ANNOUNCING OUR 10th ANNIVERSARY CONFERENCE!

Embracing WE-CENTRICITY: PRACTICES that NUTURE the COMMON GOOD.

interdependenceHow do we TRANSCEND political rivalry and polarizing rhetoric? Join us as we EXPLORE SPIRITUAL PRACTICES that HEAL division and distrust.

MAY 23-25, 2017 TECHNY TOWERS, CHICAGO

…every time we relate to other people, we automatically inhabit a we-centric space, within which we exploit a series of implicit certainties about the other. This implicit and pre-theoritical, but at the same time contentful state enables us to directly understand what the other person is doing, why he or she is doing it, and how he or she feels about a specific situation.

~ Vittorio Gallese, “The Two Sides of Mimesis,” Mimesis and Science, 100.

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“You also must be ready”: An Urgent Call to White Friends to Join the Fight Against Racism

You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
— Luke 12:40

This Sunday’s Gospel is one of many in the Synoptic Gospels with an apocalyptic feel to it, ringing out a sense of urgency. We are warned to “be ready”; “be dressed for action and have your lamps lit”; your master may come “during the middle of the night,” like ‘the thief breaking into your house.’ Why such a sense of urgency?

One answer has been to suggest that the early church, if not Jesus himself, expected the “second coming” of Christ to come soon, ushering in the climactic moment of God’s reign. And so, two thousand years later, we conclude that they were wrong. That hasn’t happened yet. But neither has it slowed down the predictions that the second coming is just around the corner — divining cryptic signs from books of the Bible like Daniel and Revelation to warn us of coming rapture.

More common in Christian circles has been to reinterpret this urgency in terms of the ‘moment of truth’ when each person dies — which could come at any moment, so one needs to be ready. Christ will come to you at that moment to judge if you were faithful. So you need to turn your life over to Jesus Christ in faith now, in order that you may be certain to go to heaven upon that sudden arrival of your death. The alternative is eternal torture in hell — which definitely does compel a sense of urgency!

The most recent generation of scholars, led by N.T. Wright, are suggesting another way of reading these passages — one I believe to be more faithful to Jesus’ message and ministry. Jesus, if not the early church, was talking about the sudden arrival of God in the world through the unexpected death and resurrection of God’s Messiah. The Messiah was about to bring the inauguration of God’s way of peace into the world. Luke’s Jesus puts the urgency involved most poignantly upon his arrival to Jerusalem, weeping over the city, and saying,

“If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:42-44)

“This day.” The Son of Man was arriving right then and there for the climactic moment, and his people, including the disciples, were clueless. The urgency involved recognizing the about-to-happen “visitation from God” with the true way of peace. And the consequences of not recognizing it would be the next round of world-changing violence — in this particular instance, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, forever altering the Jewish way of life.

This places Jesus much more in line with the prophets like Isaiah, whose prophecies were about a similar urgency for repenting and trusting in God’s way of peace to avoid the next round of world-changing violence (“world” not necessarily in the sense of global but in the sense of their world, their way of life) — in that instance, things like destruction and exile at the hands of the Babylonians. Mark sets the tone in the Synoptic Gospels by using the call of Isaiah as a guiding metaphor, quoting the part about God’s people having eyes unseeing and ears unhearing when explaining the use of parables (Mark 4:12, referencing Isa. 6:9-10), and then structuring much of his Gospel around Jesus trying to heal deafness and blindness, calling would-be disciples to “Listen!” and “Watch!” And the reader of Isaiah keeps in mind what comes next, after the quoted verses:

Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the LORD sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump. (Isa. 6:11-13)

2700 years after Isaiah and 2000 years after the coming of the Son of Man, how many times has this prophecy come true? How many times have human beings laid waste to our cities, “because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God”? How many more times must it come true before we see and listen?

And, most importantly, what are the current realities we face which threaten the next round of world-changing violence, and thus an urgency of response by disciples of Jesus to live God’s way of peace?

There are many answers to choose from, unfortunately, but I’m going to suggest one: take on the formidable power of racism that has plagued our Euro-American culture for 400 years. It is at the root of so many of our problems, including terrorism. Recent events point to the possibility of our cities being laid waste again, like many of them in the late 1960’s, and it could be worse this time around. And the solution must go beyond white people calling for people of color not to resort to violence — which is highly convenient for us to do, since we don’t have to directly suffer the violence of racist systems that continue to oppress people of color (though we white folks might wake up to the indirect suffering the evil of racism causes us, too). The only solution that will move us forward is for white people to get serious about recognizing the enormity of the 400 year-old monster of racism. Jesus is issuing an urgent call for us to act, to bear fruit (or be cut down like the unfruitful fig tree — cut down by our own violence), to respond to the coming of God’s way of peace into the world by being peacemakers ourselves, true children of God (Matt. 5:9).

