issue. I want to at least make one post that more directly engages the question. I have a lot to say. But I want to try to focus mostly on the role of Scripture.

If we take the Barth quote as a concise summation of what I've been aiming at over the last few posts, then we are led to the following conclusion: any exegesis or interpretation of Scripture must be forgiven if it is to be justified.

Not surprisingly, I'm going to unpack this conclusion with....some more Barth.

There is no more dangerous subjectivism than that which is based on the arrogance of a false objectivity. Not the fact that Holy Scripture as the Word of God is obscure and ambiguous, but the fact that it is the Word of God for the Church on earth, and therefore a teacher of pupils who are lost sinners, is what makes the much deplored divergence in its understanding possible, and, unless the miracle of revelation and faith [meaning concretely the work of the Holy Spirit] intervenes, quite inevitable. (CD, I/2, 553).

Barth is not elevating Scripture to the level of divinity, as if it originated in heaven and then dropped down, unblemished, from the skies. For Barth, Scripture is the Word of God in the sense that it continually becomes the Word of God. Scripture does not imprison God; it does not give us a hold on God, a way to control and place ourselves as lords standing over and against God. Scripture continually becomes the Word of God. Scripture, therefore, does not stand on its own but depends on the continual work of God. "The witness of Holy Scripture is...the witness of the Holy Spirit" (538). That Scripture reveals the Word of God depends on something outside of Scripture, the work of the Holy Spirit. It is a miracle that Scripture is the Word of God.

It is a miracle we hate and wish to reject. We want something more substantial, something much more immediate and direct, something that we can get our minds around (and get our hands upon). We turn to tradition, to culture, to reason, to mysticism, to ethics, to the individual, to the Church, to the creeds, to the Fathers, to Thomas Aquinas, to Luther, to Karl Barth, to anything, or anyone, even to biblicism, to give us some kind of assurance that we have heard rightly. That we--and that always means, and not them--are in the truth, exist as the bearers of the truth. We want direct access to revelation, to possess it and hold it, to claim it as our own and justify ourselves with it. We want to win, and we are always tempted to turn the Bible into a book that assures that we win, that our beliefs, our knowledge, our actions, our piety, our theology--our lives--are good enough and strong enough to win. Biblicism (what those on the left call "fundamentalism") ignores our dependency on the Spirit, and hence forgets that there is no direct access to revelation in Scripture. It forgets that only the Spirit removes the veil that makes Scripture obscure, that prevents us from encountering God's Word--Jesus Christ--in Scripture (cf. 2 Cor 3). Or, it presumes too quickly that it has the Spirit. The Spirit opens my eyes, not yours, and I live confidently (and hence with complacency). Regardless, I know I am right, that I read Scripture rightly, and that I am on the inside, on the side of truth, on the side of goodness. It never crosses my mind that I might need to repent. It never crosses my mind that the first and last thing I must do, whenever I read Scripture, is to repent.

The "conservatives" see the "liberal" Episcopalians as placing themselves as lords over Scripture. They do not like the text, so they ignore it, or proclaim a revelation that "completes" it. In a global context, African and Asian bishops have protested that the Western Anglican churches have acted with the typical, but lamentable, Western hubris. God's revelation is proclaimed by the West; the backwards "rest" need to hurry up and get with the times. They wonder why people embedded in a culture that is without a doubt sexually disordered (for a quick example, which Amy Laura Hall used in class, consider the production and consumption of pornography here) feel they are in a position to declare to the rest of the world a new word regarding human sexuality. However, the fundamental point is neither sexual disorder nor imperialist arrogance; the breaking point is the refusal to submit to God's Word.

That, at least, is how I see the debate shaping up, and like any debate, both sides want to win. Both sides claim that the other side fails to read Scripture properly. But that raises the fundamental question: how do you know when you are reading Scripture rightly?

That is the question we want to ask, but it is, I think, the wrong question. It is a question that can only be answered in a way that provides self-justification. The appropriate turn is not to some kind of agnosticism. That too would still be a claim to possess the right way to read Scripture. Nor is the way forward to simply proclaim our inability to read Scripture rightly. That path would eventually lead to mysticism, or atheism, or some other claim to be in the right (see my post on the "true standard religious game"). As Luther put it: the Holy Spirit is no skeptic.

