Friday, August 31, 2012

Beware the Specter of American Exceptionalism

            We’re in the eye of a political storm, sitting in that moment between two political conventions.  The Republicans have had their turn to nominate and hail their candidates.  Next week the Democrats will gather to renominate the President.  One theme you’re undoubtedly to hear in both conventions is the extolling of American Exceptionalism.   You have heard and will hear the United States described not only as a unique nation, which it is, but the greatest nation that has ever existed.  You’ll hear calls for God to bless the nation in tones that invoke the idea of chosenness.  There has long been a theme in this country that we are the new Israel, the Chosen People, whom God loves more than any other.

                Now I’m proud to be an American.  During the Olympics I root for the American athletes.  I don’t have any desire to live any place else in the world.  We have a lot to offer the world.  We’re a gathering place of the world’s peoples, and this mixture of cultures and ethnicities has enriched the nation.  We also enjoy tremendous freedoms, including a freedom to worship and to speak our mind as we wish that has been a model for others.   But there’s a danger in thinking of ourselves as an exceptional nation. 

                We need to ask a question of ourselves:  What makes us think of ourselves as an exceptional nation?  Why do we think that we are a chosen people?  Back in the 1970s, when I was coming of age, there was a popular appeal to a biblical text – “If my people, who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land!” (2 Chronicles 7:14 NRSV).  Now, I don’t have anything against humility or prayer or turning away from wickedness, but who said that we are as a nation the equivalent of Israel?  Who said we are a covenant nation?  Where in the biblical story does God explicitly say that America is God’s people?  How did the covenant promises God is said to have made with Israel get transferred to this nation?

                Greg Garrett, in his book Faithful Citizenship, speaks to this question of exceptionalism and the tendency to draw upon this covenant language to define the American reality.  Of this sense of blessing that we claim for ourselves, he writes:
But ultimately, the question is, Has God blessed us in these ways because God has chosen us? Or has God blessed America because God is a God of blessing, and thus beauty, truth, and wisdom all flow from God unceasingly, and America has been, as with many nations, a beneficiary of that largesse?  [Greg Garrett. Faithful Citizenship: Christianity andPolitics for the 21st Century (Kindle Locations 1852-1854). Patheos Press. Kindle Edition.]             
Are we blessed, by all means – but are we blessed because of our exceptionalism or because God is a God of blessing?  And if the latter, as Garrett states, then we share in blessings God pours out on the many. 

My concern with exceptionalism is that it can lead to arrogance and unwise imperialistic ventures.  It can lead us as a nation to impose our will and our values on others – and in the 20th and 21st centuries we have had the military capability to do so – though with less than astounding success.  Remember the American expansion across the continent that almost annihilated Native Americans from the land.  At the turn of the twentieth century, we joined the European powers in extending our power across the globe – establishing colonies of our own in Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, to name a few places. We have embraced the idea that we as a nation are God’s chosen vehicles to spread American values, and we ended up entering an ill-advised war (Iraq) that continues to haunt us.  

I will admit that there is a unique quality about the American system, but we as a people aren’t exceptional.  We are all human beings who have hopes and dreams, some of which are fulfilled and others that aren’t.  We share the same DNA as people living in Africa, South America, Europe, and Asia.  In fact, we all share a common ancestor (whether you believe in a literal Adam and Eve or evolution, both posit a common ancestor).  What is unique perhaps is the diversity of our people.  That doesn’t make us exceptional.  It doesn’t call forth a special blessing from God.  But it does suggest that if we’re willing to affirm this diversity that is present in our country, we will be enriched.

There is a hymn that I like to sing on national holidays.  It’s a reminder that God is the God of all the nations:

This is my song, O God of all the nations, a song of peace for lands a far and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is; 
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
But other hearts in other lands are beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean, and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
But other lands have sunlight too, and clover, and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine (Lloyd Stone, 1934 – tune: Finlandia)

May we honor the nation that is our home, but let us not think of ourselves higher than we should.  Let us remember that God, is the God of all the nations.  Remember that God is the Creator and the Redeemer of us all – not just Americans, but the whole of creation. So beware of the specter of American Exceptionalism.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Rules, Regulations, and the Christian Life -- A Lectionary Reflection

Rules, Regulations, 
and the Christian Life

            Do we need rules and regulations to govern our lives?  Or should we be free to make our own rules?  Those are the kinds of questions that are permeating the political realm.  As the election cycle nears its climax, we hear some politicians claim that there too many regulations and these regulations hurt businesses and raise the cost of products for consumers.  On the other hand, there are those who say that that if we water down regulations then unscrupulous corporations and individuals will harm the citizenry.  Do we really want to weaken the clean air act? 

It’s interesting that some of the political talk reflects theological perspectives, even though they do so unwittingly.  Libertarian types seem to have a rather view of humanity perfectibility.  In other words, it would seem that they believe that humans are by nature good and just need to be set free to do what comes naturally.  Those who prefer strong regulations seem to have a rather Augustinian or Calvinist view of humanity.  Since humans, left to their own devices have a tendency to harm one another, then we need strong laws to keep them in line. 

I’m not going to resolve the debate over the nation’s regulatory situation, though I tend to believe that we’re not as perfect as we’d to think we are, so at some rules are probably necessary!  But, while rules and regulations are necessary – and we can have a debate over which kinds of regulations are necessary – is it possible that rules and regulations can become ends in themselves?  And if so, does this lead us to look for loopholes?  And therefore, we become hypocrites ourselves?   

The texts designated for this week, along with some that will follow in the weeks to come, focus on what it means to live the Christian life.  Micah 6:8 might not be part of the lectionary choices for the week, but the question posed by that prophet fits the theme – what does God desire of us?  How should we live our lives?  What are the expectations?  In answer to this question the readings from Deuteronomy, James, and Mark suggest that actions speak louder than words. Don’t just sit around and talk about living for Jesus – live for Jesus.