What can we do — especially us white people? I will suggest several steps:

  • Read and learn more about racism. This is more important than you might think, because the talk about racism in the media is so largely uninformed. Two books that I find particularly enlightening for today’s challenges are: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness; and Kelly Brown Douglas’s Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. The latter gives extremely helpful insight into how our present challenges have a 400-year history of racism becoming deeply embedded in our culture.
  • Reach out and build relationships across ‘color-lines.’ This is necessary on many fronts, but it is especially helpful for white people to be open to, and to ask for, help on seeing what we typically cannot see. Don’t know what “white privilege” is? Ask a friend of color, and s/he will be able to tell you.
  • At the same time, building relationships across color-lines is only the start. It can never bring about by itself the systemic change that needs to happen. For a more immediate explanation on why this is the case, see my recent sermon, “Exposing and Working to Heal the Sin of Racism.”
  • Most importantly, my highest recommendation is to seek antiracism training for the institutions and systems that you inhabit. There is nothing quite like the training offered by Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training (producers of the video used in my sermon). I urge you to contact them today! “You also must be ready…” The time to respond is now.
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“The Faithfulness of Jesus Christ”: Correcting a Deadly Mistranslation to Advance the Reformation . . . and a Preview of Brian McLaren’s New Book

As we get ready to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (October 31, 2017), it might be timely to significantly advance reform of Christ’s church, guided by correctly translating two crucial Reformation verses — Gal 2:16a and Rom 3:22a.

Galatians 2:16a

Greek: eidotes [de] hoti ou dikaioutai anthrōpos ex ergōn nomou ean mē dia pisteōs Iēsou Christou, kai hēmeis eis Christon Iēsoun episteusamen…

NRSV: yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus…

Suggested alternate translation: yet we know that a person is made just not by religious practices but through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah. And we have come to trust in Messiah Jesus…

Romans 3:22a

Greek: dikaiosunē de theou dia pisteōs Iēsou Christou eis pantas tous pisteuontas…

NRSV: the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe…

Suggested alternate translation: God’s saving justice through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah for all who trust…

Especially critical is the Greek phrase, “dia pisteōs Iēsou Christou.” Word-for-word in English from this Greek phrase yields: “through faith Jesus Christ.” What’s missing is not the word “in,” generally supplied in English translations. What’s missing is that the phrase in Greek is a genitive constructive, a phrase showing possession, most commonly rendered in English with an ’s — such as, “through Jesus Christ’s faith.” The problem in translating a Greek genitive construction is that there is no way to show conclusively whether it is ‘subjective’ or ‘objective.’

Here’s a brief Greek grammar lesson. In this particular case, the two options are:

Subjective: “through the faith of Jesus Christ,” or, “through Jesus Christ’s faith” — where Jesus Christ is the subject possessing faith(fulness);

Objective: “through [our] faith in Jesus Christ” — where Christ is the object of our faith, the faith believers possess.

The ultimate choice in translating this phrase comes from the theological context of what the translator thinks Paul is trying to say, and so the history of translation has varied with the theology of the translators. It is interesting that closer to the time of the Reformation, the early English translation in the King James Version chose the subjective option: “which is by faith of Jesus Christ.” But as the Reformation movement and Protestantism developed, we gradually moved to the situation today, in which all the major translations have chosen the objective option: “through faith in Jesus Christ.”

Contemporary biblical scholars are advocating that the pendulum swing back to the subjective option. I first encountered this critical option involving the translation of pisteōs Iēsou Christou in Charles B. Cousar’s A Theology of the Cross (Augsburg Fortress, 1990). Duke Divinity scholar Richard Hayes devoted a whole book to it with The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11 (Eerdmans, 2002). The majority of recent Pauline scholars — including N. T. Wright and Douglas Campbell — argue in favor of the subjective option. And they most often add the caveat of translating pistis toward the meaning of fidelity in a relationship — “trust,” “faithfulness” — and away from an emphasis on pistis, or “faith,” in the sense of mental states — “believe,” “beliefs.” Thus, a most clear rendering of the Greek into English is, “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.”

By now, it is hoped the reader can see the critical importance of this translation debate. The Reformation/Protestant version of salvation turns on it. Is humankind saved, made just, through our faith in Jesus Christ? Or through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ? (As Paul described it in Phil 2: “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.”) In short, should the emphasis of our salvation be on our believing certain things about Jesus? Or on Jesus’ faithfulness in bringing the Reign of God into the world through his death and resurrection? The answer from recent New Testament scholars resoundingly favors the latter.

