Friday, October 09, 2015

My Muslim Neighbor | Our Sacramerica

Try this experiment: Read the New Testament, and see if you can find Jesus actively protesting or threatening a minority non-Jewish religious community.

He didn't.  Ever. His regular habit with religious traditions other than his own was gentle and thoughtful engagement. All of his words of rebuke or challenge were reserved for established and privileged traditions within Judaism itself. Later New Testament authors like Paul continued this pattern.

So in our day, if Christians organize protests against other religions, or in other more subtle ways engage in xenophobic speech or bullying practices, rest assured, they aren't doing it in order to walk in the way of Jesus.

They're doing it for one simple reason. They're afraid for the loss of their cultural dominance. Their fear arises out of what is often called "nativism." Folks with this perspective probably prefer to be call patriots. Either way, inasmuch as they think it is connected to Christianity, and even ultimately the core tenets of our nation's system of values, they are sorely mistaken.

Remember that people don't fear change; they fear loss. Anti-Muslim hate speech, anti-immigrant sentiments against Roman Catholics, all of these arise out of the fear nativists have of the loss of their power.
Christians aren't very good (and I count myself in this group) of heeding Christ's repeated teaching, the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. Or, take up your cross and follow me. Apparently in our era, many of us think Jesus meant take up your gun, or take up your placard.

But when he encouraged self-denial and reversal of power, he really meant it. Then he lived it. Though equal with God, he did not exploit it, and instead took the form of a slave, found in human form, and died the death of one whose life was bound up in giving life to others.

All of this matters for how we engage our Muslim neighbors. Of course it matters for how we engage any religious Other, but I name Muslims because it seems to be the case that bigotry against Muslims is the most socially acceptable form of nativism today.

What are the steps to overcoming this kind of bigotry in our communities, and in our own lives. Well, for one I think a good syllabus can help. We have thoughtful writers who can help us on the journey. Some of my favorites include:

Todd Green, in a recent book on Islamophobia.

Miroslav Volf, in perhaps the most compelling argument from a Christian theologian on the shared faith of our two religious traditions.

An amazing first step in ecumenical dialogue between these two great religious traditions.

For Christians looking for a Muslim perspective on Christianity.

I also tend to think we need to become much more clear on how our "Christianity" has become entangled in idolatrous ways with our nationalism. AKM Adam, in Looking Through a Glass Bible: Post-Disclipinary Interpretations from the Glasgow School, writes:

If we take Sacramerica seriously as a signifying practice of veneration of national identity, as a social system, we can see a sort of performative mise-en-abĂ®me when politicians make a great show of their determination to display the Ten Commandments as integral parts of civil business. The central figure in the Ten Commandments controversies has been Roy Moore, a judge, politician, and columnist from Alabama. Moore repeatedly insisted on the prerogative of displaying wooden plaques bearing the Commandments in his courtroom, beginning from his appointment as a circuit court judge in 1992. Once he was elected Chief Justice of Alabama—arguably on the strength of his pro-God, pro-Commandments stance against the American Civil Liberties Union—Moore commissioned and installed into the Supreme Court building a granite monument crowned by two tablets bearing an English translation of the Ten Commandments. In so doing, he defied prevailing interpretation of the establishment clause of the Constitution (specifically the ‘Lemon test’) and, eventually in 2002, the legal judgment of the U.S. District Court. 
But while Moore repudiated the authority of any courts that did not acknowledge the God of the Commandments as the source of their authority, he exemplified the signifying practice of Sacramerica. His integration of a pastiche of biblical and theological claims with the civil identity promulgated in the Constitution and selected quotations from canonical founding politicians captures both the feverish ardour of Sacramerican piety and the paradoxical affirmation of idolatry expressed when one of Moore’s supporters decried the removal of the Ten Commandments monument by shouting ‘Get your hands off our God, God haters!’ That supporter articulated the Sacramerican conviction that the love of God entails the love of the United States, made physically available in the form of a stone monument—a monumental stone tablet—on which are inscribed (in English) the very Commandments that forbid worship of, or construction of a sculpted representation of, any rival God.
For more on the historical origins of our strange religious nationalism, which is in Christian tradition, actually a heresy, the heresy of phyletism.

And for those who prefer to experience in cinematic form our faith traditions interacting, this most beautiful of movies.

Of course, and certainly not least among the options (although Islam is not yet so widespread in the United States that all readers of this blog would have ready access to visiting an Islamic Center of talking with a Muslim neighbor) don't overlook the option that is modeled by here, a Christian perspective on my Muslim Neighbor.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

If you read just one article on gun violence

The Privilege of Pious Blather

There's a kind of spiritual talk that sounds nice but never lands. It's religious and safe, but floats above the world like an ecclesial Laputa.

I first noticed it as a child, listening to sermons. Some Sundays, the preacher would catch me off guard with the truth of the gospel. Other Sundays, I'd be lulled to sleep by pious platitudes, pillowed by a message that was afraid to bleed.

I've seen the same type of speech all over the place. It's common among theologians, many of whom retreat into esoteric generalizations so their content doesn’t have to rub shoulders with concrete political realities.

