Happy 124th Birthday, Martin Niemöller!

January 13, 2017

OK: One day early! Niemöller was a Lutheran pastor during the time of the Nazis, and initially, he was a supporter of Hitler. Later, he awoke to the horrors of the Nazis, and he began to align himself with the Confessing Church. Apart from his well-known quote, he was going along as faithful German pastor, and remained largely indifferent to politics. The war and the extreme violence toward Jews and other non-Aryan peoples confronted the quietism of many Lutherans like Niemöller.

As he awoke, he observed the various groups of people being selected by the Nazi for “removal,” and finally, having moved theologically and politically to resisting the state control of German churches, the Nazis came for him, and he was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau from 1937 to 1945. His personal move also included becoming a pacifist. He went to be with the Lord in 1992.

Below is his famous quote.

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”


2017 is starting out just… epic… #not normal

January 5, 2017

So, in the last 48 hours, I’ve had remarkably encouraging and remarkably disappointing experiences.

First, I attended a challenging and brilliant lecture given by Kirsteen Kim of Leeds Trinity University. Some background regarding the challenge and brilliance of the lecture.

For those unfamiliar, a significant amount of my ministry with InterVarsity involved international student ministry at Fresno State and Rice University. Of the many facets in this cross-cultural ministry, one involved the training and mentoring of American Christians. Often, these devout followers of Jesus were completely unaware of how much of their theological commitments represented the American dream. Yet, one could hardly fault them for their readiness to host and welcome low-English speakers into their homes week after week, befriending I-students, and including them in their lives in ways that demonstrate a generosity and sincerity that cannot be explained as other than a genuine commitment to Jesus.

Kim recognized that often we in the West perceive hospitality as mission. How easy it is to welcome the stranger into our home for a meal and care for them: such behavior and attitudes represent a significant practice throughout the Christian tradition. We care for and seek the welfare, best interests, and offer our love to the guest.

Similarly, migration receives a strong perception as mission. As Jehu Hanciles asserts the consensus perspective, “Every migrant a potential missionary.” And, there is much to support this viewpoint. The sheer volume of migrants from the southern hemisphere who hold the Christian faith deserves better attention from the western church. Moreover, such followers of Jesus merely assume that the proclamation of one’s faith still has validity wherever they may find themselves in the world. Kim did a great job of explaining this phenomenon.

But, she took this a step further. The tricky part involves a pair of pairs that give evidence of cultural commitments that inadvertently displace the gospel. Take the last perspective: The prevailing assumption of myself and my colleagues involves that our students know their culture best. Kim confronts this: How can we demonstrate this? Only by asking questions? Not a bad start, but we cannot confirm that any migrant intends to reproduce or “bring with them” all of their culture with themselves to their new home and relationships. Some may have a variation in how and what they disclose of their faith commitment. My critical realist heart swooned.

But, she took all of this into another pair: Often we perceive hospitality as a binary: the host and the guest. As you might guess, Kim exposed how peoples from the west can preserve unequal power differentials. I observed this all the time in my interactions with Americans with the best of intentions. They deftly kept the I-students from making their own theological conclusions in reading the Bible, settling for “teaching the truth of the Bible.”

Kim proposed a different way of identifying ourselves: what if the Christian also perceived themselves, theologically, as a sojourner? One could look to Abraham, or the early life of Israel, and the early church found in Acts. This proposal for identity allows for a mutuality of learning and serving together, each person, instead of host and guest, contributing to the flourishing of the other and the created order. Furthermore, such a response to grace positions one toward the Holy Spirit in ways that allow for empowerment, healing, and local movements of mission that occur through life in proximity to one’s neighbor.

Suffice it to say, I was deeply moved by this robust description of Christian identity and mission. Kim’s presentation deserves publication, and I hope that happens soon. One of the adjacent ideas that sprouted during her presentation regarded the development of self-awareness of one’s powers. More often than not, most of my white friends have no clue as to their privilege. Merely telling them that they can enter a room, an office, a grocery store: and no one will question their location or their intent, simply bounces off of them. It’s not as though they’ve ever had to consider the question—literally— in their lives.

This matter of self-awareness of one’s powers really benefits from the long game, as it’s rarely the case that anyone can flip the switch and know how much power they possess as a function of their ethnic identity, especially if they are white. Put another way: one of my colleagues in smaller group settings of students will ask aloud, “What’s it like to be white?” Without fail—I’ve observed this several times—the white students will begin a nervous laugh, and then fall into embarrassment. Why? Often, as I later hear, such white students discover the answer to the question involves a scandalous reply: It’s normal. It’s the way it’s always been. It’s my way. They may not utter the answer right away, but they instantly realize the power and privilege that inhere their social location as a function of their dominant ethnicity. Remarkably, when the silence to my colleague’s question has lingered long enough to become awkward, he turns to a Black or Latin/x or Asian student, and asks if they can answer the question. Boom. They already know the answer, and articulate the sense of privilege that white students possess with easily accessible narratives that happened: even the same day, right before the event.

