Reflection: Nonviolence and Injustice

I do not have the wisdom or experience to say whether or not the belief that non-violence is the best way to bring about change in the face of injustice is right. What I do know is that, when faced with injustice, the best answer for me personally aligns with that of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ghandi. When we follow what appears to be the natural order of things, violence begets violence, accompanied by a continued escalation until there is hurt on all sides and an effort to reconcile seems nearly impossible. When we instead choose to respond to injustice with love, we effectively prevent ourselves from the escalation of the very brokenness and injustice which was perpetuated against us. This does not mean the injustice continues unaddressed.

As Martin Luther King said in his Noble Peace Prize acceptance speech, “…nonviolence is not sterile passivity but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation.” (King) It is a response to injustice, not a submission to it. It asks for us to be reconciled rather than perpetuate our broken principles through which we operate. In the same speech he said, “If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love…” (King) The effectivity of this approach becomes apparent in the story of Stoney, a white boy who grew up in Alabama during the height of the Civil Rights movement.

His family reflected his community. “And this is Alabama in the late fifties, the heart of Dixie, you know, where the Confederacy and all of the glory of the Confederacy was still a part of the way you were brought up.” (Berman 132) He heard Martin Luther King, Jr. labeled a Communist and enemy of the United Sates. He participated in the celebration of Bull Connor (a fantastic example of injustice and the use of violence) as the epitome of the Southern man. He reflected that when he was young, his beliefs were the beliefs of those around him because you believe in them. Then he went to Birmingham and as they turned the corner, he saw the police letting the dogs bite people who were peacefully singing and marching. He had a different reaction from his compatriots: “and I remember sayin’ to them then, “I don’t care if you are a nigger, you deserve better than to be chewed up by a dog.” I don’t think the other two boys that were with me really saw it that way. I think they saw it as an extension of the rightness of Bull Connor…” (Berman 134)

A few years later he experienced real breakthrough when he went to see Martin Luther King, Jr. at the march in Selma. “Then they get to a point, maybe fifty to a hundred yards away from the state troopers, and they knelt down and started to pray…And when I saw them kneel down to pray, I turned to the guy that was with me and said, “Those people aren’t Communists. Communists don’t believe in God! They wouldn’t kneel down and pray if they were Communists.” (Berman 135) It was the peaceful response of the march that lead him to recognize the incongruity between what he believed and what he witnessed. This response to appeal to God in a moment that promised unjust violence did not reflect a Godless people intent on destroying America. When his grandmother told him later that it was a trick, his belief system began to crack and was eventually replaced by something else. I wonder how differently the story might have gone if, rather than marching and praying, they had responded to police brutality with violence. Would the boys heart have been awakened to the injustice he witnessed? Would he continue to operate in the belief system he’d been given? Would he have gotten involved in the violence?

Martin Luther King also said in his speech that receiving the award, “…is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time, the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence.” (King) Nonviolence is not an easy answer, or a quick one. Someday we may learn that it isn’t the best one. But as far as my experience goes, it is the one that holds the most promise for reconciliation in our present and our future.

Works Cited

Berman, Philip. The Search for Meaning. New York: Bellantine Books, 1990. .pdf..

King, Jr., Martin Luther. Noble Prize Acceptance Speech. Oslo: Noble.org, 1964. video.

A Reflection on Suffering

Stephen Mitchell sees surrender rather than submission in Job after he has endured his trials by the Accuser as well as the confrontation with the Unnameable; “Surrender…means the wholehearted giving-up of oneself. It is both the ultimate generosity and the ultimate poverty, because in it the giver becomes the gift.” (Mitchell xxvii) This is the kind of man Mitchell sees when he reads Job’s words at the end, “I have spoken the of the unspeakable and tried to grasp the infinite. Listen and I will speak; I will question you: please, instruct me. I have heard you with my ears; but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.” (Mitchell 88) Mitchell identifies in this a great humility rather than self-abasement.

Meanwhile Victor Frankl writes of his personal trial, which echoes Job’s, in the concentration camps. Frankl writes, ‘Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.’ These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost.” (Frankl) To Frankl it is not an act of surrender but rather an act of heroism, maintaining a spiritual freedom and independence of mind even in the most dire of circumstances. The possibility that one might not only withstand such suffering but to do so and still retain their compassion and dignity would seem impossible to believe, if in fact it had not been witnessed.

