Threatened with Resurrection

Threatened with Resurrection
David R. Weiss – May 16, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #25 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

“They have threatened us with resurrection.” The words come from a poem written in 1980 by Julia Esquivel, a Guatemalan poet-theologian and peace activist.[1] Penned in a time of fierce persecution of peasants, human rights activists, and church workers, the image evokes a holy irony: for Christians, to live under near constant threat of death is to be … threatened with resurrection.

This wasn’t glib optimism. During Guatemala’s civil war (1960-1996) some 200,000 persons were killed. Death squads were common, as were torture, assassination, mutilation, rape, and ‘disappearances.’ To suggest that living under such conditions was, in fact, to be “threatened with resurrection,” was an act of revolutionary inward defiance. It declared: Because we do not regard death as the end of our story—for it was not the end of Jesus’ story—therefore, even in times like these, “we go on loving life” (the last five words are drawn from the poem itself).

Climate change is NOT state-sponsored terrorism. But it will (in some places it already does) mean living in the face of daily unpredictability, chaos, suffering, and grief. And it will require a posture of revolutionary inward defiance (one aspect of the Inner Transition that is central to the Transition Movement goal of resilience) to cultivate both the inner and outer resources to embrace life in this new world. Which is why, especially after my last post summoning us to embrace ecological grief, it seems a good time to remind us that as Christians, climate change threatens us with resurrection. Which in turn invites … compels us to live in the holy irony of meeting the prospect of radical uncertainty with an undaunted love for life.

This, too, is not glib optimism. The science around climate change is too unforgiving for that. The media spin is often shaped alternately by a foolhardy thirst for one more round of profits, or a fear-laden denial convinced it can’t be that bad, or the naïve belief we’ll invent our way out of this without needing to deeply(!) re-work the misshapen appetites and assumptions that got us here. But once you push through the spin, BLEAK is what stares back at you. And bleak doesn’t blink.

Part of our problem, however, is that unlike in Guatemala, where Esquivel’s poem was read against the lived experience of brutality (no one doubted they lived under immediate threat)—today both society and church remain largely in denial of the peril still mostly unseen in front of us. Even as anxiety over climate change creeps into the background of our daily lives, the immediacy of the threat is seldom felt. Not here. Not yet. But it is inexorably on the way. So I tend to shout. Sorry. (Not sorry.)

I get it. ‘Bleak’ isn’t good for the market, for one’s career path, or for our widespread consumptive addictions, so we find ways to push it to the side. But ‘bleak’ is what science tells us today, so my task is to be unrelentingly imaginative in making that bleakness real.[2]

For some it already is. The Agenda, a Canadian public television current affairs show recently hosted a 30-minute segment on the emotional impact of climate change on those directly involved in the research.[3] Scientists, whose work places them before any spin, are increasingly wrestling with deep grief as they see an Earth unmade by human folly—sometimes first hand in habitats they’ve come to love, sometimes in climate models made by math they’ve learned to trust. While objectivity is crucial in collecting and assessing the data, when that objectivity announces existential crises for habitats and for humans even scientists are given pause.

It’s what comes after the pause that counts. Rob Law, a longtime Australian climate activist, writes, “to truly tackle the climate and extinction crisis we also need to give ourselves permission to grieve, personally and collectively.”[4] Why? Not as an exercise in self-defeat, but as a means to clear the way for action. Acknowledging our grief, Low continues, allows us “to create new ways of connecting to one another, to mourn for what we all love and are losing day by day … and to galvanize what is most important.” Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist, agrees, commenting in the Agenda segment, “It’s not a matter of are we ‘effed’ or not [as though it’s a simple binary either/or], it’s a matter of how ‘effed,’ and that is left for us to determine—and that requires us to become active participants in reducing whatever carbon burn we can.”

We don’t gain anything by denying the bleakness of our present situation. In fact, denial—as well as a too-easy optimism—only heightens the risk for all of us … for all of Earth. But we need not be paralyzed by it either. As Christians, the more we dare to really hear the science, such as the IPCC report from last fall or the IPBES report from last week,[5] the more we will find ourselves threatened with resurrection.

Our response should be to manifest an undaunted love for life. The Transition Movement offers us uncanny (even providential) insight into the shape of that response, and I’ll explore Christian adaptions of Transition in a series of posts over the summer. But fundamentally, to be threatened with resurrection—as those living in Guatemala in the 1970’s and 1980’s knew firsthand—is to begin from grief. It is to recognize that the wellspring of our action (which must be manifold) is the grief we dare to feel for the whole of creation.

Moving into this grief, making it part of our faith and witness in the twenty-first century, is our foremost calling as Christian communities today. (And there is more that must be written about, too.) But calling for grief is, in a sense, good news. Biblical faith has never been afraid of grief. It is the ground out of which resurrection comes. And if there is hope for a restored future on the far side of calamity that is yet to be weathered, it will be because we dared to grieve.

If we believe in a God who works miracles with mustard seeds, then grief is the mustard seed we must sow today. We, who are threatened with resurrection.

 

PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week! Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com

[1] Julia Esquivel, Threatened with Resurrection: Prayers and Poems from an Exiled Guatemalan (Brethren Press, 1982). You can find the whole poem here: www.how-matters.org/2012/08/31/julia-esquivel/

[2] Walter Brueggemann considers the primary task of the Hebrew prophets as poetic. Initially (pre-Exile), that meant finding images—sometimes spoken, sometimes embodied—sufficient to carry the grief of God and visceral enough to break through the numbness of God’s people. Later (mid-Exile) it meant finding images able to awaken hope in God’s people in moments when their capacity to hope was all but extinguished by the circumstances of their lives. See The Prophetic Imagination (Fortress Press, 1978) and Hopeful Imagination (Fortress Press, 1986).

