Here's a thought experiment: I'm sure you know churches that host soup kitchens, or groups of Christians who serve food through hunger ministries. Am I right?
Now, let me ask: do you know churches who simply get together and then go eat at soup kitchens?
The difference between serving a free meal, or gathering with all those who need a free meal in order to eat with them, is navigated according to the parameters of "respectability."
I'm going to leave "respectability" in scare quotes throughout this post, because I want to treat the word in Derridean fashion...
... the demands of "respectability" diminish Christian witness. There is a general middle class captivity of the church in North America that keeps the faith trapped in a prison of its own design.
The concept of "respectability" is a function of class. And since the majority of middle class Christians rarely ponder class, it's not surprising that "respectability" is simply assumed in Christian faith communities rather than examined and critiqued.
Let me offer a few examples.
One form of respectability polices language. There are things that can be said, and things that ought remain unsaid. According to "respectable" Christianity, Christians aren't supposed to swear, and discourse in Christian community is supposed to be moderate, careful, nice.
Ask a pastor how often they are in a room in which people are swearing, and when it is made known that they are a pastor, the whole room apologizes and the language "improves."
Yet some of the most powerful Christian speech in our world emerges from artists and other leaders who refuse to conform to middle class respectability, and so their art, their music, their speech is typically excluded the category "Christian", because the demand for "respectability" in liturgy and preaching supersedes other demands like truthfulness, or justice, or beauty.
Try to imagine worship music that is truly authentic, that emerges from the voice of the people, rather than from the simulacrum of middle class-ness (which humorously my auto-spellcheck wants to correct to middle crassness). It would sound like language bubbling up from the people. It would not be evaluated by committee. It would discomfit.
Some creatives are attempting such worship, like a recent Beyoncé Mass.
Finding God at a Beyoncé Mass - YouTube
But of course a Beyoncé Mass only pushes out from middle class respectability in a couple of directions. But once you realize that middle class respectability is a cage with really wide bars, you can step out of it in many directions.
For example, who ever made up the idea that you had to dress up for church? It's certainly not biblical. As far as we can tell, whenever Jesus worshipped, he wore the same cloak he always wore (which was probably soiled and smelly), and entered the sanctuary barefoot.
Faith communities that demand by their homogeneity a certain way of dress, a certain type of car to park in the parking lot, or whether to drive a car at all, all of these throw off certain values of "respectability."
But "respectability" extends far beyond dress code and speech patterns. It's also about the content of speech, the form of life, the values that are assumed as dominant. What kinds of topics are off limits in your community? Who is excluded when such topics are excluded?
Pay attention to "respectability," and bring it into relationship with Scripture. You see immediately how heretical "respectability" is as a replacement for the moral vision of Scripture. The Bible cares little at all about whether you live in a single-family dwelling, drive the right car, or drop scatological terms into your conversation.
Want examples of non-"respectability" in Scripture? They are legion.
Remember those Israelite spies who go into Jericho and stay with Rahab the prostitute?
Or consider Rahab's great-grandson David. Remember that story in the Bible, when Saul needed to go into a cave to take a dump, and David was hiding in the cave? So he sneaks up to Saul while is indisposed, and cuts off a corner of his cloak, then presents the corner of the robe later to Saul to show that he had refused to kill him.
I could go on, and tell the stories of the prophets. Ezekiel laid on his left side for 390 days. Isaiah wandered around naked. Hosea married a prostitute.
And then let's not even get started with Jesus, who seems at every opportunity to undermine the "respectability" of religion, even the respectability of God. The Son of God always and consistently gravitates to the least "respectable" person, typically touching or being touched by them.
I'm reminded of that song in the opening of Joyce's Ulysses (a book that itself respectably undermined the "respectability" of "literature"):
I'm the queerest young fellow that ever you heardMy mother's a Jew, my father's a bird.With Joseph the Joiner I cannot agreeSo here's to disciples and Calvary.If anyone thinks that I amn't divineHe'll get no free drinks when I'm making the wineBut have to drink water and wish it were plainThat I make when the wine becomes water again.Goodbye, now, goodbye! Write down all that I saidAnd tell Tom, Dick, and Harry I rose from the dead.What's bred in the bone cannot fail me to flyAnd Olivet's breezy... Goodbye, now, goodbye!Only the freedom of non-"respectability" allows a truth-teller to play fast and loose with traditional norms, and just so step out of the prison established by the controls of "respectability." It is only beyond "respectability" that the rich find themselves proximate with the poor, addicts feel comfortable in church pews, failures preach from the pulpit, and the dirty find their way to the font.
