Assumptions

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Hit play first. Then read.

The news cycle this week has been nuts. From the militarized police action and racialization in Ferguson to evangelical media theologian Vicky Beeching coming out as gay, from the mixed-up reports about the Islamic State to the unresolved crisis in Gaza, these ‘wars and rumors of wars’ have rung with apocalyptic tones.

The problem with even having a conversation about these things is that they are layered with assumptions.

My friend Sam Rocha over at Patheos Catholic has experienced this layering in quite a visceral way this week. After posting a rebuttal to conservative Catholics who accuse the Muslim ummah of not speaking out about the Islamic State, Rocha found himself in the midst of a maelstrom of misunderstanding. He had ended his post with a call to Patheos’s Muslim channel to cover the Islamic State news more, precisely as a way to disengage the channel from the atrocities in Iraq and beyond:

My question to my Abrahamic brothers and sisters at the Patheos Muslim channel is, why are you not reporting on — and joining  — the predominant voices of your religious community (and your channel editor)?

Rocha found himself quickly rearticulated by some on his channel who saw this as their opportunity to insinuate that the Muslim channel had insidious ulterior motives for their silence. Thankfully, there were those on the Muslim channel who responded graciously and informatively. But in all of these testy exchanges, Rocha’s conciliatory attempt to invite both the Catholic and Muslim channels to a conversation were rearticulated through the assumption that a question like the one Rocha posed needs to be interpreted through the lens of a holy war that had to be de-escalated. This is far from the case, of course — Rocha calls the Muslim channel his ‘Abrahamic brothers and sisters’ and promises to practice more fully what Pope Francis calls a ‘culture of encounter.’ But it was difficult to be heard. That was because Rocha was speaking into fora layered with assumptions.

Or take the example of Vicky Beeching coming out. The Independent‘s report on the matter confirms that the trusted sources who knew about her sexuality were Katherine Welby, her father Justin Cantuar, and her parents, some of whom have different theological understandings of the sexuality debates than her strong, earlier-acknowledged stance on LGBT theology. In an interview with Channel 4 News, though, Beeching’s story was paired with longtime anti-gay activist Scott Lively, who dragged her over the coals for living a ‘lie’ that denied the ‘biblical’ teaching on sexuality in Genesis. When Beeching clarified that there were multiple possible readings of the biblical text — a point that even St. Augustine acknowledges in De Doctrina Christiana – Lively spoke over her to charge that she was not giving him the chance to speak and express his ‘biblical’ view. But therein lay the dilemma. He had been speaking, expressing, articulating, and when Beeching asked to deconstruct some of his assumptions about being ‘biblical’ — especially because she had studied the Bible and tradition at a graduate level — he wouldn’t hear it. His assumptions led to a train of accusations that here was a major Christian leader who had now fallen.

Or take the convoluted stories we are now hearing about both Ferguson and Gaza, which are apparently linked because the militarization of the police in Ferguson took direct cues from the Israeli Defence Forces. What is even more confusing now, though, is that for all of the talk of Ferguson appearing like a war zone, the death of Michael Brown was passed off today as a botched attempt to arrest him for a convenience store strong-arm robbery, only now to have to backtrack on that when the public learned that the robbery was not connected to the actual reason Brown was stopped, which is apparently now jaywalking. These twists and turns also reflect the confusion around the Gaza story — who kidnapped whom? who shot first? how many civilians are dying? who’s really committing atrocities? The result is that the public is left to our own assumptions about what is actually happening, which means that what is really being allowed to control these stories is not what is actually happening — it’s one’s own knowledge of good and evil on race, militarization, Israel/Palestine, and the police state.

All of this arrives at the doorstep of the church catholic today on the Feast of the Assumption of Mary. I’m sure that jokes could be made about this Protestant author talking about how Catholics assume that Mary was assumed into heaven.

But to simply stop at that corny punchline would be to miss the point.

The Assumption matters, even for Protestants. If indeed Mary has been assumed ahead of the pilgrim church into her full risen life, then the apparitions that she has made — and that Protestants doubt actually happened — take on much more powerful significance, for it would mean that the Blessed Virgin is living out her risen life by preaching to a world wracked by the conflict around its ideological assumptions — its continual eating in the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, as Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say — instead of dealing with the concrete historical and ethnographic realities before us.

In this sense, Mary remains a political figure in modernity. From race relations at Guadalupe to her protest against secularization at Lourdes to her interpretation of twentieth-century geopolitcs at Fatima — among her other apparitions — Mary says to us that when we allow ideological fictions to rewrite history and rearticulate reality, we are not encountering each other as human persons. We may encounter each other as racial projects, states of exception, theological heretics, and agents of the police state, but to do that is to reduce the human person to a set of disembodied ideas. No, Mary says. I am here. I have physically appeared to you. I am the Lady who is speaking to you. She will not let us exist as ideas. Her Assumption forces us to encounter each other as bodily persons. This is what the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, means when he calls on us to a graciousness in ‘deep disagreement’ where one assumes the best about one’s ideological opponents, precisely what he has shown toward Vicky Beeching in her journey. As a practitioner of Catholic social teaching, Welby knows that he is channeling Paul VI’s ‘civilization of love‘ from his 1970 Regina Coeli speech. And thus he would have no problem with me, a Chinglican, saying that the Assumption of Mary is the krisis of our assumptions.

Hail, star of the sea,
Nurturing Mother of God,
And ever Virgin
Happy gate of heaven.

Receiving that ‘Ave’
From the mouth of Gabriel
Establish us in peace,
Transforming the name of ‘Eve.’

Loosen the chains of the guilty,
Send forth light to the blind
Our evil do thou dispel,
Entreat for us all good things.

Show thyself to be a Mother:
Through thee may he receive prayer
Who, being born for us,
Undertook to be thine own.

O unique Virgin,
Meek above all others,
Make us, set free from our sins
Meek and chaste.

Bestow a pure life,
Prepare a safe way:
That seeing Jesus,
We may ever rejoice.

Praise be to God the Father,
To the Most High Christ be glory
To the Holy Spirit
Be honour, to the Three equally. Amen.

For Those Who Don’t Get It: The Poor in Spirit and the Complex Burden of a Personal Relationship With Christ

I have been thinking a lot lately about Christ’s assertion, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” perhaps because I see it as one of the only ways the gospel can in fact be good news for those with mental illness. Let me explain. Growing up in Evangelical circles, the emphasis was on a relationship with Christ. The primary problem was that this emphasis didn’t allow for any of the complexities of real relationships. For instance, telling someone to sit and talk to God like one would talk to someone over coffee is just fine I suppose if one is a normal, tolerably-well, middle-class kind of persons. But think about going into a psychiatric ward. What does it mean to tell someone to relate to Christ “as one would normally relate” then? What does that look like? It probably doesn’t look like coffee with healthy white middle class people. Now, let’s get a bit more complicated. Imagine one is not in the psych ward and is better at hiding such problems. Still, such a person is left out in the cold by particular normative expectations. If one has certain forms of social anxiety, the prospect of coffee with anyone – even or perhaps especially Christ – might be terrifying. And yes, when people ask someone like me, who has left Evangelical circles for more liturgical ones, whether liturgy is not a little artificial – would I relate to another person like that? – I reply that yes, yes I would.

Why? Because the Evangelical understanding of the gospel is too often summed up in a rather simplistic assumption that being a Christian means being oneself with Christ. It means letting Christ in to see the real you rather than the trappings that you show to others. It means an opening of one’s interior, one’s heart, and the experience of Christ in that act of opening. And it is a completely dead letter for those with mental illness because it depends on a stable understanding of the self that healthy, middle-class white people can take for granted. Those still hoping that someone will eventually get to know their “real” selves are really, often unwittingly, inheritors of a certain kind of privilege. Because for those with mental illness, there is such extreme confusion over that self – whether it exists and what that real self might even look like – that a gospel preaching a deep connection of real selves, between God and the person, can only sound like despair. Are my feelings really me? What about when there is a deadly bio-cocktail coursing through my veins and making me wish I could kill myself? Are my actions me? How about my thoughts? Such questions reveal the problem: when someone tells one to be comfortable and be oneself, that person usually means letting go of a certain order of operations and “letting out” whatever is inside. But what about the cases where those things that are inside are in fact insanities, and what if the “order of operations” is the only thing that keeps one in a civil relationship with society? It never feels right, and there is always emotional disconnection because it is a matter of living in two worlds. There is the world in one’s head, which unleashed would lead one who knows where. And there is the world outside. Navigating the outside means the person with mental illness is always going to feel like an actor playing a part in a world not his own. “Letting it all out” here is of course not the answer – it is hard to know what that would even look like. Which part of my madness do you want me to let out, and is that part also part of me? What exactly is the “me” you want me to be when you tell me to be myself? What is myself?

