My Intervention with Jesus

My Intervention with Jesus
David R. Weiss – February 15, 2021

Me and Jesus go way back. I wasn’t just born into a Christian family; I was born on Jesus’ birthday—named “David” after the city of his birth. So, I sorta feel like we’re … family.

Jesus at the U.S. Capitol, January 6, 2021 Tyler Merbler – Unsplash

Which is why I was more than a little distraught to see him parading around near the Capitol on January 6. It was more than just seeing him there. It was the red MAGA baseball cap and the WWG1WGA hashtag (“where we go one, we go all) that really bothered me. I mean, friends don’t let friends party with insurrectionists at the Capitol. Especially when that friend is the supposed Son of God. So I called him on it.

I said, “Jesus, dude, really? What are you thinking? Don’t you know—your actions impact millions of people?”

Of course, he knew that already. In fact, he was a bit sheepish about the whole thing. (But not “Sorry, I wasn’t thinking” sheepish; more “lamb of God” do-you-really-want to-have-this-conversation? sheepish.)

“Listen, friend, do you think I wanted to be there? Why do you suppose that mix of white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, and militantly misguided citizens thought to carry me around the Capitol with nary a concern for my own professed loyalties?

“Maybe because that Jesus being paraded around in a MAGA cap with a Qanon hashtag—that isn’t some newfangled distortion of me. Most churches have kept my loyalties pretty much under wraps all these years, making me complicit in your own silence toward social evils of all sorts. Whether in stained glass windows, or Sunday School curriculum, or in the sermons from your pulpits, how often did you let me weigh in on your pursuits to colonize whole lands and enslave boatloads of people (that is, those who didn’t die in the crossing)? How often did you give me a chance to respond to your genocidal greed for this land, your breech of treaty after treaty after treaty? You wiped out entire nations of God’s children, while my portrait silently graced your churches in unholy blessing of your deeds.”

He dropped his voice to a whisper as though to contain his anger, “How dare you.”

I wanted to say, “Yes, but—” But he wasn’t having it.

“While you drug your feet over civil rights—hell, you weren’t dragging your feet you were racing to twist slavery into Jim Crow into voter suppression into mass incarceration—and all this while you put ‘In God we trust’ on the money and inserted ‘God Bless America’ at the end of your State of the Union addresses. But me, I wasn’t allowed to say a damn thing about the least of these Black Lives that matter so dearly to me!”

My ears were getting seared, but there was no stopping him now.

“You only begrudgingly acknowledged women as your equals (they’ve often been your betters!), but along the way do you know how many times you invoked ME to demean their dignity?! I do. And how dare you! And those rainbow queer children I welcomed on God’s behalf—who desperately but deeply knew themselves beloved—you did your best to undo that welcome. You sang praises to me while damning them in my name. How dare you!”

“For Christ’s sake—” he caught the irony in his words and upped the ante while raising his voice, “For God’s sake, you threw the very children I took into my arms INTO CAGES—torn from their families—and beyond a few weak words of indignation, what ruckus did you raise to defend these little ones? How many tables did you overturn in the halls of Congress on their behalf?! Do you think your calm beleaguered demeanor made clear to others the cost of discipleship I declared?”

I was done for, but he had one more volley (or two?) left in his voice.

“For generations now you’ve treated this earth, not one bit like it was “the Lord’s—and the fulness thereof,” but like it was your personal cesspool. And how often, while you’ve strip-mined and clear-cut and polluted and fouled things as far as you can reach, how often have you considered what I—who you yourselves say is the very Word “through whom all things were made”—might say about the systems and habits, the principalities and powers that grind up creation for one more damn dollar? How dare you!”

A long dreadful silence ensued. During which I prayed to simply disappear, while Jesus was positively heaving with prayerful anger. Until he closed with these words.

“You say—and you’re right—that Trump didn’t make America an uglier place, he merely revealed the ugliness festering just beneath the surface. He merely invited and amplified the ugliness that has misshapen this country since its origins to venture more fully into the open all over again. So listen, my friend, that Jesus being paraded around in a MAGA cap with a Qanon hashtag—that isn’t some newfangled distortion of me.

“No, it’s the damning revelation of how silent—and worse—churches have been about who I really am. Generations—centuries!—of silence and cooperation in unspeakable evils against your fellow humans, your companion creatures, and your home itself all the while claiming loyalty to me—have made me the unwilling mascot of whatever the latest malevolence happens to be. That’s why you saw me up at the Capitol on January 6.

“Any intervention—and I wholeheartedly endorse an intervention—ought to begin in your pulpits and in your sanctuaries and in your lives. Let justice roll down—in my name. Let the least of these always be at the forefront of your concern—in my name. And let creation be the recipient of your reverence and repair—in my name. Do these things without ceasing and there’ll be far less confusion about who I am.

“And far less confusion about who you are, too.”

So much for my intervention with Jesus. Turns out it was really an intervention with me. Maybe with you, too?

* * *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

This entry was posted on February 15, 2021. 1 Comment

Why Do We Even Bother to Hope?

Why Do We Even Bother to Hope?
David R. Weiss – February 13, 2021

I admit: I feel kicked in the gut. But the writing was on the wall from the very beginning. Despite Trump willfully repeating lies about the election, both before and after Election Day, and using the reach of his lies and the volume of his rhetoric to inflame his base until they stormed the Capitol, we were told from the beginning that there would be no conviction.

Politics is often long on posturing and short on justice. That can be true on both sides of the aisle, yet we found ourselves hoping that this breach of civility, this direct assault on our democracy, would be met by resolute even if costly patriotism rather than crude partisanship. We hoped that the stakes—frightfully high in a nation as deeply polarized as it is well-armed—would cause the Senate to rise above its Trumpian stupor to, in fact, put “America first.”

We hoped the eloquent words of the House Managers and the searing footage of the Capitol carnage would be cause for conscience to come forward. We hoped that new details, maybe even witnesses, would provide the necessary “cover” for those too cowardly to do their duty on principle alone. We hoped. And we hoped. And we hoped.

And once again we feel played for the fool.

Is there no justice, O God? This man, bereft of office remains filled with vengeful anger. He promises to consolidate his movement—the one he “did not” incite but whose violence he quietly adores—to send our nation further and faster toward social and political calamity.

Is there no justice, O God?! We will be told that now it’s time to “move on.” Look for middle ground somewhere between a lynching tree and a new wave of voter obstruction. Somewhere between caged children and employment abuses. Somewhere between hate crimes and whispered hatred. Somewhere between overt white nationalism and mere white privilege. Somewhere between ecological self-annihilation and business as usual.

Is there no justice, O God?!!! When the party that clings to prayer so openly (and successfully!) mocks justice, employing false piety to put a shiny veneer on abject evil, why do we even bother to hope?

Because hope holds the heart of God.

Because the hope we dare to feel—not foolish optimism, but the restless anguished desperate longing for justice even when the odds are immeasurably and unconscionably long—that hope is the arc of the moral universe asking for our company. And even in the moments—so many and so costly throughout history—when the arc has failed to bend, even then hope matters. Betrayed, broken-hearted, angered—those feelings twisting inside are hope refusing to die.

Our refusal to make peace with injustice, our refusal to negotiate over the lot of the poor, our refusal to countenance the ongoing pillage of creation—these things mark our hope, too. In this moment, the very agony of hope is its unwavering witness to moral truth in the face of immoral power.

When I say hope holds the heart of God, I mean—whether you count yourself a believer or not—that hope holds the longing of universe for beauty, for harmony, for liberation, and for love. Somedays that hope soars in our hearts. Somedays it sobs in our souls. And sometimes it steels itself for the next opportunity to bend the arc toward the heart of God.

Today we sob. Tomorrow we steel. And here and there along the way I promise you, we soar.

* * *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

This entry was posted on February 13, 2021. 3 Comments

Jesus Before the Gospels: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus

Jesus Before the Gospels: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus
David R. Weiss – February

[I’ll be using this as the basis for an adult forum at St. Paul’s UCC on Wed. 2/10/21 at 6:30 CST on Zoom. Ask me for the link if you’re interested. This is a longer than usual post. You can find a pdf here.]

“Who do you say that I am?” The question posed to the disciples in the Gospels (Mk 8:27-35 | Mt 16:13-23 | Lk 9:18-22) may or may not go back to Jesus himself, but it captures well the existential question that has confronted his followers ever since.

Faces of Jesus – Odessa Life Project (www.stjameswh.org/blog/a-jesus-by-any-other-name)

It is, finally, a question of faith. His first followers answered it with their feet, their heartfelt loyalty, and often their lives—grounded ultimately in their conviction that Jesus was indeed somehow Messiah, Christ, “chosen of God.” Decades later the Gospel writers answered the same question in composing their tales of glad tiding. Although we presume their answers agree, there is a great deal more variety in how they portray Jesus than we’re entirely comfortable with. And, throughout history, the church—from theologians to mystics, from heretics to hermits—has wrestled with this same question.

And so do we.

But only in the last seven decades or so has that question been posed in two parts: Who was this man Jesus before the Gospels got a hold of him? And who is he in my life and the life of my community today? The first question names the challenge of “the historical Jesus”; the second one names the challenge of faith.

For close to two thousand years that first question wasn’t even around. Most Christians took it for granted that there was no difference between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith”—they assumed the Gospels offered us a more or less accurate historical record of Jesus’ life, free from “spin.” Thus, for most of church history—including as recently as that of our grandparents and great-grandparents—the decision about what to make of Jesus as Christ has been largely detached from history. It was a decision conditioned entirely by the biblical portrait(s) of Jesus, the dominant (or latest) theological trends, and (most likely) the preaching and teaching in one’s local parish. Generations upon generations of faithful Christians answered this question seriously, devotionally, thoughtfully, without the aid of recent scholarship. And we dare not diminish their answers on that account.