How, then, to proceed, without trying to win? How to move forward? The first step is to accept that Christ has bound us to Scripture, that we cannot move away from it, nor we can ever make it our own. We are dependent on something that is itself dependent. We are not free to move past Scripture and find God apart from its testimony. We are bound to it. But it does not bind God. Its witness, its status as "the Word of God," depends on the work of the Spirit. We are dependent on something that is itself dependent, and hence, something that can never be brought under our control. We are never the masters but only claimed for obedience.

The Word of God is necessary for us. It is also sufficient. But this sufficiency does not lie in itself--how could it--but in the sufficiency of God's grace in Christ Jesus. We need not worry about whether Scripture is "inerrant" because its testimony does not point to itself but to the Word of God, Jesus Christ. Scripture is not worried about cleaning up its own contradictions and discrepancies precisely because the authors of Scripture wrote as witnesses, as those who attest to something beyond themselves. The sufficiency of Scripture lies in Christ and the gift of the Spirit. Scripture is good enough for us because it truly points beyond itself, to the one who truly holds us in his hands, Jesus Christ. (But remember, Christ has bound us to Scripture, and so we never have access to Christ apart from the witness itself, the Words of Scripture).

Let me try to speak more plainly. Both the liberals and conservatives (to make crude generalizations) are attempting to bypass the weakness of Scripture. Both are seeking a way to possess Scripture, and to possess Scripture, they need to supplement it. Conservatives postulate a kind of direct access. Scripture says X. Boom! End of story. They forget that Scripture itself depends on the Spirit, and that the Spirit speaks through Scripture to sinful people. Liberals postulate a cultural supplement. It's the march of human freedom. Of progression. Of love. And this cultural thread either bypasses Scripture completely or absorbs it within its own trajectory. Scripture's voice is either not binding at all, or it is binding but, not surprisingly, it articulates the cultural thread within which we are already located (using a variety of "exegetical" methods to justify the approach). To put it crudely, I have not yet met someone who was adamantly opposed to homosexual unions until they read Scripture and then, after reading through the Bible, became convinced that they were wrong and that God clearly approves of such unions. Both sides, therefore, want to supplement Scripture (elevate it beyond its, meaning our, weakness) and neither wants to embrace the necessity of repentance.

The way out that I am suggesting, unfortunately, isn't really a way out. It doesn't actually solve the issue. But I think it is the only Christian way forward. It involves these two key points. First, we exist in a twofold state of dependency: we (A) depend on the Spirit to speak to us (B) through Scripture. We are dependent on Scripture, which itself is dependent. It's a position of weakness, but one of joy, for we wait with expectation for God to reveal Godself to us, to speak to us again of God's love for us in Jesus Christ. In Christ, we wait without anxiety because we know we are safe in his hands. Secondly, in light of Christ's extension of forgiveness, we begin our exegesis with the freedom of repentance. The Word on which we depend tells us again and again that we are always in need of God's grace and that grace is to be found! Our piety may be something for which we will have to repent; but we can repent, because we know we are secure in Christ's hands! In short, revelation tells us that we are sinners, justified by, not exegesis, but simply by the faithfulness of Christ.

Maybe at a later date, and after reading some more Barth, I will be able to sketch out a bit more clearly what exegesis from within a posture of weakness and repentance involves. But for now, I simply want to suggest that all of us need to take quite seriously the fact that, at the end of the day, we will all need to repent for where we stand. It's the only place safe for us. We must be forgiven if we are to be justified. Including, and especially, for our Christianity; which means, including, and especially, for our readings of Scripture.

*I stole the language of "winning" from J. Kameron Carter.*

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Can I wear your clothes? (missions and alienation)

Portrait of Nicolas Trigault in Chinese Costume, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1617

The early Jesuit missionaries to China translated themselves into the native garb. As a religious order, they first wore buddhist robes, projecting an image as new, religious messengers. The first missionary, Michele Ruggieri (1543-1607) made the decision, saying, "Now the robes are being cut and soon we will be made into Chinese" (quoted in __Journey to the East__ by Liam Matthew Brockey, p. 33). The robes, however, were soon dropped, as the missionaries decided on a new image: as educated literati. The Buddhist monks were not as socially powerful as Ruggieri imagined; his first companion, Matteo Ricci, donned the outfit of a mandarin scholar (of Confucius), and even grew out his hair and beard so as to allay himself more closely with this educated and socially powerful class. When describing his new costume, Ricci declared that the robes were "very similar to what the Venetians use in Venice" (43).

