Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Death of Faith

For my Growing in the Life of Christian Faith class I have to write a spiritual autobiography. I just finished it, and much of it has, I'm afraid, fallen victim to deadline pressure. What should have been a promising story turns into a series of poorly articulated cliches in the second half. So I refuse on principle to publish here the half that I forced out despite my literary constipation.

That said, the first half of the story is pretty good. So, here it is, under the tentative title The Death of Faith:

December 3, 1988. That date, that day, is burned indelibly on my mind. I remember waking up early that morning, too excited to sleep. We were going to King’s Island, an amusement park just outside Cincinnati, Ohio, you see. For WinterFest. At the time I didn’t know what WinterFest was, I just knew that an activity that had once been reserved strictly for the warm, sunny months had now expanded to include even December, the most magical month of the year.

The rest of the day is a series of stills imprinted on my memory, and it is difficult to weave those stills into a coherent narrative. Not because the memory is insufficient to tell as story, but because it is too deep, too pronounced to be reduced to a single story. Rather, it is a string of isolated sense perceptions that I can relive to this day. The hard, cold ice that leapt up to smack me as I fell while skating on the frozen over fountain turned ice rink in the middle of the park. The crisp, clean smell of the winter air all around me. The taste and texture of the sweet junk that masquerades as food at every amusement park and carnival I’ve ever known. Each memory a slide, isolated from all of the others. Each sense perception sharp and pronounced, tinged with melancholy, tainted by irrational guilt.

Why tinged with melancholy? Why tainted by guilt? Because while my brothers and I reveled in WinterFest, sipping hot chocolate and skating on ice, my grandfather was dying alone, in the Toyota pick-up with the 8 track player that would always play Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” for us. “Road Again,” Papaw, “Road Again!” we would squeal in unison. And Road Again! Road Again! he would play, no matter how sick of it he was.

My grandfather was a Southern Baptist pastor, a fierce man of God who taught me both the joy and the fear of the Lord. He represented God to me, and was God for me, and when he died, God died. When I was nine and a half years old I had never heard the word “atheist,” and so surely didn’t know what it meant. Even if I had heard it, I doubt that I would have claimed it as a label for myself. But, whether I would have claimed it or not, when my grandfather died, in my heart I became an atheist, for my God was dead.

My twin brother had more faith than me. When Papaw died he didn’t mourn at first, like the rest of us did. As surely as I knew that God lay slain next to my grandfather’s corpse, my twin brother was convinced that both still lived. Papaw had, after all, always been the merry prankster of our world. He never met a joke he didn’t like, and he never missed an opportunity to pull a leg. This prank, of course, had gone a bit too far, but my brother knew that at the funeral Papaw would jump out of the coffin and scream “Gotcha!”, laughing at us and with us as we celebrated his glorious joke.

But Papaw didn’t jump out of the casket, and when we walked up to it his rubbery skin and his unnatural make-up more than creeped us out. And when they put the body in the ground, I buried my childhood faith. No sign of God would resurface in my life for over five years.

If there is a single symbol that can describe my spiritual journey, it is a symbol that has for too long been misappropriated as a trite, counter-cultural cliché. Long before it came to San Francisco to lose its identity, the yin yang was used in the Taoist/Laoist school of Chinese philosophy to represent the dynamic interaction between two apparent opposites. That dynamic interaction between opposing forces typifies my journey to truly know God apart from any ideas or beliefs about God. When my childhood faith was buried with Papaw’s corpse, against all odds the necessary conditions for resurrection were met. Doubt was working its magic to pave the road for a deeper, more critical and more abiding faith.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Christian Peace Blogger Interview

Michael Westmoreland-White, who started the Christian Peace Bloggers blog-ring, has just published an interview with me on his new Wordpress site (which is replacing his Blogspot site). This should be the beginning of a series of interviews with the various members of the Christian Peace Bloggers blog-ring.

Check it out. It is super cool!

Monday, February 26, 2007

Violence as Communication

In order to combat violence, we must first understand its nature. Of course, a line like that implies that there is a single phenomenon called "violence" with a single, uniform nature. That is, of course, a gross oversimplification. Violence is, like everything else, a complex set of behaviors and events that take on many forms, and are brought about by many different kinds of causes. Even a single violent event participates in "violence" in many different ways, and stems from many different causes.

Some forms of violence are simple expressions of brute power. Violence, after all, is the way that powers hold on to their power. Other forms of violence stem from hatred or fear, from the prejudices that comprise the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. Such hatreds, such fears, such prejudices are so entrenched in our culture that most of us are almost never aware of them, or how we participate in them.

But, beneath all of that, violence is also interpersonal. With the exception of bombs dropped from the sky and the like, there can be no violence without some kind of a relationship, even if it is the most superficial sort of relationship, and even if that relationship begins only at the moment of violence. But, most acts of violence are not random, they are relational. And, at their core, they can be a form of communication used when all other avenues of communication either break down or are, for some reason, left untried.

While there is a disturbing trend of random violence in our streets - rapes and murders and muggings that have nothing to do whatsoever with the victim, but stem entirely from the malice and anger of the perpetrator - it is still the case that such random acts are very, very rare. So, most acts of violence are relational, and all of my peacemaking experience has dealt with, in one way or another, this kind of violence. Relational violence. Violence as a form of communication.

I want to make it clear here that when I speak of my peacemaking experience I am not holding myself up as a model to follow, some kind of saintly example. It may well be that of all of us who have signed up for the Christian Peace Bloggers blog-ring, I have the least experience actually confronting violence, save perhaps the violence that lurks in my own soul. That is why all of my peacemaking experience has confronted relational violence. In some way or another, all of the violence that I have strived against has concerned persons who were or are in some kind of relationship with me.

As a Youth Pastor I was often called on to help resolve family conflicts. I did this not from a position of authority, as though like some judge I could stand over the conflict, evaluate it, and render some verdict on it, blaming one party and rewarding the other. Rather I did this from a position of being in relationship with each party. As such, I had enough credibility to mediate between parties, encouraging each person to actively listen to each other, without passing judgment. I tried my best to, as I used to put it, translate the languages "teenager" to "parent" and "parent" to "teenager." I did my best to help the Youth that I worked with understand where they parents were coming from, and to help the parents understand how to more effectively communicate with their teenage children.

There are many sources of conflict embedded in each familial relationship, and if these are not addressed in a way that respects the interests of each party, some form of violence can emerge. But this is true of others sorts of relationship as well, even global, political relationships, relationships between groups of people, relationships of oppression, relationships of domination and submission. Like interpersonal and familial relationships, in these relationships each party also has an interest that must be addressed. And, if that interest is not addressed to each party's satisfaction, violence will emerge as the default form of communication.

I say that to say this: If we care about the cause of peace we must wage peace. And, to wage peace we must in part serve as agents who facilitate communication where it has broken down. Those of us in positions of power must lend our voices to the voiceless, allowing their cries to be heard by the powers that have grown deaf to their screams. Because when communication breaks down, violence is the natural recourse. When the marginalized realize they have no way to make the powers listen, they lash out, screaming with each riot, with each firebomb, "I bet you can hear my NOW!"

Of course, all of this is theoretical, and, as such, without concrete suggestions, is without value. Even if you agree with everything that I've written here - and I doubt that everything here is entirely true, though from my limited vantage point I, of course, need help discerning truth from falsehood in my own ideas - you could still say, "Sure, I buy this, but now what? How can we serve as agents of communication. How can we lend our ears and our voices to the unheard and the voiceless?"

That is found in what Thich Nhat Hanh calls "Deep and Compassionate Listening" and "Loving Speech." But that will have to be the subject of another post.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Is Kung Really Postmodern?

I had a silly argument with a professor today - the kind I really should avoid, I suspect. In my Paradigms of Christian Mission class the professor criticized one of the texts for "failing to interact with or account for postmodernism." It was a valid criticism. However, I interjected with something like this:

"But the author does borrow his paradigm framework from Hans Kung's work, and so at least in that respect interacts with something postmodern."

The professor then replied with something like:

"Hans Kung is decidedly not postmodern. He is a thoroughly modern theologian, and that fact is borne out by his global ethic, which tries - like a Western imperialist - to impose a single global ethic on all peoples regardless of their cultural situation."

Arrogant as I am, I thought that comment didn't reflect a very good understand of Kung, nor much of a knowledge of his work. That the professor then confessed to not having read much Kung irked me more. In fact, she confessed, I almost was almost certainly better acquainted with Kung's work. Nevertheless, she simply couldn't see how I could claim that Kung was postmodern.

After class, like the young fool that I am, I gave her a brief primer in the postmodern aspects of Kung. Thankfully, she is a kind and gracious women, and our conversation was constructive. At the end of it she asked for the titles of some books that she should read to better understand the extent to which Kung's historical and contextual approach to systematic theology can be considered postmodern.

Of course, along with her lack of knowledge of or interest in Kung, the amorphous nature of the word "postmodern" contributed to our disagreement. It is possible that every person who has ever used the term has meant something different by it. It may be appropriate that a world-view that denies the possibility of any non-contextual, over-arching world-view cannot be given a broad definition. After all, if it is anything, postmodernism is the rejection of such broad definitions or grand narratives.

In any event, our conversation got me wondering what exactly we mean when we say that something is "postmodern," and whether or not that term can be properly applied to the work of Hans Kung. I don't think I can answer either of those questions satisfactorily, but in my quest to come up with a halting answer I did get to read a paper that I wrote in an undergraduate Philosophy of Religious course on a section of Hans Kung's Theology for the Third Millennium: An Ecumenical View (first published in German as Theologie im Aufbruch).

When nominating that book for Patrik's Best Contemporary Theology Meme I wrote:

This could be the magnum opus of postmodern Christian theology...