Let’s begin our conversation with the reading from Deuteronomy 4.  In the verses prior to this reading, we find Moses learning that after forty years of leading Israel in the desert, he wouldn’t get to cross over the Jordan into the Promised Land.  He could get a glimpse of the Land, but Joshua would get the call to lead the nation into this new land.  Now, in Deuteronomy 4, Moses, knowing this is his last opportunity to address the nation, begins his statement.  He reminds Israel that they’ve been given Laws – regulations and case laws – that will guide them as they enter into the land and possess it.  He tells them not to add anything to this law or take anything away from it.  But instead, live according to these Laws that the LORD had given them.  By living by these Laws, they would give a witness to the nations, who would see in them wisdom and insight.  No nation, Moses says to them, is as close to their gods as Israel is to the LORD (note here the presence of what some call henotheism – Israel has YHWH as its God, but other nations have other gods; it’s not yet a pure monotheism).  And no nation has laws like this Law.  Remember these Laws, for they define who you are.  They offer you a way of life that is pleasing to God and witnesses to the nations that God is just and faithful.  And as the nation goes forward into this new land, the Law will remind them of their relationship with God and the expectations God has for them and for the generations that follow.  By keeping these laws, they also pass on the story of who they are as a people, so that no one forgets. 

For Moses rules and regulations aren’t a bad thing, they’re a good thing.  They help us live our lives in a way that honors the God who calls us into existence.  They’re designed to create a people.  You call this set of Laws the Constitution of the People of Israel. 

Rules and regulations, of course, can become ends in themselves.  This often happens as time goes on and we forget why the laws or rules were instituted.  They’ve taken on a life of their own.  This happens all the time in churches, especially churches that have a long history.  This is the kind of situation Jesus faces in Mark 7.  He gets into a debate with a group of Pharisees, a group of Jewish leaders that hold to a strict observance to the Law as a sign of faithfulness to God.  But, in this passage, as Mark lays it out, the Law, which in Deuteronomy 4 serves as a reminder that God is faithful, has become an end in itself.   In this conversation, it seems as if the Law no longer points to God, but instead serves to draw circles that make it clear who is in and who is not – they have become boundary markers that exclude rather than include.   

The religious leaders are scandalized because Jesus’ disciples aren’t following the rules about washing their hands in an appropriate fashion.  It’s not really an issue of hygiene, as if these laws governing hand washing were the same as those notices found in restrooms that tell employees to wash their hands before going back to work. You’d think this wouldn’t be necessary, but apparently we need to be told! No, the issue isn’t one of hygiene, it’s a symbolic action – it’s a question of being ritually pure.  In this passage Jesus suggests that their concern for hand washing was overly focused on externals.  The issue here isn’t the cleanliness of the hands, but the cleanliness of the heart – and Jesus seems to think that the external had overcome the internal, and the law became an end in itself.   Just a little cleanser will do the job – except that the problem has to do with the heart not the hands.  There is a certain psychology at work here – Richard Beck speaks of “disgust psychology,” which involves being concerned about contaminants and making sure that we’re not contaminated. 
Disgust psychology prompts us to think about evil as if it were a virus or a polluting object. When we do this the logic of contamination is imported into moral discourse and judgment. For example, as noted earlier, we begin to worry about contact. In the domain of food aversion contact with a polluting object is a legitimate concern. But fears concerning contact might not be appropriate or logical in dealing with moral issues or social groups. Worse, a fear of contact might promote antisocial behavior (e.g., social exclusion) on our part.  [Beck, Richard.  Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality(p. 26). Cascade Books, Kindle Edition].
We can, through ritual fashion or through exclusive behavior, ward off the contaminants, so that we can remain pure.    
It would seem that Jesus isn’t convinced by this psychology.  He recognizes that the danger isn’t posed by outside sources, but from the heart.  He’s not Lockean in his psychology, believing that the environment determines our behavior.  Rather, he seems to think that when we do evil, there’s a reason that’s internal to us.  The contaminant is inside us, not outside of us.  He also seems to think that when we focus on external defenses, we end up looking like hypocrites.  We don’t do as we say.  Or, as is so often true, we focus on the little things and forget the weightier things of the law.  We get focused on how people dress and forget to care for the least among us.   So in a rather bold way, Jesus calls them out, and reminds them that what makes a person unclean isn’t what they eat or how they eat, but what comes out afterwards (I’ll leave that to your imagination).

From the heart comes all manner of sexual sins, theft, murder, adultery, greed, evil actions, deceit, unrestrained immorality, envy, insults, arrogance, and foolishness.  Although Mark lacks a “Sermon on the Mount,” the point here is the same as there – evil starts within. It’ can’t be caught from unwashed hands, but it can spread from unwashed hearts.  These are the contaminants that truly make one unclean – not unwashed hands.  But thinking more broadly, Jesus, like the prophets, offers a message of mercy rather than sacrifice.  And as Beck notes (though the context he has in mind is different from this one):
No doubt this is exactly how the Pharisees experienced Jesus: as a religious liberal showing disrespect to authority and tradition and flaunting the purity codes by eating with “tax collectors and sinners.”  [Beck, Unclean (p. 61).]
I’m choosing to end with James 1, because this brief letter is focused on living a life before God that emerges from a clean heart.  Martin Luther was concerned about James because he didn’t see much of the gospel in it.  In his reading, grace seemed an afterthought with works in the foreground.  Luther was concerned about what that problem of “works righteousness,” but if we read James closely we should see that such a concern is unwarranted.  James isn’t counseling us to work hard to impress God.  Rather, James is concerned that our faith should offer some tangible evidence that it’s real.  As for the question of grace, James is quite clear – “every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above.”  These gifts come from the Father whose character doesn’t change.  Therefore, the community James writes to is the first crop of the harvest.  God acted in their midst first, providing gifts, so that the people of God might bear fruit. 

As with Jesus, James understands that from the heart comes acts of evil.  He focuses on listening before speaking (training the heart to hear the other) and recognizes that an “angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness.”  I need to note here that I recently learned that in the world of community organizing the call to action often begins with anger at the injustices present in the world.  Obviously, this is a different form of anger, or at least it’s an anger that leads in a very different direction.  Rather than leading to justice, this kind of anger – a narcissistic form of anger – leads to wickedness.  It’s that internal disposition that leads us away from God.  But this needn’t be our reality.  Instead, we can welcome the word from God that is implanted in the heart, a word that transforms the inner being.

