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Our Pieces of Pie in the Sky | Part 3 of 3

This is the final blog in a series of three originally titled “Why Kick a Man When He’s Down? | Smoking, Sin, Shaming and Salvation.” Like Reza Aslan reminded FOX’s Lauren Green, I too write from a PhD in history of religions perspective (although I have 1 versus his 4 PhDs), so please bear that in mind as you read this and other faith-related blogs.

Some delicious childhood memories of mine are of pies: strawberry, coconut cream, chocolate and french silk varieties (esp those with a graham cracker crust).

If you have only leisure and pleasurable pie eating memories then you likely are either an only child, one of two children, or from a family who never quarreled.

I’m the fourth of five children. A pie cut into seven does not big pieces make! Therefore, in my family, dessert time was satisfying, yes, but also stressful. It was imperative that you either dibs the pan or dibs your piece early, thereby ensuring you got, maybe, a half-bite more than anybody else (especially satisfying was getting the extra few strawberry syrup saturated graham cracker crumbs lining the pie pan).

Our childhood illogic, then, was as adult illogical as buying gas (petrol) today. You might travel 5 to 10 miles to buy discounted wholesale gas at $3.40/gallon, when a nearby station is selling it at $3.45, and the total cost saving differential for one tank of gas is only $.50 to $1 (before factoring in time and gas cost of traveling to and from).

Many people view salvation with a prized pie mentality. Heaven (or eternal life) is the ultimate pie or piece of pie, yet it simultaneously poses a troubling question, “How can I be sure I’ll get my piece if other, strangely different people are claiming they know both an equally good recipe and baker (perhaps identical, though different in name), themselves?” 

Gaining admittance and exclusionary bragging rights to heaven seem somewhat comparable to passing “GO” in Monopoly, except that, instead of a single player dominating the real estate market, a single religious perspective attempts to monopolize criteria for eternal eligibility and what constitutes truth.

Furthermore, the secret to passing “GO” without going bankrupt, landing in jail (hell) or being penalized by unlucky draw-cards, is to acquire insider knowledge of and obey prescribed code words (e.g., from Christianity – “Steps to Salvation,” “Four Spiritual Laws” or “Roman Road”).

Determining “who” is eligible and declaring “how” one may gain access to heaven is much easier if you have the power to entice and enforce people’s lifestyle and beliefs, which Christianity as a whole has had the privilege of doing for the past millennium-plus . . . . first, as the official religion of the post-Constantine Roman Empire, then, as the religion of European colonial powers, and finally, as the dominant religion of Super Power America and its global economic and political reach.

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An example of enticement, is an 1864 letter of American missionary Hyman A. Wilder, who wrote the following appeal for increased funding from his stateside “commander-in-chief,” Rufus Anderson –

“The greatest number of those [Zulus] who are now members of our churches, were first brought to listen to the gospel while in our service.  At present the only way in which we can get any one in a heathen kraal under the daily influence of divine truth is by giving him employment as a servant.  He is then willing to learn to read & to attend our religious services as a part of his daily duty.  Some of our servants are paid more, & some less, per month—the average is about 10 shillings exclusive of food, which costs from 5 to 10 shillings more.”

A colleague of Hyman’s, James C. Bryant, similarly wrote that he and his wife had twelve Zulu children in their family, all of whom “we have to hire them to live with us. . . . and pay them a trifle for their services—twenty-five to seventy-five cents a month.”

As a child growing up in a conservative Christian environment (Southern Baptist), I wasn’t enticed with money like those 19th Century Zulu children. But I was frequently poked (to borrow a FB term) to “make a decision,” and enticed by promises of “sins forgiven,” “a new life” and “the assurance of salvation/eternal life.” I was also coerced to some extent by required daily chapel attendance in high school and college, plus subjected to frighten-you-into-heaven apocalyptic movies, like The Burning Hell and The Hellstrom Chronicle.

Despite what some of you likely are thinking after reading Part 1, 2, and now 3, I do believe in the transformative, life changing experience of salvation or “being saved,” but just not in the overly prescribed (often by self-righteous, duplicitous fundamentalist-type Christians/preachers), supernatural, and exclusionary manner that many do (“only through Jesus” . . . although, this is how I initially came to know God).

Like many of you, I became a Christian early on, in the 3rd grade. It likely was a genuine “coming to God” moment, if for no other reason than that I remember it! Praying “the sinner’s prayer,” while seated on my tiled bedroom floor accompanied by my dad, as well as then meeting with our pastor to “confirm” that I understood the essential basics of my decision, prior to being slotted into a Sunday baptismal service.

