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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Advent, Christainity, Christmas, Subversive Carols

Subversive Carols: Lo How a Rose Ere Blooming

This series will interpret our beloved Christmas and Advent carols not as sentimental songs, but as a challenge to the status quo. Many of these subversive themes are already found in the lyrics, yet are often not pointed out. Enjoy the 12 days of Subversive Carols!

“Lo How a Rose Ere Blooming” by Theodore Baker

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;
Mary we behold it, the Virgin Mother kind.
To show God’s love aright, she bore to us a Savior,
When half spent was the night.

The shepherds heard the story proclaimed by angels bright,
How Christ, the Lord of glory was born on earth this night.
To Bethlehem they sped and in the manger they found Him,
As angel heralds said.

This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;
True man, yet very God, from sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.

Written in the late 16th century, “Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming” was originally a German hymn. Not entirely included in our culture of Christmas, I first heard this song in an Episcopal church I attended in 2009. Then, I heard it again sung by Sufjan Stevens, whose version is phenomenal. Anyhow, the verses in “Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming” are chalk-full of Hebrew Bible imagery and present a high view of Christ as God-babe. At the same time these lyrics overthrow systems of fascist political domination.

In current theological discourses, God is taught as being most sovereign, totally in control, and having knowledge of everything at once. It is common that for such a strong God that God’s followers should also reflect such strongness in their acts of worship.* Workout worship videos, wrestling and cage-fighting matches at all gathers, and pastors should have complete knowledge of their members’ activities. This of course is preposterous! Churches don’t run this way; instead, we project such beliefs onto our secular structures, such as the government (NSA, CIA), family (patriarchal), and violent state authorities (police/military). “Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming” deconstructs and resists such strong interpretations of a strong God and government.

Ripe with metaphor, in the first verse Jesus is “a rose…from a tender stem,” “sung by” humanity, and “a floweret bright.” These phrases do not demonstrate a sovereign divinity, but a gentle, compassionate loved one. Again in the second verse, the Rose represents Jesus. It is not God’s power shown through Jesus’ birth; instead, it is God’s tender love. And tacked on at the end of both of these verses is, “When half spent was the night.” Clearly, the middle of the night is the worst time to demonstrate any kind of authority. Power is demonstrated in broad daylight that everyone may heed its authority. Overthrowing any power for dominance and control, Jesus was born when no one expected it, in the middle of the night during winter.

The shepherds make an appearance in this song by traveling to see the sweet child. In the US context, shepherds are crusties, homeless persons, and day laborers. They are the forgotten, the nobodies. The ones no one wants to recognize, so we ignore them. It’s these people that the angels first proclaim the message of Jesus’ birth. Once again, this resists any kind of power play. Then finally, in the last verse, Jesus is called the “Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness” still “fills the air.” No remark of the cross that saves humanity, but salvation is found in the incarnation.

Our load is now lightened that we may breathe life where only death is found.

To disrupt power that goodness may abound.

Lo How an Rose Ere Blooming

* John Caputo makes the distinction between strong and weak theologians. Strong theologians teach of God’s sovereignty and the omni-s. On the other hand, weak theologians understand God not as sovereign, but as a Derridaian event. When an event takes place, it transforms everything. Everyone involved are no longer the same.

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Beliefs, Christainity, Liberation Theology, Scripture

god as stranger/kin

During my teen years, it was drilled into me that we need to believe that Jesus is both Lord and Savior. One is not a true believer if they only accept Jesus as one of those titles. I later found out that my pastor learned this doctrinal idea from the popular Reformed fundamentalist pastor John MacArthur. The sovereignty that MacArthur and my pastor were attributing to God was huge! God is a perfect Being, erring never, and everything that happens in the world is according to God’s perfect will. God’s purpose is present everywhere working in all created beings. God’s world is an orchestra playing together for God’s own purposes. Although we may feel that the violin in our own lives is out of tune on earth, God can only hear beautiful music.

The doctrine of God’s sovereignty frightens and haunts me. It has the capability to mean that humans do not have agency, but are puppets. Yet, we are oblivious to being a puppet. Thank God, the Christian tradition has several strains of resistance. Although, most of the early Christians who had a weaker version of sovereignty were deemed heretical that seems to be beside the point. Since even Tertullian and Origen were considered heretical, yet we read and praise their works today.

The alternative approach to a hierarchical sovereignty is to view God as Stranger/kin. These terms are opposite in meaning, but lead to the same engagement of God. First, God/She as stranger presents us with the divine as event*. God moves in the world, shaking it up, and on an individual level transforming us. Bringing together Moltmann and Derrida, God/She is the event that can only demonstrate love. In relation to human strangers, they are always the Other, not having any known relationship to the self. The stranger’s only commonality is their humanness. They have unlimited options in how they can approach us: ignore, high-five, scream, steal, etc. This can cause anxiety when we exit our comforting homes to unknown experiences. God as stranger acts in similar ways. We are shaken when we surrender our self ambitions to the ways of God/Her, which are justice and peace. Flannery O’Connor had it right, when she wrote “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs.  They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”

The stranger represents God/Her well in the Christian Scriptures. God always walks among the people. For example, in Luke’s narrative on the walk to Emmaus, Jesus the stranger walks with the two disciples and is revealed in a transformative moment at the breaking of the bread. This event changed the way these early disciples saw the world, that it was through the breaking of bread among other followers of the Way can we find Jesus among us. God/She also gave visions and dreams to people that effected them deeply. One does not expect such things, but they come mysteriously without warning. God/She penetrates the world and everything therein, transforming it through unexpected measures. The most prominent example with dreams happend to Peter in the Acts of the Apostles, when God changed Peter’s view of the ontological position of Gentiles. The only sovereignty that God/She as stranger has comes not with how we as people are transformed, but how God surprises as event.

While God as stranger seems disconnected to anything personal, God/She as kin presents divinity as personal. As I like different theologies, I have read several positions on God as personal. Of course, I am not speaking of Jesus or God as our personal Savior, but the way that liberation and feminist thealogions speak of the divine, as God as sufferer, lover, and kin. Or as one of my favorite feminist metaphorical thealogions Sallie McFague wrote “God as mother, lover, and friend.” God/She as personal practically does not look like God/She speaking with us or demonstrating miracles (though it is hard for me to deny either of those). Personal should sound more like personality. God has particular movements, and moments that She is present. During times of tragedy  God/She comforts and suffers with those who are involved. God is present with those who are fighting for a better world. We may not feel God, but God/She is present. Kin denies the hierarchical/above position for an equal/with one.

Elizabeth Johnson Cross Quote

In conclusion, as the death of God theologians taught us that God is no longer in heaven, but on the Earth, I agree, but take it one step further. God is present and personal, suffering, and loving us as we move toward liberation, justice and peace. It is with our God that justice to come becomes the justice that is. In the name of God/She that stands in solidarity with the oppressed, guides the rejected to love, and the feeds the poor by the works of Her children. Amen!

*a moment that transforms the way we see the world. For Derrida, “Deconstruction takes place, it is an event.” Speaking theologically, God as the event shows that those weak moments in our lives pulsate the divine. If you want to read about this further read The Weakness of God by John Caputo.

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