The following paper should make it clear why I - despite my professor's opinion that Kung is more modern than postmodern - would say something like that:


Hans Küng’s book, Theology for the Third Millennium: An Ecumenical View, outlines his vision for the direction of theology and the Catholic Church (in the truest sense of the word ‘catholic’) in the “postmodern” world. This paper is primarily concerned with part of an introductory section of this book, titled “The Function of Religion in Postmodernity,” in which Küng argues that changes in the way that people view the world, and their place in it, have profound implications for the role of religion in the human experience.

This is, of course, not a novel idea. Religion is a profound part of the human experience. Changes in the human experience ought to have some impact on both the content and role of religion, if religion is to be in any way ‘relevant.’ If, in fact, the human experience is changing, then the human experience of religion, and the role of religion, should be changing as well. And so, Küng outlines his theory on the way that religion (particularly Catholic theology) is changing, and the ways in which it ought to be changing.

Hans Küng is often referred to as a ‘historio-critical’ theologian, which means that his theology is based on, and concerned with, history. As such, the arguments that he builds in his writings can be difficult to follow for someone used to abstract philosophic arguing, because they often depend on historical developments and interpretations of those developments, rather than pure reason and logic. The task here, then, is to pick the main arguments out of his line of historical references, and evaluate them on their own merits. But, before we can do that, we must first discuss an underlying assumption, on which Küng’s entire argument rests.

Hans Küng, writing in 1987, assumes that we are living in a new time, a new age; an age characterized by the “intellectual crisis” of the failure of ‘modernism,’ which became evident after World War I. He, like many others, refers to this age as a ‘postmodern’ age. It is an age which recognizes the limitations of the ‘modern’ world, with its emphasis on human reason, science and technology, and attempts to get past those limitations by approaching problems in a new, more holistic, way.

Küng argues that the ‘modern’ approach to religion is still evident in the writings of “so many pioneering thinkers from Heidegger through Popper to the New Left” which “bracket (italics his) the question of religion.” Instead of this approach to religion, which quarantines religion from the whole of human experience, Küng insists that “we must consider it along with everything else, in a postmodern fashion. (italics his)”

Based on his assumption that we are living in a new time which approaches problems in a new, ‘postmodern’ way, and based on the assumption of that age that all aspects of human experience should be considered more holistically rather than being taken out of their natural environment and analyzed “objectively” and “scientifically” (hallmarks of the ‘modern’ age), Küng makes a number of points which convey his vision for the role of religion in a ‘postmodern’ world.

The first point that Küng makes, then, is that understanding religion, in ‘postmodernity,’ is central to understanding human beings. He says that “without diagnosing and solving the religious (italics his) crisis, no diagnosis and solution of the intellectual situation of our age can be successful” because “the intellectual crisis (italics his) of our time... is decisively co-determined by the religious crisis” evident in the ‘postmodern’ world. This initially seems to be an unargued assumption. He does not defend it philosophically, by building a reasoned argument about the role of religion in individual lives. Instead, per his style and its emphasis on historical developments, he defends this point by bringing up his next point.

Küng insists that “the death of religion expected in late modernity has not taken place (italics his),” but, in fact, contrary to expectations, religion, historically speaking, has become more important to people in recent years. He says, “[n]ot religion, but its dying off, was the grand illusion. Religion is present once more in Western societies and in public too (contrary to all the functionalist theories of the privatization of religion). East and West, North and South, in cultures and subcultures, in scholarly discussions and in the media, in small groups... and in great religious-political movements” religion has become more visible in the ‘postmodern’ age. This is, to Küng, a historical fact which contradicts the modern view of the role of religion in Western/scientific society. “The scientific world picture and the religious orientation to reality, political commitment, and religious faith are,” contrary to the ‘modern’ view of religion, “no longer perceived as incompatible.”

So, according to Küng, religion is essential to understanding the human experience, because religion is vital to the experience of being human. This is demonstrated by the revival of religious expression in postmodernity, a revival which came on the heels of the notion that God, along with religion, is dead. Neither of these points, however, is very profound, and I expect that few people would disagree with them. They are important only for the question that they raise, which is this: what is the role of religion in postmodernity? Or, rather, what direction should religion and the study of religion take in the ‘postmodern’ world?

First, Hans Küng argues that religion should look forward, not backward. It should not take the demise of modernism in society as license to go back to a pre-modern theology, but rather to seriously consider the objections raised by ‘modernism’ and to move past them. He says “[w]e must unhesitatingly resist the global antimodernism, the programmatic Counter-Enlightenment that one sees people today – and not only in the Church – seeking again to promote with every means at their disposal. The theologian will be careful not to take belated revenge for the watchword ‘the death of God’ (now gone out of fashion) with the watchword, ‘the death of modernity.’”

This is an excellent point. While the ‘modern’ view of the world, according to Küng and many others, is no longer sufficient, that it is no longer sufficient does not mean that it was or is entirely wrong. The objections that modernity raised about religion and religious expression are often still valid. Küng’s own theological approach, with its emphasis on history, came out of the modern paradigm, as did biblical criticism. Modernism challenged religion to be, if not exactly ‘reasonable,’ at least not ‘irrational.’ But the modern paradigm did not only criticize the method of religion, it also challenged the results of religion, and that challenge is also still valid. Marx and others were concerned that religion, in their own cultures, served as a means for economic exploitation. That criticism, even after the much ballyhooed “fall of communism” (at least in Europe and the West, if not yet in China), is still a valid one. Religion in general, and Christianity in particular, should not use the demise of the modern view of the world as an excuse to retreat to the pre-modern theology that was so successfully criticized by modernity.

So, how, according to Küng, is religion to move past modernity without moving backward? Simply put, we must treat modernity “as a paradigm that has grown old and that must be built up anew,” To do this, we must evaluate ‘modernism,’ keep what still works, and discard what no longer works. First, we must “preserve the critical power of the Enlightenment” while getting rid of “social exploitation and intellectual obscurantism of every sort.” Then “[w]e must deny... the reductionism of modernity, with respect to the deeper spiritual levels of reality. We must also deny modernity’s superstitious faith in reason, science, and progress, along with the self-destructive forces that this faith has unleashed (including nationalism, colonialism, and imperialism) in the course of history… Finally, we must transcend and move beyond modernity, we must sublate it into a paradigm of postmodernity, in which repressed and stunted dimensions” including religion “aim to produce a new, liberating, enriching effect.”

The first of these three suggestions is obvious, and does not need explanation or defense. It seems obvious (to most) that the “critical power of the Enlightenment” still works. However, the second point is less obvious, and rests on a number of assumptions. Küng calls modernity’s “faith in reason, science, and progress” a “superstition,” not unlike the religious superstitions so soundly criticized by the Enlightenment. But is this faith such an obvious superstition that it can be claimed so without additional argument? I imagine that Küng would argue that the answer to that question is undeniably “yes.” After all, he might argue, there is no reason to suppose that human reason is limitless, or that science and technology are the keys to “progress.” In fact, he could say, our faith in this view has led us into a number of problems. In taking dominion over nature in the name of scientific progress, we have done irreparable damage to our natural environment. In developing technology without limit we have designed, in nuclear weapons, devices that could destroy almost all life on the planet, including ourselves. Human beings have obvious technical limits, in that, contrary to the “superstitious faith” of modernity we cannot design devices to do anything and everything, but we are not just limited by our technological capacities. We are also obviously limited by our lack of vision, and this, Küng could argue, is the greatest evidence of the failure of the “superstitious faith” of modernity. We cannot accurately predict the results of our actions, and so we cannot know that what we call “progress” is really “progress,” in the sense that it is moving in the “right” direction, producing positive rather than negative results.

And so, religion must, along with keeping the criticism of the Enlightenment, deny both the reductionism of modernity, which brackets off the human experience into artificial categories, and the “superstitious faith in reason, science, and progress.” This does not mean that reason or science is entirely invalid, but it does mean that they are not the exclusive determiners of what is true. Rather, they must be governed by something else, be it faith, ethics, spirituality, or whatever, so long as it checks the dangerous and destructive assumptions of modernity.

In picking between what from the modern paradigm works, and what doesn’t work, we are moving “beyond modernity,” incorporating it into a new, postmodern paradigm. Establishing these, Küng can finally lay out the project of his whole book (not the subject of this essay) which is the project he sees for theology in the postmodern world: that is, addressing “classic conflicts” (which are the major theological problems throughout history) gaining “future perspectives” (which entails, in addressing those “classic conflicts,” coming up with new theological perspectives) and moving “toward a theology of the world religions” (which will account for the variety of religious beliefs in the world.) Doing this, according to Küng, will make religion and theology relevant to the postmodern human experience.

Whether or not Küng’s suggestions for the direction of religion and theology in the postmodern world turn out to be helpful is not the subject of this paper, and, at this point, it is probably impossible to tell. However, it should be clear from this paper that Küng clearly diagnoses some problems with the modern paradigm, and its approach to religion. Insofar as he outlines his vision for a postmodern theology, that vision is very attractive to me and many others. While his arguments do not use pure reason, they are reasonable, and, more importantly given his theological perspective, they are grounded in history.

40 Days: A Lenten Devotional

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, marking (if you will) the advent of Lent. For Lent this year my church, along with Christ Church United Methodist and the Healing Place, has published a book of Lenten devotionals. In it there are 40 readings, one for each of the 40 days of Lent. Each reading was written by someone from one of the three groups (4th Ave UMC, Christ Church UMC, and the Healing Place).