And not to be made "respectable," mind you. No, if the heresy of "respectability" is to be undermined completely, we need to remember the waters of baptism were already dirty to begin with, and God is in the muck.
[Originally published in the Lutheran Forum in 2007. Can't believe I've been working this beat for over a decade and we're now where we are... but we are where we are. I'd probably write this differently if I were writing it today (less academic, less 'Lutheran-y', but I've decided to re-post it given the tenor of our national conversation on immigration.]
Bearing the name of Christ through baptism creates a new community that transcends traditional boundaries, especially nationalist ones. The modern nation state has done a superb job of convincing peoples the world over that citizenship is definitive of personhood. Witness the fact that the New York Times can run an article on “stateless” peoples, children born in foreign nations to undocumented immigrants who therefore have no true citizenship, nor can reliably ever expect to have such, short of the miracle of being processed by the international United Nations refugee assistance program. In the kingdom on the left, citizenship is everything, passports and identity cards are the mark of the state, and promise most of the protections and provisions of that state.
Exploding the myth of nationality as constitutive of personal identity is one of the goals of this essay. Stated otherwise, the goal of this essay is to proclaim the Christian myth of baptism as creation of a new self in Christ. Christians proclaim, and are reminded of especially in a post-Christendom context, that it is our baptism that makes us who we are, the body of Christ. Maxwell Johnson writes, “Baptism places into the world a community of displaced people, people on a pilgrimage who really belong nowhere except where they are led, a people sure of their identity as the Body of Christ, as those who always walk wet in the baptismal waters of their origin” (Rites, 365-366). It is patently the case that Christians have not boldly lived out this baptismal identity. In common conversation and usage, we state our nationality before we state our baptismal status. We are only secondarily baptized Christians, and it is the first definition (national) that most often claims our priorities and commitments and rules our imagination.
The point needs to be made clearly and strongly. So: national boundaries forcibly divide what is indivisible according to Christian theology, namely the body of Christ. The baptized on both sides of the border of any nation state should have as their primary allegiance, and have as their new border, the body of Christ into which they have been baptized. It is quite clear that much of the violence in the world, a violence that non-violent Christian community can neither condone nor be complicit in, results from the maintenance of these borders, which are the very force of death. William Cavanaugh writes, “The ancient martyrs often asserted the kingship of Christ in refusing to offer worship or service to the emperors and their gods. The church was, by its nature as Christ’s crucified and resurrected body, a challenge to the violence and idolatry of the secular authorities… the conflict is between Christ’s body on earth and the powers of the world which refuse to recognize Christ’s victory over it. Christians see acts of injustice and state violence as the continuing struggle between the people of God and the forces of death.”
A pilgrim people, “sure of their identity as the body of Christ,” would not by and large be concerned about such things as “porous borders.” Secured on the rock of baptism, drowned into the one foundation of Jesus Christ as Lord, they would live on the way because they follow and are “the Way”. As the obvious counter-example, most modern nation states are concerned about overly porous borders. They define persons by place of birth, by nationality, and so attempt to circumscribe personhood by reference to nation. This is their power over persons- trying to tell us who we are. Permeable borders therefore by definition weaken the state because they commingle persons the state wishes to define and exclude (or retain), and so challenge the nation’s defining power over persons. Although some nation states continue attempts to re-assert their power (defining persons as alien, illegal) and often do so through legitimate means (nationalizing, granting citizenship), nevertheless, a border either in reality or by citizenal definition, remains.
The Christian community, by contrast, because it’s life springs from the waters of baptism, calls the world to live as it does, with complete fluidity as we suffer and undergo God’s permeability. A fundamental doctrine of the church, ecumenically (and universally?) recognized, is that of “one baptism” (Ephesians). Although individual congregations may provide orientation or educational opportunities for new members who come from other communions, by definition a baptized person is a member of Christ’s church and so all congregations; most churches recognize one anothers’ baptisms, and it is baptism in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that defines that person as new creation in Christ. As fundamental to Paul’s gospel logic as “one baptism” is his “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians).