Friends: That just begins to account for ethnicity, this need to develop our self-awareness of power. I haven’t touched gender, or socio-economic status. Or even political identity, i.e., citizenship.

Returning to my historical observation above, through Bible reading and an explicit attentiveness to how one moves through the West as a function of gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic status, I began to imagine the Holy Spirit might generate painful but fruitful ways to prune back our western privilege from life as “hosts.” Such identities have a unique way of sustaining privilege, but a relocated identity in Christ as a sojourning follower of Jesus allows for one to receive the power from the Holy Spirit to set aside that culturally and socially conferred advantage. Again, Kim’s lecture was excellent, and if I catch that it gets published, I’ll link to here.

However, following the lecture, I learned of power employed to suppress and to threaten: all coming from, unfortunately, from Christians. Following the Kim lecture, I observed some paternalistic comments made about women in the academy that made me pause. The comments occurred in the flow of a public meeting, and I wondered, “How do people get away with these statements?” Then, I received an earful from some of my female colleagues who also heard the comments, and I realized that those comments landed with so much more offensive power than I had realized. I imagine I have an upcoming conversation with at least one of the offenders in the near future about such egregious statements; it won’t be easy (see preceding conversation about power differentials and “hosts”) but I’m sure it needs to happen: because too much of Christian leadership these days really relies upon social location instead of pneumatology.

Also, even within InterVarsity, I observed some remarkable uses of power in the last 48 hours that made me wonder about the ongoing decay of western evangelicalism. One colleague has received…how shall I say this?…ominous prospects of termination. Others find that the absence of many of our colleagues at our triennial national staff conference is, of course, due to their disagreement with either the new theological statement on human sexuality and the roll-out of the employment policy related to the statement: and we miss their presence and ministry.

Adjacent to the statement and the new policy stand Black colleagues and friends on InterVarsity staff, for whom the presence of Michelle Higgins and her dynamic message at Urbana signaled a new day for InterVarsity: and this remains an unfulfilled symbol for them and their students. The palpable sense of anger and disappointment emerges from a displacement of the movement of the Holy Spirit at Urbana to attend to the roll-out of the new policy. The levels of trust continue to lower, and morale proceeds to descend among staff of color who wonder if the movement to preach Christ crucified for our sins and to call for justice will ever received the same kind of energies and funding that the statement and the new policy received.

The serendipitous lecture of Kim still rings in my ears and in my heart: the sojourner as Christian identity, and for mission.

So, 2017 has started, and much of it is the same as 2016: epic, in its peculiar inattentiveness to personal power and privilege. But it is not normal.

 


Christian Identity: Yet Another Reply to Tim Keller & Brian McLaren

December 27, 2016

In a recent conversation, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times asked Pastor Tim Keller, “Am I a Christian?” Although posted on December 23, the op-ed has generated more than 900 comments through today. Almost immediately, people from around the blogosphere affirmed, critiqued, and interrogated Keller’s many and nuanced replies to questions from a friendly Kristof: including Brian McLaren. I want to highlight the posts from Kristof/Keller and McLaren, as each have cast a certain light upon Christian identity, and raise important questions that we would do well to consider.

 
For Keller in his conversation with Kristof, the replies flowed from “literal” belief in the Bible, textual criticism, confidence in one’s faith in tension with questions generating diffidence, skepticism, attraction to people in mission but incredulous reaction to the same people with antagonistic beliefs, the range of Christian salvation, religious plurality, and finishing on the doctrine of God. Whew! What a tour!

 
For the most part, Keller framed the Christian faith, right from the get-go, as “a body of thought”, one which contributes to forming social boundaries for the church, so that one could have “a cohesive, integrated organization.” Then, his all important claim: “Jesus’ teaching was not the main point of his mission. He came to save people though his death for sin and his resurrection.”

 
Now, let me first of all say: Bravo. I like and endorse the move that links Calvary and the Empty Tomb; Keller links the two, and that deserves further elaboration from him. I need to follow that by asking: Whither the Kingdom of God? I make mention of this, chiefly because Redeemer Presbyterian Church has a remarkable history and presence of witness and service within Manhattan: such practices offer valuable signposts toward the reign of God in Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit. I found it strange that Keller omitted any response about Christ’s preaching on the Kingdom of God. Finally, it’s hard to know the importance of mission from a single interview about the aforementioned commitment by Keller and his congregation; so much of Kristof’s questions centered on identity, and—as I will get to below— Keller consented to keeping the discussion within that ambit.