How does this happen, well – be doers of the word not just hearers.  Hearkening back to Deuteronomy and the rationale for law, James suggests that if we hear but don’t put into practice, we forget who we are.  Doing the Word doesn’t earn God’s love, but it does represent the fact that it made an impression.  And by putting this word, this law of freedom, into action, they (we) are blessed.   So what is pure and faultless religion or devotion?  What defines a true relationship with God?  What happens when we don’t merely hear, but also do?  This is the answer:  “True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this:  to care for the orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.” 

Caring for widows and orphans represents the positive action of faith, but what about this contamination from the world?  Should we remover ourselves from engagement with the world?  Should we move to the hills and set up camp far from the realities of life?  No, that’s not the point.  In this case world has to do with a different sort of law, one that is greedy and self-serving, it is the law of sin and death, and James says – beware of this kind of contamination.  It’s not the contamination that comes from outside due to poor hygiene.  It’s the contamination that happens on the inside.

May we be cleansed on the inside so that we might show forth the fruit of the Spirit!    

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Postcards from Claremont I – An Adventurous Interlude (Bruce Epperly)

Dr. Bruce Epperly, a frequent contributor to Ponderings on a Faith Journey, is set to begin another series of  of conversations with my readers.  Serving this autumn as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University, Bruce is going to be offering weekly reports/reflections on this latest holy adventure.  In this piece he sets out the parameters of the adventure and invites us to join him for the journey.  So, for the next number of Wednesdays, Bruce will be present with us.  Join with him on the journey and share your responses!


Postcards from Claremont I – 
An Adventurous Interlude – August 26, 2012
Dr. Bruce Epperly

Our lives are holy adventures and I feel like I’m beginning an adventure as I wing my way from my home in Washington DC to Claremont, California, where I will be Visiting Professor in Process Studies this fall.  I have joined a new demographic, known as bi-coastal commuters.  Every few weeks I will be sojourning back to the East Coast for long weekends with my wife, mother-in-law, son and daughter-in-law, and precious grandchildren.  In nearly thirty-four years of marriage, I’ve never been away from hearth, heart, and home for more than a week.  I’m excited but I’m already missing my family. 

Adventure always involves leaving home, geographically, spiritually, emotionally, or relationally.  Adventurers always feel a bit ambivalent, but the call of something new, a frontier, new possibilities, and uncharted spaces still lures us forward just as it did Abraham and Sarah. the magi who visited Jesus and his parents, North America’s first settlers as they crossed the Bering Straits, the first European explorers seeking a route to India, and the countless immigrants who have crossed seas and deserts in search of freedom and a new life for their families.

This fall, I’m in the heart of process theology, Claremont, a place where Whiteheadian-influenced theology holds sway even for those who aren’t theologians.  I’ve been called to Claremont to share wisdom with seminarians and doctoral students and add my voice to this community of scholars. In many ways, Claremont is my intellectual home: I first came here as a graduate student in 1975.  Here in Claremont, I met my wife and experienced the call to academic ministry, joining heart, hands, and head, and pulpit and classroom, to share the good news of global and progressive Christian spirituality and theology.

Process theology is, I believe, the primary intellectual foundation for today’s progressive and emerging Christianities.  Process theology provides an open-ended, humble, and inspirational vision of a non-competitive, relational god who rules by love rather than threat.  For process theologians, revelation can occur everywhere and anywhere.  Process theology asserts that God shows no partiality but is the source of truth and healing under whatever guise it appears.  Diverse religious journeys are not falls from grace and sinful aberrations from the one true faith but gifts from a generous heart, calling to people in cultures in ways that they can understand.  There is no one finished truth, but truth itself is many-sided, adventurous, and emerging along with our own personal and communal adventures.  To seek truth and healing is to be always prepared for new horizons of spirit and practice.

Last night, a few friends and I attended a “Sound of Music” sing-along at Wolf Trap in the DC suburbs.  It was an appropriate send off for a theological pilgrim.  I am here for the pure joy of it, but I am letting go of the day-to-day holiness of life with Kate and my grandsons.  In between visits home, we’ll be connected by phone and Skype.  Of course in the interdependent universe, imagined process-relational theologians, we are all connected.  There is no distance in life or love.  My prayers for my family will touch them, even when their asleep and their thoughts of me are not hindered by geography or time zones.  So with the von Trapp family, I begin a cross-country pilgrimage, and celebrate life’s adventures.

            Climb every mountain
            Ford every stream
            Follow every pathway
            Till you find your dream.

I will be seeing old pathways with new eyes and fording new stream of experience in the next three and one half months.  I hope to share a bit of the journey with you – exploring the gifts of process theology and spirituality for seekers, open-spirited Christians, and partners from other faith traditions.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the PerplexedHoly Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age.  His most recent text is Emerging Process:  Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church.   He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith Lectionary and   He is currently serving as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University.  He may be reached at for lectures, workshops, and retreats.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Anybody Sitting Pretty?

Are you "sitting pretty" right now?  Do you live a life without trouble or concern?  hat's a question that was raised in a sermon more than sixty years ago by the founding minister of the church I now pastor.  Using Luke 12:19 -- "I’ll say to myself, You have stored up plenty of goods, enough for several years. Take it easy! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself" -- as his text, he suggests that no one ultimately ends up "sitting pretty."  No one can just sit back and rest on their laurels.  

Common sense and experience alike tend to explode the belief that anybody can "sit pretty" long.  The facts of life are against the possibility.  Nothing is static here; fortunes fluctuate; riches take wings.  To have and to hold any desirable thing or place or office means perplexity and perchance disappointment and disillusionment, while accident, illness, and death itself crash devastatingly into the prettiest picture, marring it at least for the time.  Those who "sit pretty" today may be prostrate and wretched tomorrow.  Life is a moving, not a still, picture." [The Coming of the Perfect:  And Sixteen Other Sermons Preached in Troublesome Times, (Bethany Press, 1946), p. 41.]
To illustrate his point -- and the reason why I decided to post this -- he points to the American Presidency.  The President of the United States is, as he notes, the most  powerful elective office in the world.  There is a lot of power and prestige inherent in the office, but are they really "sitting pretty?"  Well, for short period perhaps.  Most Presidents, like most preachers, get a "honeymoon," but it doesn't last long.  President Obama had a 70% approval rating for a few days after his inauguration, then, like most Presidents, he got to work and things changed.  So what happens then?  Jones speaks:

Ask the shades of Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Cleveland, Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Interrogate the living presence of Herbert Hoover.  How about it, gentlemen?  And the answer:  Vicious abuse, venomous criticism, base calumny, malicious misrepresentation, insensate and vitriolic hate.  These go with the honors and distinctions of the presidency, and, to a greater or lesser degree, they are educational and disciplinary experiences for the occupants of what Lincoln called "the Executive Mansion." (p. 42)
Does any of this look familiar?  

