Tag Archives: slavery

My freedom is an act of soul, not a feature of my condition

After I presented to the BIC’s Theological Study Group in May on our approach to “church discipline,” the convener’s first words in response were, “That was unconventional.”

I was still reflecting on my surprise at that response when I was in Assisi. There I refreshed my understanding of Francis’ radical response to the call of Lady Poverty and his identification with the marginalized. Now that’s unconventional! Like I wrote before, he was presciently rebelling against the beginnings of the exploitative capitalism Americans confuse with “freedom” these days.

It was depressing for Francis to realize the economy of Italy and the church was devoted to war and profit, and violence was always waiting to keep the powerless in line. As he went to the war front in Egypt and resisted writing a stifling agreement about his community for the church bureaucracy, he experienced his own powerlessness and it transformed him. He experienced what Paul was describing when he said his freedom made him a slave to all. And he was doing what Jesus did when he not only took on humanity, but put himself in the place of a slave – a devalued person who can be killed with impunity.

A freedom far too easily pleased

Last week’s further revelation for me was an insightfully written piece of history in the NYT Magazine: In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.It describes the conventions of the U.S. economy and the church which normally colludes with it. When we see how the legacy of slavery still has us in slavery, it calls for a lot more than unconventionality!

I have persistently railed against the corporate and now “gig” economy as basically elements of a slave economy. But I mostly reacted instinctively. This article provides an interesting back up argument for what I see all around me. In the U.S. we are subject to the premier example of “low-road” capitalism and so many of us think it is better, even God’s will meant to provide us the freedom of individual choice. I won’t paste in the whole article, but this gives you the feeling for what Francis was rebelling about:

Perhaps you’re reading this at work, maybe at a multinational corporation that runs like a soft-purring engine. You report to someone, and someone reports to you. Everything is tracked, recorded and analyzed, via vertical reporting systems, double-entry record-keeping and precise quantification. Data seems to hold sway over every operation. …

A 2006 survey found that more than a third of companies with work forces of 1,000 or more had staff members who read through employees’ outbound emails. The technology that accompanies this workplace supervision can make it feel futuristic. But it’s only the technology that’s new. The core impulse behind that technology pervaded plantations, which sought innermost control over the bodies of their enslaved work force.

Women and children in a cotton field in the 1860s. J. H. Aylsworth, via the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

This not only created a starkly uneven playing field, dividing workers from themselves; it also made “all nonslavery appear as freedom,” as the economic historian Stanley Engerman has written [example]. Witnessing the horrors of slavery drilled into poor white workers that things could be worse. So they generally accepted their lot, and American freedom became broadly defined as the opposite of bondage. It was a freedom that understood what it was against but not what it was for; a malnourished and mean kind of freedom that kept you out of chains but did not provide bread or shelter. It was a freedom far too easily pleased….

If today America promotes a particular kind of low-road capitalism — a union-busting capitalism of poverty wages, gig jobs and normalized insecurity; a winner-take-all capitalism of stunning disparities not only permitting but awarding financial rule-bending; a racist capitalism that ignores the fact that slavery didn’t just deny black freedom but built white fortunes, originating the black-white wealth gap that annually grows wider— one reason is that American capitalism was founded on the lowest road there is.

Freely joining the stigmatized

As Francis was limping off into his solitude after being essentially defeated by the entrenched ways of European culture, his defeat was already becoming his glory. It was well-known that he hid the marks of Jesus that began to appear and bleed on his body. The last thing he wanted was to become the object of a curial investigation or a commodity to be consumed by vacationers to Assisi. He quickly became those after he died, but he wanted to die in freedom.

“The five wounds that Francis bore were a body sermon which proclaimed two things: Frist, his abiding desire to stay on the side of the people who went about their whole lives with various stigmas – beggars, criminals, or lepers; second, Francis’ body revealed how much he himself has been injured and humiliated against his will, branded a loser in his contest with the powerful, and clearly conscious of his impotence” (in The Last Christian by Adolf Holl).