Mitchell writes of the dialogue between Job and God, that “In order to approach god, Job has to let go of all ideas about God: he must put a cloud of unknowing…between himself and God, of have the Voice do this for him.” (Mitchell xix) For Mitchell, this embrace of the unknowing is the critical connection for Job to approach God, yet for Frankl I see love as the very thing which he believes tethers us to the divine; that gives us a glimpse of our salvation. He writes, “A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets…The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.” (Frankl)

It is this extraordinary gift of love that allows us to bear the unthinkable and endure the unimaginable in a such a way that dignity can be retained. As the world presses its brokenness in on us we can choose to answer with a love that was defined by Mitchell earlier, as a giver of a gift that is our very selves. “We who lived, in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” (Frankl) This, too, we see in Job through Mitchell’s perspective. Confronted with the reality of God and the great suffering he has endured, Job chooses to change his attitude from a lament that he was ever born into praise for an awesome God whose very character is beyond fully knowing for us.

Works Cited

Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Washington Square Press, 1963. Electronic Excerpt.

Mitchell, Stephen. The Book of Job. United States: Harper Collins Publishers, 1987.

Being Beings and Discovering Mystery

John Shea’s essay, “Exceeding Darkness and Undeserved Light,” outline four different environments that we all share, best understood as “the basic contours of our existence.” (Shea 2) The environments are made up of the self, loved ones, society and institutions, and universe. Our experience as humans may appear to be summed up by our interactions with these four, but there is a fifth environment which encompasses these: Mystery. Our basic experience can be understood in having two points: ourselves and the environment we encounter (for instance, I (1) eat bread (2)).  When this interaction reveals a dimension of Mystery, we experience sacramental awareness (the addition of the third point). In the instance of eating bread, I might understand it to be not only bread but my personal participation in the account of Christ who gave his followers bread and told them it was his body, broken for them.

There are five primary ways Shea outlines as a means of becoming aware of the ultimate dimension of our experience as humans. First is contingency, “what Kazantzakis calls the luminous interval between two darknesses.” (Shea 13) Sometimes it looks like the gift of living fully and joyfully in the moment, amazed by the very experience of it all. At other times, it can be a reminder of how very fragile and finite out lives on this planet are. The second path is dialogue and communion. Through dialogue people discover who they are and in communion they discover a love and acceptance gifted to them by their community. The third path is collapse. “When order crumbles, Mystery rises.” (Shea 16) This is the falling apart of the beliefs or knowledge we clung to and our reaction to that loss. “A fourth path to Mystery leads through a deepened sense of the ambiguity of our moral activity.” (Shea) While we strive for moral ideals, we most often find ourselves falling substantially short.  Last is disenchantment. Well known throughout history, it refers to an awakening which ultimately calls us into a maturing religious consciousness.

When we read Pigeon Feathers, by John Updike, we see a boys journey to sacramental awareness. The main character, David, experiences these environments in such a way that he becomes disenchanted, one of the five paths mentioned by Shea. David has an encounter with Reverend Dobson over heaven when he didn’t answer David satisfactorily.  “His indignation at being betrayed, at seeing Christianity betrayed, had hardened him. The straight dirt road reflected his hardness.” (Updike 36) He searched and searched for truth, but he was lost in the darkness that can fall when one realizes there is a question but no answer. He saw his classmates and their ill-fated path towards imminent death and eventually lost his desire to read altogether. Although concerned, his parents resolved to give him a gun for his fifteenth birthday. We can see the “universe environment” and it’s influence on David as he practiced shooting, which put fear into his dog who he would sometimes comfort. “Giving this comfort to a degree returned comfort to him.” (Updike 43) Ultimately, David is asked to use his new skills to clear out the pigeons in the barn. Although he didn’t have a desire to, he did as he was asked. As he killed more and more pigeons, he enjoyed it more, feeling the power he held with his gun and his ability to predict the pigeons path. Yet it was when he went to bury them that Mystery entered into his world: “He had never seen a bird this close before. The feathers were more wonderful than dog’s hair… a pattern that flowed without error across the bird’s body. He lost himself in the geometrical tides…And across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers….no two alike… designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him.” (Updike 50) He was startled by the intention behind them and the fact that they were treated like pests. In this encounter, he rediscovered his God, “….that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.” (Updike 50)

References

Shea, John. “Exceeding Darkness and Undeserved Light.” Stories of God. Liguori, Missouri: Liguori Publications, 2006.