Several decades later, and a lot of spiritual and wilderness walking since, I don’t look back on my conversion experience as having redeemed, ransomed or reconciled me to God. I view it as the beginning of a more intentional and conscious relationship with God, and one in which through the ensuing years following my initial “decision,” God helped me in a continuous process of reconciling “all things,” including my understanding and acceptance of self, plus a more inclusive perspective of the other, and toward the world.

If an Ultimate Being/Reality, God, exists (as I believe), thought me into being like a parent, and whose affection toward me exceeds even my own biological parents, then it’s inane, if not pathological, to think and live as if your eternal favor (salvation) is contingent upon right beliefs and right actions.

Who of you as parent would consign your own child to a fiery furnace or a forever-ever separation (however you may understand hell) from you, simply because s/he refused to believe this or that, or failed to demonstrate enough contrition? If one says, “But that’s the ‘biblical’ teaching,” then I say one has an unhealthy love and worship of the (literal) Bible, not to mention entirely Western (American) interpretation perspective, which all brings Matthew 23 to mind.

As a parent myself now (so much of who I envision and have experienced God to be derives from a family context), it’s unconscionable to imagine a god, who would create/birth humanity out of love all people, that is, not just Christians – yet then have so much righteous anger and repulsion of sin and sinner that it requires the violent death of a more than man in order to procure the amelioration of God’s wrath.

When it comes to this type appeasement theology, I share affinity with Desmond Tutu and his thoughts on an alleged homophobic God. He told participants at a recent UN meeting in Cape Town, “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place. I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this.”

In the same way, if God is so repulsed by our humanness – which s/he is the author of, btw – that his “righteous anger” needs appeasing by sanctioning his son’s death, then I too refuse to go to such a heaven.

At the risk of being overly simplistic, my theology is more experiential than theoretical when it comes to Jesus’ death on the cross and the purpose and meaning behind it. I see it primarily as evidence of the freedom that humanity has to choose good and bad, and of Jesus’ acceptance of the false accusations and judgement, resulting in his choice to self-identify with struggling and hurting humanity. I do not see in it an essentialism way, whereby my redemption/reconciliation was “purchased.”

Rather, Jesus’ death as seditious insurrectionist is more a model for the world (not for inciting political upheavals, but for identifying with the poor and marginalized), but especially for “Jesus followers” of how we are too suffer alongside those who are hurting, in some ways analogous to how Mandela, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr are models of non-violent response to unconscionable acts of injustice.

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My theology of Jesus’ death on a cross is analogous to my South African mentor’s narrative of the death of his 5-year-old son, David Erik, who incidentally, my fourth-born daughter Erika is named after –

“The day after Christmas, Boxing Day, was a public holiday.  The family decided to go out to ‘Blue Bend,’ Doreen Caldicot’s farm, along the Ingogo River.  The children were playing together.  I was chopping wood and preparing the fire to boil water for tea.  We called the children for the meal.  David was not with them.

The next 7 hours were ‘gethsemane.’  David was nowhere to be found.  I must have run miles, hither and thither, up and down stream, tormented, exhausted, panic-stricken.  Exhausted and dejected, with encroaching darkness, as the sun was setting, my brother-in-law ran up to me and informed me that David’s body had been located at the bottom of a pool, near the picnic site.

As David’s body was being lifted from the water, I recall taking hold of his damp, cold, lifeless body and hugging him to my chest. . . . I felt demented as I carried this treasured child, now cold, limp, and lifeless up to the farmstead.  Everything was in a state of disarray . . . what was – no longer mattered.  High hopes, expectation and promise had evaporated.  The future ceased to be. . . . In the days and nights that followed, the good shepherd may well have been walking with us in the valley of the shadow of death.  What composure there was, was within the texture of nightmare, disbelief, and shock. . . . at the graveside, as the coffin was being lowered into the grave life-long friends quite spontaneously broke into song – ‘Safe in the arms of Jesus, Safe in his gentle breast.’

What peace there was came, but we were hurt and in need of healing, broken and shattered of all self-confidence.  We spent a few days with family, which was the kind of comfort that gave enduring strength.  We found little consolation in romantic and pious platitudes such as ‘God plucks his most beautiful flowers,’ and ‘Take comfort that this was the will of God.’  All we were concerned about as parents was ‘Is it well with David?’

I kept asking myself where the living Lord of the universe could possibly have been when David was drowning.  Then I remembered back on my mother’s death and a passage from Hebrews 4:14, ‘Since, then, we have a great high priest that has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.’