It was in this terrible condition that Francis  found himself free. He was finally like Jesus at the last Supper giving himself as food to the community in utter, fearless openness, free of the defenses and demands that run our days and make our societies.

In Assisi I saw some splendorous and kitschy crucifixes that belied the wounds of Francis and the the Lord. We’re not so open to freedom. When we see the poor we say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”  I pondered the paper cut of a forgivable slight while Francis received the spiritual slash of the spear.

Freedom the world cannot supply

I pondered the “cut” I felt at the study group, not only because it was thoughtless (and easily excused), but mainly because it was a tiny cost I paid for being “unconventional.” Francis was slavishly following the example of Paul who imitated Jesus by being unconventional for the sake of the salvation of sinners and freedom from death. My marks of suffering with Jesus are probably enough, but they can seem tiny in comparison.

Houston’s pitching staff, which includes Wade Miley, Joe Smith, Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, benefits greatly from the work of the team’s analytics department.
Astros pitchers

We’re kind of surprised we suffer at all. Even though Jesus dies for us, and tells us we will be persecuted if we do not conform to the world, we still think, “There but for the grace of God go I.”  If we work too hard at anything, we think, “This better be worth it!” When we suffer for something or suffer against something we think we’re extraordinary don’t we?

But suffering for or suffering against are probably too weak as ideas if we want to understand what Jesus and the Bible writers teach. The fighting against or for something will be unconventional for most of us, but they aren’t at the heart of things. Francis was not just a great rebel; his extreme obedience was not the point of his life!  he was just trying to follow Jesus with all his heart and that was trouble enough.

Right now, the Houston Astros are riding high on the back of a clubhouse motto:  Be the best version of the best player you can be. I imagine a few of them are Christians and this fits right into their faith. We could put it up as a motto for our cell: This is a place where you can become the best version of the true self you are called to become. That will cause enough trouble.

And suffering enough trouble is important. Can the poet compose without rebellion? Is there any truth without radical obedience? Like Jesus, my freedom, my poetry and obedience, is an act of heart, soul, mind and strength, in league with the development of my true self and the restoration of creation. My freedom is not a condition monitored by the police. America is not the land of my opportunity.

I am not a slave by birth but by rebirth. Some of us think our present condition of servitude is just our lot, to be rebelled against or obeyed — welcome to the ways of the world.  Jesus, Paul, and Francis all know better. They are free to live in the Spirit. The world doesn’t generally like them, but the self-giving love of being among the marginalized tastes like joy.

Is it OK to use my work resources for the church or is that stealing?

Several people came up to Jesus and asked him questions: “Who is my neighbor?” for instance, and “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus pointed the first man toward overcoming the hatred between Jews and Samaritans! He pointed the other toward selling all he had and giving the money to the poor! I think many people quickly decided to stop asking him questions! Maybe you don’t dare, either — not really, at least.

I think the vast majority of people who stopped asking would be like American Christians, at least a lot of them, who still won’t care for their neighbors (especially if they don’t share their “identity”) and certainly would not even consider impoverishing themselves to care for “the poor” as a class of people. How many times have I heard, with a laugh, “Be careful what you ask God, you might get an answer!”

So why do we keep asking so many questions?

We keep bravely asking because we have the freedom to do so. That is, we have freedom to ask any question we want if we live in the “tier one” of Paul’s thinking, as our new nomenclature identified last year. We exercise our freedom in Christ when we ask whatever question we want and do not fear what we will hear in reply. What can happen to us, now that Christ has set us free?

When the question in the title was asked on our Leadership Team Survey, I don’t think it came from such freedom. I don’t know, because it was anonymous, but I don’t think so. I think It probably came from “tier two” thinking where things are a bit murkier than the confident faith of tier one. That’s OK. Probably the majority of us are working toward forming a container that is settled enough to receive the content the Spirit of God wants to pour into it. It takes a lot of development to resonate with revelation. That development  includes asking some questions that might result in answers that reorient our entire lives!

