Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Tag: Miroslav Volf

How Will We Love Through the Election?

“Unreliable Allies”

Karl Barth, a German Theologian who helped organize the Confessing Church in opposition to the Nazi regime, once said that the church ought to be an “unreliable ally” to any and every political system. That is to say that our primary allegiance to Jesus and his kingdom will often come into tension with our subordinate allegiances to political parties, ideologies, movements and organizations. In Nazi Germany, non-cooperation with the political system seems a matter of course; are we in such a moment now? The comparisons are commonly made. Many smart people are legitimately concerned that this November’s presidential election is just like Germany in 1934. Interestingly, I have seen comparisons that liken both the “radical left” and the “far right” to the Nazis. That’s the moment we live in. What a mess! I’m not sure the consequences are as dire as the most alarmed alarmists fear, but Donald Trump is undeniably an unprecedented person in U.S. history. His presidency is drawing the worst out of the American people. We are in bad shape. What kind of ally  can the church be right now?

“Ally” is a term that has taken on new meaning in recent decades. I think it started with LGBTQ+ folks looking for solidarity, but historians reading this can correct me. Not too long ago the idea was born that straight folks could be an “ally” to gay folks who were having trouble finding a place in the world (and dying by suicide and hate crimes in droves for the lack of anywhere safe). This ally language was incredibly successful in changing public opinion. A Gallup Poll about support of same-sex marriage, for example, showed that support went from 27% in 1996 to 67% in 2020. I’m not sure that every one in that 67% would consider themselves an “ally”, but we can see the trend.

The term “ally” is also used to describe white people who want to dismantle white supremacy. They are allies to the people of color in their lives, co-laborers in a groundswell of social change that is sweeping the country (and receiving significant reaction), specifically in support of black lives. Michelle Ferrigno Warren of Christian Community Development Association (an organization with which Circle of Hope has long standing ties) recently described herself as a “long standing white ally” in a piece published at ccda.org this June, To My People, the White Ones” (a very succinct and difficult list of suggestions for white folks).

But I have had conversation with folks in Circle of Hope who do not want to accept this language. They are concerned that this is actually a Karl Barth moment when allying with “the Black Lives Matter movement” ought not to be a matter of course. They are suggesting that our church is too reliably allied with this political system, and  is losing the thread of our primary allegiance to Jesus and his Kingdom. Some will quickly say, “That’s racism!” Others will quietly wonder if there isn’t some merit to some friendly critique. But friendly critique does not seem possible right now, especially coming from white men like me. I understand this.

Staying at the Table

Reading Michelle Ferrigno Warren’s post, I am convicted by her suggestions, as painful as they appear. My favorite suggestion is this one, “Sit in the back of the proverbial bus, on the floor – this is NOT your Rosa Parks moment.” She can turn a phrase, can’t she?  I’m trying to push through the discomfort of this myself. Kind of like I’m actually sitting on the floor with my legs in a pretzel and my feet are falling asleep, I feel how difficult this is, but I am calling us to persevere. Another thing Michelle Ferrigno Warren suggests is to stay at the table. “At the table you are going to hear new things that hurt your feelings, don’t leave. At the table you are going to have to work alongside people you might not agree with, don’t leave. At the table you are going to be asked to use your voice to help white people understand – do it. At the table you are going to be asked to give up your power by leveraging it, resolve to do that work no matter what it costs.”

