Christainity, Ecology, Justice, Scripture

“remember you are compost, and to compost you shall return”: ecotheology and ash wednesday

My theology professor asked the class, “Will composting be necessary in the new heavens and new earth?” My hand shot up immediately and I answered with an enthusiastic “Yes!” Of course, I knew that compost was made of rotting, decomposing earthy matter. Yet, at the same time, I believed composting to be an integral part of God’s realm because it brings forth life out of rotting matter. The professor seemed to agree with me, but my peers were not impressed. For them, life eternal required no work, rather full praise toward God and God’s goodness.

We first find compost in Genesis 2, when God plants a garden on the east side of Eden and creates humanity. As well, God causes animals, trees, and shrubs to be birthed from this same ground. In this second creation narrative, humans work with the ground and care for the garden. Composting was involved in their very practice of creation-care. They didn’t have the means to develop landfills, or even the desire for non-recyclable plastic products. Instead, they gave back to Earth what they couldn’t use and the Earth reused it for something new.

Compost occupies an in-between stage. Sort of how plasma is not necessarily a solid or a liquid; or even Derrida’s late obsession with ghosts, understanding them as not quite human and not quite rotting flesh. Without compost, life would not subsist. In a sense, everything is compost. Our very ontology is in-betweenness. Though this is not the same as when preachers talk about the “dash on your gravestone.” Our in-betweenness is rather much more. Our bodies, along with the world, are constantly changing, either through the shedding of our skin, or dying cells, or having organs taken out. We are never static creatures, just like compost.

In Revelation, we read of the new earth, where one can see signs of composting. The River of Life flows through the middle of the New Jerusalem and on one side is the Tree of Life, which “provides healing for the nations” (22:2). “Healing” in this passage is in the present and continuous sense. In other words, even with everything renewed, everything is not yet fully healed or whole. Thus, could we not imagine that at the bottom of the Tree of Life, us partaking of food and composting it for new life, healing, and wholeness? With this reasoning, the New Jerusalem will not have landfills. What a beautiful vision of God’s realm!

On Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent, we recognize our faults, our sins, and those regretful acts we commit. We walk to the front of the church and receive a sign of our sinfulness with an ashed compost cross on our foreheads. Our bodies will become compost again after our death, at least until the resurrection. Yet, we should recognize our in-betweenness as hopeful. As Paul writes in Romans about Abraham on the resurrection, that he was and we are “hoping against hope” (4:18). Within us is the power of transformation. We have the capability to bring forth goodness, love, and hope.

Living into our compostable lives, let us make the most use of our in-betweenness for positive change in our relationships, neighborhoods, and world.

Composting

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Christainity, Justice, Liberation Theology

deconstructing sovereignty with a relational god

The thought of a sovereign God rattles my bones and not in a good way. As a child, I would listen to my Mom’s Sunday School lessons on biblical characters and try to grasp at their closeness to God. I wanted to be the young Samuel and have God wake me up in the middle of the night. I desired to be called like Jonah and have the chance to run away just to be saved by God through a big fish. I wanted to be so close to Jesus that I could touch his garment and smell his sweat. This longing has never went away; if anything, it has intensified.

God calling Samuel

Of course, these desires evolved as I matured. As a youngster, I wanted to know for certain that I could be found in heaven when I died. So I would raise my hand or walk upfront week after week during the altar call. I felt God close in those moments. You know, the moments when you are the most afraid, but hope is budding within your soul. Those were the experiences that transcended everything. I was in the arms of God, and God was cradling me, and singing to me that everything was going to be okay. I get that in different ways now, since I attend churches where the altar call is absent.  For me, my thin places are not places at all, but spontaneous events. It’s these surprises that I sense the divine. This is why I find myself in churches where they stand and clap when they feel led. Congregants dance in the aisles and preachers give messages bent toward justice. This is surely the fullness of the Spirit.

So going back to the idea of the sovereignty of God. The word ‘sovereign’ does not appear more than four times in the Christian Testament. 1 of the 4 times it only relates to a human ruler. Of course, one cannot just rule out because it has rare instances in the Bible (since most fundamentalists command similar attention when it comes to the few verses on apparent homosexuality). What I find curious though is that the first one to write in depth on sovereignty was St. Augustine, which was during the time when Christianity was the dominant religion in the Roman Empire. Thus, we could conclude that pre-fourth century Christians did not have the vocabulary or context for sovereignty because they were found on the receiving end of the violence from the Roman Empire. God was with them rather than above them, controlling them.