Jones notes further that the one President who didn't seem to suffer from this in his life time was Calvin Coolidge, but the reason for this was likely that "Mr. Coolidge instituted no reforms or experiments, and his administration was ringed about by a prosperity which, though unsound and short-lived, was much praised while it lasted."  Oh, and he didn't do anything to offend and thus had the complete support of the commercial interests, which, "can, when offended, can make life miserable for any president."  

What is the point -- anything worth doing will encounter resistance.  So, do what is right.  Stand for something.  Care for the widows and orphans.  Make a difference!  Carpe Diem!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Are real cross-party political conversations possible?

For the past few weeks my Monday posting has answered a political question offered by my publisher.  The intention was for a conservative voice to join me in a conversation or debate.  I didn't really like this described as a debate, because debates tend to separate rather than bring people together.  Although I am, according to a little Pew Research Quiz a radical left winger, I don't see myself in that way.  My own self-perception is of a person a bit left of center.  Back to the conversation with Elgin Hushbeck -- I found his answer over the top and decided I couldn't go further.  You can decide for yourself whether I over-reacted. In any case the conversation is on hiatus, but with the start of one party's national convention this week and politics on everyone's mind, I thought it worth devoting at least a little time to the conversation -- after all, on Wednesday evening I'm hosting a conversation on Faith in the Public Square that will include a book signing.

We bemoan the course partisanship that grips our nation.  It's doubtful that there ever was a time when the majority of the nation put aside partisanship, except perhaps during war-time.  And as Abraham Lincoln would tell you, even then there was little unanimity.  There was a time, not all that long ago, when the political parties weren't nearly as ideologically driven.  As recently as the 1960s the two parties had conservative and liberal wings, but by the 1980s this began to change.  Growing up in Oregon, the majority of Republican leaders, at least those who won statewide races, were moderate to liberal.  Mark Hatfield was as anti-war a Republican as there was, while Governor Tom McCall was a rather determined environmentalist.  Neither of these two would be welcome in the Republican Party today.  And of course, if you're a conservative Democrat like Bart Stupack of Michigan, you will have a hard time surviving.

But the issues that confront the nation today require cross-party cooperation.  They require conversations that will encourage new solutions not status quo.  Take the issue of Social Security, for instance.  The idea of privatizing it sounds good at one level, but as we all know, the vagaries of the market can put people at risk. I'm fortunate that as a participant in the Disciples Pension Plan, I will have a defined benefit package not a defined contribution package.  I will know what my minimum is.  So as far as defining benefits, Social Security won't be secure if it depends on market forces -- therefore I stand squarely with Democrats on this issue.  At the same time we need to face the fact that we have an aging population, and except for immigration would have a declining workforce, thus a greater burden is placed on this smaller workforce to sustain this larger number of retirees depending on Social Security.  We can increase the payroll tax but that puts an unfair burden on those who are working today.  Thus, raising the retirement age makes sense.  Remember that when age 65 was put in place most Americans didn't live that long.  Now we're living well past 80 (on average).  So, something has to happen and if both parties would talk they could get something done.

So, how do we bridge the gap?  How do we start the conversation?  And just as a reminder, some conversation has start soon, because looming in front of us are huge budget cuts and ending of the Bush Tax Cuts.  Taken together, whoever wins the election, if these aren't dealt with in a responsible manner, we'll have major economic problems.  So, as Rodney King once said?  "Why can't we all get along?"  

Perhaps we should all go back to Kindergarten!!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Where Else Would We Go? -- A Sermon

John 6:58-69

Has a preacher ever said something that offended you so much that you never went back to that church?  I hope that none of you will take offense at what I say today, or if you do, I hope you’ll come back next week!  

And what about Jesus, is there anything that he said that offends you?  

I’d be surprised if you said no.  After all, Jesus did have a tendency to say things that got him into trouble.  Remember how his sermon back at his hometown synagogue went?  He was just coming off being baptized by John and had begun to gain a following.  But as they say – you can’t always go home. 

On that evening, after Jesus read the text from Isaiah, he began to preach and before too long, the people were getting restless and just a bit angry with what he had to say.  So, instead of celebrating a triumphant homecoming, the hometown crowd tried to throw him a cliff.  Fortunately, Jesus escaped this fate and headed off to a friendlier venue (Luke 4:16-30). Of course, in the end, the religious and the political leaders got together and had him crucified.  It seems that Jesus just had a way with people, doesn’t it? 

Now, we’re okay with Jesus. He’s our guy.  He looks like us – sort of – except perhaps that long hair.  Besides, he agrees with us on the important issues of the day.  We would never treat Jesus that way, after all, we’re Disciples of Christ.  But, are we really ready to hear and follow Jesus?   

When Joshua gathered the tribes of Israel together after they took possession of the “promised land,” he asked them:  So, who are you going to serve?  Or, as Bob Dylan put it in a song from long ago:

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

Yes, who are you gonna serve? 

Joshua gives his answer: “As for me and my house, we’ll serve the LORD.”  And the people answer back: well, we’ll also serve the LORD.  And then the question goes to you and to me – Who will you serve?

When someone walks the aisle and joins the church, we ask them to make the Good Confession – just like Peter did in Matthew 16 -- “Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God?”  And the expected answer is “I Do.”  Now, since Disciples don’t have creeds, we don’t ask new members to define their terms.  There are some in our midst who believe that Jesus is the divine Son of God, the second member of the Trinity.  There are others who aren’t so sure about this confession and who’re more comfortable seeing Jesus as a prophet of God. But wherever you stand on this continuum, the church asks us to give our allegiance to Jesus -- even if we still have questions!   

In this morning’s reading from John 6, we hear Jesus say: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them.”  These words are the culmination of a conversation Jesus had been having with would-be followers about whether he would provide them bread – like Moses provided the people of Israel with bread as they wandered in the Sinai.  They were hoping he would provide them with “bread from heaven,” but instead, Jesus offers himself as the “bread from heaven,” and if you eat this bread – unlike the manna – you’ll live forever.

