Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Review: God & Empire

I’ve never wanted more to be convinced by a book. But somehow, I just never felt like Crosssn could close the deal.

Part of the problem was that I went into it expecting (wanting?) the wrong things. I wanted to have a book that proved Jesus would have railed against imperial theology and policy, in particular the policies of the United States. I wanted unequivocal condemnation of war and poverty and exploitation and capitalism and… you name it – with verses to back it up. I wanted Crossan to give me a god that looked like me, talked like me, and wanted everyone else to see things the way I see it.

Right from the get go, Crossan didn’t deliver. Damn his honesty.

What I love about Crossan is that he is almost obsessively historical. Reading him is like accessing a Masters-level course in the history, sociology, politics, agriculture and economics of a very specific place at a virtually pin-point period of time: a geography of only about 80 miles along the Jordan river basin, under the rule of Rome from 60 BCE to 60 CE.

Yet at the same time, Crossan weaves into the specific peculiarities of the subject an exploded vision of the big picture, even the really big picture. He jumps back and forth between discussing the politics and nature of the Roman imperial occupation of Palestine on the one hand, and the nature and origins of civilization itself – all the while, building a Biblical awareness (with an honest scholarship that looks at the cultural and historical context of the Bible and its stories).

Turning traditional ideology on its head, Crossan identifies civilization itself as the phenomenon of injustice, and Crossan builds a case for the historical Jesus pitting himself against the domination system of civilization.

Civilization is the process of replacing a rough, natural equality among humans with an enforced unequality signaled by the production and acquisition of wealth (by a few) and resultant systems of violence to enforce and protect power-positions. Crossan, among others, refers to “civilization” as a 10,000 year experiment in living in systems of ordered domination and exploitation. (Think of civilization as a giant, thousands-of-years-long pyramid scheme, where most everyone “benefits” a little – except the top figures who benefit a great deal, and the masses of exploited people at the bottom who suffer extraordinarily in order to preserve the pyramid for everyone else.)

The historical Jesus – even preserved in the canonical tradition – stood against this system of violence and domination. The Pax Romana was purchased at the price of domination. The Pax Deus, the Peace of God, is established by justice for all – equality and sustenance. To such a counter-cultural/political/economic model, Crossan believes Paul was a faithful witness: struggling for equality and justice among Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and slave-holders, rich and poor. To support this idea, Crossan delves deeply into the canon and works with the reader to identify genuine letters of Paul, letters that are certainly not Paul’s work, and a few letters in between of questionable attribution to the famed Apostle. And in so doing, Crossan does more.

Crossan goes to great efforts to recognize and lift up divergent streams in the Christian canon – those that support the domination model of peace-through-victory (which is supported by all the ideology and mechanisms of “civilization”), and those that stand counter-culturally against domination in faithfulness to a prophetic peace-through-justice conception of right human relations. Both models find ample expression in our Bible – Old and New Testaments. Crossan builds his case that the Bible itself is a struggle between the forces of civilization creeping into our minds and ways, and the forces of God’s peace establishing a beachhead on our hearts, minds and behaviors.

You see, I wanted Crossan to blast the Christian hawks of America. But he is very honest about the scriptural support for their reliance on peace-through-domination. At the same time, however, he is clear that the historical and canonical Jesus is a voice on the side of peace-through-justice.

And I suspect some readers will be asking why we can’t have both – peace-through-victory and peace-through-justice, or reading the word “justice” as “revenge” or “protection of what I have from those who want it.” In so doing, we are virtually proving Crossan’s thesis that the forces of civilization are making their way into even the counter-cultural and other-worldly vision to which God is calling us. We, just like the Bible, are the field upon which the question is played out – civilization’s rules or God’s rules?

God & Empire ends with the contest between Paul’s faithful struggle for equality and justice on the one hand, and John of Patmos’ vision of a vengeful, violent return of Jesus on the other. The Bible is ambiguous (unable to point clearly to one or the other), and oftentimes so are we who read the Bible. But Jesus is calling us out of the confusion. As Christians, that should matter to us most of all.

Crossan never ends up closing the sale for me. His book leaves me with more questions than answers; more insight and understanding, but less arrogant certainty about the clear call of “the Bible.” I went in hoping for evidence of how right I was, and came out wondering if that desire is really one of civilization’s fingers wrapping around my brain. God & Empire ends up opening more doors than it closes.

Which might be why can recommend the book so highly.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

In flight

In flight to Europe, and a preview of our future life.

