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.

 


(Early) Reflections on post-election reconciliation…

November 18, 2016

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” — Jesus—
So, yesterday, I made my request for forgiveness for those whom I offended in a post made on FB. I also disclosed that some of those who contacted me in their pain and confusion also asked: Why wasn’t I involved in reconciliation and peacemaking?

For those who asked, first off: Thanks. I suppose in the present cultural climate, as well as in the stream of a former political tradition, after an election in the USA, we’re all supposed to “come together for the sake of the country/democracy.” Or so a version of that idiom goes.

In a limited way, that idiom still possesses power in our social interactions, although my read of the power may not be what is embedded in the request for reconciliation, peacemaking, and unity.

In the latter, the power should lead toward a justifiable sense of victory in the election, and a readiness to collaborate with the new administration, to set aside conflict and enmity, and to work toward a smooth transition in power.

Also, the declaration of the idiom should also become an occasion for those who voted contrary to reaffirm their commitment to democracy, however bitter the loss, and to work towards the peace and prosperity of the nation. So, the idiom often goes, and in the past, it worked.

But, who it worked for has been exposed and illuminated in irreversible ways. That discussion will be deferred for another post.

How the idiom now limps along could be up for discussion here as well. Instead, I want to attend to why the idiom is quickly becoming evacuated of its power.

In other words, the plea for reconciliation and for unity cannot move quickly past the words, the precipitating violence, and the identities of candidates with histories of antagonism. The persons who hear the words, receive the violence, and become displaced from the antagonism not only deserve to be heard and known:

For them, any real attempt at reconciliation cannot bypass the offense: it merely generates a false sense of unity for those who possess the social and cultural power. Let me explain this with a very scary moment from last week that involved my wife.

She was riding the train home, seated next to a black man, and across from her was an elderly Latina and a man wearing a yarmulke. At a following stop, a white man entered, dressed in camouflage gear, rolling in his bicycle. Behind him was a black man, dressed in a hospital gown with a wristband on, and presenting quite disoriented. The white man began to loudly berate the gown-adorned man, who appeared to be quite oblivious to the volume of the criticism. He then disembarked at the next stop.

The black man seated next to Annette attempted to distract the white man from the criticizing the other black, but that only escalated him into further shouting, including comments about the election results, that he was a retired veteran, and that he could say whatever he wanted to say.

At this point, Annette noticed that everyone around her was not white. And, that the white man was banging his bicycle against the elderly Latina. Then black man leaned over to Annette and told her that the white man had a knife in his coat: and the white man heard the comment. He became enraged, and threatened to assault everyone on the train because he could and that he did not need the knife. The black man attempted again to walk the guy back from his anger: and then Annette, the black man, and everyone else exited the train at the next stop. Violence avoided. The threat of violence: not avoided.

These events routinely occur through those with social and cultural power, especially whenever their sense of unity feels threatened. And, often, the feeling of a perceived threat generates injustice: such as verbal assault and the promise of battery. Of course, there are other ways those feelings get expressed: but, injustice often manifests as a result.

Any proposal for reconciliation and peacemaking, then, must address the injustice, the lament, and then—and only then—enter further processes for reconciliation. I would add: let’s not just address the wrongs, say “sorry,”  and call that “reconciliation”: let’s get our attention on what will promote human flourishing, i.e., shalom, and make that one of the end goals of reconciliation.

From within the Christian tradition, Jesus offers power and companionship for not only human flourishing, but also for the antecedent messiness that accompanies reconciliation.

What a blessing that would be, and it would demonstrate the identities of those involved in such peacemaking.


Please forgive me

November 17, 2016

Please forgive me.

Apparently, in an observation posted last week on Facebook, I generated some replies from people near and far who were quite anguished with me. Here’s the post:

Observation: White evangelicals trying to explain on FB to my friends and family of color: “We’re not haters, we’re not racists, even though we voted for Trump.”

Now, I’m not so naive to think that anyone would limit themselves to the thought: “Mike just made an observation.” Of course, our minds and our hearts ran unleashed beginning on Wednesday morning of last week in ways that we could have hardly imagined: no matter how you voted.

I received so many impassioned responses that ranged all over the place, including disclosures of how people voted. Everyone was offended.