But neither can we pretend that the historical Jesus has no relationship to our faith today. What we are learning about Jesus “before the Gospels” matters. And even though our “quest for the historical Jesus” is a conversation with uncertainty, it is a conversation into which the God who is still speaking invites us today. Reckoning as best we can with the historical Jesus may help us notice more clearly the choices of interpretive faith—choices that cast the tidings about Jesus as glad tidings—made by the first Gospel writers in their accounts. And this helps equip us to offer our own most faithful account of who Jesus is for us today—especially those of us committed to being among the community of his faithful followers in such a time as this.

The Quest for the Historical Jesus

What has come to be known as the “Quest for the historical Jesus” began in the late 1700’s. While some of the earliest entries featured painstaking if not yet critical use of the Gospels, other “lives” of Jesus did little more than harmonize the four tellings and still others embellished Jesus’ childhood and inner life driven by theological presumptions—or outright sensationalism—but with no historical basis. Soon after, in the 1800’s, fueled by the Enlightenment, efforts were made to tell the “real” life of Jesus by erasing the supernatural. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, famously edited his own version of the Gospels, removing any of the miracles that offended reason, leaving a life of Jesus focused simply on moral teaching. Jefferson was no historical Jesus scholar, but his miracle-free Bible reflected perfectly the serious scholarly work being done at the time.

In 1906, Albert Schweitzer, shortly before heading to Africa as a medical missionary, published the book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, which has come to name (even retroactively) all such efforts. Schweitzer, using the best scholarship and critical tools available in that era, produced a portrait of Jesus that was unflinching in its ethical claims on human lives, but which came with a wrenching conclusion. Schweitzer’s Jesus was an apocalyptic (end-times) prophet who was convinced that if he was just audacious enough in his message and deeds, God would join him in effecting the Kingdom of God here on earth, now. In describing the culmination of Jesus’ life, from his entry into Jerusalem through his death on the cross, Schweitzer writes near the end of his book that Jesus “lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and he throws himself on it. Then it does turn; and crushes him.”

And with those words the quest for Jesus was virtually crushed as well.

For Schweitzer the Jesus of history is a sincerely mistaken messiah whose final gambit to bring about the kingdom he preached led tragically to his own death. This Jesus is ultimately a stranger to us, an enigmatic figure who Schweitzer suggests we would do best to leave behind and focus instead on a mystical union with Christ as ethical inspiration for our lives. This plays out admirably in his own life—in 1952, at age 77, and forty-six years after “throwing Jesus under the bus” so to speak—he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his philosophy of “Reverence for Life,” articulated in both his writings and in his life work. But Schweitzer’s impact on the quest was to effectively end it for almost fifty years.

During this period (usually dated from the 1906 publication of The Quest until the mid 1950’s) leading church theologians focused on the priority of the church’s kerygma, its proclamation about Jesus as Christ: more specifically, its offer of salvation to those who believe. Some rather stridently said that the Jesus of history—whoever he was—simply doesn’t matter. What matters is what the church, beginning with the Gospels, proclaimed about him. At its strongest, this position argued that even if the Jesus of history was nothing like(!) the person preached by the church, that’s okay, because the only Jesus that truly mattered was the one God was proclaiming through the church. You have to appreciate the audacity of this approach—it was, in many ways, aligned with existentialist philosophy and theology and interested in promoting an authentic (and deeply ethical) Christian life. Still, there’s something unsatisfying and maybe more than a little unsettling about making the factual life of a movement’s founding person so superfluous to the movement itself.

In the mid-1950’s, sparked by new tools of textual analysis, the Second Quest began with scholars looking for the historical Jesus with fresh vigor between, behind, and beneath the lines of the Gospels. In large part this Second Quest was fueled by new insights into the layered writing of the Gospels that persuaded most (but not all) biblical scholars that the passages reflecting belief in the imminent end of history—including words placed on the lips of Jesus himself—were, in fact, creations of the early church. Although a bit alarming to the casual lay person (“Are you saying the Gospel writers put words into Jesus mouth?!”), this made sense to these scholars. Given what they were learning about the layered history of the Gospels, it was increasingly clear that some themes in the written texts were shaped by events, conflicts, and attitudes that came well after Jesus. If his apocalyptic sayings were in that category, it would mean that the historical Jesus would be found by looking elsewhere. And so they did. Jesus’ “rehabilitation” began.

Beginning in the 1970’s this “looking for Jesus elsewhere” became known as the Third Quest, which has continued to the present. The Third Quest for the historical Jesus is marked by its incorporation of tools, methods, and angles of investigation drawn from far beyond biblical scholarship itself. By augmenting—and interpreting—the biblical portrait of Jesus with knowledge from history, sociology, comparative religions, and the study of other movements, the Third Quest has brought us closer to the Jesus of history than ever before.

That isn’t to suggest there’s a clear consensus, but there’s an array of scholars leveraging a host of new insights to fashion fresh and often vivid portraits of who Jesus might have been. However, as with any discipline using a range of specialized knowledge, the “experts” in historical Jesus studies can be fiercely committed to their own conclusions—and even more fiercely dismissive of views that differ from their own. So, if you were hoping for a definitive once-for-all historical Jesus you’ll be sorely disappointed …

But that’s how it’s always been. Certainty was never in the cards.

Our Starting Place

Remember, there was a twenty year “gap” between Jesus’ public ministry (30-33 CE) and the first written records (Q around 50 CE), and a forty- to seventy-year gap between his life and the biblical Gospels themselves. That gap wasn’t silent—it was filled with oral stories. But these were tales of witness and faith and “glad tidings” (gospel)—not intended to capture or carry accurate history. Not surprisingly, then, even the four Gospels we have in the Bible differ in their telling. If the Bible marks out the range of acceptable variability in telling the glad tidings of Jesus, it’s a surprisingly wider range than we notice when we encounter Jesus in lectionary sound bites on Sunday morning.

Moreover, while each Gospel puts a slightly different spin on how they see Jesus, meeting these tales as we do, with the “benefit” of a 2000-year tradition, it seems obvious that Jesus was who the Gospels make him out to be: Christ, Messiah, Emmanuel, Son of Man, Son of God, Savior of the world. But wait. While Jesus clearly caught the notice of his fellow Jews, most of them found him an ambiguous enough figure that it was easier to reserve judgment than to embrace him as messiah. That’s not evidence of their “hard-heartedness”! It merely proves that among Jesus’ most defining features was ambiguity.

Thus, the one thing that the historical record tells us with something close to crystal clarity is this: even if we could catch a time machine back to first century Palestine, 30 CE, and encounter the man from Nazareth firsthand, we would still have to figure out for ourselves how to answer his question, “Who do you say that I am?”—with no guarantee that we’d answer the same way we do today. And yet, if I could sell you a $25 ticket on that time machine, my guess is most of you would purchase one in a heartbeat. Well, I just happen to have the keys to Ms. Frizzle’s Magic School Bus for the evening, so if you’re game, find a seat—no tickets required!—and we’ll be off. 

First, a quick caveat: I’m not an historical Jesus scholar myself. But, in addition to having studied New Testament Greek and having done graduate level coursework in the Gospels, I’ve read a couple thousand pages of historical Jesus scholarship over the years. I’ve certainly learned enough to have made some informed opinions of my own.

Broadly speaking there are three camps of historical Jesus scholars. (Yes, this oversimplifies it, and there would be plenty of experts who’d say I’ve unfairly lumped them in with someone whose methods or conclusions they dismiss as foolhardy. But we don’t have time for a whole seminar on this topic, so simplicity wins the day.)

One camp of scholars continues to refine the trajectory marked out by Schweitzer, affirming that, like it or not, Jesus was convinced that the End was imminent. Therefore, however invigorating-and-then-discomforting that may have been for the early church (within decades they faced an End that wasn’t coming) as well as for us today, understanding who Jesus was back then—and deciding who he is for us today—begins with the recognition that he preached an End that never came. Oops. I think it’s fair to say that for most scholars in this camp Jesus is a subject of intense academic curiosity and passion … but of little faith concern. That is, most if not all the scholars in this camp are not Christian, so this Jesus is no threat to their faith.

While this view is in the minority today, it remains a tenacious minority. My guess is that most of us—persons with a vested interest in a “believable” Jesus—sleep a little easier knowing this view hasn’t won a consensus. But it’s important to acknowledge it’s a legitimate, defensible position.

A second camp of scholars pretty much affirm as “historical” the Jesus described in the Gospels. These scholars tend to be persons shaped by and connected to more conservative-evangelical or traditional-mainline faith traditions. Their biblical scholarship is top-notch, but it tends to be set within a framework that takes for granted that behind Jesus stands a personal supernatural God who intervenes in history in ways that bend or break the laws of nature.

This camp includes scholars who range from fundamentalist in their theology to others whose work and views are extraordinarily sophisticated and nuanced. I place them in the same camp because at the end of the day my sense is that these folks end up where they began: their scholarship, sincere and solid, is driven foremost by a desire to defend the biblical claims about Jesus. That’s a fair project, especially among mainline conservative-traditional and perhaps even liberal mainline Christians. It harnesses reason to make the best case for preserving (as much as possible) the picture of Jesus passed on to us by the dominant tradition of the church over the past two millennia.

But here’s my bet: most of us who’ve found our way to the liberal-progressive end of the Christian spectrum wound up here because whole pieces of that traditional-comfortable mainline Christianity began to feel uncomfortable for us. Whether because of our honest commitment to a rigorous scientific worldview, our awareness of how many voices—lives!—have been silenced and excluded by the Christian tradition across the ages, or simply the unexpected twists and turns of our own personal lives and inward journeys, our deepest intuitions bear witness to a world both messier and more wondrousthan the one we inherited. As a result, we’re willing to entertain proposals that seek to understand Jesus while dancing at the edge of doubt, portraits that can foster faith in the space where head and heart are mutual partners in holding our humanity together. That’s where we’re headed now.