And so you can see how my liturgical relationship with Christ is indeed very much like my relationship with other people. My “normal interactions” – like the liturgy I step into every Sunday – are often alien formalities that I step into, not because I feel comfortable in them, but because I hope. I hope that, at the end of the day, there is such a thing as love, and friendship, and joy, and I demonstrate my hope by stepping into the forms these things seem to take in the lives around me. And though sometimes I glimpse them, much of this is an act of faith, ignoring the disproportionate chaos of emotions and thoughts swirling in my head. Many are the times I cannot feel love, or friendship, or joy – but that must not keep me from loving, being a friend, or stepping into the formal enactment of joy, even when it is hard. Even so, many are the times I do not feel saintly – but that must not keep me from attempting to imitate the formal postures of saint.

I realize that readers who have a warm and fuzzy view of what persons are and what personal relationships look like may have trouble with this perspective, but I would, at the very least, ask them to consider Christ’s words about the poor in spirit, because I would like to hope it is us he is talking about. I would like to hope that he is looking around, seeing those who have vibrant, intense, and normative relationships with God, and saying: blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who don’t experience, who don’t get it, who can’t relate, to whom a relationship with God comes neither easily nor naturally. Blessed are those who are frustrated, whose inner life doesn’t match their outer life, and who are not even sure where or what that life – that self – is. Blessed are they, because the wind of the Spirit has carved out hollow caves in their hearts – empty spaces that will serve as refuges and shelters to others who are spiritually homeless. Blessed are they because they more than others have had the thing they thought was their “self” blown to bits – they have seen the kingdom of heaven, that their “self” is not here, but hidden with Christ in God.

Supposing Him to Be the Gardener: How the Church Tills the Soil of Our Hearts

I write this not out of a place triumph or a place of happiness – I wish that were true – but out of a place of loneliness, confusion about my vocation, and a general feeling of having failed as a human being. I add this preface, not because it is completely relevant to what I am going to say, but perhaps to give it some context in case it sounds otherwise too unrealistic or idealistic. One of the curses of being a Christian is that knowing and seeing the truth – yes, even teaching the truth and writing about it – is not always a guarantee of feeling it, and maybe it is even sometimes imperative that we don’t feel it, so that others might know that being in love with truth can also be a matter of darkness – that they too, feeble and blank though they feel, might also know they are capable of loving and being loved, and that darkness is not synonymous with absence.

Moving on to the main topic, what I want to write about today is the reading from the Gospel on Sunday, the famous parable of the sower. For a good part of my life, this always seemed like a terrifying reading. God’s word comes to us like seed spread by the sower, but the seed faces so many perils – hard ground, weeds, predators. It always terrified me because there didn’t seem to be a point – God sends his word to us, and you are I suppose lucky if your heart exists in that perfect storm of conditions that produce thirty, sixty, and a hundred-fold, but you are more likely to be one of the others with weeds, predators, and a hardened heart, or a combination of all three. From my former Protestant perspective, this was all the more terrifying because it cut one off from the one thing that was supposed to be able to change a person. The Bible, so the typical Evangelical/Protestant mentality goes, is the primary way God gets into and changes our hearts. So this was a terrifying conundrum without a solution. What was needed to deal with the hardened heart, the distractions, and the ravaging beasts was the power of God’s Word – what else could free us? And yet here we see the Word itself prone to these powers – it cannot free us because it is being eaten by the birds, killed and scorched by the sun and hardness of the soil, and choked. So we have a problem; change – salvation – comes from hearing the Word of God. Yet, in order to hear the Word of God, these problems need to be out of the way – and the Word of God, subject as it is to these problems, seems powerless against them.

This past Sunday, though, the meaning struck me in a different and much more hopeful way. Christ is here not simply referring to individuals consigned to categorical and inexorable fates – here is a “hard person,” here is a distracted one, here is a receptive one, and lucky for you if you are the latter and too bad if you are the former. No, he is talking about the landscape of our hearts – and every landscape is different, and has various of these problems and blessings at various sites of the geography of the heart. When a farmer encounters problematic land in his field, he doesn’t just throw up his hands and give up; no, he removes the stones, sets up a scarecrow, and weeds the garden. And this set me to thinking – the point of this parable is neither to discern ourselves the perfect soil and gloat over it, nor to discern ourselves the problematic soil and despair. No, the real question is how we care for the soil. How do we till it? Keep the birds away? Make sure it is not scorched by the sun? Get rid of the weeds? But the problem I always came across as a Protestant was that the only way to do these things was engagement with the Bible. But at the same time, one could not effectively hear the Bible till these things were done. So I ended up in a cycle of despair.

I will not say I am less despairing at the moment – it will be a lifelong struggle and temptation for me – but I will say that what suddenly made sense for me, when I heard this passage in the Catholic context, is the Church; the Church is God’s instrument for tending to the soil in which he throws the seed. It will be too complicated at the moment to get into any kind of deep ecclesiology here, but perhaps I can best convey what I mean with a few examples. We have the sacrament of reconciliation to till the soil of our hearts, to keep us from becoming hard; we have the nutrience of the Eucharist to enrich our hearts, watered with water and blood from His side; we find shade in the shadow of the psalms we pray, and practices of prayer – whether something as simple and childlike as the rosary or something as complicated as the hours – are effective in driving off the birds and supplanting weeds that might otherwise grow up. This – finding methods of prayer that I can actually do – has been so important for me. Rather than looking at what to avoid, as is my Protestant proclivity, daily prayer – humble, with modest aims, and even seemingly silly at times – does for me what the roaring flash of zealous Evangelical prayer could never do. It takes me through my life with God, for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health. But it is a small thing. Always a small thing. The small prayers that we pray often are so much more blessed than the long and elaborate ones – or, for that matter, the intensely personal Evangelical ones – that we barely ever have the energy to pray. Our garden – the garden of the Song of Songs – is tended by small things. It is tended in those little things between two lovers – the glances, the jokes, the indescribable graces, yes, even sometimes a childlike theatricality – that are the glue of real relationships, and that we will never achieve in our more earnest prayers. O You Who dwell in the gardens, my companions are listening for Your voice; let me hear it. Make haste, my Beloved, 
and be like a gazelle
 or a young stag
 upon the mountains of spices.

Chinglicans in Communion: in defence of Occupy Central with Love and Peace

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It has come to my attention that I need to respond to Archbishop Paul Kwong’s recent comments opposing the mass democratic movement in Hong Kong known as Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP) in a confirmation homily during St. Paul’s Church’s Theological Education Sunday. I am fully aware that by doing so, Kwong will say of me, ‘Whenever people see me or other church leaders, they will say, “We must speak up! Speak up at all times, on everything, understand? It is a must to fight.” For what do people have to speak up so much? [It appears] as if they wouldn’t have another chance, as if they were dumb otherwise.’

I suppose that ups the ante for my response.

For those who need to be caught up, OCLP is a non-violent movement that is attempting to bring deliberative democracy to Hong Kong. Tired of the Beijing central government’s repeated delays of universal suffrage for the election of the Special Administrative Region’s ‘Chief Executive,’ constitutional legal scholar Benny Tai, sociologist Chan Kin-man, and retired pastor Rev. Chu Yiuming have organized since January 2013 a series of events to have Hong Kong citizens deliberate over how they want to have elections, a constitutional guarantee in Article 45 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law. These events are known as ‘Deliberation Days,’ bringing together citizens from various aspects of civil society to put forward proposals for how candidates should be nominated and elected. These proposals were in turn put to vote recently on 22 to 29 June in an informal civil referendum. The idea is that the government — both Hong Kong’s government and the Beijing central government — should heed the voice of the people. If they do not heed the people, the idea of OCLP is to physically occupy the Central business district with acts of civil disobedience, forcing the government to hear the people. On 1 July 2014, some half million Hongkongers indeed hit the streets in protest that Beijing seems to be exerting a newfound authoritarianism over Hong Kong. Afterward, some 511 people occupied Central’s Chater Road in a rehearsal should OCLP have to happen; all were arrested, and the five organizers of the 7/1 Demonstration from the Civil Human Rights Front were detained the next day as well.

