Thursday, March 31, 2011

Equipping People for God's Mission

By Hall Kirkham

Episcopal Divinity School is a magical place. It felt that way to me the first time I bumped into it on a walk down Brattle Street fifteen years ago when I wandered through the campus during a February snowstorm. It has played a crucial, transformative role in my formation as a clergyperson and human being. This formation is ongoing and – if I am fortunate – will always be. Three learnings come to mind when I try to describe my experience at EDS.

First, if sin is separation from God, then oppression is separation from each other, and racism is the particular sin of oppression of the United States. It is the lens through which we who live and operate in the United States can view oppression in all its forms.

“Foundations for Theological Praxis” is training in anti-oppression and anti-racism, and is the first course all students encounter at EDS. It provides the language and orientation that inform all subsequent work at the school and interactions within the community. It is the main ingredient in the EDS mission to form leaders of hope, courage and vision who serve God’s mission of justice, compassion and reconciliation.

It seems to me from this work that these efforts – anti-racism and anti-oppression – are not just good ideas. They are THE ideas, if we are to have any hope for this wonderful project of God and God’s dream.

No one gets out of Foundations unscathed or untouched. All discover things that are profoundly unsettling and profoundly reassuring about the way we humans are with each other, and about the way we can be. This is work that everyone should do, and the earlier the better, because then one has more time to practice and be liberated by it.

Foundations introduced me to my varied privileges, privileges well beyond my due or awareness, that enable me as a white male to do things in America that will meaningfully add to or detract from my own and fellow travelers’ journeys towards God’s dream. So I continue to try and seek and serve the marginalized other, particularly the sick and in prison, in my work inside and outside the parish.

My second major discovery at EDS was that community matters. At the very least, our shared experience from Foundations enabled each of us to help in the learning and recovery process over lunch, during the week, and as we moved through our days. Community at EDS was exhilarating and redeeming, words I’d never used to describe anything in my life before. We hear a lot about community at EDS, and I’m not entirely sure how it happens or what it means when folks say, “We do community well.” But EDS does.

When my wife and I were expecting twins, the community celebrated alongside us in each of the milestones of pregnancy. When those twins were delivered to us at 21 weeks and were unable to survive for more than a few hours, the community mourned and wept with us, and helped us get up and step back blinking into the daylight.

Community – and, in particular, community bonded by a shared faith – is one of those things I recognize when I experience it. Something primal and organic now guides me to try and to nourish it. Maybe community in its best sense is common fare in God’s dream?

My third learning was in the work EDS invited me to do – along with all of my classmates– in finding “voice.” Not every one of us joins the ranks of clergy, but each of us is responsible to figure out how to express what our experience has given us. Doing this helps carry us further towards God’s dream.

I am a great fan of Woody Guthrie, who would have loved EDS. I think he would have loved it so much that I decided to “try on” as a voice his music and lyrics. One sermon I preached in a class combined my spoken text with quotes from Woody, sung through his music (guitar and all). It resulted in an unusual – albeit probably incomprehensible – sermon.

We won’t all speak or preach. Some of us will write and paint or play music or dance, or even offer our presence in silence. I think that our voice is how we share the gifts that we discover within ourselves and that emerge from our shared experiences. EDS worked hard to help me find a voice that I am still learning to use effectively.

EDS isn’t just an important resource for the formation of leaders in the Christian faith. It is vital. And it is vital for the Diocese of Massachusetts, the national Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion and – hear me out on this – God’s mission. And I look forward to sowing and harvesting its gifts, and sowing and harvesting again, for the rest of my life.

* The Reverend Hall Kirkham, M.Div. '08, is Assistant Rector at St Peter's Episcopal Church in Weston and a trustee of the Episcopal Divinity School.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Experiencing Church At-Work in the Blessings Project