This could possibly be why global theologies skip or rarely speak of God’s sovereignty because how can one speak of a God totally in control when your church was just burnt down, or when your family members go missing, or even when your religion is the minority in a country? Theologian Ivone Gebara strikes at the heart of the issue writing,

“i am suspicious of this omnipotent god, this self-sufficient god, this god beyond the earth and the cosmos, this god beyond humans and at the same time very much like humans, the celestial “double” of powerful men, whether to the right or left.

the god on high, in heaven, on a throne, the father of men, the god of blind obedience, the god who punishes and saves, is no longer useful even when he presents a liberator’s face—to our world, to the humanization of the human, to women, to the future of the poor. he too is the fruit of an authoritarian religion experience by the masses, a religion that produces sentimentalism and consolation as faith’s response to the nonsense of an existence reduced to survival, the existence today of thousands of humans scrabbling for a wretched loaf to exist.” – from “The Face of Transcendence as a Challenge to the Reading of the Bible in Latin America”

The world is a beautiful, wretched place. God can be seen in the tiniest of moments and tonight children will go to sleep hungry. The old question, that should be retired, ‘how is there a good God when evil avails?’ no longer makes sense without a sovereign God. Like the early Christians constructing theology from their experiences with a relational divinity. We too need to experience and be open to the divine in all things. If God is in control of all things fine, but to live as so could block us from opening ourselves to God. For example, when thinking of vulnerableness, the comic strip  Coffee With Jesus comes to mind. Characters sit and chat with Jesus over coffee. They complain about life, grieve over loss, and sometimes even Satan makes an appearance. This one seems appropriate for taking the stance of openness:

Let things Go

In conclusion, I have drawn closer to a process relational theology because of my past and present experiences with the divine and my interpretation of the Bible. God is relational, moving, loving, listening, caring, judging, and suffering with us. We are not alone, and we are not called to be alone. This is why religious communities are extremely important for our development and transformation. Indeed, we also are not meant to leave the world as it is either. Our relational God walks with us pursuing justice, equality, and life for all.

Whether the doctrine of sovereignty points to God or not, the real question is whether we are following God through the shadows of death or sitting idly by?

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Beliefs, Christainity, Justice, LGBTQI+

Theological queerness is not simply a question of queer theology disrupting ‘mainstream’ theology; rather, all theology is somehow simultaneously strange, weak and marginal, and potently disruptive of a mindset which says it is possible to comprehend (or encompass) all the mysteries of the universe. Gerard Loughlin comments,

“Even when theology was culturally dominant it was strange, for it sought the strange; it sought to know the unknowable in Christ, the mystery it was called to seek through following Jesus. And of course it has always been in danger of losing this strangeness by pretending that is has comprehended the mystery, that it can name that which is beyond all names” (Loughlin 2008, p. 144)

[Passage from Susannah Cornwall, Controversies in Queer Theology, 2011, pgs. 28-29]

Paul

unknowing and theological queerness

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Justice, LGBTQI+, Philosophy, Politics

anxious for revolution

Like any new relationship, we set high expectations for the New Year. Of ourselves we determine that this year we will be fit, love more, find a new job, get out of debt, and the list goes on. These demands give way to disappointment and if we weren’t already anxious about the resolutions, we certainly are now for disappointing ourselves. I understand these moments of high anxiety as a symptom of capitalism. Economic theorist and philosopher Karl Marx explained, “Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.”*

Chilean Protest

Marx knew that capitalism was out of control. That it was far too big and there was an “economic and political sway of the bourgeois class.” In capitalism, it is the overlords, the CEOs, the bourgeois that control the means of production as well as politics, ideology, foreign relations, and culture. Back to my main argument: how does capitalism create anxiety? Simply, persons without the power: the workers, the proletariat, “the least of these” acknowledge, at least subconsciously, that they are under the control of bosses, cops (who use force to sustain the capitalist system), and patriarchy.

Hence we demand high expectations of ourselves because this is the only way we can relate to the world. This is all that we know. We live in an America of bosses beyond bosses, cops beyond cops, and a stock market as our conscience! Possibly, to relieve this symptom, we need a high dose of an egalitarian community. Jon Grinspan wrote an Op-Ed for the New York Times titled, “Anxious Youth: Then and Now.” To summarize, the anxiety in Millennials is nothing new or creative. Even in 1859, young persons were concerned about their love lives, when to get married, and if they were ever going to find a job. Here’s a gem from the article:

“Another solution (from the anxiety) was to find like-minded young adults, to share, as one later put it in his memoir, their “baffling discouragements and buoyant hopes.” Nineteenth-century young people were compulsive joiners. Political movements, literary societies, religious organizations, dancing clubs and even gangs proliferated. The men and women who joined cared about the stated cause, but also craved the community these groups created. They realized that while instability was inevitable, isolation was voluntary.”