 
For McLaren, though, the interview became an occasion to recollect (sans pleasure) how Keller’s version of “Christian identity is primarily defined by a list of beliefs, as it was for me in my upbringing.” As he continues his journey through his memory, McLaren knows first-hand that such a identity both secured a destiny in Heaven and one could have repellent list of personal sins left intact and impervious to transformation: simply because “if you held the right beliefs, you were going to heaven when you die, and in comparison with that, nothing else matters much.” This kind of propositional-based belief still has currency (see any of your friends from neo-orthodox churches), and empowers a long view of being safe in Heaven, while completely diminishing any value of other persons, the need for justice (or correcting injustice), holds dominion over the earth as a primary value for human existence thus authorizing environmental decay, and simply affirms a dualism between body and soul. McLaren suggests an alternative… or does he?

 
McLaren also takes up the question of Christian identity, although his angle of entry initially appears sympathetic to one I would endorse: “As we approach Christmas, it’s a good time to reflect on why Jesus was born and why it matters.” From there, McLaren approves of people entering a journey of discovery of significance: “It’s a good time to note that according to the Gospels, Jesus himself gives a number of reasons for the ‘main point of his mission’.” From here, McLaren cherry-picks some excellent topics: repentance, liberation and healing, truth-telling, preaching the Gospel: and then this: “Yes, a meaning-rich and world-changing suffering and death were among those many reasons (Jn. 12:27), but it’s a mistake (a popular mistake) to let that one reason silence all the others.” Well, yes and no.

 
Yes, McLaren is correct to elevate and celebrate the importance of Christian identity becoming generated, practiced, and competent through practices of mission. Amen. But, as Newbigin once said, “Words without deeds are empty. But, deeds without words are dumb.” Put another way, and even Keller and Kristof recognize this: the Christian faith does not have the religious market on caring for the poor, the widowed, and the orphan. Actions like these, in which as Keller recognized as “the importance of the individual person and … love as the supreme virtue”, deserve interpretation from beliefs and doctrines. But, we need those practices to assist in developing maturity as Christians.

 

So, No, we can’t discard some of our espoused convictions regarding soteriology and the doctrine of God just because a different system of beliefs is asserted to be superior or to be more inclusive for the naming and creation of Christian identity. To wit, that different system merely addresses different questions: “Do you love the least of these? Do you love the earth as God’s creation or money that can be made from exploiting the earth? Is love— for God, self, neighbor, other, enemy, and the earth— your highest aim and deepest desire?” McLaren raises these questions and more in his conclusion. He is correct to interrogate static models of Christian identity that only rely upon assent to theological convictions.

 
But, we don’t check in our theological traditions along the way in identity formation. We need to recover a process of identity formation that involves a constructive, dynamic response to the imperative of the one we are convinced of who offers us life: “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of humanity.” (Mk. 1:17)

 
But, I wonder how “local” the questions of McLaren are, especially relative to Jesus. Put another way: even Jesus had a context, one of a long religious tradition that permeated every aspect of life. That tradition underwent several changes during internal political changes, external influence and military invasions; these changes took place during forced migration from home and in repatriation.  But, the Jewish tradition endured, and long expected another exodus-like saving event from YHWH. So, whether the changes enacted by family politics or Roman imperial forces acting upon the tradition, the Jewish people kept their faith in a multicultural and multiethnic milieu. Jesus had no problems engaging with Gentiles, (e.g., Mk. 5:1-20) and he certainly directed those who followed him to do likewise. (C.f., Mt. 28:19-20)

 
Now, one might push back on me: “McLaren observes “the other”, and “the outsider.” True. But, here’s the snag: For McLaren, (and for that matter, Keller) declare through their silence that belief and service occur in an ethnically-neutral context of North America: that is how Christian identity becomes formed. One wouldn’t know from either of these pastors that racism is America’s original sin. While McLaren (and we could presume Keller, as well) would champion a wholesale rejection of racism, violence, and structural injustice, and especially in light of the increasing events of white hostility following the recent presidential election, their omission of such makes me wonder how far their observations extend to Christian identity. How can we discuss caring for the poor, or the healing of the sick— who are often people of color— without consideration of their ethnic identity and our own ethnic identity? How can we make any prescriptions—or recommendations— about beliefs or practices for Christian identity without some consideration of the racialized society we dwell in?

 
Other friends chimed in on my FB page: surely the NT doesn’t drive a wedge between belief and practices. Similarly, if one wanted to press the whole notion of identity, we could look to the rite of initiation: baptism. And, this initially appears warranted, at least theologically. Yet another observed regarding beliefs, that evangelicals like Keller and McLaren (although the latter may not want that label anymore) hardly can be affirmed for the inclusion of the creeds in their belief systems as constituting evangelicalism. Some version of “both/and” was called for. I made note that for both Keller and McLaren, they both draw boundaries, and they simply do it differently than each other. I wanted to address this element more thoroughly but in my prayers, I could not look away from the total absence of discussion of ethnicity and context as informing Christian identity. One might also wonder why suffering is omitted from either descriptions of Christian identity. (C.f, 1 Peter 3:8-22) Similarly: there’s not a shred of conversation about how our gender contributes toward the formation of our Christian identity: clearly, this last element needs a more thorough examination. To be sure, the differences between Manhattan and Manhattan Beach hold unique elements.