We also keep asking questions because we have no idea what we are doing much of the time. We need help figuring out how to be alive, much more how to be alive in the Spirit! There are no “dumb” questions. The word “dumb” developed into meaning “stupid,” you know. It started with “mute” or “unable to speak” and, by extension “disabled.” Maybe dumb should really mean “unable to ask a question!” We try to accept every tiny question we or someone has because we know we are all seeking and developing. What’s more, we know God became tiny and humble in order to hear and bear all our questions and to assure us anything that confuses or troubles us will always be heard and carried.

So what is the answer to the question?

As with most questions, there were a lot of answers our team explored last week. And even though this question seems like a simple one, just like the questions people thought Jesus would simply answer, the question set off some lively, instructive dialogue at our Leadership Team meeting.

The simple answer is: If you employer thinks using company supplies for personal uses is stealing, then yes, it is stealing. Ask her for some paper for personal use and see what she says. If he gives you reason to think he doesn’t mind, then no, it is not stealing. The general implication is that things belonging to other people are used for the purposes they design. But another implication would be that you would not know their designs unless you ask them.

This answer breaks down a bit, however, when it comes to intangible resources, like time or thoughts, which are the things we mainly sell to our employers these days. It would not be surprising that an employer acted as a slave-owner who behaves as if they own you, not just the paper supplies. They would never say this, of course, but they might behave as if they own all our time and resources. The partner in the law firm is in St. Lucia, but you are supposed to work 80 hours a week to do what is assigned. You are otherwise booked, but you must come into work if called. Some employers might fire you if you call your sick mother on company time.

This sense of ownership might extend to what we think! If you violate the political or religious sensibilities of some employers, they might fire you, even though that’s illegal in many cases. So some people might be afraid to use their money for things other than what their employer desires (or for anything a prospective employer might desire in a new employee). Even if an employer actually assumes people need to care for other people than company employees during the work day, you might not even ask if you could do it and just wait until the end of the workday to care because you assume the principle is: the employer owns my time and thoughts during work hours (and maybe all the time!).

Does paying you entitle the employer to police your time and thoughts as if your personhood were part of the resources they have? Are you stealing if you make a phone call? Write an email? Take a break for a church, school or community meeting? Call in sick because you are sick of not being at the retreat day the church has planned outside your two-week vacation allotment?

I think the tangibles are easy. Don’t take manila folders unless you ask. But the intangibles are not. I am very “liberal” about the intangibles, since I expect you will do your job with excellence and, at the same time not become “slaves of men” (as Paul says). So your employer is going to get more than their money’s worth, and you are going to be free. Serving a master so Jesus is glorified is a strategy only a free person can apply.

Moral questions are a good place to start

One reason I thought this was a good question for our Leadership Team dialogue is that it is a moral question. Morals are concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character. We are regularly (as in every week, at least) faced with someone’s moral issues around Circle of Hope. People have been known to leave the church because of them. The questions Jesus was asked were deeply moral questions from moral people brave enough to ask them. Most beginners are confronted with questions like them all day, if they are actually growing into true selves. We need to ask them.

But let’s be honest. Moral questions are not the ultimate questions. Jesus was regularly accused of being immoral, himself, and was killed for being a lawbreaker, wasn’t he? So there is something to think about when we ask moral questions seeking to get things right. Nevertheless we will ask them, because how we have sex, how we eat, how we share, how we talk, how we raise children, how we think and so behave are all moral issues. If we don’t leap at them to satisfy our own curiosity, someone else will probably leap for us (just watch Fox vs. MSNBC).

Unfortunately, I think most believers are probably more comfortable with questioning how we use work resources than they are asking how the Spirit is leading regardless of how our enslavers dominate us. But we have to start somewhere!  Let’s keep asking, and hope someone who is farther along the way is around to help us hear the answers. Thank God, the resurrected Lord is around and our questions often lead us directly to a deeper relationship with him.

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For the slaves of Christ, existence is resistance.

Last week about thirty of us slaves of Christ were doing some theology about Paul’s teaching in the New Testament and how it could inform how we think about our “social action.” The two-tiered idea we explored has proven helpful to many people so far. See it for yourself at the Way of Jesus blog.