The robes were habitable because familiar: the missionaries could see themselves in those clothes. The robes were habitable because the Chinese were habitable: soon we will be made into Chinese. Not so different. Literate. Educated. Hierarchically organized. A different experience from the Africans. Primitives. Without proper clothing, proper society, or proper religion. Not even the inverse, but the absence: a human void (quick, take the empty land!).

If I had time, I would love to investigate missionary fashion. Clothing as the marker of a habitable population. A people we think approximates us. Or is too far away. Whose outfits--or lack there of--suggest a human absence. The naked savage. Lacking civilization. A bad thing. Then a good thing. When people tired of civilization. The noble savage. We can now see ourselves in their naked bodies.

Our image of ourselves, standing in between. No encounter. We create the identities. Who do you say you are? No response. Or, every response, a translation. Who do I think you say you are? What? I can't understand you. What language are you speaking? (I was told earlier this week, by an Iraqi refugee, that I would soon learn to speak refugee....)

There is no point lamenting our inability to have a direct encounter. We can never move beyond ourselves. We must be thrust out of the way. From outside. Someone must take our place. If they dare.

Salvation means alienation, and "salvation is of the Jews" (Jn. 4.22). And because people will not be alienated even for their own salvation, they roll away the alienation on to the Jew (Barth, CD I/2, 511).

Let us not lie to ourselves. Any "alienation" that comes easy is another form of donning chinese clothes. An easy move. I have already absorbed them. They can reflect me. I can see myself in them. They are habitable, so I will wear their clothes. No alienation, just absorption. In their clothes, I translate them. More so, I absorb them. Engulf them from within. I hypostasize their culture. It is I who hold up their lifeless clothes. It is I who animate. It is I who am....the Spirit.

Blasphemy. The dangerous edge of empathy, of seeing myself in others. A loving attack, all the more vicious because it is an empathy over which I am the master. The terms are under my control. I choose whose clothes I will wear.

No one will be alienated, not even for salvation. It is an offer we refuse, a gift we reject. But to refuse our own alienation, to reject salvation, is to...turn against the Jews. To roll off our alienation and place it on another, the Jews (how often "primitive" African religion was understood as a degraded form of Judaism...).

We cannot be saved "unless we are prepared to become Jews with the Jews." Barth penned this in the 1930s. "By being hostile to Jewish blood, the world simply proves that it is the world: blind and deaf and stupid to the ways of God" (511). "In the Jew, the non-Jew has to recognize himself...and in the Jew he has to recognize Christ, the Messiah of Israel" (511). The one we rejected, the one on whom we rolled off our alienation, the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. Let us be clear: the one who comes to displace us is the one we want to kill. The one we do kill. But, by the grace of God, the one who lives again!

Christ's flesh, a space of alienation. A wound. The stigmata--an opening of the flesh, a making of space. A way of becoming habitable by what is foreign.

In Jesus, we are brought out of the dialectic of habitation. No longer are you the one who threatens to occupy me, to cut open my flesh. Nor I to you. A space exists between us, which neither of us can occupy, or, more properly, a space which already occupies us both: a shared wound.

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

To live for the one who died and was raised for us. It is a call to alienation; to salvation.

It's a call we know we will resist.

Not a matter of changing clothes then. Of entering "the other." Of celebrating difference. The offer of alienation is a devastating offer. A gift of becoming ill at ease. It makes us hesitate. We no longer know where we stand. Or, more precisely, we finally see that where we stand (and who we are) is never something we can possess. We cannot speak the truth of who we are. Someone stands in our way, blocking our vision, halting our speech. It is either a terrifying assault. Or a gift of joy. This one is the end of ourselves--hallelujah!

In the end, the clothes don't matter. You are never a space I can inhabit. Yet, we can never leave each other behind. We are bound to a space between us that neither of us can navigate. Which doesn't mean it is impassible. For it is a space that has already been traversed. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. (It is only from here that we can move beyond Rilke, who wrote, "love consists in this: that two solitudes protect and border and greet each other").

