Theology, the future, and pop culture

The abstract for my paper, “The Eschatological Lens of Saga,” has been accepted at the Mid-Atlantic Pop and American Culture Conference in November. I’ve been so excited for it that I even started to re-read one of my sources for the paper, Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope.

One quote struck me tonight, it reads,

“Theological concepts do not give a fixed for to reality, but they are expanded by hope and anticipate future being. They do not limp after reality and gaze on it with the night eyes of Minerva’s owl, but they illuminate reality by displaying its future. Their knowledge is grounded not in the will to dominate, but in love to the future of things” (36).

giphy.gif

According to Moltmann, it’s not necessarily the historical relevance of how a theological concept came about, but what the concept is pointing towards. For example, to assume that everyone deserves hell because of original sin presents a certain future, which one can act out in the present by being selfish or only enjoying the company of fellow-heaven goers. Rather than actually caring for those around you who are in need. Our theology shows us what we want the future to be like through our present actions. For a similar reason, I love reading Saga. Unlike other futuristic sci-fi films, such as Her and Lucy, which only white people are represented, Saga writer Brian Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples construct a future-universe much like the present: full of diverse populations, creatures, and hopes. A world I love being in living in New York.

I guess my conclusion is: theological concepts and visioning another world are not so different after all.

Belhar Confession (with inclusive language)

The Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly 222 accepted the Belhar Confession into their Book of Confessions. As a Presbyterian, I am very proud of this. 

1. We believe in the triune God, Creator, Redeemer, and Holy Spirit, who gathers, protects, and cares for the church through Word and Spirit. This, God has done since the beginning of the world and will do to the end.

2. We believe in one holy, universal Christian church, the communion of saints called from the entire human family.

We believe

  • that Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another (Eph. 2:11-22);
  • that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain (Eph. 4:1-16);
  • that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted (John 17:20-23);
  • that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another; that we share one faith, have one calling, are of one soul and one mind; have one God and Father, are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup, confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope; together come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ; together are built up to the stature of Christ, to the new humanity; together know and bear one another’s burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ that we need one another and upbuild one another, admonishing and comforting one another; that we suffer with one another for the sake of righteousness; pray together; together serve God in this world; and together fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity (Phil. 2:1-5; 1 Cor. 12:4-31; John 13:1-17; 1 Cor. 1:10-13; Eph. 4:1-6; Eph. 3:14-20; 1 Cor. 10:16-17; 1 Cor. 11:17-34; Gal. 6:2; 2 Cor. 1:3-4);
  • that this unity can be established only in freedom and not under constraint; that the variety of spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, convictions, as well as the various languages and cultures, are by virtue of the reconciliation in Christ, opportunities for mutual service and enrichment within the one visible people of God (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:1-11; Eph. 4:7-13; Gal. 3:27-28; James 2:1-13);
  • that true faith in Jesus Christ is the only condition for membership of this church.

Therefore, we reject any doctrine

  • which absolutizes either natural diversity or the sinful separation of people in such a way that this absolutization hinders or breaks the visible and active unity of the church, or even leads to the establishment of a separate church formation;
  • which professes that this spiritual unity is truly being maintained in the bond of peace while believers of the same confession are in effect alienated from one another for the sake of diversity and in despair of reconciliation;
  • which denies that a refusal earnestly to pursue this visible unity as a priceless gift is sin;
  • which explicitly or implicitly maintains that descent or any other human or social factor should be a consideration in determining membership of the church.

3. We believe

  • that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ, that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Cor. 5:17-21; Matt. 5:13-16; Matt. 5:9; 2 Peter 3:13; Rev. 21-22).
  • that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity, that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit will enable the church to live in a new obedience which can open new possibilities of life for society and the world (Eph. 4:17–6:23, Rom. 6; Col. 1:9-14; Col. 2:13-19; Col. 3:1–4:6);
  • that the credibility of this message is seriously affected and its beneficial work obstructed when it is proclaimed in a land which professes to be Christian, but in which the enforced separation of people on a racial basis promotes and perpetuates alienation, hatred and enmity;
  • that any teaching which attempts to legitimate such forced separation by appeal to the gospel, and is not prepared to venture on the road of obedience and reconciliation, but rather, out of prejudice, fear, selfishness and unbelief, denies in advance the reconciling power of the gospel, must be considered ideology and false doctrine.