We’ll be flying into Germany and catching a train to the first of several meetings in the coming two weeks. Christie and I will be meeting the staff of the Europe church, many for the first time, as well as introducing ourselves to the local church leaders of Germany and the Netherlands. Amid all this, too, there will be many discussions and reports on the state of the church in Europe, challenges and possibilities, hopes and warnings, that sort of stuff.

Particularly important, though, of course, will be the personal impression I make and the tenor of the new relationships that is sounded in these first few meetings. And that worries me a bit. You see, there have already been some misunderstandings, some cross-cultural blunders, that might have started a “reputation” for me in Europe. Plus the obvious challenges that my age, inexperience and nationality will present. It may be with just a few, or even just one, but I’m still anxious about making a good impression – flexible but confident, generous and eager to laugh, encouraging and hopeful. And, as if the way with irony, it is often when we are most anxious about first impressions that we rarely make entirely good ones. Que sera sera. Щто делать?

All the while, I’ll be trying to take a mental inventory of my job duties, personality traits and giftedness of my staff and co-workers, furniture available to us when we move to Europe, and small signs of hope and happiness. As I am now, I’m still feeling several weeks of tension and anxious anticipation regarding this trip and its manifold repercussions. I want to feel better about going to Europe – and am hoping that this trip (actually seeing the places and faces) will help me.

At the same time, I have to remember that this work isn’t entirely about me. I’m here to serve a community of people dedicated to giving themselves over to the transforming Spirit of God – to be transformed themselves and to accordingly transform their world. And really, that’s not up to me. I serve the Work. To do the work, but I don’t do the Work. (I keep reminding myself of this in hopes of relieving some of my anxiety and foreboding sense of tremendous responsibility.)

Wish me luck, dear readers. I am stepping into an unstable boat in uncertain waters, and I am far away from finding my sea legs.

I want to be heading toward something, rather than in flight away.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Soldiers of Conscience

Local Film Screening: Nov. 2 - 8
Come to the Seattle opening of "Soldiers of Conscience," an award-winning documentary, at the Seattle International Film Festival Cinema (McCaw Hall at the Seattle Center), 321 Mercer Street from November 2 to November 8. The film features soldiers in Iraq facing the most difficult moral decision of their lives, to kill or not to kill. Eight soldiers, torn between the demands of duty and the call of conscience, including four who decide not to kill, highlight a realistic yet optimistic film about war, peace and the power of the human conscience. Produced by Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg, the film is co-presented by the Church Council of Greater Seattle. To learn more about the film, visit http://www.socfilm.com. For more information about screenings, call Michael Ramos at (206) 525-1213 x3950.

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Saturday, October 20, 2007

the fruits and vegetables that made me cry

firstvegetablesOk, so I have a confession to make. I have a new love. My new love will be arriving every Friday afternoon in a rubbermaid bin. My new love is fresh, organic produce.

For me, food is often an erotic experience. I’ve written about my love of food before, here and here, however, I don’t think those posts quite capture my deep love of sensual pleasures. My love of embodied sensual experience is the inspiration for the title of my blog erosophy and one of the main ways I experience the world sensually is with food.

You perhaps think I am a little crazy, and I probably am, a little. But I could not help myself, when my vegetable bin arrived for the first time yesterday, I was ecstatic. I opened it up and as soon as I started lifting things out, tears came to my eyes. Who cries over produce?! I’m not exactly sure why I had such an emotional response, but I did.

I think it was partly the beauty, the exquisite beauty of all of them. It was partly the anticipation, since I didn’t know what I was going find inside. It was the feeling of each item, cold, wet, dirty. It was the smell of dirt and farm that was still in the box. It was the feeling of having been given a precious gift.

This feeling of having been given a precious gift is one I want to feel more deeply, on an ongoing basis, in my life. In a deep, true way, each of those vegetables and fruits is a little bit of sacrament, a little bit of precious earth, taken for my own sustenance, held by many sets of loving hands before reaching mine. Food is one of the most basic elements and life, and therefore one of the most precious and holy elements as well. Just as life is sustained in making love, when we take holy food into ourselves it blesses us with nourishment and allows our lives to flourish.

