Monday, October 30, 2006

acts and the courage to follow in unexpected ways

I'm taking a class on the book of Acts, and it's been interesting and fun so far. Last week we were looking at Acts 8-10, which is where the book begins to shift from talking about the early followers of Jesus in Jerusalem to showing them moving out into other areas, and being called to preach to people who are not Jews.

We compared and contrasted three stories: Philipp and the Ethiopian eunuch, Saul/Paul and Ananias, and Peter and Cornelius. Each of these is a story where a person who's already a disciple of Jesus goes to someone who is devout in their own faith and speaks to them about the new revelation of Jesus as the Christ.

It's really interesting to see the connections between these stories, and to think about how they might call us to share our faith now.

First of all, the disciples are called by God/Spirit/angel to go to someone. Philipp is asked to go to a certain spot outside of Jerusalem and wait for instructions, and speaks to someone who was presumable a Jewish proselyte or at least very interested in Judaism. Ananias is asked to go visit Saul, a Jew known to be a persecutor of Christians. Peter is called to go to a Roman centurion and go in his house, which was unheard of for a Jew worried about purity laws. Each of these stories gets progressively more difficult, and more different from what the followers of Christ have previously thought of as the way God will work in their community.

Second, each of the ones who are "converted" are of fairly high standing in their community, while the disciples called to them are not well known outside of their tiny new Christian community. The Ethiopian eunuch is in charge of the treasury of the queen; Saul is a trusted, educated and known member of the Jewish community in Jerusalem; and Cornelius is a centurion in charge of a bunch of soldiers. Philipp and Peter fisherman, and we don't know anything about Ananais' social status but that seems to indicate he didn't have anything to comment on. So it seems like these disciples were in a position of speaking truth to power--speaking out about their faith from a position of authority that came only from God.

Third, all of the disciples taking the message of Christ became converted to something themselves. This isn't as obvious in the Philipp story, but he does baptize this guy who's a eunuch, and from what I've read people had a pretty low opinion of eunuchs in that culture, no matter how powerful they were. He was perhaps a Gentile as well, and some call him the first Gentile convert. Philipp had to make the choice to allow a non-Jew into the fellowship of believers in Jesus. Ananias was incredibly afraid to go to Saul, and rightfully so--he'd heard about the persecutions that Saul had been in charge of in Jerusalem. But God "converted" him to a space of obedience and courage, and to the fact that God could change a mind and heart drastically for good. Peter was "converted" to be able to include full Gentiles in the Christian fellowship. He didn't get it for a while, even after he thought he had gotten it. But eventually, when the Holy Spirit comes on the Gentiles in Cornelius' house, he realizes, "Oh, these people have received the same gift of the Spirit as we have! It's not about what they eat or the laws they follow, it's about the Spirit in them," and he's able to say this to Jewish Christians who question him.

The most important thing about these passages is that the Spirit directs, the disciples follow, and those they are speaking to are open to new revelation. The disciples don't make a 5-year plan and decide how the Spirit is going to lead them--they just respond as the Spirit calls, even when it doesn't make sense to them or seems against their traditional beliefs. They know the Spirit and recognize when they're being called somewhere, and they obey.

I think early Friends were like this. They didn't yet have meetinghouses, so if they were preaching, they were in a public place or going where there were people who needed to hear truth. They went where they were called--sometimes very strange places (like Stephen Grellet, was it, who was called to preach in an empty wood, or Mary Fisher who was called to the sultan of Turkey, etc.), sometimes very normal places that were dangerous, and the movement grew organically, not because of a plan that George Fox or another Quaker had.

I wonder how we can keep this same sene of courageous openness to unexpected leadings today, even though we have established meetinghouses?

Thursday, October 19, 2006

is government necessary?

I was reading today about Thoreau's treatise "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience," where he suggested using civil disobedience in order to protest unjust laws, and that if anyone is a truly honest person they will withdraw their support from any government whose laws and practices are promoting something that is against their conscience. So far so good--I agree completely with Mr. Henry David.

But he also talks about his opinion that the best government is the one that governs the least, or that doesn't govern at all. So I was pondering this idea--would we really need government in an ideal world? Or do we just utilize it because it's better than the alternative, an anarchy of individuals who won't live nicely together unless they have some accountability?

