Monthly Archives: May 2008
That was the title Diedre Houchen gave the Roundtable discussion she led last Thursday. After sharing some of her own faith journey, she invited others to share a bit of their own. Many had similar tales of finding connection with a particular community or way of being “spiritual,” then leaving to move on to something else. The two ends of the Christian spectrum that folks moved along seemed to be the personal encounter with Jesus and vs. the mandate to follow Jesus’ “Way.” This is a well-documented divide: Evangelical (conservative) vs. Progressive (liberal). Diedre wondered if there was any commonality, any way for the two to “talk.” We didn’t come to any conclusions, but hopeful ideas like humility, openness, honest debate, and recognition of a common search for meaning were discussed. In the end, it seems helpful to recognize that each of us comes to “faith,” or seeking faith, from a place of vulnerability that should be honored – regardless of our own conclusions (or current resting place).
Diedre recommends an episode of Krista Tippet’s “Speaking of Faith”- Evangelicals Out of the Box – as a great follow-up. It’s a big subject and one that causes a lot of heartache between people who call themselves followers of Christ.
Joe Brew, Kelli’s son, is about to leave for his third summer in Guatemala where he will teach at the “Institut,” a school which Holy Faith Catholic Church, the GCW’s home parish, helps sponsor. He led the Roundtable discussion this past Thursday.
Joe talked about the growth of gangs in Ciudad Quetzal, an extremely impoverished area on the outskirts of Guatemala City. Here, deplorable violence is perpetrated by gangs on the community whereby they exact a “tax” from households, individuals, schools, clinics, churches, etc. in exchange for not killing one of their members. Joe had personal experience with this when one of his students was shot in the head and killed after witnessing one of these murders, and again when his next-door neighbors had to flee overnight after receiving a telephone request for $5000 in exchange for not killing their child. It’s a terrible situation that creates a climate of fear and causes daily deaths in the street.
Joe talked about the history of the gangs in Guatemala, how they first came about when desperately poor Guatemalans had entered the U.S. to seek work. Once in the U.S., because they were poor and separated from their families and communities, and because they had no status as U.S. citizens, they were vulnerable to street crime and violence. When undocumented workers are threatened in the U.S., they have no recourse to legitimate forms of civil protection that U.S. citizens enjoy. So from within the Guatemalan community in the U.S., groups were formed to offer “protection.” These groups quickly became gangs, adopting aspects of U.S. gang culture and functioning to give their members protection, identity, a sense of belonging, and more. When these gang members were subsequently deported back home, they brought their gang identity with them. Especially for second-generation deportees, who spoke little Spanish having grown up in the U.S., the gangs offered them community and status in a now-foreign place.
Joe used gang violence to discuss two different tracks of religious thought in Guatemala – the “liberal” liberation theology track and the conservative, evangelical track. In a nutshell, evangelical Christians stressed personal sin, and the liberal (usually Catholic) Christians stressed structural sin. The personal sin side is easy to see in the case of gang violence against innocent families and children. But Joe clarified the structural side by comparing it to the familiar tale of “Les Miserables.” Many of us are familiar with the story of Jean Valjean who is imprisoned for decades because he stole bread for his starving nephew. The harshness of prison life and the disdain of the public for ex-convicts once he is released – on top of the injustice of being punished by the system that created the inequities that would have caused most people in his situation to steal bread for a child – creates a bitter, hateful man. But, in Les Mis, we can read Valjeans story with mercy because we get to watch the “true” Valjean emerge after he is offered understanding, forgiveness and a fresh start. It’s interesting to try and apply this mercy to gang violence – something current, and as repugnant to us as Jean Valjean’s behavior was to the powers in 18th century Paris. Joe made clear the point that gang violence is both a terrible personal failure as well as a structural one. The situation is complicated, but Joe pointed out that a large part of the solution is, as Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin once envisioned – to “make it easier to be good” by helping Guatemala become a place where people can support and care for their families – and in the meantime to work on creating more just immigration policies here.
Joe is heading off in a week to teach basketball, English, and history to displaced Mayan and poor Ladino (mixed European and indigenous ancestory) children. We’re looking forward to hearing all about it on his return in September. Meanwhile, check out his Guatemala blog!
Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners — the community and the magazine — and a best-selling author (God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, among others) used to give a stump speech that included a much-told story from his youth that made quite an impression on me. He tells the story of being a seminary student, of taking his bible and systematically cutting out every passage in scripture that had to do with economics, wealth and poverty, money, et al. He then shares that once he had finished, the bible was just tatters, falling completely apart. The lesson he was demonstrating is that the word of God has something to say about the economic relationships between human beings, that it addresses wealth and poverty in depth — as a matter of fact, perhaps more than it addresses any other subject. And most importantly, our own relationship with money and financial security must be held up to the critique and judgement of God’s word. Questions about money and our culture’s virtual worship of it are central to our own understanding of God, discipleship to Jesus, the practice of our faith, etc.
So it should come as no surprise to us that as we get deeper into Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, shortly after Jesus teaches the disciples how to pray (6:9-15), he turns his attention to money, and the supposed security that money offers (chapter 6, verses 19-21, and 24-34). In verses 24-34, Jesus states very plainly and clearly that “mammon” (i.e. money, especially in terms of “wealth” or “property” that assures status, security and power) holds the possibility to master us, and that its mastery of us leads us to serve it, rather than serve God. The juxtaposition is clear and stark: We do NOT master money; but it can and will master us, so that we end up being its servant. Jesus sets “mammon” up as in competition for us with God, personifying mammon, acknowledging it as a “god-like” entity, a false idol competing with God for mastery of us.