 
Christian identity becomes formed not only through beliefs and practices, but also in context; both engage the respective contexts and are engaged by the same. For Kristof, Keller, and McLaren, we would ask them: “Who is your neighbor? And, is your neighbor of a different ethnicity than yourself?” How they—and we— answer such questions may well help all us understand how we all are formed into our Christian identity.


Keeping the Faith among Freshmen/First-Year Asian American Students: Introduction

July 28, 2014

In a few weeks, a variety of media sources will cite and speculate about the class of 2018. The first-year students entering the North American universities will have some unique characteristics based upon their collective birthdays located in 1996. Pundits, professors, and parents will ramble and rant about this class. The optimism of high school graduation speeches from the spring will be tempered with economic realities, majors that lead to employment following graduation, and a subtle change in perspective that moves from GPA to starting salaries.

So, count this post as an early start. And, in case we haven’t met: Glad you’re here! And, if this was missed: I’m a PhD student in the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Seminary: My research topic is about how Asian American first-year students make decisions that impact their faith commitment. The first-year experience is often perceived outside the university as a threat to the faith commitment of incoming undergraduates. Lots of hand-wringing by parents, youth pastors, family, and friends: the freshman may lose her/his faith in that first-year of university life.

But: Let me pause right here. When I first drafted this post, the world was going to hell in a hand basket: Some unidentified people shot a Malaysian passenger jet from the sky a couple of weeks ago; Israel and Hamas are attacking each other in Gaza with no end in sight; Hong Kong is flailing from continued and increasing harassment from Beijing, as the former British colony resists suppression of their intent for universal suffrage and for democratic leadership that comes without exclusive vetting by Beijing; Children from Honduras and Guatemala travel in packs without their parents to the US to escape violence in their homes: Only to be resisted by ‘Mericans who claim our nation cannot receive them in all of their vulnerability. And, it’s only getting worse.

So, this post–and those to follow– might read as a bit disconnected from the reality that our TV’s and social media link up to our lives. I hope it won’t be separated. Indeed, latent to all that follows is that responsible participation in the mission of God (missio Dei) can and should involve disciplined imagination, learning, and praxis. Faith and higher education can be linked up to participate in the healing, reconciliation, and renewal of the world that Jesus Christ is presently and eternally enacting as you read this. Getting a college education and developing your faith is not the only way to go into God’s mission: but, that is another topic for another day. Meanwhile, the erosion and abandonment of faith during the college years by young adults, especially in the first year, has generated its fair share of anxiety.

And, it’s not as though that anxiety is unwarranted or without merit. Plenty of books have been published on the realities. Some well-funded and tightly focused ministries have taken aim at this phenomenon. I’m also on the campus staff of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship: welcoming freshmen into our fellowships is a big deal. InterVarsity belongs to a consortium of ministries aiming to assist that transition from high school to college with the student’s faith intact, and it includes ministries who serve high school students to those who serve university students.

So: “Why do this research if others have already done surveys, published, and other ministries–including yours–have taken up the task of reaching freshmen?” That is a good and fair question.

For one, Asian Americans are among the fastest growing ethnic groups in the North American Christianity. Yes, yes: Latino Pentecostals are and will be the largest Christian ethnic group in North America: the fastest growing ethnic groups in North American Christianity are among the Koreans and the Chinese: and those are just the East Asian Americans. South Asian American Christianity is exploding as well. Why? More in another post. Keeping up with a culturally dynamic group of young adults with regard to their faith cannot be energized by presuming certain static categories or stereotypes will endure from generation to generation: such as the transmission of Confucian values, filial piety, or the myth of the model minority. Far too often, how Asian Americans of the Christian faith interact and persist in their faith has not adequately described how they engage with their social and cultural contexts: and vice-versa.

Another answer to the question above: There is a remarkably small amount of research conducted on Asian American religion, and an even smaller amount on Asian American Christianity. That reality keeps expanding and deepening, improving monthly, and we’re all the better for it as a result. Nonetheless, there is a lot of room for contribution and understanding.

And, in that regard, especially among evangelicals, understanding the complexity of ethnicity and faith in North America continues to expand and deepen, and yet remains tangled and somewhat elusive. As you might expect, I am discovering the burgeoning literature on migration, ethnic origins, and faith in North America, and that nexus is generating discussions that are coming to profitable boil.