I find it interesting--perhaps even ironic--that Quakers, who attempt to have as minimal of a church government as possible, are perhaps one of the most politically active denominations in our country. We have our own fairly well known and respected lobbying group for perhaps one of the smallest American denominations, Friends Committee on National Legislation. We have the American Friends Service Committee which involves itself in worldwide issues relating to how governments are treating people and working on issues that directly affect our government, like conscientious objection. Probably a majority of Quakers...I suppose I'll get into trouble with this one...are democrats or independents or of a party other than republican. Why is this? I think it's because we want the government to continue or begin giving support to those who need it, in the form of social services and schools, etc. We want a government that supports its people in just and equitable ways. (Disclaimer: this is not to say that the republican standpoint could never support people in just and equitable ways, but that the way it is being used currently does not lend itself to such things, in my own humble opinion.)

So it seems that Quakers have kind of a love-hate relationship with government. We don't want it in our religious communities, but we like it in our civil situation.

This brings me back to the question, is government necessary? Perhaps Quakers are trying to live out the ideal world in our communities of faith, where government is not necessary because we're all equal and we all try to live in ways that are loving toward each other. Even so, we have some level of government just to stay organized, although power is shared somewhat more equally than it is in the civil government, and hopefully everyone truly has a voice to say where they think God is directing in Quaker business process.

I guess we "give in" to realism when we support our civil government, because we know that people can't be trusted to live together peacefully and fairly without laws to encourage them to do so, and punishment for crimes. We also realize that some people are given from birth situations in which to live that are unfair, and so we want our government to do something to compensate for that. These are good things, I think, although it would probably be better if people could get their act together and just live together in peace and help each other out when they need it on their own without coercion. But that probably won't happen anytime soon, so I guess having governments is our best option.

One other thing that stood out to me about Thoreau's ideas was that he says that in a government that imprisons people unjustly, the only place where a just person should be is in prison, because otherwise s/he is supporting the ways of that government by living in its society and not protesting. Obviously it is probably possible to live in a society and protest and perhaps not be thrown in jail, but still, this is quite a statement! What are we all doing sitting comfortably at home, when we live under a government that very obviously imprisons people unjustly?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

on recording and the spirit

In my class about the book of Acts, we talked about how the book is really not so much about the Acts of the Apostles, but has a lot more to do with the Acts of the Spirit. Luke's work (the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts) has by far the most references to spirits, and Acts has the most references to the Holy Spirit (or the Spirit of the Lord, or just the Spirit in contexts where you know he's talking about God's/Jesus' Spirit). Everywhere you look, the Spirit is sending people and telling them what to do and say. So I think Quakers, since the only language most of us can agree on is "Spirit," can learn a lot from Acts.

What I've learned so far about the Spirit in Acts that's most interesting to me is that when the Spirit is given to someone, what happens is vocal ministry. At other times after someone has received the Spirit they are led by the Spirit or that sort of thing, but the actual gift of the Spirit, in Luke's estimation, is about speaking and is recognized through speaking. It is the Spirit who gives the apostles the ability to preach the good news. The Spirit comes and people speak in tongues (sometimes in other intelligible languages, sometimes apparently the kind of "tongues" we think of in Pentecostal denominations).

I was thinking about this in reference to the Quaker practice of "recording" ministers. I don't know how many Yearly Meetings still do this, but in Northwest Yearly Meeting, people are recorded as ministers for their vocal ministry. (For anyone visiting who is not a Quaker, "recording" is about as close as we got to ordaining ministers, although it's not really the same thing at all.) Someone can be recorded for being what we might term a "weighty Friend"--someone through whom the Spirit speaks often in meetings for worship for business, or someone who is led to speak fairly often and powerfully during times of open/unprogrammed worship. Or it can be someone who is a released minister and brings a message each week in the form of a sermon. Some of our released ministers are recorded and some are not, and some who are not released are recorded as ministers.

I always thought this was an interesting practice, because we're all ministers, right? We all have gifts and perform ministries of different sorts--why do we only record those who are gifted with vocal ministry?

I still have this question, but at the same time, it makes a little more sense after studying Acts. If the sign of the presence of the Spirit is speaking, proclaiming the good news in vocal ways, then I guess the practice of recording is noting where the Spirit is at work in our midst. This is not to say that others don't "have" the Spirit, because many people exhibit the Fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control) that are recorded in Galatians, so apparently they are also filled with the Spirit. But perhaps there is something to our recording only those who do vocal ministry. I don't know if the Friends who came up with this concept got it from Acts or not, but if so, maybe that's why we have this peculiar tradition.