One of the places where we could see Paul’s two-tiered thinking was when he related to slaves. In this day, when people are into the idolatry Trump preaches, in which young people are chained to their survival jobs and debt, when white supremacists are trying to re-enslave African Americans, and in which we are all tempted to bow in fear before the Tweeter-in-chief, we may need to think about freeing the slaves more consciously than ever.

Be small

First, if we want to get anything out of Paul’s thoughts on slavery, we have to remember that when he speaks to women, Gentiles and slaves seriously as members of the church, his respect is subversive. We often forget, as we turn our “imperial gaze” on the “others” who are minorities and marginalized, that Paul is writing as one of those “others.” He and his little groups of persecuted misfits are not speaking from a position of privilege and power. His view is small; he has become small; the people in his church plants are the “others” in their towns and villages. So he writes from “under” not “over.”

One of the first tasks in understanding him is to let go of any imperial outlook, the supposed privileges of being an American citizen, the protection of the huge military apparatus, etc., and become small enough to need a Savior, to act as a slave of Christ. Translators during the Reformation undermined our understanding when they decided that translating the common Greek word for “slave” as slave was too demeaning and tidied  things up by using the word servant  instead (which is a big difference). In Philippians 2:7, for instance, Paul describes Jesus as taking on the condition of a slave. It is much more realistic, isn’t it, to see how humankind oppresses Jesus than to see Jesus as serving up salvation to us as we decide whether we want it or not. In order to hear what Paul, the slave of Jesus, is teaching, we’ll have to get into his slavish shoes.

Slaving

Once in Paul’s shoes, we can see what he is talking about. His thoughts are a lot bigger than whether a person is going to gain social or political freedom. That achievement would be frosting on his hope cake. The cake is being freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to you and being a grateful slave to the salvation that Jesus is working into us. Here’s just one example of how he thinks:

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” – Colossians 3:23-4. That last clause should read: “It is for the Lord (master) Christ you are slaving.”

Everyone who is thoroughly trained in democratic equality and the centrality of human choice (the general God-free zone of Western thought these days) is likely to think those lines are heresy; it might even feel icky to read them, taboo. Slaving?! Paul has none of those qualms. He finds it an honor to be a slave in Christ’s house as opposed to being a ruler in a house of lies. God is a “master” beyond anything Hobbes, Rousseau or Ayn Rand could imagine.

The world in its present form is passing away

So when he goes on to talk to slaves, locked in their situation with masters, benign or despotic, Paul has a variety of options for them. His first tier thinking makes him completely free to do the best he can with what he’s got in the day to day, passing-away, fallen world. So he says to his brothers and sisters in Colossae:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord…. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.” — Colossians 3:22, 25

Elsewhere, of course, he advises slaves to get free if they can. And he tells Philemon to treat his runaway slave as a brother, or to just charge him whatever it costs to set him free.

There are no slaves in Christ. A slave in the world is God’s free person. A free person in the world is God’s slave. This is hard to translate for people who believe the delusion that law makes them free and rational rules and education will prevent suffering. Paul might respond to such ideas, as he did, and say, “Though I am blameless before the law, I am God’s prisoner, a lifelong felon freed by grace.” Similarly, no one works for human masters, we do whatever we do for the Lord. Even when oppressed, we experience the hope that we will have our reward and the oppressors will get theirs.

How do we take action?

So what do we do in the face of the oppressive masters beating down on us and the world? Pray harder, safe in our salvation? Absolutely. But that is not all. We are already taking action in many more ways. I think we summarize what we do well in our statement of our mission.

Loving the thirsty people of our fractured region,
we keep generating a new expression of the church
to resist and restore with those moved by the Holy Spirit.

We resist. I am Christ’s slave. That is a defiant statement of resistance. My existence is resistance. I will never be a slave to a human, no matter what one does to me: buy me, imprison me, or take away my livelihood. I will always belong to the Lord, forever. And, as Jesus demonstrates, in a very real sense, Jesus will belong to me forever. He has made Himself our slave.

