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“Green” Ash Wednesday

(The following are my opening reflections for my webpage on Ash Wednesday.)

In 2019 there is finally serious conversation about addressing the foreboding challenges of Climate Change. The debate has begun over the “Green New Deal.”

A dozen years ago I had an idea for a “Green” Ash Wednesday that was partly an effort to make a faith response to the issues of eco-justice, but also as a shift in piety for the practice of ashes on the forehead for Ash Wednesday: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Traditionally, we hear this somber reminder of our mortality in the frame of an often shaming focus on sin. In light of Mimetic Theory, we know that our traditional focuses on sin are usually sinful. The Sin of our origins is an Us-vs-Them structuring around what we deem sinful, which then becomes the justification for sacred violence against Them.

Alison - The Joy of Being WrongThe crucial Girardian text on this insight is James Alison‘s The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin through Easter Eyes. And the heart of that book is Alison’s masterful reading of John 9 — one of the best theological essays on any single scripture passage, in my opinion. (Note: his reading of John 9 is also expanded upon and stands alone as Chapter 1 in Faith Beyond Resentment.) Here’s a glimpse in this summary paragraph:

In this story then we watch a revolution in the understanding of sin, and a revolution that takes place around the person of Jesus, but is actually worked out in the life of someone else. The structure of the story is the same as is to be found time and time again in John: that of an expulsion, or proto-lynching, one of the many that lead up to the definitive expulsion of the crucifixion, which is also the definitive remedy for all human order based on expulsion. The revolution in the concept of sin consists in the following: at the beginning of the tale, sin was considered in terms of some sort of defect that excludes the one bearing the defect. At the end of the tale sin is considered as the act of exclusion: the real blindness is the blindness which is not only present in those who exclude, but actually grows and intensifies during the act of exclusion. (p. 121)

My “Green” Ash Wednesday seeks to hear — “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” — through Easter ears. Yes, our earthly bodies are mortal. But in the frame of the Easter promise we know that someday we will put on immortality with a resurrection body (1 Cor 15:35ff.). God is saving the whole creation from its subjectivity to decay (Rom. 8:18-25), when God’s power of life will become all-in-all (1 Cor 15:28). In this frame, remembering that we are dust can be more about our solidarity with the rest of creation. We are star dust. God’s redeeming of creation embraces our bodies and all of creation.

And as children of God, we shoulder a special responsibility — a persisting divine invitation — to participate in God’s ongoing work to bring creation to fulfillment. The New Reformation is clear about the down-side of focusing on salvation as ‘going to heaven when you die,’ which so often leads to thinking that the earth is disposable because we leave it behind at death. No! Followers of Jesus do not stand in the inheritance of Plato’s dualism of heavenly ideas over earthly substance. We stand in the inheritance of the robust creational monotheism of Jesus’ Judaism. We are dust and return to dust. But that dust was created good and will someday come to fulfilment. “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:3b-4). Life is the beginning and the ending, and we are called to live in the light.

So the texts I chose for “Green” Ash Wednesday are:

  • Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-17 — The creation of the earth creature (adama) out of the earth, placing s/he in the garden to care for it (including the infamous Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the symbol of our sinful focus on sin).
  • Romans 8:18-25 — Subjected to the futility of decay, the whole creation eagerly longs for the revealing of the children of God, groaning for the redemption of our bodies. We hope.
  • John 9:1-7 — Jesus heals a man born blind with dirt (reminiscent of Genesis 2), working God’s continuing work of creation and teaching the disciples about sin.

Here’s a narrative account of developing the idea of “Green” Ash Wednesday; and Sermon Notes for the 2019 sermon.

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Let’s move beyond the rivalries which dehumanize people on all sides of the equation

Register for the 2019 Theology & Peace Conference:
https://theologyandpeace.com/…/2019-conference-registration/
#EngagedMimeticTheory #IAmOnlyBecauseWeAre

Read more about our Plenary Speakers: Rev. Nontombi Naomi Tutu, Very Rev. Michael Battle Ph.D.,

Midrash on Bible & Beloved Community: Sandor Goodhart Ph.D.