[3] www.tvo.org/video/burnout-and-despair-studying-the-climate.

[4] www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/may/09/i-have-felt-hopelessness-over-climate-change-here-is-how-we-move-past-the-immense-grief.

[5] IPPC report: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/global-warming-must-not-exceed-15c-warns-landmark-un-report; IPBES report: www.ipbes.net/news/Media-Release-Global-Assessment.

Advertisements

When the Gospel Comes as Grief

When the Gospel Comes as Grief
David R. Weiss – May 14, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #24 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

It’s been a week now since the United Nations released a new report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).[1] The Global Assessment Report, the result of three years of work by 145 researchers from 50 countries, reviews some 15,000 scientific and government sources and offers the most far-reaching appraisal to date of nature’s overall health. It is not encouraging.

The IPBES media release opens with a gut punch: “Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history.” How do you quantify that? The report has a statistic to offer from almost every angle; I’ll mention just one. Of the approximately 8 million total species of plants and animals (including insects) on Earth, one million are in danger of extinction, each one a cathedral millennia in the making.

The threat isn’t entirely due to human-driven climate change. The report names the top two causes as (1) human impacts on land and water habitats and (2) direct exploitation (e.g., over-fishing). Then comes climate change, followed by pollution. But each cause reflects human activity that’s been repeatedly indifferent to the needs of the natural world. This is not “creation groaning in travail” (Romans 8:22); this is creation being relentlessly executed by the ecological inertia of our choices.

Whatever the author of Genesis meant by according us “dominion” over creation, killing off better than 1/10 of Eden’s abundance does not count. Indeed, a careful study of the word “dominion” in the Hebrew Scriptures shows that it always refers to power-exercised-with-wisdom-and-justice.[2] What we’ve done as a species—exemplified by certain “advanced” civilizations and cultures—is not dominion. It’s mere—sheer destruction. In fact, by biblical standards (and in the report’s judgment!), indigenous peoples living far more simply than us are perhaps the best examples of dominion on the planet today.

How do we respond to a report that is simply overwhelming in its bleakness? That catalogs so much life—habitats, ecosystems, and species—at risk? I recall a line in a film I saw decades ago (Mass Appeal, 1984). One character, a young seminarian, tells a story about his tank of tropical fish. One night the heater went bad and they all boiled. He recalls, “I woke up the next morning and went to feed them, but I found them all floating at the top. Most of them split in two, others with their eyes hanging out. It looked like violence, like suffering, but it had been such a quiet night. And I remember wishing I had the kind of ears that could hear fish scream.”

We need those kind of ears today. Neither undaunted optimism nor debilitating despair are useful now. We face a moment when, for people of faith, the gospel comes as grief. (I think this is true in secular terms as well, although it would be described somewhat differently.) Grief will be fundamental in any pursuit of the transformative change the IPBES report says is necessary: “We mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals, and values.”

Yes, there is much to be done: changing individual choices, exerting political pressure, pursuing technological breakthroughs, and altering corporate agendas. But in the midst of all that doing, we need to root ourselves, as it were, in grief. And because our culture as a whole avoids grief, communities of faith may have a unique responsibility in this precarious moment: to work feverishly to facilitate grief.

Grief, by itself, is not nearly enough to save us, but it is a fundamentally spiritual undertaking (tapping into our emotions on an existential scale) and if we do not embrace it, everything else done by ourselves and others is little more than banter on the way to oblivion. Read that sentence again, if you have to. I’m not saying that politics and technology and industry (and more) have no role to play. I am saying—shouting if need be—that grief is the most important entry point and the most neglected one in addressing climate change. And every week of worship that we delay in giving voice to ecological grief as our primary work as the church today, we fail to be the people of faith that God and the whole of creation need us to be today.

But not just any grief will do. Professor Josef Settele, one the IPBES project’s co-chairs, observes, “The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed. This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world” (emphasis mine). I absolutely agree, but I worry his tone remains too anthropocentric. As though we must now care because WE are in peril. I disagree. For grief to be gospel, it must be larger than this.

In fact, grief expressed as our felt response to the threat now posed to human society and to our particular human loved ones, while still an honest emotion, is more like throwing an adult temper tantrum over a world whose physics and math have sorely disappointed us. It’s venting grief because the finite yet overall abundance of our home does not meet the baser appetites we’ve allowed to take root.

As a theologian, I have to say quite clearly: any response rooted in human self-interest is doomed. Many seem to believe the exact opposite: that we must somehow activate and leverage self-interest, our own survival instinct, to respond to this ecological crisis. I think that assumption makes two critical mistakes. It presumes we are somehow ‘separate’ from the rest of the world. But from the macro level of ecosystems to the micro level of intestinal biomes, to be self-interested is both theologically and scientifically dishonest. There is no human ‘I’ or ‘we’ that is not intrinsically more-than-me and more-than-human.[3]

Second, to regard it as overly idealistic (unrealistic) to call for grief on behalf of flora, fauna, and even terrain for its own intrinsic value is an error rooted in primal arrogance believing that our deepest energy comes from love of self rather than love of that which is other. If we grieve for the rest of creation only on account of its transactional value to us, we preclude ourselves from tapping into the oceanic energy of the cosmos, which alone might grant us the transpersonal power necessary for this moment.