In the 21st century, we realize instability is inevitable, but we are too busy hiding behind screens. Of course, I believe social and political change and agitation can happen through the use of social media. Just look at what was accomplished two years ago with SOPA. Yet, this protest was particular to the internet.

Yet, we still need bodies!

We need them protesting, present at hearings, in Congressperson’s offices, and gardening. Our future depends on it.

If we direct our anxious energies toward housing reform, ending poverty, fighting for LGBTQQII+  and women’s right, environmental concerns and changing economic policy; something might change for the better!

A portrait of Jenny and Karl Marx.

A portrait of Jenny and Karl Marx.

*All the Marx quotes come from The Communist Manifesto, which was published in 1848. If you have never read anything by him, the Manifesto is a good place to start.

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Anarchism, Christainity, Justice, Liberation Theology

theologians don’t fear atheists, it’s actually bodies

“When incarnation figures in the basic theological premises of faith, the body’s complicated implication in divinity cannot be wholly spiritualized or wholly denied. Put another way, the body–bodies–always return to disrupt theological attempts at containment.” – Beyond Monotheism by Laurel Schneider

Yuta Onoda illustrated a first-person article for The Progressive by a woman married to a transgender man.

Yuta Onoda illustrated a first-person article for The Progressive by a woman married to a transgender man.

Bodies cause most theologians to tremble.* Systematic theology books ignore the subject of bodies altogether; instead, emphasize subjects such as christology, eschatology, and ecclesiology. These books demonstrate the stagnation of doctrines because bodies cannot be contained. They are ever changing, moving, losing and gaining cells, dying, breathing, crying, bleeding, and being birthed. No essence can be found here.

Nonetheless, philosophers and theologians love to discuss human nature. The idea that somehow every human in the world has the same essence behind/beyond the body, that every human can be reduced to one thing. Chiefly, Protestant theologians cast human nature into the abyss of total depravity. In other words, humanity cannot do anything good unless it is the Divine through them who does it; albeit, crickets chirp on body discourse. Now there is nothing new or interesting here, yet when it comes  to social legislation, Conservative Christians demand sovereignty over health care and birth control, essentially women’s bodies. This cannot be re-worked until we start to have a theological discourse on bodies.

Moving to the biblical, the most important events we hear about in church concerning Jesus is those moments when he is silent. During Christmastime, we call Jesus king and lord, yet he can’t affirm or deny these titles because he can’t yet speak! Jesus, as a baby, cried, pooped, and was breastfed. There is nothing miraculous about this child, but we place such high attributes on this tiny one.

The next event we find Jesus is on the cross. With Jesus’ cross, we add massive theological depth to his experience. In total, out of all the Gospels, there are only seven statements made by Jesus while on the cross. We ignore his dying and bleeding body for atonement theories. This is true whether one adores the  moral influence theory or the penal substitution theory. Jesus endured and died in extreme suffering and all we can do is essentialize the event.

During Christmas week, I came home and attended my parents’  non-denominational Pentecostal church. I was saddened that the Christmas message of Jesus in a manger was overshadowed by a theological understanding of the cross. For example, the pastor would pray “Heavenly Father, thank you for sending your Son to be born for us. He would soon grow up and die on a cross for our sins. In Christ’s name, Amen.” These theological assumptions reduce Jesus’ life to one thing, death on a cross. Similarly, one of my favorite artists, Williams Blake, seemed to have thought the same thing when he painted Nativity.

Nativity by William Blake

Bodies are dangerous to theological discourse and often ignored. My own body has been through the effects of lyme’s disease and gallbladder removal. No longer does my body fit into any kind of theological discourse because it does not have all of its parts. In Catholic Theology, Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” is more of a moral commentary on the body in social life, rather than something that addresses bodies. Bodies rupture theological and moral essences, and all for the better.

Let’s disrupt theological discourse from its binaries, contained essences, and Platonism for a contextual, radical, non-binary, and pro-love theology.

Won’t you join me?

*Queer and LGBTQQII+ theologians have embraced bodies in their fullness. One text I recommend, if you want to learn more about this subject, is Controversies in Body Theology edited by Marcella Althaus-Reid and Lisa Isherwood. Any book from the Controversies series is wonderful and contains succinct, well-researched material.