By Dr. Gale A. Yee

            This is my very first blog, something that I have resisted doing for a while. However, I’ve just finished an extraordinary weekend and feel the urge to write about it.  Since last fall, I have been a member of the Task Force on Theological Resources for the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM) Addressing General Convention Resolution CO56, Liturgies for Blessings. A mouthful, right?
      This commission has been charged to collect and develop theological and liturgical resources regarding the blessing of same-gender relationships. I was asked to be on the Task Force as the “bible” person. There are three other Task Forces working on the Resolution CO56: Liturgical Resources, Pastoral and Teaching Resources, and Canonical and Legal Considerations. Each Task Force is composed of bishops, clergy and lay folks of about 10 members.
            Recently there was a church-wide consultation of all nine ECUSA provinces in which the members of the four Task Forces met with about 230 folks from the House of Deputies in Atlanta, GA. The meeting was meant to inform the Deputies about the work on the Liturgies for Blessings, to engage in theological reflection as a Christian community, and to equip the Deputies to report to their deputations and engage them in ongoing theological reflection. The Deputies and Task Force members were divided into 15 groups, each with a facilitator and a scribe. I was the facilitator for Group Three, which had 15 people.
            My group was absolutely wonderful, with deputies from the dioceses of Central Florida, Utah, Western Kansas, El Camino Real, Missouri, Long Island North Carolina, Hawaii, Tennessee, North Dakota, Utah, Lexington, and Convocation of American Churches in Europe. My folks were very supportive of same-gender relationships. However, there were many deputies who were not, and who were quite vocal about this in other groups.        We facilitators were directed to hear the objections, but not let them move us off the goal of the weekend, namely, to reflect theologically about the General Convention Resolution CO56.
            Our first small group session was intended to help the Deputies think theologically about blessings and covenantal relationships.  All groups had to respond first to the question: “How have you found God in your relationships? Give an example in your own life.”
     It was such an honor to hear these stories in my group and the range of relationships with spouses, partners, students, and families. We then were asked to respond to the draft document that my Theological Resource group developed, Christian Life and Covenants, which highlighted the touchstones covenant and vocation, nurturing a household, and enabling ministry and service.
     My group then shared which of these touchstones spoke most directly to their own experiences of relationship. The hardest part of the process was completing the following in a Tweet and sending it off to be put in a Power Point: “Covenantal relationships manifest God’s presence by ______.” Each group at the next Plenary had one-minute to explain their Tweet. 
            Our second session together discussed a tentative outline of a rite for same-gender blessings and an example of a blessing drawn from the thousands of blessings that the Task force on Liturgical Resources had collected. We were given eight principles that embodied a classically Anglican liturgical ethos on which to judge a blessing:
·      It resonates with Scripture.
·      It has high literary value; it is beautiful according to accepted and respected standards.
·      It uses the recurring structures, linguistic patterns, and metaphors of the 1979 BCP.
·      It is formal, not casual, conversational, or colloquial.
·      It has a ritual or sacral register.
·      It is dense enough to “carry the freight’ of the sacred purpose for which it is intended.
·      It is metaphoric without being obtuse.
·      It is can be performed.
       What a time we had ripping apart this sample blessing! It seemed to flunk all eight categories of Anglican liturgical standards.
            Our third small group meeting discussed drafts of questions that the Pastoral and Teaching Resources Task Force wanted the deputies to bring back to their constituencies. We were to assess whether these questions were productive enough to engage the average church group.
      My group was asked to consider questions on Theology: “How do our inherited texts, and the exposition thereof, form and inform our knowledge of God, and our individual and corporate life together?” and “Why is it important to consider the theological implications of celebration, blessing, and the consideration of blessing same-gender relations before any move forward?” As you can imagine, we thought these questions were just too dense for the average congregation to get their heads around. The most helpful suggestion we had was to engage the services of a 5th grade teacher to rewrite them.
            It was a real gift for me to spend a weekend with very astute and committed Episcopalians to reflect theologically on developing same-gender blessings! Our communal hope was that the Episcopal Church uses this occasion to build on a more greatly enhanced theology of marriage in general.
*  Dr. Gale A. Yee is the Nancy W. King Professor of Biblical Studies at Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, USA.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Radical Love: Why Christian Theology Is a Queer Thing

By Patrick S. Cheng*

Queer theology—that is, the place where Christian theology and queer theory meet—is all about radical love.

Radical love, I contend, is a love so extreme that it dissolves our existing boundaries, whether they are boundaries that separate us from other people, that separate us from preconceived notions of sexuality and gender identity, or that separate us from God.

Radical love lies at the heart of both Christian theology and queer theory.

Radical love is at the heart of Christian theology because we Christians believe in a God who, through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, has dissolved the boundaries between death and life, time and eternity, and the human and the divine.

Similarly, radical love is also at the heart of queer theory because it challenges our existing boundaries with respect to sexuality and gender identity (for example, “gay” vs. “straight,” or “male” vs. “female”) as social constructions and not essentialist, or fixed, concepts.

It should be noted that radical love is not about abolishing all rules or justifying an antinomian existence, sexual or otherwise. Radical love is ultimately about love, which, as St. Paul teaches us, is patient and kind, and not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude. As such, radical love is premised upon safe, sane, and consensual behavior. Thus, nonconsensual behavior—such as rape or sexual exploitation—is by definition excluded from radical love.

Jesus Christ can be understood by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people as the embodiment of radical love. Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry also reinforces the notion of Jesus as the embodiment of radical love and boundary-crossing.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus constantly dissolved the religious and social boundaries of his time. He ate with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. He touched “unclean” people such as lepers and bleeding women. He spoke with special outcasts such as Samaritans. In other words, Jesus Christ dissolved the “holy” boundaries of clean and unclean, holy and profane, and saint and sinner.

Jesus Christ is the embodiment of radical love because—in addition to crossing divine and social boundaries—Jesus also crosses sexual boundaries. This is, Jesus’ life and ministry can be viewed as dissolving the rigid line between “heterosexual” and “homosexual.”

In terms of bisexuality, Nancy Wilson raises the interesting possibility that Jesus Christ was sexually attracted to both women and men. She discusses Jesus’ household in Bethany—that is, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus—and speculates that Jesus could have been attracted to both sexes. According to Wilson, “the most obvious way to see Jesus as a sexual being is to see him as bisexual in orientation, if not also in his actions.”