And the difference could be essential to getting the Reformation back on track from its descending into a new form of conditional grace (which isn’t grace at all!), a “works righteousness,” based on what believers need to believe about Jesus. It is also time to get back on track with Jesus’ core message about the coming Reign of God, which is about heaven coming to earth, not believers going to heaven — which the Reformation failed to recover by favoring their arguably incorrect version of Paul’s message — off-the-mark because it tends to be disconnected from Jesus’ kingdom message and even opposed to simple obedience to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, which sounds like “works righteousness” to a typical Protestant way of reading (see Bonhoeffer‘s Discipleship!).

Which brings me to the latest book by Brian McLaren, whom acclaimed church historian Phyllis Tickle praised as the “Martin Luther of Emergence” (Emergence Christianity, p. 99). This new book is titled The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian  and is due in September from Convergent Books. I’ve thus far spoken in terms of renewing the Reformation, but the unfaithfulness of the church’s ministry to the Way of Jesus the Messiah might call for a movement described by a stronger word than “reform.” “Emergence” of something more decidedly new out of the old has been proposed. In McLaren’s new book, he regularly uses two other words: “conversion” and the title word “migration.”

Among so many excellent, groundbreaking books by McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration may be his best and most important book yet. It is both more direct and honest about the magnitude of change needed for the church to move forward but also his most inspiringly hopeful writing in divining the signs of change already underway. Yes, the challenges before Christians are daunting — in line with the precarious situation of humanity as a whole. He holds nothing back on the gravity of this moment in human history, once again using the metaphor of the “suicide machine” for the unsustainability of our culture (as he did in Everything Must Change). Yet McLaren inspires the reader to see the goodness in the world and the signs of resurrection around us to cherish and build upon, that disciples of Jesus might answer the urgent call to participate in the ongoing life-project of the Spirit.

McLaren identifies three major pathways of migration, which we can use to round-off our discussion of the importance of correctly translating pisteōs Iēsou Christou as the “faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah” (using the three descriptions from the back book cover):

  • Spiritually, growing numbers of Christians are moving away from defining themselves by lists of beliefs and toward a way of life defined by love. The translation of pistis as faithfulness rather than belief is huge in this regard. We need to see ourselves less in terms of assenting to certain beliefs — its own form of “works righteousness” — and more in terms of being led by the Spirit to follow in Jesus’ faithful practices of love.
  • Theologically, believers are increasingly rejecting the image of God as a violent Supreme Being and embracing the image of God as the renewing Spirit at work in our world for the common good. When the emphasis is more on our faith as belief, aren’t we more inclined to make God over into our image, i.e., violent? Our increasingly violent history, even since the Reformation, would seem to bear that out — hence, the phrase “deadly mistranslation” in my title. When the emphasis is on Jesus’ faithful way of living God’s love in the world, on the other hand, don’t we have a better chance of finally being converted to St. John’s proclamation of God as love (1 John 4)? Of God as light, in whom there is no darkness at all (1 John 1)? And then to look for that Spirit of love bringing God’s power of life to places of suffering in this world and desiring to join in?
  • Missionally, the faithful are identifying less with organized religion and more with organizing religion — spiritual activists dedicated to healing the planet, building peace, overcoming poverty and injustice, and collaborating with other faiths to ensure a better future for all of us. When what saves us is simply our beliefs about Jesus, it is easier to make salvation primarily about what happens to us after we die. Our correct beliefs grant us a ticket to heaven. When what saves us is Jesus’ fully human faithfulness to God’s way of love as the means of redeeming the powers of sin and evil in the world, it is more obvious that the matter of salvation isn’t primarily about going to heaven, but about heaven migrating to earth and empowering human beings to migrate into a new place of peace, shalom.

In short, McLaren’s The Great Spiritual Migration is timely for our observance and celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation — that we might get unstuck from our misplaced focus on belief and finally migrate to a way of life in following the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah.

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Easter as the Redemption of Human Culture

A central tenet of Mimetic Theory is to propose Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World: the powers of sin and death deeply embedded within our cultures — and at the heart of our cultures, religion. As St. Paul came to see, religion/law was infected at its foundation with sacred violence.