I would add more reasons to stay at the table: this is your opportunity to love, to be a minister of reconciliation, to be of one mind and heart despite disagreement, to do justice and love mercy and to walk humbly. There is so much opportunity for growth in this moment. Being the church is not ignoring our differences, so everyone can feel safe;being the church is seeing our differences and loving each other long enough to make real peace so that everyone can actually BE safe. The difficulty of this task requires all of the gifts we were naturally given and all of the spiritual gifts  the Holy Spirit is supplying for right now. This is how Christ can be all and in all, because the project of being the church at any time, but especially when it is hard, will transform us in every way. We who are part of the church have decided to follow Jesus with our everything. That’s what we mean when we say “Jesus is Lord.” Staying at the table requires us to love long and hard enough to be the new creation in Christ.  And Jesus will be with us, equipping us the whole time. “I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philppians 1:6 CEB)

But what then do we do with the friendly critique? What to make of the sneaking suspicion that the church is too reliably allied with a political movement that is not entirely just and pure and good? Well, first I would remind that no political movement is entirely just or good or pure. Jesus said, “No one is good except God alone.” Second, I would gently wonder aloud if the discomfort with the black lives matter movement is not indeed connected to the discomfort of the demands the movement is making of white people. Third (and I have been doing a lot of this), I would listen. The current trajectory of social change is not unimpeachable. Of course there are problems. Of course our Kingdom of God project is bigger than Black Lives Matter, but I would argue that it is not oppositional as some of my conversation partners have. Staying at the table is in general an even more difficult task for Black people in our church.  Let us not forget that being at the table uncomfortably is not an option for a Black person in the United States like it is for most White people. White people can leave the table — that’s part of why this is so hard — white people have a very different experience than everyone else. And it is not just.

I’m wishing you joy

(Yes, that’s a Whitney Houston reference)

Lastly, I think the best thing we can collectively offer this moment is joy. Miroslav Volf said on the most recent episode of his podcast, For the Life of the World, “Modernity is perfectionism… and perfectionists have no joy.” Unfortunately or not, our difficulties are not unhinged from the country we live in or its rancorous dialogue. So right here, in the messy middle of a pivotal time in our country and subsequently in our church,  we CAN have joy. Because we are freed from the graceless demand of perfectionism, because our project is not solely the “progress” of modernity, we can “laugh though we have considered all the facts” as Wendell Berry says in a poem I love. We can wish joy in the face of despair. We can love one another well despite the assailing rancor, and pray for more grace that we think is possible — more grace than we can rightly bear.  Let us offer joy to the opportunity to have God again knit us together in love. Let us offer joy to the opportunity for justice to flow where it has never flown before. Let us offer joy to the difficulty of starting again when we fail because we are convinced than nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

 

 

How do Christians work? Is that even a thing anymore?

This blog post was co-written by Ben White and Jonny Rashid after our church hosted a meeting for theological thinkers and seminarians on developing a theology of work.

The problem of work in the 21st Century United States

France has a law that prohibits an employer from Emailing her employees after hours. They are enforcing “work/life” balance. Amazon warehouse workers are timed for how long they are in the bathroom. Speaking of Amazon, U.S. postal workers are being pushed to-the-max in order to keep up with the market driven by the supercompany. Meanwhile, our politicians keep promising us jobs and telling us how much they value the American worker. Amazingly, despite the flack they get from their parent’s generation, millennials are the hardest working generation—bordering on workaholism.

The meaning of work, it seems, has changed. In the United States, with many manufacturing jobs gone, we have an increasingly “knowledge-based” economy. It requires an education to enter, hence all the hullabaloo about free college and student debt cancellation from the rotating cast of presidential nominees. Work has taken up more of our interior lives by nature of this shift. “What is work?” is more of an internal question, and less of material one. The lessening of the physical materiality of work gives us a new problem. Work isn’t just about labor, it’s not just a means to an end, it’s something more—like religion.

Among our generation, people are trying to find existential fulfillment from their jobs. It’s only natural considering the above mentioned trend. But seeking fulfillment through such a limited medium isn’t working. Not for our friends, anyway. The pull, however, toward such patterns of thought, is present in us too. Our jobs aren’t meant to offer us the sort of vocational fulfillment we seek from them. But convincing serfs that their work for their lords is their ultimate calling is a great way to get good work out of earnest people. This is both true of folks who want to rise fast in their company, and those who serve in a helping profession.