Can the world, and institutions within it, actually live into this pilgrim one-ness? Traditional Lutheran theology, for example, found it necessary to make a distinction between two kingdoms, the kingdom on the left and on the right. This distinction was helpful in a Christendom context where it was necessary to have a theory of governmental rule (left) differentiated in some ways from a theory of God’s rule (right). It further helped because it allowed for a differentiation between values guiding the self and theories of just governmental rule. But the imagination intrinsic to such a distinction was guided primarily by a realpolitikrather than the sacramental imagination intrinsic to the life of the community of Christ. Two kingdoms is certainly true in a descriptive sense; it is my intention to call into question two kingdoms in its prescriptive forms. We all live mostly as if there were two kingdoms (although it could be argued that we mostly live as if there were only one kingdom, the kingdom on the left; Niebuhr was quite right to label much of our life together practical atheism). God’s kingdom as a reality in the world, a new creation already eschatologically accomplished prior to the end because Jesus as already come among us, is seldom embodied among us.
Take this obvious example: Can a baptized Christian fight in a war against another nation and kill another baptized Christian? Two kingdoms theology provided a place for such, taking into account certain “just war” considerations. But “pilgrim people” theology imagines an alternative, that these two soldiers, though of different nationalities, are still “one in Christ”, and just so thatis the primary claim on their lives, and their lifetaking. To kill a brother or sister in Christ is to maim and divide the one body, an action fundamentally opposed to the ethic of the gospel.
Just so most national defense is not a Christian ethic, but a pagan one, and the Christian witness, the life of the baptized, is one of permeable and hospitable borders. It is in fact even more radical than that. It imagines one body in many places, and therefore hospitality and lack of defensiveness precisely in order to receive and live into that one body. In this sense, stringent national defense strategies and anti-immigration policies amount to the same thing. Both lack the imagination intrinsic to a baptismal spirituality, which sees a nation or kingdom being formed in each and every place because the baptized live in these places.
“Baptizenship” therefore recites the creed, not the pledge, and has as its symbol of unity a table rather than the flag. Christians, maybe especially in the United States, have been far too complicit in allowing (even maintaining) an idolatrous pledge and Asherah-like flag as central symbols of faith and comfort. Which of these two concepts primarily informs the average U.S. Christians’ ethics--patriotism or table fellowship? Although some might pay lip service to the latter over the former, in point of fact, table fellowship loses each time, because we have not advocated loudly for any and all of the baptized, of whatever place, to be welcome at our tables. How would they get to our tables? If they are languishing in a refugee camp, has our ethic of table fellowship led us to advocate for their quick processing and granting of refugee status? If they are undocumented immigrants, do they know our tables are safe and welcoming, or are they at risk of Christians being patriotically complicit in a system that would have us sending fellow baptized Christians through the penal system back to their “homeland.” Do the emotions that rise up around these issues give lie to our commitments? Obviously they do.
What I am calling for first of all is for us to simply imagine the possibility that baptism actually means something now, in the present, existentially, socially, bodily. Let’s at least imaginethat God’s Word is the source and norm of our life together, the first and the last word, the primary word, and that all other words (say systems of government, pagan practices of sovereignty, claims on personal identity, etc.) take second place to this first normative word. To play with the two kingdoms terminology, they are the kingdom that is “left” after the “right”-full kingdom has been lived and imagined in the way of its King. And this imagination has first claim on those of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus, have been baptized into his death, are dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6).
Then, as a pilgrim people, we might suffer at the hands of nation states or people groups who do not confess the same creed. We would suffer from living our baptism. At least then we would be suffering for the sake of the gospel, rather than forcing other Christians to suffer for the sake of our commitments to the flag, the nation, and the ethic of this world. The great tragedy in all of this is that we have become so comfortable with being powerful that we simply cannot imagine that Christ when he says, “Whoever is persecuted in my name [or for righteousness’ sake],” actually means what he says. And what he first means is that we will need to stop calling for others to suffer so we can maintain our own comfort and security. Seriously, in this era, does the nation-state need the church’s (our) patriotic mis-guided protections? Isn’t the Christian witness, “go and be martyrion,” much more at risk?