As you can probably guess, I agreed to write one of the devotionals. I had a hard time with it, because I don't usually write anything short, nor do I often write with a devotional focus. Nothing about the daily reading format plays to my strengths. That said, with more than a little bit of fear and trepidation (perfectly appropriate for this season, by the way), here is my devotional piece, 40 Days:


Scripture Reading: Matthew 4:1-4, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4: 1-4

After the Spirit (literally Breath) of God descends on Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan, he is immediately sent into the wilderness for forty days. Forty is a significant number in the Bible. After their Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites wander in the wilderness for forty days, living off the bread that rained down from heaven.

In this Gospel story, Jesus symbolically retraces the steps of ancient Israel, being led by God into the wilderness for forty days. Luke states overtly what Matthew and Mark imply, that Jesus “ate nothing at all during those days.” Just before facing his first time of trial, Jesus fasts.

In his fast Jesus, like ancient Israel wandering in the wilderness, depends on God for his food, for his strength. And, while Jesus does not eat anything, he feasts on the presence of God, and that spiritual feast prepares him for his first time of trial.

In Lent we retrace these steps of Jesus, just as he retraced the steps of ancient Israel. We do more than remember the days he spent fasting in the wilderness preparing both for temptation and for his coming mission; we relive them.

This Lenten season, may our fast – whatever form it takes – remind us that we depend totally on God for our nourishment and strength. And, may we, through our fast of preparation, become more like our Christ.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Language and Power in John Edgar Wideman

Yesterday in Resistance and Reconciliation we talked mostly about "power," using the work of Michel Foucault as a lens through which to view an aspect of power and domination; the subjugation of particular knowledges, particular stories. Because the class was mostly discussion, I'm not sure that I can give you a feel for how it was to be in the room. I can say, looking back through my notes after class, that we talked about, in order:

1. Foucault's Two Lectures, especially pertaining to "the insurrection of subjugated knowledges."

2. WEB DuBois' concept of a "veil of consciousness;" that is, the notion that people (and, in the case of DuBois' work, Black people) tend to see themselves the way they are seen.

3. An essay by Laura Stivers titled Resistance to Structural Adjustment Policies, found in the textbook Resistance and Theological Ethics edited by Ronald R. Stone and Robert L. Stivers. We attempted to connect some of Stivers' observations to Foucault's discussion of "capillaries of domination."

4. Part I of Traci C. West's Wounds of the Spirit: Black Women, Violence, and Resistance Ethics. This Part of her book focuses on the stories of black women who have been victimized by all kinds of violence, especially what she calls "intimate violence," a phrase that many of us struggled with because of the oxymoronic distance between the words "intimate" and "violence." The phrase captures all of the immediate potency that the words "rape" and "molestation" have lost.

Anyway, in discussing "subjugated knowledges" - that is, those forms of knowledge that have been subjugated by power, those stories that we don't hear because we are conditioned by our participation in power structures not to hear - and West's stories from black women who have been vicitimized by the power of violence and the violence of power, our discussion at some point shifted organically into a discussion on the relationship between language and power.

There are some stories, some in the class argued, that we perhaps don't hear simply because of the language they are told in. By this they didn't mean that the stories were written or spoken in, say, Mandarin Chinese and we only speak English. Rather, by this they mean that they were spoken or written - told in some fashion - in a "shameful" dialect of English, some bastardized subset of our language that we dismiss as ignorant without ever engaging its content.

Some of us had this experience reading the stories in West's book. They used a kind of dialect that reflects a lack of formal education; and we, as graduate students and/or professors of some stripe or another ("Masters of Divitity students," "Masters of Arts in Religion students," "Masters of Spirituality students," "local pastors," "military chaplains," "Ethics professors," and "Systematic Theology professors" are labels carried by those in the room) value formal education above almost everything else. As such, most of us were subconsciously dismissive of the stories told in a less formally educated English dialect. After all, we have worked hard to master a kind of English - not necessarily our native dialect of the language in most cases - to achieve what success we've achieved. That these women had not done the same kind of work, that they had not mastered our new language, turned us off a little. Made us on some unconscious level judge them as somehow inferior to us, as somehow participating in the violence done to them.

They weren't our kind of people, and they didn't communicate their stories on our kind of language, and so we were less able to hear them. This is part of the relationship between power and language. They mastery of the language of power gives one access to power, allows one to have one's story heard by power. It allows us to participate in power, and hold some power of our own. Failure to master the language of power renders one almost powerless; at least powerless to communicate to power, to be heard by power.

This discussion reminded me of the work I did on John Edgar Wideman's use of language as an undergraduate. I did an independent study on the subject aimed at producing a publishable paper. The end result was almost, but not quite, worthy of inclusion in an academic journal.

Anyway, much of my work focused on the relationship between race, power, and language. Part of my thesis was that Wideman - a black author - had to "unlearn" the language of his native Homewood, PA, and learn the more "white" language of academia that he encountered at Penn and Oxford. His success in his chosen profession - and, more broadly, his success in life - depended on subverting his native language and conforming to the language of power. What follows is a small chunk of that paper:


Nowhere is this more apparent than in Wideman’s use of, and comments on language. While Hoop Roots represents a major step for Wideman’s use of language, language, and its connection to race and cultural upbringing is not a new topic for him. It is, in fact, one of the running themes of one of his earlier works, Brothers and Keepers. Brothers and Keepers is a memoir of his interactions with his incarcerated brother. These interactions take place both in physical reality and in his imagination, and interactions in both realms are significant. It is often, in fact, difficult to tell which interactions actually took place, and which interactions are merely descriptions of what he wished that he had said or heard. Wideman often meditates on the alternating distance and intimacy with his brother. This leads him to discuss many obstacles in their relationship; obstacles which include education and language. He says:

Your words and gestures belong to a language I was teaching myself to unlearn. When we spoke, I was conscious of a third party short-circuiting our conversations. What I’d say to you came from the mouth of a translator who always talked down or up to you, who didn’t know you or me but pretended he knew everything.

Was I as much a stranger to you as you seemed to me? …I’d made choices. I was running away from Pittsburgh, from poverty, from blackness. To get ahead, to make something of myself, college had seemed a logical, necessary step; my exile, my flight from home began with good grades, with good English… (Wideman Brothers and Keepers 26)

Here it is not his use of language which is interesting, but his comments on language. Language, the white language of “good English” has become a form of alienation, both from his brother as well as himself. In adopting the language and values of the dominant culture which educated him, both at Penn and Oxford, Wideman can no longer relate to his natural culture, the culture which he shared with his brother and his family.

But, now as he is writing this book, he has gained some distance both from his original culture and the culture of his education. He is able to articulate a critique of his own thoughts and actions, and of the impact that his education and the dominant language of that education had on him. When he speaks of the third party short-circuiting the conversation, or the translator, or the know-it-all, he is speaking of both himself and the culture which educated him. He is, of course, mocking the tendency of young, well-educated men to bluff others with their new vocabulary. He is also mocking the tendency of educated people to over-value their education and gloss over that which they don’t know. He is mocking the way in which one culture judges another culture by its own values rather than looking at the internal values of that culture. And he is mocking the way in which older brothers, far removed from home, distance themselves from the struggles of the younger brothers left behind.

But, it would be a mistake to overlook the role language in this passage. Language may be the most significant alienating factor. Wideman has given up the language structure of his youth, of his family, of his home. He has exchanged it for his ideas of success. It may be a necessary and even helpful exchange, but it is not a cheap one. His brother speaks the language that he is teaching himself to unlearn. Whereas language was once one of many common bonds between them, it is now an obstacle.

Is it possible, I wonder, to use the language of the dominant culture, and not, through the use of that language, appear to be talking down to someone who uses language differently? Is it possible for someone within the language structure of the dominant culture to encounter a different language structure, notice that it is different, and yet pass no judgment on it? Is it possible to move from one language structure to another without passing some form of judgment on the now abandoned language? Wideman did not move from one language structure to another because he thought that both language structures were equally valid and useful. Rather, he moved from the language of Homewood to “good English” because he was taught that the English he was learning was, in fact, good. He adopted the language of the dominant culture in order to succeed. With that there must be some form of evaluation of the language structure that he discarded. It is, if not quite inferior, at least not as useful.


There's more to the story, as you might guess. The rest of the paper explores how Wideman's views on and use of language change over time, as he goes through the process of "unlearning" and "relearning" the language of Homewood. It explores the role that language plays in his "alienation" from both his culture and the culture of "white" academia. It also looks at how he uses language on the "other side" of success.

I suspect as we explore these issues in Resistance and Reconciliation, I will publish other excerpts from my study of Wideman. But this is more than enough for today.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Theodicy in the Priestly Creation Myth?

One of the ideas I've been kicking around for my eventual MA Thesis is a continuation of some of my ideas here about theodicy. That is, perhaps my Thesis would look at the moral and religious implications of theodicy, while also perhaps expanding the concept of theodicy to include other kinds of religious attempts to wrestle with the problem of evil. Evil, suffering, pain, and the like are, after all, not just philosophic, theological, and especially logical problems for a particular brand of theism that asserts God's unlimited perfection and goodness. They are experiential problems for all persons.

For my Intro to Judaism class I'm currently reading The Divine Symphony: The Bible's Many Voices, by Israel Knohl, a professor of Bible at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In it he notes the problem that evil poses for all forms of monotheistic religion, not just the philosophic theism that sticks to a strict concept of divine omnipotence, omniscience, and benevolence:

The most crucial problem facing monotheistic religion is the source of evil. In polytheistic religions, evil can be blamed on wicked divinities. But if there is only one God and God is perceived as good and merciful, how can we explain the existence of evil in the world?