First, let me state again: Please forgive me. I’m just as vulnerable to the “law of unintended consequences” as you are. My vulnerability, however, cannot excuse my replies. But, my post did not merely make you uncomfortable. In some of my replies to people on FB, I demonized some actions and attitudes, and therefore, some people. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Second, I realized, in getting so many messages from people from around the world: I’ve got a lot more trust than I imagined. (Parenthetically, I better get to writing some books I hadn’t planned on, as I’ve learned: You read my posts on FB!)

But, weak humor aside, I learned through the generation of so much pain, that many people—from around the world, some of whom I hadn’t heard from in years—trust my theological judgment about what is taking place in the world, even when they don’t agree with me. I don’t want to lose your trust: or our friendship.

Finally, embedded in many of these messages was a question of why I did not pursue reconciliation or peacemaking with people: in contrast to what appeared as my fueling the anger and rage that is going on at large. I read that, and I hear your voices: That deserves a different post. Tomorrow. (I’ve already written it.)

Please also note: I am not taking the “forgive-me-*if*-I-have-offended-you” route. I’m not a hero. But, when I see pastors, politicians, and others take up the back door by including a conditional “if I offended you”, I think to myself… well, I won’t disclose all my thoughts: but, I know myself better than to say something like that. Why bother to say anything if not a clear and resolute statement of culpability and contrition? Especially if one claims, as I do, to believe in the Gospel?

For now: Please forgive me for my offense of demonizing you for your vote, your conscience, and your person. Obviously, I have a longer journey in front of me. Come back tomorrow for my reflections on the plea for reconciliation and peacemaking.


Prayer for Freshmen: Thursdays, 8:55 AM

August 7, 2014

It occurred to me that I should include you in my weekly routine. Namely, every Thursday at 8:55 AM, I pause to pray for freshmen students, campus ministers, pastors, and universities.

I pray at 8:55 AM on Thursdays for a variety of motivations. It’s just before the top of the hour, and right about now is when work and life become animated for me. It’s also just before the weekend, and for a huge chunk of first-year students, of all the things they could reflect on, they consider what they’ll do with their weekend and who they’ll do it with: on Thursdays.

So, some intercession for wisdom and risk-taking that contributes to their present as well as their future makes it into my prayers.

But, the prayer that always makes it into my intercession is this:

How are we communicating the Gospel among freshmen?

Obviously, that prayer opens me up to all kinds of input, and that is good, given my research topic. And, that prayer alerts me to how and what freshmen students hear, how they respond, and how they interpret the Gospel engaging their present aims and future goals.

My Facebook feed is blowing up right now with announcements and prayer requests from my InterVarsity colleagues and students preparing for New Student Outreach, just a scant 3 weeks away from the start of classes at many universities in North America. I am full of joy for them, and pray the Lord grants them the fullness of his Holy Spirit as they proclaim that one name by which we are saved. (Acts 4:12)

Here’s my invitation: Please join me on Thursdays at 8:55 AM, wherever you are in the world, and pray for freshmen, perhaps your daughter or son, and for the campus and those who serve there, and this prayer in particular: “How are we communicating the Gospel among freshmen?


Happy Belated 104th Birthday, Lesslie Newbigin!

December 10, 2012

My internet connection was down over the weekend so this is a delayed post.

Leslie Newbigin (1909-1998) is the premier contemporary missiologist of the 20th and 21st centuries. Newbigin’s passionate reflection upon the Gospel and Christian mission remain unparalleled in our time. His writings have yet to be fathomed; his preaching, lectures, and publications are regularly read by pastors, missionaries, and routinely challenge theologians and missiologists. Newbigin served 40 years in missionary service in India, and in service to the worldwide church; his subtle influence upon Vatican II is only now becoming public. Upon retirement, Newbigin began serving as a pastor in London to an inner-city church. In honor of what would have been Newbigin’s 104th birthday, I post the following:

“When we speak of finding in Jesus the clue to the meaning of the whole human story, we are not speaking of a mere cognitive exercise. We’re speaking of that act of atonement wrought in Jesus through which we are brought into a loving obedience to the will of God as it is exercised through all human and cosmic history. It is not merely a matter of illumination, of new understanding; it is a matter of reconciliation, of rescue from alienation, of obedient response to the divine initiative of love. It is illumination and new understanding only because it is first a divine action of reconciliation through which we are brought to that state in which we can say and know that God works all things together for good to those who love him. It is only through this act of atonement that Jesus becomes for us a clue to history.” (Truth and Authority in Modernity, 1996:39-40.)