Therefore, we reject any doctrine

  • which, in such a situation, sanctions in the name of the gospel or of the will of God the forced separation of people on the grounds of race and color and thereby in advance obstructs and weakens the ministry and experience of reconciliation in Christ.

4. We believe

  • that God has revealed Godself as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people;
  • that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged;
  • that God calls the church to follow God in this, for God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry;
  • that God frees the prisoner and restores sight to the blind;
  • that God supports the downtrodden, protects the stranger, helps orphans and widows and blocks the path of the ungodly;
  • that for God pure and undefiled religion is to visit the orphans and the widows in their suffering;
  • that God wishes to teach the church to do what is good and to seek the right (Deut. 32:4; Luke 2:14; John 14:27; Eph. 2:14; Isa. 1:16-17; James 1:27; James 5:1-6; Luke 1:46-55; Luke 6:20-26; Luke 7:22; Luke 16:19-31; Ps. 146; Luke 4:16-19; Rom. 6:13-18; Amos 5);
  • that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream;
  • that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.

Therefore, we reject any ideology

  • which would legitimate forms of injustice and any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such an ideology in the name of the gospel.

5. We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things, even though the authorities and human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence (Eph. 4:15-16; Acts 5:29-33; 1 Peter 2:18-25; 1 Peter 3:15-18).

Jesus is Lord.

To the one and only God, Creator, Redeemer, and Holy Spirit, be the honor and the glory for ever and ever.

Overthinking my Iraqi Kurdistan Delegation in Hopes for Transformation

Intrinsic to fundraising is how one sells it. This certainly was true when I told others about my upcoming delegation to Kurdistan with Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and Christian Peacemaker Teams. Either people have never heard of Kurdistan or understand it as being an ally for the US. I usually had to explain how Kurdistan is situated between Turkey and Iraq. That many Kurds are non-violently resisting against several opposing forces: the Turkish and Iraqi military,  Daesh/ISIL, and US forces on the ground. Then, I’m usually asked, “Why do you care?” With urgent fervor, I respond by saying, “I’m going as a global citizen. I’m going because the voices of the poor and those acting nonviolently around the world are forcibly silenced. I’m going to come back and testify at the Presbyterian General Assembly to what I saw. To witness to their struggle for peace.” Usually at this point, I get a smirk and nod which fades deadpan. The conversation moves on.

Maybe too much.jpg
Self-reflecting on the upcoming delegation, a question keeps creeping into my mind: what if I go and I’m not transformed? That I come back to the States and I continue to live as if I had never left. Maybe it’s just those blasted Derridan ethics that continually haunt me, that says over and over, if you think you’re acting responsible, you’re edging on carelessness; if you’re not anxious, then you’re comfortable being apathetic; IF YOU’RE NOT STRUGGLING FOR PEACE, THEN THE WORLD WILL PERPETUALLY BE IN WAR. Honestly, these ethics are impossible. And that’s the point. Until heaven meets Earth, global utopia is more than farfetched, but that doesn’t mean I do nothing. All this overthinking has made me cautious about what I will bring with me. I want to be in the moment and least distracted.

For this delegation, I’m praying and hoping to be hospitable in action and in listening. I am not fully sure of what to expect. I’ve never been across the Atlantic or have even thought about going to the regions near Iraq or Turkey. I covet your prayers for our delegation that we may be faithful peace witnesses, nonviolent in speech and heart. I hoping for a safe journey, but not a comfortable one.