Panelists and Facilitators Include: Rev. Janet WolfRev. Thee Smith Ph.D.Rahim BufordJulia Robinson Moore, Ph.D.,  Micky ScottBey Jones, & James Alison!

Mimetic Theory 101: James Warren

Register at: theologyandpeace.com

Hosted by: American Baptist College Nashville, Tennessee

A historically black college, American Baptist College (ABC) has, since 1924, prepared graduates for leadership, ministry and social justice. ABC has a rich history of involvement in the civil rights movement.

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“How long, O Lord?”: “Costly Grace,” Apocalyptic, and Movements of Nonviolent Resistance

(This essay began as the Opening Reflections for my webpage on Epiphany 5C.)

Bonhoeffer - DiscipleshipThe call to discipleship is itself grace. In the face of rising authoritarianism in Nazi Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s major statement was his book Discipleship (Nachfolge in the German, published in 1937), whose first chapter was famously about “costly grace” vs. “cheap grace”:

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock.

It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live. (p. 45)

Continuing to follow Jesus in a world that resists the healing of tribalism — where powers continue to seek entrenchment of tribalistic empire — means there will be bearing of crosses. The call to discipleship is a paradoxically gracious call to live under the costly threat of self-sacrificing death.

“How long, O Lord?” (Isa 6:11). The day’s First Reading from Isaiah 6 (Epiphany 5C) was embraced by Jesus to articulate his sense of call, in which disciples follow. Jesus quotes the oddest of verses in this text, not the dramatic call itself but the strange message:

“Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed” (Isaiah 6:9-10; quoted by Jesus in Mark 4:12 and Matt 13:13-15, where Jesus introduces “parables”).

The fact that the Powers will continue to pursue tribalistic imperialism is a fact that God anticipates in calling prophets. Imperialistic culture dictates people’s worldviews, determining what they can see and hear and understand. For Jesus, this dictates the vehicle of his message: parables. The typical human way of making change by using violent force cannot itself be changed by using direct counterforce, even in messaging. Matthew’s Jesus doubles down on the quote of Isaiah 6 by quoting Psalm 78:2-3 in saying, “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world” (Matt 13:35).

Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World — the title of René Girard‘s magnum opus. Since the human species originates in both Us-Them thinking and Us-Them structuring of the cultures that nurture us, it is not easy to begin the healing of tribalism — possible, really, only through God’s gracious intervention via Jesus the Messiah. How does one begin that saving work without getting caught up with an oppositional Us-Them thinking that itself quickly descends into Us-Them thinking? Consider this “Catch-22”: “Us” are those who are trying to reveal and undo Us-Them thinking, and “Them” are those who resist “Us” by persisting in Us-Them thinking. A frontal assault on Us-Them thinking results in “Us” lapsing into yet another form of Us-Them thinking! So how does Jesus initiate healing? He begins not with a direct assault on Us-Them thinking but with an indirect parabolic language that turns the ‘normal’ upside-down and inside out.

But the Us-Them structuring of human culture will take much more than a strategy for teaching. It will require action that again does not use direct, forceful assault. It will mean nonviolent engagement that risks becoming a victim of violence. Eventually, it leads Jesus to choose suffering a direct assault of sacred violence upon himself. This is the costly grace that awaits those who choose to answer the call of discipleship — a commitment to nonviolence that leaves one vulnerable to those who still operate by violence. Jesus clearly tells us, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matt 11:12).

“How long, O Lord?” The answer in Isaiah 6 is akin to the apocalyptic mood that Girard increasingly inhabited:

 “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the LORD sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump. (Isaiah 6:11b-13)

I propose that Isaiah 6 is not only a call passage, but it is also the first great apocalyptic text. How many rounds of our cities being laid waste has humanity endured since the Lord spoke these words to Isaiah? Since Jesus revealed what has been hidden since our origins? And we are in the midst of another rise of totalitarian imperialistic power-grabs. The holy seed has been sown for 800 (Isaiah) +2000 (Jesus) years. When will it bear the fruit of healing our tribalism to the point of rebuilding our culture into Us-thinking — into ‘there is no longer Us and Them, only Us’?

