Compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism

Jesus in his solidarity with the marginal ones is moved to compassion. Compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness. In the arrangement of “lawfulness” in Jesus’ time, as in the ancient empire of Pharaoh, the one unpermitted quality of relation was compassion. Empires are never built or maintained on the basis of compassion. The norms of law (social control) are never accommodated to persons, but persons are accommodated to the norms. Otherwise the norms will collapse and with them the whole power arrangement. Thus the compassion of Jesus is to be understood not simply as a personal emotional reaction but as a public criticism in which he dares to act upon his concern against the entire numbness of his social context. Empires live by numbness. Empires, in their militarism, expect numbness about the human cost of war. Corporate economies expect blindness to the cost in terms of poverty and exploitation. Governments and societies of domination go to great lengths to keep the numbness intact. Jesus penetrates the numbness by his compassion and with his compassion takes the first step by making visible the odd abnormality that had become business as usual. Thus compassion that might be seen simply as generous goodwill is in fact criticism of the system, forces, and ideologies that produce the hurt.

~ Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination pp. 88-89

A Radical Reading of Galatians 3:25:29

Galatians 3:25-29

25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

I have seen the assertion that the identities so important in identity politics are subsumed by our identity in Christ. Someone is not a Jew, they are a child of God who is Jewish. Someone is not a slave, they are a child of God who is in bondage. Someone is not a woman, they are a child of God who is female. Someone is not black, they are a child of God who is of African descent. Someone is not gay, they are a child of God who is attracted to the same gender.

In the Kingdom of God, the ways in which we divide ourselves are overridden because we are in Christ who unites us.

But telling someone “there is no longer Jew nor Greek” does not lift the Roman boot sandal from the necks of the oppressed. Saying “there is no longer slave nor free” does nothing to change the fact that “Abraham’s offspring” is still held in the violence of slavery. Saying “there is no longer male nor female” does not erase the ways in which women are oppressed, othered and systematically devalued. Telling each of these “I don’t give credence to this class division” means that you don’t take seriously the ways in which the members of each class are oppressed.

Likewise, “There is no longer gay nor straight, there is no longer trans nor cis” doesn’t erase the experiences of the queer person whose life is at risk for simply being who they are. They cannot simply say “I’m not gay, I belong to Christ” and suddenly have the reality of their oppression disappeared.

The tendency amongst some to say that in Christ we move past our (previous) identities creates room to erase the experience of the oppressed and hides the need to work on the racism, sexism, heterosexism, transphobia that is at the root of the exclusion of many from having a voice in the Body of Christ. When straight, cis, white men appeal to “There is no longer,” then they run the risk of furthering violence against those who still are.

Paul can be read here as preaching the other side of Jesus’ first recorded sermon in Luke 4:18-19. Walter Brueggemann writes in The Prophetic Imagination (p. 84):

In Luke 4:18-19 he announces that a new age was beginning, but that announcement carries within it a harsh criticism of all those powers and agents of the present order. His message was to the poor, but others kept them poor and benefitted from their poverty. He addressed the captives (which means bonded slaves), but others surely wanted that arrangement unchanged. He named the oppressed, but there are never oppressed without oppressors.

His ministry carried out the threat implicit in these two fundamental announcements. The ministry of Jesus is, of course, criticism that leads to radical dismantling.

If he came to “let the oppressed go free” then he has also come to oppose the oppressor. If Jesus is setting the tone of his entire ministry by speaking to the oppressed, then Paul is speaking to those in the oppressing classes of their participation in the Kingdom of God. Paul is removing the ability of the oppressors to other the oppressed.

The voice of Paul here must be directed at the oppressor, not the oppressed. He must be saying to the men that they can no longer exclude and other women. He must be saying to the slave owner that the category of slave cannot exist in Christ, for if he is speaking to the oppressed, then he is simply allowing for the erasure of their oppression in the eyes of their oppressors. When straight or cis people say “I don’t see you as gay, I see you as my sister. I don’t see you as trans, I see you as my brother,” they don’t do anything to stand with the oppressed, rather they erase the oppressed, saying “The way you fit into my framework is more important than your lived experience.” If Paul is telling the slave “You are no longer a slave,” and not addressing the reality that this offspring of Abraham is held as property of another human, then Paul is not preaching a gospel of freedom for the oppressed, but a perverted gospel that ignores cries for freedom.

More on temple building

As a follow up to my previous post on building temples, I offer this, The Politics of Pentecost Versus the Religion of Empire.

That the Occupy Movement will not introduce the commonwealth of God announced by Jesus does not stifle my enthusiasm. In a totalitarian corporate capitalist order we must seek to create fissures and occupy spaces that can then be widened into “temporary theonomous zones” where true human life can be renewed and flourish once again. In this way the parallels between the Occupy Movement and the early churches are worthy of comparison.

Emphasis added.

Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent

I’ve been invited to be a part of an online sermon series, and my first day to preach was today. Below is what I was led to write.