Response to Pew Report on Rising Number of “nones” with Religious Affiliation: really, just one (big) thought

October 12, 2012

Earlier this week, the Pew Report on Religion announced its perceived most important result: the number of religiously unaffiliated increased in the last 5 years from just over 15% to just under 20%. Perhaps the most valuable description here is that what was formerly an intuition for most people is now quantified. For those wanting to know more about the increasing movement in the unaffiliated, there was a sidebar that offered some interpretation.

To me, this sidebar was informative, and leaves us with an impression that there are powers at work that will keep rolling through North America, almost without stalling, inexorably, and lending to the notion that the extinguishing of religious affiliation is a foregone conclusion. That impression needs to be examined, although not for the sake of preserving religions per se. Of course, some people may not agree with the impression, and what follows will be superfluous. Such readers may want to stick around anyway.

The sidebar observes four different theories to explain the increase, and they are as follows:

  1. Political backlash, i.e., people reject the attempts of organized religions to influence social institutions like marriage or school curriculum, and are repelled by institutions like the 1970’s “Religious Right” and others that were media savvy for their day and remarkably well organized for influencing elections and sitting politicians.
  2. Delays in Marriage; here, the idea is proposed that those who wait for matrimony (into their 30’s?) are less likely to participate in religious services or commit to any social institution.
  3. Broad social disengagement; here, there is larger trend, made famous by Putnam’s text, “Bowling Alone”, in which, just not religious organizations, but many social institutions are experiencing declines throughout the generations in participation, resulting in lower social capital and a remarkable decrease in communal experience.
  4. Secularization. I must admit: I thought this theory was moribund, and perhaps the editors/writers of the sidebar felt they needed to include this. Yet, even their data- and they admit as much- give further evidence the theory is lifeless. In short, the theory argues that as the overall economic/financial health of the society improves, their religiosity decreases; if the economic health is poor, the religiosity of a nation increases. In the US, the trend continues unabated: the GDP improves, and the nation’s religiosity increases. Why the theory was included doesn’t have any support from the data.

So, my one thought all along has been, how do the people respond to such forces? It needs to be made clear. Survey data doesn’t give us such information. Again, the theories proposed above don’t offer much direct engagement with the surveys or specifically with the respondents. So…

I would make a few suggestions for your reading, and such fall under one big thought: people already have some sense of mission in their lives. They may not use, or even resist, the use of the term “mission.” But for those who are thriving, they have some sense of purpose to their lives. They may not have a religious, let alone Christian, sense to that mission, but they’ve got it. I will defer to another day for a discussion of what is going on for those “who do not thrive.” But, for now, I want to attend to those who are thriving.

For those are the people who are negotiating and determining what kinds of constraints and enablements they encounter when they consider religious affiliation. Religious affiliation doesn’t possess, in and of itself, some social hydraulic that pre-determines an outcome socially. Nor does it hold some kind of special power that induces a unique psychological state that human persons are compelled to act upon.

My guess is that most readers are following me: in other words, I’m trying to make sure we preserve the capacities and dignities that all human persons possess, while denying that the properties and powers of religious affiliation and its related institutional structures will/must produce a specific emotional and social status or produce a certain allegiance.

Let’s not abandon the very real capacities that all human persons have for inner deliberations, of the many kind that exist, and to determine, in response to religious affiliations, how to intersect in a fruitful manner that accounts for their personal sense of mission/purpose.

On the one hand, attaching ourselves to the different theories above concurrently hands off our latent powers to reflect upon the social and cultural context one finds one self in, and merges such without any real consideration of what it means to be human. On the other hand, by keeping a confident hold on such remarkable properties leaves room for learning, testing, a “changing of one’s mind,” and the possibilities that one’s personal projects can fallibly include religious affiliation: and still retain a sense of mission that coheres with that religious affiliation: and activate the powers that accompany a religious commitment.