“How long, O LORD?” That Girard’s last major book (Battling to the End) featured apocalyptic reflections and was his most pessimistic is quite understandable. So much over the last century seems to speak to an escalation of the violence, or “escalation to extremes” (the phrase Girard borrows for Carl von Clausewitz’s On War as his book’s mantra). Yet I propose that our pessimism may be tempered if we highlight a movement over the past century which is a sign of God’s healing and saving Spirit. Just as humankind was entering a phase of world war, inventing Weapons of Mass Destruction, there also came about for the first time a mass movement of waging war nonviolently, explicitly as a means of following Jesus. It took a Hindu man in the first instance, Mahatma Gandhi, to take Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount seriously enough to imagine it as a mass movement, a new way to wage war nonviolently.

We began with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “costly grace” in the face of the rise of Nazism. While in London in 1934, Bonhoeffer made active plans to visit Gandhi — with the help of two Brits who knew Gandhi, Charlie Andrews and Bishop George Bell — and to learn the way of nonviolent resistance. Andrews encouraged Bonhoeffer to visit the Quaker center Woodbrooke, to “see our friends who both know and love India and also are trying to follow the Sermon on the Mount” (DBWE, vol. 13, London, 1933-35, p. 137; see this volume for more on Bonhoeffer’s plans, including a letter to Bonhoeffer from Gandhi himself). Bonhoeffer’s recognition of Gandhi’s work was another sign that nonviolent resistance as a mass movement following the way of Jesus is finally the ‘seed falling into good soil and bringing forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold’ (Mark 4:8).

Subsequent history has only highlighted its importance. Exactly sixty years ago (February-March 1959) Martin Luther King, Jr. went to India with Coretta to learn from Gandhi’s disciples. Many years later a taped message was discovered in India in which King emphasizes his intellectual debt to Mahatma Gandhi’s message of nonviolent social action. He says,

. . . if this age is to survive, it must follow the way of love and nonviolence that he so nobly illustrated in his life. And Mahatma Gandhi may well be God’s appeal to this generation, for in a day when sputniks and explorers dash through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can win a war. Today, we no longer have a choice between violence and nonviolence; it is either nonviolence or nonexistence. (NPR story of January 9, 2009)

Barber - Revive Us AgainThe Civil Rights movement became the next major example of what we may characterize here as God’s working to heal the structures of tribalism — the tiny mustard seed ‘growing up and becoming the greatest of all shrubs’ (Mark 4:32). And it continues to spread its branches today with things like the Women’s March in response to the presidency of Donald Trump and Rev. Dr. William Barber II‘s revival of King’s Poor People’s Campaign.

“How long, O Lord?” There is plenty of reason for pessimism in answering this question today. My hope is that nonviolent resistance as a mass movement is finally a reason to hope that we might at least be witnessing the beginning to the end of violent tribalism as the way of human order. This isn’t optimism, because it involves terrible suffering. But it is faith in costly grace: “It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live.” It is Christian hope.

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Luke 4 and “Postcards from Babylon”

(The following can also be found as the opening essay for Epiphany 3C, at “Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary.”)

Luke launches the mission of Jesus with an inaugural sermon in his hometown Nazareth. Jesus reads the quintessential Jubilee text (Isa. 61), announcing good news to the poor, and makes it clear that this is what his mission is all about. The good news of going to heaven when you die if you believe in Jesus is nowhere to be even glimpsed. Rather, believing in Jesus implies believing in a political mission that couldn’t be more different than the politics of capitalist America. Orienting your economics for the poor and marginalized instead of the rich and powerful? Advocating debt relief rather than practicing debt predation? That’s not capitalism. So it’s a good thing American Christianity has claimed a different, otherworldly Good News.