This third camp of Questers include scholars who would identify as atheist, agnostic, or Christian. And the details of their specific portraits differ significantly. What links them across their differences is a conviction that the man Jesus, hidden-but-accessible in history, is best understood against the backdrop of the world in which he acted, in all its historical, political, economic, social, and religious richness. And—that we can deepen our understanding of that complex world by comparing it with what we know about other similar contexts of ferment in other places and times. And—that this Jesus can be refined in focus by careful references to other religious leaders, both within and beyond his own tradition.

The result is a three-dimensional sketch of Jesus informed by the biblical text, a deep sense of the dynamic context in which he lived, and a larger understanding of how religious leaders and their movements unfold in discernible patterns. From within the work of this third camp I’ve found a portrait of Jesus that is both compelling and challenging: it resonates with a thoughtful worldview even as it feeds a healthy restlessness within my heart. It has allowed me to encounter a Jesus whose echo can be discerned within the biblical text but whose life and energy is larger even than these early biblical tales captured.

A Portrait of Jesus for Hearts and Minds Today

The portrait I’ll share here is most indebted to the work of Marcus Borg, although I’ve also greatly appreciated the writings of John Dominic Crossan and Richard Horsley. What sort of person would we encounter if we could meet Jesus, the man, before the Gospels, during his ministry? Borg suggests we would meet a person who could be characterized in four ways: spirit-person, social prophet, movement renewer/founder, and wisdom teacher. All four are patterns of religious identity found in multiple traditions—that is, they don’t make Jesus one-of-a-kind; but they make him recognizably “holy” in a near universal way. I think that’s an asset. Often a holy person embodies just one of these roles, occasionally a pair of them. Jesus is fairly unique (but, again, not singularly so) in embodying all four roles. In any concrete expression these roles can overlap, and in Jesus’ life that’s certainly true. I’ll describe each role on its own, but there are no clear boundaries between them, and you’ll no doubt catch holiness “splashing” across the labels as I explain them.

Spirit-Person. Sometimes called ecstatics or mystics, these are persons with an immediate experience of the Holy, persons whose very presence exudes the intimacy they know with God … or Truth. For instance, it’s said that the Buddha’s face shone to a degree that was either enthralling or disturbing depending on your readiness to hear his wisdom. Or that if you met the Dalai Lama you couldn’t help but feel the peace flowing outward from him. Similarly, when Jesus prayed to God as “Abba,” (literally, a warmly affectionate term like “Papa” that went well beyond the more formal “Father”) it reflected not his piety—nor even his “ontological” relationship to “the Father”—but the radical nearness that he knew with God.

As indicated by the references to the Buddha and the Dalai Lama, however, spirit persons do not necessarily “prove” God; what they do testify to, is that capacity of humans to experience—and live out of—a Remarkable-and-Numinous-Depth-of-Reality (which might be named as God or Truth or Enlightenment). As a result, spirit persons are typically charismatic—NOT that they speak in tongues, but that they carry themselves with a presence that is intrinsically appealing because it rings with a Moreness that we humans seem to intuit is at the heart of reality even though we rarely meet it face to face. Spirit persons take your breath away because they’re almost more real than you think is possible. Were such a person to ask you to “Follow me,” you might well drop your nets and do so.

Spirit persons are often associated with visions (like at Jesus’ baptism, temptation, and transfiguration) and with the type of prayer or meditation that led Luke (writing decades later) to describe Jesus as regularly going off to a lonely place to pray all night long.

Spirit persons also frequently channel a sort of healing energy. This doesn’t mean they effect healings by magically altering the physical world. In Jesus’ case it meant that his deep connection to the Reality he experienced as God—and as profoundly, overwhelmingly gracious—opened him to an energy could be mediated to others. And mediated with such force that it could break through levels of trauma, shame, isolation, and judgment—all of which can have physical manifestations. And that this breaking through could have a “miraculous” healing effect on others, calling down “wholeness” onto bodies and psyches that had been otherwise bound and broken. That doesn’t imply Jesus could heal every disease or injury. But there was undoubtedly a large measure of healing energy that coursed through him, and it seeded the stories of healing that were remembered and multiplied after him.

One argument used by scholars to trace exorcisms (one special type of psychic healing) back to Jesus himself is that even his adversaries acknowledge that he cast out demons; they accused him of accomplishing his exorcisms by being in league with Beelzebub, the prince of demons—evidence that his reputation as a healer was too well established for anyone to challenge the healings outright. Borg further distinguishes between miracles that belong to the story of Jesus (healings and exorcisms) and miracles that belong to the story about Jesus (those that involve suspending laws of nature: multiplying food, walking on water, stilling storms). For Borg the second set of miracles are not untruths per se; rather, although not historical fact, they’re part of the symbolic narrative that carried the truth of Jesus as spirit person to later generations.

Finally, in the Jewish tradition in which Jesus emerges there are instances of other spirit-persons—other Jewish holy men—whose intimacy with God was so striking that it led others to refer to them as “son of God.” The church eventually decided Jesus’ “sonship” was a theological claim about divinity, but it’s possible that it began as the simple, awe-driven recognition that he was a most special but thoroughly human person.

Social Prophet. Such holy persons were well-known in Judaism. We know their names: Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and others. These persons were often also ecstatics (driven by visions or otherworldly convictions) but because this holy identity usually expressed itself in a severe critique of the social order, they were more likely to be disdained as gadflies than revered as mystics.

“Prophet” in this role does NOT mean they predicted the future via supernatural foresight. In Israel, prophets spoke to the present moment with a keen sense of God’s expectations joined to an uncompromising view of their community’s life and an uncanny perception of larger geopolitical tumult. They were, in a sense, God’s intelligence operatives on the ground in Israel. Just as some savvy observers of the American socio-religious political landscape “predicted” years ago that conditions were ripening for the re-emergence of white supremacy and a political leader like Trump, Israel’s prophets, from Isaiah to Jesus accurately recognized a collision course between Israel’s inner life and catastrophic outward effects. It’s very believable to suggest that Jesus foresaw violence in Jerusalem’s future not because he could peer past the present, but because he was keenly perceptive of the forces at play in the present.

For Jesus, as well as for his “colleagues” across the ages, prophets were intrinsically social prophets. They were animated by their conviction that God’s holiness was profoundly political: that God was deeply invested in how power was held and shared in communities. Hence, God’s commitment to freeing slaves and to safeguarding the needs of orphans, widows, and the needy. In most societies—Israel is hardly unique in this—power tends to accumulate with those who hold wealth or status, who then consolidate power further by using religious and other social mechanisms to maintain their place at the top of a social hierarchy. Borg describes this as a “politics of holiness,” where categories of clean/unclean and other ritual expectations end up being used to determine who’s in and who’s out, who holds value and who is unvalued.

Once you can grasp that this manner of “holiness” is really a cover for human bias amplified with sacred/social value, you can realize that this type of politics undergirds the structural bias that misshapes most societies—including ours today. White supremacy, homophobia, and sexism all express a politics of holiness where one type of value is made “sacred” or “ultimate” and others are denigrated as a result.

In Jesus’ day, the oppressive economic-cultural-imperial pressure of Rome threatened Jewish identity in multiple ways. And a “politics of holiness” played out as well in efforts to preserve Jewishness in the face of outside pressure. Essenes retreated into the wilderness in isolation. Pharisees doubled down on adherence to the Torah. And resistance fighters took up arms against Rome. Each response was an attempt to preserve one understanding of Jewish identity but threatened to fracture the community overall.

Borg says Jesus’ response was to challenge the politics of holiness altogether, drawing on the legacy of the Jewish prophets to argue for a politics of compassion. He looked to preserve Jewish identity by calling his community back to the most liberating expression of their faith espoused in the ideals of the Exodus and the messages of the prophets: a community founded on interwoven care for others as beloved by God.

Thus, as a social prophet Jesus challenged the religious-social values that fractured the community, generated poverty, created outcasts, and maintained unjust relations. His clashes with the religious authorities—some of which no doubt trace back to his lifetime, others of which were created by the later Gospel narratives—reflect this role. His decisive action in clearing the Temple is a prophetic act that directly accused Temple practices of having veered from supporting compassion to served “holiness” in an unholy way. It is fundamentally of question of whether God serves to maintain status and order or whether God longs to liberate absolutely everyone. Social prophets—including Jesus—proclaim God’s solidarity with everyone, but especially with the least of these.

Movement Renewer/Founder. This role describes persons who move beyond the critique of what’s wrong, to fill out a positive view of what an alternate community would look like … would live like. As such a person Jesus didn’t seek to found a new movement; he sought to spark a renewal of his own Jewish tradition. With this in mind his ministry involved imagining and implanting community practices that embody a new (renewed) way of being, one that would recapture and deepen the liberatory vision of Moses and thereby fashion a community where all might flourish in the knowledge that God loved them and that their community affirmed them as beloved by God.

Jesus, like many other social prophets, including Martin Luther King, Jr., understood that the politics of holiness preserved power for those at the top by pitting those below against each other. Hence, any effort to build a Beloved Community required dedicated practices of forgiveness, reconciliation, inclusion, and generosity. We catch glimpses of Jesus setting up practices like these—including his radically open table fellowship in the Gospels (a sort of precursor to lunch counter sit-ins)— and these scenes likely echo aspects of Jesus’ actual life. The active presence of women in Jesus’ ministry reflects this vision, as do his teachings that hint at the profound mutuality he deemed as the hallmark of the kingdom—the kin-dom—of God. That Jesus seems to have been derided by his critics for feasting too much (and doing so with outcasts), and being overly joyful—these things suggest that his movement was, in fact, an active and successful experiment in creating Beloved Kin-dom.