Finally, Jesus Christ is the embodiment of radical love because Jesus crosses gender boundaries. As Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians, “there is no longer male and female” in Christ Jesus. To that end, a number of theologians have written about the transgender Christ, or Jesus Christ who dissolves the boundaries between “female” and “male.” As in the case with bisexuality, transgender discourse challenges binary and hierarchical thinking about gender.

As a gay theologian, seminary professor, and ordained minister, I have been continuously amazed at the ways in which the radical love of the queer community has helped us to overcome the seemingly insurmountable religious, legal, political, societal, cultural, and other obstacles that present us from fully loving one another and being who God has created us to be. As Paul writes beautifully in the eighth chapter of his Letter to the Romans:

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord” (8:38-39).

Excerpted from Patrick S. Cheng, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology (New York: Seabury Books, 2011).

*The Reverend Patrick S. Cheng, Ph.D., is the Assistant Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


By Susan Spilecki

Seeing the devastation in Northern Japan since the tsunami and the earthquakes, I don't know what to say. I am at a loss for words. But I do know that my former neighbors need our help, both spiritually and financially.

I lived in southern Japan from 1990 to 1992, teaching conversational English and studying kendo, Japanese swordsmanship. Every day on my way to and from the English school I saw those many of those distinctive tile roofs with the turned-up eaves that are so very Japanese. And now I am watching videos on Youtube that show roofs like these washing out to sea or washing inland onto acres and acres of farms.

My conversational Japanese back then was good enough. I could say of my struggles with grammar, “Muzukashi desu neh!” It is difficult, isn’t it! I could sympathize with my fellow teacher who had biked to school in a sudden downpour, “Taihen desu...” “That’s too bad…” But I never learned any words that would begin to express what those people in Hokkaido and northern Honshu are facing now.

During my time in Japan, the people were uniformly kind and helpful. Once, traveling in Kyoto, I got lost looking for a bus station. The official tourist map did not represent a one-to-one correspondence with the streets and blocks. I stood staring at the map and the street. A man approached, saying, “Do you speak English? Do you need help?” And then, because he had exhausted his English vocabulary, he guided me the nine city blocks to where the bus station actually was.

My students were excited to learn. I remember “Fred,” from my class of five-year-olds. They were taking a listening test, responding to a taped voice saying things like “Color Cookie Monster’s nose pink.” He jumped up in the middle of the test, shouting, “Eigo ga wakatta!” I understand English! He’s probably in college now. Could he possibly now be living near the quake zone?

When I heard of the tsunami, I went online and donated money to groups working to rescue humans and animals—because animals suffer too during natural disasters—and I looked for my former employer on LinkedIn, a professional networking site. She replied, “In Matsuyama all are okay so far. Haven't had any tremors yet, except those of the heart... It is really devastating and unbelievable.”

On behalf of the people who were so hospitable to me when I was a stranger in their midst, I ask you to do what you can to aid them. Donate to the relief efforts. Equally importantly, hold them in your prayers. God can do what we can’t.

Susan Spilecki is a student at Episcopal Divinity School. She teaches writing at Northeastern University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Taking the long way back to Jesus