So what do Americans do with such a central text launching Jesus’ mission? Preach the Second Reading as a nice, safe sermon about caring for one another in the body of Christ (though reading it in light of the Gospel makes clear its emphasis on the marginalized in the body politic). Or convert. Be open to a New Reformation, one where this text is taken seriously as the anti-imperialist, liberationist text that it is.

zahnd - postcards from babylonIf a significant portion of the American church were to actually make such a conversion to the Good News of Jesus, what would that look like? Brian Zahnd‘s latest book, Postcards from Babylon: The Church in American Exile, explores this question, recounting his own conversion in the process. Chapter 7, “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” gives a brilliant Girardian reading of Satan as something very real but not personal. And since it’s not personal, it cannot be defeated by violence against persons. Zahnd asks,

Why doesn’t God just destroy the (d)evil? Because the satanic phenomenon is inextricably connected with who we are. God cannot simply destroy the devil in one fell blow without destroying us too. Jesus came to destroy the devil, but the devil will not be destroyed like Osama Bin Laden was destroyed by Seal Team Six. It takes more than a bullet to the head to kill the devil. Jesus destroys the devil by calling us out of rivalry, accusation, violence, domination, and empire, into heaven’s alternative of love, advocacy, peace, and liberation — this is what the Bible calls the kingdom of God.

So, yes, I believe the devil is real. Not in the way I believed as a child when I was afraid I might find the devil leaping out of my closet with pitchfork and pointed tail — no, I believe the devil is much more real than that. The devil is the all too real dark spiritual phenomenon of accusation and empire that lies behind humanity’s greatest crimes — the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the medieval crusades conducted in his name, the lynching of black men in the Jim Crow South, and the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust. The devil is also very real in a million smaller, yet still diabolical, acts of rivalry, accusation, violence, and domination that take place every day. Ultimately the Satan reaches its fullest form in the evils of empire. But the good news is that Christ has overthrown the kingdom of Satan with the establishment of his own empire — an Easter Empire. (115-16)

Earlier in this chapter, Zahnd cites today’s Gospel Reading in hailing the importance of each Gospel’s opening to Jesus’ ministry:

In keeping with their distinctiveness, each of the four Gospels has its own way of introducing Jesus as a public figure.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ public ministry begins with the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is the prophet like unto Moses reissuing the Torah from a mountaintop. The message is that it is time for a renewed Torah and a renewed Israel.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ public ministry is first described as he announced the arrival of Jubilee and the day of divine favor at his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. The message is that it is time for God’s favor to fall upon all people.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry by turning water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana. The message is that it is time for the long-awaited feast of God to begin.

In Mark’s Gospel, the first of the four Gospels to be written, Jesus begins his public ministry by casting out a demon at the synagogue in Capernaum. The message is that it is time for the overthrow of Satan’s kingdom. Satan, your kingdom must come down. (111-12)

Zahnd elaborates on Mark’s Gospel because it is the most oriented to the theme of overthrowing Satan, but each of the Gospels’ opening salvos are clear about what Jesus came to overthrow, the evil of imperialism, even if they don’t pose it as overthrowing Satan like Mark does. John’s opening sign of water into wine is followed immediately by his different placement of the so-called “cleansing of the temple” — the epitome of Jesus’ prophetic resistance to the institutions of empire. Matthew’s Beatitudes (5:1-12) and series of antitheses (5:21-48) map out a revolution of values that are upside-down and inside-out to those of Empire. Both Matthew and Luke do presume the battle with Satan by placing their inaugurations of Jesus’ ministry after their prolonged stories of Jesus battling Satan in the wilderness.

Jesus’ inaugural address of proclaiming Jubilee fulfilled is placed by Luke only a few verses after:

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” (Luke 4:5-8)

Jesus’ response to the devil brings up one other crucial feature of this text: if human empire actually worships a satanic god of accusation and violent militarism, then who is the true God that Jesus is calling us to worship? In recent years, many are promoting Luke 4 to the head of the class in showing us how Jesus read his own scriptures to reveal a nonviolent God. When reading Isaiah 61 as the arrival of God’s Jubilee — good news to the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed — Jesus also leaves something out: “the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61:2).