Updike, John. “Pigeon Feathers.” Olinger Stories. New York: Vintage Books, 1964. Short Story.

 

 

What a Day

As I was working today, out of nowhere, the thought crossed my mind, “Ask for prayer from Colin _________.” So weird. I worked on the same team as him for a few months maybe 5 years ago and ran into him once at church. I’m not even friends with him on facebook or linkedin. But I felt pushed to act so after an internal debate, I sent him a message that said:

Hey Colin, I don’t know if you remember me but we worked together at ___________ and you gave me some pointers about God (thanks again, btw)? Well, I was just sitting here working and felt super prompted to ask you for prayer. I don’t know WHAT I’m supposed to ask you to pray for but… it’s a really strong push so I’m just going to put this out there. I hope all is going well for you. Thank you, Kara

He ended up replying to me, thanking me for being obedient. He asked for us to talk on the phone (because he felt God prompt him to pray for me over the phone). When I saw his message I sent him my availability and number. Then, as I was making brussel sprouts later (because yum) the thought passed through my mind, “Give them your tickets.” And I was like, NOPE. See, I had these two tickets to see Mumford & Sons and I was super excited because I couldn’t get tickets to see them when they came through a couple years ago. Unfortunately, my friend backed out of going to see them because she decided to go to Germany so I’d been trying to find someone to go with. On Sunday I had even prayed about finding someone to go to Mumford. But then this… I kind of tried to pitch the idea to God of selling them instead, if God didn’t want me to go,  but that didn’t sit well. The more I tried to find a way out of it, the more certain I was that I was supposed to offer them to him. Maybe he’d say no? Maybe it was about obedience, not sacrifice?

So he calls and I ask if he likes Mumford and he’s kind of indifferent but says he’ll check with his wife. We chat a little and he prays prophetically for me. During the prayer, he says that all kinds of doors are going to open for me, with business and (this word slipped my mind, but I sensed community or a growing togetherness). He said that I’d know what to do because God would shine a light on those things; that God would make my path clear to me. He thanked God for hope, and said that I was entering a new phase; a time of thankfulness and that there was great power when I give thanks to God. He said that God enjoys watching me (I sensed delight), that I’m like a little bird soaring into the sky, flapping my wings, soaring and tweeting. Then he saw freedom from my past, gave thanks to God for healing from the past and it’s redemption through God.

I thanked him. I told him I actually had a tattoo of a bird soaring into the sky, wings spread, which I got over a year ago when I kept seeing the image in my head. He suggested that God was affirming that vision. I also said that I was getting ready to speak on grace and I would be talking about ex’s and my past. I hadn’t realized until his prayer that I needed the encouragement and comfort of these words. Then we ended the conversation after I thanked him for what felt like a dozen times.

I heard from him a little later that his wife likes Mumford and if they could arrange a babysitter they’d love the tickets. Later tonight, he confirmed they were good and I sent him the tickets. As hard as it was, I am thankful that God would use me to bless a couple with a nice night out. I want to remember that it’s more about generosity and obedience than sacrifice. Anyways, that’s it. Just felt like I should record this somewhere.

Discovering the Feminine in the Triune God

Martin Luther once asked, “Of what help is it to you that God is God, if he is not God to you?” (Migliore 232) At the heart of this and most other theological questions sits these two: ‘Who am I to God?’ and ‘Who is God to me?’ Many of us are compelled by these thoughts to seek within and outside of ourselves for answers that provide clarity and vision for our life and future. In Genesis 1:27 (NAB) it says, “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.” (Bible 19) Both sexes were created by God in God’s image and yet the female is rarely represented in the triune God when we look within the walls of the church. Mary Daly once said, “if God is male, then the male is God,” (Johnson 99) and while our behavior as an overall faith community reflects this, we need to ask ourselves if this is truth. Women of faith are asked to find themselves in the Bible through the women in it’s narrative, yet men are not only dominantly represented within the stories recorded in the Bible, they see themselves reflected in the very persons of our Triune God. This pneumalogical paper will explore how history shaped our understanding of who the holy Spirit is, identify several key characteristics for who the Bible says the holy Spirit is and reveal how women who were systemically excluded from representation within the Godhead can come to recognize themselves within the holy Spirit.