I say “experiment” not to make it seem overly marked by “trial and error,” although perhaps it was. Gandhi titled his memoir “My Experiments with Truth,” to evoke the sense that nothing about his life of action was “certain” beyond his conviction that all persons were interconnected and holy. Everything else was a matter of leveraging these truths in this way or that. I imagine Jesus did something quite similar. His teachings on turning the other cheek, walking a second mile, and surrendering one’s cloak are Gandhian in their strategic understanding of power. None of this is to lessen Jesus’ stature. It may suggest that how we answer his question, “Who do you say that I am?” involves stating whether we are willing to join in continuing that experiment of God’s kin-dom today.

Wisdom Teacher. Called sages, sometimes pictured as mountaintop gurus, there were wisdom teachers, like Socrates—and Jesus—who were active in the marketplace, using probing questions, pithy aphorisms, or imaginative stories to try and pierce the “conventional wisdom” that held the world, as it is, in place.

Wisdom teachers are those who speak from the road less traveled. Conventional wisdom has its place—it’s “conventional” because it works most of the time—but it isn’t the wisdom that breaks through to the next place. In fact, conventional wisdom is what undergirds the politics of holiness. It is the currency of the world we know, but it cannot purchase the world we—and God—long for. A deeper wisdom is needed for that.

In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles it is the Deep Magic from before the dawn of time. For Buddha, it is held by the Four Noble Truths and mutual co-arising. For Hindus, it is hinted at in atman, the thread of being that unites all. For Jesus, this alternative wisdom is rooted in the radical graciousness of God. (I don’t want to necessarily claim that all religious truth claims are echoes of one final truth, but I do think that, beyond the way they get refracted by different cultures, languages, histories, topographies, etc., there is more agreement than we notice.)

Both Jesus’ short sayings and his longer parables function like Zen koans, seeking to flip worlds where they are most firmly anchored—inside a hearer’s heart or head. Collections of Jesus’ sayings were among the first written documents produced, even before the Gospels were written. Clearly, his spoken words were memorable and treasured by his followers. They seem to have held onto them (we catch glimpses of this already in the Q material and the community that gathered around it) in the confidence—the faith—that somehow these words themselves have the power to create the community they speak of. Such words were honored not as magical incantations, but as invitations to repattern human lives grounded in a sweeping notion of grace.

What might it mean to Defund the Police or even Abolish Prisons? Such phrases are easy to lambast from the vantage point of conventional wisdom. But from the claim of God’s radical graciousness and the daring invitation to “experiment” with such a truth, these phrases sound astonishingly like echoes of gospel. To take Jesus seriously as teacher of alternative wisdom “back then” can make for some surprising echoes when that wisdom speaks today.

The Question Posed Again: “Who do you say that I am?”

Ms. Frizzle’s Magic Bus always took her students on journeys of discovery, but perhaps never quite so provocative as our excursion today. Were we to travel back in time we’d encounter a Jesus who looked quite unlike our Western art has imaged him: shorter, swarthier, more earthy and more “foreign” that we easily call to mind. And he would be speaking Aramaic—without subtitles—making it altogether impossible to follow his words. But if we presume to surmount these obstacles, there is a historical person out there that we might meet.

Jesus, before he was throned in glory, before he was laid in a manger, was a real person.

He was a spirit-person. Had we encountered him, even without understanding a word he spoke, it’s likely we would’ve felt our hearts quicken and maybe even the hair on our necks rise up in physiological acclamation. Call it holiness or full-on humanity, Jesus’ presence was palpable.

He was a social prophet. The fire in his belly was fiercely fixed on the gap between the vibrant community God longed for and the world that was (that still is). His criticism of unjust power was unflinching and withering. He was a force to be reckoned with.

He was a movement renewer/founder. Rooted in Israel’s hope, he gathered a community that actually began to incarnate the kin-dom he imagined. Were we there, we’d be struck—maybe dumbfounded—by the vibrant energy of human lives touching their power in new ways.

He was a wisdom teacher. And while this would require a facility in Aramaic and in his social context to follow the power of his words, if we did nothing more than watch the faces of those who could follow his speech, in their eyes, their raised or furrowed brows, their smiles or frowns, we’d see worlds flipping before our very eyes.

The Gospels do their best—each for their own audiences set in a particular time and place—to tell the “glad tidings” of Jesus. That is, they summon up a tale that hopes to make those who hear it, feel, experience, know, and be transformed by the good news they tell. But the very nature of such good news is that it is always specific. It waits—it longs—to be told fresh in each new age.

That longing is what we hear in the question before us, “Who do you say that I am?”

There has never been a single once-for-all answer. So, like it or not, we’ll need to answer this question for ourselves, singly and together, but understanding who the historical Jesus was can help. Although I must confess what has come to haunt me most about this Jesus. I get that he’s somehow holy. But I increasingly suspect this is because he’s decidedly more fully and recklessly human than I have ever been. And the more I learn about him, the more I’m convinced he was never interested in being worshipped. But rather truly interested in having a community of folks willing to do experiments in grace alongside him. Together.

Jesus: “Who do you say that I am?”

Me: You are rooted in God’s grace, overflowing with compassion. And more fully human than I’ve ever been—
—yet.

*          *          *

SOURCES – I’ve chosen not to footnote this essay to keep it easier to read. Among the many authors and books that have influenced my thinking, the most significant are:

Borg, Marcus: Jesus: A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship, HarperSanFrancisco, 1987; and Meeting Jesus Again: The Historical Jesus & the Heart of Contemporary Faith, HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. New Vision is an accessible but meticulously detailed sketch of the Historical Jesus. Meeting Jesus is a “Reader’s Digest” version of New Vision, pitched to a wider audience; it’s an excellent introduction.

Crossan, John Dominic: Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. Crossan’s Jesus is more austere than Borg’s, but his presentation is eloquent, challenging, and evocative nonetheless.

Horsley, Richard: Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, Fortress Press, 1987; and Jesus and Empire, Fortress Press, 2003. Horsley’s work is dense, but super informative on the social context and dynamics in which Jesus was active.

© David R. Weiss | 2021.02.07 | drw59mn@gmail.com

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

‘Build Back Better’ Means Unbuilding Nuclear Weapons

‘Build Back Better’ Means Unbuilding Nuclear Weapons
David R. Weiss – January 22, 2021

In August 1988 I played a tiny role one of the most daring occupations of nuclear weapons sites in US history. The Missouri Peace Planting, as it was called, involved the successful simultaneous entry into ten nuclear missile silo sites—an entire “flight” of ICBM missiles buried beneath America’s heartland.

“Silo Sitting” Bonnie Urfer, 1988

I was some 500 miles away in Madison, Wisconsin, helping to coordinate local and national press releases. At the time I was a very active volunteer with Nukewatch, one of the planning partners in the months-long complicated and covert planning. Two of my colleagues, Nukewatch staff Sam Day and Bonnie Urfer, were on the ground in Missouri—more specifically, on ground immediately above missile silo hatches. Altogether fifteen persons nonviolently entered silo enclosures with banners, flowers, seeds, seedlings, and music. Actions for which most of them they would spend many months in prison.

The heartfelt and profoundly moral convictions that motivated them to risk freedom in order to bear witness to truth that August thirty-two years ago continue to inspire me today. Today.

Today, January 22, 2021, the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) goes into effect. Having been ratified by fifty sovereign nations around the globe (the fiftieth nation triggers it going into effect), last month 130 member nations voted in favor of a UN resolution that endorsed the treaty; some of those nations have also begun the ratification process. The TPNW places nuclear weapons under the same global ban that every other weapon of mass destruction is already under. It is hardly a radical idea, this notion that no one should possess weapons that have as their very purpose indiscriminate, wanton destruction, and unimaginable suffering. Except.

The US has resisted, opposed, and sought to undermine the TPNW since its introduction. This can hardly be laid at Trump’s feet, although his Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, had the immoral audacity to hold a press conference in March 2017, directly outside the room where treaty negotiations were beginning, so she could voice official U.S. disdain for the treaty and question whether the nations seeking to ban these weapons of unfathomable mayhem and chaos were really “looking out for their people.” Right through this past fall the U.S. was actively pressuring other nations to withdraw their treaty ratification.

To be fair, though, the Obama administration stalwartly opposed the TPNW from its inception in 2010. In October 2016, six months before official negotiations were set to begin, the US issued a public statement to the UN asserting that a treaty banning these last “allowable” weapons of mass destruction would “undermine … long-standing strategic stability.” And there’s the profound immorality of nuclear weapons in a nutshell: that we have built a world of “strategic stability”—and inseparably joined it an ongoing apocalyptic threat of death and destruction over humanity. Inseparably at least in the minds of our most seasoned politicians.

This is only a seeming moral conundrum; it collapses into moral contradiction the moment we map it out. Deterrence only deters if the threat is believable. Meaning deterrence only works if our willingness to act with near infinite immorality is convincing. Can we really imagine no better world than this?

Most of us live out our live far removed from the nuclear chain of command or delivery. But all of us—at least all of us who live in nuclear-armed democracies—we live out our lives under the shared agreement that we are okay with an imminent threat of atrocity as the day-to-day price of our normal. As of today, the TPNW declares that price as unacceptable.

Is our world a web of complex and dangerous international intrigue? Yes. But is our world also a web of complex and fragile, awe-inspiring and life-sustaining beauty? Yes. More than yes. Because this ‘yes’ frames the only door that leads to a livable future.

Our present politics, all diplomatic flattery aside, deems domination (or the threat thereof) as the hard truth in which diplomacy unfolds. This rests on a fundamental falsehood: the declaration of disconnection. That, at the end of day—and, really, all the damn day long—we are disconnected. Us. Them.