“The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, quoted in Marilynne Robinson’s The Death of Adam, page 113).
Although the Christian community’s imagination is first of all informed by its standing as God’s baptized people, the church has generally understood that the implications of this acceptance (gift) of God are for all people, not just those already included. The danger in our presentation now is that baptism could surreptitiously function as the new border, a kind-of sacramental we/they dichotomizer. Returning to the pointed ethical question: Can a baptized Christian kill a non-Christian in war? Or as regards immigrants and refugees: Should non-Christian immigrants and refugees receive different treatment at the hands of Christians than the baptized? Does the theology of baptism imply that Christians only have concern for others who are baptized, or is their something intrinsic to baptism that propels itself out and away?
The joint ministry of the Lutheran denominations, as well as the ministry of Catholic Relief Service, Jewish Relief Service, and other refugee services, answers this question in their actual practice. They help relocated refugees of any and all religious traditions. They do not discriminate. They do this because they agree with Bonhoeffer that “the church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of the ordering of any society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.” So, we might say that baptism as a sacrament is gospel precisely in its openness. Not only does it include all those baptized and therefore transcend things that might otherwise divide; it also refuses to divide based on its own internal logic. It embraces those not yet baptized and cares for them. It is a missiological sacrament, the practice of those sent out to all nations (Matthew 28). Since it is the practice and public sign of the sent pilgrim people, it transforms now how the church relates to those to whom they are sent precisely because of what is implicit in it as sacrament.
Baptism furthermore does not function as a new “border” or we/they dichotomizer because the baptized are already de-centered by the “I AM” who names them. As a de-centered “we”, the baptized no longer make distinctions between us and them in the way the world might. Instead, the church lives by what we might term a “realizing eschatology.” A realizing eschatology is coming to the realization that the end has already come in Christ, and so those who are coming to realize this enjoy a kind of freedom vis-à-vis this realization. James Alison tells a wonderful parable that describes his realizing eschatology better than any rational argument:
Please go back in your memory to 1989. Now please imagine that you are in Albania. November comes along, and through the ether comes news that many miles to the north, in Berlin, the wall has come down. You know exactly what this means: it means that it’s all over, the beast which ran your lives is mortally wounded, has lost its transcendence, is dead. It’s all over bar the shouting It may take some time for the thrashing about of the beast in its death throes to calm down. It may take some time for the effects of that to trickle down through Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, but fundamentally it’s over. You and some friends begin quietly to dance and celebrate in Albania. The very fact that you are dancing and celebrating is itself not only a sign that the beast has lost its transcendence, but is something which is, itself, helping the loss of transcendence, because you can have a party in its face. Something has been undone, somewhere else, and this means that you don’t need to undo it yourself, the rejoicing in its being already done is part of what universalizes the undoing so that you do find yourself participating in the undoing, but as a recipient who is spreading the effect.. Some people, of course, do not accept that the coming down of the wall means that the beast is dead. They want to say: no, that’s a temporary blip, and we’re in charge here. So they turn up grunting and shouting and bullying to try and make it look as though nothing has changed. But it has, and even they are losing faith in the old order. Part of the celebration may be learning to help the apparatchiks of the old order discover themselves a place in the new one Giving them a soft landing: something the old order, built on revenge and triumph over enemies, couldn’t possibly understand. While they’re around, of course, your celebration will look like, and be made to look like, dancing in the face of the evidence. And that is what True Worship implies: the beginning of the celebration of a new regime even while the old regime hasn’t yet grasped the news of its own fall (Undergoing God, Continuum 2006, 40-41)
Certainly Jesus was one who was dancing in the face of the evidence. Inasmuch as the church has lived like Christ and with Christ, it has danced this way also. This is to say that because baptism is what it is, death and resurrection into the life of Christ, it brings with it the whole burden and blessing of Christlikeness—suffering and witnessing for the “others”, precisely because in Christ there is no longer other, but only neighbors who are already eschatologically “we.” And this non-othered ordering and neighborliness includes even those who wish to maintain the old order.