This gave me hope.  I knew then that the One who said, ‘Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the ages’ (Mt 28:20), . . . was none other than the One who in his promise was dying with David as he was drowning.  Jesus was drowning with David in the Ingogo River on December 26, 1962.”

I believe that confession of sin, of guilt, of whatever in life is keeping you and me from becoming the best (for all humanity’s good) and happiest version of ourselves possible, is life changing, but not as a precondition for God to forgive and start loving us again.

Rather, I see confession in a theologian C.H. Dodd type metaphor, as a thoughtful, emotional and potentially transformative act that initiates a seedbed of new opportunity, new life beginning, by helping facilitate inner healing of mind and soul within a safe and nurturing context or people.

In other words, for me, “salvation” is greater part psychological or psychosocial, than it is a once-off, other-worldly and supernatural act that somehow mysteriously transacts forgiveness and eternal access with God.

Part of the reason Christians, in particular, are so exclusive and adamant that “biblical teaching” insists on a ONE-WAY, “Jesus only” route to heaven is that their faith is almost entirely knowledge based – a residual aspect of the Enlightenment, where knowledge trumps experience.

It’s my assumption that most American Christians, especially Protestant-evangelicals, belong to the middle to upper echelons of society, their lives seldom, if ever, intersect with the world’s majority poor, marginalized, and “different peoples,” unless, of course, it’s of a quick and harmless type, such as landscape “leaf blowers” or “tree pruners,” most of whom in Austin, anyway, seem to be Latino, and Spanish-speaking-only.

What is true for many Western/American Christians today, is what was also true when slavery and the era of Jim Crow de facto segregation. As Winthrop Jordan noted, “Slavery could survive only if the Negro were a man set apart; he simply had to be different if slavery was to exist at all.”

In Relating to People of Other Faiths, former Emory University religion professor, and Christian, Thomas Thangaraj, similarly remarked that dichotomous boundaries of “saved” and “lost” are incapable of being maintained once the religious and cultural “different other” become your neighbor and your colleague.

Therefore, sustaining a sense of comfortable, sheltered from the cultural, religious and socio-economic different other, is essential to preserving a dichotomous self and religious identity, where you are the exemplar of truth and the “other” is the caricature of “lost” or “sinful.” Tragically, this also explains why, in my opinion, we are such a spiritually and wisdom impoverished people/nation – because we have isolated ourselves from the choruses of different voices and perspectives, which equally communicate “the manifold wisdom of God.”

That’s probably much more than you wanted to know about my perspective on eternal pie-in-the-sky, salvation, but if you persevered to the end, I’m sure you earned yourself a few heavenly gold stars!

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Insularity of Life and Faith Equates to Insecurity | The Example of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod

Last week, a side-margin story in The New York Times caught my eye.  Perhaps you’re aware of it. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/08/nyregion/lutheran-pastor-explains-role-in-sandy-hook-interfaith-service.html?_r=0.

A Lutheran pastor of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, who lost a parishioner in the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting, was first reprimanded, then forgiven (only after writing a letter of apology).

His wrong doing?  Participating in an interfaith service for victims and their families where Muslims and Baha’is were also represented, and thereby, it was reasoned by Synod leadership, that the pastor, Bob Morris, in effect endorsed the false teaching of those religions, as well as communicated to the LCMS’s 2.3 million members that religious differences are unimportant.

Thank God for another LCMS pastor, David H. Benke, who unlike Morris refused to apologize for participating in a similar post-9/11 interfaith service. He said of the Synod’s demand for Morris to apologize, “I am on the side of giving Christian witness in the public square and not vacating it.  If we don’t show up, who can receive our witness?”

If you read my “concluding thoughts” in Calling A Spade A Spade, you’ll know that I perceive Americans are largely unconscious of how much “power,” and its corollary “control,” are aspects of our cultural heritage, worldview and faith.

I see our propensity to power and control as largely to-be-expected results of a century and a half of global political, economic and military predominance (aka, super power status).

Our “might,” as it were, is in many respects a by-product and development from a much prior historical moment, more than a millennium and a half ago, when in the 4th century, emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the Roman imperial religion.

Overnight almost Christianity went from a status of being a small and persecuted sect within Judaism, to one wedded to and wielding immense political, economic and military power. The entanglement of faith and power were no where more vividly depicted, I’ve read, than on a Roman centurion’s weaponry, where the insignia of the cross was displayed.

