Instructions for Living in Exile

Instructions for Living in Exile

I once had dinner with an evangelical friend, one I doubt will even see this as he has since “unfriended” me in the wake of that sieve which 2016 election has turned out to be. He was mocking the environmental conservation movement and said, “It doesn’t matter, it’s all gonna burn anyway.” Needless to say I was shocked and I believe I came back with thoughts on stewardship meaning care of creation but my recent meditation on Jeremiah 29:11 highlighted this conversation anew.

For those of you lucky enough to not have grown up with this, there’s this idea–more than idea, almost core theology as there are sermons and songs a-plenty around this–that we are only passing through “this world.” Somehow our status as Christians means we are now no longer residents of this world and therefore removed from it in a way that Scripture never really intended.

Metaphors of resident aliens and exile abound and yet while many that subscribe to this narrow and damaging worldview cling to Jeremiah 29:11 as a life verse, they seemed to have missed the instructions for exile that are found in the chapter that surround it.

You see as I noted in Life Verses and the End of the World, the context of the future and the hope that is promised in Jeremiah 29:11 is that they will be in exile for seventy years. While this is not good news (this is a safe conclusion as 1) it’s exile and 2) Jeremiah assures them that God does have plans for their future), they are called to build a life, to grow and thrive where they did not want to be planted. And then there’s this: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7 NRSV). Even if you want to subscribe to a strict exile metaphor for the Christian life you can’t say that care for the people and creation around us isn’t part of that exile.

Now, I don’t subscribe to that metaphor as it’s trying to force a historical reality onto a current one as though that story was an allegory and it’s not. Can we learn from it? Yes. Can we force a narrative of Christians as the “new” Israel? No. And we can’t do that for many reasons, the most important being, there is still both a nation of Israel and a Jewish people. That opens up a whole different discussion, but I thought it needed to be noted in this context.

This is yet another example of the dangers of what I’m calling extractive theology. It goes beyond the concept of proof-texting in that I believe it is tied to philosophies and mythologies that have helped create a version of Christianity in America that is more American than in is Christian. From manifest destiny to the prosperity gospel, American Christians have extracted what they thought they had rights to, using scripture as an rationale to take what they wanted: land, people, resources, and so forth with no regard to the consequences on shalom or mutual thriving of people in creation. And sure, you can find words in the Scripture that if you yank them out of context would seem to give one permission to do all those things. That’s why we can’t just take scriptures and try to jam scenarios into our current moment to provide rationales, and this is why it is dangerous to read the Bible both on our own as individuals outside of community and to read just the Bible without any understanding of the context it was in so we can get a feel for the overarching intent.

If an action doesn’t lead to mutual thriving and care of creation, it’s safe to say that the arcs of Scripture don’t support it as they all lead to justice and liberation as we move closer to the Kingdom of God.

Holy Obstinance

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Today in church one of our priests gave a pastoral message in lieu of a sermon in order to address some practical concerns regarding coronavirus and also tornado cleanup. And he went on to recommend that while the chalices would still be available that we receive communion in one kind only, and the chalices were available as it is a requirement in the prayer book and necessary for some people’s personal piety or… and then he stopped, searching for a word, and said, “I don’t know what word to use… I shouldn’t say obstinance,” referring to people who insist on drinking from the chalice anyway. That cracked up many who were listening, and my husband turned to me and said, “holy obstinance,” and as you can imagine, we were among the obstinate few who received from the chalice anyway (wine is anti-viral and silver chalices are non-porous and our mouths are cleaner than our hands, so don’t come at me).

But the phrase “holy obstinance” caught my imagination and I came home pondering what that means for our moment in time that often feels overwhelming as though we can scarcely catch our breath from one thing before something else hits. And what better description is there of hope in this moment then pressing on out of a holy obstinance? To have faith that we can ultimately bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice to paraphrase what Dr. King once said.

Many of my favorite stories, whether it’s Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars, or Doctor Who (yes, I am a big geek and I own it proudly), feature long sections of darkness with very little chance of success. And it’s one thing to read and reread (or watch and re-watch) these sections of darkness knowing how it all turns out. It’s another thing to be trekking through Mordor with enemies all around and your water’s running out, or to crouch by Dumbledore’s body knowing there’s no one left to stand between you and the battle that is to come, or to take a run at blowing up the death star knowing there’s just one chance to get it right and so many ways to get it wrong–to stand in those moments and not know where the story ends, to live into the uncertainty and do the right thing anyway out of hope that if enough people join you in doing the right thing, then it will make a difference. But even if they don’t, you do it anyway, because no matter the outcome, you have chosen to do what’s right. This is holy obstinance.