At the same time, I think it would be cool if we'd record every Friend, have everyone have a mentor and read books about Quakerism and whatever else it takes to be recorded, and they would be recorded for whatever gifts their community saw in them. This would be a really amazing record to have, and an encouraging thing for those being recorded, recognized as having gifts.

Friday, October 13, 2006

more thoughts on redemption

Not only am I learning about the concept of redemption in my systematic theology class, but the Hebrew word for redeemer, "goel," has come up in my Hebrew poetry class several times, and it is also a major concept that Andre Trocme uses in his book "Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution," which we read for my class on nonviolent theology. So I felt like it would be good to do some thinking on the Hebrew concept of "redeemer."

This seems important because, first of all, the people who were expecting a Messiah were the Hebrews, and so understanding what they were looking for is important. Second, Jesus and the people who wrote the New Testament were Jews with a firm understanding of the Hebrew scriptures, and although they were highly influenced by Greek and Roman ideologies, they still were influenced greatly by Hebrew concepts.

The Hebrew word "goel" means "redeemer," or "to act as kinsman." This could take several forms, but when speaking of people always had to do with the tightly-woven family structure. It was the next-(male)-of-kin's obligation to help out his kinsman in situations where the person had fallen into debt and either had to sell a piece of property or sell himself into slavery. If these things happened the next-of-kin was obligated to buy the land being sold, or to pay for the person to get out of slavery, if he had the means. It was also the next-of-kin of a deceased man's obligation to marry a childless widow and to bear a son with her in order to continue the deceased's line of descendents (hence the situation in Ruth where Boaz had to ask the man who was a closer relation to her former husband if he was going to fulfill his kinsman-redeemer responsibility, or if Boaz could do so, since he also was a fairly close relative). It was the duty of a kinsman to "redeem," or pay a debt, that his family member could not pay in the social structure of ancient Israel.

This term often is applied to God in the Hebrew scriptures as well, and I find this very interesting and enlightening. God is Israel's "goel," Israel's kinsman-redeemer, the one who redeems Israel collectively (and sometimes individual Israelites) when they have a debt they cannot pay off. God is seen as being the kinsman-redeemer who pays the Israelites' way out of slavery in Egypt, and God is the kinsman-redeemer who brings them back to their land after the Exile.

I find this really intriguing and powerful, because it's not just that some god up in the sky helps the Israelites out every once in a while, but God is their next-of-kin. God has adopted the Israelites, and will not let their debts go unpaid. God will act as the closest member of their family whenever they have a need. This brings the idea of "redeemer" into a more tactile space for me. It also shows that even before Jesus started calling God "Abba," God was acting the part of a family member.

Interestingly, the Hebrew scriptures never use the concept of redemption from sin--at least not individual sin. God is their "goel," redeeming the whole of Israel from what could be called collective sin, from falling away from God and ending up in exile, but the idea of sin is not the emphasis. Instead, God redeems their life, their ability to live as free persons, and brings a sense of peace even when hardships continue (as in Job).

With this concept of redemption, it is easier to understand the death of Jesus. He didn't come and do an impersonal act that would take away sin, but he came as a member of our family, one who loved us in the deepest way possible, and lived and died to give us the ability to live as free persons. We're redeemed from slavery to the hopelessness of this world, and given freedom and new life to follow the hope of Christ and live out the truth of the already-not-yet Kingdom of God, where we are the next-of-kin of the King.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

it's a boy!

OK, so usually I stick to stuff that's more about my thoughts and what I'm learning, but I wanted to share with you all the ultrasound picture we got today. We found out we're having a boy! We're very excited, and looking forward to his arrival sometime around Valentine's Day.

Monday, October 09, 2006

atonement & redemption

For the last few weeks we've been studying Jesus as the Christ in systematic theology, and all the theological implications about what it could mean that he was fully human and fully divine, how the Ecumenical Councils of the early church came to "orthodox" doctrines, and what it means that he is our Redeemer.

One of the topics that I've found most interesting is the concept of atonement and redemption. In Christian churches, usually you hear only one atonement theory--one theory as to why Jesus had to die in order to redeem us. But there are actually several theories. I find it refreshing to hear about all the different theories, and to think about it myself, because really this is the central question of Christianity: why on earth would God have to die, and how is that possible, and what good did it do? I'll lay out the basic theories and then talk a bit about my thoughts on the whole thing.