This question, Knohl asserts, was burning in the minds of the Priestly editors of the Torah. It can even be seen beneath the text of the first Creation Myth of Ancient Israel, found in Genesis 1:1-2:4a. That myth, in Source Theory, is traditionally attributed to the Priestly Source, a source that is seen by many scholars as a later voice from the post-exhilic period, but is seen by Knohl as a pre-exhilic voice. In fact, Knohl argues quite convincingly that the what he calls the "Priestly Torah" can best be dated to "the period between the building of Solomon's Temple (tenth century B.C.E.) and the time of King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah (second half of the eight century B.C.E.)."

This is important for him, because he argues that the Priestly Torah was a response on the part of the "elite priests in Jerusalem" to a crisis in the social and religious climate of Ancient Israel - a crisis spoken to by the great prophets of that time.

That there was a socio-religious crisis in Ancient Israel at that time is beyond dispute: the texts of Amos, Isaiah and Micah all speak to it. Knohl succinctly describes the crisis in a single sentence:

People thought that they might acquire sanctity by meticulous performance of the cultic laws, ignoring at the same time the social-moral commandments.

In response to the attack on the Temple cult that followed the prophetic articulation of this crisis, Knohl argues that the priests made public stories and traditions that they had long guarded, and the result was the formation of the Torah text. This, of course, was an ongoing process - they didn't just publish a single, definitive manuscript. But, at its heart, according to Knohl, the Priestly Torah - that is, the parts of the Torah that are attributable to the Priestly Source - are a response by the priests to this socio-religious crisis.

Anyway, the first creation myth in Genesis is part of what Knohl calls the Priestly Torah. In addition to responding to the contemporary crisis that Knohl sees as responsible for the Priestly Torah, Knohl argues that this myth is also in part a response to the problem of evil as it might have been understood at the time.

The problem of evil is, after all, not exactly a new problem. In previous posts we have discussed this a little, when looking at one of Augustine's theodicies from the 4th century CE. However, it wasn't a new problem in Augustine's day, some 1650 or so years ago. In fact, it was an ancient problem even in antiquity; perhaps as old as monotheism, or even old. Human beings have, as best as we can tell, been wrestling with the experience of pain and suffering for as long as there have been both human beings and pain and suffering. And, at some point, every religion must account for the origins of this experience, which we label "evil."

So it should come as no surprise that the Priestly Torah, in its creation myth, struggles with the nature of evil; particularly since, as Knohl notes, in Judaism as with all other monotheistic religions, there is no evil deity for the problem to fall back on.

After providing us with a reading of Genesis 1:1-3, and a brief discussion of the syntax, Knohl writes:

The most striking conclusion that follows from this observation of syntax is that before the formation of light, which was the first act of God as Creator, there were already entities that predated God's creation. These primordial materials consisted of unformed and void earth (tohu v'vohu), darkness (hoshekh), and deep waters (tehom). Thus we do not have in Genesis 1 a claim for creation out of nothing (creatio ex nihlo).

Before we go any further I should note, for those of you who may feel threatened by the idea that there is no Biblical support for creation ex nihlo, that Knohl is an Orthodox Jewish rabbi who takes the Biblical text very, very seriously. In other words, he is not some radical like me who seeks to overturn the religious apple cart. His work is his attempt to come to terms with the text of his Bible, a text in which he sees the Word of God. This reading, then, is one that comes out of the Biblical text itself, and not a radical reading that somehow manipulates the text. In fact, this reading is much, much more faithful to the Biblical text than any reading that would see creation ex nihlo in this story. Creation ex nihlo is an extra-Biblical concept that has been read back into the Bible by those who sought to see the Greek philosopher's God in the God of Ancient Israel. That it has become "orthodox" in the Christian tradition demonstrates that even the most "orthodox" of Christians have sought to re-interpret their scriptures in light of their cultural setting, just like we "liberals" do today.

But, the question before us is not one of "orthodoxy" v. "heresy" in the contemporary Christian context. Rather, it is one of what Knohl makes of these three pre-existing primordial entities, and how they relate to the problem of evil as understood by the priestly editors of the Torah.

We cannot interpret tohu v'vohu as a designation for formless matter, as it is often interpreted; rather, it is a reference to some primordial entity that preceded divine creation and that was used in that process. Elsewhere in the Bible, the word tohu means "desert," "waste," "devastation," and this is also the meaning here. God begins Creation assuming the presence of this primordial tohu. On the first day, God created light as a contrast to the preexisting darkness. On the second day, God separated the preexisting water by forming the expanse of heaven. On the third day, God gathered the original waters that were left under the expanse, and distinguished the earth from the seas.

We see here a progressing process of ordering, making distinctions, and building up from preexisting substances. This movement from chaos to order in the myth is important, because it presents us with a both progressive and ongoing picture of Creation. Creation is not a one time event in the past, in which God made everything ex nihlo. Rather, it is an ongoing story that takes place in time, in which God shapes that which already existed, while adding to it, ordering it, and making important distinctions between "light" and "darkness," water "above" and water "below," and between "sea" and "land." These distinctions correspond to the three primordial materials that Knohl translates as "darkness," "deep waters," and "unformed and void earth."

In positing these primordial substances, in overtly saying that "some elements of the universe were not created by God," Knohl sees the priestly editors as both attempting to explain the existence of evil and as placing "limits" on "God's force and authority as Creator." He argues, in fact, that this aspect of the creation myth is an overt attempt to solve the fundamental problem of evil:

The primeval elements tohu, hoshekh, and tehom all belong to the evil sphere. Hence, the Priestly claim that these entities predated God's Creation is really a claim about primordial evil. The three elements comprising the preexistant cosmic substance are the roots (put another way, the substance) of evil in the world. At the conclusion of the Priestly account of Creation, it is written: "And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good" (Gen. 1:31). All that God had made was very good. Evil was not made by God. It predated Creation in Genesis 1!

This reading presents us with a much more religiously and morally satisfying kind of theodicy. In it God, rather than explaining evil away, takes the preexistant substance of evil and shapes it into something good.

This is very similar to the way in which Process Theology in the Christian tradition looks at the relationship between God and evil. In both accounts God is somewhat limited, in that there are things beyond God's creative power. And, in both cases God actively works, in an ongoing process, to address the problem of evil. This divine activity demands our participation, calling us to co-create with God; that is, to work with God to help alleviate suffering by shaping evil into good.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Praying the Psalms

One of my courses, a Christian Education class called Growing in the Life of Christian Faith, requires each student to covenant to pray a Psalm each week, and to keep a journal to reflect on the experience.

Each night, after I finish my journal entry for the day, I ask Sami to read it. It is my way of sharing my interior life with her. She often asks me, when we finally see each other, "How was your day?" Most of the time I simply can't come up with an answer. So much happens during the course of a day; some things that I would label "good," others that I would label "bad." By the end of the day I've given up trying to apply labels to my experiences, and so I often can't find a coherent narrative lens through which to view the events of my day, much less communicate them to her.

So now I read to her from my prayer journal. It helps give her a glimpse of my interior life, which is what she's really asking about when she inquires of my day.

Anyway, after reading her tonight's entry, she asked if I might consider posting things more like what I write in my prayer journal - she can relate to the content there much more than she can relate to the speculative or argumentative nonsense that fills these virtual pages. So, in the interests of sharing my reflections on a new spiritual journey, and in the hopes that those reflections somehow lead others to a deeper understanding of faith, I'm posting a few things from this week's prayer journal.

This week I - along with the rest of my class - have been praying Psalm 1. While most of the class has been using the New Revised Standard Version, most of the time I've been using the JPS Tanakh translation. It reads:

Happy is the man who has not followed the
counsel of the wicked,
or taken the path of sinners,
or joined the company of the insolent;
rather, the teaching of the LORD is his delight,
and he studies that teaching day and night.
He is like a tree planted beside streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season,
whose foliage never fades,
and whatever it produces thrives.

Not so the wicked;
rather, they are like chaff that wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not survive judgment,
nor will sinners, in the assembly of the
For the LORD cherished the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked is doomed.

Now here are three entries from this week, including tonight's:

Tues., Feb. 13, 2007

I was most struck by the faith that the Psalm exhibits in God's justice. The Psalm assumes that good befalls the righteous, and evil befalls the wicked. This goes against our general experience of the world, which has us often wondering why the good falter while the evil prosper.

Perhaps this faith in God's justice is rooted in the word "Happy." There is, I suspect, a connection between one's adherence to virtue and one's happiness. I know that I have experienced this, and not just in the form of residual guilt for sins. To do good, to treat others kindly, to forgive those who've wronged you, to let go of the hurts you bottle inside, to act in compassionate and altruistic ways - these all have tangible emotional benefits that we experience these benefits both personally and intersubjectively can help us have faith in God's judgment, because we can experience that judgment in the here and now.

Today I meditated on this understanding of judgment, and how it both impacts my faith in the God who has ordered the universe with at least a degree of justice; and impacts my behavior, as one who, in the words of the Psalm, "survive[s] the judgment" (or at least hopes to) and sits "in the assembly of the righteous."

Wed., Feb. 14, 2007

There is an image in the Psalm that strikes me: the image of the righteous as a tree planted by streams of water. The tree "yields its fruit in season" and "whatever it produces thrives."

Today has been a cold, cold day. It rained earlier this week, and so when the cold front came in there was standing water on the ground. That water froze. Looking out the window I can see pools of frozen water surrounding the trees in the park across the street from my house. Likewise, on the way to pick my son up from preschool I could see trees standing beside frozen ponds.

I wonder if this isn't a good metaphor for my prayer life. My experience of God has frozen over. But perhaps this is just a season; perhaps if the cold doesn't kill me I'll still be able to produce fruit in a later season.

Thurs., Feb. 16, 2007

What struck me today was the phrase:

"... but their delight is in the law of the LORD..." (NRSV)


"... the teaching of the LORD is his delight..." (JPS)

I can relate to someone who studies the Torah day and night ("torah" is the word used here for "law" or "teaching") but I can't always relate to someone who takes delight in such study.