We restore. I am an obedient slave. My work is well-ordered. Jesus is the Lord of all and we are making that known and effective, day by day. We restore by reorienting people’s identities to align with their salvation. We restore by relentlessly loving in the face of hate and indifference. We restore by telling the truth in the face of lies. We restore by sharing our resources and making peace. And, I think most important, we restore by practicing the kind of mutuality that creates an alternative community that is not allied with the powers that dig up the world and destroy connections between God and people like hurricanes blasting through our village.

Our existence is the fount of our resistance. We can only hope that the country will be put to right soon. But even if it isn’t, we know who we are and we know what to do.  Being knit together in the love of Jesus is more important than ever, isn’t it!

Patrick had nerve — redux

St_-Patrick2Why aren’t we spiritual ancestors of St. Patrick more like St. Patrick? Unlike him,

  • we are often stuck on a treadmill of trying harder at things that aren’t working.
  • we keep looking for answers to questions that no longer need to be answered.
  • we get stuck in endless either/or arguments when the dichotomies were false to begin with
  • we undermine the leaders we so desperately need to help us off our treadmill and out of our arguing

We need the kind of nerve Patrick had.

Continue reading Patrick had nerve — redux

Patrick had nerve

St_-Patrick2Why aren’t we spiritual ancestors of St. Patrick more like St. Patrick? Unlike him, we are often stuck on a treadmill of trying harder at things that aren’t working. We keep looking for answers to questions that no longer need to be answered. We get stuck in endless either/or arguments when the dichotomies were false to begin with. We undermine the leaders we so desperately need to help us off our treadmill and out of our arguing. We need the kind of nerve Patrick had.

Continue reading Patrick had nerve

Gen-Y: Do Not Become Slaves of Human Masters

I get confused about the arbitrary labels assigned to “generations” in the marketing worldview that dominates us. But, for today, let’s go along with Cindy Krischer Goodman and call them Gen-Y, the 18-30 year olds I love so much. The Inquirer picked up one of Mrs. Krischer Goodman’s pieces (and may have edited it to death it is so choppy) about how the recession has smacked the age-group with reality. “About 37% of 18-29 year-olds have been underemployed or out of work during the recession, the highest share among the age group in more than three decades.”

I love talking about reality. The reality Krischer Goodman is talking about is that Gen-Y’s prized work-life balance is no longer a viable goal. They must swallow “humble pie,” adopt a “new attitude” and make themselves “more valuable.” They must face up to being “coddled” and stop demanding raises, promotions, time off, training and the hottest technology or they will just be raising their unemployment rate even beyond its present 15.3%. They need to return to being the slaves they were bred to be.

One of the most intriguing things about Gen-Y is that they have a very quiet rebellion going on. I think it is their best attribute, even when I wish it were more vocal and aggressively subversive. In a book about how they work, Stan Smith writes, “They are compliant for now. Yet if you dig beneath the surface, their underlying values are still there…They want flexibility. They want work-life balance. But for now, they are just not as vocal about how they want it served up.” They are compliant….FOR NOW. You’d think they were an army of zombies ready to enter the village and eat Mom. It is amazing that the ominous demands laying in wait are: 1) not to be treated like they are machines or pack animals and 2) wanting a forty-hour (or just not seventy hour) workweek and more than two-weeks of vacation a year! Cesar Alvarez says the recession is a wake-up call that will change the generation’s behavior. “I think their concept of the ultimate safety net has shattered. I’m seeing them much more engaged. I think this was a tipping point that helped the new generation suit up for the game.“ He reminds me of my football coaches in high school who used “galley slave” as their model for training.

I couldn’t decide which scripture best responded to this article. So I chose two. They kind of go together:

“Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever. For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters.” (1 Corinthians 7:21-3)…”For they speak bombastic nonsense, and with licentious desires of the flesh they entice people who have just escaped from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for people are slaves to whatever masters them.” (2 Peter 2:18-19)

The Inquirer highlighted the article: “For the coddled, tech-savvy young, the recession has brutalized their income, savings, career plans.” Next thing you know they will be forced to rely on Jesus and others for life itself! They might discover that the freedom they are offered is slavery, and the slavery they think is conforming to Christ is freedom. My hope does not waver.