So far this essay has contained enough radical assertions to keep the close reader busy with questions and critiques for some time. I have purposely asserted the issues in as direct and pointed a way as possible, precisely to bring the issue to life in our imaginations. I am aware that much needs to follow in the way of appropriation and reflection (although I also wonder if most further work I would do on the issue might seek to tame the beast). One way forward is to enter into conversation with an alternative “real” eschatology, informed by a more traditional law/gospel distinction.
Exemplary theologian Gerharde Forde is one who maintains that there is an end before the end (a “real” as compared to Alison’s “realizing” eschatology), and on the basis of law/gospel distinctions proclaims a paradoxical already/not yet. He writes, “Precisely because faith sees that Christ alone is the end of the law, that law correlates with sin and death and cannot be removed by our theologies, law is established this side of the eschaton” (The Preached God, 219); or later similarly, “…there is no cure other than a more radical proclamation of Christ as the end of the law who because he is the end establishes the law prior to the end” (224).
Many of the documents and ministries of the current church assume some form of this understanding of the law and its continuation. For example, a Lutheran joint statement on immigration reform reads: “We recognize and affirm the responsibility of the government to regulate immigration in a godly manner while considering the many factors that deserve careful attention.” This is a clear and concise articulation of the two kingdoms doctrine, at least in its traditional formulation.
As another example, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a Lutheran organization involved in ongoing work resettling refugees in the United States and advocating for refugees and immigrants, has worked out a clear and helpful policy statement on comprehensive immigration reform. They write:
LIRS and its member organizations believe that “In difficult and threatening times, churches and all Christians have an obligation to stand with the word of God against those who use fear to deny fundamental human rights and dignity to the stranger in our midst.”LIRS continues to advocate for reform of our broken immigration system, working with our partners, who include immigrant, business, labor, faith-based and human rights groups. To meet the needs of migrants and of our communities, meaningful reform must be based on the following four principles:
· Uniting families
· Protecting human rights and worker rights
· Ending the marginalization of the undocumented, making it possible for them to live openly in our society
· Giving immigrants willing to contribute to our economy and society a path toward permanence.”
While recognizing that the system is broken, LIRS works within and through the current legal system, calling for reform of the laws themselves. They “recognize and affirm the responsibility to regulate immigration in a godly manner,” and then clarify their understanding of the “godly manner” through four principles.
All of these are worthy commitments. I notice, however, that the four principles are informed by concepts of “rights,” “family values,” “non-marginalization,” and “contribution.” These are important concepts in our political landscape, and they have considerable traction. What is missing (probably not unusual for a public document from LIRS or any other non-profit of its kind) is the language of baptism and sacrament in the radical sense articulated in the first portion of this essay.
Nevertheless, the baptismal imagination does seem to inform further comments in the document regarding differing House and Senate Comprehensive Immigration Reform legislation. LIRS opposes legislation that criminalizes undocumented workers. It especially opposes legislation that criminalizes ministry with undocumented migrants. Their recommendations are especially geared towards providing a path to permanence, avoiding long-term or unjust detention, and protecting the least and the vulnerable- unaccompanied minors, asylum seekers, torture survivors, and fractured families. Here I am reminded once again of Bonhoeffer’s confession: “The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.”
The public statement of Bishop Stephen Bouman, Metropolitan New York Synod, is another example that, although not naming baptism directly, certainly radicalizes the issue in relation to Scriptural mandates: “God calls us to welcome, protect, and love everyone in our midst. Our love for the stranger must transcend national boundaries, race, language, culture, and religion.” Bouman proclaims this in relation to immigration abuses in our nation, especially out-of-control detention of undocumented immigrants, many of whom are children or young women with families. No mention is made of baptism per se- instead, in this..
Try this thought experiment with me: in our culture, what are incentives to the admission of culpability, failure, weakness, mistakes? From where I sit, it seems very few benefits accrue to those who apologize or make such admissions, and there are many disincentives. Admitting failure, apologizing for anything, is risky business. Admit a mistake, and people will pile on you.
You've seen this happen, I'm sure. No wonder its a rare occurrence to actually admit guilt or fault.
If you are in a position of leadership with an organization and you consult your lawyers, they'll probably strongly recommend you make no such admissions in writing or otherwise, lest you make yourself vulnerable to a lawsuit.