26 February 2012: Year B, First Sunday in Lent.

Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Peter 3:18-22, and Mark 1:9-15


Turning. Turning toward something. Turning away from something. Changing direction. Reorienting. Our readings today speak of turning.

In the first, one of the most terrifying episodes in the Bible has come to an end and even God wishes to turn from that. The one who is love turns away from destruction and toward love. Toward life.

What does it mean that God turned, changed direction, reoriented?

We see it again in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus, after his baptism, a very public ceremony, turns away from the crowds, from his family and his people, He turns away so that he can turn back toward them renewed. He turns away from temptation so that he can turn toward his ministry.

The Psalmist asks God for help turning. “Make me to know your ways,” he says. “Teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.” Turn me toward you, Lord. Take me out of my busy life. Teach me patience as I wait for you.

And the author of 1 Peter talks to us of our own turning, our baptism, “an appeal to God for a good conscience,” echoing the earlier cry of the Psalmist.

Here at the beginning of Lent we bring our attention to our own turning. We may be turning away from our evening cocktails, or from spending too much time online, but in these turns our goal is ultimately to turn ourselves toward God. Often in saying “O my God, in you I trust” we have to remind ourselves to turn away from the places where we often put our trust, places that do not deserve it.

On Ash Wednesday we heard the words “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This reminder of our own mortality, and of our oneness with all that surrounds us, opens our entry into Lent, into our turning. Looking at this precious and brief time we are given forces us to take note of our own direction, to be deliberate in that toward which we are oriented.

Perhaps you are called to turn away from clothing yourself in the products of worker abuse. Perhaps you are called to a clearer mind, turning away from alcohol or other substances. Perhaps you are called to turn toward God in regular prayer. Perhaps you are called to turn toward God in service. Perhaps you are called to fasting and self-denial, to turning away from yourself and toward the other, often-forgotten children of God. Perhaps you are called not to turn away from yourself in self-denial, but to turn toward the self that you or others have forgotten to love, toward remembering that you are made in the image of God, that you are holy and that the dust from which you came was stardust.

Whatever the call may be, God is calling to you. God is asking you to turn, as God has shown you God’s own turning.

Lent is a time for turning, but I cannot tell you how to turn. I can only tell you that God’s call is to love. You must listen to God’s call, to how God is calling you to love.

O God, in this season which begins with an embrace of our own mortality, an acknowledgement and observation of the brevity of the time in which this pile of dust is animated by your holy breath, we put our trust in you. Help us to walk the paths to which you call us with steadfast love and faithfulness. Help us, O Lord, in everything that we do, to turn toward Love.

Gated and Locked

In a recent post I mentioned that I spent part of a weekend going around New Orleans looking at churches. There are some amazingly beautiful structures dedicated to God in that city. I’d recently gone to a Christmas concert at St. Louis Cathedral, and while the focus on imperialism and violence in that building left a bad taste in my mouth, it also left me wanting to see what else the city had to offer.

Christ Church Cathedral is home to the first Protestant congregation in the Louisiana Purchase, and the building itself is beautiful, sitting right on the streetcar line in the Garden District. The chapel just next door was constructed in the same style, and looks to be a seamless addition. I’d love to have gone inside, but alas, the church was locked. And the gate was closed. And the chapel was locked as well.

I found myself being angry that the church was locked and that the parking lot was gated. What right do we have to stop people from entering the Lord’s house? How can we decide “church is closed”? Are we not supposed to receive all visitors, to give to those who ask of us? Are we really limiting when people are able to use the church building for worship or prayer? If anything should be open to all at all times, it is a church. To quote Johnny Paycheck, “That’s the House of the Lord. That guy’s got a hell of a nerve.”

Churches locked, gates closed, no trespassing signs on cemeteries, everywhere people are being closed out of sacred space. As I saw more and more of this, I became more and more incensed. And saddened. How greatly are we failing the world if our doors are not always opened to all comers? These churches were doing it wrong!

As I sat with how upset I was with the people running these places I began to see them as a mirror. As I plan a guerrilla art project to mark mundane spaces as holy in their own right I started to ask myself how I was closing off Christ’s church to those around me. How often do I lock my car doors, or avoid the eyes of those asking me for help? How often do I close myself off, refuse to see Christ in my neighbor, or show my neighbor Christ in myself? I lock my front doors when I leave, pretending that “my” house is anything other than God’s.

Pete Rollins has talked about how people give themselves permission to have crises of faith. As long as someone in authority has faith, he says, they tell themselves its okay. They don’t have to actually experience their own loss, because they can hold onto someone else’s faith vicariously. I was doing that here. The crisis wasn’t in the closing of the church doors. It was in the closing of my own doors. I acted as though I could do that, I could fail to live up to Christ’s standard, as long as the Bishop did it for me.

My anger was misplaced. How can I expect others to respond to the call on my behalf?