The seeds of this faith-political entanglement were exported to the Americas by the first shipload of Puritans on The Mayflower in 1620, and in my opinion, are evident in LCMS’s (and other U.S. conservative denominations, such as Southern Baptist) effort to control what Benke rightly refers to as the “public square” of religious discourse.

Concluding Thoughts:

Growing up I remember a neighbor lady taking me to a movie cinema along with her kids.  The movie didn’t leave an impression on me, but how this lady tried to shield us from the “evils” of secular society, did.  That is – she refused us early entrance to the cinema, so as to prevent us from viewing the movie trailers and advertisements.  I can’t fault her motives and intentions, but I can her reasoning.

One has to wonder how the LCMS censors its ministers when it comes to preaching from the New Testament, and the many sacrosanct life stories of “their Jesus.” After all, there are many scripture passages in which Jesus associates with and alongside the equivalent of a pervasive, even dominant religious and cultural plurality, false teachers, and social and moral pariahs (prostitutes, tax collectors, murderers and criminals).

In my opinion the LCMS’s logic and decision to disengage from the so-called false teachings and corrupting influence of religious diversity, particularly for such a hallowed event as an interfaith prayer service for victims of a massacre, convey at least two realities.

One, the reality of an accustomed life of societal privilege, whereby the LCMS leadership, in particular, and perhaps many of its 2-million members have little or no social and material need, and no compelling circumstances whereby they have to associate with anyone different from themselves.

And secondly, in contrast to what the LCMS are attempting to convey – a uncompromising allegiance to Jesus Christ and his message of eternal life – they are, in effect, communicating its opposite: an insular and insecure faith.  A faith that is so frail and unsure of its own relationship to God, that it requires the separation from and the damnation of billions of people so as to false-assure themselves that they are among “the final elect.”

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Calling a Spade a Spade | Church Mission Trips – More Self-Serving Than Other-Serving

Last week I heard of a local church planning several mission trips to East Africa in 2013.  As a child of missionaries, myself, I’d like to speak to the immense popularity of mission trips among “Christian America,” recognizing and risking that readers might take exception to my perspective.

Mission trip promotional poster

Typical mission trip promotional poster

I acknowledge that this is not a thorough and researched treatise, as it were, on church mission trips. Rather, it’s a short, somewhat atypical perspective, which I hope will provoke at least a modest questioning and rethinking about mission trips.  I do not disparage any and all “good,” which might result from such trips, but I’m unconvinced “the good” outweighs “the bad.”

It seems to me that the underlying, oft-times unconscious purpose of many, if not most church mission trips, especially short-term and itinerant ones, could be typified as: 1) Self-enrichment; 2) Finding self and a life meaning; 3) Growing my church and “the kingdom”; and 4) Holiday-with-a-social-service add-on.  These, in contrast to an altruism of commitment to the well-being of “the different and distant others,” who according to Desmond Tutu, we should consider as “family.”

Jan Nederveen Pieterse, professor of global studies and sociology in the Global and International Studies Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, as well as author of White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture, made two observations about Christian missions, which I agree with.  Although he wrote in the past tense of the 19th and early 20th centuries, regrettably, I believe little has changed today.

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First, missions were (are) engaged in, at least in part, as a rejuvenating cure for the home church’s faltering spiritual and numerical decline.

Secondly, fund-raising for overseas’ mission ventures was (is) dependent upon conveying a “demonized image of the heathen under the devil’s spell, and on the other the romanticized self-image of the missionary in the role of saviour.”

The two stereotypes were (are) interdependent, in that, “The glory as well as the fund-raising of the missions were (are) in direct proportion to the degradation and diabolism of the heathen.”  Btw – I could easily corroborate the continued practice of this second point simply by sharing verbatim from several recent emails in my Inbox.

My postgraduate mentor was insistent in telling students that language is formative in shaping people’s perceptions, attitudes and actions toward people different.  For example, he especially disliked the term “non-Christian,” because it implies a standard of value measurement, in which “Christian” is the absolute or sole source of good and truth, while any and all things and persons “non-Christian” are less-than. Instead, when possible, use an expression like “people of other faiths.”

Me and my South African mentor, John N. Jonsson

Me and my South African mentor, John N. Jonsson

In the same spirit, he warned students not to use “uneducated” in their semester research papers, because that too communicates a less-than-me attitude toward someone different and less economically fortunate.  Rather, in referring to a person(s) who lacks a school education, say something like “s/he lacks formal education,” but don’t ever say “uneducated” because many “uneducated people” of the world are without question some of its most intellectually brightest.