On the other hand, grief that arises in response to our willingness to feel our connection to all that is imperiled, that grief—even as it threatens to undo us because of its intensity—can also connect us to the sacred energy that even now courses through the cosmos. In this sense, that grief is gospel, because it is born of our recognition that, along with all the rest of creation, we are at home on Earth.

But will even that grief be enough to save us? Quite frankly, I don’t know. But anything less will not save us; of that I’m certain. And whatever solutions politics, technology, and economics might provide, if they—if we—are not schooled by grief, they’ll be of marginal value. (Whatever short-term gains they offer us, will be only short-term if we have not done the deep work of re-rooting ourselves in the whole of creation, work that will be done first by waves of grief.)

I understand, we like our gospel to come with a ‘guarantee.’ As if anything worthy of the word ‘gospel’ must be able to produce news that is ultimately ‘good’ on our terms. But overall we have not yet done an honest cost accounting of the peril in front of us. Just this weekend the atmospheric CO2 measured Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii crested 415 ppm for the first time since … three million years ago. That’s since before our earliest, most distant, pre-human ancestors. As far as our future goes, all bets are off. To say that today visceral creation-wide grief is gospel doesn’t guarantee anything except a slender possibility of life with integrity. Which, if you really think about it, is all gospel has ever promised.

PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week! Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com

[1] May 6, 2019: www.ipbes.net/news/Media-Release-Global-Assessment

[2] Lloyd H. Steffen, “In Defense of Dominion,” Environmental Ethics 14 (1992), pp. 63-80.

[3] See GIT essay #4 “Christmas: The Most Important Four Ounces in the Manger.”

Chrissy—Interrupted

Chrissy—Interrupted
David Weiss, May 8, 2019

She was not the interruption I wanted in my afternoon. But I suppose I asked for it.

After a brutal winter had chased us well into April, I was eager to work outside at the table on the front porch. Spring temperatures and warm sunshine blurred the line between typing and basking. We live on a quieter residential street in St. Paul’s Midway. When I work outside like this I know, at least by sight, most of the people who wander by over an afternoon—they’re my neighbors. She was not a neighbor.

Walking—well, shuffling down the sidewalk in her flip-flops and engaged in an animated conversation with someone who was clearly not beside her, she drew my cautious attention. Cautious, because as a devoted introvert I count on keeping my social interactions on a short leash. Cheery hellos to my neighbors are plenty for me. Chit-chat—even with people I know—tuckers me out. This woman’s energy combined with her mildly disheveled wardrobe of yoga pants, tank top, and sweatshirt looked … dangerous to my inner calm. Thankfully, she was in her own inner world.

Until the clink of an ice cube invited her into mine. She’d already passed our porch immersed in conversation with someone she called “Little boy,” when I took a sip of water from my stainless steel thermos. Hearing the ice cube clink, she whirled around, as if on edge. Turns out she was.

She wanted to talk. I just wanted not to be rude. But eventually I talked, too. It was a rambling exchange. She was anxious because her dope dealer was pressing her for payment. She “always” used on a cash and carry basis, but her dealer had fronted her some meth because she needed it, and now he was out looking for her, and she was at least two weeks from her next paycheck. It probably took five minutes to get that much of a coherent narrative from her. Not that she was incoherent, but every sentence had side streets to it. And her world was so different from mine even our English was barely a shared language.

She lived in a tent down in Mounds Park. I recalled last summer hiking on sunny days through parts of the wooded park where you could see people lived. Her eyes brightened when she described cooking her food over a Coleman stove. She was 43, but looked a decade or more older. Had three grown children; said she was a grandma, too. She had a social worker trying to get her into treatment, and someone else helping her to find housing—she told me their names with a measure of pride. She was going to “turn all this around.” She’d just started a 30-hour/week job at a gas station. Now, anxious over her outstanding meth bill, she was on her way to get her laundry at a nearby laundromat where her son had washed clothes for her. Then she’d take the train and the bus back to her campsite.

Like any of us, she had hopes … and demons. Opportunities and impulses. Hers were just … right out there, a bit more on public display. Her anxiety was palpable, although she was also just hungry—and grateful—for human interaction. We were ten minutes into conversation and she still hadn’t asked for money. I finally asked how much her dope debt was. $40. I’d feared worse, but as an out-of-work religion professor, my wallet was hardly brimming with cash. I explained this, wondering how much I dared give her.

By now we’d exchanged names. And as I pulled a $20, two $10s, and a pairs of $5 from my wallet (cleaning out the rest of our grocery money for the week) Chrissy’s eyes widened in disbelieving joy. I said, “I’m giving you the $40 to clear your debt, so you don’t need to be afraid. The $10 is for the train and a bit of food.”

Her arms and legs—and everything else—was just bouncing with glee. “Can I hug you?” she asked, barely waiting for my Yes, before leaning in to give me a very perfumed and very heartfelt embrace. As she tucked the bills into her bra, she promised to pay me back as soon as she got paid. “You don’t owe me anything,” I said. “Pay it forward, when you can. And do your best to listen to those better notions inside you. There’s a lot of life ahead of you yet. Make it a story you feel good about.”

This was by now a long interruption and I needed to step back into my space, so I said, “Now I’m going to send you on your way with a blessing …” I simply meant, “it’s time to say good-bye,” but she assumed I was going to pray over her. Before I got any further, she’d bowed her head—and clasped my hands, hoping for a bit of holiness—and what could I do except invite the goodness of God into her life? So I did. And then she went on her way. Smiling with joy.