The importance of the Holy Spirit cannot be overstated. Jesus himself emphasized the tremendous value that such a Helper would have to humanity in John 14:26 (NAB): “The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name-he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” (Bible 1610) Although Jesus asserted the value of the Holy Spirit, it’s uncontrollable nature made it a challenge to the hierarchy the church eventually formed itself into: often the Spirit was treated more as a problem to solve or a question to answer than an opportunity for deeper relationship with God. In fact, the holy Spirit wasn’t always understood as a person. “It was the Cappadocian Fathers in the fifth century who fortified the notion of the Holy Spirit as a person. Basil the Great became known as the ‘theologian of the Holy Spirit,’ thanks mostly to a desire to establish the tri-unity of God against attempts at tritheism…” (Clouzet 15) There ought to be a point of clarification around the term person, particularly as we consider the individualistic lens through which Western civilization operates. The personhood of the Spirit does not negate the truth of God as one. “…both mimetic theory and modern psychology teach us is that the “person” is not autonomous — we are in fact interdividuals rather than individuals… non-consciously interconnected far more than we consciously realize. And so, if we are going to even attempt to label the Trinity as three “persons,” we need to acknowledge that the person is a person only because s/he is in relationship with an ‘other.’” (Distefano) Thus, as the Church sought to understand the Godhead, or the triune God, it necessitates that it is not as individual persons but as persons in relation to one another.

This is, in part, the very thing which challenged the inclusion of the person of the Holy Spirit into the Godhead. One major contention was the origin of the Spirit. In fact, the controversy over its origin lead to a division in the Church that is considered by many to be the greatest disagreement in the Church’s history: “…the Eastern Church discovered the now famous filioque clause in 1014. To the Nicene Creed had been added the word filioque-Latin for ‘and the Son’-now stating that the Holy Spirit proceeded ‘from the Father and the Son.’…leading to the permanent rift between the Eastern and Western Church: the Great Schism of 1054.” (Clouzet 16)

While the holy Spirit was eventually understood by many, through doctrine, as both a person and component of the triune God, the very nature of the Spirit ran against the grain of the rising influence of rationalism. Industrialization further hindered our ability to embrace the unknown that is the Spirit. The world was usually understood to be more like a machine than a wonder, ruled entirely by laws and able to be understood through cause and effect. This left little room for the Spirit to operate in through the 18th and 19th century. “Protestant scholasticism with its ‘rechte Lehre’ (correct doctrine), produced ‘a more mechanical view of the role of Scriptures,’ and ‘as a result the witness of the Spirit tended to be bypassed.’ The Word alone, without the Spirit, was regarded as the basis for authority.” (Clouzet 16-17) Those who did focus on the doctrine of the Spirit tended to focus on the work rather than the nature of the holy Spirit’s person.

Regardless, there has been what some might term a revival. “Nowadays, it will not do to speak about the Holy Spirit as the theos agraptos- the God about whom no one writes-as did Gregory of Nazianzus in the fourth century.” (Clouzet 11) As this revival has occurred though, many tend to focus on what the holy Spirit can do for us rather than who the holy Spirit is to us. The danger of this approach is perceiving the Spirit less as a person who is the triune God and a bearer of wisdom and truth and more as a genie who grants wishes if we ask the right way. Furthermore, “…the doctrine of the Spirit became the concern of individual and corporate praxis, or experience, rather than dogma, or theology.” (Clouzet 17)

Although the nature of the Spirit may seem elusive in the Bible due to the biblical focus on its works, that does not mean we are incapable of discerning its nature through what is given to us. It is as Paul writes in Romans 14:4 (NAB) “For whatever was written previously was written for our instruction, that by endurance and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” (Bible 1709) We can be assured of three things regarding the Spirit: first, that it is understood to be part of the Godhead. A few examples of how we know this include 2 Corinthians 13:13 (NAB) which frames them together: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the holy Spirit be with all of you.” (Bible 1765) I Peter 1:2 (NAB) also blesses through the triune God, “…in the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctification by the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling with the blood of Jesus Christ: may grace and peace be yours in abundance.” (Bible 1903)

Second, that the holy Spirit is equal to the Father and the Son, not a lesser component. Jesus makes this known at the Last Supper, recorded in John 14:15-17 (NAB): “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept…But you will know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you.” (Bible 1610) Jesus referred to parakletos, (often translated as the Advocate or the Helper) as another parakletos. This means that Jesus, already acting as an advocate for us, would ask the Father to send another like him to us in his absence. He promises not to leave them as orphans. “Just a few minutes earlier Christ had referred to Himself and His Father as equals (vv. 9,10). If the Comforter is equal-or parallel-to the Son, and the Son is equal-or one-with the Father, the Comforter, or Holy Spirit, is equal with the Father.” (Clouzet 20)

Lastly, we know that the holy Spirit is in possession of attributes unique to God. I Corinthians 2:10-11 (NAB) speaks to the intimate relationship and knowledge shared between the Father and the Spirit: “…this God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God. Among human beings, who knows what pertains to a person except the spirit of the person that is within? Similarly, no one knows what pertains to God except the Spirit of God.” (Bible 1721) The Spirit is not merely a messenger sent by God but one that scrutinizes the depths of God and all God’s creation.