Last Meals

meal 2

“No Seconds” by Henry Hargreaves

It might seem odd to discuss Death Row inmates’ last meals and the Last Supper, but I don’t find it much of a stretch. Here’s a few reasons why:

  • Jesus knew he would be killed in a few hours, as too those on Death Row.
  • Although it’s after this meal that Jesus will be sentenced to crucifixion. Those on Death Row are often convicted several years before they’re executed.
  • Death Row prisoners and Jesus are both executed by the State: Roman Crucifixion and US Execution.

Yet, it’s not just these similarities that I find compelling to think through last meals, it’s also in the Letter to the Hebrews that speaks of prisoners. It reads,

Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. (Heb. 13.3)

 Who would’ve ever thought the Bible could be so political?

The writer to the Hebrews writes that we should remember those in prison, as if we are there ourselves. Death row prisoners, whom our system of justice has declared not to be worthy of existence, are our sisters and brothers. Yet, often these prisoners do not dine with their families or friends, but by themselves with guards watching. Indeed, an isolating last meal.

But this was not so with Jesus’ Last Supper. It was also no da Vinci-like portrait. It would’ve been tense, chaotic, and absolutely un-chill. There would’ve been more than just his male disciples, but also women and children and probably even some animals. It was less cozy, and more like trying to find a seat at Starbucks during a rush. When you have to stand over by the sugar and straws waiting for someone to leave their spot. That’s the Last Supper.

The Letter to the Hebrews was written decades after the Last Supper, but speaks to the heart of the Gospel, which was found that night:

To Be There.

Be there for those who have their voice actively silenced.

Be there for Death Row prisoners, no matter what the courts have said they have done.

Be there in prayer.

Be there in letters.

Be there at the table.

Be there just as Christ

who goes before us,

behind us,

and with us.

Amen.

 

Reflecting on natural law and culture

I cannot pinpoint the exact moment I recently thought of the meaning of ‘natural,’ but it’s been consuming my thoughts. I guess most recently it was hearing arguments against same-sex relationships. Some claim God made humanity to naturally fit together, one with a vagina and the other with a penis. They just work. Conversely, as I and other proponents of queerness recognize, among other things, that the rest of the animal kin-dom does not abide by this female/male sexual relationships, like giraffes. Bill Nye was asked this question recently and his answer is spot on.

Historically, Thomas Aquinas popularized ‘natural law’ in the 13th century. It has two main parts:

1) everything has a place in the hierarchy of the universe with God governing over all.

2) there are actions that lead to the common good of humanity and the world. If one does not follow such actions they are sinning or going against natural law.

Natural law has persons of color viewed lower in the social hierarchy. Womyn were cast under men as lesser. As well, higher on the ladder of privilege were those in the religious life. Natural law gave rights to patriarchy, slavery, and other oppressive forces.

Here’s an example from Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles,

“for men of outstanding intelligence naturally take command, while those who are less intelligent but of more robust physique, seem intended by nature to act as servants;”

Thus, it’s only natural for the privileged to be the master while the strong not as smart ones be their slave…

Duns Scotus, a contemporary of Aquinas, used natural law to claim that slavery should be abolished. Although, he does not follow his own logic to completion. Since he also wrote, “But nevertheless, once they have been established [slavery], they have to be observed.”1 This was in relation to slavery in Paul’s time. While every person and generation has certain cultural blinders, certainly Aquinas and Scotus could not understand certain emancipatory politics.

I argue and believe nothing is natural, but everything is cultural. With the Pope’s recent visit to a country I deeply love, Bolivia, he ate and drank coca. Coca is used to make cocaine, but in plant form is used to alleviate nausea from the high altitudes and helps the los campesinos have energy to make it through the workday. When I arrived in Bolivia several years ago, my first beverage was coca tea, which eased my stomach. I became angered reading some of the Twitter reactions to the Pope eating and drinking coca. They thought the Pope was getting high. Ridiculous! Anyway, coca in Bolivia is culturally bound and still very misunderstood in the States.