By Robyn Henderson-Espinoza

I continue to negotiate the doubt that I carry deep within me about the “big things” in life: God, Jesus, Christianity, natural disasters, and so forth.
This doubt began as an undergraduate student studying theology at a Texas Baptist University.
The doubt continued when I moved to Chicago for graduate school in Theological Ethics, and continues today as a doctoral student studying Ethics near the majestic Rocky Mountains in Denver, Colorado.
Although several years ago I stepped into the black hole* of doubt and questioning that is elucidated in agnosticism, I continue to be compelled by the person, story, and complicated history of Jesus.
I call it a black hole because there is no clear course in doubt. Doubt is just that: the sometimes agonizing internal process of doubting and questioning. There’s even a prototype of a doubter in Christianity, which is recorded in the Bible. He is known as the Apostle Thomas and more commonly called: “Doubting Thomas.”
He is just Thomas to me, full of humanity and questions! The stories we have of Thomas that are most prominent for me are the stories of when the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples. Thomas, as the story records, needed proof. Jesus said: “Touch me!”
What could touching a dead, yet resurrected, Jesus teach us? What could this touch, this embrace of a tangible reality do for our deep-seated doubts and questions? Is it in our bodies that we know? Does the human touch quench our doubts? Or, does it further perpetuate our questions?
I don’t have answers for these questions, how ever rhetorical they are.
This is the Long Way Around.
When I moved to Denver to begin my doctoral program in 2009, I was comfortably situated in patterns of doubt and questioning. I was happily self-identified as an agnostic. But, not just any generic agnostic, I called myself a Christian agnostic.
I could not deny the tradition of Christianity nor the ways in which this religion has shaped me, but I also could not, and still cannot, claim to be a believer in what many call Christianity. I would often qualify both my agnosticism and Christianity with the phrase: “I’m compelled by Jesus!”
The more I talked about my agnosticism, the more I queried my doubt.
Yet, I was not compelled to find a cathedral to reclaim any sort of traditional Christian faith. I was in search of a space and place for my doubt to exist, for my questions to be honored, and for my body to engage in what it knows best: community. I was in need of an “unchurch church.”
And so, I took the long way around and began a different journey of allowing the real questions I had about religion, faith, and God, and made intentional efforts to stand on the bridge with both my doubts and compulsion I have for the stories and history of Jesus.
Everything changed for me upon moving to Denver. I can’t tell you what I believe today. I cannot confirm the historicity of Jesus or the validity of the existence of God. I certainly cannot invoke ontological categories. What I know is that I have been on a path where I’ve been told religion is a lie, and so I have questioned the very premise of my own belief.
I packed up my religious texts, because I no longer found them compelling or (and more accurately) I moved into the internal space of saying: “this is just a load of shit!” I no longer could recite the Nicene or Apostle’s Creed, which begins: “I believe in God...”
I lost the patience to listen to another’s religious experiences and when I heard these stories, it was frustrating. And, though I had stepped into this black hole of doubt and questioning, hich I called Agnosticism, I was compelled to be in a religious community. I needed to be in conversation with folks who could hold my story of finding both life and death in Christianity and life and death in church.
I needed to find an “unchurch church.”
Late in the fall of 2009, in my first year of doctoral work, I discovered a community that was not the ordinary religious community or church. It is a liberated community in so many ways. It is a space and place for my doubts and questions to be--to be unanswered, to be challenged, to be held, and to be noticed. I found a homeplace in this “unchurch church.”
I sat next to folks who did not speak English, who knew the battles that I was fighting and who were compelled to keep walking “by faith.” I sat next to folks who know civil war and poverty in a way that I only “read” about in school. I sat next to migrants who struggled across many borders, men and women who bring light and life to the conversation table.
My doubts and questions were met by this small group of people. Together, we take small steps toward one another to access the fullness of life.
And, together, we flourish as a liberated community who take the teachings of Jesus seriously. Together, we listen to one another in a radical way and allow hospitality to be our primary practice. Together, we hold one another’s doubts and questions and frustrations, and I, in turn, learn to live out my agnosticism in a way that is rooted in the radical and revolutionary manner of following Jesus.
I wonder still about the black hole into which I stepped several years ago. Like, for example, do we even have a choice as to whether or not we take that step, or is the step we take a compulsion? Sure, we all have agency, but Who or What compels us to touch the black hole, the space and place of nothingness and perhaps, everthingness? By our touch, how ever literal or metaphorical it is, we come to know; and we come to doubt; and we come to believe again in that which is different - that which is shifting and transformative.
Like the Apostle Thomas, we disrupt the traditional patterns of knowing, and we celebrate the epistemological tear. We often do not know what to do with this space that is created in the epistemological rupture, but we step into this space negotiating hope and hopelessness, desire to be known and the desire to know the other.
I am in this for life, that ongoing stepping back and forth into this black hole that is also putting one step into the Jesus community because, for me, it is the space and place where life begins, and it begins again as spring draws nigh.
The long way around is the space and place that feels most alive as this winter leaves room for spring.

  • A black hole is an astronomical term for a place in space from which nothing, not even light, can escape. Around a black hole is an undetectable surface called an event horizon that marks the point of no return. It absorbs all the light that hits the horizon and reflects nothing, similar to a perfect black body in thermodynamics.
** Robyn Henderson-Espinoza is a Ph.D. Student at The University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology, Denver, Colorado.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


By Rita Nakashima Brock

All week as I struggled to finish this sermon, I could not tear myself away from the news from Japan. I have been haunted by images of whole towns and vast farms being erased in just a few agonizing minutes by the massive destructive forces of creation. The earthquake shifted the earth's axis 6.5 inches, moved northern Japan 13 inches closer to the U.S., and pushed the earth's surface closer to the core, which shortened the day by 2 milliseconds. It also lowered 250 miles of the Japanese coastline by 2 feet.

Though my own family and friends are safe, I do not think anyone in Japan will be all right for a very long time. With a destroyed infrastructure, half a million people were made homeless in the cold winter, and many indoor shelters have no heat, water, or food. Rescuers have had trouble coming to search for the thousands of missing loved ones. Some people are sleeping in cars because they fear the aftershocks. And now workers are facing down a nuclear disaster. I live in California, and the tsunami was so powerful that, the next day, the fishing community in Crescent City lost 50 boats and all their underwater traps.

Though I left Japan at the age of six and am an American citizen, I have visited enough Asian countries to know there is often little love for Japan because of its history of colonizing other Asian countries. Yet, I know that a pastor in Seoul is organizing a fundraiser to help Japan, and many, many people all over the world are doing the same and praying for the people there.

Yesterday, I received a message of comfort from a young man named Tyler Boudreau who served 12 years in the U.S. Marine corps and commanded a rifle battalion in Iraq. He is someone well acquainted with death, moral ambiguity, and the agonies of grief. He sent me the song called “Requiem,” by Eliza Gilkyson:

Mother Mary, full of grace, awaken
--all our homes are gone, our loved ones taken,
taken by the sea.
Mother Mary, calm our fears, have mercy
--drowning in a sea of tears, have mercy.
hear our mournful plea.

our world has been shaken,
we wander our homelands forsaken
--in the dark night of the soul
bring some comfort to us all.