So I took each item out of the box and laid it all out on the dining room table, so I could take it all in. Again I was moved to tears. I took pictures. I marvelled at the purple carrots and their 2-foot-long tops. I held each item to my nose so I could smell its aroma. I didn’t even think about what it would all eventually become, I just felt gratitude for their beautiful colours and textures and scents and flavours, for the perfection of each atom that makes up the complexity of a single fruit or vegetable.pomegranates

The most pleasant surprise in the whole box were the two pomegranates that I found hiding inside. Yes, I am easily amused. Yes, I can be a little emotional sometimes. But I would not trade a single moment of the awe and wonder I felt yesterday; for my soul was at rest in the perfection of the moment.

PS - yes, the pictures are of my produce and my pomegranates. You can get home delivery too, maybe you won’t cry, but maybe you will allow yourself to feel some awe and wonder, even for a moment, at the beauty of the earth: http://www.greenearthorganics.com


Thursday, October 18, 2007

Back Pew Worship

Do church as if you're speaking to the people in the back pew. What are they wanting to hear from a sermon? What kind of music speaks to them? What kind of worship will not just inform but will engage them?

The people in the back pew are the last ones in the church (sometimes literally, often metaphorically), and the first ones out the door (again, sometimes literally). Don't speak to the swollen middle. Like Jesus, head straight to the fringes, the margins, the people on the edge of the community, and minister to them. Because everybody needs to hear that.

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Quote of the Week

The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love?
-Martin Luther King, Jr., in Letter from Birmingham Jail

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Saturday, October 13, 2007

i thank You God for most this amazing day

applesToday I had an amazing day. It was amazing in its beauty and simplicity. My friend and I attended the UBC Botanical Gardens' Apple Festival (it's on tomorrow too), which was soooo fun. It was a gorgeous day, sunshine and blue sky. We tasted over 50 different varieties of apples, and I found my very most favouritest kind: "Aurora Golden Gala" which is a cross between a Gala apple and a Golden Delicious apple. SOOOO good! Every apple was different, too, which was so amazing! Who knew that one fruit could yield so many endless possible flavour-texture combinations!? It was truly wonderful.

And then this evening we went to a musica intima concert to hear another friend sing, and it was so marvelously wonderful, words cannot even really describe it. What comes close, though, is a poem that was sung at the concert, which is my benediction for the whole day, my prayer for the apples and the sunlight and the sweetness that is life itself:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any - lifted from the no
of all nothing - human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

-e.e. cummings


Thursday, October 11, 2007

One Year of Flannel Christian

One year ago I started this blog - originally as an extension of my new ministerial work for the church, reaching out to young adults and such. But in the process of writing and reflecting, and with comments and readers, I've found myself ministered to more than I've felt ministering. And that's not too surprising.

On this first anniversary, I'd like to thank two people who have contributed extraordinarily to this e-project, and shaped much of it with their character and insight: Jon and Shannon.

Jon has been the source of the wry humor of many posts. His proving searches of odd and sometime vaguely religious news on the internet have been both entertaining and edifying. And, it must be said, Jon's irreverence for most anything sacred has been a healthy and perspective-giving ministry in itself. (For a sample of this articulate irreverence - which may not be entirely irreverent - see his daily humor page.)

The smartest thing I ever did in regard to Flannel Christian was to ask Shannon to join me in posting on it. Honestly, I didn't entirely know what I was doing when I asked. I knew she was smart, but didn't realize how smart she was. I knew she was into cool (and honest) theological pioneering, but didn't know what she was into, or how much she was willing to explore. And Shannon just keeps getting more interesting (and more honest).

Thank you both, Jon and Shannon, for helping so much this past year. Your friendships are treasures to me.

This next year will see more changes to Flannel Christian. I will be moving to Europe to be a minister there, and haven't yet quite entirely envisioned how I will balance the Pacific Northwest and European angles. But I will try to do honor to all my experience, including the ties I have here. One year hence, I suppose, I have a better idea of what I'm doing.

I hope.

Looking back on my first post, it is funny to note that flannel might have originated as a material brought by refugees and immigrants from the Netherlands. Just four-hundred years later, I'm taking it back.

Thanks to my readers - those loyal, occasional and accidental. Without you, I'd be talking to myself - and that's healthy only in small doses. I really do appreciate your readership and comments. Honestly.

Well... here's to another year!

Monday, October 08, 2007

falling into autumn

oct 8 window viewI’m willing to admit, finally, that summer is really over. I say this as I gaze out my window at trees on fire with orange and read leaves, at the crisp colours that only seem to exist in the fall. The mountains tower in the distance, sharper and darker than they were all summer, and now is when I begin the watch for the first dusting of snow atop the mountains to be revealed one rain clouds part.