The other night I had dinner with a friend and a comment she made has stuck with me. I shared how I’ve moved up the East Coast for school and have lived in different cities almost every summer since 2009. I asked her if she’s been to the East Coast. She shot back, “Just because I haven’t been anywhere but Michigan, doesn’t mean that I’m not cultured.” In shock, I nodded my head in a more rapid pace than I normally do. In a way, I’ve been a curator and collector of cultures, yet continue to relish in my past cultural habits. I still listen to ska and grunge music on occasion and wear a black shirt almost every day. As well, I continue to have at least one piercing and watch cartoons. The fact we live in a globalized society doesn’t change much of it. My friend calling me out was certainly helpful in making me reflect my own cultural bias.

douglas coupland

black flag theology includes the theologies of postmodern, political, feminist, queer, and liberationist. To understand nothing as natural means we create structures and cultures. Oppression is not natural and therefore does not need to exist. Changing structures, i.e. white supremacy, is not an easy task, but is not impossible.

1Foucault, Douglass, Fanon, and Scotus in Dialogue: On Social Construction and Freedom by Cynthia R. Nielsen, pg. 129.

Pentecostalism and Weak Pneumatology

I presented this paper at the Fordham Theological Graduate Conference on May 2, 2015. It was fun to write and think through my family’s tradition. Enjoy!

John Caputo called one Sunday afternoon and said that he wanted to meet me that night at an Assemblies of God church for a revival. I agreed and arrived at the church extra early so I could save a seat for him. Of course, he arrived as the service started and sat in the pew behind me. The organ wailed, some prayers prayed, and tongues commenced. At this point, Caputo leans forward and in a hushed voice says, “It spooks.” Intrigued by this curious phrase, I wait for some explanation, but instead he sits back. A little later in the service, there’s time for testimonies. A mother stood from her pew and shared her thankfulness for the congregation. They had provided her family with meals and kind words, after her daughter died tragically. Caputo hands me a ripped out bible page with the words, “It spooks.” As the sermon started, Caputo got up and left. After the service, he met me in the graveled parking lot outside. He didn’t say a word and so we stood there, people watching. We observed hugs exchanged, hands held, and dinner plans made. I turn around and he’s gone. But on my dirty car window, he had etched “It spooks.” I leave slightly confused and go back to my apartment to think on these things. (for those wondering, this is a fictional story.)

The following presentation is inspired by John Caputo’s recent essay, It Spooks, which uses the language of haunting and spooking to speak of God’s Spirit. I take up the language of spooking throughout this paper because it is a fine conduit between Pentecostalism and weak theology.

Pentecostalism and weak theology represent different poles on the spectrum of theology and practice. On the one pole, Pentecostalism in the US exemplifies the very essence of conservatism, anti-intellectualism, and exclusivism. Culturally characterized as snake-handlers and tongues speakers, they emphasize God’s Spirit as healer, gift-giver, and sustainer of the universe. Far on the other pole, waves weak theology. This was popularized in John Caputo’s book, The Weakness of God, where he writes, “I do not take the name of God to pick out an entity, … but an event, an advent, a future and a promise, a call and a claim, a hope and an aspiration.” (123-124). Weak theology, an arm of postmodern theology, explains that the name of God is found in the event, but is not the event itself. It rejects, or at least, holds loosely, any kind of religious doctrine, recognizing that certainty got us into this mess, and it certainly can’t help what we’re in today. Thus, any attempt to put into discussion Pentecostalism and weak theology, one must carefully not envelope either side into the other. In this paper, I want to demonstrate that Pentecostalism has the tools for revolution, i.e. anti-hierarchical and direct democracy. And here the spirit spooks and the function of this spooking is to suspend binaries of race, class, sex, and gender. But to help sharpen these revolutionary tools, I propose that weak theology encourages novelty in the Pentecostalism Project.