O Mother Mary come and carry us in your embrace
that our sorrows may be faced
--Mary, fill the glass to overflowing.
illuminate the path where we are going

have mercy on us all
in fun’ral fires burning
each flame to your mystry returning
in the dark night of the soul

your shattered dreamers, make them whole,
O Mother Mary find us where we’ve fallen out of grace,
lead us to a higher place

in the dark night of the soul
our broken hearts you can make whole,
O Mother Mary come and carry us in your embrace,
let us see your gentle face, Mary

You may wonder why I was so deeply moved by a prayer to Mother Mary when I’m a Protestant and 99% of the people of Japan are Buddhist and Shinto.

The Japanese writer Shusako Endo, born in 1923, grew up in Japanese-occupied Manchuria and, when his divorced mother returned him to Japan, he was baptized a Catholic. His novels describe the stigma of being an outsider, the experience of being a foreigner, and the complex moral dilemmas that produce mixed or tragic results.

He wrote a novel called Silence which takes place during the Tokugawa Shogunate, a time when scholars estimate one fifth of the Japanese were Catholic Christians. The novel begins right after a large group of Christian peasants in Shimabara rose up in 1637 against a new non-Christian local shogun, whose behavior must have made them think of King Herod. After defeating the Christian uprising, the shogun’s forces beheaded 37,000 Christian families and burned them and their castle stronghold to the ground. The rulers in Tokyo expelled all Christian priests, forced everyone living in Japan to register with a Buddhist Temple, and closed the country to foreigners for 250 years. The persecution of Christians did not end until 1850.

Mother Mary, calm our fears, have mercy
drowning in a sea of tears, have mercy

The remaining Christians in Japan went underground. To continue their practices, they took Buddhist objects like prayer beads and used them for Christian prayers. They created crosses with Buddhas on the back, so they could be rapidly turned around if inspectors arrived. They took the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kannon (Quan Yin in China), put a baby in her arms like a madonna, and prayed to her secretly as Mary.

When missionaries entered Japan in the nineteenth century, they discovered these Kakure Kirishitan, "hidden Christians" in the Shimabara area. They found people who mumbled quasi Latin sounding prayers without understanding the words, people who baptized their babies without priests; people who used Buddhist prayer beads, and who prayed to Kannon statues that were unlike any others in Japan.

A Requiem prayed to Mother Mary has a place in this Japanese legacy of people whose lives were hidden by a horrible tragedy. But the Shimabara Christians were not the last people in Japan to live in secret.

Hibakusha, literally “explosion-affected people,” is the term for the survivors of the Atomic bomb attacks and their children. Today, there are around a quarter of a million Hibakusha, and perhaps one in seven is a Korean from a conscript family brought to Japan as forced labor during the war. Many Hibakusha do not want their identities public because of the history of shame and discrimination against them. When the bombs fell, radiation sickness was not understood, and people feared it was contagious. Marriage was impossible because of birth defects, and people would not employ them. After living through the nightmare of the worst horror the world has ever known, they were punished by isolation and oppression. And now, after a terrifying earthquake and a devastatingly destructive tsunami, Japan faces a new nuclear nightmare.

Mother Mary, calm our fears, have mercy.
drowning in a sea of tears, have mercy
O Mother Mary come and carry us in your embrace
that our sorrows may be faced

We have just entered the season of Lent. It feels, this week, that we were shaken and thrown prematurely into the sorrow and lamentation of “Good” Friday. The next five weeks may be a prolonged Holy Week, but there is much in our world to grieve right now, not just in Japan, but also in Libya and in our own cities. Without a capacity to grieve the massive suffering of our own times, we may miss the most important meaning of the crucifixion.

Crucifixion was a horror that was almost impossible to take in. It was Rome’s most humiliating form of punishment. Roman soldiers erected crosses in public places, often at the site of the crime, to terrorize subject peoples. Victims were tortured, and then they died in slow agony, sometimes over days. A quick death was a mercy. Bodies were burned with the crosses or left hanging to rot and to be eaten as carrion; broken or scattered fragments were usually all that remained of a person’s identity. There were no burials or ways to create memorials to remember the dead.

Crucifixion was used against non-citizens and slaves and was regarded as so shameful even families of victims would not speak of the victims again. They were like Hibakusha who tried to hide a shameful past or hidden Christians whose very existence was forbidden. Crucifixion tore the fabric of even the strongest bonds of family connection and friendship.

Knowing this historical truth about crucifixions, we should be surprised that the gospels speak so explicitly about Jesus’ death. The passion narratives broke silence about the shame and fear that crucifixion instilled. They created a literature of disclosure and wove the killing of Jesus into the fabric of a long history of violence against those who spoke for justice. In placing Psalm 22 on Jesus lips, they evoked the bitter lamentation and struggle that runs through the whole Psalm:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? . .
a company of evildoers encircles me.
They stare and gloat over me . . .
and for my clothing they cast lots. (Psalm 22: 1-2, 14-18)

To lament was to claim powers that crucifixion was designed to destroy: dignity, courage, passion, love, and remembrance.