You can see why people might be offended by this.  It sure sounds like Jesus is talking about cannibalism, and most of us, like those who heard these words, aren’t into such things.   

Now Jesus makes it clear that he’s talking about spiritual things not physical things, so you can breathe a little easier.  It’s just a metaphor, but these are still rather strong words that invite us to decide who we’re going to serve.   

Many believe that John 6 offers us John’s theology of the Eucharist.  These words, especially the opening words of today’s passage, serve as John’s version of the Words of Institution:  “This is my body broken for you.”  “This is my blood shed for you.”  In these accounts of the Last Supper, Jesus calls on the disciples to break bread and share the cup in remembrance of him, but John seems to go further than this.  Even if we take this words metaphorically, John wants us to think about how we’re connected to Jesus. By eating his flesh and drinking his blood, we participate in his life.  We become one with him. 

Now, Jesus’ words appear to be too much for the majority of his followers and they walk away.  When the Twelve stay behind, Jesus asks them: Are you going to leave as well?  

Peter steps forward, and as he often does, answers for the others:    

Lord where would we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We believe and know that you are God’s Holy One.  (Jn. 6:68-69 CEB).  
Peter says to Jesus, since you have the words of life, where else can we go?  So, we’re going to trust our lives to you because you’re God’s holy one. 

As you think about Peter’s response, remember how John begins his gospel? Remember how he declares that  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God?”  And remember, how in verse 14, John writes: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth?” (John 1:14 NRSV).  In John’s mind, not only does Jesus give us words of life, he is the Word who is life.  So, Peter’s right, isn’t he, where else can we go if we want to find the Word that brings us life? 

Jesus’ words are often difficult to hear, and yet they speak life to us. We may not like hearing Jesus tell a young man to sell everything and follow him if that young man wants to have eternal life.  St. Francis read these words, and took them quite literally, but obviously, very few others have done this.  And what about the time he told a would-be follower not to wait until his father died to join the group, but instead to let the “dead bury the dead.” Jesus said a lot of things that can make us feel uncomfortable – at the very least.  And yet we stay – why? 

Perhaps we’ve found a way of making his words more palatable.  Although Jesus, like most prophets,  comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable, we’ve become quite adept at making ourselves feel rather comfortable.  After all, Robert Schuller taught us that sin is nothing more than poor self-esteem.

But Peter seems to understand what St. Augustine seems to have understood:  “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”  Augustine had a restless heart, but he found peace in Jesus.  So, is your heart restless?  

As you contemplate that question consider these words from the Eucharistic liturgy of my Episcopal youth.  With John 6 as the foundation, the priest would say to us: “Feed on him in your hearts with thanksgiving.”  Isn’t this what Jesus is inviting us to do here?  Feed on me and I will enter your life.  I will penetrate your very being.  And then, as Jesus does this, we can answer the question: Who are you going to serve? 

Or as Bob Dylan put it:

You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
13th Sunday after Pentecost
August 26, 2012

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Is this Class Warfare?

You may have heard it said by Jesus that it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God (Matthew 19:23-24).  Would you call that an example of class warfare?  

There is a a lot of political rhetoric going around that raises the specter of class warfare.  People who suggest that the wealthy in America should bear a greater share of the burden, because they have more to spare, are accused of engaging in class warfare and of being envious of the rich.  Well, to be honest, sometimes I am envious of the rich.  I live in the middle class.  I have a good education, but my income doesn't cross the six figure-line, let alone the seven figure line.  But, all in all, I'm pretty content with the life I live.  But it's increasingly clear that those in the top 1% are doing much better than those below that number.  It's not just in the Obama years that the middle class has failed to make strides.  Things have not gotten better for the middle class for the last decade.  Wages are stagnant and the possibilities for moving up the economic ladder have become fewer.  Where public sector jobs once provided a good but not spectacular living, those jobs are disappearing.  The city in which I live has cut back its employees to levels not seen since the 1970s, back when the city was not even half the size it is today.  Companies have figured out how to do more and prosper with fewer employees, so jobs are fewer today than they were years before. 

So, where does this issue of class warfare come in.  Who's actually fighting the war?  Is it the poor?  Is it the middle class?  Or is it the wealthy?  Consider the Super PACS that are funding much of the current political "discourse."  Who is funding them?  The poor?  No.  The Middle Class?  No.  Unions?  Well, in part, but their numbers and their dollars pale in comparison with corporations.

So, what is this Class warfare?

As we seek answers to this question I turn again to Greg Garrett's e-book Faithful Citizenship.  He writes:

But we don’t like to talk about money or class in America. If you point out inequities in the system (as I just have), state the obvious fact that the wealthy control money, power, and politics, or even suggest that we have classes in America, you may be accused of something called “class warfare.” The term itself points out that power and resources are unequally allocated across the classes— that the very poor have little, the very wealthy have a lot, and are getting more. When it is used as a negative description, though, it typically means this: Please don’t point out that the very poor have little, and the very wealthy have a lot. Given that the very wealthy already occupy a position of power and privilege, their fortunes are hardly going to be jeopardized by someone speaking the truth. So why is it that they don’t even wish for the fact of their wealth to be noted?  [Greg Garrett, Faithful Citizenship: Christianity and Politics for the 21st Century, (Patheos Press, Kindle Edition;  Kindle Locations 2178-2179).]
Garrett asks a good question -- why is it that when those who don't live in the elite class ask about wealth their questions are turned aside as class warfare?  And, if you are a follower of Jesus, how should you respond? Or perhaps, I should ask -- as a follower of Jesus, if there a class war is underway, which side should you be on?

Friday, August 24, 2012

God Bless America?

                We Americans have for a very long time imagined ourselves being a rather unique and special people.  This view served as the basis of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism.  Manifest Destiny drove the nation’s expansion across the continent and beyond, fueling the imperialism that took hold after the “frontier” was conquered and the indigenous peoples displaced.  We have envisioned ourselves as a chosen people, a new Israel.  But why? And what are the implications?