Finally, and most importantly, I intend to name and describe the mechanisms that underly the decisions that first-year students make, and consequently, how those decisions are enacted and subsequently influence how freshmen enact their faith. This goes to the bottom for me in more ways than one. We really benefit from The Barna Group, Pew Research, and others: their results reveals the tendencies and patterns that many late adolescents and young adults have with respect to their faith.

Those regularities, however, do not describe how decisions get made, and how the social and cultural surroundings interact with these young adults and their faith commitment: instead, hearing of someone who has abandoned the faith by the end of their first year in the university, slogans and quick diagnoses are forwarded.

She really didn’t have faith to begin with.” “His faith was always weak.” “Her/His parents didn’t really trust in the Lord to begin with.” “Her youth pastor always had a shaky theology.” Or: “The youth pastor graduated from ________ seminary…” Or: “He fell into the wrong crowd.” “She had an atheist/Marxist/Darwinian professor in her first year.

Or, my favorite: “It’s a Lordship issue.

As if that explained anything. And those slogans are so common as to rarely bring any objection or resistance from among parents, youth pastors, university faculty, or campus ministers. Such responses hide not only why the students apparently have left their faith, but also self-generate absolution for responsibility for such an outcome. (Preview: Assuming some responsibility is OK, but is often located in the wrong contexts.)

Well, I don’t intend to research those responses. Having said that, and the context that generated those responses: I’m taking up the question from the other side: Why do some first-year, Asian American students keep their faith? Missiologically, the question resides as a subset of those wondering, “Who will participate in the missio Dei?”

So, in the next few posts, I’ll make some proposals for everyone, but each one will be focused upon a specific group of people: parents, youth pastors and others on the “clergy-side” of ministry, faculty, and even my colleagues in campus ministry. Although the ethnicity of the students I am investigating are Asian American, my sense is that what is emerging may have application for other ethnic groups. That sense will need some elaboration, and recovery of particular histories, but for now:

Pray for the peace of Christ to prevail in the world. It’s not as though weird, strange, and violent events have never taken place simultaneously in the world before: It’s just that the need is great, in the present, for the people of the Christian faith to both rely upon the received traditions in spiritual disciplines and to practice those traditions in order to announce peace to those who are far off and to those who are near: that need is now part of the context of the mission we live in.


Ethnic Diversity: Reality for Growth or Choice of Zip Code?

August 17, 2012

I had an interesting meeting with a vendor regarding service for the home we just moved into. This vendor, an Anglo, mentioned that his family raised him in a community adjacent to the one we just moved from. He remained in that community through marriage and child-raising, and once he and his wife became an empty-nest, they moved several miles away, because of “the changing demographic, with so many Orientals moving into [the community].” He said this with a straight face, no sense of malice, not seeking some kind of social solidarity with me: even though he had just been introduced to my wife not 5 minutes earlier.

I must admit to you that I felt very, very sad for this man. In the past, I might have felt some slight or anger. But, in his case, as far as I can discern from his story, assuming the complexity of all life narratives, part of his decision to relocate was motivated by increasing ethnic diversity, i.e., people were moving into his neighborhood who were different from him and his family. And, this vignette evoked sadness for me.

Now, in part, this sadness is also related to the neighborhood we’ve moved into! We are the Asians of the block! As yet, I’ve not seen any African-Americans living on our street, but it’s a long one, and we’ve not been here a month. We have a few Spanish-speaking people, but I’m not sure what their cultural heritage is. So, that present reality may be part of my sadness in response to the vendor’s story.

It’s a big deal for the Christian community to take stock of its ethnic identity. That Sunday morning is still the most segregated time of the week is a shameful blight that the NA church can faithfully arrest and reverse. That we rarely or fail to vigorously reflect theologically about ethnicity as it relates to our mission in the communities where we live, serve, work, and worship is not merely a blind spot, but a gaping black hole about which our good intentions and “we’ll-get-to-it-later” slogans are vacuumed in while the diverse people around us wonder “what’s in it for me” as we tacitly describe ourselves as Christians.

When we shopped for a home, I recall looking around in every neighborhood, wondering who lives here? I mentioned this to my wife, and she always humored me by listening. For now, as we still get our boxes unpacked and set up, it’s not an issue. Of the neighbors we’ve met, they are the kindest and friendliest people one could ask for to be living adjacent to you: they are the real deal. But, it’s not lost on me: we’re the ethnic minorities of the street, as far as I can tell.

One of my favorite readings in the Gospel of Mark regards the invitation of Jesus to his followers in 4:35-41: “Let’s go over to the other side.” He just concluded some remarkable discourse on the Reign of God, all of which held the attention of the presumably Jewish crowd: and he invites them to head over to…the Gentile side of lake. In other words, as one of my earliest mentors paraphrased Jesus, “Let’s see if this stuff on the Kingdom makes any sense among people unlike ourselves.”
Here, Jesus welcomes his followers into an ambiguous, uncertain, short-term mission, while embedding his teaching, authority, and person within the missio Dei, and joining the two for testing and demonstrating the possibilities for God to reconcile Jew and Gentile in his reign.