Since I was a teenager I have obsessively studied philosophy and theology. I'm sure that at one point that study came out of a deep relationship with God, a profound experience of the sacred. I'm sure that at one point it was even a great joy to me, something that I delighted in.

But though I once described pondering the mysteries of the sacred as a kind of mystical joy, that joy is no longer a tangible part of my daily experience. Today I study like I breathe: mindlessly, joylessly. I can't live without it, but I never notice it.

Today I ate some exquisite chocolate truffles. Yesterday was Valentine's Day, so Sami surprised me with a variety of dark chocolates from Godiva. I ate them slowly, feeling the rich cream tingle my taste buds. Each morsel was a delight that I nursed slowly, milking each pleasureous moment.

My study of the wisdom of our religious tradition should be like that, but too often it is like eating a thin, flavorless gruel.

I miss delighting in the teaching, the law, the "torah" of the LORD.

... or we could do it the hard way...

The Christian Science Monitor's Eoin O'Carrol is reporting that Sir Richard Branson of Virgin fame is offering a cool $25 million to anyone who "can come up with a way to scrub at least 1 billion tons of CO2 a year from Earth's atmosphere." The aim would be to help slow or even arrest global warming, caused by the 25 billion tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere annually by the burning of fossil fuels.

While some criticism of this plan has focused on Mr. Branson's apparent hypocrisy, noting, among other things, that he owns a commercial airline that consumes colossal amounts of fossil fuels and also promotes private, commercial space-travel. Good points, but perhaps a better criticism would focus on the merits and demerits of the project itself, rather than on any apparent hypocrisy on the part of the brain and money behind it.

I don't see any actual hypocrisy on the part of someone who realizes that their economic interests depend not only on the consumption of fossil fuels, but also on the ability of the Earth to survive said consumption more or less intact. After all, an ecological disaster that rendered large parts of the planet uninhabitable would be very bad indeed for business.

I also see no necessary hypocrisy on the part of ecological advocates - such as Al Gore, Jim Hansen, James Lovelock and the like - who participate in a project created by a man whose fortune has been built in part on the back of the ecosystem. If we really care about our habitat we have to build alliances with anyone willing to do any work to help preserve it; even alliances with big business.

The only problems I have are these:

1.) The goal isn't big enough. Even if we can somehow find a way to scrub 1 million tons of CO2 from the air each and every year, that still leaves us with a gap of 24 million tons and climbing each year, relative to the amount of CO2 released by the burning of fossil fuels annually.

2.) I am somewhat suspicious of any plan to help preserve the natural environment by acting upon it. That is, we create a great deal of harm to the environment by treating it as an object to be acted upon, manipulated, interfered with. Of course, we are also able to accomplish some goods through this. But we should still be suspicious of any plan to undo the damage we've done by acting upon the environment, as there may be untold future damage done by each new action.

That isn't to say that we shouldn't do anything - it is instead to say that the many somethings we should do involve limiting the ways in which we act upon the environment, rather than adding to them.

That said, I hope this plan works. It is limited, and possibly even shortsighted, but it is something.

And now I've got to go to my second round of classes.

Death Certificates for Aborted Fetuses?

I just saw this at Bible Belt Blogger:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Legislation introduced in Tennessee would require death certificates for aborted fetuses, which likely would create public records identifying women who have abortions.

Rep. Stacey Campfield, a Republican, said his bill would provide a way to track how many abortions are performed. He predicted it would pass in the Republican-controlled Senate but would have a hard time making it through the Democratic House.

"All these people who say they are pro-life _ at least we would see how many lives are being ended out there by abortions," said Campfield.

The number of abortions reported to the state Office of Vital Records is already publicly available. The office collects records _ but not death certificates _ on abortions and the deaths of fetuses after 22 weeks gestation or weighing about 1 pound.

The identities of the women who have abortions are not included in those records, but death certificates include identifying information such as Social Security numbers.

Campfield's bill, introduced Monday, would give abortion providers 10 days following an "induced termination of a pregnancy" to file a death certificate.

House Judiciary Chairman Rob Briley, a Democrat, called Campfield's proposal "the most preposterous bill I've seen" in an eight-year legislative career.


I know, I know... I should be doing my homework right now. I've still got some work to do before my Paradigms in Christian Mission class starts, two hours from now. But before I finish that, I've simply got to say something about this.

Like proposed "fetal homicide" laws, this bill is simply a pretense, I think, to smuggle in a concept of personhood beginning before birth. It is also a shameless attempt to bully scared pregnant women who are agonizing over whether or not to terminate their pregnancy. It is simply a cheap political stunt, aiming to sidestep the legal debate over abortion. It also - if passed - stands to do a great deal of harm.

The worst part about this bill, if the AP article is any indication, is its dishonesty. Rep. Campfield, the sponsor of the bill, states that its purpose is to "see how many lives are being ended out there by abortions." But, as the article notes, there are already available statistics on the number of abortions being performed in the state of Tennessee, and everywhere else, for that matter. With the click of my mouse I can access the information that Rep. Campfield claims this bill will provide to the state. I find it very hard that he, a Representative in the Tennessee House, needs a new law - a law that, incidentally will also provide recognition of the personhood of aborted fetuses and make public the identities of women who have had abortions - to obtain information that I can access from the computer in my basement.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

On “Why Gays (as a Group) Are Morally Superior to Christians (as a Group)” by Stanley Hauerwas

Since joining the Christian Peace Bloggers blog-ring I've been meaning to post something on one of my favorite little essays, Stanley Hauerwas' “Why Gays (as a Group) Are Morally Superior to Christians (as a Group)”. I've been meaning to post on it because it combines two hot-button moral/political/theological issues in a really creative way. It seeks to explore

a.) how homosexuality relates to military service, and

b.) how Christianity relates to military service.

To say any more up front would be to steal from the delight of reading about it. So, here is a slightly edited version of a paper I once wrote on the essay:


In this brief essay, Duke Divinity School Theological Ethics Professor Stanley Hauerwas takes a unique approach to the issue of whether or not gays (as a group) are being unfairly discriminated against by not being allowed to serve in the military. He only briefly addresses of discrimination, saying “I see no good reason why gays and lesbians should be excluded from military service,” but that discrimination does not concern him. In fact, he says “I think it a wonderful thing that some people are excluded [from military service] as a group. I only wish that Christians could be seen by the military to be as problematic as gays.”

While his essay is not, in the end, primarily concerned with either the moral value of homosexual behavior or the discrimination of groups on the grounds of sexual orientation, he does provide at least a cursory treatment of the issue of discrimination against gays, saying “Discrimination against gays grows from the moral incoherence of our lives” and not from “the threat that gays might pose to our moral or military culture.” This is because most people are not “secure in their convictions and practices.” After all, “people who are secure in their convictions and practices are not so easily threatened by the prospects of a marginal group acquiring legitimacy through military service.”

His approach to this issue does not even consider the moral value of homosexual sexual acts. I believe that, given what I know of his theology, and given the subtext of this essay, that Hauerwas does not believe that homosexuality is consistent with Christian ethics. But, on the issue of whether or not gays should be allowed to join the military, the moral value of their actions is, to Hauerwas, irrelevant. Why? I think that there are at least two reasons for this.

The first reason is that, for Hauerwas, the military itself is immoral. In fact, he spends the bulk of his essay arguing that Christians should, on moral grounds, be exempt from military service because their ethics would so contrast with the ethics of the military. Hauerwas asks, for instance, “What if Catholics took the commitment to just war seriously as a discipline of the church?” What would be the result of such a commitment? He says that the result would be the exemption of Catholics from military service, because Catholics would question the nature of the American military, and the way in which the military wages war. They would object to the use of nuclear weapons, even as a deterrent; and they would object to bombing runs which kill civilians. They would even object to having a standing army, because “[t]he very fact of our standing army means too often such discussion [on when to go to war] is relegated to politicians who manipulate the media to legitimate what they were going to do anyway.”

He also asks us to “[i]magine Catholics, adhering closely to just war theory, insisting that war is not about killing but only incapacitating the enemy.” Imagine Catholics deciding “[t]hey could participate only in wars designed to take prisoners and then, if that is not a possibility, only to wound. Killing the enemy is a last resort” for them. If Catholics decided to make just war theory an important part of their religious life, then would they be fit for military service? Wouldn’t they pose a much greater threat to the military way of life than gays?

And, to Hauerwas, Catholics are not the only Christians whose lives should threaten the military ethic. In fact, all Christians ought to live in such a way that their lives are incompatible with, and threatening to, the prevailing ethic of our military culture. After all, “Christians are asked to pray for their enemy.” Could a soldier “really trust people in [their] unit who think that the enemy’s life is as valid as their fellow soldier?” Could someone who views all life as a gift from God, and all people as (at least potentially) children of God, really be effective at the kind of wars waged by the United States? Such wars require the dehumanization of the enemy. Such wars require even the acceptance of some civilian casualties as inevitable.

So, the first reason why Hauerwas refuses to, in the context of this essay, consider the moral value of homosexual sexual acts is because the military is, itself, so immoral. Christian ought to, on moral grounds, be exempt from military service; and, as long as they are not, and as long as gays are, “it seems clear... that gays, as a group, are morally superior to Christians.”

The second reason why I think Hauerwas refused, here, to consider the moral value of homosexual sexual acts, is a more subtle one which is not overtly contained in the text, though some passages hint at it. It has to do with the way that he views Christian ethics, and who is bound to Christian ethics. Evangelical Christians, particularly in today’s culture, tend to want to turn America into an ethically Christian culture; at least in the sense that all Americans should be bound to uphold a Christian sexual ethic. But, given that in a number of important and non-sexual ways (such as the military) American culture is totally incompatible with Hauerwas’s understanding of the Christian ethic; such a goal (to conform America to a Christian sexual ethic) seems ill conceived and totally impossible.