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Christainity, Justice, Liberation Theology, Prison Industrial Complex

no good, very bad, terrible horrible news: ndaa passed

The NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) was passed by Congress late Thursday night (84-15-1). It received $609 billion dollars in funding. Carl Levin, D-Mich. stated, “the bill before us is not a Democratic bill and it is not a Republican bill. It is a bipartisan, bicameral defense bill.” Those who didn’t vote for it were the outliers with very strong and differing positions from the likes of Senator Bernie Sanders, a socialist, to Senator Ted Cruz, representing the  far-right-wing of the Republican party.

Senator Cruz remarked,

“Today I voted against the National Defense Authorization Act. I am deeply concerned that Congress still has not prohibited President Obama’s ability to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens arrested on American soil without trial or due process.

The Constitution does not allow President Obama, or any President, to apprehend an American citizen, arrested on U.S. soil, and detain these citizens indefinitely without a trial. When I ran for office, I promised the people of Texas I would oppose any National Defense Authorization Act that did not explicitly prohibit the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens. Although this legislation does contain several positive provisions that I support, it does not ensure our most basic rights as American citizens are protected.”

The NDAA legislation is a mixed bag for Senator Cruz. He wants to make sure that American citizens cannot be indefinitely detained without a trail, which the bill as it stands now allows. It frightens me that this bill was passed bipartisan, not that I have much hope for Democrats, but that who wants US citizens to be detained? Are they working for us or for defense contractors? Because this is the first time a bill has passed that allows defense contractors multi-year agreements rather than their normal yearly agreement. Does this mean that we are going to more wars in the future? Is this Congress’ way of flipping off the American people and letting us know that we are never going to not be in a war?

Historically, this is the 51st year that the NDAA has passed. It has just been recently that the NDAA has been challenged. Most notably, this year’s Hedges vs. Obama, which sadly was rejected. Yet, why does the NDAA matter so much? Why did I wake up this morning angry when I saw on the Facebook newsfeed that this legislation was passed?

It’s because of priorities!

We would rather slash food assistance checks with SNAP than ever think about cutting our defense budget!*

We would rather budget $609 billion dollars for the military than to help poor people in the US!

We would rather encourage multi-year military contracts than aid in US economic recovery!

We would rather privatize the military and prisons than to setup better public programs and safety nets that actually work!!

God, forgive us for we have no idea what we are doing. 

ndaa

*If you haven’t checked out the Daily Show’s interview with Forbes Columnist John Tamny, you must!

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Christainity, Justice, Liberation Theology

shut down the school of the americas!

Tomorrow morning, me and a group of 11 others will leave from Union Theological Seminary to Fort Benning, Georgia to protest the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation ((WHINSEC) previously known as the School of the Americas). This is a US Army training facility for military persons from South and Central America. They are taught the importance of democracy and how to throw a coup if the government of their countries are Marxist or Socialist (or really anything that the US cannot control). WHINSEC’s two major accomplishments (certainly devastating) was the Honduran coup in 2009, which military leaders were trained by WHINSEC.  And the Chilean coup and murder of the democratically-elected socialist Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973.

I came to Union because I wanted to be flooded by liberation theology. Using the experience of the oppressed and the love and power of God to free them is my ultimate concern (to use a Tillichian). So when I read this answer on an archived website by a School of America’s spokesperson in 1999 to the question “Why the controversy over the School?” I flipped.

According to leaders of the opposition movement, the controversy is not limited to the School nor its graduates; but rather with U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. In their view, that policy is responsible for all the violence and repression that characterized many countries during the Cold War. The School is the easiest target for those people who believe solutions lie in eliminating military or police forces in the region. Many of the critics supported Marxism — Liberation Theology — in Latin America — which was defeated with the assistance of the U.S. Army. In other words, their objective of achieving socialist revolutionary governments failed, and they now are going after one of the mechanisms which assisted in promoting and maintaining democratic ideals.

I protest to give voice to those who cannot be present. I protest for the silent voices of the dead. I protest because this program needs to be shut down and I want to make sure they know it. I protest because bodies move/change the world, even more so than ideology. I protest because I want that struggles for peace and justice rather than being dictated by US demands.

Pray for South and Central America that they will not be inflicted by US control any longer. Pray for those fighting for freedom and non-bourgeoisie democracy all over the world. Pray for those traveling to Georgia to protest. And pray that you too may know your neighbors better trying to love them as deeply as you can. Amen.

SOA

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