Archbishop Kwong has publicly opposed OCLP. Hong Kong’s left-leaning newspaper, Apple Daily, reports that Kwong has mocked the 7/1 Demonstrators and opposed OCLP because, simply put, it’s not what Jesus would do. The South China Morning Post attributes the change not so much to Christ, but to the fact that Kwong is currently a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a gathering that advises the Chinese central government on policy issues.

As the Primate of Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui, that is, the Anglican Province of Hong Kong, Kwong certainly has a lot of power. That I am an Anglican as well seeking to abide by the three goals of the Archbishop of Canterbury — to be involved in the renewal of the church through the renewal of prayer and praying communities, to be an agent of reconciliation, and to be a practitioner of evangelism and witness — places the onus on me to respect Archbishop Kwong as one of the 38 primates who demonstrate (albeit very imperfectly, as the Anglican realignment will readily show) the visible unity of the Anglican Communion. My comments are, as all my comments are of many of the Christian leaders with whom I have found myself in disagreement, meant to be respectful. As Justin Cantuar is teaching me, it means that ‘we must find ways to disagree agreeably.’

I hope that this does not make me a ‘river crab.’ For those who aren’t in the know, the term ‘river crab’ is a play on the word ‘harmonious society,’ an ideology propagated by the Beijing central government to form a peaceful China with minimal conflict as a space conducive to business transactions. Because this ideology tends to stifle dissent and democratic deliberation, this ‘harmonious society’ is often mocked by pro-democratic activists as anti-democratic, and the agents of collaboration are designated derogatorily as ‘river crabs.’ Although I recognize my communion with Archbishop Kwong and others who agree with him, such as his provincial secretary Rev. Peter Koon, what I have to say should position me as far from being a river crab, not least because I ultimately disagree with Kwong on the question of Occupy Central.

One has to take seriously the genre in which Kwong made his remarks. This was a confirmation homily given on a Sunday in a parish celebrating what it called ‘Theological Education Sunday.’ In this way, Kwong is doing theology, trying to educate those whom he just confirmed as to how they should live their Christian lives in the current Hong Kong situation.

Let me first, then, give a more lengthy summary of Kwong’s fuller homiletical remarks:

Kwong’s theological understanding of confirmation is that those who have given their lives to faith in Jesus Christ have in fact been chosen by God, not the other way around. For Kwong, this is a clear contrast to the recent assertions of political agency in Hong Kong, with 7/1 Demonstrators and OCLP participants demanding that they be able to choose. Such an emphasis on choice, Kwong argues, is inimical to an understanding of Christian life because, as he argues, individual, autonomous choice does not articulate the truth of our existence — which is that what we have is chosen for us by virtue of our non-individualistic existence in community. ‘See the church that we are in how beautiful it is?’ Kwong illustrates. ‘This is a gift from God above.’ Scaling out from St. Paul’s parish, he argues that the parish building is only possible because of the offerings of parish members, and those parish members are part of a church in the Province of Hong Kong, and the Province of Hong Kong is part of an 8,000,000-strong Anglican Communion around the world.

Driving the point always back to Hong Kong’s ‘chaotic’ political situation, Kwong then emphasizes that to be a ‘Christian’ is to be a follower of Jesus Christ, which means that one must consider how Jesus Christ would himself respond to Hong Kong’s political situation. He jokes that while many people ask, ‘Archbishop, how should Christians respond to this current situation?’ he feels that if he knew the answer, maybe he should be the Chief Executive! But because he does not know all the answers out of this complicated scenario, he keeps on asking that Jesus give him the wisdom to do something for this city of Hong Kong. In other words, as he says to the recently confirmed, Christians are not to think that by receiving confirmation, all problems will be solved, again contrasting this mentality with what he determines to be the simplistic theory that universal suffrage in Hong Kong will in turn solve all the food and housing shortages in the city. It’s not simple, he says, and it’s exacerbated by what he sees as the political polarization of Hong Kong, for when (as he says) he speaks one word in favour of China, he’s declared to be a river crab, but if one word critical, then he’s dipped his hand into politics.

Here, he returns to the lectionary with St. Paul’s struggle between two opposing laws of the flesh and the spirit in Romans 7. How do Christians deal with the challenges and difficulties of life? Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory in Jesus Christ. ‘How would Jesus think?’ Kwong asks. ‘If I were Jesus, what would he do?’

Turning to the Gospel, he emphasizes Jesus’ words to the disciples in Matthew 11: ‘Take my yoke and learn from me, for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ ‘I do not think,’ Kwong declares, ‘that Jesus would be like certain legislators in the Legislative Council always throwing things [in reference to fellow Christian, Wong Yuk Man, a pro-democratic legislator, physically throwing bananas, papers, and a glass cup recently in chambers]. I do not think that Jesus would be like certain demonstrators on the street using all sorts of vulgarities and obscenities on the government officials. I do not think that Jesus would use this sort of irrational violence to get his way.’ Kwong then makes fun of those who keep saying to him that he must make a response and that he must protest Beijing. ‘It’s like if I don’t speak I’m mute!’ he jokes. ‘But this isn’t the way it always has to be done. Look at Jesus before Pilate, as a sheep before its shearers is silent. Sometimes you don’t have to speak, but be silent. Sometimes saying nothing is saying something.’

Here’s the controversial part, then, the part where Kwong allegedly mocks pro-democratic activists for being ‘completely brainless.’ The larger context here is this: Kwong is saying that many of the recent activism is spurred on by people who lack inner peace. As Kwong puts it, the people who hit the streets tend to live in irrational fear, like one youth who was interviewed at the 7/1 Demonstration who said that he was seizing his last chance to demonstrate because he had believed the reports that Beijing would crack down and next year there would be no democracy. ‘If that’s really the case,’ Kwong quips, ‘I would have been out there with my staff and mitre too!’ Ditto another person he talked to who opposed the New Territories’ new towns on the grounds that all of the new houses would go to mainlanders — ‘Is every single house going to the mainland?’ Kwong mocks. ‘People have to buy those houses!’ Ditto another person who thought that Hong Kong was about to lose its autonomy, or indeed, the 511 occupiers at Chater Road who indeed thought that — Kwong asks rhetorically, to loud laughter from the congregation, since when Hong Kong has in fact been totally autonomous. The ‘brainlessness’ that Kwong attributes to these people is that they are themselves living in inner turmoil, which means that their brains are wired to listen to any fear-mongering without any critical reflection. This is, Kwong suggests, unbecoming of a people called to follow Jesus, whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light.

The solution to this is to learn from Jesus’ gentleness and lowliness. Without this gentleness and lowliness, Kwong says, comes the brainlessness that he critiques in current Hong Kong politics. But with gentleness and lowliness comes the ability to discern the real situation. With this identity given to us in confirmation, Kwong argues that the response to the current Hong Kong situation is to learn from Jesus, who is gentle and lowly. This is the Christian difference, he says: we Christians are different and do things differently because Christians have a completely different identity. Practicing that kind of Christianity, Kwong concludes, is how to have inner peace.

Kwong’s theology is certainly an Anglican one. By saying that, I am counting on Kwong to be completely wrong about the ‘brainlessness’ of the public sphere. Though I have affirmed my communion with Kwong and my recognition of his theological method as akin to mine, I have not yet given any indication of my critical assessment of Kwong’s remarks. That will come later in the post, and as I indicated earlier, my assessment is severely critical.

For now, we are still trying to understand why Kwong said what he said, and I am simply trying to understand him as someone who, like me, practices Anglican theology. For that, we must turn to his recently authored doctoral dissertation, Identity in Community: Toward a Theological Agenda for the Hong Kong SAR.

Identity in Community is Kwong’s attempt to bring the work of theologian Miroslav Volf, especially in his award-winning Exclusion and Embrace, into conversation with post-handover Hong Kong politics. As those who have read Volf will remember, Volf attempts to move beyond a theology of liberation to one that frames exclusion as the cardinal sin (especially in a 1990s context of ethnic cleansing) and embrace as the Christian practice that resists exclusion. For Kwong, Volf’s theology sheds light on Hong Kong because it provides a theological framework that can make for full reconciliation with churches in China, if not China itself, in the political turmoil of developing a distinctive political identity for Hong Kong.