I suspect that Hauerwas would say that the goal of evangelical Christians in America ought not to be to conform American culture to a Christian ethic, but instead ought to be to convert individual Americans into Christians. Then, and only then, will they, as Christians, be bound to uphold a Christian ethic, and such an ethic would contrast with American culture in many more important areas than sex. As it is, evangelicals are getting it backwards. They are trying to change society as a whole, forcing their ethic onto people who are not bound to that ethic. Such acts, rather than encouraging those people to convert to their kind of religion, actually serve as a deterrent, turning them off to the evangelical expression of Christianity.

While the essay in question was written in 1993 to address the issue of gays in the military, the ideas contained in it and drawn from it are particularly helpful in the wake of the 2004 election, in which 11 states passed referendums on amending their constitutions to define marriage as being between a man and a woman. Hauerwas writes, “Gay men and lesbians are being made to pay the price of our society’s moral incoherence not only about sex, but about most of our moral convictions. As a society, we have no general agreement about what constitutes marriage and/or what goods marriage ought to serve. We allegedly live in a monogamous culture, but in fact we are at best serially polygamous. We are confused about sex, why and with whom we have it, and about our reasons for having children.”

All of these moral confusions create an environment in which we, wishing to establish a firm moral line, come down on people who are different from us. “[T]he moral ‘no’ to gays becomes the necessary symbolic commitment to show that we really do believe in something.” And, of course, the one thing on which we are sure is the one area in which we are not tempted. Christians so often wish to be told that homosexuality is wrong so that they can overlook the ways in which they sexually misbehave. They claim that homosexuality poses a threat to marriage to overlook the more obvious threats to heterosexual marriage; heterosexual sexual misconduct.

As quoted earlier, “people who are in their convictions and practices are not so easily threatened by the prospects of a marginal group acquiring legitimacy.” This quote, of course, was intended to apply to gays serving in the military, but it certainly also applies to the prospect of gay marriage. Legitimizing marginal groups does not threaten those who are secure. Secure heterosexuals who adhere to a morally coherent heterosexual sexual ethic and who live in secure marriages should not be personally threatened by the prospect of allowing persons of the same sex to marry each other. This statement does not depend on the moral value of homosexual sexual acts.

And so, in an essay which concerns issues of import to gays, Hauerwas does not include any statements on the morality or ethics of the homosexual lifestyle. Why? Because, presumably, his audience does not primarily include gays. It primarily includes heterosexual evangelical Christians who use gays and lesbians as a scapegoat for the problems contained within their own heterosexual marriages. It primarily includes heterosexual evangelical Christians who love using the issue of homosexuality to make themselves feel better about their own sexual deviance. As long as they have gays and lesbians to point to and to blame for their own problems, they don’t have to face up to the role that they have played in undermining the sexual morality in their society and in their church. As long as they have gays and lesbians to point to and blame for their martial problems, they don’t have to own up to their own role in the so-called “decay of marriage and traditional families.”

Secure, married, heterosexual Christian couples know that the state and health of their marriage does not depend on whether or not gays, as a group, are legitimized by either being allowed to get married, or by, as a group, being allowed to serve in the military. They know that the state and health of their marriage depends entirely on their own actions and attitudes. And so, to introduce a discussion on the moral value of homosexual sexual actions would be to distract from the main point of Hauerwas’s essay, which serves as a form of moral and ethical instruction to Christians who already have their own opinions on homosexuality, and use those opinions as a means by which to ignore the ways in which they fail to live up to the ethical standards of their own religion.

Monday, February 12, 2007

An Unnatural Evil

"Natural evil" as a part of the broader problem of evil has posed a problem for theists for almost as long as there have been theists. It can be seen as suffering that is embedded in nature, not the product of any volitional action. That suffering seems to be built into the fabric of our universe poses a real problem for those who claim that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent - perhaps a greater problem than any other aspect of the broader problem of evil.

Theodicy - as we've seen before - is the attempt to logically reconcile the apparent contradiction between an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving good and perfect God, and the fact of suffering, the fact of evil. The most persuasive theodicies, in my opinion, all involve some appeal to human freedom. They argue that suffering is a necessary product of human freedom, and that such freedom is a greater good than the experience of suffering and evil is a bad. As such, the freedom that produces suffering, the freedom that produces evil, offsets the evil, the suffering, that it produces.

While I am not persuaded by such an account, I can see how many people would believe it. Those of us who believe that the freedom of action and the freedom of will that we experience is more than illusory cling to that freedom as one of our most cherished possessions. We resent any intrusion on our freedom, any manipulation, any coercion. We fight off and rebel against those who would subvert our wills. This shows that at least some of us - those of us who do not so readily exchange our freedom for the illusion of security - do in fact see freedom as a kind of supreme good.

This implicit understanding of the value of freedom is at the heart of the most persuasive theodicies. These theodicies tell us that, if, in fact, we must have either freedom or a life without suffering and evil, we would choose to live freely. My only problem with them is that they, in supposing that we must have either one or the other but not both, in fact place limitations of a supposedly unlimited God. In doing so they implicitly contradict what they overtly propose - that suffering is not incompatible with an unlimited and perfectly good God.

"Natural evil," though, is not so easily attributable to human freedom. After all, what role does our activity have in producing hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, cancer and the like? These forms of suffering, these natural instances of apparent evil, have throughout human history seemed to exist outside the realm of volitional action. This fact, however, has not stopped some from attempting to connect natural evil to human activity.

Augustine of Hippo gave the first theodicy against natural evil that I am aware of. In it he connects natural evil both to the Fall of Adam and Eve, and the justice of God. He argues that no form of natural evil - no naturally occurring instances of suffering - existed in the Garden of Eden. In Eden there could have been no hurricanes, no tornadoes, no earthquakes, no disease, no death. However, the Fall of humanity through the actions of Adam and Eve in the Garden, somehow disrupted the very fabric of the universe. When humanity fell, the whole Earth fell with us.

As such, at least indirectly, natural evil is no natural phenomenon. It is the product of the subversion of the human will, the end result of the corruption of our nature, a corruption which in turn corrupted the whole world.

I suspect that he arrives at this position through a reading of the creation myths of Ancient Israel found in Genesis - and yes, there are two distinct myths. The first myth is found in Genesis 1:1 - 2:4a, and the second myth comes immediately after. While the first myth is primarily about

a.) an ongoing creation process that constantly moves from chaos to order, and

b.) the establishment of Shabbot, the Sabbath, a sacred day of rest,

it also asserts a natural connection between humanity and the natural environment. The activity of creation ends on the sixth day, when God transfers dominion of all the Earth and everything in it to humanity. While that transfer has often been seen as almost a transfer of power - we now have dominion over nature and are justified in dominating it and using it for our purposes - it can also be seen as a transfer of responsibility. However it is seen, it connects the well-being of the world with human activity.

The second creation myth is the story of Adam and Eve, a story that also speaks to the relationship between humans and the natural environment. Genesis 2:5 reads

...when no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to till the soil...

This verse - and its surrounding context - connects all vegetative life to the existence of humans, who are charged with stewarding natural resources and tending to the well being of the ecosystem. This charge - found in both creation myths - is at the heart of Stewardship Theology, a kind of ecologically conscious approach to the Judeo-Christian tradition. This connection may also be the sort of thing that Augustine had in mind when he attempted to connect natural evil to the Fall of Adam and Eve. When the caretakers of the Earth were corrupted, the Earth they were charged to care for was also corrupted.

Augustine also had in mind the justice of God - a reflection of his androcentrism. Natural evil is, for him, only a problem because it causes humans to suffer. Yet such suffering, seen after the Fall, is for Augustine the prerogative of God. We - cosmically speaking - earned it. Perhaps it is used to drive us toward repentance, or perhaps it is used merely to balance the scales of justice. In any event, when a hurricane, a tornado, an earthquake, or cancer or some other horrible disease strikes, we cannot ask God why. We know why. Like all other forms of suffer, the why is answered with the Fall.

I have never had much use for this kind of thinking. By now my philosophic and religious objections to theodicy should be clear. In my view, they don't work, and they don't help. They are neither philosophically or emotionally satisfying. Additionally, in this particular case it has always seemed to me to be the height of arrogance to somehow connect human activity to natural disasters. How, after all, could Adam and Eve - who I don't believe were ever intended to be understood as historical figures - eating an apple cause tornadoes and the like? On a literal level it didn't make sense to me, and on a metaphorical level it didn't speak to me.

But, last night I finally watched (I can't believe I get to use this phrase) Al Gore's Academy Award nominated film An Inconvenient Truth. As I watched it, I remembered Augustine's theodicy concerning natural evil. And while I don't think Augustine was right - he was, after all, writing long before human activity could dramatically impact the natural environment - I do think that he was inadvertently on to something. That is, his notion that human activity plays a role in what we call natural evil turns out to be correct, even if not in the way that he understood it.

Natural evil is - in the way that we experience it today - not exactly natural at all, if by natural we mean something like "the opposite of contrived"; or something like "beyond the influence of volitional action." This is because human activity is drastically altering the natural environment in ways that reap a great deal of suffering.

This was not news to me when I watched the movie - in college I did an independent study comparing and contrasting Buddhist and Christian approaches to environmental ethics because I was already convinced that the ecological crisis was the most pressing moral issue facing us today. However, watching the movie brought the point home to me in a concrete way. This is not a matter of abstract thought, of moral theory. This is a concrete issue, a pressing issue, a live issue, a pertinent issue, an urgent issue. An issue that demands immediate action.