Kathleen Corley in a her book Maranatha suggests that women composed the stories as an act of lamentation. From ancient times, women have tended the bodies of the dead, and they have carried the public role of grieving. “Call for the mourning women to come . . . let them raise a dirge over us, so that our eyes may run down with tears,” Jeremiah cried. (Jeremiah 9:17-18) As professional mourners, women also composed the poetry of lamentation. The long history of women’s lament-poetry expressed sorrow, outrage, and resistance, and the poems told stories of the life of the deceased.

Rooted in ancient practices of keening, the women who mourned Jesus preserved the memory of who he was and how he died. Out of respect, perhaps, for the victim of horrible torture and execution, the narratives look away from the horror, refuse to describe its details, and tell of a dignified end and burial. The gospels reflect women’s roles in public lamentation, in the construction of literatures of lament, in the careful, loving attention to the one who died, and in the elegiac emotional quality of those who hold to life against all odds and every power arrayed against them. Perhaps we can imagine Mother Mary leading the women in Jesus community in their profound grief.

O Mother Mary find us where we’ve fallen out of grace,
lead us to a higher place

in the dark night of the soul
our broken hearts you can make whole,
O Mother Mary come and carry us in your embrace,
let us see your gentle face, Mary

The stories of Jesus’ crucifixion answer abusive power and tragedy with the courageous and decisive employment of the powers of life. Just as Jesus, in John’s Gospel, stood before Pilate and said “you have no power over me,” the passion narratives defied the power of crucifixion to silence Jesus’ movement. In doing so, they placed before his movement, the responsibility to tell his story and say his name out loud. They said life is found in surviving the worst a community can imagine, in lamenting the consequences of difficult choices, and in holding fast to the core goodness of this world, blessed by divine justice and abundant life.

This life-affirming faith enabled Christians to resist the many forces of sin and death in their world. They believed in healing pain; they did not believe suffering was sacred or a good thing; they sought to alleviate it by taking care of each other—they depicted and valued Jesus’ work as healer, as miracle-worker, and as teacher. They knew that all violence, even shedding pagan blood was a mortal sin and harmed their community. They saw, in the courage of martyrs, models of steadfast faith that benefited them spiritually even from beyond the grave. Joy and wonder seeped into a world afflicted with violence and sorrow.

Every spring, I take a pilgrimage to a place near Hollister CA called the Pinnacles. They are a unique mountain formation that sits between the coastal mountains and the mountains that separate the central valley from the Bay Area. They are volcanic formations with sharp peaks, deep caves, and hundreds of microclimates that range from lush, moist streams and forests to desert cactus. In spring, it is possible to see virtually every wildflower that blooms in California on the five hour hike up and down the peaks. After climbing the rugged three hours to the top, where all seems dry, rocky, and barren, I have turned a corner of the trail and found a miniature fern and moss garden hugging a cleft of rock where water seeps to the surface. When I hike there I feel the world transfigured by surprising miracles.

The Pinnacles are also a sharp reminder of the earth’s instabilities and enormous and invisible power. One reason they are so unusual is that one side of the peaks are sharp walls. It looks as if a giant took a chain saw and cut half of them away. In fact, this is true. The Pinnacles are only half of a volcanic eruption from millions of years ago. The sit on the San Andreas earthquake fault line. The other half is 300 miles south near Bakersfield. They continue to drift apart every year.

Human beings, since our beginnings, have had to mourn the forces of earth that take life too soon and too much. Death is part of the cycles of life and of creation. Mourning is how we acknowledge these losses without giving up on love.

But we also experience other forms of disaster, brought by human misuses of power. The slaughter at Shimabara, A-Bomb attacks, the broken levees in New Orleans, and the struggle to stop the impending disaster at Fukushima are not natural disasters. Most natural disasters in our world are now compounded by our systems of technology that have allowed industrialized nations to live far beyond the capacity of the earth to sustain our lives. Desperate to maintain consumption levels and increase wealth, our governments and corporations take enormous risks with human lives and the environment.

Rather than respecting the earth’s limits,
we have done our best to overcome them,
as if the earth were an object of conquest rather than our home,
as if the limits of physical life were the enemy of human thriving,
as if we could remain untouched by the suffering of the world.

Life’s surprising miracles remind us that the only life we know for certain is here and now. Let us guard and protect it, and love it fiercely in our grief. The transfiguration of the world is in our hands.

O Mother Mary come and carry us in your embrace
that our sorrows may be faced
--Mary, fill the glass to overflowing.
illuminate the path where we are going
have mercy on us all.

* A sermon preached at the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary on March 17, 2011.

**Rita Nakashima Brock, a Japanese American theologian, is the founder and director of Faith Voices for the Common Good and coauthor of Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded This World for Crucifixion and Empire (Beacon, 2008).

Monday, March 14, 2011

Do Progressive Christians Pray?

By Chris Glaser

Jesus told his disciples “a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” It was the story of a widow seeking justice from an unjust judge, a judge who cared neither for God nor people. For awhile the judge refuses, but finally concludes, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming” (Luke 18:4-5). Jesus’ point is that no one should feel discouraged in praying, because God is all the more swift to grant justice.