She pretty much danced the rest of the way down the block. Was I foolish to place $50 in her hands? Maybe. But I don’t think so. Even if she doesn’t turn her life around (hell, I’m not sure I’ve even turned my life around!), that afternoon she was walking on air. And I couldn’t believe I’d had the good fortune of being interrupted by Chrissy. Seemed like a good deal. For both of us.

 

Doubting Thomas … Climate Change and Touching Hope

Doubting Thomas … Climate Change and Touching Hope
David R. Weiss – May 3, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #23 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

If you were in church last Sunday you probably heard the familiar story (John 20:19-29) of “Doubting Thomas.” John places it exactly one week after the original Easter account, and most churches use it as the Gospel text on the first Sunday after Easter. It’s one of those stories that’s so familiar (it’s even given us “Doubting Thomas” as a idiom) that it becomes easy to think we know exactly what it means—until we realize we don’t.

Here’s the way it unfolds in John. On Easter evening the disciples are huddling in fear in an upper room. Suddenly Jesus appears to them. Except Thomas misses it. And when the disciples report it to him afterwards, he replies, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” Sure enough, one week later Jesus appears again, this time with Thomas present, and he invites Thomas to indeed place his fingers into the wounds. He tells Thomas, “Do not doubt, but believe.” (Thereby sealing his nickname for history.[1]) And the scene ends with Jesus seeming to make Thomas an example of how NOT to be: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

It seems pretty straightforward. But consider a couple things.

Nobody in this account believes without seeing, so Thomas gets more than a bit of a bad rap. All the other disciples saw Jesus the first time, so it seems a little unfair to single out Thomas as though he was the only one who needed to see in order for his belief to take hold.

Second, Thomas reacts exactly like any of us would. By now some of us have been so conditioned to believe Jesus was raised from the dead we affirm that without even thinking about it. But how many of us would be as quick to accept a tale told (even by a good friend) about a man who died last week in a near by town, and three days later was seen walking about? How many?! I thought so.

Third, even Thomas, while seemingly scolded for his need to see, still gets to see. But none of us do. And that’s who this passage is really aimed at. John’s gospel was written, at the earliest, around 90 CE (others date it 10, even 20 years later). So John is writing for people living now sixty years after Jesus did. In other words, everybody in John’s audience from his first readers right on through us, is in the same “predicament”: we all have to choose whether to believe or not—without seeing. Which only heightens the tension. Does that mean all John offers us is a scolding of Thomas—who still gets to see—and a “blessing” for the rest of us if we can manage to do better? No.

Which brings us to climate change. It often feels as though the more you know about the dire straits we’re in, the harder it is to muster hope. To actually read the reports and study the science—even as a layperson—well, you begin to feel like those disciples huddled in that upper room. The world as you knew it has ended. And the world opening up in front of you is fringed round about with fear.

For Thomas—who, after all, is our example in this text—the crucial thing is not that he gets to see, but that he gets to touch. And not that he gets to touch the arms, the cheeks, etc.—but the wounds. His hope comes from touching the worst that the world dealt to Jesus and realizing that there is still life to be had.[2]

In a sense this episode in John’s gospel is an “Easter echo” of Jesus’ words in Matthew about “the least of these” (Mt 25:31-46). In that passage Jesus suggests the place where faith is found is precisely in deeds that meet the needs of others: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned. Here, in John’s gospel it isn’t mere sight that makes resurrection real for Thomas, it’s the tender touch of Jesus’ wounds. And John’s subtle wisdom to us—who can neither see Jesus in our midst nor light at the end of this climate crisis—is that if we wish to believe, it is less an act of will than a deed of compassion that will bring it to pass. Hope lives in the habits we form … provided those habits hold compassion.

This intuition is at the heart of Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone’s book, Active Hope,[3] an offering of practical wisdom for meeting this perilous moment. They distinguish between two meanings for hope. The first is hope rooted in likelihood. There’s at least a reasonable chance it will be sunny tomorrow; I sure hope so. That type of hope was beyond the reach of the disciples huddled in the upper room after the crucifixion—and beyond the reach of anyone who wades very far into the current data on climate change. Reasonable likelihood is no longer on the table.

The second meaning has to do with desire, independent of likelihood. The disciples knew he was dead and buried, but even in their fear, they could have told you they wanted him with them once again. So, what do you hope for, for your children? Push “pause” on “now be realistic,” and just ask, “What do you hope for, for them?” Chances are, the answers aren’t buried very deep.

But there’s yet one more distinction to make. When it comes to hope as desire, it can be either passive or active. Passive hope waits for outside forces to bring something to pass. As a result, passive hope can easily feel hopeless. Active Hope is participatory. It’s a deed. Macy and Johnstone call it a practice—a habit of deeds, if you will. They liken it to tai chai: a set of movements that may seem to accomplish very little, but are nonetheless done with focus and intent … and become like water shaping rock. Far from a disposition you try to “have” as a ground your actions, Active Hope begins as an action-by-action habit that eventually grounds our disposition. Perhaps most significantly for us, Active Hope doesn’t presume optimism. It simply asks that you honor the desire of your heart and act with sincere humble focus.

It’s worth being clear: Macy and Johnstone don’t claim Active Hope will turn things around. They do believe it will turn you around—especially if embraced as a communal practice. That is, by choosing to actively align our energy, in even small ways, with a larger story (vision) that matches the desires of our heart, we invest ourselves (and, ideally, it is a WE doing this) in actions that “help us restore our sense of connection with the web of life and with one another.” Broadly speaking they describe this dynamism as the Work That Reconnects. I think John might describe it as the Work That Resurrects.