The good news is that we already have concrete proof that humans cannot only negatively impact the natural environment, but can also undo our own damage. Of all the various ecological crises noted by the environmental movement that began in the 1960s, global warming is the only one that is still trending negative. So many "unsolvable" problems have already either been solved, or are at least trending toward a solution.

We now have to - simply have to - use our collective political wills to enact changes that will bring the production and release of greenhouse gasses under control. For more information, visit and

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Mixed Messages

Sitting at the table this afternoon, Adam picked up a book and started "reading" to himself. The story - and those of you who know children's books will understand - went like this:

The itsy bitsy spider said... NO DAVID!

Response to John W. Loftus' Why I'm An Atheist

As part of our email correspondence, John W. Loftus of Debunking Christianity graciously offered to send me a chapter from his book; the chapter titled Why I'm An Atheist. As a part of our conversation, I've been meaning to in some way respond to that chapter for a little over a week now. But, life keeps interrupting. I've had other projects - including work for my book-in-progress. I've joined the Christian Peace Bloggers blog-ring, and so have been exploring issues related to peace-making and non-violent resistance. And, of course, I've started back to school, working toward an MAR (Masters of Arts in Religion) at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

This weekend I've had to read seminary-related texts until my eyes bled, and by this afternoon I could take it no longer. So I've finally carved out a little bit of time in front of my computer, with the furnace blasting next to me and the washing machine chugging along in the room adjacent my basement office so that I can really concentrate - you know, focus, without any distractions. (Sometime sarcasm drips from my lips!)

Seriously, though the internal and external conditions may not be exactly right, and while I may not be able to give Loftus' work the attention it deserves, it is high time I made good on my promise to read and respond to this chapter from John's book. I've now read it a couple of times, and can honestly say that I am once again impressed with his writing.

I don't always like John's style or method. He can be very abrasive, confrontational. He often operates with the implicit understanding that ideas must wage war against each other, fighting to the death until a single set, the right set, stand alone as the winner. As the son of a lawyer I think I understand that mode of discourse, though it hasn't always been fruitful for me. My approach is, I hope, more cooperative, more conversational. That is, ideas that at first appear to contradict may have enough points in common that they can be seen as intellectual cousins; sharing enough to be able to, in many important cases agree, while deviating enough to offer interesting counterpoints to each other.

But underneath that important difference in approach, John and I share a great deal in common. Especially, at least in lip service, we share an understanding of the need for interpretive charity. I say "in lip service" because I'm sure both he and I deviate from our most charitable values from time to time, being only human. Also, I suspect, we both from time to time intentionally suspend our charity when confronted with what we individually consider to be the ridiculous. For me this happened most recently when I saw that a Creationist museum was being built in my home state. For John this happens most often when he is confronted with the uncritical arrogance of some Christians, who believe that they alone are in possession of some absolute truth, the content of which they have never critically engaged.

One thing that I really like about John W. Loftus is reflected in the chapter of his book that he sent me - his realization that people change their religious views for both rational and non-rational reasons. Separating those twin sets of reasons can often be difficult, as our emotional state and our cultural, social, historical, environmental, biographical, etc. contexts shape the way in which we reason. We are not purely rational animals, though we exhibit rationality. Rather, our reasoning shapes and is shaped by so much that happens in and around us.

In this chapter as well as, I suspect, in the book as a whole, John W. Loftus explores as best as he is able all of the factors that led to his rejection of his former faith - both the conceptual and the more personal. He does his best to place the reader in his shoes, setting the stage for his final affirmation of atheism (and his affirmation of atheism is much more than just a rejection of Christianity).

The chapter begins after his rejection of Christianity. He describes that rejection as a "demolition," and I can certainly relate. The first noble truth of the Buddha has often be rendered in English "Life is suffering." While that translation is a limited and inaccurate one, the sentiment behind it is something that we can all relate to from time to time. Life is marred by suffering, and our suffering - our moments of intense, existential anguish - lead us to a place of demolition. Former views that provide no help or comfort in a trying moment are smashed by suffering, leaving only philosophic and theological rubble. Once cherished beliefs are swept away with the rest of the debris of our former mindset, a mindset that could not handle the explosive crisis of pain and doubt.

In the face of this rubble, John asks

But after the demolition is done, what could I now believe about how we got here on earth and why?

This question shows that John, like so many of us, asks principally metaphysical questions. This is a product of a model of faith as belief, and of a model of religion that is principally concerned with being able to articulate true statements about God and the nature of the universe, and with being able to convince others of the truth of those propositions. I say this not to criticize John, but simply to explain that I understand his current position as a product of both his intellectual honesty, and of his former position. He is fond of saying - and I suspect rightfully so - that he is basically the same person he was before he lost his faith. In my reading of him, John W. Loftus the atheist is a direct product of John W. Loftus the Christian apologist; and that both are in part a product of a particular model of the Christian religion - a model I have serious problems with.

The chapter then describes his search for answers to this fundamentally metaphysical question, moving through various kinds of almost post-Christian theology, including Deism, theological existentialism, and Process Theology. I use the phrase "post-Christian" theology not because I think than any of these theological positions are incompatible with the Christian faith, but because I suspect that John saw each of these modes of thinking about the nature of both God and the universe as almost "post-Christian" ways of looking at such theological and metaphysical questions. For him Christianity was a very tight set of propositions that, once challenged, fell apart. These ideas were, I suspect, ways in which he tried to rebuild the house of his faith on the rubble of his formerly systematic Christianity.

John W. Loftus was for a short time a devotee of John Hick, who he calls "arguably the most important philosopher of religion in the past century." He turned to Hick's Process Theology - a way of thinking that he has since described as a kind of "half-way house" between theism and atheism - to try to help him cling to what was left of his faith. As such, Hick is a very important figure for him. What both impressed and disturbed him about Hick was his willingness to accept criticisms of more traditional forms of Christianity, creating a more flexible kind of theology that adapted itself to a changing view of the world. He quotes from Hick's An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent:

The universe is religiously ambiguous in that it is possible to interpret it, intellectually and experientially, both religiously and naturalistically. The theistic and anti-theistic arguments are inconclusive, for the special evidences to which they appeal are also capable for being understood in terms of the contrary world-view. Further, the opposing sets of evidences cannot be given objectively quantifiable values.

This more phenomenological approach to religion - which accepts that our beliefs are shaped by our experiences, and that our experiences can be described multiple competing explanations - must have troubled someone who has long sought certainty. After exploring Hick's (and others') concept of a religiously ambiguous universe (and exploring both emotionally and rationally) Loftus writes:

Then the question hit me. Why is this universe religiously ambiguous capable of being interpreted in various rational and sometimes even mutually exclusive ways? Why does it all appear absurd when we approach it all with reason? Why must I resort to giving up on reason and punting to the view that I just don't know, or that it cannot be figured out rationally? Why?

The answer he arrived at was this: "[B]lind chancistic events cannot be figured out!"

This epiphany lies at the heart of his atheism, even though it often hides under the cumulative case against a particular understanding of Christianity. In the context of his rejection of Christianity, Loftus asserts that the universe is a mystery not because there is some cosmic Mystery, some mysterious divine nature at the heart of it all, but rather because the universe is the product of a series of random events, chance occurrences. Unguided. Thus the only world-view (to the extent that it can be called one) that he had left to turn to was atheism:

Atheism was a very unsettling conclusion to me, in one sense. It means that I have no hope in a resurrection, that I no longer have the hope that there is someone outside the space-time matrix who can help me in times of need, or give me any guidance. But one the other hand it's finally a conclusion. I now can believe something, and, as I've said, it's better over here. In one sense my intellectual journey is finally over. It's very relieving to reach a conclusion that I can partially defend.

I suspect that the biggest difference between John W. Loftus and me is that I am more comfortable with mystery. I don't mean that to imply that being comfortable with mystery is a virtue, or that needing to finally arrive at some solid conclusion is a vice. Rather, I say that to say that the biggest difference between the two of us is a psychological one, an existential one. It may also be a product of the very different forms of Christianity that we each inhabited. While I had a fundamentalist phase, and while I've read more than a few books that sought to systematically demonstrate that Christianity is a set of true propositions and that all else is false; John lived that version of the faith far more than I did. I was raised in a much more relativistic and pluralistic environments. So, emotionally speaking, that which threatened his faith can't touch mine. God is to me both a mystery and an experiential reality, not a set of true propositions.

That does not, however, mean that I am right, or that my faith is somehow superior to both his former faith and his current convictions. Simply put, I don't know that there is a God; I only know that I experience something that I call by that name. I know that my faith works for me, that my church nurtures me, and that my experience of God sustains me. These, however, do not prove the validity of any propositional truth-claims concerning them. But, unlike John, I'm OK with that.

In the end, for me belief is not the substance of faith; practice is. For me, faith is a way of life, not a set of demonstrable propositions. For John that simply isn't a satisfactory answer.

I suspect that there is still a great deal of room for dialogue between our two positions, especially as, absent claims about God, our world-views have so much in common. I appreciate reading what I have read about his intellectual and spiritual journey, even as I don't share his final conclusion, or the pressing need to even arrive at a final conclusion. And, I wonder what he would be like if he had inhabited a different Christianity from the modern bastardization of Christianity that has been so dominant in evangelical American circles. I bet he also wonders what I might be like if I had grown up an atheist. In either case, we'll never know.

As a personal note, I don't see people like John W. Loftus as "enemies of the faith." I see John as an honest and noble person, who wrestles with the same questions I wrestle with. The God that I experience is a God who accepts John as he is, knowing that John is a product of God, made in the divine image, with a bright, inquisitive mind, and an obsessive need to uncover the truth. In his quest John does each of us the service of keeping us honest, and should be thanked for that. Any faith that cannot withstand rigorous criticism is not true faith at all.