                In considering this question, the words of Greg Garrett serve as a clarion call to think carefully about this issue.
When the two are combined, religion and state are no longer purely one or the other. American civil religion is a Constantinian faith— which, in theological terms, means that it represents a wedding of Christian religion and personal and political self-interest. To think of oneself and one’s nation as chosen is to think that one’s purposes and God’s are aligned, and honestly, who doesn’t like thinking of themselves as exceptional? Or wish to be considered exceptional by others?  [Greg Garrett,  Faithful Citizenship: Christianity and Politics for the 21st Century(Kindle Locations 1751-1754). Patheos Press. Kindle Edition.]

                As somebody who believes that it’s important to engage the public square and that my faith should inform that engagement, Garrett’s words are a fair warning.  When we sing God Bless America, do we believe that we stand above the nations as the “apple of God’s eye?”  Do we somehow think we’re infallible or that we stand above the rules that govern other nations?  And how does my faith connect with the political realm?  Is there a danger that I might be co-opted by one party or another?  We have seen that at least one political party has found a way of co-opting a significant segment of the Christian population and the other party would love to find a way to co-opt the rest of us.  As a member of the latter party, I am quite aware of this possibility.  I’m a member of this party and support its candidates because for the most part I see it being more responsive to the greatest number of concerns that I have.  But, I also recognize that this party as with any political party is a human entity and its vision doesn’t always correspond with God’s vision.
Garrett speaks to the question of whether America was, is, or can be a Christian nation:  “A nation cannot be Christian. Its aims are different from those of the Church, its goals may or may not be aligned with God’s, and its survival is an ultimate value for itself, not the seeking of the Kingdom of God. [Garrett, Faithful Citizenship,  (Kindle Locations 1902-1904).]
                If America is not and cannot be a Christian nation, because its goals aren’t always in line with God’s how do we live faithfully and still participate in the political realm?  How do we make our values, such as “love your neighbor,” felt in the public square without confusing the nation’s vision with the vision of God? 


As you think about these questions and the role of faith in American political life, I’d like to invite you to join in a conversation on “Faith in the Public Square” to be held at 7:00 PM on Wednesday, August 29th at Central WoodwardChristian Church of Troy, MI.  We’ll have a conversation and I’ll have copies of my book – Faith in the Public Square (Energion, 2012) for sale (and signing).      

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Gotta Serve Somebody -- A Lectionary Reflection

Gotta Serve Somebody

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
                                                Bob Dylan, 1979

It could be the devil, or it could be the Lord, “but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”  So who is it going to be?  Bob Dylan’s question of thirty years back is reflective of the questions asked by Joshua and Jesus.  Who are you going to serve?   

            Since we’re all freedom loving people, especially those of us living in the United States,, this kind of question could offend.  If we’re going to serve anyone, then it will be the self and no other, with the exception perhaps of one’s family. Indeed, the philosopher of the moment is Ayn Rand who wrote a book entitled the “Virtue of Selfishness.” The question is posed to us nonetheless by Joshua and Jesus:  Who are you going to serve?   The author of Ephesians makes the assumption that we’ve already answered the question and have given allegiance to God, and so gives us guidelines and resources for serving the Lord.

            In Joshua 24, the tribes of Israel have crossed the Jordan and have taken possession of the Land, a land that had been in the possession of the Amorites. The question Joshua poses to the people is simple. Now that you’re in this land, who are you going to serve?  Are you going to serve the gods of the Amorites, the former inhabitants who we’re told God had driven out.  Who are you going to serve?  

As we seek an answer to this question of allegiance, we need to acknowledge that this text, indeed all of Joshua, is problematic. It assumes the value or necessity of divinely-authorized genocide. It’s an issue that we must always keep in front of us, because invasion and genocide have been and continue to be an issue of deep concern.  Even as Joshua assumes God’s mandate for killing Canaanites, Europeans claimed the same right with regard to Native Americans, and the spirit of genocide and displacement continues to this day.  So as we ponder this passage, and hear in it a call to give our allegiance to the LORD alone, let us also remember the context.  Let’s ask ourselves, is this genocide approving god the God we truly see revealed in the biblical story and to whom we give allegiance.

With this question present in our minds we can give heed to Joshua’s command to “Revere the LORD.  Serve him honestly and faithfully.”  In this parallelism reverence for God and service to God are one and the same thing.  You can’t say I love God with your mouth and then live in a way that suggests otherwise (walk the talk).  Having asked the question, Joshua makes a claim for himself and his family that has become part of our own vocabulary – “As for me and my house, we shall serve the LORD.”     And what do the people answer?  Having made it to the land of promise, the generation that knew Egypt having passed away, the people answer:  We’re going to do the same – “the LORD is our God,” not the idols we knew in Egypt or were present in this new land.  Yes, “we too will serve the LORD, because he is our God.”  As you read this passage you get a liturgical feel – there’s a sense of call and response.  Joshua makes his declaration and on cue the people respond with theirs. As the liturgy continues we’re invited to offer our response:  Who will you serve? And with the people of Israel we are to respond:  “We too will serve the LORD, because he is our God.” In this response, we affirm the premise that it is God who holds together our community.  But in making this response, and affirming our allegiance, we must then discern how this affects the way we live our lives.   

The reading from John 6 is equally difficult to hear, because it starts out with this startling invitation to what appears to be cannibalism.  Eat my flesh, drink my blood.  It’s no wonder people in the first and second centuries were leery of Christians. So, as we read this passage we quickly make the assumption that John is speaking metaphorically and not literally.

With this passage our lectionary journey through John 6, a passage of scripture that has important implications for the way view the Eucharist and our connection to God through Jesus, comes to an end.  The passage raises questions about the nature of Christ’s presence and what we should expect to encounter when we come to the Table.  John doesn’t include the words of institution in his Last Supper scene, but this discussion in John 6 of the Bread of Life and Bread of Heaven seems to provide a foundation for a Eucharistic theology. Jesus insists that while the manna of the Exodus was temporary, feeding the stomach for a moment, the Living Bread – his body – endures eternally. Manna fills a need for the moment, but it doesn’t sate that deeper hunger and the thirst that resonates from the soul.  But, Jesus says (in John’s version of the story) “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them” (vs. 56 CEB).   By eating and drinking his body and blood, his followers participate in his life, and he in theirs.  Even as Joshua 24 is a litany of allegiance to God, here in John 6 the Eucharist becomes a sign of our allegiance to Jesus and thus to God.  As we partake we are bound to Jesus and to one another – for eternity.    

