Holy Week celebrates Exodus from Iron Cages and Freedom from Faith in Powers

While studying at Temple University, John Balzarini taught me about Max Weber (“VAY bur”) and the Iron Cage of Bureaucracy. I bet most of us are unfamiliar that the societal systems of dehumanization we’re so accustomed to ever did NOT exist. It’s normal for us to deal with bureaucracy (that no one seems to like, btw) all the time but since no one seems to be personally responsible we stay irritated and docile. “Just doing my job” is a close second to “just sayin'” in my book of irritating common phrases. Does one mean that since it’s only one’s job, they don’t have any agency to choose human interaction over blind obedience to abstract and unchangeable policy? Whether it’s  talking to an aggressive telemarketer, a Comcast tech support, Eichmann claiming he was solving a math problem, or most governments – at some point we feel that what’s right won’t be done for unimpressive reasoning.

Christian cake makers or fast food cashiers in Indiana have a new law so they don’t have to serve gay people because of religious freedom. Maybe a gnarly church spawned up as an unexpected application of the new legal freedom. Now that there is a law, we don’t have to relate. SEPTA lost a free speech case (they won’t appeal) so they will run anti-Muslim ads on 84 buses starting next week. They changed their policy for the future so no more political messages can be placed, but I doubt they are giving back the $30k to Stop Islamization of America out of protest. The law does not save us, neither does free speech. 

Jesus violates bureaucratic ties between religion and state – especially the economics when he thrashes an area of the Temple where non-Jews were allowed. In that area, exploitation of a rule to not use empire’s currency for worship was permitted. Someone asked me one time whether ArtShop was like that (holding a market of 50+ local artists in the building we use also for worship) or offering our music for donation was sort of like that because they heard megachurches have gift shops with lattes and dvds of the meeting you just watched. I think we are wise to be suspicious of weird practices of churches – but let’s also watch out for companies who make a buck off of your generosity. I am more suspicious of PayPal, who takes 3% of those electronic donations you might make to the church. Square Reader takes a little less, but was a big compromise for us to make available (cash, check, or Bill Pay cuts out the e-money changers on that gift).

Sometimes the law helps. 150 people (including a few from Circle of Hope) were in the Caucus Room at City Hall today for the release of the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities’s new report: “Development Without Displacement: Keeping Communities Strong.” This coalition work has been going for almost a decade and helping Philadelphia to become the largest city to adopt a Land Bank might be some good fruit, the joy of connecting and working together will outlive any legislation. We all have certain bugaboos about laws or lack thereof – like the US Immigration Policy that just deported a Mennonite Pastor or Fracking in PA. Even with better legal stuff, even if everyone had everything they needed – would that kind of law save us? 

I don’t think it’s wrong or a waste to pursue justice together – often that’s opposing unjust laws and practices of the powerful. There is more to justice that just-sounding laws. Even if fracking was illegal in PA, we still have a limitless appetite for cheap fuel so we’d allow another practice that was potentially as dangerous to life – just not so close to home. The work needs to go down to a community level and even a heart level. I follow the Way of Jesus that frees us from faith in the Powers – the same Powers that will continue to perpetrate systems that dehumanize us and commoditize creation in one way or another. To escape from the Iron Cage is not merely awareness or personal holiness – we need to co-author with Jesus an embodiment of his world redemption project that began long ago. The social locus of this movement gets revealed during Holy Week. Don’t miss the story, it’s being written again through us.

The dress that out trended Trayvon and other things we can’t handle

Last Thursday bunches of my friends were talking/posting about the dress that broke the internet. I think that whole thing was fascinating. It was trending hard and even famous people weighed in on which color combination they saw. The same day, other friends of mine were talking about another “color issue” that wasn’t getting as much buzz in our national consciousness – the third anniversary of Trayvon’s death. The week after he NAILED IT with the Keystone XL veto, Obama was hanging out with Trayvon’s parents to commemorate the anniversary. That’s a nice gesture, but many of us are feeling the Spirit move us to more than sympathy – after all we still don’t know who killed Brandon Tate Brown on Frankford Ave!

Monday the execution of Kelly Gissendaner was postponed for a second time – the first one because of snow and this time because of an issue with the lethal injection pharmacist – supposedly. My friend shared this open letter to Georgia Christians yesterday that has some insight into her story as well as an appeal of putting a limit to the violence. Her case is really wild – and with so many under-represented people of color in the same system, I hope putting off this form of state sanctioned violence is a trend.

Today I read about Brett, the “Soldier of Christ” going back to Iraq with some other Americans vets to join the Assyrian Christian militia to fight ISIS. Not only is he Polish/Irish (yay!) but quotes Matthew 25 in needing to take care of the vulnerable in a day when the US left things worse than how they found them. I admire his courage and commitment, even though I have a different interpretation of how to live out Christ’s directive. Maybe you can feel the tension that I do – at least he’s doing something. It sometimes feels like I’m surrounded by a generation of people who hear about horror stories or know about injustice or oppression (more about it than any generation before) and the only response we can muster is to complain or do internet things.

When we are facing more injustice than we can handle, what do we do? When we are suffering does God care enough to move? At one of Circle of Hope’s meetings last Sunday night someone from my cell brought into our discussion this tension and asked if “God will never give us more than we can handle” is actually in the Bible. A friend who worked as a chaplain was quick with the clarification (1 Corinthians 10:13 – God will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, God will also provide a way out so you can endure it) as something about keeping our hearts from being set on evil rather than dealing with pain. Tye Tribbett even wrote a song about it.

I’ve heard people tell me that God gave them cancer to teach them something. I heard Ricky Gervais joke on his HBO special that God also gives AIDS to babies in Africa as part of bit about problematic Godviews. I think the advice “God will never give you more than you can handle” might be a useful self-help mantra at times but is probably more of a capitalist “buck up, cowboy” that got attached to the faith. I think that it’s nice to think there are limits to suffering and that Jesus cares about it. Rather than getting tougher, however, I wonder if we can get softer and let God in to care about us. Can we be tender enough to allow Christ’s compassion to move us to heartbreak with others? Can we be open enough to let the Holy Spirit deploy us to work for justice in some rather complex times?

Lent is a good opportunity to explore what we can’t handle. There’s a lot. I think Jesus was finding his limits in the desert, but with the presence of the Holy Spirit. Let’s be honest about those limits, those spaces where we feel the tension with courage and see if God doesn’t move a bunch of us to become a healing agent there.