It’s the beginning of a long season of deep faithfulness. For me, part of what makes me who I am is the geography of Vancouver. Strange, I know, but the mountains and hills and inlets and river hold me and hold the land in a way that I always know where I am, and I have a sense of the scale of myself in the face of the scale of grandeur around me. I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way.

I find that the mountains (and the thick opaque rain clouds that block the view) are a good reminder that there is something much bigger and more powerful than I at work in the world, of which I am only a small piece. I like the grace that is implicit in this idea - it means that I don’t have to do or be everything to everyone, I don’t have to try and fix everyone and everything, it means I can find my small place, my small piece, and do that well. I want to practise more and more vulnerably falling into the arms of grace, the mountains, much stronger than I, and let them hold me.


Saturday, October 06, 2007

How I Became Union

I became Union roughly the same way I became Christian: I was lucky - I stumbled into it accidentally, not knowing what I was getting myself into.

This past week, at a meeting of regional ministers, a book was mentioned as being available from Amazon.com, and I gave a passing shout-out for Powells.com - a union run bookstore (headquartered in our very own Portland, no less). Afterwards, another minister came up to me and asked how I became a union supporter, since he thought it was pretty rare for someone my age (young, he meant) to even be aware of labor unions, let alone be an outspoken supporter of them. My answer got side-tracked by arguing that unions advance zionic conditions (better health care and working conditions, fairer wages and vacation policies, empowerment of people, and so on). I felt bad that I never got to answer him as to how I became a union supporter. To be honest, though, I hadn't thought of it before.

So this post is for Carman - and for the curious.

I left my previous job (2006) as a member of my union's Executive Board, a Shop Steward and work-site coordinator, a member of the contract negotiating team, a volunteer organizer and political activist. When I applied for a job with the church, most of my resume listed labor movement experience, and I still feel that heritage informing much of my ministerial outlook.

I first became a member of Service Employees International Union, Local 925, when I was hired as a mail-room clerk at the University of Washington in 2003. The University is largely closed-shop, so it was a legal obligation to join the union - I had no choice, and really didn't know what I was doing. I didn't think about it other than signing the membership card (under penalty of losing my job if I didn't). If anything, I was against compulsory membership in the union. I thought of it like Homeowners' Associations: vaguely fascist and dictatorial, and serving the powerful, rather than the powerless. (I may be retrojecting this concern for the underprivileged into my thinking then... I may honestly have been more concerned about the 1.5% taken out of my paycheck.)

For a year or so, the union was invisible to me. I didn't know it then, but my department was historically, notoriously anti-union - and few representatives of the union ever set foot inside there (and even fewer pro-union employees spoke up in the lunchroom about it). It wasn't until the union was doing an opinion poll in preparation for upcoming contract negotiations that I even realized what the union was. I filled out my little card and walked across the street to deliver it to the union representative (and later my friend) waiting in a room off the cafeteria. She introduced herself and said that if I had a few minutes to listen to what the union had in mind for the contract negotiations, she'd give me a tee-shirt for my time.

A free tee-shirt for listening to a five-minute spiel?! The union had me hooked. (This is an inside joke for anyone who's active in a union. A tee-shirt or button or hat or tote-bag for every action, and pretty soon one's wardrobe is overflowing with the union color and logo. And at that point, you just start going to the actions because you believe in it - and wearing your old tee-shirt to avoid being given a new one.)

Of course, the point of the spiel is to get you emotionally involved, at best even outraged at the offenses of the employer, in order to motivate you to become active in the contract campaign, and into the larger life of the union. It worked, and I slowly increased my activity with the union through the course of that contract campaign and the following political electoral season.

As I got more involved, I eventually became the "shop steward" for my building, and started organizing my co-workers. But it was the work as "steward" that most affected my class consciousness.

For me personally, the union was only so helpful. I had sympathetic and supportive supervisors, and administration above them that generally worked hard to be fair and helpful to the workers. My wages and benefits, however, were negotiated far above even my dean or director - and those administrators were much less likely to be sympathetic or helpful, to say the least.

It was in the course of a year or so of representing workers who were being disciplined or fired or something of that sort - and it was part of the job of a steward to help the worker understand what was going on and also support them in (if need be) objecting to the discipline and articulating why. (It did happen more than once that the worker recognized some poor performance and reacted positively to their supervisors' discipline, but that was all-in-all relatively rare.) About half of the time, it felt to me like I was helping defend workers against unfair discipline or working conditions. It only took a few ardent and seemingly vengeful bosses to make me a lifelong union supporter. (In the coming years, of course, it would take struggling to defend a couple wacky and irresponsible workers to temper my ardent one-sided-ness on the issues.)