Next week, my friends and colleagues from The Fellowship of Presbyterians will gather in Colorado Springs and Atlanta. I observed with some encouragement and some amusement that the pre-conference gathering will be about mission and…missions. Yet, the bulk of the ethos and philosophy of the FoP continues to be about being “missional.” Let me both cheer and chastise this posture.

Yes: the recovery of mission, even the adjective “missional”, is to be welcomed and encouraged: such a retrieval suggests not success, but an approaching day of fruitfulness. No: there cannot be any fruitful horizon for the FoP that fails to theologically account for biblical data that so explicitly directs the people of God into mission among those who are ethnically diverse and different from themselves. The “Focus on Church Planting” element of the August Gathering suggests an important corrective and development in the need for theological reflection on ethnic diversity; it’s a real bonus that it is embedded within the conversation on planting new churches.

Some of the sharpest minds and hearts among Presbyterians are within the FoP. Indeed, in private conversations, some of these people have admitted to me their desire for ethnic diversity within their own congregation. Often, they don’t know how to begin the journey of developing an ethnically-diverse congregation. But, the starting line is right in front of them daily: and I would want to reassure them that they may not get any real guidance straight away: there is no error-free instruction on beginning.

Given the history of NA and its churches, surely some of the FoP elders, both ruling and teaching, can provide leadership that fallibly and imperfectly relies upon the Word and Spirit to give witness to the Gospel among people unlike themselves: even within their own zip code.


Whither Culture in the Fellowship of Presbyterians?

December 28, 2011

I happened to spot this note from Jim Singleton of The Fellowship of Presbyterians (FoP) a few days ago. The claim made by Singleton and the FoP is this: “The Fellowship of Presbyterians and the NRB (New Reformed Bodies) are designed to be missional at their core.” I find myself both sympathetic to the overall concerns of the FoP, that is to say, a recovery of biblical and confessional resources from the Lord with which to participate in mission as a congregation, and discomforted by the lack of reflection upon biblical data and cultural context.

For those tuning in…the FoP is a large chunk of evangelical plus disappointed Presbyterians from the PCUSA. Most recently, the General Assembly (GA) determined in its polity to create space for the ordination of homosexuals to the office of teaching elder; this determination has been previously attempted and rebuffed several times over more than 30 years. Suffice it to say, this kind of polity represents a significant departure from the Bible. The FoP has always been in the making, so to speak, and coalesced this year once all of the presbyteries confirmed the GA decision. I should add a couple more items here: I am an ordained Minister of the Word and Sacrament of the PCUSA, and I agree with those of the FoP regarding the wrong-headedness of the GA’s polity decision: it is a decision that endorses a lifestyle at odds with the Bible.

Now, with those preliminaries, let me move to my sources of discomfort.

First, there are several attempts by the FoP leadership to cast the movement as missional. Let me add my voice to the chorus: those who employ this adjective have assumed far too much regarding its intent, and with the movement of the usage into the ecclesial vernacular, the same people have evacuated it of any prophetic or nourishing meaning. In short, “missional” is becoming “boring.” How unfortunate.

In a personal conversation with one of the authors of the text Missional Church, I asked if the current use of the adjective avoided the pain associated with the change in identity that accompanies the recovery of such ecclesial character. He lowered his head as he nodded in agreement. He added that most pastors and elders are simply unaware of how sweeping the personal changes that take place when one follows the Lord into becoming the missional church.

Second, latent to the missional church philosophy but completely missed within the FoP regards the biblical identification of and concern for “the nations.” The ongoing affection and desire of Jesus aims for the people of God to extend their experience and joy of redemption and mission to those who are ethnically and culturally different from themselves.

One doesn’t have to journey too far within the PCUSA to determine that it is largely an Anglo-dominated community. That Koreans within the PCUSA- ever joyfully and powerfully witnessing, making disciples, and enacting justice near and far- do so with greater impact than the bulk of PCUSA could be an all-important sign of what is possible when the church takes seriously the extension of the Gospel into and among people different from themselves. That there is such a presence of Korean Presbyterians is, humanly speaking, a function of earlier generations of Presbyterians from the US preaching the Gospel in the Korean Peninsula. Now, it would be worth posing the following question to Koreans within the PCUSA: How are they serving and proclaiming among people ethnically different from themselves? Valuable as that may be, the more urgent concern is whether Anglo elders and pastors of the FoP perceive this explicit Biblical mandate as an imperative to be engaged, deferred, or optional as part of the identity of the missional church it aspires to become.