But the simple unassuming truth is connection. From cosmic scale to nanoparticle. We are them. They are us. This is why every religion holds among its core principles compassion. Often cheapened by the phrase “the Golden Rule”—wording that still pays tribute to a domination model, this truth would be better described as the Heart Song of the Cosmos. Compassion is not some burden we must bend ourselves to, it is that great joy—perhaps the only full joy—to which we give ourselves in both labor and delight.

The TPNW itself doesn’t speak of compassion. Not directly. It does, however, speak of the risks and consequences, both humanitarian and catastrophic. It speaks of ethical imperatives and the global public good. And it aligns itself with other international efforts and treaties that aim to foster conditions in this world under which greater peace and justice might be experienced by all people. It then lays out a carefully considered program for how to move toward that world by eliminating nuclear weapons—every last one of them. And whatever political will is needed to do so, it will be nourished and strengthened by compassion.

I don’t imagine the path to a world free of nuclear weapons will be travelled quickly. There is a trillion dollar industry counting on building the next generation of hell-in-weapons as their preferred means of profit. There are regimes still eager for their turn at wielding a bit of nuclear weaponry of their own (such a small, foolish, self-defeating notion of “power,” but one that the family of nuclear nations still feeds). And there are both totalitarian states and rogue actors who might wish to use nuclear threats to their advantage. Honestly, the only defense that offers real security in the face of these threats is one that deepens our embrace of our fundamental connection to one another … and to Earth itself.

So, no, it won’t be a quick, easy, or comfortable trek. But with the TPNW now taking effect, that journey begins in earnest today. God forbid that we not place our feet on the path. President Biden already pledged as a candidate (last August, on the 75th anniversary of the US bombing of Hiroshima) to work toward a world without nuclear weapons. Earlier, both as a Senator and as Vice President, he voiced similar convictions. Now, as President, he has the opportunity to act.

But so do we. The political will that can press the President and Congress to imagine a non-nuclear last line of defense begins in our homes, around our kitchen tables—and at our computer keyboards. It begins with the cultivation of compassion as the foundational truth of our lives. Not because it feels good—it will often feel unsettling. Rather because it accords with the path to peace. Because is echoes the Heart Song of the Cosmos. Because the same energy required to love our enemies is the only energy that also allows us to truly love those we hold dear.

Hopefully, in this new day, as we work to “build back better,” we’ll recognize that this means unbuilding some things. And the newly minted Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons gives us—all—one good place to start.

* * *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

OPEN (poem)

The briefest backstory. Perhaps more so than essays, poems deserve a measure of their own agency. What’s suggested, evoked, or left unsaid, means that between my keyboard and your reception (whether in mind, gut, or both) there is “wiggle room.” The poem demands it as the price of its liminal beauty.

This poem reflects the resonance between my intuitions and those of Joanna Macy. For years now I have been saying grief is our way forward in this precarious moment. (But who listens to me?) This week, in preparation for a class I’m in right now being led by Joanna Macy (now 91 years old), these themes came up loud and clear.

Many persons today experience a numbness, cynicism, despair that is pervasive as the “white noise” backdrop to life. It is the unspoken but very real anxiety that we may not make it many more generations. Our days may well be numbered, not just in abstract theory but in actual years that may cut short actual lives that we could actually imagine.

Macy’s conviction, borne out in her workshops, is that when we stop denying or suppressing that despair but dare to name it—with honest feeling—in the presence of others willing to listen … THEN shared despair can spark an empathy that runs to the very heart of creation that opens to solidarity that gives back a vitality that chooses to resist in love … and that this just might tip the balance for tomorrow. And, quite honestly, even if it doesn’t it provides the bearing to end today in love.

OPEN

The bottomless anguish
over all that might now never be,
that forms the unvoiced fringe
of the apathy-cynicism-despair
that suspends our hope
over an abyss—
this anguish,
named aloud, confessed, shared,
imprecated even,
is the doorway
to the all-inclusive empathy
that is the base tone of the cosmos,
to the communal vitality
that can birth true solidarity
and the deep hope
that can resist . . .
until what might now never be
is chosen
once again,
its fraught beauty
. . . priceless

David R. Weiss
2021.01.17

* * *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

This entry was posted on January 19, 2021. 1 Comment

Keeping Faith While Our World Fractures

Keeping Faith While Our World Fractures
January 12, 2021 – David R. Weiss

Days of reckoning are upon us. The FBI reports that it is aware of plans for armed protests at all fifty state capitols—and again at the U.S. Capitol—between January 16 and January 20. Is this madness or what? It’s not madness; it’s what. And this what has been rushing toward us for years now. The Trump presidency accelerated the pace and heightened the intensity, but it hardly started with him. The tectonic plates beneath this reckoning have been moving slowly and inexorably toward this moment for generations.

Still, even for those of us not entirely caught off guard, the surreal spectacle of it all remains disorienting. Yet I fear this is only the beginning. It’s likely to get worse—far worse—before it gets better. And, “better”—that word is more wistful than assured. “Better” is the best-case scenario, the result of almost unprecedented cooperation and good will. Absent that, terror by largely white mobs will (once again) be the new normal in our country. In fact, just as I was preparing to post this, a report came out that members of Congress were briefed Monday night about three new violent plots—one of which involved assassinating Democrats so Republicans would take charge of the government.

How do we—believers and non-believers alike—keep faith while our world fractures? How do we hold on to an overarching sense that our lives host both personal meaning and common good even when fraught with uncertainty—how do we do this while the very weave of our social fabric rips away?

I offer four observations below. The first three name uncomfortable truths we need to keep in front of us in the weeks ahead. More violence is very likely. These first observations say why. Longer essays and whole books explain why. For now it’s enough to simply say why. The less we are surprised by the violence when it erupts, the more steadfastly we can hold onto to our humanity, our chosen posture toward the world, our faith—which is the focus of my fourth observation.

(1) This moment is fraught . . . and its roots run deep

From the widespread “Open Up” protests this past spring to the threats of right-wing violence at racial justice protests this summer to the armed gatherings and kidnapping plot at the Michigan capitol, we’ve been experiencing a forward surge of right wing white nationalist anger escalating to the edge of open violence.

The roots of this run deep—interwoven with our national history. While the groups active today are diverse in their details, they share a desire to impose their worldview on society and a readiness to use violence as their means to do so. Offended by Obama’s election (how dare a black man be president?!), they multiplied during his 8-year presidency, even while moderates and liberals found it easier to congratulate ourselves on our nation’s “racial progress” rather than call us to face head on our racist past-present.  

When Trump won the GOP nomination and then the presidency he ushered in four-plus years of unrestrained racist-nationalist-xenophobic rhetoric and action (amplified, echoed, excused, or ignored by his GOP compatriots). These years provided an adrenaline rush to those disenchanted by civil rights, anxious over shifting racial demographics, and often marginalized by increasing social inequity. Scapegoating moved from a shadowy pastime to 24/7 primetime on Trump’s twitter feed.

Many in these groups were counting on a second Trump term to fully consolidate white supremacy and authoritarian leadership—and provide four more years for strengthening their own movements. They see the waning days of his presidency as a “now or never” moment.

(2) QAnon. Is. Simply. EVIL.

Let’s name it for what it is: a quasi-religious hate cult masquerading as a conspiracy theory. It is NOT “cult-like”; it is out and out cult. Period. A new “form” perhaps, as it lacks an obvious charismatic leader (beyond the fictional Q), but it ticks off other identifying characteristics of a cult one after another. Preys on persons who are vulnerable-hurting-angry; bequeaths a false reality—and isolates its adherents from anyone who doesn’t embrace it. Creates a self-fulfilling worldview so any challenges only deepen conviction. Fosters such an all-consuming loyalty that any fundamental challenge to its illogic becomes an assault on one’s existential identity.

Moreover, QAnon is nearly self-extending through countless permutations—seemingly fashioned on the model of a Live Action Role Playing game … except this game plays people. As a game it inculcates its core impulse in its player-adherents: pervasive doubt toward the common shared reality that most of us function in. By reinforcing the human propensity for discerning patterns in the world—and then eclipsing any capacity for critical thought—it places adherents into a posture where reality, morality, and agency are all malleable at the slightest suggestion. QAnon’s ability to instill an off-balance readiness to be spun toward murderous hatred is almost without limit.

If, as I suggest above, faith is the overarching sense that our lives host both personal meaning and common good even when our lives are fraught with uncertainty, then QAnon is the epitome of false faith: it intentionally fragments meaning-making capacity and harnesses human frenzy to serve the purposes of hate and death. In religious language it would be fair to call it demonic—and to say that its name longs to be legion.

(3) Accountability is key. The President and the GOP are complicit—and worse. 

In the midst of these forces ripe with simmering anger and anxiety, unmistakably tinged with racist bias, Trump chose to forecast election fraud long before the election even happened and dragged a wide swath of the GOP along in the weeks afterward. Their actions deliberately sought to sow ill-reasoned mistrust in an election that by all accounts—including all 60-plus court cases decided thus far—was free of fraud. (The only case the Trump campaign “won” concerned absentee ballots duly cast and duly “cured,” that is, any ID questions were satisfactorily resolved after the ballots had been cast. The case challenged the interpretation of the last date for the curing process; it prevailed and a small number of ballots—protected from fraud by the “curing” process—were set aside.)

Trump’s desperation to challenge the election might be credited to his pathological narcissism (which may explain but not excuse; it ought to have removed him from the presidency years ago). Those in the GOP who chose to join him in deliberately fanning disinformation about election integrity may have chosen to do so out of political cowardice or political aspiration; in either case they were unquestionably complicit in fanning the unwarranted hysteria that rose steadily from November 3 to January 6.