As Macy and Johnstone relate, this work “comes from gratitude” (begins with awe at what is) and “honors the pain of our world” (feels loss: let grief have its way with us). During Jesus’ ministry his disciples learned to come with gratitude; we hear that in the stories of wonder and surprise that swirl around Jesus. After his crucifixion they’re overwhelmed by the pain of their world. Initially they’re too overwhelmed even to hope. But when Thomas, in spite of his dis-belief, dares to touch the wounds, he chooses to honor the pain in the pain rather than turn away from it. And in that choice, resurrection occurs. John offers wisdom to the first Christian on how to fuel their movement: by touching the wounds of the world.

It’s essential that we honor the world’s pain and touch it with tenderness—which may include full on anguished lament. Honestly, it may or may not “save” the world. But I’m willing to bet my whole life it can “save” us and our children come what may. Which is to say, it has the ability to root our lives in Active Hope—no matter what. That’s resilience. And that’s good news, even to people huddled in fear.

PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!
Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com

[1] Actually … Thomas never doubts. The Greek word for doubt is distazo. Jesus uses apistos; it means, rather more bluntly “without belief.” But it came into English as “doubt,” and that word got paired with Thomas ever since.

[2] I don’t think this is about physical resurrection. Maybe it is, but I think John is making a much more nuanced assertion here, one intended to spark our belief in the value of compassion, love, life itself.

[3] Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012). In this post I’m drawing primarily on the Introduction, pp. 1-7; I’ll return to this book again.

Easter – Resurrection AS Extinction Rebellion

Easter – Resurrection AS Extinction Rebellion
David R. Weiss – April 22, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #22 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

Nobody saw it coming, not even his own followers.

Both the elites within the Jewish religious establishment and the Roman authorities knew that the man—and the message he so recklessly embodied in the community he gathered around himself—had to be stopped. This notion of divinely sanctioned compassion threatened to undo the carefully guarded structures—religious, cultural, and imperial—that helped ensure that profit, power, and status moved in … predictable … patterns. Reserved to those with the right families, the right connections, and (occasionally) the right opportunities. After all, social stratification is a hallmark feature of civilization.[1]

But this man’s other-worldly vision, his relentless conviction that you could actually weave community out of compassion seemed to have just the right mix of intriguing presentation and beguiling practice. The common folk (upon whose lower, outcast status rested the leisure of others) were enthralled. Not all of them to be sure. Both religion and empire have ways to rein in the aspirations of those usefully deemed “other.” But this man was something else. And for the sake of everyone who was someone, he needed to be stopped. Hard. And publicly. Because that was the most effective method to dispose of both the man and the message. Thus, the point of the crucifixion was not simply to crucify Jesus but to crucify compassion.

On Holy Saturday it certainly appeared that compassion was extinct, so to speak. By all accounts Jesus’ followers and friends were fearful: scattered, in hiding, bereft. How long that first Holy Saturday endured we cannot know. The narrative, of course, says three days, but I suspect that’s our own wishful literalism treating the awe-filled testimony of the gospels as though they’re news stories rather than true stories.

The “fact” of the resurrection is beyond this essay. It’s interesting though that Paul (the earliest author in the new Testament, writing perhaps 15-20 years after the crucifixion) speaks primarily of a vision of a post-crucifixion Jesus. Mark (the next to write, perhaps 35-40 years post-cross) speaks of an empty tomb but not a risen Jesus. Matthew, Luke and John all have “proper” resurrection tales, but it’s taken 50-plus years for them to … arise. And John even describes the disciples on Easter morning as out fishing. That’s hardly the type of activity you’d go back to just 36 hours after seeing your closest comrade publicly, horrifically executed for treason. So this resurrection business is complicated, to say the least.[2]

But whether you believe that Jesus walked out of the tomb or that those tales seek to name a reality deeper than fact, the bottom line—the gospel truth, if you will—is that there WAS a bodily resurrection: the church.

And that happened via compassion. The church was not born by affirming a set of doctrines or beliefs. It was born as Jesus’ followers and friends began—sometime on the far side of the crucifixion (my guess is weeks or months afterward, but that’s just a guess)—after a season of fear, grief, and confusion to recapitulate among themselves the radical compassion that Jesus had preached. And in the praxis of compassion they found Jesus “alive” in their midst again. That experience became the resurrection.

Resurrection is the original “extinction rebellion.” It is the dramatic affirmation that with our own bodies we will counter every effort to extinguish the seeds of compassion that have been sown in our hearts. For Jesus, and for his first followers and friends, that compassion was incarnated primarily in a widening welcome extended to humans in need. While the empires of Jesus’ day could surely wreak havoc on ecosystems, they had no ability to fundamentally fracture the entire planet’s health. There was, of course, as yet no scientific understanding of the intricate web of creation—although psalmists and prophets intuited this web as have most (maybe all) aboriginal peoples.

As I noted in “Redeemed for Resilience” (GIT, Essay #13), by the end of the fourth century the early church became the imperial church, and the radical compassion that drove the resurrection became reserved for saints and monastics. The majority of believers were instructed in doctrine and duty, and in many ways, the church chose to recapitulate the very dynamics of profit, power, and status that Jesus had challenged. The embers of resurrection never entirely faded, but for most of its history the church has been shaped by priorities other than radical compassion. (Yes, the church has fostered its share of compassion, kindness, mercy, etc. But, for the most part, the church made sure to ration these goods out in amounts that promote “good order” rather than instill them with the prodigal world-changing extravagance that Jesus did. )

Fast forward to the present day. Now “Extinction Rebellion” names a fairly new loose-knit global movement of activists committing non-violent actions to protest inaction by governments to address climate change.[3] Although secular in origin, their credo is not unlike that of the earliest Christians: to deploy their own bodies in countering the complacency that threatens to extinguish the very seeds of life that have been sown on this planet.