One example is the Khoi and Bushmen of Southern Africa’s Khoisan language compared to the relative simplicity of the English language. An early explorer’s impressions of the Khoisan language, as taken from Lancaster’s Voyages, states, “Their speech is wholly uttered through the throat, and they cluck with their tongues in such sort, that in seven weeks which we remained here in this place, the sharpest wit among us could not learn a word of their language.”

A San family

A San family

Many recipients of “Christian humanitarianism” of the 18th through 21st centuries, experienced “mission” in a less-than self and culture-affirming manner (*the enmeshing of Bible and Christianity with imperialism, colonialism, and present-day globalization is well-known, and succinctly depicted by historian Brian Stanley’s book The Bible and The Flag) .  

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The coupling of so-called “good news” and reigning political and economic power is evident in a well-known statement attributed to Kenya’s independence fighters, the Mau Mau, “Formerly we owned the land and the whites had the Gospel. Then the missionaries came, they taught us to pray and close our eyes, and in the meantime the whites took our land. Now we have the Gospel and they have the land.”  

Despite advocates who argue that “mission” is a neutral term, citing its popular and frequent use in the corporate world of “mission statements,” from my perspective “mission” persists in conveying power, control and militaristic imagery, and communicates the idea that somethings or someones need “saving” or “saving from.”  It’s a tacit admission that “they” and “them” need “us” in order to experience a happy and fulfilled life, find God, and obtain a “get-into-heaven” pass code.

If you question my evidence for the historical and continued militaristic conveyance of “Christian missions,” spend some time researching church and missionary archives such as the Congregationalists’ American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.  You will observe that young boys and girls were organized into local “Mission Crusader” clubs, all with the express purpose of “fighting for Christ and His Kingdom . . . against the Evil one and his Kingdom.”  In the mid-1840s, the analogy of Napoleon’s conquests was utilized as incitement and preparation for overseas missions.

American Board missionary to Syria, Eli Smith, in an address to members of the Society of Inquiry stated, “They forget that the object for which the church is organized, is not so much the maintenance of fortresses already taken and garrisoned, as for universal conquest.”  Later he described foreign missions as a “foreign war.”  Furthermore, each issue of The Missionary Herald (mission magazine) contained sections entitled “Recent Intelligence” and “Foreign Intelligence.”

Although a missionary was supposed to be a spiritual herald of good news and an ambassador of God’s love, his primary vocation, according to the American Board’s own “mission commander,” Rufus Anderson, was as soldier to the cross.  Their order was to “make conquests, and to go on . . . ‘conquering and to conquer’. . . the idea of continued conquest is fundamental in missions to the heathen.” Elsewhere he wrote that the “idea of spiritual conquest is the predominant and characteristic idea of the [mission] enterprise.”

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Concluding thought:

What prompted this blog’s topic, and what disturbs me most about the popularity and fondness of Americans for overseas mission trips, is the absence of much, if any, suggestion or emphasis on reciprocity – i.e., the idea that American Christians need “them” (the religious and cultural “different others” targeted by mission groups) as much as, if not more than they need us.

Church mission trips, from my perspective – with some exceptions, of course – persist in demonstrating and communicating a singular, single stream attitude and perspective: We save them, We help them, We give to them, We pray for them, We teach them, We heal them, et cetera.

As former Columbia University professor, Edward Said, persuasively argued in his book Orientalism, identity is a construction, and as such, it is “bound up with the disposition of power and powerlessness in each society.”  What I have discovered through years of exposure to mission groups is that by and large Christian Americans are seldom conscious of how entwined with their nation’s own Super Power status their faith and worldview is.

It is disappointing that churches are quick to organize, promote and engage in overseas mission trips, yet upon questioning them, one often finds their awareness of and involvement in their very own residential backyards (communities/cities) unknown and unmet. The movie Blind Side depicted this side of Christian America, in that many of Leigh Anne Tuohy’s (Sandra Bullock) rich friends were aghast that she involved her family in the life of a young black man from a poor, crime ridden section of the city.

Meanwhile mission trips and their participants repeatedly convey to the world’s poor and struggling people of Americans’ economic and political power / dominance by spending billions of dollars on airfare, visas, travel inoculations, 3 to 5 star hotel accommodation, food, travel accessories, clothing, and most times a final several days’ “safari” – a great percentage of which monies, could arguably have been spent on direct aid to people and communities in need.

I’m not necessarily advocating eliminating church mission trips.  But I do think, at minimum, they should be re-named for what they are.

Mission trip participants boarding a plane

Mission trip participants boarding a plane

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