We live in a time when talk about “idol worship” or “idolatry” might seem a little stilted, or language best left to hard-core fundamentalists maybe. But the truth is that we today worship at the altar of idols as much as or even more than our ancestors from long ago with their stone carvings and pillars and whatnot. Our idolatry has perhaps become more nuanced, or subtle, but it is there nevertheless. And it is most evident in our relationship to money and economics. We talk about “the market” as an entity, how “its invisible hand” guides our economy. We give our trust to it, profess our faith in it, and we acknowledge the power it has over our lives. The irony is that on most of our money it reads “In God we trust,” but trust in God often runs a far off second to our trust in capitalism, our bank accounts, and our 401Ks.
There is implicit and explicit in verses 25-34 a criticism of a culture which manufactures superfluous needs for us which they then, in turn, promise to fill. It addresses the cultivation of anxiety about not having “enough” which is primary to creating a feeling of insecurity, then finding security in our ability to buy enough clothes, or food, and so on. Such anxiety and concern about the various needs of our lives is especially dangerous, not because needing such things as food and clothing is ridiculous, but because our immersion in worry and concern for ourselves steals our attention away from what really matters. And what is it that is most essential, most primary for followers of Jesus? Verse 33 lays it out: “Seek FIRST the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” The business of followers of Jesus is not the business of seeing to all our various needs — real or manufactured; but rather, our business is seeking the kingdom of God. And the verse goes on to say, “and all these things will be given you beside.”
Bob Dylan famously said that everybody serves somebody. At the very least, these passages in the Sermon on the Mount force us to examine our own lives, especially in the light of money’s courtship of us, and ask who is it that we really serve.
Listening to his two-part interview with Bill Moyers (part one, part two) in its entirety and watching his interview with the National Press Club are helpful in understanding the context in which these statements were made. Moyers gives some background on Wright’s most controversial statements and respectfully gives him the opportunity to respond. Wright’s speech before the National Press Club was equally thoughtful and enlightening, although, in contrast to Moyers, the facilitator at the NPC was not only less respectful, but sometimes downright antagonistic. This did not bring out the best in Wright, who came off as being combative and arrogant during the question and answer period. The two of them together sometimes behaved like they were participating in a high school debate, smirking when they thought they made a point smartly. This part was a little painful to watch.
But the content of Wright’s remarks shouldn’t be ignored because some of us are put off by his oratorical style. He uses the cadence and fist-shaking accusations of the prophetic, “woe unto you”-style of preaching reminiscent of the Hebrew prophets. It’s not unlike some of Martin Luther King Jr.’s truth-telling sermons and speeches and brings to mind the style and delivery of a number of African-American preachers on any given Sunday.
It’s troubling that charges of divisiveness by the mainstream press – and by Obama supporters afraid of the political fallout – are muffling the crux of what he’s saying. He’s an articulate, intelligent, well-educated person who has lived out many years shepherding a church in an extremely impoverished neighborhood in Chicago. He’s walked the walk – hearing and seeing how racial injustice has affected the people he loves, seeking to inspire them to rise above and claim their own share in the American Dream, expressing his and their disillusionment and – yes – anger over how very much more difficult it is for some than for others. Yes, he’s offensive to some ears, as surely Jesus was to those whom he called a brood of vipers or whose tables he kicked over in the marketplace. But if we can get past the discomfort and drop the knee-jerk offense at the impoliteness of it all, it becomes clearer that he’s calling it as he sees it, as a good pastor, activist, and reformer should – and that he may be seeing some things most of us miss.
For instance, as an educated man, aware of the Tuskegee Experiment conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service on 399 black men without their knowledge (1932-1972), his mind has been opened to the possibility of purposeful, wrongful death perpetrated by the government on black folks. He’s also aware that the U.S., for all its “war on drugs” hoopla that has sent many an offender to jail (a disproportionate number of them black), has used the drug trade to further our foreign policy goals. The billions of dollars we spend on war-making and the billions made on selling arms to countries around the world (often to both sides of a conflict) hasn’t profited inner-city Chicago – not to mention what it’s done to the poor globally. And the terrible events of 9/11 are, in fact, seen differently through the eyes of a person who has witnessed the ongoing assault of his country’s own policies on the poor in his neighborhood – and the desperation it breeds. He is too educated and experienced to let patriotism blind him to the truth of America’s contribution to a good deal of “evil-doing.”
To say he should be criticized for his lack of patriotism, shunned for being “divisive,” or quieted down for being animated and angry about the underbelly of U.S. policy and its effect on folks with dark skin, is to attempt to shut up an articulate voice in the multiple narratives that tell the complicated story of who we are as a people and that might help us move forward in a new way.
The story of our country looks different to a Native American and will include a history of genocide and immoral land acquisition and its long-ranging repercussions. The story of an African-American embodies enslavement and long-term racism and its continued effects on the hopes and dreams of young black children. The mother of an addict will read differently the historically documented information regarding U.S. foreign policy in Central America and its effects on the drug trade. And the families of the black men who died thinking they were being treated for syphillus while they were actually being treated like lab rats, will feel differently when they read news stories about illnesses affecting a disproportionate number of black folks. Wright speaks of these narratives and embodies the anger at injustice of a people he loves and for whom he feels a responsibility as pastor and brother.
The only ones who benefit from everyone playing nice – not mentioning the elephant in the room or the naked emperor on parade – are those in league with the oppressors, standing to gain from the status quo, or not wanting to be ruffled by the messiness of historical reality. Those of us who hope for change need to sit still and listen to folks like Reverend Wright – even if it makes us uncomfortable. There’s not much wrong with what Reverend Wright has to say.