Acts 10:34-43 — an option for Easter Sunday in all three years of the Revised Common Lectionary — is a story of the Easter miracle of redeeming human culture — Jewish culture representing the very best. Peter is led to see the divisiveness at the heart of his own religion. Jewish culture/religion leads him to consider Gentiles as unclean and as outside God’s family. The nightmare of unkosher foods and the call to encounter Cornelius begins to give him the insight into the sacred violence. Baptism is the sacramental sign that God’s new culture, established with the resurrection, anticipates that our sinful cultural boundaries are beginning to be redeemed and transformed. Two thousand years later that process is still underway — with a long ways to go.

My sermon in 2016 attempts to situate our progress within that excruciatingly slow process of the redemption of our cultures. The centerpiece of the sermon is the story of a Down Syndrome young man being accepted among children of his age. I view the transformation of the place of differently-abled persons within our society to be a sign of the Easter redemption of our cultures. There are other transformations underway with regards to the oppression of women, people of color, and LGBTQ persons; but there’s still a long ways to go in that regard, too.

The sermon doesn’t even touch on what is the most important: the place of people living in poverty. (Gandhi: “Poverty is the worst form of violence.”) My view is that we’ve made almost no progress in this regard. Increased charitable support of people in poverty might seem like progress. But I’ve come to view it as bordering on, if not crossing into, a sacrificial substitution for a real systemic solution that redeems our culture’s economic worshipping of scarcity as an ordering principle. Only a systemic transformation of our economics will lead us to true progress in healing the violence of poverty. See Paul Dumouchel‘s books (The Ambivalence of Scarcity and The Barren Sacrifice) for more on the sacred violence of Indifference, as propped up through the ideologies of Individualism and an Economics of Scarcity.

The 2016 sermon itself, “An Easter Miracle Story,” tells the wonderful story of Philip, “One Egg Was Empty,” by Harry Pritchett, Jr., from The Lutheran magazine (April, 1983), pp. 10-11. It is a story not just of one isolated miracle of a boy being “set free from the tomb of his differentness,” but the wider miracle of a whole class of people being set free. Philip is unlikely to have had the opportunity to be accepted by a group of children in previous generations and cultures, because he was likely to have been immediately institutionalized,  ‘quarantined’ in some fashion, or even killed (left to die). Philip’s miracle was allowed to happen by the even bigger miracle of a cultural transformation that nurtures differently-abled persons instead of abandoning them.

Background for this sermon, alluded to at the end, is finding ourselves in the midst of a similar transformation underway for LGBTQ persons. Culturally, we are still divided on what it means for our society to nurture and support them for who they are, as opposed to abandoning them to their ‘sin’ or some form of tolerance (including a begrudging tolerance disguised as ‘welcome’). The religious dimension to this issue — seeing ‘homosexuality’ as sin — confirms the thesis of this blog, that Easter reveals and begins to transform the sacred violence at the heart of religion. It explains why the cultural transformation is happening faster in the secularized culture that has been desacralized by the Gospel. It would be cause for celebration if the church could once again find itself to be a leader in joining God’s work of transformation. But the sad truth is that, to the extent that the church continues to be an unreformed vessel for the sacred violence of religion, God will continue to use other vessels like secularized culture, or the movements of nonviolent resistance to injustice started by the Hindu disciple of Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi.

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Holy Thursday Reflections

Holy Thursday Reflections:
Instituting a New Religious Practice, Not a New Religion
Holy Week 2016

When Jesus and his disciples, all Jews, sat down to the Passover meal on the night of his betrayal, was he starting a new religion? Were they Christians at the end of this meal and no longer Jews? Jesus says this meal represents a “new covenant in my blood.” Is it also a new religion?

Or is the institution of this meal a new religious practice remaining within the Jewish religion? There is no evidence in the New Testament that the Apostles began to see themselves no longer as Jews. And Paul argues forcefully in Galatians that Gentile practitioners need not convert to the Jewish religion. In fact, naming the other early rite of the church, Baptism, Paul proclaims that, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

Following the Way of Jesus Christ clearly institutes some new religious practices that signal transformation of one’s religious identity. But does that mean: (1) conversion to a whole new religion? Or (2) transformation and redemption of one’s religion? Or do these two options work out to essentially be the same in practice? Historically, even if Jesus didn’t intend a new religion, his transformation of the Jewish religion eventually worked out to be a new religion called Christianity.

Yet, despite the history, I propose that it might be a good time to seek faithfulness to Jesus’ intentions in instituting the Lord’s Supper — namely, that he was offering a new religious practice to begin redeeming human religion, and not offering humanity a new religion to which we must convert. Another way to put the matter is this: Jesus was offering a new Way to be human, and fundamentally as religious beings that would mean redemption and transformation of our religious identities.