Devotional resources are particularly guilty. They pedal in soft platitudes, Lotus-eater-like, inviting the faithful to live lives of perpetual somnambulescence.

Many bishops specialize in it.

Some blogs are equally guilt. And chief of sinners that I am, I can offer some examples of blog posts here at Lutheran Confessions that are examples of this kind of pious blather. Here's one:

I don't think the entirety of this blog post is pious blather, but the last sentence probably is: "Then hold on tight to the word and promises of God."

Sounds nice. Lulls you into quiet complacency. but what in the hell does it mean? Which "word"? Which "promises"? Hold on tight to what?

Other examples of this kind of pious bloviation:

We need to inhabit the Scriptures and let their story become our story.

God wants you to repent of all the things that keep you from God.

I'm not going to take a side on this issue. I'm just living the questions with this community.

What's at stake here in identifying such strangely free floating vapidities?

First, they allow the speaker or author to maintain the illusion that they are above the fray. It maintains a position supposedly outside of any particular position.

By speaking or writing in such a manner, we either disguise or fail to name our particular social location.

Second, it's a privileged kind of speech. It assumes a monopoly on the one interpretation, a unity of apperception concerning the theological insight in question. Or at the very least operates as if there are not a multiplicity of perspectives, as if everybody already knows what the Bible is, and there is just one reading of it... and it is ours.

Third, it's a strangely non-pluralist attempt to avoid intersectionality (a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw). Here's what I mean. By not recognizing the plurality of views on an issue, what appears as an expression of the faith is actually an expression of one type of specific faith attempting to appear as representative of all faiths. By not joining any particular discursive community, the voice of this kind of piety seems to speak from nowhere at all.

Nothing about us without us.

As a result, it comes across as avoiding the critique of particular perspectives, beholden to no theory because it is not part of anything in particular. The concern of intersectionality as it functions as part of anti-oppression activism is captured in a rather memorable phrase: Nothing about us without us.

So who in particular is a pious platitude about? What group does it join, or represent? It presumes to speak for all, in a sense, and so is all about all of us while functioning completely without us. Therein lies the rub.

Speaking from or among a particular perspective, with all the attendant risks, is in this sense the only way for the articulation of Christian faith to take on concrete reality. To be incarnate, as it were.

All of that being said.

There are some very good reasons for the temptation towards pious blather. Many clergy who engage in it, and I count myself sometimes among this crowd, speak in this manner in order to avoid offense or bias. We serve diverse faith communities, made up of people with diverse spiritualities, and we try, in these stumbling ways, to speak for and with all.

We also, I think, are all attempting to not simply parrot or replicate painful partisanship. Taking a strong stand, with a clear position, is not always the opposite of pious blather. Sometimes we're simply being demagoguish in our positions, which is its own kind of problem.

Self-differentiated articulation of the faith, maintaining an awareness of multiple pluralities, is no simple feat. It's no wonder, tired as we are some Sunday mornings, that we drift back into inanities. Sometimes we just want to get that sermon done and go to lunch, with little risk that we've put ourselves or our careers on the line for the sake of the gospel.

But here's a good rule. In general, if you are a preacher or theologian, and no one is quite able to discern what social location or perspective you inhabit, then you're getting by with obfuscating sanctimony. And certainly, if you've found a way to massage the message in a way that avoids getting rubbed the wrong way by the intersection of intersectional critique, you certainly have found a comfortable mode of participating in privileged pious blather.

So should everybody know you're a card-carrying Republican or Democrat, or that you're a student of critical theory or a Girardian? Yes. Probably. Like this blog. Over the years I've considered changing the name to something more generally Christian, without a name that marks out my particular tradition within the spectrum of Christianities.

But I like the transparency of the name, when it comes right down to it. I think readers of the blog deserve to know I'm writing from (a) Lutheran perspective. It might even be better if I called it "A Lutheran's Confession," but the word play was fun when I started the blog some dozen years ago, and I'm lazy.

In other words, for the sake of the gospel, all preachers and theologians are more or less going to have to risk being perceived as political.

Because once you've joined a movement, and you're with it, there's no longer a Switzerland to which you can retreat.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Apotropaic Function of the Cross Before Constantine

The Cross Before Constantine: The Early Life of a Christian Symbol, by Bruce W. Longenecker.

In a sense, one could say this is a work of art history. The book makes a rather moderate claim in exhaustive detail, that the cross was used as a Christian symbol well before Constantine elevated it to the premier symbol in Christian graphic representations.

The cross was not the primary sign in this early period, nor did it have the prominence it did after Constantine, nor was it overly prominent in architecture. Nevertheless, early use of the cross as a religious symbol paved the way for its rise to prominence by Constantine and after.

Longenecker makes these claims with substantial and fascinating evidence. It's worth paging through this book simply to review the illustrations.

The most interesting insight, however, is the evidence that shows the cross having an apotropaic function. It was used as a symbol that sent a message to superhuman entities "that to mess with people associated with the cross is to mess with a supreme power--a power that even the forces of death cannot conquer" (187). 

In other words, the cross did not have a liturgical or architectural significance... it was instead a sign of personal identity, and functioned as a ward.

Constantine's innovation was to harvest this apotropaic function for political purposes.