Given the loudly trumpeted worldviews of the individuals and groups Trump has played to throughout his presidency, neither the President nor any member of the GOP can reasonably pretend to be innocent of meaning to provoke through a deliberate disinformation campaign—their insistence on casting doubt on the election—sufficient “noise” to effect political change. Indeed, some GOP members of Congress have even alleged they supported the objections to the Electoral Count only because of genuine fear for the personal safety of themselves or their family should they not object—in effect confirming that Trump and his compatriots were engaged in a coordinated effort of political terrorism.

The exact measures of accountability for the President and those who aided and abetted him may be debated. But any debate ought not be over their political acceptability but on the terms of their efficacy in deterring our leaders from ever engaging such craven actions in the future. Their reckless posturing brought people, some wearing combat gear and 2-way communicators, along with nooses, guns, zip-ties, flash bangs, Confederate flags, Nazi flags and symbols, and QAnon emblems, storming into the Capitol while voicing intent to hang Mike Pence and harm or kill others in the building. At least one gallows erected outside. The consequences for these politicians ought not be driven by vindictiveness, but as actions that marshaled lies to evoke public unrest that turned predictably both violent and deadly, the political price ought to be severe. Talk of “unity” in this moment is sheer treachery, it offers no recognition of the perils just provoked and indeed offers comfort and cover to those waiting to act again.

(4) Hope in this moment lies beyond-within and between.

Even if diehard insurrectionists comprised a minority of those in the Capitol building last week, the energy of the mob provided cover to those with the worst motives. Thus, while it may have been an unwieldy storming of the Capitol, it more than accomplished its minimal objective: to prove how unprepared we are—both physically and psychically—to meet such a surge of focused violence. The armed protests slated for the coming weeks will no doubt count on last week’s chaos and mayhem to amplify their effect across the nation.

Hence, the next two weeks will understandably be framed by apprehension. And even when the Inauguration has passed, the potential for right wing white nationalist QAnon fueled violence will remain near the surface. How do we live in the face of such threat? How do we keep faith while our world fractures?

I’m not trying to propose a plan of action here. I’m not saying we shouldn’t respond to the planned protests, but I’m not competent to make that type of proposal. My words are about inner care and other care.

First, the simplest, truest source of hope and calm that we carry is tethered to the values that enliven our lives. For some of us those values are rooted in what we regard as a spiritual reality; for others those values are humanist. In this moment it doesn’t matter where they’re rooted. They link us to the Within-Beyond. Exercise them. Small kindnesses in abundance can help anchor one’s soul. Be extra attentive to stop for a pedestrian. Bake bread for a neighbor. Write an overdue letter. Offer a smile. Again and again. Far from being merely mundane, these kindnesses reinforce our social fabric while other forces attempt to fray it. Just as importantly they act as embodied prayers, invoking the holy (or the truly human) to rise within.

Second, check in on your friends. Not casually; with your whole presence. Pick a different friend (or two) to check in on each day. Own your own sense of vulnerability and acknowledge theirs. The healing of our human community rests on the authentic depth of our connections—Between. This is where we touch our power. Such power is nonviolent, rooted in the mutual affirmation of our vulnerability held tenderly together. This power may well be the strongest force in the universe. It bestows meaning and purpose by the exercise of human care.

Days of reckoning are upon us. Much of what transpires in the next few weeks is beyond our control. But we can take charge of our perceptions—seeking to understand the tumult that has dawned. And we can be agents of kindness and community and care. These small actions may not stem the unrest that has been planned by others. But they can provide inner rest for us and care for others. And by placing us as they do in the flowing current of the universe, these small actions sow the seeds of a new day. May that day come soon.

* * *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

Epiphany Means Showing Up

Epiphany Means Showing Up
January 6, 2021 – David R. Weiss

Today is Epiphany. Among Western Christians it marks the twelfth day of Christmas (for those keeping count), the day we remember the visit of the Magi. In Eastern Christianity Epiphany practically is Christmas: it’s the day when Eastern Christians commemorate both the birthday of the baby Jesus and the baptism of the adult Jesus.

Tonight I’m mostly interested in the word itself. Epiphany means “to manifest” or “to reveal,” but I like the rendition I heard in an adult forum tonight: Epiphany means “showing up.” Whether you view it through the visit of the Magi, the birth of the baby, or the moment of his baptism, Epiphany is when God shows up.

But stay with me for one more bit of theology. In Eastern Christianity (more so than in its Western expression) Epiphany also introduces the notion that it’s our vocation to show up, too. As Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria (298-373 CE) wrote about the incarnation, “The Son of God became human, that we might become god,” [intentionally leaving the second g in lowercase because he did not mean to suggest that we can become like God]. Rather, he explained, we are “becoming by grace what God is by nature.”

That’s a higher calling than we usually entertain for ourselves. We reserve it for saints and heroes. But Athanasius and his Eastern Christian siblings were not so stingy. Epiphany means showing up in the fashion of godly grace—even in the little moments.

“So … are we married?” This is becoming my mom’s question to my dad at bedtime. It is not a playful query. I’ll grant you, sixty-three years is a long time to remember most things. But who she said “I do” to? She was clear on that until just recently.

Mom’s memories are falling away day by day. From the details of her distant childhood to church friends she knew just a few years ago, everything is covered by dense fog these days. She began “misplacing” her beloved grandchildren and great-grandchildren a year or more ago. She still remembers her children (most days)—though the pandemic has made us far less present in her life. And she finds phone calls too disorienting to follow, so a three-sentence conversation is a long one.

But because she lives 24/7 at home with my dad, he is her everything. Cribbage partner, chauffer for drives past the lakefront, short order cook, housekeeper, and—of course—husband. They have so much together time that it’s probably rare for even an hour to pass without them moving past each other in their small home. Not a lot of time to forget the man she married. But she does.

“So … are we married?” Mom doesn’t ask the question with anxiety. It’s like she still assumes the answer must be Yes, but she needs it confirmed by someone more sure than she is. I think it’s her way of tidying up her world at the end of the day. Pajamas on, teeth brushed, slippers at the bedside —and that man … “husband”? Then, with everything in its place—however much just barely in place —she closes her eyes.

But, Epiphany: that’s my dad saying, “Yes, Carol, we are married.” He says it most days patiently. Some days wistfully. Others sorrowfully. And sometimes, no doubt, with weariness in his soul. But with that Yes, he shows up. Bearing grace. What’s more, with that Yes, he invites my mom to show up, too. Allowing her to once again find her place in a world that’s becoming less familiar by the day.

Athanasius said God became human so that we might become god. We might well grant that for saints and heroes. But moving into dementia while married—incarnation happens there, too. My parents’ journey is hardly uncommon. And there’s not one of us who doesn’t face other challenges, perhaps equally pressing. But for me (and Athanasius, too) that’s kind of the point. Epiphany is God’s invitation to each of us to show up. Bearing as much grace as we’ve got. And with the promise that God’s grace has our back.

* * *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

This entry was posted on January 7, 2021. 6 Comments

A Communion of Saints

Butterfly at Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary Photo by David Weiss 09.2014

This poem hints at deep stirrings long simmering but amplified by two pieces I read in recent days.

Leah Tonino’s interview with Eileen Crist in the December issue of The Sun is titled “Our Great Reckoning: On the Consequences of Human Plunder.” Crist considers how destructive our notion of “human supremacy” has been, grounded erroneously (and perhaps apocalyptically) in the belief that we are somehow separate from and above the rest of the natural world.

Dougald Hime’s December 2018 dialogue with Vanessa Andreotti was republished as “The Vital Compass” by The Dark Mountain Project in December 2020 as part of their ongoing exploration of indigenous perception and the collapse of colonial thinking. The vital compass refers to our lost connection to Earth’s own moral metabolism, the wisdom—and the agency—bound up in the cosmos itself. The loss of this compass is the flip side of human supremacy, and Andreotti specifically says what’s needed is a “re-entangling” of ourselves with the world.

As I imagine what expression of Christian faith, what legacy of Jesus, might be life-giving—that is, good news … gospel—in the years ahead, it seems to me we must harness our faith toward re-entangling ourselves. There’s no doubt a whole essay hoping for the light of day, but sometimes less is more. And today’s more is this little poem.

* * *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

This entry was posted on January 3, 2021. 1 Comment

Crying “Uncle”

This one is hard. Hard to write. Hard to read. On the morning of my Christmas birthday breakfast I wrote on Facebook, “I’m thinking 61 is the new 19; this will be the year I add ‘invincibility’ back into my skill set.” I mean that this year I want to double my commitment to write truth, even when it takes me into pain. You have to believe you’re invincible to do that. Maybe I’m finally ready.

Crying “Uncle”
December 28, 2020 – David R. Weiss

Let me tell you about my uncle. He loves Christmas music. Lives for it, almost. For twenty years he’s made an annual CD mix of Christmas music to share with his family and closest friends. Sure, a few of his choices don’t quite match my tastes, but overall his CD delivers Christmas joy year after year. This year, as a sort of spiritual discipline, I listened to each of his CDs in order—over twenty hours of Christmas music. While writing out cards, wrapping presents, baking. It was a bittersweet experience.

Now let me tell you about my brother. At a New Year’s Eve party in December 1974—a church youth group party, no less—my brother, 17 at the time, got wasted and passed out. I’m not sure if it was the first time that had happened or not. But it was the first time I’d seen him—or anyone—that drunk.

The irony—the tragic irony—is that he was treasurer for the youth group: he was the one who supplied youth group money to buy “refreshments” for the party. And he’d given some of it to an older kid who made a run across the border into Michigan, where the drinking age was 18. That kid (whom I know but see no reason to name 46 years later) came back with plenty of alcohol. Including a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20 that my brother nursed until it knocked him out. I’m sure I had a few swigs of something, too, but I was just 15 and pretty leery of alcohol. Now my brother made me nervous. He looked … dead. A few other kids at the party told me, “Don’t worry, he’ll just sleep it off.” He didn’t.