Pentecostalism, from its genesis, found non-cerebral ways to experience the holy specter. Avery Gordon theorizes haunting in her book Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. She writes, “Being haunted draws us affectively, something against our will and always a bit magically, into the structure of feeling of a reality we come to experience, not as cold knowledge, but as a transformative recognition.”[1] In other words, haunting opens new faculties of knowledge, away from the cerebral-only understandings of life. Many Pentecostal and Charismatic worship services are haunted in this way. They are spaces in which one’s theological knowledge is deferred because of the overwhelming experiences of the wholly ghastly. For instance, every Sunday morning of my youth, my great-grandmother would speak in tongues during worship. The holy ghost landed on this woman, who was born and raised in a country trailer park. She had no formal education beyond middle school and this hallowed haunter swept into her during the service without any qualms. She was haunted.

To gain some context, let’s start at the beginning of the Pentecostal Movement. Two ministers helped establish American Pentecostalism. First was the founder of the Bethel Bible College in Topeka, KS and was one of the first preachers to teach about speaking-in-tongues. He was a Southern white man named Charles Parham. He was pastor of the service in January 1901, where speaking in tongues was first inaugurated. A few years later, a young black man, the son of two slaves and blind in one eye, came to hear Parham speak about this phenomenon. He was William J. Seymour. Yet because of the Jim Crow reality, Seymour was not able to sit in the same room as Parham, so he sat outside the door and listened. After spending a few days there, Seymour took up the cause of Pentecostalism and started to preach about it. And he would eventually lead the Azusa Street Revival from 1906-1909.

From the very beginning, Seymour believed that the geist of eternity did not commend social or racial divisions. Gastón Espinosa, a Pentecostal Latino theologian wrote that the Azusa Revival “grew precisely because it was a transgressive social space wherein racial-ethnic minorities, women, the working class, and others could cross some of the deeply inscribed unbiblical racial-ethnic, class, gender, and national borders and boundaries of the day.”[2] This revival transcended time and place, growing in number and color.

In those three years, Charles Parham visited the Azusa Street Revival a few times. The last time he attended, he wrote an editorial piece condemning the Revival for its African-American spirituality wrapped up in Pentecostalism. He wrote, “Frequently a white woman, perhaps of wealth and culture, could be seen thrown back in the arms of a big buck [blank] and held tightly as she shook in freak imitation of Pentecost.”[3] Parham’s original vision of Pentecostalism was segregated. Blacks, browns, and whites should not attend the same services. The Azusa Street Revival spooked him and after the editorial, Seymour never publicly wrote of or acknowledged Parham again.

Transitioning to the biblical text, this holy ghost can be found haunting the pages of Christianity’s sacred script declaring an egalitarian religious participation. Paul included a well-known ancient metaphor of the body in 1st Corinthians 12:12-31, which is highly functional: if one is an ear they should do their best to listen well and if one is a foot they should respect their position and walk or run the best they are able. Yet, Paul equalizing this seemingly hierarchical metaphor declares, “But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another” (12:24-25). As a result, the holy ghost’s gifts are for the common good, whether it is wisdom, knowledge, healing, miraculous powers, speaking in tongues, or the interpretation of tongues (1 Cor. 12:8-10). And these gifts, which are received from the holy ghost are an extension of God’s grace. Thus, what one receives from the holy haunter is for the building up of faith communities and not for personal gain.

This political cartoon takes the interpretative lens of the passage from 1st Corinthians as hierarchical. William Seymour is pictured as the foot inside the church with seemingly all white men, which was certainly not the case historically. Standing outside is Charles Parham with an oversized head and a book of the apostolic faith, which apparently Seymour was not following. This political cartoon is trying to, as Mason in the film Snowpiercer says to those lower class persons in the caboose of the train, “When the foot seeks the place of the head, the sacred line is crossed. Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.”