The basic one is that God was angry at us and so had to kill God's Son in order to take out anger that otherwise would have been taken out on us. This is called substitutionary atonement, and is based on the theory of satisfaction: that no human could do what needed to be done to get rid of God's anger, because we're all fallen, but God couldn't just wipe out our sins because that wouldn't be just. So God came as a human, and Jesus, both human and divine, substituted his life for ours so that we wouldn't have to die (figuratively).

Closely related to this is the ransom theory, that a price had to be paid for our sins, for our state of separatedness from God, and that no redemption can happen without the shedding of blood. This is taken from the Jewish sacrificial system, and is an explanation especially in the book of Hebrews as to why the sacrificial system is no longer necessary: Jesus came as the great high priest and sacrificed himself, a pure, spotless lamb, but much better than any lamb, to be the sacrifice once for all that cleanses us from sin and unites us with God.

Then there's recapitulation: Jesus came as the "second Adam," because, as sin entered the world through "one man, Adam," so it had to be taken away by a perfect man, Jesus--one who was tempted just as Adam and the rest of us are, but didn't sin.

Some ideas favored by the early church fathers were the idea of deification--that God had to become human in order for humans to become divine; and Jesus as Teacher--showing us the way to be a perfect human, which includes suffering and death, but also new life. These are both true in their own ways, but have to be stated very carefully in order to not be taken as herestical, as many of their authors later were.

Through all these flows the Christus Victor idea, that through Jesus' death and resurrection he conquered sin, death and evil and arose victorious, a victory in which we can share if we believe in him.

So, all of these are well and good--they explain a few things, but they also have problems. My professor put his finger on it, I think, by saying that all of these ideas fall into two categories: ontological and forensic understandings of the need for redemption and the way it occurred. Ontologically, it was important who Jesus was--what Being he happened to be, because it's not like any person dying on a cross could cause our redemption, but it's important that it was Jesus, that he was the man chosen to be the Christ, the anointed one of God. The forensic understandings get at the idea that in the Bible it seems that there was a law at stake here--a broken law had to be paid for--and that this is a costly thing. It's no easy thing to pay back debts owed or to serve jail time. There was a definite cost involved, and God was willing to pay it.

But what's really going on here? Is it just a dry legal transaction? Is it just that God made creation this way and worked it out from the beginning that this would be the way the transaction would occur? Was God just coming down here and bailing out these poor weaklings from their misery, and letting them live in their misery for a while longer anyway, with the promise of a great afterlife? Is this all that atonement is? Is this all that redemption means?

My professor brought up a good point: there should also be an ethical understanding to atonement. Not only is it importantt hat it was Jesus who did the work (or rather, God through him), and that a price was paid, but the real importance is that God's redeeming love was (and is) at work. "For God so loved the world..."

God so loves the world!

That's the important part. That Jesus lived and died, and somehow remained so conscious of God that he embodied God, and that God allows us to participate in that God-consciousness and to bask in that redeeming love if we so choose (that's a little Schleiermacher for you).

The problems of some of those atonement theories: first, it's been pointed out by feminists and others that God killing the Son looks a lot like divine child abuse--and if God can do it, hey, why not the rest of us? So that's unfortunate. Also, God being so angry with us that God can't look at us is a problem. Really God loved us so much, and yes was angry in a way, but more hurt, that even though we turn away from God time and again God was determined to give us a way out, to provide a way we can't provide for ourselves. Some of these theories' problem is that they don't really require a resurrection. If Jesus pays for our sins by dying, why did he have to rise from the dead?

And there's still the huge question: why did Jesus have to die a violent death? Why couldn't he have lived a perfect life, overcoming sin by being fully human and yet not being separated from God? Why did his blood have to be shed, and why did he need to rise again?

So today my professor talked about what happened when Jesus died on the cross. He yelled out, according to Mark and Matthew, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" and according to Luke, "Into your hands I commend my spirit," and according to John, "It is finished." Was he separated from God? Was he forsaken by God? My professor says no, he was not forsaken by God--his cry in Matthew and Luke shows his trust in God, because it's the first line of Psalm 22, in which the psalmist cries out to God for deliverance and is heard. God does not turn away from him (or her). God is present as this person experiences affliction.