The first Christian contemplatives took the notion of “praying always” to heart, and went out into the desert to pray, to preserve the “edge” of Christian faith even as church and state colluded in the fourth century. As Thomas Merton explained in The Wisdom of the Desert,

“The Coptic hermits who left the world as though escaping from a [ship]wreck did not merely intend to save themselves. They knew that they were helpless to do any good for others as long as they floundered about in the wreckage. But once they got a foothold on solid ground, things were different. Then they had not only the power but even the obligation to pull the whole world to safety after them.”

The Desert Fathers and Mothers believed prayer was not about changing God’s mind or heart, but about their own transformation. God brings justice and mercy into the world one person at a time.

Prayer and meditation serve as grounding for those of us who seek the transformation of the world. This passion for transformation is one aspect of progressive Christianity. Another aspect is that we use our minds, our critical faculties, to approach our faith—texts, tradition, history, present, and future. But in the use of our minds we must not lose heart. We are not spiteful children who run around proclaiming “There is no Santa Claus!” to innocents. We are faithful people who affirm spiritual truths without literalist trappings. It is true that much progressive Christianity is about de-mythologizing and deconstruction. But in so doing, our hope is to recover the ancient meanings of the stories of our faith tradition, as well as their meaning for today.

One way of recovering those ancient meanings is through prayer and reflection. To participate in the biblical dialogue about God, meaning, virtue, and so on with our hearts as well as our minds is to be an authentic and integral part of an ancient tradition that was diverse in its viewpoints, heterodox in its theologies, and multiple in its expressions.

A third aspect of progressive Christianity is that we plumb the depths of our faith even as we value other faiths, including agnosticism and atheism. Our multicultural world—not as different from the ancient world in its diversity as is often thought—offers opportunities for dialogue, not only across religious and cultural boundaries, but across disciplinary boundaries as well. Science, for example, is not an adversary, but an aid in understanding the world, religion, and spirituality itself. The way of art and literature is another.

Just as some Christians seem to have lost their minds, progressive Christians cannot lose our hearts. As Jesus said, “What benefit is there if, in gaining the whole world, we lose our soul?” We are not modern-day Gnostics who believe our “secret wisdom” will save us. Rather, we believe that knowledge frees us from superstition, sentimentality, and the “elemental spirits” that the apostle Paul confronted in Galatians. Our faith is not stupid, nor is it heartless. Prayer and meditation afford us the opportunity, as the Desert Mothers and Fathers taught, for words to descend from our minds to our hearts.

We may be dismayed at traditions that seem to have buried Jesus once more or distanced God. Scholars appropriately question and debate the authenticity of these accounts. Contemplatives discover their inspiration for the present.

* Someone in publishing recently told me that there is no market for devotional materials among progressive Christians. I was told the same thing when I began writing prayers and meditations for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community, but have since published four such books that have enjoyed multiple printings, two of which have been translated into Spanish. Last month I began writing a contemplative blog entitled Progressive Christian Reflections (

** Chris Glaser, a minister of the Metropolitan Community Church, is the author of As My Own Soul: The Blessing of Same-Gender Marriage (Seabury, 2009) and The Final Deadline: What Death Has Taught Me about Life (Morehouse, 2010). Visit - Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Sociality of Jesus Christ

By Don Schweitzer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer used the term “sociality” to describe how a person’s identity is partly constituted by their relationships. He argued that Jesus Christ becomes present in history through helping constitute the identity of others. But this also works in reverse. When people believe in Jesus Christ, aspects of who they are enter into Jesus’ identity. Who Jesus is as the Christ is partly constituted by his relationships with others. This is the sociality of Jesus Christ.

We can see this in Jesus’ public ministry, beginning with John the Baptist. Themes from John echoed throughout Jesus’ ministry even as Jesus proclaimed a different vision of the future. The crowds who came to hear Jesus helped constitute his identity by making him a public figure threatening to Pilate and the Sanhedrin. Jesus’ followers gave him an identity as a messianic figure. Jesus touched them through his proclamation and call. They in turn embodied his message, participated in his ministry and enabled it through their support. These relationships were dialogical. Jesus became the Christ through his interactions with others. The responses of others to him became part of who he was. This continues in the present.

However the gospels portray the relationships of Jesus’ to his followers as asymmetrical. There was a uniqueness to Jesus. After his death no one took his place. Instead, through his resurrection and experiences of the Holy Spirit, his followers and subsequent converts understood themselves as living in him.

Finally, there was occasionally a dialectical quality to the relationship of others to Jesus. This is strikingly evident in the gospels of Matthew and Mark where Jesus is corrected by the Canaanite or Syrophoenician woman (Matthew 15: 21-28; Mark 7:24-30). She said “yes” to Jesus’ power to save, but “no” to his restricted understanding of who might receive this. Her response to Jesus’ rebuke moved him to expand his own horizons in this regard.

This dialectical relationship to previous understandings of Jesus becomes repeatedly necessary as the church journeys through history and enters into new contexts where the forms of evil threatening creation may be very different from previous eras. Jesus is always the Christ. But as the face of evil changes, the church has to ask, “Who is Jesus for us today?” and its understanding of this must often change to remain faithful to him.