            Now the words of Jesus offend.  Is that surprising?  Do you find that his words offend you (even if we assume that John put these words into Jesus’ mouth, do we not find times and places in even the most “authentic” words of Jesus something that offends, that drives away and challenges our willingness to give our allegiance to him?  So some grumble and begin to leave.  Jesus isn’t surprised – he assumed that unless someone was called of God they wouldn’t follow.  The task was too difficult.  But some remain – that is the Twelve stay behind, and when Jesus asks them – well, are you going to leave me too?  Peter answers on their behalf:  “Lord where would we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  As with the tribes of Israel who are asked by Joshua – will you serve the LORD – Peter answers:  “We believe and know that you are God’s holy one.”  It’s the same kind of statement we find in Matthew 16, where Peter answers Jesus’ question of identity – “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”    So who is this Jesus and what does he mean for you and for me and for our communities?  In what way are we one and how does this oneness exist when we’re often not of one mind?  So who are you going to serve?

            I chose to close this reflection with the Ephesians text.  This meditation on the armor of God is a familiar text.  The presumed author is Paul, though that authorship has long been in dispute.  Authorship aside, we’re encouraged to remain strong as we face the “tricks of the devil.”  This passage also has its difficult moments, what with the military imagery and the overt supernaturalism. Indeed there is this sense of a dualism that exists between God and Satan, who seem to be at war and we seem to be the soldiers in this war. But, as Walter Wink has made so clear in his books, there is a battle at hand.  There is a spiritual dimension to reality and we do face powers and principalities – that is systems – that are oppressive and unjust.  These are systems that can easily co-opt us.  I just finished reading The Color of Christ, a book by Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, which looks at the way the image of a white Jesus has been used to sustain white supremacy. So, we face a battle within and without our selves.  But we’re not defenseless. 

            Our attention is directed to the Roman legionnaire, who is armed with the belt of truth, a breastplate of justice, shoes of peace, a shield of faith, a helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit – the word of God.  These pieces of armor and weapons have both defensive and offense implications.  God, we’re told, provides us with what we need to fulfill our calling.  We have our protection, but we also have the tools to face down the powers and the principalities.  And we do so in the company of those who pray in the Spirit.  It’s important to remember that Roman soldiers didn’t go into battle alone.  The Romans were successful not just because of their arms, but also due to their tactics – the unit cohesion that enabled them to work together to achieve their purpose. The same is true for us.  We have the tools – the armor of God – but the tools aren’t enough.  If we go to battle on our own we’ll fail, but when we move as a unit then the tools/armor can be used effectively.

            The passages from Joshua and John ask – who are you going to serve?  In Ephesians we’re asked the next question – how are you going to serve?  The letter writer – let’s say Paul – tells the people I’m in the thick of things.  I’m in battle – spiritual battle – but he’s not alone.  He may be an “ambassador in chains for the sake of the gospel,” but their prayers gave him confidence.  He knew he wasn’t alone, even if he was in prison.  With that confidence that’s rooted in these prayers, he knows that when the time comes he’ll have the confidence to say what needs to be said.

            So, if you gotta serve someone – who are you going to serve?  And how will you serve?  

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Color of Christ -- A Review

THE COLOR OF CHRIST: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.  By Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey.   Chapel Hill:  The University of North Carolina Press,  2012.  325 pages.

       A young African American boy – he might have been twelve years old – came to the microphone and asked the panel of religious leaders gathered to address issues provoked by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and askedWhy is Jesus always pictured as being white?  The venerable and to many saintly Catholic priest took the microphone and intoned – “Why, because he was Jewish.”  Is that really the reason?  Or is there more to it than this?  Could it be that there is a link between our vision of Jesus and a sense of cultural and even racial superiority?  I should add that the Imam responded that in the Qur’an Jesus is said to have brown skin – sort of like a Palestinian. 

Why do so many of us think of Jesus being white?  Could it be that through centuries of images we have bought into a view of Jesus’ body that fits our own cultural needs?  And if so, what are the implications of visualizing Jesus in this way? 

            On the cover of The Color of Christ by Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey you’ll find the striking image of a young African American boy, maybe twelve years old, sitting on what is supposed to be a throne.  He’s even wearing a paper crown. But above this young boy is a picture of the famed Sallman’s “Head of Jesus surrounded by banners reading: “Christ, Lord of All.” The question raised by the authors of this book concerns the way in which our perceptions of Jesus help form socio-cultural identities.  This is a topic that the two authors, Blum and Harvey, are well equipped to handle.  Both are historians who have devoted considerable attention to the role of religion and race in America.  Blum is Assistant Professor of History at San Diego State University, with a research focus on race in America. He’s also the author of the  W.E.B. Du Bois, American Prophet (2007).  Harvey is Professor of History at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and focuses on race and religion in the American South.

So, why is it that Jesus, who was a Palestinian Jew, always seems to look like a northern European?  For its part, the New Testament says nothing about Jesus’ appearance, but that hasn’t stopped us from creating images of Jesus, and the most common image of Jesus is one that looks a lot like the one appearing in Warner Sallman’s “Head of Jesus.”  He’s white, with shoulder length light brown hair, possibly blue eyes though they could be brown, and of course a nicely trimmed beard.  It’s a portrait that has deep roots in European Catholic iconography, but has also been a point of contention over time – in large part due to questions of identity and power.

 Being that the authors are historians, they examine their topic chronologically, beginning with the coming of Jesus to the Americas and then taking us on a journey from those earliest encounters with Jesus in the Americas to the present. In the course of this powerful and thought-provoking study of race and religion in America, we encounter a white Jesus who became the conflicted icon of white supremacy.  They write in their introduction:
At the center of this book is the story of white Jesus figures made, embraced, challenged, and reformed over the last five centuries; how he arose to become a conflicted icon of white supremacy; how he changed appearances subtly with shifting perceptions of who was considered genuinely white; and how he was able to endure all types of challenges to remain the dominant image of God’s human form in the nation and throughout the world. (p. 7). 
The authors’ thesis is that there is a connection between racial and religious power and that this is symbolized through the descriptions and images of Jesus. 