I, myself, was never the subject of disciplinary action, or the victim of unfair working conditions. (It could be said that I was the victim of uncharitable and unfair conditions by virtue of the University's wage or vacation schedule, but after a lot of struggle the union did a pretty good job of keeping the University administration in check. The pic above is me arguing with the Public Relations Director of the University during a demonstration in the midst of 2007 contract negotiations.) It was as I witnessed what the union did for people who spoke English as a second (or third) language, and for women, and for folks who aren't white, and janitors or basement administrative assistants, that I became a union man. Supporting the union wasn't so much beneficial to me individually - except in the sense that what benefits all people benefits me. Supporting the union became an act of solidarity with and support of all workers, especially those who are least able to defend themselves and are therefore most in need of my solidarity.

Why I'm talking about this on a religio-personal blog is this: Jesus' life and ministry demonstrates to me the essential need to identify with and empower marginalized populations. That means my "class consciousness" has to align itself with "classes" "below" me (och, I struggle with that language, but indulge me), to identify their interests as my own, to work for their welfare as part of my work generally. I think it would be in most everyone's interest to be in a union - but as a Christian I don't want people to be in a union because it is in their interest. I want people to join unions because of the interest of others that it serves.

As a minister, when I left employment at the University and therefore faced giving up membership in my union, I signed up as an associate member - a status of virtually no benefit to myself, but an act of solidarity with my sisters and brothers still negotiating with hardened bosses for a fair living. And my wife joined the union with me.

Now, three years after I begrudged the union forcing me to join even though it directly benefited me to do so, I now join eagerly even though it benefits me directly hardly at all. I've been born again. I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see. Praise God, indeed.

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Thursday, October 04, 2007


I apologize for my absence. Don't take it personally. Really.

It's not you; it's me.

I've been in meetings for weeks now. Really. A week-long meeting of church leaders (one of which, apparently, I'm becoming with my new as-yet-un-assumed position), followed by a weekend Young Adult Retreat (fabulous, but still work), followed by another weekend ministers' event in Portland, and a week-long meeting of Western US ministers (of which I am, or at least used to be, or could still be considered, for a while yet). I preach this Sunday, and then I'm off for another week of meetings with my soon-to-be new boss and co-worker. Then I return to pack up my house to move, and then the annual regional church conference in Portland the next weekend. And somewhere in all this, I have to start preparing for two Seminary classes in January (and forget about November/December, as immersion language classes will take up those weeks).

I don't mean to complain... or, rather, I wish I didn't sound like I was complaining, but really, part of me is. And I worry, too, that this is the kind of life I've signed up for with my new job as the regional president of Europe. Part of me is getting worried that I will spend the next five-to-eight years of my life exhausted, and that makes me depressed. And, of course, depression isn't much of an upper in itself.

I knew I was giving up the life of a congregational minister when I first started working for the church (although I didn't realize at the time how much I would miss it). And I knew that in taking this job in Europe, I'd be giving up a large chunk of the rewards of intimate involvement in a congregation - even as a consultant or support minister. But I'm worried now that I won't even be able to enjoy congregations at all! I'll be spending all my time in meetings, or in transit from one guerrilla-ministry to another (in-and-out before they realize what hit them).

On a note of delightful self-indulgence, though, yesterday I had a full-body massage - my first in more than ten years. That was probably the most human contact I've had in months, and that long overdue. It is amazing what uninterrupted human touch can do - and occasions like this defy claims that humans are purely spiritual beings with no significant connection to embodied existence. Even thinking about it now calms me, reminds me that all is not harried or hectic, that there is peace possible in the world, in my life, in my career. It reminds me that part of discipleship is forgiveness, and that I have to practice forgiveness even (especially?) with myself. "Don't expect the world, Christian. Give yourself time - to see what is needed and what you can do. You can't honestly (fairly?) expect more from yourself."

So, you see why I haven't been blogging. It hasn't been for lack of things to say or talk about (the Young Adult Retreat needs a thousand words, itself!). I've just been distracted, away from home, with infrequent internet access, and in need of extra sleep.

It's not you; it's me.

So... I guess now would be a good time to transition. Let's see... where did I leave off?

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