Lord Jesus, help me love my neighbor, the stranger whom I despise (the samaritan!), the one who speaks to me of my own alienation, and who therefore, I want to reject. Help me see them as a reminder of your grace, as a testimony to your resurrection, and as a renewed invitation to live by your Spirit, with thanksgiving and joy.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The True Standard Religious Game

I kept looking out my window at the buildings instead of watching the cars in front of me. A new town. I had never heard of it until I was asked to come out there for my interview. Driving through High Point, I searched for landmarks, tools to help me make a quick exit. I was also looking for landmarks to confirm that I was in a conservative, southern town. It's a habit I picked up somewhere, even though I grew up in a small, conservative southern town. Or especially because I grew up there: condescension proves I have grown beyond it.

It wasn't a navigational landmark, but I became quite fascinated by a small brick building with a couple of small windows, the True Standard Holiness Church. I started my mental attack immediately. True Standard? Am I going to find the old church, the Standard Holiness Church down the road? Is it redundant to qualify the "standard" with "true"? How have they determined what the true standard is? How do they know they embody it? Why do we Christians keep trying to justify ourselves as embodying the "true" standard? Do we need to split churches every time we think we possess the true standard?

The barrage of questions didn't last long. Suddenly, I found myself in a kind of religious crisis. Like my church? The AMIA. "Orthodox" anglicans. Turning to tradition (a claim to possess the true standard!). Those sinful Episcopalians. Not to mention the debates within AMIA. Are we anglo-Catholic? How high of a liturgy? What can we alter in it? Should the sermons follow the lectionary? What does it mean to be "anglican"?

Oh no, I thought, I'm one of them. I'm part of the "true standard" church. And there is no way out! Not that I'm trapped in AMIA. But that I'm trapped in a "true standard" church. It's not just them, it's me. It's my Christianity that is frail; it's my Christianity that amounts to nothing more than contradiction and sin. My Christianity! My faith--petty! Insignificant! A display of sinful arrogance and self-justification!

"Christianity twisted like a snake in the hands of those who sought to us it: millenarian prophets, authoritarian and radical missionaries alike, British abolitionists, Khoekhoe preachers, and racist settlers all sought to control its language in a climate of intense power struggles, but none was able to establish final ownership" (Elizabeth Elbourne, "Prelude" to __Blood Ground__, p. 5).

A whole book investigating the complexities of Christian language, the way it is used in our world, or, for this book, in the world of colonial South Africa. It's disturbing. Where do I fit in the scheme? More importantly, where is God? What does Jesus think about this dizzying array of options? About our complex motives, the factors beyond our control, the forces that make us the specific sinful humans we are? Is Christianity just like any other language, a tool to be used within power struggles? Is it nothing but another game of violent self-assertion?

I couldn't find an answer. I started wondering: is this a religious crisis, a crisis of faith? Two days after my ordination interview, and I'm wondering whether there is anything worthwhile in Christian faith. Or, at least more worthwhile than any other product of the sinful human race.

But what are my options? To give up? To embrace atheism? But that is simply another option within the "true standard" religious game. I see through all this depraved religiosity, I see the root and the cause, and I have now risen above it and will call others to the true standard!

Starting a new church won't get me out of it either. Didn't all these schisms occur because a group thought it possessed the true standard? The same thing, over and over again. A rejection of one standard becomes, unsurprisingly, a new standard. Even the rejection of all claims to possess "the true standard" becomes a new standard, the standard. Nor can I just abstract from these concrete religious assertions and find solace in a pure, mystical religion. Mysticism, in this sense, is simply cautious atheism: I see through this utterly human construct called institutional religion, but instead of seeing nothing (atheism), I see a pure truth above and beyond the sinful institution. Behold, the true standard!

There is no place outside of this circle. A "turning against the religions...is manifestly impossible, whether in the form of mysticism or in that of atheism. For in making this judgment it will have to judge itself...The real crisis of religion can only break in from outside the magic circle of religion and its place of origin, i.e., from outside man" (Karl Barth, CD I/2, 324).

What, then, is the way forward? How do we move beyond the true standard religious game? If Barth is right, we don't. We accept the condemnation. We make no claim that Christianity, in any form, has escaped the game. We "must not allow ourselves to be confused by the fact that a history of Christianity can be written only as a story of the distress which it makes for itself" (337). "Even Christianity is unbelief" (338). The "sum total of even the Christian religion is simply this, that it is idolatry and self-righteousness, unbelief, and therefore sin. It must be forgiven if it is to be justified" (354).