Outlining a view of Hong Kong’s history as a British colony that transitioned into a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Kwong notes that there are different ways that Christian churches have approached Hong Kong’s political sphere. There have been, he notes, collaborators with the colonial regime; there have also been pro-democracy activists. As the handover was taking place and Basic Law was being drafted, there were a number of different approaches to the PRC. There are, for example, still democratic ‘social justice’ activists, even as there are those who prefer a path of ‘disengagement.’ The one he spends the most time on, though, are what he calls the pragmatists, partly because he agrees with them and implicitly wants to suss out an Anglican theology for them. Pragmatists, Kwong argues, are those who are happy to work with the new handover government and even the central government for the common good, even if those governments are themselves imperfect.

For all the talk about Joseph Cardinal Zen’s pro-democratic activities, Kwong traces the theological framework for the pragmatic approach to a 1989 Catholic pastoral letter given by Zen’s predecessor, Jean-Baptist Cardinal Wu. Titled ‘March Into the Bright Decade,’ Wu sets out ‘reconciliation’ as the primary task of Christians in Hong Kong, especially as the PRC gets ready to take over sovereignty. Applying the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, Wu exhorts the faithful to start with reconciliation in ‘small communities’ by studying the Word of God, gathering regularly, and being pluralistic — and then scaling up from those small communities toward the parish, then to the diocese, and then to the full catholicity of churches within the PRC. As Kwong observes in his analysis, the point here applies for Anglicans as well, for both Anglicans and Catholics share catholic union with churches located within the PRC. In order to bring about reconciliation with those churches where geopolitical divisions have rendered them asunder, Kwong reads ‘March Into the Bright Decade’ as advocating a pragmatic approach with the mainland.

Herein lies my disagreement with Kwong, at least in the outworking of his pragmatic theological framework. While many would automatically conclude from this reading that Kwong was a ‘river crab’ even before joining the CPPCC, I would contend that Occupy Central can be read as an application of Identity in Communion because of deliberative democracy. To be honest, when I first saw that Kwong had opposed OCLP, I could hardly believe my ears. After reading Identity in Community, I had been certain that Kwong had provided OCLP with the theological framework with which it was running!

After all, couldn’t one say that the actions of Benny Tai, Chan Kin-man, and the Rev. Chu Yiuming in bringing together citizens for deliberation a practice of Volf’s embrace, as it resists exclusion by bringing together disagreeing citizens to come up with a common good? With the small groups that mark the ‘Deliberation Days’ that are then scaled up into proposals to be voted on by the general public, couldn’t it be said that OCLP is in fact putting the subsidiarity of ‘March Into the Bright Decade’ into practice? With the openness of deliberation, have not the events of the last year placed democratic activists as agents of reconciliation? In other words, Occupy Central works by Kwong’s own theological formulation.

In fact, one could argue that Kwong’s homily fails by Kwong’s own theological framework. While ostensibly putting forth a Christian identity shaped by communion with other Christians, the most serious flaw is Kwong’s failure to engage with fellow Christians who disagree with him, sometimes not only pretending that they do not exist, but portraying the situation as if those who are pro-democratic cannot in turn be Christian. When Kwong suggests that the ‘throwing of many objects’ in Legislative Council was performed by non-Christians who lack an understanding of a Christian identity, is he not excluding Wong Yuk Man from his baptismal identity as well as excluding Wong’s pastor, Senlok Christian Church’s Rev. Timothy Lam Kwok Cheung, from his ordination? When he finds that pro-democratic activists are individualistic and fail to live out their identity in community, what is he saying about the leadership of the Rev. Chu Yiuming, whose public work in Chai Wan by fighting bus fare and public utility hikes and advocating for an Eastern Hospital has always been ‘for the people’? When he says that it’s ‘brainless people’ with no inner peace who join these democracy movements, what is he implying about Joseph Cardinal Zen’s hunger strikes and democratic activism? Kwong may be exhorting the newly confirmed to find their identity in community. The problem is that if indeed all who disagree with Kwong are not only ‘brainless,’ but lack a ‘Christian identity,’ then this community is marked by the very exclusion that Kwong purports to resist.

The implications of these questions are serious for Kwong’s interaction with the rest of the Anglican Communion. Imagine, for example, a Desmond Tutu — then Primate of South Africa — who was silent in the face of apartheid. Imagine if anti-segregation activists in the Episcopal Church who read Martin Luther King, Jr’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ from the altar of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral had kept their peace. Imagine if William Temple had never written his treatise Christianity and Social Order to advocate for the working class and their right to collective bargaining and guaranteed employment in the mid-twentieth century. By calling pro-democracy activists ‘non-Christian’ by virtue of their putative individualism and ‘brainless’ fear, is Kwong disregarding his identity in communion with these Anglicans?

I can see the rebuttal a mile away, by the way: but are things as dire in Hong Kong as to invoke the legacies of King, Tutu, and Temple?

The answer is yes.

In a jab against the 511 young protesters who were arrested on Chater Road, Kwong quips about their complaint that they were denied food and timely access to toilets, ‘Why didn’t they bring along their Filipino maids to the march?’ Here, Kwong has played right into Benny Tai’s hands. In a lecture on ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, Tai makes clear that one of the very reasons why OCLP advocates for universal suffrage is because if quite literally every person in Hong Kong had a vote, the very marginalized ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, including these Filipino maids, would be given political agency. In fact, as Tai himself well knows, Basic Law’s Article 24 has been twisted in such a way as to deny temporary foreign workers and children of Chinese mothers not registered in Hong Kong their basic human right to right of abode in Hong Kong, even if they have lived in the region for seven years. The Filipino maids should indeed have come, then, precisely because universal suffrage is stop the exclusion of the least of these and embrace them as part of the theological-political community in Hong Kong. This would, after all, been the way of King, Tutu, and Temple.

This, then, gets to the deep theological point of OCLP: when the Hong Kong government and central government is found to exclude the voice of the people from its deliberations, the people will resist those exclusions by non-violent civil disobedience in order to provoke an embrace. This people, as Tai has made clear, are not only the ethnic Chinese people of Hong Kong, but the entire diverse community that composes the whole Special Administrative Region. This is why when those acts of civil disobedience happen, they will also be acts of love and peace. They are, after all, acts of reconciliation.

Given this, it is not only strange that Kwong presents himself as such a ‘river crab.’ It is absolutely bizarre that he does not lend his staff and mitre as OCLP’s front leader.

On the Prayer Life of Job: Recovering Trust After a Cosmic Game of “Chicken”

For me, the real mystery of the book of Job – and one that still continues to puzzle me – is not the typical theodicy questions, the mechanics, so to speak, of how evil (acknowledged and not merely glossed) and a just, good, and all powerful God exist in the same universe. No, the question rather for me is how one relearns to pray after one realizes they do indeed exist in the same cosmos. What I am inquiring after is exactly what we don’t get at the end of Job – his prayer life after all the trauma.

What do I mean by this? I mean that, even after one shuts one’s mouth, stops complaining, and lets God be God, one still has to reckon with the fact that this God is not a principle, but a person. How exactly do you relate to a God who, the last time you prayed to Him, let all your children die in spite of daily prayers for them? Even if one has come to a place of theoretical trust, it does not always translate into instinct on the ground level of experience. One may be intellectually satisfied with God’s goodness – or at least satisfied that one is not qualified to sit as judge on His merits – and still by gut reaction shrink back when it comes to any kind of expectations or hopes. Our psyches are not as easily altered – or argued over and processed – as our more theoretical theologies.

This has in fact become a personal problem for me, because I am beginning to see that there are two problems one can fall into when dealing with evil and suffering and God. The first and perhaps most easily recognizable is the problem of Christians sweeping evil and suffering under the rug, of which I have written and thought extensively. But the second is one I was less aware of and more prone to, and am only now beginning to unlearn. This is the tendency to opt for a merely philosophical and stoic conception of God. I say merely because I do think there is certainly a good deal of overlap between these conceptions and the Christian conception of God; but I also think there is a good deal more to God than these conceptions suggest – as Christians, we call this “good deal more” the Trinity.