Moving forward, the holy specter disrupts oppression through haunting. Once again, Avery Gordon lays out a beautifully theological statement:

The ghost is not other or alterity as such, ever. It is pregnant with unfulfilled possibility, with the something to be done that the wavering present is demanding. This something to be done is not a return to the past but a reckoning with its repression in the present, a reckoning with what which we have lost, but never had.[4]

Ghosts, and specifically the holy specter, haunts not so that one becomes fearful of it, but so that it can waver one’s present state of comfort. For Parham, the state of his racism, his sympathy for the KKK, and his pro-Jim Crow attitude shook when he encountered the revival. Potentially, when the ghoulish spirit enters faith communities today, it could shake them of their apathy for the poor, their neglect of the systems of injustice including racism, sexism, transphobia, and so many more I could name. Hence the holy specter does not side with the powerful, but haunts them until they share with those without.

Yet, where might the haunting happen? William Seymour provides for us a response. He wrote an article in 1908, titled “Questions Answered” featured in the magazine Apostolic Faith. One of the questions asked was, “Is it necessary for a person to leave their home duties in order to wait at some place for the Holy Ghost?” He responded, “No; you can wait right in the kitchen or in the parlor or in the barn. Some have received the baptism of the Spirit in their barns, some in the kitchen, some at family worship, some on their porch, some about their business.”[5] The holy ghost can spook anyone at anytime, no where is safe. For the holy ghost is not a kindly Casper the Friendly Ghost, who got along with everyone without any problems. No, this holy specter haunts the world for the common good disrupting the lives of the comfortable and well-off. The holy specter haunts: that one can love better, share fuller, and listen more deeply to the needs of others.

Pentecostalism was one of the first Christian denominations, especially the Azusa Street Revival, to demonstrate equality among all persons regardless of race, class, or gender. Yet, has forgotten its tradition and become crystallized in conservative ideology and rhetoric. Weak theology, seen throughout this paper as constructing new possibilities in pneumatological discourse, haunts one towards justice. Once again, Avery Gordon, our spookologist, writes, “haunting, unlike trauma by contrast, is distinctive for producing a something-to-be-done.”[6] As we heard Caputo in the opening story creepily say and spell out, “It spooks.” Pentecostalism has rendered these words, in some way, for more than a hundred years, but sometimes need to be reminded again and again.

[1] Avery F. Gordon and Janice Radway, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, 2nd edition (Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2008), 8.

[2] Gastón Espinosa, William J. Seymour and the Origins of Global Pentecostalism: A Biography and Documentary History (Durham ; London: Duke University Press Books, 2014), 101.

[3] Gastón Espinosa, William J. Seymour and the Origins of Global Pentecostalism: A Biography and Documentary History (Durham ; London: Duke University Press Books, 2014), 99.

[4] Avery F. Gordon and Janice Radway, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, 2nd edition (Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2008), 183.

[5] Gastón Espinosa, William J. Seymour and the Origins of Global Pentecostalism: A Biography and Documentary History (Durham ; London: Duke University Press Books, 2014), 194.

[6] Avery F. Gordon, “Who”s there?’: some answers to questions about Ghostly Matters., website, October 26, 2007, http://www.averygordon.net/writing-haunting/whos-there/.

Middle Class Economics and the Industrial Reserve Army

During his State of the Union address, President Obama coined the term “middle class economics.” Days later a blog post appeared on the Huffington Post further explaining what he meant. He opened by asking

“Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and rising chances for everyone who makes the effort?”

These two generalized questions demonstrate our economic and political discourse. He softly recognizes that the wealthiest 20% people in the country own 85% of the wealth and resources. If the economy does not change, they will continue to increase their wealth. Additionally, he insinuates that if one works hard that our government and capitalist economy will assure that one is rewarded with by her or his efforts. Yet, those President Obama missed in his address are ‘the industrial reserve army’ and those who work hard at several part-time jobs making minimum wage only to scrape by. Karl Marx describes this underclass as a symptom of capitalism.