Carter Heyward noted that Jesus stretches people to become more than they would have been without him, but that Jesus is also stretched by others to become more than he was, so that he is not trapped in the past, but speaks to the present with prophetic and pastoral power.

For instance, through the struggles, faithfulness and creativity of the black church Jesus became the Black Christ. Here the agency and stories of African-Americans entered into Jesus’ identity. Another example is the sculpture Crucified Woman by Almuth Lutkenhaus-Lackey, which incorporates the agency and experiences of women into the identity of Jesus Christ.

Crucified Woman by Almuth Lutkenhaus-Lackey. Photo courtesy of Emmanuel College, Toronto.

Through the dialogical nature of people’s relationship to Jesus aspects of their identity enter into his and they assist in his transformative work. Yet they may also hinder and deface it. In Canada from the late 1800s until the 1960s, faith in Jesus who welcomed little children helped motivate taking First Nations children away from their parents to residential schools, where they were frequently separated from other members of their families, susceptible to severe discipline, sexual abuse and often punished for speaking their own language.

As Jesus is received by people in faith, he may be stretched to become more than he was before, but he may also become less.

Yet there is a transcendence to Jesus Christ. He is risen regardless of people’s responses to him. This is part of the asymmetrical nature of his relationships and gives rise to hope for the final overcoming of evil. The sociality of Jesus then will reach beyond its past and present forms to include all peoples, bringing all of creation to fulfillment, while reversing present injustices and sources of suffering.

The sociality of Jesus Christ is a permanent dimension of his being. As others receive Jesus as the Word of God, they become part of who he is. Their responses to him, their context, struggles and faithfulness enter into his identity. As we believe in Jesus, who we are helps constitute who he is and who he will be.

*Don Schweitzer is McDougald Professor of Theology at St. Andrew's College, Saskatoon, Canada. He is the author of Contemporary Christologies (Fortress Press, 2010).

Friday, March 4, 2011

‘Remember the Slave Ships?’ War Against the Poor

By Sarah Monroe

In popular culture, undocumented immigrants from Latin America are sometimes portrayed as people who are trying to get their share of the “American Dream,” people who are just too impatient to wait in line and take the legal route.

In Altar, the starting place for migrants wishing to cross from Mexico to the United States, I met Padre Prisciliano. He looked more cowboy than priest and says that he stays in his parish to serve the migrant Christ.

He described the experiences of immigrants as comparable to that of slavery. He pointed out that people are driven to migrate by U.S. economic policies such as NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), a policy that has devastated small Mexican farmers. Under NAFTA, for example, the U.S. can dump cheap corn on the Mexican market, undercutting subsistence farmers. Thousands of farmers have left the land they have farmed for centuries to move north to survive. If they make their way to the United States, they are used as cheap labor in the agricultural and service industries, growing much of our food and cleaning our hotels.
As we visited a flop house where migrants sleep sometimes 50 to a tiny room while waiting to cross, Padre Prisciliano noted; “Remember the slave ships? We have the same conditions here.”

While in Mexico, I talked with people getting ready to cross. I met a young man from Chiapas who said he could not survive on his father’s farm. I met another man at the dining table of a migrant shelter; he was obviously tired and hungry and said: “We come for work. Many die in the desert. But families need food on the table and clothes on their backs.” His tired eyes spoke of the pain and danger of crossing.

People are fleeing extreme poverty and are risking their lives to do so. Last year, 253 remains were found in the desert, a gruesome reminder that Latin America’s poor are ready to risk everything to feed their children.

The U.S. government has increased its Border Patrol presence, prosecuted millions of border crossers, built walls to drive people to cross the most dangerous parts of the desert, and turned a blind eye to federal abuse of detainees, and still people come. Even a government agent I spoke to referred to immigrants as economic refugees.

No way

They don’t go the legal route because there is no legal way for the poor to obtain a visa, unless they have an immediate family member that is a legal resident, and even that is a long shot. Immigration laws are purposefully classist. To obtain a visa to enter the U.S., a person has to prove financial stability. For families who have barely enough to feed their kids and who have never opened a bank account in their life, this is not possible.

Immigrant labor is needed by the service sector and by agribusiness. And what better labor force than one that is undocumented and has no legal rights? The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group of Florida farmworkers, has documented cases of abuse and slavery by landowners who make a profit off immigrant labor. The war against the poor does not end at the border; it continues in U.S. fields, factories, hotels, and restaurants and the creation of a permanent underclass.  

Seeing hundreds of poor refugees lining up for food at a migrant shelter, clutching their few belongings, and desperate enough to cross a desert in order to survive was heart wrenching. At the border, I found a war against the poor—policies that systematically seek to exclude the poor from immigrating and to reduce those who do migrate to economic servitude. The people I met were not only immigrants, they were economic refugees, fleeing a new economic reality supported and implemented by U.S. economic policy.

What does this mean for people of faith who claim to follow a wandering carpenter, the one Padre Prisciliano calls “the migrant Christ”? Can theologians once again talk about the “preferential option for the poor” in this context?

*  Sarah Monroe, a student at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts recently spent three weeks on the U.S.-Mexico border with an organization called Borderlinks. After years of immigrant rights activism, she says she wanted to see what was happening at “ground zero.”