To clarify all this, what I am getting at is that, if one does come to a point of acknowledging evil and suffering, and also believes in God as defined by Christian orthodoxy, one is left with the dilemma of figuring out how to believe in that God. One can, I suppose, make God a direct agent in all the evil and suffering, so that He becomes little better than a fiend – this is the way some Calvinist theologies go. One can also limit His sovereignty in a way reminiscent of pantheism or those favoring a so-called “emerging,” or evolving New Age-y kind of God. There are I suppose other options, but to get to the point, one can also inadvertently do what I tend to do, that is, conceive of God as a principle, an unmoved-mover, exalted such that he cannot be expected to cater to every whim of petty humans. This is in part so attractive because it is a direct challenge to the narcissism and individualism of those theologies that conceive of God as they might conceive of a personal genie, and insofar as it does this, it is faithful to the Biblical mandate against idolatry. And yet, as I have been finding, going too far in this direction forgets something equally integral about the nature of God, and this is that we must trust Him, hope in Him, and love Him. When God becomes a principle – a mere assertion of what is – rather than a lover – there is a problem.

I suppose I have most realized this since starting to pray the liturgical hours as I am able, and thereby returning to liturgical prayer of the Psalms. Praying the Psalms are a sure recipe for emotional confusion. Sometimes one takes on the words of one expecting a lot from God. Sometimes it is the words of someone deeply disappointed by Him. At other times it is the words of someone angry, whether at God or fellow humans. The words are almost invariably never what we want them to be. Too naively expectant of blessing. Too violent. Too hopeful. Too despairing. Et cetera. Indeed, perhaps the only single unifying factor in the Psalms is stubbornness – whatever I experience, I am going to talk about it alongside God. This may mean shouting at Him at times. But what matters far more than the exactness of the words being said is the insistence with which they are said. The formula of the Psalms, where x represents any given emotional state on any given day, is, “My heart is x. And God.”

The problem of course with this, though, is that it is very difficult for one who defensively views God as a principle to pray like this. One doesn’t want to expect things of God – or hope for things – because it would be far easier not to be disappointed when those expectations are dashed. And yet the Psalms call our hearts to do this. It is still unclear to me how exactly this works and what specifically it looks like, but the Psalms teach our hearts to be suspended between fulfilled hopes and disappointed expectations in our relationship with God, and they are never suspended in quite the way we wish. When we are in despair, we are pulled upward, and when we forget reality, we are tempered. But we do not lose hope, or maybe, as in my case, we begin learning not to lose hope. Perhaps there is hope for Job’s prayer life after all.

Chinglican Christianity: Sanctorum Communio

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Roger Revell has hit the nail right on the head. There is nothing like full-bodied orthodox Christianity that elicits a rousing ‘Amen!’ from across the spectrum of those who are part of the diverse chorus of what St. Peter’s Fireside calls ‘classical Christianity.’

Revell’s brilliant response takes the wind right out of the sails of Douglas Todd’s suggestion that ‘conservative’ Christians are too heavenly minded for earthly good. Here’s Todd:

This might shock those who assume the main reason Christians become Christian, and embrace the Easter account of the resurrection of Jesus, is to be guaranteed a spot in heaven. But belief in heaven, or otherwise, is not a deal-breaker for entry into this camp. Some liberal Christians don’t think it is possible to have individual consciousness after death. That said, most liberal Christians appreciate how the story of Jesus’ resurrection exemplifies how “death is not the final word.” Even if they don’t believe Jesus physically rose from the grave, they buy into the metaphor. They accept Jesus’ followers had mystical visions of him after his death and that the love people show on earth lives on eternally after their body dies.

One might have expected that Revell’s ‘classically Christian’ answer would take us back to St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians where he castigates the Corinthian church for entertaining the idea that the bodily resurrection may not have happened. Certainly, within evangelical circles, a certain reading of this passage has yielded a cottage industry of apologetics (one thinks, for example, of Frank Morrison’s Who Moved the Stone?, Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict, and Lee Strobel’s Case for Christ) seeking to demonstrate from putatively incontrovertible evidence that Jesus in fact was raised bodily from the dead and that classically orthodox Christianity must be believed. For these people, ‘belief in heaven’ and the physical resurrection are indeed ‘deal-breakers,’ and a response from this camp would have dragged Todd through the coals for a seeming denial of the necessity of Jesus’ resurrection.

Not so Revell. Quite obviously influenced not only by N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope (which he cites), as well as Wright’s tome The Resurrection of the Son of God (which he is too modest to cite), Revell’s first argument is that Christians who are too heavenly minded for earthly good are in fact shirking their Christian obligation to be present and alive as, in the words of St. Irenaeus, ‘human beings fully alive’ and that ‘liberal Christians’ (say, Rob Bell) as well as their secular counterparts (say, Jean-Jacques Rousseau) are right to be disgusted at these freeloaders mooching off the rest of us who are working for the common good. As Revell explains, the only problem with applying this logic to all classically-oriented Christians is that that’s not how the logic classically works. Emphasizing that classically-oriented Christians are not completely agreed on what it means to share in the risen life (say, whether or not to venerate the saints who have fallen asleep but are still alive, or whether the Bible talks about only about life after death or a life after life after death), Revell suggests that one point of convergence is that, according to Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, the prize of eternal life is precisely what makes life in the present possible, exciting, and creative, making even prophetic statements in physical martyrdom (say, St. Perpetua or Dietrich Bonhoeffer) completely possible. Revell ends with a bang: life after life is not a ‘pleasant and fanciful idea’ but the path of full-bodied Christian discipleship.

Here, Revell is certainly influenced by orthodox theologian John Zizioulas’s Being as Communion. At the risk of oversimplification (I’m not going to deal with the whole hypostasis and ousios thing, for example, because it gave me a splitting headache), Zizioulas argues that human planes of existence can be divided between the ‘biological’ and the ‘ecclesial.’ At a basic ‘biological’ level of living, people tend to be concerned about their own survival, literally stayin’ alive (ah, ha, ha, ha, ha…sorry…). But what happens when one gets baptized is that one gets immersed into the risen life of Jesus Christ — one quite literally, and not just metaphorically, participates in the resurrection. Because the ‘death factor’ gets taken out of the equation, one’s existence is not merely biological and oriented toward survival; it is now ecclesial and eucharistic. In other words, one continues to participate in the risen life of Christ by sacramentally eating his flesh and drinking his blood. This doesn’t just happen at an individual level. It happens together with the whole church — the ekklesia — which makes one’s existence ecclesial, which means that one’s existence is not merely oriented toward biological survival, but toward communion with the other.

Drawing from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran theologian from a completely different theological tradition (and indeed, historical period!) from Zizioulas, this means that a Christian mode of social relations is marked by the sanctorum communio, the communion of saints. Indeed, Bonhoeffer goes as far as to say that the church is Christ literally and actually made manifest in the world: ‘Now the objective spirit of the church really has become the Holy Spirit, the experience of the “religious” community now really is the experience of the church, and the collective person of the church now really is “Christ existing as church-community”‘ (Sanctorum Communio, p. 288). As Revell suggests, a Christian is cut out to be the best kind of citizen, ‘the type who forgoes personal interest and entitlement because in due course, she will exist in a place devoid of want and lack.’ That’s because a Christian’s primary locus of existence is in the church, which is not a private voluntary association, but a public display of a new mode of social relations marked by always being for the other and not for one’s own survival.

Which brings us to that scandalous thing that Revell talks about halfway through his post: the veneration of the saints. Except that it’s not very scandalous…

In fact, that Revell seems almost unfazed by the scandal that his mentioning of this practice might cause indicates how central the veneration of the saints is to putting the resurrection to work. After all, when in the Synoptic Gospels Jesus defends the resurrection over against the Sadducees’ denial of it, he does it by saying that the reference to the God of the burning bush as the ‘God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’ indicates that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are not dead but alive, for God is God of the living, not the dead. What this means is that saints like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their descendants as numerous as the sand on the seashore and the stars in the sky, are not only alive, but can quite literally continue to intervene in the present world. A ‘classical Christian’ view, embraced by Catholic and Orthodox Christians especially, takes this radically catholic view, that the communion of saints not only comprises the living and the dead in Christ, but that all are in fact still alive by virtue of their participation in Christ’s risen life. That Jesus himself shows that this can be a validly Christian practice from the beginnings of the Scriptural tradition suggests that while Protestants may have historically found this practice problematic (idolatry! one hears them cry), every Christian should in fact find this practice relatively uncontroversial.

The beauty of politics called ‘church,’ as theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it, is that not everyone has to agree with precisely how to articulate this sensibility. Indeed, Revell’s ‘classical Christianity’ makes room even for Todd’s liberal articulation of a spiritual resurrection, a rare feat in the currently polarized Christian theological landscape. If there is room in the Body for Protestants who cannot endorse the resurrection practice of venerating the saints, then there is certainly also room for those who may articulate the resurrection differently without actually denying its effects. After all, Todd does not deny the resurrection: even if some of Todd’s ‘liberal Christians’ do not believe in the resurrection, ‘they still buy into the metaphor’ and agree that ‘death is not the final word.’ While full-bodied ‘orthodox’ Christians might chafe at this, Revell is correct not to take Todd to task explicitly for this because he recognizes the reality that theology has never really only been about articulation — it’s about practice.