Don’t let the existential dread set in

When thinking is work, it’s hard to think about work

That pursuit, despite being fundamentally flawed, isn’t too far from what Christian vocation may look like. Jordan Burdge recently offered us a reflection on vocation drawn from the inspiration of the Middle Ages in Europe. Check out the whole video here. He summarized vocations for Europeans as the choice between being a priest, nun, monk, or being married. Those where the basic options they had. Today we have so, so many more options. It’s really hard to sort through them all. So when our endless appetites meet the myriad options it’s pretty easy to make unhealthy choices.

Vocation is a popular idea in the United States and the Christian church that lives here. Not only are we sold the lie that we can become anyone we want to be or do anything we want to do, we’re often told we have to figure out that one perfect thing we are meant to do. And Christians are as complicit in this behavior as Americanists are. Our calling from God is much more universal than specific. You aren’t necessarily destined to do the work you do for money. Your satisfaction does not have to be dependent on the perfect fit in your employment. Paul was called to be a missionary, for example, not to be the tent-maker that sustained him. Same with Jesus as a carpenter, and the fisherman who left their family business to have a New Family business. Again, we are working on understanding work in a difficult era for such thinking.

The culture of work in the United States is so messed up, that it may be tempting to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Work may have been so corrupted by our economic forms that developing a theology of Christian work might be too much to consider. But Miroslav Volf took a shot at a Christian theology of work  and we would like to endorse and propose his core ideas as basis for our Christian understanding.

Volf highlights the challenge to think of these things because work is now by-and-large “knowledge-based,” and so “thinking” is working (as we said above). Space for contemplation, which may be seen as unshackling our minds from thoughts, in order to truly experience God, is taken up by “thinking as work.” There is rarely a moment in the day in which our minds are not fully engaged with work. We have to snatch every moment of mind to rest while our computer loads a file or we’re standing in the grocery line or we get no rest at all. It’s not all or nothing, but it seems like it is⁠—like the only way to get any rest is to unplug and go to Bermuda, and who can afford that with all these student loans, right? Somewhere along the line the only people who could live a life of contemplation became those who left the world and lived as a hermit or something. It was the Ancient Greeks who drew all these lines between things, but it was us who agreed not to cross them. An active life and a contemplative life are not polar opposites. They actually harmonize quite nicely. Though varying in degrees of importance in different times and circumstances, they actually work together to complete the other.

Volf focuses on eschatology and pneumatology as his sources of understanding work. The work of the Christian is known in doing whatever it is that helps to bring about the Kingdom of God or New Creation which will be fully revealed at the eschaton or last day (that’s the eschatology). The work of the Christian is also known through the spiritual gifts, or charisma, we have been given (that’s the pneumatology). Christians, then, need to work to find their gifting in order to cooperate with God’s plan of bringing the Kingdom of God into its fullness. Volf says, “When people work exhibiting the values of the new creation (as expressed in what Paul calls the ‘fruit of the spirit’) then the Spirit works in them and through them.”

Seeing Christian vocation through a glass darkly

We think our work is neither “sacred” or “secular,” but that our cooperation with God is something that happens across our lives and not just in the confines of our “spiritual life.” In fact, we reject the notion of “work/life balance” because it distinguishes work and life, as if you aren’t alive when you are working, nor are you working when you are living the part of your life for which you don’t get paid. These incessant dichotomies belittle our full personhood. We are called to cooperate with God in the ways that the Spirit has gifted us.

Of course, this is hard too. Especially in the United States. The guiding philosophy we described above is imposed on us with strident force. Work is imposed upon us as a source of meaning, whether we like it or not. If we are not actively examining our lives it will almost certainly happen automatically without our consent. But we believe that we cannot find meaning in our work apart from the Holy Spirit and cooperation with God. This isn’t just a problem in our neoliberal political economy. It’s a problem in any competing economic form. The Kingdom of God, as demonstrated by the church of Jerusalem in Acts, and all over the Bible, really, is showing us another way to live and to work no matter where or when in world history we seek some understanding.