On one hand extinction—the complete disappearance of a life form from the biotic community—is a cosmic fact. As life bubbles up across eons, some of those bubbles go bust sooner than others. And sometimes cataclysmic cosmic events—sudden meteor strikes or slow-moving ice ages—dramatically reshape life’s context and reset the bar for survival for entire ecosystems. On the other hand—the hand that matters right now—today, we don’t face extinctions dealt out by the unfolding cosmos. We face—we’re experiencing, as I write and as you read—extinctions at a pace unknown since the dinosaurs died out 65 million years. At a pace some scientists say qualifies as the sixth great extinction in Earth’s long history.[4]

But this round of extinction has two noteworthy characteristics. First, rather than being caused by an insentient cosmic process/event, this extinction is being caused by us. Initially (and still) driven by how human development undoes specific habitats, ripping asunder the web of flora and fauna that constitute an ecosystem, this extinction is also being amplified by climate change, the cumulative impact of an industrial society playing Russian roulette at the level of atmosphere and ocean. Second, unlike the first five extinctions, which we view from a vantage point of safety measured in millennia past, this extinction may well include us. All life is interconnected. There are only so many strands of the web we can extinguish before the web nearest us collapses, taking us with it.

It’s time for churches to reclaim extinction rebellion as our cause. To use our individual choices, communal practices, and civic power to strengthen the social and ecological webs that support life. Maybe even to join Extinction Rebellion in some of its theatrical (liturgical!) nonviolence. I could say we ought to do these things “because” we believe in resurrection. But, actually, I think it’s the reverse. Easter’s “Alleluia!” belongs to all the Earth. Only as we begin to rebel with our own bodies on behalf of all life, letting compassion echo evangelically in our lives, only then can we say—only then are we saying—“Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” If you’re looking for an Easter alleluia, you’ll find it there.

[1] www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilization

[2] I Cor. 15:3-8; Acts 9:3-6; 22:6-11; 26:13-15; Mark 16:1-8; Matt. 28:9-20; Luke 24:13-53; John 20: 11-29; 21:1-14. My thinking on resurrection has evolved over many years, beginning in seminary (1984) and continuing in graduate school (1992-97) in both seminars and a candidacy exam that looked at the Historical Jesus. Those most influential for me are John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), Marcus Borg, “The Truth of Easter” in The Meaning of Jesus, (HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), and Willi Marxsen, Jesus and Easter: Did God Raise the Historical Jesus from the Dead? (Abingdon Press, 1990).

[3] www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/20/stroud-cotswold-town-that-spawned-radical-protest

[4] www.projects.propublica.org/extinctions/

 

PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!
Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com

[1] www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilization

[2] I Cor. 15:3-8; Acts 9:3-6; 22:6-11; 26:13-15; Mark 16:1-8; Matt. 28:9-20; Luke 24:13-53; John 20: 11-29; 21:1-14.

[3] www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/20/stroud-cotswold-town-that-spawned-radical-protest

[4] www.projects.propublica.org/extinctions/

Three Days Dizzy

Three Days Dizzy
(An experience in liturgical vertigo—in which I lose my balance)
David R. Weiss, April 15, 2017

I wish I could just blend in. Odds are my desire to belong—to fit in—is every bit as strong as yours. There is no quiet thrill in my Holy Week discord. More truly a visceral dread. There are causes I gladly embrace. This diatribe is not one of them.

NOTE: I originally wrote this reflection-rant in April 2017, but did not post it at the time. It felt almost too raw–too likely to offend my readers. But it IS my truth. And because it may resonate with some of you, I post it today. It is my breathless attempt to stand beside the Jesus I know. And ultimately I would rather risk unsettling you with my words than betraying him with my silence. 

Almost against my will, risking fracture in the very community I dearly want to call home . . .

I SWEAR—this man Jesus is a holy child of God, a sage-mystic-healer-prophet. He is Christ: chosen of God, and in his words and deeds—yes, in his life, death, and life-beyond-death—we meet the living God of the universe. This claim is so interwoven with me—I live and move and have my being within this conviction—that I would die for it. No proud claim there; simply the humble acknowledgment of how central this truth is . . . to my next breath.

And I SWEAR—this God whom we meet in Jesus is fiercest Love. Making justice, to be sure. Toppling powers, freeing slaves, overturning tables. No tame goodness, this deity. This God whose fierce Love filled Jesus’ frame to full incarnation, is no stranger to anger. But this thirst for a restored and fulfilled world is not . . . never was . . . never will be slaked by blood.

I SWEAR—from the founding of the Earth until this very moment, despite our overactive imaginations, God has not once needed blood to make history whole. Least of all—LEAST OF ALL—the blood of this holy Christ. Which is why these Three Days feel to me like an elaborate celebration of some grand lie that slanders God and makes the sheer redeeming miracle of Jesus’ holy—and wholling—life a mere prelude to the spilling of his blood.

Rendering unto us—I SWEAR—a god unknown to Jesus, for whom Love came even before alpha and ever after omega. For whom the whole of God is Love—first to last, and more!—such that our redemption . . . our ransom-rescue-restoration was set sure by God. Absolutely. Period. No blood. No bargain. Just. Because. Love.

So I SWEAR—before Jesus was even born (“in the beginning,” if you like) we were already loved to redemption. And in his life we see the power of that redemption—already accomplished—announced, unleashed, set ablaze. To the world’s great chagrin. Yet over these Three Days we think it wise to give God goddamned credit for the world’s murderous frenzy. As though by some false alchemy we can turn nails and thorns and cross and blood into a fitting sacrifice for sins already banished long ago by such fierce Love.