What Revell finally shows, then, is that ‘classical Christianity’ simply cannot be ideological. If indeed theology is about practice, then the comparisons between ‘classical’ and ‘liberal’ Christianity do not end with how Todd and St. Peter’s Fireside express their theology. What has happened over the course of our conversation, then, is that what started out as a debate between two polarized ends of the theological spectrum have been brought together by convergences in practice — the doing of justice, the doing of the contemplative life, the doing of confession, the doing of silent presence, the doing of the resurrection — have trumped whatever divisions we might have. As Pope Francis once declared, ‘ideological Christianity’ is a ‘disease.’ We must work together.

Now the theological discussion is at an end. We have come together more closely than we ever thought possible. We have discovered our unlikely affinities in the sanctorum communio. The liturgical formula from which we get the word ‘mass’ is Ite, missa est. After having partaken of the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood in a deep sharing in the risen life of the God who became human, the people are dismissed. Go forth in the name of Christ, the deacon sometimes says. Or, go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Or, go forth into the world rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Or, let us bless the Lord.

The people always respond: Thanks be to God.

Chinglican Christianity: Christ Our Brother

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I deeply appreciate how the conversation among Douglas Todd, the St. Peter’s Fireside staff, and I have been shaping each other’s discourse. As I said in yesterday’s post, these posts are not only for the theological entertainment of a niche group of readers. They are public deliberations, put on the public record, in a public sphere that has one of its major items of debate what the place and privilege of Christians is in our society. That we can model public theological conversation and debate is a joy that we should not take lightly. For all we know, it could reposition the monolithic image of a Christian Right nefariously trying to take over a secular public sphere into a diffuse kaleidoscope of moderate Christians working out in very public ways the ways that they disagree yet remain in loving communion.

It’s in that spirit that I want to remark on how remarkable Mike Chase must be as a pastor. The post that he has delivered as a response to Douglas Todd on how ‘classical Christians’ understand divine sovereignty and human suffering is classically pastoral in the sense as it provides guidance for the people of God in Jesus Christ to develop a fuller life participating in his life. Here’s what Todd said:

When bad things happen, atheists sometimes turn to Christians and rhetorically demand: “So where is your God now?” The question hinges on the incorrect assumption that progressive Christians believe God controls everything, like a supernatural dictator. Liberal Christians tend to believe life is a combination of chance and divine purpose. Given they have free will, humans can engage in moral evil, whether they’re Hitler, members of Boko Haram or wanton polluters. In a creativity-filled universe, chance also makes it possible for bad things to happen in nature, like a destructive avalanche. Liberal Christians believe that, out of suffering, God works to bring new order and healing.

What’s interesting about Todd’s account of liberal Christianity is that it has plenty of room for a ‘classical’ Christian understanding of divine sovereignty and human agency, as it should, particularly because ‘liberalism’ in one sense shouldn’t mean much more than the development of an overlapping consensus among disparate socio-theological imaginaries. Chase correctly sees his ‘in,’ pointing out that his view and Todd’s overlap quite a bit, both in an understanding of God’s sovereignty and human suffering. Disavowing the ‘Calvinism stricter than Calvin’ that plagues contemporary theological discourse among evangelicals in which some have emphasized divine sovereignty at the complete expense of human agency, Chase observes that a ‘classically Christian’ understanding of God’s relationship to the world has a lot of room for human response and responsibility (although I really wish that, as in the previous post on race, Chase would add a bit of a qualifier in his quote from St. Augustine about Jewish-Christian relations). While some may read Chase’s insistence that ‘God controls everything’ as a mere assertion without argument, it sounds to me like Chase is sufficiently aware of Yale theologian Kathryn Tanner’s God and Creation in Christian Theology because Chase chalks up the disconnection between divine sovereignty and human agency to a modern metaphysics. For Tanner — and thus, for Chase — there were different metaphysical rules governing the ‘classical’ conceptions of divine sovereignty, especially in the quotes Chase selects from St. Clement of Rome, and while a nominalist account of God’s sovereignty that argues that God can basically do whatever he wants has presented modern theologians with an ‘either/or’ of divine sovereignty or creaturely agency, the older Christian ‘grammar’ of God as a divine agent working in the world sees no need for this dichotomy.

In turn, Chase argues that this means that there is no need to engage in debates about God’s sovereignty when it comes to human suffering. Instead, a pastoral response would be that human suffering, like the example of St. John Paul II slowly deteriorating and showing the world how a Christian dies well, is a participation in the crucified suffering of Christ. In this way, classical Christians don’t engage in intellectual gymnastics when they encounter human suffering. They enter into the ‘suffering of the other and point them to Christ,’ suggesting that, plainly speaking, we’re all in this together.

Chase’s pastoral response reminds me of some time that I spent with some priests associated with the Congregation of Holy Cross. I had gone through a very difficult season of ministry — yes, before this academic thing and indeed, before even this Thing, I was discerning a call to pastoral ministry — and had gone to live with the priests to refuel. Much of it was spent with good food — candied kielbasa, slow-cooked chicken thighs, Sunday night pizza and movie — and great table conversation in which the priests often exchanged collegial jabs at each other to hilarious effect. One moment that I will never forget, though, was during one of the daily morning masses. The celebrating priest that morning had to preach from the Gospel passage where Jesus tells off the Sadducees for their hypothetical situation about the woman marrying seven brothers and being confused about her real husband at the resurrection. Going beyond criticizing the Temple establishment for not believing in the resurrection, this priest argued that the real problem was that they didn’t understand that God had come close to them and was living and working among them in powerful ways. He then ended the homily with a prayer to ‘Christ Our Brother.’

Christ Our Brother. I understood that theologically; after all, St. Paul has himself written of Christ as the firstborn of all who share in the risen life and of Christians as ‘co-heirs with Christ.’ But this priest actually believed it. I remember asking him about it later, and he just said matter-of-factly, ‘You know, I think a lot of Christians want to think of God as very distant from them. But I’m afraid that’s not Christianity. As a Christian, you don’t believe that God is distant. God is close to us, and we’re afraid of that.’

Years ago, this same priest had introduced me to the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar, and when he heard that I was still interested, he asked, ‘Have you read Mysterium Paschale? It’s Balthasar’s most accessible work.’

I’m sure that Mysterium Paschale is hyped up to be ‘accessible,’ but that book took me a whole year to read. That’s because von Balthasar completely messed with me. Most will talk about von Balthasar’s development of the ‘hiatus’ on Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter where God is really dead. But what struck me was a formulation in the first chapter where von Balthasar contextualizes his understanding of that pause with the kenosis, the self-emptying of God in Jesus Christ. For von Balthasar, God’s action in emptying himself in Jesus Christ is the supremely sovereign act that shows that divine sovereignty is fully expressed in being completely helpless as a human being who is completely obedient to the Father, freely accepting even death, death on a cross. To put it in all of its radical glory, God exercises his sovereignty by falling into the hiatus of Holy Saturday.

In this sense, there is really no need for Chase to separate the two parts of his post between the ‘theological’ and the ‘pastoral.’ If God’s expression of sovereignty is not that God can do whatever he wants (as the nominalists assert) but to love us so much as to fall into the abyss with us, then a ‘classically Christian’ theology is that Christ our brother suffers with us — that is simply who God is as a divine agent. In turn, it is an unclassical thing — indeed, a modern nominalist thing — to start with ‘God’ as an empty, characterless category with a terrifying, arbitrary sovereignty who can do whatever he wants and does nothing to stop the evil in the world, which means that it’s also an unclassically Christian thing to assume that God’s real job in exercising his sovereignty is to stop the evil in the world. No, in this sense, both Todd and Chase would affirm a suffering God, one who acts by coming close to us, even down to hell, to bring us back to life.