            This is a long and complicated story that involves relationships of power, wherein white Europeans and European Americans sought to maintain supremacy over Native Americans and African Americans, by portraying Jesus as like them (us).  The book is divided into three parts – Born Across the Sea (taking the story into the early years of the American Republic); Crucified and Resurrected (from the contested ante-bellum period through the bloodiness of the Civil War with an aptly titled chapter, “Christ in the Camps,” and on into the early twentieth century when Nordic and Nativist sentiment drove the new American imperialism; then in Part III the authors take us through the contested years of the twentieth century and on to the present.  In this last section they address the challenges of the Civil Rights era to our traditional visions of Jesus.  Then in an Epilogue entitled “Jesus Jokes” they take us into current conversations that can be less than reverent but which represent for us the challenges of understanding the role Jesus plays in our culture.

With images of Jesus being so prominent today, it might surprise some that in a Puritan dominated Colonial America there were few pictures of Jesus present. This was an expression of Protestant iconoclasm that rejected Catholic images and pictures, and so if Jesus was pictured it was as light rather than as white. Images of Jesus were, however, present in some cases as with French and Spanish engagements with Native Americans, and for many Native Americans it wasn’t whiteness that stood out but the bloody realities of the cross that represented to them their own suffering.  By the time that the new nation moved into the nineteenth century, with questions being raised about what makes for a citizen (whiteness), the visage of Jesus begins to make itself felt.  Pictures began to emerge, some of which took their cue from a fraudulent letter supposedly written by Publius Lentulus, governor of Judea, that described Jesus as white, with long brown hair and a beard – much like the pictures of Jesus that we all know and perhaps even love.  That this letter had long been considered fraudulent didn’t stop it from being of use, especially in efforts to claim Jesus in support of white, European supremacy in the new nation.

The authors mix into the story attempts to portray Jesus as white along with the challenges from Native American and African American communities.  While the picture of Jesus being white cemented a sense of culture superiority among white Americans, for Native Americans and African Americans, both of whom experienced oppression on the part of whites pointed to the hypocrisy of white embrace of a Jesus who was suffered and died at the hands of persons of power.  It was and is a battle to control a sense of identity, and Jesus has often become the focal point of a community’s identity.  Thus, during the ante-bellum period, Jesus comes to be seen as an abolitionist hero in the north, while during the Civil War the South embraced Jesus first as a warrior leading the troops into battle and then as one, ironically, who suffers as they suffered ignominy of defeat.  But then here and there Jesus emerges again as the hero of white supremacy, with the Ku Klux Klan embracing him and then in the twentieth century as American imperialism comes to the fore we find Jesus pictured as muscular and powerful and even Nordic.  Yes, the Jewish Jesus takes on that Scandinavian look of the blue-eyed blond, an image that continues to make itself felt today. 

In the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement the use of Jesus as the hero of white supremacy has become much more muted.  In the tradition, you might say, of Martin Luther King, the color of the skin is less important than the content of the character.  Thus, there are few direct and overt references to Jesus’ whiteness.  Jesus is portrayed as having a universal, non-specific racial identity.  Everyone, whether red or black, white or yellow, their all God’s children, and yet the images continue to portray Jesus as that white male with long brown hair, beard, and sometimes even with blue eyes.  The authors ask us to consider whether or not the images themselves continue to reinforce this idea that not only is Jesus white but that whiteness must be akin to godliness.  Of course, that image continues to be contested, either by portraying Jesus as a Native American, Asian, Black, or by turning the image on its head, reminding us of the hypocrisy of using Jesus in an imperialistic and supremacist fashion. For instance, Langston Hughes wrote a piece in 1931 entitled “Christ in Alabama” that declared that Christ was “a nigger, /eaten and black.”  His mother was a “Mammy of the South,” while his father was the “White Master above,” making Jesus the “Most holy bastard/ Of the bleeding mouth:  Nigger Christ/ On the cross of the South.”  The words may take some aback, but they are reminders of the contested nature of our vision of Jesus.

Window at 16th Street Baptist Church
 Birmingham, Alabama
 The book is extremely powerful because it raises to the fore questions that we tend not to wrestle with. In our day questions of race and power are suppressed, especially when the President of the United States happens to be Black.  We wonder is the opposition to him rooted in racist sentiment.  Are the questions about his religious background and connections with Jeremiah Wright, an adherent of James Cone’s Black theology, remnants of this debate over how we image Jesus?  It’s interesting that those who oppose affirmative action like to point to Martin Luther King’s “dream” of a day when people will be judged by character not color.  And so the idea of a Jesus who transcends race is popular, but is this because it allows us to keep our image of a white Jesus in place while atoning for our sense of white guilt?  Ultimately, when we think of Jesus, what image comes to mind and how does that image help form our own sense of identity?  We may try to update our picture of Jesus, perhaps making him look less feminine and manlier, but in almost all portrayals, including the film versions, he remains white.

Returning to that opening question – “why is Jesus always pictured as white?”  The answer can’t be – because he’s Jewish.  There is, as the authors demonstrate so clearly a much more complex answer to the question and the answers may not be to our liking.  Perhaps, as the authors suggest, after centuries of attempting to resolve the relationship between racial tensions and our vision of Jesus, we’ve turned to jokes.  They write that “Laughter at the Lord was a sign not of less faith in God but of dwindling trust that the people could right the nation’s social wrongs – with or without Christ’s aid” (p. 265).  Our vision of Jesus will remain, Blum and Harvey suggest, “white for most Americans, because that Christ is but a symbol and symptom of racial power yet to be put fully to death.  But because of the nation’s racial and religious histories, Jesus will continue to be a complicated savior made and remade in red, white, and black” (p. 277).

We are indebted to Blum and Harvey for their effort to unearth and reveal this picture of American encounters with the image of Jesus.  It’s appropriate that the book, which focuses its attention on our images of Jesus, is fully illustrated with twenty pictures. 

This is an extremely powerful book that will not only inform but probably make the reader, especially if that reader happens to be white, just a bit uncomfortable.  I will opine that this is a must read, but even more than this, the subject of this book that must be wrestled with if we’re to find any sense of true community in this nation, and I know of no better place to start than with this book.  Our hope of finding reconciliation, especially as Christians, would seem to require that recognize that the way we envision Jesus may not be as true to his own identity as it is true to our own, and that has important implications for our relationships with one another.