We were listening to WLS, AM-89, a Chicago radio station, as they counted down the top 89 hits of the year. It was just a few minutes before midnight. Terry Jacks’ Seasons in the Sun was playing. It was the number 1 song that year. And smack in the middle of it, somewhere around the words, “But the wine and the song, like the seasons have all gone,” my brother sat bolt upright in his chair, vomited all over the carpet, and somehow looked even more dead now that he was awake.

A couple kids helped him outside where he sat on the back steps, eyes glazed over, mouth drooling. I called my dad on the phone and told him my brother had gotten sick, and I asked him to come pick us up. Which he did. As I waited for him to arrive, my uncle—much younger than my dad, in fact, just 20 years old and also at the party—came outside to see how my brother was doing. As my dad pulled up in the car, I looked to my uncle and asked, “What should I tell him?” His words counted as wisdom that night: “Tell your dad the truth. That’s what’s best.” And so I did.

Sometimes in writing family history you use “creative license” to fill in what you don’t remember. But these things—the Mad Dog, Seasons in the Sun, the glazed eyes and the drool, the question and my uncle’s reply—they’re all seared into my memory, still stinging in moist eyes as I type.

Fast-forward twenty years: 1994. My brother became a successful accountant. And a full-blown alcoholic. He switched from Mad Dog to bourbon. He no longer went to parties; he drank at home. Alone. All the time. Alone.

Fast-forward another decade. September 2004 my brother died, not directly of alcoholism, but of COPD. Although that’s not quite right either. He died of unemployment. Alcoholism cost him his job, but after a couple failed attempts at sobriety through outpatient and inpatient treatment, he finally moved back in with our parents—and found sobriety for almost two years. His regular attendance at AA meetings was instrumental in that, but breaking the loneliness of life by himself was just as important. Still, he never found work. Eventually his COBRA insurance ran out and his savings did, too. So he never got his worsening cough checked out. Assuming it was due to smoking, he quit. The cough didn’t.

When our parents finally took him to the doctor on their dime, it was too late. He died within about a week of being seen by a doctor. He was only 46. His lungs were so badly destroyed that the doctor said he’d become severely malnourished—that he was physically unable to eat enough to sustain his lungs and the rest of his body. The doctor speculated that over the summer months it was likely that he’d begun to lose the capacity to think clearly because his electrolyte levels would’ve dropped so low. Truly “the wine and the song, like the seasons had all gone.”

But—and this “but” could circle the globe several times—if we’d had a universal/national health plan—my brother would quite possibly be alive today. He did not simply die of COPD. He died due to months without insurance, without access to medical care. He died due to a health industry and political interests more committed to preserving profits than delivering care. That’s what killed him. (That and me waiting until he’d passed out and vomited to call our dad.)

So, back to my uncle and those bittersweet Christmas CDs.

The ACA (the Affordable Care Act, sometimes called Obamacare) is really a poor imitation of universal health care. It closed some gaps, but didn’t really even try to be universal. Still, odds are that under the ACA my brother would’ve gotten coverage in time to save his life. Crafting it was contentious in Congress—and on social media. For reasons I still don’t fully understand my uncle was vehemently—venomously—opposed to almost anything Obama (or Nancy Pelosi) proposed. He targeted them mercilessly on Facebook while the ACA was wending its way through Congress.  I couldn’t fathom his bitter opposition to a program that would’ve saved my brother’s life. But I rarely commented. Until I did.

I can’t tell you the details of that post. But I can tell you enough. It involved Nancy Pelosi giving Barack Obama a blowjob in the Oval Office as their way of “working together” to get the ACA passed. I was aghast at the misogyny and racism. I told him so. I spoke the truth. And I invoked the memory of his dad, my grandpa. He unfriended me that night. And we haven’t spoken since.

I still get a copy of his Christmas CD mix every year. I don’t try to reconcile the views that still occasionally show up on his Facebook page with the happy, holiday, sometimes outright holy words on the CD. And I can’t say I wait eagerly for the new Christmas CD each year. As a child I adored my twin uncles. Not quite six years older than me, they were more like older brothers growing up in a different home. Held in affectionate, familial awe. Which is why when my uncle told me: “Tell your dad the truth. That’s what’s best.”—it was the gospel truth delivered to me in a moment of crisis. But these days it’s like we’ve grown up on different planets.

We still have mutual friends on Facebook—after all, we share extended family. So even without speaking, our social media comments sometimes bump into each other. Never in a conciliatory spirit. The last bump happened on May 31, right after the murder of George Floyd. I was in the middle of a long exchange with a cousin, when my uncle joined the thread long enough to dismiss my words with a several-sentence post that concluded in all caps “SO SHUT THE FUCK UP.” I sidestepped that one. But an hour later, when he attacked me again, I replied, “The gap between our worldviews is insurmountable (at least right now), but the personal venom in your posts is beyond the pale for what ought to be acceptable within a family.” He responded, “Our worldviews will always be insurmountable and we have not been family for years.” That was seven months ago.

And that’s why, over these present holy days, it counts as a spiritual discipline, to pull out all of my uncle’s Christmas CDs and invite his playlists to be the conduit through which Christmas becomes music in my ears. To hear the cheery holiday songs and the sacred carols about “peace on earth, good will to all” … soar across the chasm of our lives. Which, in a certain sense, is the Christmas story writ small: God crossing uncrossable chasms in ways that defy understanding.

Christmas music is the only place we “meet” these days. And while I’m sad beyond tears at the rupture between us, I’m quietly grateful to play all the music he chose—for family. Especially this year—even if that choice no longer includes me. Because maybe some year, by some other Christmas miracle, the music will outlast whatever has infected his heart. For now, I’ll take bittersweet. And hope it’s not the last word. It is Christmas, after all, and I’m not ready to cry “uncle” quite yet.

ADDENDUM: this post sparked a lot of conversation on Facebook, which led me to add this further comment in the Facebook thread:

Regarding the divided worldviews in my family (and I imagine in many others) – I suspect MOST of that is due to environment. Despite sharing a common religious tradition, we grew up across different historical eras, in different places (even within the same city), with differing investments in church, and eventually with very different life experiences—some of those life differences determined by circumstance, others by choice. Our worldviews are a dialogue between genes-family-religion-culture-history-experience, and that leaves plenty of room for diversity to emerge.

But I am wrestling these days with what it means to claim kinship uncritically with persons who seem to question (even if only indirectly by insinuation, or by tone of comment, or by support for dehumanizing policy) the very humanity of others. And as someone with a multitude of Black, Brown, and LGBTQ friends—shall we say, kin?—this is a big deal.

Historically “kinship” provided legal rights of relationship to persons raced as white—and defined by property rights of ownership those raced as black. The same white man could “father” sons, daughters, and property (slaves). So it no longer works for me to say, “despite our differences, at least we’re family.” In a world where “identity” can be a matter of life and death, MY notion of family has changed.

And while that doesn’t mean I automatically disown any one in my blood relations who feels differently, it does mean that I have redefined my kinship loyalty in a way that no longer gives priority to blood. I want my Black, Brown, and LGBTQ kin (whether by blood or friendship) to know that in every moment of their vulnerable lives I unconditionally have their back. And making allowance for blood relatives whose attitudes and behaviors actively imperil these persons does not convey that level of loyalty.

* * *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”
Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

This entry was posted on December 28, 2020. 1 Comment

Beyond Christmas Pageant Pandemonium

Beyond Christmas Pageant Pandemonium: What Now? A Little Q & A
David R. Weiss – December 20, 2020

Wednesday night I gave my presentation on “Christmas Pageant Pandemonium: Untangling and Untaming Christmas” to my church. I’m still on a learning curve with online presentations, and my talk ran 7-8 minutes long, but I’m told my “energetic presentation” kept folks engaged. The Q & A afterwards was good, though Zoom can be a bit clunky for back-and-forth dialogue, and I’m sure there were some sincere questions left unasked. Because Q & A is often the time when my gifts as public theologian—thinking about God out loud and in community with the faithful—really shine, I want to come back and address some of the likely unasked questions.

[If you missed my presentation or haven’t read my original essay, best to do that before reading this piece.]

A presentation like the one I just made sits differently with different folks. For itinerant skeptics, it confirms years of suspicions about the Christmas tales: they’re almost certainly early examples of “fan fiction,” not real history. While for those who regard these tales with deep wonder and devotion—often cultivated lifelong—that same recognition comes as unsettling or worse. For persons just beginning to integrate their critical adult thinking with simpler lifelong faith convictions, it can be an exhilarating yet disorienting rush. And for those who’ve embraced the justice/compassion-centered message of the adult Jesus, the message in my presentation can ring deeply and ecstatically true.

Of course, these aren’t “fixed” categories. I expect there were folks present last night who see themselves in one or more of them. Likewise, the unasked questions might come from any of these angles. So here are some brief thoughtful answers to unasked questions.

My goal, whether teaching in a college classroom or a church setting, is always to present knowledge in a way that can foster faith. Even when what I say challenges commonly held understandings, I offer it with the conviction that the healthiest faith we can hold is one grounded in the best understanding available to us. So, especially if you found your faith rattled by anything I said, I hope you’ll venture here to see if I address it further. One “spoiler” up front: I don’t think we should “cancel” Christmas or pack away our manger scenes; in fact, they’re more important than ever.

Here are the five questions I’ll respond to here:

  1. Are you really saying, No Magi bearing gifts, No Christmas Star, No Slaughter of the Innocents as described in Matthew’s Gospel?
  2. Are you really saying, No census, No trip to Bethlehem, No inn or manger, and no shepherds?
  3. But—if God IS God, couldn’t these stories have really happened the way they’re told?
  4. But why would the church have not taught us this sooner? Centuries—millennia!—of Christians have grown up taking them literally.
  5. So what are we supposed to do with Christmas now?