That’s why our resident expert on suffering here on A Christian Thing, Churl, writes so publicly about his mental illness and his recent conversion to Roman Catholicism. When I read Churl’s posts, the raw honesty always stuns me into silence. I suppose that’s the point. See, Churl is also a scholar who knows Job and Ecclesiastes like the back of his hand. When he is that honest in public, it’s like he’s putting up a finger, warning us that even ‘pointing to Christ’ cheapens his suffering. Don’t be Job’s comforters, he is saying, just don’t say anything. Or, in the words of James Wellman, a ‘liberal’ Christian who says too many ‘classically Christian’ things, ‘grief is underrated,‘ a feeling that he knows intimately in the wake of his wife’s death and his very public mourning over the loss of his ‘home’ with her. If God himself can fall into the silence of the abyss, we should, to take Ecclesiastes’s Qoholet out of context, let our words be few. If we really believe that God is near and that Jesus is present as a brother to the suffering, then there’s no need for us to say anything. The ‘classical Christian’ practice of the ‘theological’ and the ‘pastoral’ in the face of suffering may well be silence. After all, when Christ our brother is present but silent, what right have we speak?

And because that’s a perfect segue into the next post on death and the beyond, I’ll stop here and wait for Roger Revell’s response to Todd’s account of the resurrection.

Chinglican Christianity: Race and the Knowledge of Good and Evil

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The time has come. I wasn’t quite sure when we were going to talk about race and ‘classical Christianity’ in such a way as to upend the tacit assumption that ‘classical Christianity’ was the exclusive domain of white males. But Mike Chase has written quite the evangelical response to Douglas Todd on sin and hypocrisy, and I figure that this is as good a time as any to sketch some out some of the implications of what both Chase and Todd have written.

On the surface, neither Chase nor Todd have written anything to do with race. Todd’s bit is about psychology:

Jesus was a great psychologist. He had antennae for hypocrisy, especially among self-satisfied religious leaders. He challenged people who had a sense of moral superiority with admonitions about not “casting stones” and looking at the “log in one’s own eye.” Liberal Christians appreciate Jesus’ insight into the power of psychological projection, which leads judgmental people to fantasize others carry the bad traits they are denying in themselves. Jesus’ wisdom about hypocrisy relates today to self-righteous people who are quick to label others as “racist,” “competitive” or “greedy.”

As Todd would remind me, to use this snippet to talk about any kind of ‘unconscious racism‘ might be stretching the capabilities of this paragraph; indeed, in a quiet nod to South China Morning Post‘s Ian Young’s stories about ‘racism’ and Vancouver’s property market, his veiled reference to ‘self-righteous people who are quick to label others as “racist”‘ is directed to Young’s frighteningly competent investigative journalism into how wealthy condo developers use accusations of ‘racism’ in attempts to shut down discussion of offshore money in Vancouver’s property market. From the outset, I’ll write as a disclaimer that I am not calling anyone racist in this piece on the implications of what Todd has written for a conversation about race.

Ian Young in The Province

The same might be true of Chase’s post. On the surface, Chase’s response to Todd has nothing to do with race and everything to do with reinforcing a dialectic between humans and God. Much more than the other two on St. Peter’s Fireside’s staff (whose theologies seem to veer in more Catholic directions), Chase’s theological articulation seems to place a very (Protestant) differentiation between that which happens on a human plane and that which occurs on a divine axis. Within this theological framework, Chase reads those whom Jesus exposes as hypocrites as imputationally sinful in relation to God, that is, while a Jew identifying as a Pharisee (part of a first-century elite Torah-keeping sect) might not be personally an ‘extortioner, unjust, adulterer, and tax-collector,’ God might see him (to my knowledge, the sect wasn’t gender-inclusive — but I could be wrong!) as an extortioner, unjust, adulterer, and tax-collector on a different ‘frame of reference’ — a spiritual one in which the religious elite were taking advantage of the people of God and selling out to the powers that be. While such assertions might be an exegetical stretch in some places, the framework itself can be pieced together from parts of St. John’s Gospel and St. Paul’s letters, especially through a Calvinist reading in which the knowledge of God is the glorious light and mirror that exposes true human depravity. In other words, I may not agree with Chase’s exegesis in places, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t see where Chase is coming from. In turn, I’m very sure that Chase had no intention to write anything about race, and as a point of clarification, by writing about race in Chase’s theological framework, I am not calling Chase a racist — because he isn’t!

So if neither Todd nor Chase have written anything about race, then why write about race?

Easy. Because it’s hidden in plain sight.

When Todd and Chase write about Jesus’ exposure of the religious elite in first century Palestine, that establishment was Jewish. To be sure, I have read enough of philosopher Hannah Arendt to avoid the anachronistic stupidity of calling ‘the Jews’ a ‘race’ in first-century Palestine, especially when Arendt does such a brilliant analysis of how Jewishness became a ‘race’ in nineteenth-century Europe in The Origins of Totalitarianism (I am, of course, also keenly aware of Arendt’s contested status in Jewish studies because of her New Yorker articles, Eichmann in Jerusalem). But all things being equal with Arendt’s analysis, this doesn’t stop anyone from saying that the Jews and the Romans existed in — shall we say? — a colonial situation in first-century Palestine.

And that’s where a lot of the mess around anti-semitism in the modern West originated.

However one qualifies the notion that it was the religio-political establishment complex of first-century Palestine and not the Jews who killed Jesus (Benedict XVI is especially careful about this in his second installment in the Jesus of Nazareth series), the structuring power of the Roman occupation on the various political factions in first-century Palestine has to be taken into account. This is where my point about ‘race’ — or more properly, racialization, i.e. the process by which racial consciousness is formed — comes into play. As a diverse chorus of New Testament scholars observe, ‘Jewishness’ was a contested category in Jesus’ world, in large part because the Roman occupation produced a variety of political stances as to how the occupied people — the ‘Jews’ — should relate to this pagan empire. Should they cooperate with the occupation? Should they resist it? Should they resist violently? And how should they as a people be defined? Talk about psychology. Talk about the designs of the human heart. Yes, talk about it all because this context takes the framing outside of merely individual agency, personal corruption, and spiritual elitism to an entire colonial structure and its political fragmentation that structures personal agency.

By most accounts, that’s also the context in which Jesus was crucified. When Jesus proclaimed the ‘kingdom of God’ with the full implications of Hebrew Scripture, you could say that Jesus was wading into the political fray. As Todd and Chase would both affirm, one way to put it was that Jesus was killed because he exposed the powers that vied for political control over Palestine as just that: powers, often with a bent toward some kind of violence and exclusion. As each of the Gospel accounts detail in their own particular ways, these powers — including the Roman occupiers — while all in competition against each other — agree on one thing — kill that Galilean prophet. As St. Paul later writes in a letter to the Colossian church, this epic collusion to put Jesus on the cross unmasked the hidden violence of all of these powers, both colonizer and colonized.

And yet, as accounts of Jesus’ death were circulated through Jesus’ followers and as Jesus’ followers themselves refused to join in the increasingly hostile Jewish resistances against the Roman occupation, the fact that Jesus had himself waded into the Jewish debate as a Jewish rabbi became transformed into how Jesus had been killed by these people called ‘the Jews.’ As Christianity became the official Roman state religion, the category of ‘Christian’ became distinct from that of the ‘Jews’ — not that they had always been together, but Christianity was an inconvenient ‘Jewish sect’ because it was uncategorizable and thus unmanageable prior to Constantine — and as this happens, the ‘Jews’ become a problem. Where Christians were once the uncategorizable and unmanageable distinct people, this onus now fell to the Jews, who became victims of persecution often perpetrated by Christians in power. Fast-forwarding centuries and millennia of Jewish history, and this baggage adds up to the Jews becoming considered a distinct ‘race’ in Europe (see Arendt’s Origins for the brutal blow-by-blow details), leading fatefully to the events of anti-semitic fascist nation-building in Europe in which governments like Nazi Germany embarked on an increasingly violent campaign to exterminate the Jews.

I’m serious. You’ve got to read this book.

Given our post-Shoah context, that’s why it’s superlatively important to not carelessly use the word ‘Pharisee’ or ‘Sadducee’ as convenient ideal types for ‘religious elites’ — that’s because, given the baggage of Christian history, they’re racially charged. In fact, this is the current that runs through theologian J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A Theological Account. Although many have misread Jonathan Tran to say that Carter and his colleagues are proposing a ‘new black theology’ (while they are all African American, their work is more properly a ‘theology of race’ that transcends black experiences), Carter draws on Denise Kimber Buell’s work on ‘race’ in early Christianity. What happened, Carter and Buell both point out, is that the classical understanding of Jesus as embodied within a Jewish body fell victim to elitist heresies that proposed that secret spiritual practices could lead to the rise of a new, elite ‘race’ of humans. In other words, the rise of such race-thinking and anti-semitism is in fact an elitist betrayal of classical Christian teachings. For Carter, that kind of race-thinking that grew out of ancient heresies became planted in turn in modern European Christian consciousness, leading (as Carter’s colleague Willie Jennings outlines in The Christian Imagination) to the justification of the slave trade, the occupation of indigenous lands, and the orientalism-driven colonization of the ‘inferior’ races.