The economy in capitalism must grow and multiple or it cannot survive. Marx in the Communist Manifesto described that capitalists continually must revolutionize their technology, labor, and other modes of production to make a higher profit. As well, competition among businesses is often a zero-sum game with larger companies absorbing smaller ones. In this way, “the big capitalists grow bigger and fewer.”* For example, in the US, two cable companies, Time Warner Cable and Comcast, dominate one’s ability to access the Internet. Like wayward lovers, they’ve created territories with what city each one can occupy. As a result, the underclass suffers as these companies gain more business.

Marx wrote that the finished is not the only commodity, but also the labor of the worker. He would go on to theorize this as the fetishization of commodities. And as capitalism forcibly travelled around the world, it exponentially created more commodities. Call centers were set up in India providing customer service and paying workers small wages. Sweatshops landed in Malaysia, Indonesia, China, and Bangladesh providing slave wages for the underclass and children (in those countries who turn an eye away from this horror). Answering phone calls half way round the world, sowing fashionable clothes by people who cannot afford to wear them, and child labor became commodities within the last fifty years. And these all affect the lower classes.

Karl Marx wrote on, systematized, and enlightened the world when he described the destructive nature of capitalism, yet few listened. Today’s discourse of middle class economics blatantly ignores the industrial reserve army. It tries to inspire people to work even harder to achieve the mythical American Dream. Until the monster of capitalism is slain, we will continue to have unemployment, people without homes, peopleless homes, people without healthcare and refugees.

poor of the world

*Wielenga, Bastiaan, Introduction to Marxism, Centre fro Social Action (Bangalore, India) 1984, p. 62

The Baptism of Jesus and a tree tornado (sermon)

Baptism of Jesus

Mark 1:4-11 (NRSV)
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Psalms 29:1-11 (NRSV)
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory of God’s name;
worship the Lord in holy splendor.
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
God makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in God’s temple all say, “Glory!”
The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
May the Lord give strength to God’s people!
May the Lord bless God’s people with peace.

Everyday we hear many voices. We hear intercom announcements from the MTA telling us that we need to hold onto our personal belongings because there is always someone willing to take them. Or that we need to be on the lookout for suspicious looking people and packages and if we see something that we need to say something. We hear weather reports that inform us in what to wear that day. And we hear and see advertisements telling us that we are inadequate in our dress and that we should buy this piece of clothing to be with the in crowd. And on top of that, we have our own internal voices that compete. Arguing with ourselves with where we should go, what we should watch, what we should order to eat, or if we should call this person because the last time we talked with them they had me so upset, but right now we know that they are struggling with some big.

Needless to say we are bombarded with voices.

In our text today, we hear three voices. The first is the narrator, the Gospel writer. The other two voices are John the Baptizer and God.

The narrator sets the scene. We are in the wilderness, near the Jordan River. We hear this man making proclamations, but he’s clothed, not like us. He’s wearing camel’s hair with a leather belt. This man is John the baptizer. He’s performing a baptism of repentance.

The Greek word for repentance is metanoia. It should be understood as the changing of one’s heart and mind. Or as one commentator puts it, “to be transformed and turned around; to have your heart made over; to now be playing a new tune, returned.”

And with the rest of the people from the Judean countryside and all of the people of Jerusalem, we confess our sins and are baptized in that Jordan River.

Then John, with excess honey dripping from his beard, shouts out for all to hear, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

The wild man has spoken.

Out of the crowd comes Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee and he too is baptized by the locust-eater. But he doesn’t say a word. He could have declared then and there that he was the one who John was just talking about. He could’ve pointed to himself or raised his hand showing to the crowd that it was him who John was not worthy enough to untie his sandal. But he doesn’t.

When Jesus was coming up from the water, the heavens tore apart and like a dove the Spirit descends on him. And a voice came from heaven declares, “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

When this baptism narrative sits next to our Psalm reading, they seem to have a similar landscape. Both reference the wilderness. In the Psalm, God’s voice is powerful, strong, and can break the cedars of Lebanon. God shakes the wilderness, even the wilderness of Kadesh. God causes the oaks to whirl and leaves the forest bare.