I SWEAR—it seems to me that we join Judas in betraying Jesus, in our case to a tale that cannot carry the truth of his life. It matters how you tell the story. For sure, he dined for one last time, and ventured out to pray, and was betrayed and taunted-tortured-timbered until he breathed his last. I don’t dispute these things. But gospel is that telling—that type and tone of tale—by which the truth contained therein takes life within our lives.

And I fear—I SWEAR—with all my dizzy heart, that the way we tell this tale these last Three Days, in fact betrays us, too. By framing Jesus’ birth as aimed all along toward death we fix outside the frame the actual coming of the kin-dom he declared in word and deed—which had no need of death to seal the deal. That death was inevitable—I don’t deny—but only on account of the life he’d lived. And there can be no life-giving telling that does not keep—in every prayer, in every song, in every word, in every breath—that lived Love front and center. Eclipse the mundane miraculous compassion of his life from the very heart of these Three Days . . . and all that’s left is lie.

And losing my balance, I SWEAR—the way we fawn on Good Friday over the suffering of this lamb comes damned close . . . to liturgical crush porn—somehow drawing our own unholy squeals of delight as innocent suffering squeezes life out of that one chosen of God. Is that too offensive to say? Did not the prophets say as much and more?

I admit: there is power in these days. That Jesus held fast his faith in God, his faith in Love, right through to his own death. No small witness to the truth he lived (but hardly the point either). And that we recognize—and announce—the resonance between his cross and the sufferings and injustices and abandonments that we may know today. There is real power in learning that God’s compassionate solidarity and boundless love chases after each of us even to the most terrifying places of our lives. I have no quarrel with these evocative claims.

But when we make them we must be very clear we are not mistaking the cross as being redemptive. And the responsibility to be unmistakably clear about this falls to us because for too much of Christian history we’ve made the opposite claim, and it still echoes unrepentant in our hymnody and liturgy, and we dare not make the right connection alongside the wrong connection and blend the two as one. I hear so many nice-sounding assertions that haven’t explicitly disentangled themselves from bloodthirsty atonement . . . and the result is empowering-potential . . . hobbled by being bound to blood. Such good news will never gallop.

I SWEAR—the gospel truth is not that Jesus’ death changes everything, but rather—PLEASE—that it changes nothing: the point is that the world’s murderous frenzy does not lessen Jesus’ love. Not even one bit. Does not unlive his life. Does not undo the incarnation—or the community called together by this man. In the face of this fierce Love, death proves powerless, though not because it cannot kill the man—it does—but because it cannot kill the Love his life unleashed.

And that is gospel worth an Easter champagne toast (which I once saw a pastor offer during an Easter liturgy). But I’m not sure we truly catch the threat behind the bottle’s pop. If this man lives—and you can take your pick between a raised body, an incorporeal spirit, or a revived community of followers—whether resurrection is medical miracle or mystical metaphor or something in between really does not matter that much.

Because if Jesus’ death is not about redemption in the least, then resurrection is not God’s stamp of “paid in full” upon the account that bears our name. Instead, however you choose to understand it, if it’s not about redemption, then resurrection is about launching our lives—fiercely and fearlessly—into love. And, reading the gospels, we know where that leads.

Which is why I SWEAR at last—if this man lives, then that sharp pop of Easter champagne poses to each of us this inquiry, even as the “Alleluia!” leaves our lips: “Okay, now which of you … is ready to love so recklessly you’ll get killed for it?”

*     *     *

NOTE: I’ve wrestled with this theme multiple times in essays, poems, hymns. Here are a few others if this is a “Easter rabbit hole” you want to venture down …

2000/2001: (poem cycle) “Listening for Love While Avoiding the Violence”
2003: “The Cross and the Queer”
2004: (hymn) “It was upon a moonlit night”
2005: “The Queer Kingdom of God”
2010: “Taking Issue with Easter Lilies”
2014: (poem) “This ‘Alleluia’ in the Air”
2016: “An Easter Evening Reflection … on a Virtuous Zombie”
2017: “Holy Week and Wagging the Dog”

Maundy Thursday – Meeting the End with Love

Maundy Thursday – Meeting the End with Love
David R. Weiss – April 16, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #21 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

John 13:34-35 – “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are followers of the Way: because you love one another.[1] Part of Jesus’ long farewell discourse in John’s gospel, these words have given us the name for Thursday in Holy Week: Maundy. The Latin behind “commandment” in this verse (echoed again in 15:12-17) is mandatum (from which comes our word, mandate. This is “Mandatum Thursday”: “Commandment Thursday.” It might better be called Love Thursday, since Jesus calls his friends[2] to love many times more than he uses the word “commandment.”

Overall John’s gospel is noteworthy on several counts. Considered by scholars to be the last of the biblical gospels authored, his telling is often regarded as the least historical and most theological (which is not to say that he ignores history, that the other gospels ignore theology, or that the others present history the way we think of it today). But, even a surface reading of John reveals no parables, multiple lengthy discourses, and a self-focused Jesus (as opposed to a focus on God’s kin-dom), all of which place him in stark contrast to the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke, so-called “synoptic” because they view Jesus through the same lens).