Read this book.

That brings us to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Whether one thinks his ‘religionless Christianity in a world come of age’ should be classified as ‘liberal’ (as Harvey Cox does) or ‘classical’ (as Stanley Hauerwas does), at the overlooked heart of Bonhoeffer’s theology is a brilliant analysis of ‘sin’ and ‘ethics’ that is classically rooted in the story of the Fall. From Sanctorum Communio to Creation and Fall to Discipleship to Life Together to Ethics to Letters and Papers from Prison, the beating heart of Bonhoeffer’s theology revolves around a meditation on the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. For Bonhoeffer, a Christian ethics that takes its beginning by defining what is good and evil has forgotten the real beginning, in which God exists in relation to his people and his people have a social life based on communion with the other. One of the concrete levels where Bonhoeffer saw this play out was in Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, where Bonhoeffer witnessed how American attempts to define the color line led to segregation and all kinds of economic injustices and psychological damage. In other words, the very structuring categories of race and their everyday effects are themselves evidence of the fact that the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil have been eaten. As theologian of race Brian Bantum argues, Bonhoeffer calls us back again to a classically Christian understanding of sin and discipleship, for ‘sin’ is simply having followed these invented definitions of good and evil while Christian discipleship is about returning to the beginning sociality based on relationality.

What I’m saying is that race is a window into understanding Jesus as both a psychologist and a physician for the human heart. That’s because there are the concrete political effects of sin — i.e. eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil by engaging in the politics of sovereign definition — are all on display. And as Todd and Chase would both agree, the church should examine her own hypocrisy and corruption. I’m just saying that when that examination takes place, this is likely a lot of what will be found. And when that church hears the voice of Jesus afresh, it will not simply be as a psychologist or a physician for the human heart, but as having spoken through the anti-racist prophets that the time has come, the kingdom of God is at hand, and that all things, including and especially the racializing structures of modernity, are about to be made new.

Having talked much about the rise of the state and tendencies toward political corruption, we look forward with great anticipation to an engagement with the question of whether governments are a force for good in the world.

Terrified

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It was Good Friday, and I was doing, for the first time really, the stations of the cross. This was my first time, not because as a Protestant I had had any major problems with it, and not even because I was not attracted to it, but simply because, as a Protestant, doing the stations of the cross would have involved making a fuss of the emergent or high-Anglican variety. Anglo-Catholicism was the closest I could get to Rome outside of Rome, but it always seemed to involve a certain kind of hyper-ostentation, distinguished as Anglo-Catholicism is by such loudness. It is thank God possible to be quietly and anonymously Catholic (in humility rather than shame), but, as an Anglo-Catholic, one needs to be very loud about how Catholic one is, perhaps with a shrillness designed to convince oneself of something about which one has doubts.

In any case, it was Good Friday, the day before my reception into the Church, and I was doing the stations of the cross with my RCIA group. I was kind of hoping to slide into the Church – quietly, and without much fuss – and I knew my relationship with God well enough to know that I needn’t expect anything of the mystical or experiential variety – my relationship with Him was and remains enough, and it was sufficient for me to take this step He called me to without much ballyhoo or other diversion of the experiential, spiritual, or social variety. As is typical of my experience of God, he disappointed my expectations.

To contextualize this, I will need to backtrack a bit regarding the ongoing saga of my struggles to understand matters of faith, suffering, and death. As someone with a longtime history of depression and OCD (in the official fancy language my condition would cheerfully be termed “comorbid”), and further with various family members and friends suffering from such things, the question of the place of suffering in faith has always been much less easy for me to ignore than it seems to be for some Christians. Add to this the death of a close friend three years ago, deep alienation from Christian community (too Catholic for Protestants, too Protestant for Catholics, and deeply wounded by the effects of some nasty church and parachurch politics), and a tendency to always put my worst foot forward when it comes to interviews or applications in the area of my vocation, and it is fair to say that frustration is not likely to be something I can forget anytime soon. A fever pitch of suffering would be a bad way to describe it – that happened in the much more volatile period of our younger romance – and now Suffering and I had settled into the familiar routine of destroying each other even while relying on each other for stability like an addictive drug when the exotics and passion are gone, and all that is left is bathetic routine. Not only did I know Suffering, but I made myself an expert in all her ways – I would be the prophet proclaiming her existence to a stubborn and obstinate church. I could, quite literally, say what most could only say figuratively – I really did do a Doctorate on suffering.

But I return to the stations of the cross and Good Friday, with a caveat, which is this. When I describe what follows, I do not necessarily mean that all this hit me on the head at once, or that I immediately came to this realization. I’m pretty sure that every moment we mark of deep significance in our lives is preceded by so many other important moments we don’t notice, and, furthermore, may not even be initially understood – the post-experience reflection on the experience is as much a part of the experience as the temporal moment when one first marks it. What follows is the totality of my impression – thus far – of what happened on Good Friday.

What happened was that, at some point while we were doing the stations, I realized that I had met my match when it came to the understanding of suffering – in this church, in this place, I was becoming part of a people that knew suffering in her bones. Not in the sense that the Church has necessarily suffered more than other groups – indeed, in her imperfection here on earth, she has on a number of occasions been the cause of suffering – but rather in the sense that here, in Christ’s body, a body I could taste, touch, and smell in the sacraments and in my fellow Christians – here, in this body, suffering was understood, in the deepest and most mysterious sense of the word. Yes, other churches I had been part of had the crucifixion narrative as well – but the crosses were bare. In contrast, here was a devotional practice that was not trying to be radical or prophetic or sexy or relevant or any of those other things – it was not screaming for attention, as was my own “prophetic” bent concerning suffering – rather, it simply was. It was not some radical thing (except in the most literal etymological sense) that would strike like lightning and change my life fifty different ways to Sunday. No, it was a basic and humble grammar of suffering. And I, the expert, the self-proclaimed seer, with the Doctorate on Job, stopped my mouth, and was silent. No longer could I say, “But you don’t know what it’s like” – because She did. The Church did.

I don’t recall too precisely the exact moment this all came upon me, but I do feel it had something to do with the third time Christ stumbles in the stations. I knew enough of them prior to know that this is the part I most valued, the part where Christ looks at us, after having stumbled twice before already, and we have no clue what to do. Is it about us? Are we selfish enough to be glad for Christ’s suffering because we suffer too? On the other hand, when he looks into our eyes like that, the cross breaking his back, is there anywhere we can flee to evade that look that says it has everything to do with us? Is it an example? An act of empathy? The suffering servant? The broken beast of burden? Christ is physically naked, but it is we who are ashamed – he has looked into our souls. To stumble once might be a token example – even the best stumble. To stumble twice is a little more, but perhaps just another token – we can draw on his forgiveness if we happen to fall a few times, so long as we are generally consistent. But a third time. That is the clincher. He means it. He will really be there. Every time. Seventy times seven times, and more, if necessary. Every time. The face full of sorrow that is also mercy and grace. Eye to eye, and heart to heart.

That is a broken description of the glimpse I had into the Church – the place where suffering is uniquely understood – and the place where I covered my mouth. At that same moment, I felt a kind of release. It is a heavy burden to think of oneself as a prophet on behalf of all suffering everywhere, and suddenly I saw – Christ’s body, the Church, was carrying this burden. It was not mine to carry. I could help or participate or pray or not – I could understand or not – but whatever I did, God had suffering and death taken care of. And it was then I realized the most terrifying thing, that I was free, free to explore that thing far more frightening and unpredictable to me than any kind of pain or suffering: joy. I still have very little idea what this means – particularly as I am accustomed to associate the word “joy” with the facile glossing and painting of pain. And I don’t like joy, because it comes at all the wrong times, and doesn’t come to everybody equally. But it is a treasure, of Christ and His Church, and having retired from the position of self-proclaimed prophet of suffering and pain (though I make no promises concerning relapses), I am at liberty to explore it – joy – the greatest problem that we face as humans. I am terrified.

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