And no, I’m not equating drinking from the chalice or not as making the right choice in dark times, the phrase just grabbed my attention and I wouldn’t be giving its origin proper references without the story.

The second piece of this is that thinking about the coronavirus (or to be accurate: the novel coronavirus, COVID-19), has me thinking about the nature of interconnectedness. In his address, my priest today also mentioned how preventing the spread of a virus as best we can falls into love of one’s neighbor.

In a time where border-consciousness in the United States is seemingly at an all-time high, here comes a little brand-new virus to remind us that borders are artificial lines drawn on a map. To remind us that we are all global citizens in a world that is more interconnected than ever, bound together in a common destiny for better or worse and the attempts to practice isolationism or pretend that isn’t so are not only wrong but incredibly… naive to put it as charitably as possible.

Today’s gospel lesson contained one of the most memorized verses of all time: “For God so loved the world…” God so loved… not a single country, nor a single people group, but the entire world–which incidentally includes creation itself as the author of Romans put it so eloquently: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now: and not only the creation, but we ourselves…” (Romans 8:22-23 NRSV).

God so loved the entire world–all of creation–that God gave of Godself the ultimate sacrifice in order to put things to right. This reconciliation is both here and now, and an eschatological reality. In other words, the reconciliation offered to us here is not yet complete as we experience it, but in terms of the world to come, it has already been made complete, and indeed, all things have been made new.

But since we live before everything being made new, things like the coronavirus come along and highlight the fact that none of us can “go it alone” on this planet. Tornadoes reveal to us both how fast life can change and how much we need our neighbors. It is a reminder to care for our neighbors at all times, not just in the midst of sickness or disaster because we need them and they need us and all of us are loved equally by a God who demonstrated what love is with the ultimate sacrifice for the whole world.

To stand in the knowledge that we follow the crucified one and to refuse isolationist doctrines that would divide us from members of our human family, to acknowledge that all human life is sacred and created in the image of God and should be treated as such in a time of xenophobia, to resist the supremacies of our nation that seek to oppress and divide us from acknowledging each others’ full humanity, to stand firm in all of this: that is holy obstinance.

Extractive Theology

Extractive Theology

The past 5 weeks or so I’ve been participating in a cross-class dialogue circle lead by Equity Solutions. A few weeks ago, one of our homework assignments was to read a zine called “From Banks and Tanks to Cooperation and Caring” that discusses practices of an extractive economy. It looks at the various ways that both people and the planet have been misused in service of making money. From clear-cutting (which turns a renewable resource into a non-renewable resource) to genocide and slavery, an economy that views accumulation (and consolidation of weath) as its end goal will extract whatever it needs to get there. Extractive industries seek deregulation because it allows them to accumulate wealth faster. And by “them” I mean primarily the top executives. Extractive industries like coal extract both from the planet and from the very lives of the people doing the work in a very real and visible way, but many industries are extractive in that they don’t pay their base workers a living wage and people are going without health care and mental health care trying to make ends meet.

In this, these industries are extracting their profits from the very lives of their base employees in order to create and consolidate wealth at the top. And people are trapped within this system because the alternative is starvation and homelessness.

With all this sitting in the back of my mind as I contemplate what economic justice looks like, it occured to me as I look at American Christianity, that the practices that allow people calling themselves followers of Jesus to come to some really bad conclusions are by nature extractive theology.*

Extractive theology allows pastors and congregations to take things not only out of context (proof-texting) and to come to Scripture with their own preconceptions wholly unexamined, looking for a “Biblical” rationale for their beliefs (eisegesis), but it allows them to marry those practices and create an entire pseudo-theological framework that looks on the whole very unlike the savior it claims to follow.

I’ve used this term a few times in tweets and in last week’s blog post, and I’m working on a loose series of posts, some of which are already scheduled. I want to explore both concepts around American Christianity (because this is my context, there are certainly other iterations of this in different places in the world) and my own story coming out of an American Christian background. I’m going to use the two words “American Christianity” together consistently to talk about this brand of Christianity because it crosses some denominational lines and isn’t exactly articulated anywhere, though there are certainly more explicit examples available, but it often lives in the negative space of what is articulated. But just as any large shadow is cast by a large object, sometimes looking at the shadow and where it comes from it absolutely vital.

And if you watch Doctor Who, you know to pay very close attention to the shadows, because if you don’t, the shadows will literally eat you (Silence in the Library).

*I came up with this term as you see above and I hadn’t seen it anywhere before but while I created the hashtag #extractivetheology, I did find a reference where it occurs in a book called Rooted and Grounded: Essays on Land and Christian Discipleship. I think I’ll have to pick that up because the google books preview is incomplete and I don’t know if they mean what I mean by the term, so it’ll be interesting to find out.