It is hard to remember who we are and what we believe unless we are living it out in some kind of new environment. Our attempt in Circle of Hope has been to create an environment where people can discern their own spiritual gifts and apply them in service to the church, and use them in every arena of their life. Your spiritual gifts are not just for the church, and your education is not just for your job. Your natural talents and proclivities are good signposts for what God has for you to do, but there are many ways to express our gifts, and one might be your ability to not get exactly what you want. You might give more from your understanding of what the community needs. Keep discerning what is best in community and hold your opportunities for service lightly, and you will be fine.

Paul is plain about how important the different parts of the body are. Unfortunately, our stratified society has made a sort of preference for certain roles and not others. Our job is to honor everyone in the body so that they are rewarded with gratitude and love for their service, no matter what they are bringing. Monetizing work may be a necessity, and sometimes may be a good incentive to work, but we admit it’s not the ideal way to honor work. Instead, love, respect, and appreciation are more in line with our kingdom aspirations.

You can see the environment we are creating best by being in our community. Sunday meetings and cells are our primary places to do this work. Serving and worshiping in these meetings is the best chance we have to offer for you to exhibit the values of the new creation and experience the Spirit working in you and through you. They might be the invitation to a life of cooperation with God. Check one out on our website. But if you’re far away, get connected somewhere where the demands of your life don’t end at your own, and the people you love have space to earn your trust and help you see your gifts.

What sort of self do you have?

A Balkan born theologian and philosopher, Miroslav Volf, knows how to write a cogent argument!  I’ve copied a rather lengthy quote because it just had to be shared and I think it speaks to our work of inclusion as a community on mission.exlcusion and embrace

“Through faith and baptism the self has been re-made in the image of “the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me,” Paul writes.  At the center of the self lies self-giving love.  No “hegemonic centrality” closes the self off, guarding its self-same identity and driving out and away whatever threatens its purity.  To the contrary, the new center opens the self up, makes it capable and willing to give itself for others and to receive others in itself.  In the previous chapter I argued that Paul locates the unity of the church not in the disincarnate transcendence of a pure and universal spirit, but in the scandalous particularity of the suffering body of God’s Messiah.  Correspondingly, Paul locates the center of the self not in some single and unchangeable–because self enclosed–“essence,” but in self-giving love made possible by and patterned on the suffering Messiah.  For Christians, this “de-centered center” of self giving love–most firmly centered and most radically open–is the doorkeeper deciding about the fate of otherness at the doorstep of the self.  From this center judgments about exclusion must be made and battles against exclusion fought.  And with this kind of self, the opposition to exclusion is nothing  but the flip side of the practice of embrace.” -Miroslav Volf p.71 Exclusion and Embrace

We are prone to exclusion as a way to preserve our identities.  Some post modern people might claim that the self doesn’t have a center.  Volf argues that it most certainly does but that the center of the self is not as important as what sort of self we ought to have.  His argument is that our selves need to be de-centered by the presence of Christ inside us.  The point from this hefty paragraph that most struck me was that pursuit of self enclosed identities “drive[s] out and away whatever threatens its purity.”  Especially in the church, we are with purity.  We want to maintain the good that we have and–mostly unconsciously– exclude those trying to get in.  Much of our identity formation as individuals, and as groups, is in some way violent.  This is as true in Volf’s Balkans as it is in any high school, and even within our church.  We can’t help but keep people out.  Including people then is an expression of Christ inside us and a way to keep the binary star system of our interior universes properly balanced.Binary-stars

Only a de-centered-by-Jesus self can open and include as naturally as we need to in order to grow into the next generation of Circle of Hope.  I am thankful for how God has achieved this in us to a degree and hopeful for how God will proceed.

How do you guard your identity?  How does your self’s center respond to threats against its primacy?  How might we act to be more de-centered?  How will this effect us as a people?  These aren’t rhetorical–let me know what you think!