One might make the case that John is thus less interested in historical fact, but he remains supremely interested in Truth. John’s gospel—which, like the other gospels aims to communicate good news to his original readers/hearers in a way that fosters the experience of good news in the hearing itself—is finely crafted and reflects both the lived experience of his community and John’s own nuanced theology. Of particular note is John’s commitment to “realized eschatology,” a fancy theological mouthful for saying that John believes that the redemptive/liberatory impact of Jesus on us and our lives begins right now—in all its fullness. Whether John regards another layer of fulfillment in an afterlife is not the point. He believes that the full power of the gospel is unleashed in the world through the Spirit moving in our lives today.

Two features of John’s Maundy Thursday narrative stand out to me. First, contrary to the Synoptics (and likely contrary to history), John does not have Jesus eat the Passover meal on Thursday night. He pushes Passover back by day: a small bit of “historical license” with theologically seismic implications. Not much is changed about Thursday evening, but the absence of a Thursday Passover means that on Friday afternoon throughout Jerusalem Passover lambs are being slaughtered in preparation for the meal … a slaughter that aligns with Jesus’ death on the cross. It is John’s way of profoundly linking Jesus to the Passover lamb (whose blood, in the original Passover tale kept Jewish homes safe during the final plague in Egypt).

It’s a symbolic connection that (in my mind) has disastrous echoes in atonement theology for millennia to come: in assertions that say our forgiveness/redemptive hinges on the spilling of Jesus’ blood. Given the scandal of Jesus’ death on the cross—which surely rocked his friends’ and followers’ worlds in way we cannot imagine—John’s daring interpretation of the death is understandable. His logic, I suspect, is quite different from ours. We often begin the story of Jesus with the assumption he came to die and skip over the very messy theology that undergirds that assumption. The earliest communities of believers began with the inexplicable fact that he DID die—for which they were utterly unprepared—and then find themselves making daring efforts (that are hardly consistent across the gospels or the early church!) to reconcile the profound goodness of Jesus’ life to the irreconcilable(!) character of his death.

It’s possible—in light of John’s realized eschatology (where redemption happens NOW, among the living)—that he identifies Jesus with the Passover lamb not to make his blood key to redemption, but to include his bloody death in the redemptive power of his life. As though by finding a place for Jesus’ death within the Passover story of God’s liberating work, John insures that the cross cannot become a cause to doubt the power of Jesus’ life. Like the Passover lamb, his death is one piece of a much larger tale of liberation.

The other intriguing feature of John’s Maundy Thursday account is this. We commemorate Maundy Thursday as the night when Jesus instituted Holy Communion at the end of his last supper and before his arrest and crucifixion. But, although Thursday in Holy Week gets its name from John’s gospel, in his telling Jesus never celebrates Holy Communion. He has a final meal followed by a famous foot-washing scene, but there is no lifting up and breaking bread, no pouring and sharing wine. How can it be that this meal—so emblematic of our faith … so sacramental … is simply missing in John?

No one knows for sure, but I’m persuaded by a suggestion I heard decades ago (alas, uncredited because my memory recalls the insight but not the origin): in John’s community they gathered to read aloud pieces of this gospel each week. And each week they did this while celebrating communion, themselves taking and breaking bread, pouring and sharing wine. John wrote for their lived experience, so he wrote a gospel to compliment the meal already at the heart of their gathering. No need to describe the meal itself.

Whether that’s the real reason or not will likely never be known. But it fits with how I see this night in this week intersecting with our experience of climate change. Put yourself, even if just momentarily, in Jesus’ sandals. He sees the end—his end—rapidly approaching. It’s not that he wants to die, but that he will not compromise the power of compassion that dwells in him. And he sees the rising powers of the world determined to preserve themselves at the cost of his life. This isn’t divine foreknowledge. It’s simply the sober commonsense insight accessible to most every person who’s been a prophet/martyr.

But Jesus’ primary concern on this night in this week is to ensure that the compassion birthed in and through him continues to be realized in the world after his death (that’s realized eschatology). And how does he do that? He tells his friends to love one another. Relentlessly. Fiercely. Even at great risk. Love. Jesus’ death would seem to undermine the usefulness of this counsel. But before we race ahead to the resurrection and see there some miraculous overturning of death, before we do that—just wait. Because on that first Maundy Thursday there is as yet no resurrection. No gospels have been written. No Sunday School lessons learned. No Hallelujahs hurled heavenward. No Easter lilies bought. None of that is “real” yet. There is ONLY a daunting, messy, chaotic end racing toward Jesus. And he meets that end by sharing a meal and asking his friends to persist in loving one another.

Perhaps that love is central to what happens on Easter morning. (I happen to think it is, though in a very unorthodox way.) But I want to hold us in the shattering uncertainty of Maundy Thursday for a moment. There is a strand of eco-awareness today that looks at the unnerving science and the damning math and assesses it with the same sort of sobering certainty that Jesus did on Maundy Thursday: we’re screwed. And who knows whether it is alarmist (as we like to hope) or just … inconveniently honest. But I ask you, today, to put yourself in an ecological Maundy Thursday moment. What if there’s ONLY a daunting, messy, chaotic end racing toward us? If so, how will we meet that end? Here is the thin, profound, powerful good news of Jesus: Let’s meet it gathered with friends, sharing a meal, and pledging love.

PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!
drw59mn(at)gmail.com

[1] This is mostly NRSV translation, but I have replaced “my disciples,” which is certainly what the Greek says, with “followers of the Way,” which is what the church came to understand and which resonates with my sense that Jesus never saw himself as having a monopoly on “the Way.”

[2] There’s a whole theology behind this one word, which links Jesus directly to the Hebrew notion of God’s Wisdom. Jesus says his ministry will be (can only be?) carried on, not by followers or disciples, but by friends.