Let’s get started.

Are you really saying, No Magi bearing gifts, No Christmas Star, No Slaughter of the Innocents as described in Matthew’s Gospel?

Short answer: Yes.

There were Magi in the ancient world. But, as I say, Matthew’s Magi tale borders on fantastical-farcical satire-tragedy. Had any Magi truly visited Herod and then Jesus, there were surely be more than one solitary record of it. In communities where oral memory flourished, this would have been remembered.

There were heavenly wonders in the ancient skies: meteor showers, shooting stars, super novae, and “wandering” stars (planets) that occasionally “met up” in the skies, as Jupiter and Saturn are doing right now. Such wonders—that is, anything other than the pinpoint stars that drifted lazily across the sky in fixed patterns each night—were naturally sources of curiosity and speculation. Throughout history people have sought to connect them to historical events. Thus, almost every emperor’s birth tale mentioned some “heavenly portent” that “predicted” his birth. But the movements of the stars or the planets do not directly cause or predict earthly events. Not for emperors. And not for messiahs. It makes perfect sense for Matthew to feature a star in his story, even if there (almost certainly) was no super nova or planetary conjunction in the sky at the time of Jesus’ birth. Matthew isn’t writing history; he’s retroactively projecting the meaning of Jesus’ adult life back to his birth. And he does a masterful job of that.

And Herod was absolutely capable of slaughtering innocent children. His reputation for brutality helps make the symbolic connection with Pharaoh work, but it doesn’t make it fact. Enough stories of Herod terror-laden behavior have survived that it’s extremely unlikely that such a slaughter would’ve been covered up—certainly not in the memories of the Jewish people. But only Matthew knows this story—because it’s his creation.

So … no Magi, no Star, no Slaughter. But their historicity was never the point. Not for Matthew.

Are you really saying, No census, No trip to Bethlehem, No inn or manger, and no shepherds?

Short answer: Yes.

There were enrollments (censuses) in the Roman Empire; they were used to collect taxes and were often well documented. But there’s no record of this enrollment. Which suggests that Luke is using it for symbolic effect (its connection to oppressive taxes).

Bethlehem was known as the City of David, and there were a few Scripture passages that suggested a future messiah would come from Bethlehem. Because both Matthew and Luke share this notion of a Bethlehem birth it’s “possible” that Jesus was indeed born here, but it seems more likely that both of them (writing in the years 80-85 CE) chose to set Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem because it linked him to David and the messianic hopes associated with David.

That means the inn (the upper/guest room) and the manger (Luke never mentions a stable) are almost incidental to the story. Far from making Jesus’ birth extraordinary, for Luke they actually serve to say that Jesus was born in the most ordinary way: in a crowded home, packed with extended family because of that oppressive taxation strategy. To a first century Jewish (or almost any Middle Eastern) peasant, the story exudes normal.

Of course, shepherds were commonplace in the world into which Jesus was born. So they’re also very much “at home” in a tale like this. But their role in Luke’s story (written 80 years after the birth—and with the knowledge that Jesushad grown up to challenge Caesar) was to show that when this child was born, it was the most lowly who received first notice. That’s something much more than history. It’s theology. And it echoes Elizabeth’s greeting and Mary’s Magnificat in declaring that the God so active in Jesus’ adult life is the same God who has always championed the least of these.

But—if God IS God, couldn’t these stories have really happened the way they’re told?

Well, Yes … but—

This gets into some really thorny questions about how we understand God, and how God acts in the cosmos, but I’m going to leave those for another day and just address the “Yes … but—”

First, the “yes”: I should be clear, there are conservative, even mainstream scholars who will “yes, absolutely!” But I’m writing for, speaking to, thinking with progressive Christians. I’m trying to help all of us (myself included!) wrestle faithfully—using both heart and head—with the story of God who is still speaking. So I’m drawing on really solid scholarship that I believe can help progressive Christians do this. I don’t find those conservative traditional arguments persuasive. More importantly, I think they end up missing the mark, distracting us from paying attention to what mattered most for Matthew, for Luke, and, indeed, for God.

So that’s my “but—”: To say that God could’ve done these things seems to miss the point. These stories were written to prepare us to learn about Jesus’ adult life of faithfulness to God and solidarity with God’s people, his miraculous compassion, and his determination to sow the seeds of a community that reflected his—God’s—vision for our life together. If THAT’S their purpose, then we may miss the point of Christmas altogether if we’re more interested in believing them as historical fact than in receiving them as rich symbolic introductions to the Gospels themselves.

The irony—and it’s really a sacred irony—is that once we recognize that, from the vantage point of history, nobody noticed when Jesus was born (and that’s why there are no historical accounts of his birth), THEN we can also recognize that Matthew and Luke have filled these birth tales, these Christmas overtures, with themes that help us meet the adult Jesus. And THAT’S the real miracle God is working at Christmas.

But why would the church have not taught us this sooner? Centuries—millennia!—of Christian have grown up taking them literally.

This is complicated. And I’m determined to be brief, so some of this answer will get filled out in future presentations. One part of it is that the early church, already by the end of the first century, was trying to reign in and “manage” the impact of Jesus’ ministry. His announcement of God’s kin-dom—God’s gracious embrace of the all of us—was shaping a new form of community. Yet we see efforts in some of the last Epistles written, to “roll back” Paul’s more radical notion of gospel equality and freedom for the early church.

A second part of the answer is that from the moment Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity (312 CE) the church became a political tool used to unite the Roman Empire. Before long, from its now favored place within the corridors of power, the church became a sort of chaplain to the empire’s desire to secure order and maintain social relations blatantly at odds with Jesus’ message. This dynamic echoed throughout Europe’s era of colonialism and the U.S. expansion westward. The American church played a central role in the cultural genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans. The church after Constantine and for the next 1700 years has had plenty of reasons to “bury” Jesus’ solidarity with the poor, so that Christian charity is prized, but the Christian pursuit of social justice is suppressed.

So this is about more than just Christmas. Why did (large portions) of the church cooperate with slavery right through the civil war? Why did the church effectively silence women for 1900 years? Why did it promote the condemnation and terrorization of LGBTQ persons for 2000 years? Why has the church consistently found it easier to endorse whatever war its home country is fighting than to stand alongside its “Prince of Peace”? Why did white evangelical Christians overwhelmingly support Donald Trump? I could go on, but I think I’ve made my uncomfortable point on two levels. First, if we’re honest, the church has been sorely mistaken about—no, it has betrayed the love of God on a whole bunch of issues over the past 2000 years. Second, in the big scheme of things, missing the mark on Christmas is a pretty small oversight compared to the other examples I just mentioned.

BUT—going a step further, in some very real ways the church’s preference to treat Christmas as a tale of holy wonder rather than an audacious overture to God’s gracious-risky-daring-unexpected embrace of the least of these, THAT MISSTEP helped—and still helps—prepare Christians to MISS the very power of Jesus’ life.

Alongside many lonely voices in every age (sometimes acknowledged as saints, sometimes condemned as heretics)—it has taken feminist and womanist voices, slave and black voices, queer and immigrant voices, poor and global voices, in recent years for us to begin to hear more clearly the power of Jesus’ life. This is why the UCC has chosen to affirm that “God is still speaking.” It is the honest recognition that we have much to still learn as we seek to be the church. And with the stakes so high in the multiple crises facing us today, being the church as faithfully as we can is more important than ever. How we celebrate Christmas is one part of that … and a pretty big part, if you ask me.

So what are we supposed to do with Christmas now?

Of course, that’s not entirely up to me, but I do have some thoughts on this. Foremost, we should NOT put away our manger scenes or hide the shepherds and magi. Matthew and Luke gave us these stories and filled them with faith-nurturing images. Our task is to make sure we access them.

We can—and ought—to be more honest about the powerful social justice imagery in these stories. That ought to be reflected in adult forums like this, but also throughout our Advent worship season and right into our Christmas liturgy. We can—and ought—to “re-true” these tales to the powerful message of Jesus’ life. That’s absolutely possible, and our discomfort in changing the way it’s always been celebrated is a real—but insufficient reason not to. This would take some thoughtful work, but there are persons already doing it, so we’d have company on this journey.

I don’t think we’d need to “forsake” all of our favorite Advent hymns and Christmas carols. In fact, by framing them in worship that had prayers, readings, and sermons that helped “untame” Christmas, these old familiar songs would find a new voice of their own. And we could balance them with other ones already in our hymnal, and some new ones as well, that help us sing the truth of Christmas yet more clearly.

And, I will say that I fully believe we could imagine a children’s Christmas pageant in which we catechize our children in the deepest truth of our faith by inviting them to re-enact the story in ways that help surface the meanings that Matthew and Luke put there. It could be done with sensitivity and creativity alongside audacity. Audacity is what Matthew and Luke display in their telling. It’s time we let it speak in our re-telling. Children are more than up to that. (Which might be why Jesus suggested they could show us the way to the kingdom of God.) I’m betting they could become the church and offer us a Christmas pageant more poignant and powerful than any we have ever experienced in all of our lives.

Now I’m getting ahead of myself. Bottom line: we have an opportunity to meet Christmas … in the spirit of Jesus. Doing so will almost certainly put us at odds with the Herods and Caesars of the word today. And we may find ourselves uncomfortably close to those at the edge—today’s hungry, lowly, outcast, oppressed, shepherds. But we might also … in the voices of children and also in the unexpected gracious yearning within our hearts  … discover angels singing about glad tidings that promise to overturn the ways things are. And that song might sound like gospel as never before.

© David R. Weiss | 2020.12.20 | drw59mn@gmail.com

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

This entry was posted on December 21, 2020. 1 Comment