We accept the condemnation. We trust that Jesus will forgive us, especially for our religion. We stop striving to justify ourselves, to vindicate our religion, to contrast our purity with the sinfulness of others, to proclaim our possession of a way beyond religiosity. We too are judged. But in Jesus, we are forgiven. We need not find a positive spin on our history. Our history has been taken out of our hands; we do not need to find security in our ability to construct a purer religion. Not "only our security before God, but the very security of our being and activity, and therefore our security in relation to men, rests absolutely upon our willingness in faith and by faith to renounce any such securities" (332). We are free to renounce them because, in faith, by Jesus Christ, we do not need them. Our security before God does not rest on our Christian religion; it rests on God's gracious forgiveness of our sin. Christianity is the true religion, according to Barth, always on the analogy of justified sinners. It's false and sinful when considered in and of itself. Its truth, just like its justification, lies outside of itself, in Jesus Christ.

My "orthodox," "traditional," "anglican" church can either point towards itself, towards another form of the true standard religious game. Or we can accept a more humble and insecure place, as another form of sinful religion, and, hopefully--and this is what is peculiar to Christianity--as a witness to Christ's mercy on us pious sinners.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Weakness of Christian Missions

"In the world of religions, the Christian religion is in a position of greatest danger and defenselessness and impotence than any other religion. It has its justification either in the name of Jesus Christ, or not at all." Karl Barth, Dogmatics I/2, p. 356.

For Barth, Church history should be told as the long, lamentable, and predictable story of the various attempts Christians have made to evade this position of weakness. Christian history reveals "the attempt which the Christian makes, in continually changing forms, to consider and vindicate his religion as a work which is in itself upright and holy. But he continually feels himself thwarted and hampered and restrained by Holy Scripture, which does not allow this, which even seems to want to criticize this Christian religion of his" (337). The history, therefore, is a history of our stumbling; it is the history of our attempts to become masters of ourselves, to vindicate ourselves, and therefore, of necessity, to detach ourselves from Christ and flee from his judgment against our religiosity, self-confidence, and self-assertion.

While tracing the various attempts to assert Christian truth as our own possession, Barth touches on the "comprehensive readoption of the missionary task" (336) during the modern period, especially towards the close of the 18th century. The new "confrontation" of Christianity with non-Christian religions went in the wrong direction since the "sending Church was itself seeking its strength at a different point from where it could be found" (336). The missions stemmed from a new Christian self-assertion, not from a new commitment to Christ's mastery. It is not as though these missions were completely ineffective in witnessing to Christ; however, God's gracious unveiling through these missions had to go against the "tendencies and directions" that dominated these missions. To put it concretely: the recipients of European, Christian missions encountered Jesus in spite of these missions! Reading through Savage Systems by David Chidester is a perfect illustration of this point: that anyone encountered Christ in the South African missions is the work of the Spirit usually in opposition to the operations of the colonial mission.

Barth provides a helpful way to interpret and move past the missional failings exposed by Chidester. He analyzes a shift that begins back in the 16th century and explodes during the 18th century in which "revelation" becomes understood within the more general idea of "religion," instead of religion being approached only on the basis of revelation (Jesus Christ). Once this shift took place, "revelation" became "a historical confirmation of what man can know about himself and therefore about God even apart from revelation" (289-290). Revelation fulfills our own notions about religion, our own sense of who God is and who we are and ought to be. Revelation confirms and extends--perfects--our own projects and concerns. (Barth argues that without this history in mind, "we are defenseless against the 'German Christians' of our own time," meaning, the Nazi Church, 292).

For Barth, the fundamental sin that underlies this whole movement is a rejection of the lordship of Christ. No longer is it held that "Jesus Christ is now his Lord, and man belongs to Him, and lives under Him in His kingdom, and serves Him, and therefore has all his consolation in life or death in the fact that he is not his own but is the property of Jesus Christ" (292, emphasis added). Barth places this rejection of Christ's mastery within our attempts to master others. In the missionary encounter, "we must not try to know and define and assess man and his religion as it were in advance and independently. We must not ascribe to him any existence except as the possession of Christ" (296, emphasis added). Thus, behind the turn to "savage comparisons" stands a rejection of the lordship of Christ over both our own selves and those we encounter. To master the others (and be masters of ourselves), we have to undercut all of our dependence on the mastery of Christ.