Why would it be important to maintain such a subtle difference? Galatians 3:28 points the way: religious practice is now, since the death and resurrection of Christ, meant to make us One. Ephesians 2 tells us that the entire point of God’s grace in Jesus Christ is “that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it” (Eph. 2:15b-16). Religious practice up to that time had been fundamentally about marking differences, of maintaining the distinction between Us and Them.

Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea, “Go and learn what this means, “I desire compassion, not sacrifice’” (Matt. 9:13a; repeated at 12:7). Up to that time, the central religious practice across the entire globe was ritual blood sacrifice. The Mimetic Theory of René Girard is an anthropological proposal that homo sapiens is a species founded in sacrificial religion as a means of maintaining cultural boundaries that keeps the species a household of God divided. What if we came to see Jesus life, death, and resurrection as a refounding of human culture, a culture of God (“kingdom of God”), that unifies the household of God into one? One that doesn’t erase cultures and religions themselves but transforms their meaning into a Unity-in-Diversity instead of a Division-into-Many?

So Jesus begins by replacing sacrificial killing on altars with remembrance of a divine self-sacrifice to human sacrifice at a table — which is also a fundamental conversion from gods who command sacrifice to a God who sacrifices the divine self in compassion, in solidarity with all sacrificial victims. This is truly a fundamental conversion of theology and religious practice, but I think it is also important to not see it as about the creation of a new religion to which human beings need to convert, so much as it is a conversion of all our religions.

Why? Because the historical practice of Christianity as a new religion to which others must convert has become just another of the old sacrificial religions sorely in need of Christ’s redemption. We Christians have made it about ‘joining’ a new religion as a means of marking who’s in and who’s out — amplifying that separation over 20 centuries with the finality of an afterlife where our human division becomes cemented in eternity — the believing Christians eternally rewarded in heaven and the unbelieving Pagans eternally tortured in hell. It is time to recognize and reject such thinking once and for all as a lapse back into the sacrificial religion of old that Christ Jesus came precisely to redeem. The familiar believers-in-heaven-and-unbelievers-in-hell version of Christianity has tragically become the same old bloody sacrificial religion on steroids.

And, during this Holy Week 2016, it is a good time to also recognize and reject the version of the Cross which fosters that old-time sacrificial practice of Christianity as divisive. The substitutionary atonement thinking in all its forms is just another version of the old sacrificial logic that divides us. Learning that God desires compassion not sacrifice also means that we are converted once and for all from a god of Wrath to a God of compassion. God does not demand punishment for our sins as represented in a blood sacrifice. God seeks to heal and restore our very humanity through the compassionate self-sacrifice of the Messiah on the cross.

And Easter morning is the first day of a New Creation — most especially as the first day of the New Human Being, the re-evolution of the creature God made to bear God’s image of compassionate caretakers for the whole creation. (Mary mistakes Jesus to be the gardener, the caretaker of the garden — the right mistake to make!) Jesus, in offering us a new covenant in his blood, came to offer us not a new religion but a new Way to be human in which our religious identities are being transformed into a Unity-in-Diversity. Just as God took something intended for evil, the sacrifice of Joseph by his brothers, and turned it into something good, the salvation of their whole family (Gen. 50:20); God in Jesus Christ is taking something evil, the bloody divisiveness of our sacrificial religions, and turning them into something good, the salvation of the entire family of the earth.

I hope you won’t mind an early, anticipatory, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

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Register for the 2016 Conference

9th ANNUAL THEOLOGY & PEACE CONFERENCE A culmination of a three year conversation seeking to formulate theological responses to perhaps this nation’s greatest ill — the systemic scapegoating of people of color — its brutal history of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration, as well as its tragic consequences for communities of color. Mimetic Theory, the theoretical framework originating with the intellectual work of René Girard, and in particular its understanding of the Gospel Revelation, informs the work of Theology & Peace. It exposes the structure of racism and offers a way forward.

At our 9th Annual Conference, pastors, theologians, lay people, activists, police and prosecutors will gather to explore practical models for transforming relations between people on all sides of the current crisis of violence as issues of race continue to play out on the front-lines of our broken criminal justice system. With compassion and mutual respect, we hope to reconcile and heal relationships between people and police, between the prosecuted and the prosecutors. This will help to build a society in which all people regardless of race, color, or creed may come to the table to address and redress this nation’s long history of racism.

Register online at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/theology-peace-9th-annual-conference-people-policing-compassion-for-our-violence-registration-21418292690?aff=ebrowse Early bird discount through April 30th!

Scholarships Available at https://theologyandpeace.wordpress.com/scholarships/

The 9th Annual Theology & Peace Conference is sponsored by The Raven Foundation and IMITATIO

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