Finally, there is the massive question of culture. Fortunately, a spate of slogans and colloquial stories used in a variety of western cultural contexts throw light on this challenge, which largely is a problem of shared self-awareness. I am thinking of one story I have used for years, but find that it is hardly original: Talking-Fish Lake. To cut to the punch line: the fish replies to the fisherman, “What’s water?” What “water” is to the fish, “culture” is to humanity. Following the anthropologist Ward Goodenough, culture is “what people need to know or believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members.” We’re constantly surrounded by culture, yet rarely aware of how we shape and encourage and sanction each other because of this “water” that we’re immersed in. And, it is worth stating the obvious: in the West, there’s a lot of “water” out there…

A few comments on culture, then, with which to close out this post.

First, all of the energy and focus upon recovering the Confessions by the FoP in a conscious and concerted fashion may have some salutary benefits for the developing New Reformed Bodies: but in and of itself will not provide the analytic or diagnostic tools with which to interpret our western culture. I am totally in favor of recovering the Confessions! Make no mistake about that! My motives here, though, will be for a post at a later date. That energy and focus upon the Confessions will soon be consumed and diverge as a consequence of unfamiliarity and disconnect from the culture the church dwells within.

Second, I noticed that at the initial meeting in Minneapolis back in August that Tod Bolsinger hosted a meeting on leadership. He introduced the leadership theory of Ron Heifetz, and specifically, adaptive change. I can’t find the link I was sent, but I received a copy of Tod’s slides of his presentation: perhaps if you contact Tod, he can point you to the link. Here’s the important point: This theory of leadership may hold the key to unlocking questions of (and resistance to) western culture. I am a big fan and learner of Heifetz’ literature. Yet, I also noticed in an FoP letter after the meeting endorsing Bolsinger’s approach: yet the letter strangely departed from it, through a description of what the desired outcomes of such an approach would be. Perhaps that was a political move on the part of the FoP leadership, an advance source of comfort for those who were rightly disturbed by the possible horizons if adaptive change were implemented by the FoP. Or: it represented some unfamiliarity with the implications of Heifetz’ theory and practice. To be sure: none of the outcomes described in the letter could possibly be known in advance of the process described by Bolsinger.

In The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Lesslie Newbigin recounts what one of his critics described as his attempts to understand western culture while participating in mission within the same: trying to ride the bus while pushing it from behind. It’s never been clear to me- as yet- that Newbigin aimed to make adaptive changes in the church; the implications seem to be littered everywhere in his writings and preaching. Yet, he was earnest that the church in the west take up the question of how to give witness to the Gospel within western culture. He was not nearly as concerned with the creation of new ecclesial orders or missional churches; he certainly was as adamant as the FoP is about the PCUSA regarding how egregious some polity decisions in the UK were departing from Scripture.

The best of our praying and listening to the Lord, as well as listening to each other, could now be arranged so as to give our energies and attention to the culture we’re immersed in. That there is a renewed presence of the Confessions is acknowledged everywhere; that there is any sense of what kind of culture the churches of the FoP/NRB are conducting their mission within remains unaccounted for and absent.


Bake Sales and Holidays on October 1: Free Speech Day and National Day in China

October 1, 2011

Today, October 1, hosts two holidays of sorts: in the USA, Free Speech Day, and in China, National Day. Of course, you knew that…

Meanwhile, now that the dust has- for the moment- settled up in Berkeley, it’s time to weigh in on last Tuesday’s remarkable rising-up over the sale of baked goods in Sproul Plaza, located at the University of California. In case you missed it, here’s the back-story:

State Senator Ed Hernandez (D) of West Covina introduced SB185, and it passed in the Senate and the Assembly, and had arrived on the desk of Governor Moonbeam Jerry Brown.

SB185 aimed to restore the power of the admissions committees of the UC, the Calif. State Univ. System, and state community colleges, to use race, and “other relevant factors” (I’m serious: that is the wording of SB185…) in determining a decision to admit an applicant to their respective campus. This bill aimed to reverse the public decision at the ballot box called Proposition 209; that proposition was carried in 1996: in short, Prop. 209 prohibited any of the state institutions (especially named were the educational systems like the UC) from using race, gender, or any other social status from making any determinations on admissions.

Last week, the ASUC decided to go carpe diem on campus, and set-up a table inviting students passing by to call the Governor’s office phone number and encourage the Old Blue (yup: Brown is a Cal alumnus) to sign SB185 into law.

The Berkeley College Republicans (BCR) caught wind of the ASUC’s proposed outreach, and decided to host a counter-outreach: the Diversity Bake Sale. The pricing on the baked goods was scaled according to ethnicity and gender: If you were a white male, you paid the most for any item; if you were a woman or black, you paid the least. Other ethnic representations were scattered in between. Brief interpretive response: in the great voice of Tracy Morgan, “That’s racist.”