Rejecting the sufficiency of Christ's lordship, European missionaries strove to display the superiority of Christianity over the variety of other religions (or absences of religion). No longer content with the final (and hence only) word coming from the gracious forgiveness of Jesus, missionaries had to come up with some other final word justifying Christian truth. It must be a word imminent to themselves (otherwise it could not be used to elevate them above the others). Christian theology starts taking "refuge in reason or culture or humanity or race, in order to find some support or other for the Christian religion" (357). The options are various, but they all coalesce around the same practical result: they explain Christian superiority, non-Christian inferiority, and therefore justify Christian domination (one wonders what the missions in South Africa would have looked had no attempt been made to see what the "natives" were in and of themselves but only to look at them as those already claimed by Christ's lordship...).

Barth recognizes that this self-assertion--the rejection of Christ's mastery--could be accomplished without any explicit deviations from Christian language. The transformation of Christianity into a vehicle for self-articulation (and hence self-mastery and world-mastery) happened most often within the confines of Christian language and through. The rejection of Christ's mastery was sometimes bold and upfront; but often it was hidden behind pious language (and even hidden from those involved in the transformation). For Barth, this is not surprising since Jesus Christ exposes all religion to be nothing more than "idolatry and self-righteousness" (314). Even, and especially, the Christian religion. In fact, the problems of modern, colonial missions are born from our frequent desire to forget that "the sum total qualities of even the Christian religion is simply this, that it is idolatry and self-righteousness, unbelief, and therefore sin. It must be forgiven if it is to be justified" (354).

The Christian religion cannot point to itself to ensure its security and stability within the encounter and confrontation with various religions. In and of itself, it has nothing meaningful through which to distinguish itself as superior. Jesus Christ calls us to remember this situation. We are sinners, saved by grace. The question of the truth of the Christian religion is simply this: "who and what are they in their naked reality, as they stand before the all-piercing eye of God?" (356). In response to this question, Christians can do nothing other than point away from themselves (even from their own concrete structures and ethical programs) and point to Jesus. It is only in Christ's mercy that we stand before God as righteous. This righteousness is never a righteousness we possess, and hence it is never one we can deploy to distinguish ourselves as superior to others (or others as inferior to ourselves). The Christian religion is not the truth in itself; it is the true religion only by God's mercy and forgiveness in Christ. It's calling, therefore, is not to "out narrate" other religions; nor is it to "persuasively embody" the truth of its superiority. Even the posture of weakness, insecurity, or self-emptying does not demonstrate the truth of Christianity. Our standing before God does not depend on our rhetorical skills or our moral effort; it stands (or falls) with Jesus Christ alone. Christian religion has a claim to be "the true religion" only as it points to the truth and "proclaims it" (358). This work of proclamation is not a "power or authority of its own" but is the action of the Holy Spirit (359). Therefore, it is not an action it can point to so as to establish its own truth; it is a work that depends only on God's free mercy.

It is for these reasons that revelation--God's judgment and forgiveness of us in Jesus Christ--pushes the Church into a position of utter weakness. As Christ's possessions, we are called to see all others as also already possessed by Christ. Neither "we" nor "they" exist apart from Christ's mastery. Therefore, the truth of who "we" are and "they" are is a truth we cannot articulate. Nor need we. The truth has already been spoken regarding who we all are: we are all sinners living under the gracious lordship of Jesus Christ.

Far from undercutting the need for missions, this situation enables the Church to fulfill its mission. For its mission is not to replace Christ but to witness (by the Spirit) to Christ's continual work (in the Spirit). Since the church's life is not its own, neither is its mission. Since missions is God's work, we need not worry that we exist in such a weak and impotent position (regarding other religions). We need not flee from the insecurity in which we stand. God's word to us in Jesus is our security; and God's power--not ours!--is made perfect in our weakness. Within this weakness, the church is not free from the temptation to proclaim itself. But it is put on guard. It is threatened. And we hope and pray that we will continue to remember our precarious position; we hope and pray that we will not cease to proclaim the sufficiency of Christ, and Christ alone. We hope and pray that our mission will be, by God's grace, a real witness to the Spirit's mission.