And this is what's so important about Jesus' death: God didn't turn away from Jesus, God didn't cause a rift between God's self and the Son at the moment of death, but God jorneyed through this suffering and pain with the human, Jesus, and God will do the same with us. It's in these moments where we cry out to God that God is closest to us. God is a good of the poor and the outcast, and has promised to be with us even in a horrible, torturous death. The cross is an act of solidarity, between the parts of the Godhead (if you want to think in Trinitarian terms) and between us and God: we are not left to face our troubles alone, but God is present even and especially in our suffering.

This isn't an abusive Father who watches his Son die and turns his back. This is a Father who so loves all the children of God that God is willing to become one of us, to suffer with us, to have mercy on us even when we are least deserving. This is a God who loves us and has gone to all lengths to be near to us. This is the God I worship.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

usa's new policy on torture and prisoners

Have others been keeping track of the new legislation, the Military Commissions Act of 2006, that passed last week on torture and prisoners of war? Basically it seems that the defined "enemy combatants" as any "person who has engaged in hostilities or who has purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States or its co-belligerents who is not a lawful enemy combatant (including a person who is part of the Taliban, al Qaeda, or associated forces)." This includes anyone "who, before, on, or after the date of the enactment of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, has been determined to be an unlawful enemy combatant by a Combatant Status Review Tribunal or another competent tribunal established under the authority of the President or the Secretary of Defense." These quotes are from the bill that passed, and I got them from an article on this blog:

It also has many other excellent articles on this and other topic(s). So basically, anyone is an unlawful enemy combatant if the American President or Secretary of Defense says so. And they can hold you indefinitely, without any kind of trial or giving a reason, and they can do pretty much what they want with you, because although they haven't completely said they're not going to follow Geneva Conventions laws on prisoners' treatment, that's just so they could get the bill passed and so the world wouldn't erupt in protest. But it's pretty obvious that's what they're doing anyway. Unlawful enemy combatants, according to the Military Commissions Act of 2006 section 948b(g), cannot invoke the Geneva Conventions laws about prisoners of war because they're "unlawful." The only people who are lawful combatants seem to be those in the actual army of a country we are at war against, or that is at war against us, or that is part of a well-organized militia that wears a recognizable uniform (but who does that anymore?).

So, since most war-type prisoners the US currently holds are not covered by the Geneva Conventions according to this definition, we can torture them all we want.

Umm...can I move to Canada? (Because I've just said that does that make me an unlawful enemy combatant? Next time I try to fly on an airplane will I get arrested and taken to Guantanamo for the rest of my life?)

So I've been thinking about torture and prisoners of war and what to do about all this, and haven't come up with any solutions yet, except to get the word out about what our government is doing. But in the meantime, my professor for theology of nonviolence wrote an excellent short piece on torture, and I asked if I could share it. His name is George Hunsinger. He is one of the organizers of a group called the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, and I highly recommend visiting their website:

Without further ado, here's what Hunsinger says about torture.

On torture.

It has been known at least since Aristotle (4th C. BCE) that torture doesn't produce reliable information. You don't have to be a genius to figure this out.

Colin Powell learned this to his lasting regret and shame by using information gained by torture (not that he knew it at the time) in his widely influential but spurious and now renounced UN speech in February 2003. The speech that took us into war.

So if torture doesn't work as a tool of interrogation, and if it should never be used even if it did, what's the point?

Not easy to figure out. Here's a hypothesis. Cheney calls it "working the dark side." Very apt perhaps as a clue.

Suppose torture is really about terror, domination and control. Both in the torture chamber and then in the wider world beyond, it inspires terror in the victims and potential victims. It is an attempt at social control, though demonic to the core. No doubt it works -- for a while. But then there's always that divine cunning in history that never seems to want to let the dark side have the last word. Call it Resurrection from the dead.

At the same time, torture comes about as close to absolute power as one can get in this life. It therefore corrupts, and corrupts absolutely, just as Lord Acton warned.

Interrogators, officials, institutions, and whole societies get hooked by working the dark side, as if it were a kind of irresistible addiction. It is rooted in the fears, the frustrations, the blind anger, and, not least, the libido dominandi of the strong over against the weak.

It is a dark and irrational force that eventually devours those who yield themselves to its practice.

That's what was legalized in this country last week.

It can't happen here, but it's happening, and who knows where the mayhem will end.