I assume this is why, in addition to the actual personality issues (pride, vanity, stubbornness), many leaders in our nation (including those at the very top) follow a simple doctrine: Never apologize.
But there's a big problem with this doctrine. Never apologizing means never changing, never growing, and rarely getting better. It's like that line in Thor: Ragnarok when Thor tricks Loki at his own tricks. He says, "You'll always be the god of mischief, but you could be so much more."
Repentance doesn't guarantee growth, but it is a practice that illustrates maturity and the potential for growth.
This brings me to Shanna Germain. Shanna is an amazingly creative writer. She makes games and stories with Monte Cook Games, plus novels and a lot more. I started following her on social media a few years ago when I got into role-playing in the Cypher System, the gaming system published by Monte Cook. I love following her on social media because she is so wise (and added bonus, she wrote a whole role-playing game with dinosaurs).
Shanna recently posted this, which I share with her permission:
I am sitting with my imperfections today. My failures and flaws. It makes me feel bruised, this self-reflection--and tender. It's always a hard space, but it's a space from which I hope to rise, better and smarter for doing the time and the work...
One hard thing about getting older is that my failures and flaws are not the simple mistakes they once were. Now they are more complex and ingrained, harder to unweave and understand. Leveling up is complex work.
There's so much truth in this short post, I feel like I need to break it down and exegete it, like Scripture. Maybe because I'm in middle age, probably around the same age as Shanna, this post felt especially close, poignant. I've been sitting with my own imperfections a lot lately, not always knowing what to do with them.
I fail all the time. Sometimes I fail because I'm leading with my strengths, and I get confused in the application. Sometimes I'm just stubbornly clinging to my flaws. They are so complex and ingrained, almost hard-wired into my operating system, I hardly know how to re-write them... I even wonder if I can.
And my failures sometimes have a much larger impact than when I was younger. As a pastor, my failures impact my congregation. As a voice in our community, or here in these social media spaces, my flaws get magnified in so many ways.
Shanna compares this work to "leveling up," which is language familiar especially to gamers. Gain enough experience, you level up. With each level, you gain extra skills, abilities, powers. Players in a game at higher levels often have to keep track of how their various new skills interact. You might gain a skill at level 4 and forget about it for a while, only remembering at level 10 that you even had the other ability in your skill set.
In middle age, it seems we're all in over our heads, literally. We don't even know what we don't know. The systems in which we are embedded are complex, and part of their complexity is actually created by our own complexity.
If we're leading really, really well, we're actually creating these challenges, because we're creating in ways that lead out into uncharted waters. Heck, really great creatives don't just lead us into uncharted waters... they actually CREATE the water.
In the midst of all this complexity, all these failures and flaws, it is the peculiar Christian notion (call it a doctrine if you'd like) that you can always apologize.
You can always apologize, because there is always grace. You can always repent, because new life shows up on the other side. Such sitting with our failures and flaws is the beginning of the Christian life, it is the center of the Christian life, and it is always available. It's a better way, even if it is the path less taken.
Imagine if our national leaders were encouraged by our culture, and by their own leveling up, to recognize mistakes, admit their failures and flaws, repent, and turn in new directions. Watching our leaders not to do, failing to do it over and over, is maddening, and also sad and pathetic. They look stuck, trapped. I've noticed the same pattern in myself at times. I don't like it.
I mean, it's not just that individual leaders in our nation follow the doctrine of never apologize. It's actually American Doctrine never to admit we made any mistakes. It's ingrained in us from a very early age. Just go back and read the history textbook you were assigned in school.
One of the more remarkable parts of Scripture is how different it is from other works of "history." In some ways, the entire Hebrew Scripture is a record of Israel's failures, and God's faithfulness. Similarly, the New Testament is a story of Christ's epic failure, and God's raising him up. And Paul's letters are all about his own weakness, and God's strength in spite of Paul's failures.
I don't know about you, but I don't want to find myself at 71 years old so immature that I can't say sorry, so rigid I can't change, so righteous I have no need of God's. So with Shanna I'm sitting with my imperfections in this blog, and I'm finding such sitting then gets me up off my seat with a life I'd otherwise be afraid to live.