Friday, February 09, 2007

The Closeted Gay Athlete

According to this story by ESPN's Chris Sheridan, former NBA center John Amaechi is - or is about to be - the first current or former NBA player to come out of the closet. While many are impressed by the courage that Amaechi is showing, gay sportswriter (and I hate using the phrase "gay sportswriter," as though one's sexual orientation had anything to do with one's career writing about sports) LZ Granderson is not. In this thoughtful and provocative piece, Granderson laments that, once again, it is an ex athlete coming out of the closet. In it Granderson writes:

An athlete in 2007 who stays in the closet during his playing days does more to support homophobia in sports than coming out after retirement does to combat it.

Granderson - who in coming out of the closet took a lot of heat from the sports world - has little patience, it seems, for those who hide the truth about themselves when honesty would be dangerous, only to reveal it when it would not only be safe, but even lucrative (Amaechi is now promoting a book, to be released Feb. 20).

I'm not here to praise or curse Amaechi. I'm neither gay, nor much of an athlete, so it is quite possible that I don't understand either culture, much less the intersection of both. But I do wonder why it is evidently such big news that a basketball player is gay. Statistically speaking, it is highly probable that at least one - if not more - player on each NBA team is gay. That so many choose to remain in the closet speaks to the latent (and not so latent) homophobia in the male sports world; a world in which homosexuality is evidently a threat to the masculinity that is perceived as necessary for athletic excellence.

I do, however, share Granderson's desire for the next pioneering soul to come out of the closet to be one who is still playing, so that we can finally put to death the stereotype that gay men just aren't manly enough to be great athletes.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Non-Violent Resistance in the Teachings of Jesus

Before I actually get to the substance of this post, I'd like to start with a brief personal note. As some of you know, I am going back to school. It is now officially official. I haven't checked my email in over 24 hours, because I spent all day yesterday in new student orientation. Today, at 11 am EST, I have my first class. I am officially an MAR (Masters of Arts in Religion) student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I've signed up for 15 credit hours this semester, which is a pretty heavy load, but nothing I can't handle, I don't think. Most of my classes, at least at the outset, don't seem worth mentioning. Perhaps I'll be pleasantly surprised by them, but at the moment I'm just taking them because they are required - the seminary equivalent of basic requirements, 100 level classes. But there is one class that looks exceedingly promising: Resistance and Reconciliation.

Having just signed up for that course, and having just joined the Christian Peace Bloggers Blog-Ring, I thought I might jot down here, before I leave for campus, a few observations of non-violent resistance in the teachings of Jesus.

That Jesus taught non-violence is not exactly new, though by their behavior some Christian could learn a refresher course in it. As my dad wrote in one of his songs, shortly after explaining how as a PK growing up he had to go to church 4 or 5 times a week:

But I must have been sleeping in
When Jesus taught us to kill

But it takes many Christian by surprise when they realize that the non-violence that Jesus taught was neither passive nor meek. In fact, it was radical and revolutionary, such a strong form of resistance that it got him killed by the authorities. If Jesus had been safe, and if his non-violent teachings had been as domesticated as the must have seemed when they were used by whites to teach slaves not to rebel, or when they are used today to support a growing empire, it is highly improbable that anyone would have been threatened by him at all, much less threatened enough to publicly execute him.

But Jesus was crucified. And, as Marcus Borg writes, we can safely assert that Jesus was crucified because of the sins of the world, even if it is not literally true that he was crucified for the sins of the world, as a kind of substitutionary atonement. Jesus was killed because of the sins of the world, because Jesus opposed the sinful powers of the world that exploited and oppressed the poor. But Jesus opposed those powers not with power, not with revolutionary violence, but with the wisdom of non-violent resistance.

In our cultural context, with Christianity as the dominant thought-world, (what I mean is that, in the West, everything responds to Christianity - it shapes our thought when we agree with it, and it shapes our thought when we disagree with it) the teachings of Jesus often become conventional, domesticated. After all, we have been reciting them to each other for almost 2000 years. But, in his own cultural context, Jesus' teachings were radical, and seen in their context they can retain their power in our own context. Nowhere is this dynamic more evident than in Jesus' teachings on non-violent resistance.

Two of the most commonly quoted teachings of Jesus concern going "the extra mile" and turning "the other cheek." These have often, and rightly, been interpreted metaphorically and applied broadly to all kinds of situations. In our conventional wisdom now, going "the extra mile" means going out of your way to accommodate someone who is being difficult, in the hopes that such an extravagant gesture will shame and perhaps help shape them. If we "go the extra mile," perhaps the person that we "go the extra mile" for will be impressed with our witness, and be somehow touched, somehow moved, into becoming a more positive person.

Sometimes there is also a measure of constructive pride in going "the extra mile." Sometimes it means doing something that, strictly speaking, isn't required, motivated by the pursuit of excellence. In either event, going "the extra mile" has become conventional, part of what is expected of a Christian; part of one's Christian witness.

The same is true of turning "the other cheek." It is again interpreted metaphorically, and applied broadly. And, again, I see nothing wrong with this - you should know by now my opinion of the religious value of metaphorical interpretation. So, to "turn the other cheek" means to patiently endure an insult. It means to not allow harsh comments to get you down or make you angry.

Both of these teachings, however, in becoming conventional wisdom, have lost their subversive power. They are no longer seen as revolutionary, as dangerous. Of course, this is not true in all cultural context. Gandhi, for instance, based his method of non-violent resistance on these and other teachings of Jesus. His Satyiagraha, his "spirit power," was based on his interpretation of these and other teachings of Jesus. And, he used these as a kind of moral force to shame the British into seeing their own barbaric cruelty, and granting Independence to India.

In the same way, Martin Luther King, Jr. and others applied the methods that Gandhi learned from the teachings of Jesus to the struggle in America for Civil Rights. Non-violent resistance became again a revolutionary way to shame violent oppressors into realizing the barbaric cruelty of their position; into seeing the basic humanity of those they are exploiting. It became the most efficient path to freedom. To fight violence with violence, power with power, was to fight a losing fight. But to resist violence with peace was to undermine the moral authority of the violent and to shame the oppressor.

This is very much more like what Jesus probably had in mind, but it too fails to totally capture the potency of Jesus' teachings in their own context. We can certainly understand how these teachings might have gotten Gandhi and King killed, but that still doesn't show us exactly why they and others like them got Jesus killed. To understand that, and, as such, to understand the potential potency of these teachings, we have to better understand what they might have meant when Jesus taught them.

Marcus Borg's newest book, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, has an entire chapter devoted to resistance in the life and teachings of Jesus. In it he outlines how Jesus' teachings and activities would have been seen by the religious and political authorities of his day, who were the power structure in what he calls a Domination System. At the outset of that chapter Borg argues that "the way of Jesus was both personal and political."

It was about personal transformation. And, it was political, a path of resistance to the domination system and advocacy of an alternative vision of life together under God. His counteradvocacy, his passion for God's passion, led to his execution. The way of the cross was both personal and political.

Seen in this light, Jesus' teachings, including and especially the ones concerning turning "the other cheek" and going "the extra mile" can be seen as radical ways to help bring down the Roman occupation, as well as the native collaborators with the occupation that were mainly comprised of the religious authorities.

Matthew 5:39b has Jesus say, "But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also." Of this Borg notes:

The specification of the right cheek and the awareness that people in that world used their right hand to strike somebody provide the key for understanding the saying. How can a person be hit on the right cheek by a right-handed person? Only by a backhanded slap (act it out and see for yourself). In that world, a slap with the back of the hand was the way a superior struck a subordinate. The saying thus presupposes a situation of domination: a peasant being backhanded by a steward or official, a prisoner being backhanded by a jailer, and so forth. When that happens, turn the other cheek. What would be the effect of that? The beating could continue only if the superior used an overhand blow - which is the way an equal would strike another equal. Of course, he might do so. But he would be momentarily discombobulated, and the subordinate would be asserting his equality even if the beating did continue.

Matthew 5:41 has Jesus say, "and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile." Borg says that this statement "refers to a known practice of imperial soldiers."

Soldiers were allowed to compel peasants to carry their considerable gear for one mile, but no more. The reason for this restriction was that soldiers had been abusing the option by forcing peasants to carry their gear all day (or even longer). The result was not only popular resentment, but peasants ending up a days journey (or even more) from home. And so the restriction was introduced, and soldiers faced penalties for violating it, some of them severe. In this setting, what are you to do when an imperial soldier requires you to carry his gear for a mile? Do it - and then keep going. This situation, [Walter] Wink [a scholar, and author of Engaging the Powers, The Powers That Be, and Jesus and Non-Violence] suggests, is almost comical - imagine an imperial soldier wrestling a peasant to get his gear back while the peasant says, "No, no, it's fine. Let me carry it another mile."

That we understand these metaphorically is, of course, appropriate. Any teaching that is so far removed from our historical, cultural, and social setting cannot be taken entirely literally if it is to be in any way meaningful to us. Additionally, it is hard to imagine that these teachings, even in their original setting, were to be taken as hard and fast rules to be applied to any situation without some metaphorical interpretation. Walter Wink argues, for instance, that it is very hard to imagine the literal practice of turning the other cheek to work for very long without the superiors picking up on it, and saying something like, "Oh, its the old 'turn the other cheek' trick," and adapting their behavior accordingly.

However, to properly understand these and other teachings metaphorically, we have to also understand what they might have meant when Jesus first taught them. Understanding that, we see that they are much more powerful, and much more subversive, than our conventional wisdom will allow them to be.