With some biblical imagination, I wonder if this is what God’s voice sounded like. As the heavens were being torn open, the cedars were being uprooted creating a tree tornado around the crowd. God’s proclamation about Jesus would’ve been impossible to miss.

tree tornado

But with the many voices that we hear on a regular basis, sometimes it’s easy to be distracted from God’s voice. It’s not an everyday occurrence that the heavens tear open or God’s voice becomes audible for all to hear. Thankfully, we have services like this one to quiet the voices inside ourselves and to listen deeply for God’s voice. But quieting those internal voices takes practice and discipline.

Let me finish with this, God tells Jesus that he is beloved and that God is pleased with him. There’s not much context for it. It comes out of blue, since in Mark’s Gospel, this is Jesus’ first scene. He hasn’t done much. In this way, God is proclaiming, unlike the advertisers, that Jesus is adequate. I believe God comforts us those same words too:
we are God’s children,
we are beloved,
and God is well pleased with us, just as we are.

(This was originally preached at Riverside Church, NYC at the Morning Light Service)

A Prayer

Clarissa Explains White Supremacy

 Oh God of this world and universe,
You constantly surprise us.
You bring about life where there is only death.
You sing to us sweet melodies that comfort those despairing.
And you guide us with hope.

The horrific acts these past few days have made our hearts heavy.
There was a bombing of a Colorado Springs NAACP office.
A group of armed men killed a whole staff of magazine writers in Paris.
And a kosher supermarket hostage situation ended in four deaths.

We are overwhelmed and frustrated.
These terrorists attacks distract us from dealing internally.
As in the US, we need to call out and end racism, white supremacy,
police brutality, economic inequality, homophobia, trans*phobia,
and so much more.

We are overwhelmed and angry
that national newscycles barely covered the NAACP bombing,
that our own President sent condolences the same night the two NYPD officers were killed,
but took days to say a word on Michael Brown.

We know, O God, that our world is unjust.
We are not asking to be rescued,
we are asking for the courage to speak out and act against injustice.
We are not asking to be more “heavenly-minded, that we are no earthly good,”
but that we are a people who show others the alternative life of your Reign.

We pray this in the name of Jesus, who stands in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, Amen.

somewhere between prayer and revolution

The Flobots penned this lyric, in my title, in the opening line of “Same Thing.” The lyrics continue with “between Jesus and Huey P. Newton.” And on this particular Sunday in the month of October, we find ourselves holding these same tensions. This weekend is #fergusonoctober and I am grateful that many of my peers from Union Theological Seminary are there participating in these actions. As well, yesterday was National Coming Out Day, when those who identify as queer come out as their true selves to family members, friends, and their communities. Last and certainly least, tomorrow is columbus day. Thankfully, a few cities are renaming this day to Indigenous People’s Day.

This weekend raises our awareness that we are not close to having a just society.

Hands Up, Don't Shoot

So I wanted to write a prayer:

God of our world,
We look around us and see injustice everywhere
Our society is overripe with white supremacy,
racism, sexism, ableism, and hatred of the poor.
We ask for your forgiveness because we recognize through scripture
that Jesus cared for all and repented when he did not (Mark 7:25-30)

We pray for those in Ferguson this weekend with #fergusonoctober
our hearts are on fire for Michael Brown and his loved ones.
our hearts are on fire that Darren Wilson will feel convicted and turn himself in.
our hearts are on fire for a movement that rejects colorblindness for real talk about racism.

We pray for the strength for those who come out to their family and friends
we pray that queer persons find supportive communities
we pray an end to queer youth being kicked out on the street
we pray that queer person know that they are beloved by God

We pray for Indigenous communities living in the US and around the world
may their cultures stand firm in the face of colonization
may they continually decolonize from white supremacy
may they find hope in their communities

God, we pray for the end to all war
an end to poverty,
and an end to apathy.
May we follow you in the ways of justice and peace. Amen.