zahnd - sinners in the hands of a loving godOnce again, we can feature Brian Zahnd, who wrote this essay when this text came up in the lectionary in 2016, “Closing The Book On Vengeance.” He followed that up with an entire book arguing for a nonviolent God of love in Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, with this passage once again featured in a chapter based on the 2016 essay (Chapter 2, “Closing the Book on Vengeance”). He brings out not only Jesus’ editing of Isaiah 61 but also his citing (in next week’s portion of this passage) of two stories from the Hebrew scriptures in which God reaches out to enemies through the prophets: Elijah and the widow at Zarephath (1 Kings 17) and Elisha and Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5). The fact that Jesus brings up these two stories as follow-ups to his reading of Isaiah 61 seems somewhat of a non sequitur, but they actually fit beautifully with what he has edited out, a God of vengeance on enemies. The follow-up are stories of a God who reaches out in love to enemies.

The chapter on vengeance had begun by considering the God-commanded genocides in the Book of Joshua (typical of imperialist gods) and then closes with Luke 4, the new Joshua (Jesus). Zahnd concludes:

When we read the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath or the story of Elisha and Naaman the leper, whom do we identify with? Are we Elijah? Are we Elisha? Probably not. More likely we’re a starving widow or a suffering leper. We are the outsiders in need of God’s mercy. More provocatively, whom do we identify with in the conquest narratives of Joshua? Why do we imagine ourselves as the conquering Israelites when we have more reason to imagine ourselves as the conquered Canaanites? To be blunt: If you are going to imagine divinely endorsed genocide, you should not imagine yourself as Joshua but as the unfortunate Canaanite whose entire family and village have just been murdered. Instead of always seeing yourself as the cowboy, try being the Indian sometime. Imagine yourself as a Pequot Indian instead of an English colonist. Try being the Lakota Sioux instead of the American cowboy. Do that and then ask yourself how you feel about justifying genocide in the name of God.

We must constantly resist the temptation to cast ourselves in the role of those who deserve mercy while casting those outside our circle in the role of those who deserve vengeance. Jesus will have no part of that kind of ugly tribalism and triumphalism. Clinging to our lust for vengeance, we lose Jesus. But if we can say amen to Jesus closing the book on vengeance, then Jesus will remain with us to teach us the more excellent way of love. (44-45)

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REGISTER NOW! A CURE FOR WHAT AILS US!

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Sandor Goodhart will present at the 2019 Theology & Peace Conference!

We are thrilled to announce that Sandor “Sandy” Goodhart will lead us in a Midrash on Hebrew Bible and Beloved Community at our 2019 Conference, June 17-20, “Beloved Community as the Way from Scapegoating to Ubuntu.” Sandy is a Professor of English and Jewish Studies at Purdue University’s Department of English. He served as the Director of the Jewish Studies Program (1997-2002), of the Philosophy and Literature Program (2005), and of the Classical Studies Program (2007-2011). He is the author of five books on literature, philosophy, and Jewish Studies including Möbian Nights: Reading Literature and Darkness (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), The Prophetic Law: Essays in Judaism, Girardianism, Literary Studies, and the Ethical (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2014),
Sacrifice, Scripture, and Substitution (Notre Dame University Press, 2011; co-edited with Ann Astell), For René Girard: Essays in Friendship and Truth (East Lansing MI: Michigan State University Press, 2009), Reading Stephen Sondheim (Garland: New York, 2000), and Sacrificing Commentary: Reading the End of Literature (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). He served as guest editor for a special issue of Shofar, 26.4 (Summer 2008) on Emmanuel Levinas, the co-editor (with Monica Osborne) of a special issue of Modern Fiction Studies, 54.1 (Spring 2008) on Emmanuel Levinas, and the editor of a special issue of Religion, An International Journal 37.1 (March 2007) on René Girard. He is a founding board member of the North American Levinas Society (founded with his students at Purdue), the former President of the
Colloquium on Violence and Religion (2004-2007), and the author of over ninety essays (including essays on Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow).

Sandy will lead us through a Midrash on the Hebrew Bible and Beloved Community.

REGISTER NOW!

 

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