The points of the BCR were manifold: the ASUC should have invited some kind of dialogue or convened a forum for discussion about SB185 before applying student fees to host the table; SB185 proposes sweeping changes in UC admissions policies by fiat, without any legislative guidance for including race or other recommended social factors; indeed, SB 185 is inherently discriminatory. Even BCR agreed: the content of the Diversity Bake Sale was repugnant: just like SB185 and especially the move made by the ASUC to endorse its passage.

Now, as you might expect, and no doubt many of you already know: the reaction was swift to condemn the DBS: see my comment above using Tracy Morgan’s voice. A couple of actions  impressed me as unworthy of the Free Speech Movement, which was largely recognized having its historical epicenter in Sproul Plaza. Both centered on an attempt to silence the BCR.

First, the ASUC hosted an emergency session, in which legislation was enacted to create the threat of punishment for any student group that harasses other students by their speech. Oops. Even the Daily Cal recognized that legislation put itself in conflict with the ASUC Constitution. That kind of “ready-fire-aim” is the stuff that certain states with militaries use to stifle free speech…

Second, Chancellor Birgeneau authored and emailed a campus-wide memo that had the chilling effect of saying that while he wanted civility in all manner of speech, the kind of talk that would represented by an un-named student group would not be tolerated. Yikes. Fortunately, people of all stripes on campus began to see that action for what it was and responded promptly.

So, the DBS took place, as did several counter-protests. Lots of yelling, some debates between students, and lots of baked goods consumed. And another student group hosted a counter-protest of note: they gave away baked goods, inviting the recipients to avoid purchasing baked goods at the DBS. Turns out the not-so fine print of the DBS was: You can pay anything you want for any baked good. Talk about actions speaking louder than words…

I find myself in a bit of a strange social location on this event, benefiting as I have from a Berkeley education, and having participated in student protests over UC investments in apartheid-era South Africa: and I’m a multi-racial male. Hmmm…what to do, what to do…no, I’m not really undecided: I’m with the BCR on this one.

And, No, (add Tracy Morgan’s voice) that’s not racist.

As I mentioned above, the “ready-fire-aim” approach concurs with the Rush Limbaugh’s of the world: no real thoughtful discourse or reflection of what the complexities of the issues are that under contention. Indeed, I’d have to agree with the BCR on this one point and add another: the failure of SB185 to offer any kind of direction or instructions on how to implement the law leaves the UC incredibly vulnerable to the very accusations that the counter-protesters made of BCR: (insert Tracy Morgan here).

And here’s my additional criticism: there is no mention made of how the enactment and enforcement of this law will be paid for. Someone, somewhere, is going to see the passage of SB185 as a gold mine to be tapped: admission administrators need to be trained how to comply with the law, seminars (online or on-site or both) will be hosted, and there’s a heap o’money to be made to achieve: compliance. And, everyone everywhere knows there’s no money coming from Sacramento for anything at all. UC admissions might as well thumb their noses at SB185, because there is no money to spank them if they ignore fulfillment of the law. Welcome to realpolitik.

But, it’s the chilling attempts by the ASUC and the Chancellor that really distracted me this week. They ineffectively and tacitly collaborated to silence students whose views they disagreed with. To be sure: the BCR used a repugnant form of satire to express their disagreement with the politics of the day. But, repugnancy of this kind is not sufficient to silence those students.

The BCR made no threats to anyone, let alone their fellow students. Indeed, they articulated what neither the ASUC or the Chancellor vocalized but ostensibly believe: that Berkeley benefits from an ethnically diverse student body, faculty, and administration. Such diversity represents and serves the State of California. Read that editorial again by the BCR president. That kind of articulation, while muffled by the rhetorical strength of the DBS, has historically contributed to the intellectual vigor of Berkeley.

Does the State of California need its educational institutions like Berkeley to include race and “other relevant factors” (arrgghh) for admitting students? Emphatically: Yes.

But, don’t miss the forest for the trees here: All of Senator Hernandez’ noble statements notwithstanding, this kind of legislation deserves nuance and some careful determination for how it will be paid for. Indeed, if this matter is as urgent as Sen. Hernandez, Chancellor Birgereau (oops: he’s not supposed to tip his hand here…), and the ASUC believe it is: then, let’s get the primary state-supported academic research institute of the State of California working on how to pay for this law to be sensibly and justly enacted.

And, let me add: the kind of legislation that ASUC enacted now puts Christian student groups into an incredibly vulnerable position. All it will take is one accusation over (insert issue here), and that’s it: no funding, no official status on campus, no meetings, and officially endorsed shunning of the students. No voice.

Oh, and by the way: Happy National Day in China…

Postscript: FTW: I discovered this NMA Video about the Diversity Bake Sale: NMA has a great sense of humor… 🙂

Vodpod videos no longer available.