What, though, do we know about God when it comes to gender? It is a popular framing, particularly within modern churches built on the foundations of an androcentric patriarchy spanning back millennia, to understand the relationship of the Godhead as primarily that of the Father, the Son and the Spirit (the Spirit being an it or a he). God as a Father serves as the primary means of understanding Elohim or Adonai (or any of the other various other names for God) in churches, most notably because Jesus referred to Elohim as a Father so often (hardly a surprise if one is trying to establish one’s divine origin). The ascribing of exclusive gender to Elohim based upon the words used by Christ rather than the entirety of the Bible is outside the scope of this paper but worth noting, as it indicates a bias towards the masculine. Additionally, I recognize that Jesus was certainly born a man. However, the assertion of the Spirit as a neutral person (it) or a male (he) is highly questionable.

This masculine assumption does not accurately depict the historical language of the books in the Bible and therefore creates the opportunity for a fundamental misunderstanding of God’s nature: it associates power with an entirely masculine God rather than a Godhead whose power manifests in both the feminine and the masculine. This is a problem not only because it is inaccurate, but it leads to a flawed living-out of the gospel. Rosemary Radford Ruether once wrote, “Whatever denies, diminishes or distorts the full humanity of women is appraised as non-redemptive;…what does promote the full humanity of women is of the Holy, it does reflect true relation to the divine, the authentic message of redemption and the mission of redemptive community.” (Johnson 94) Feminist theology isn’t about displacing or minimizing the value of men or the role they play; men are also created in the image of God and the masculine images used to depict the Godhead are accurate and invaluable for providing insight into the character of God. However, equally important is restoring women to the role that that Elohim, Jesus and the holy Spirit called women into. It works to reveal the places where we lack alignment as a Christ-center community with the will of God. “Sallie McFague summarizes the feminist critique of patriarchy and its legitimating theology by contending that the heart of our most pressing issues today is the misuse of power…exploitation of the natural environment, or of political, economic, racial, cultural, and gender oppressions…the fundamental problem is ‘the question of power; who wields it and what sort it is… Is power always domination?’” (Migliore 68)

This leaves many wondering if the feminine can be found within the Godhead. In most modern translations, the holy Spirit is predominantly referenced in either masculine or neutral terms. But why? When we look back into the grammar of the early languages used, we can see an implied relationship between the rise of the church patriarchy and the disappearance of the feminine holy Spirit. “Although the New Testament was written in Greek, Christianity was born in a Semitic milieu and Jesus himself will have spoken Aramaic (of which Syriac is a dialect).” (Brock) This means that the New Testament was not written in the spoken language of Christ but translated from Aramaic (also the language common to many of the early communities) to Greek. “…when these communities spoke of the Holy Spirit they naturally used the standard Aramaic word for ‘spirit’, ruha (also ‘wind’ as pneuma), which, like Hebrew ruah, is grammatically feminine.” (Brock)

A pronoun in the Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac languages are necessarily either feminine or masculine, and thus, up until around 400 AD, it was always treated as feminine grammatically. However, in Greek translations a word like pneuma becomes, through its translation, neuter (still not masculine). “From the early fifth century onwards…in defiance of the grammatical rules of the language, they treated the word ruha as masculine whenever it referred to the Holy Spirit.” (Brock) This mattered, because early on it was understood that something truly revolutionary was being taught by God: “an ancient, unassailable truth with new clarity: God loves women and passionately desires their flourishing. When violence is done to women, to their bodies or their spirits, it is an insult to the divine glory.” (Johnson 96) Yet this idea was subversive to all dominant cultures at the time. Some hypothesize that shift from feminine to masculine is the influence of the Greek language but others, particularly considering the Greek translation is still not masculine, hypothesize that it is the disapproval of the Spirit as feminine that causes the shift.  By the 6th century, that practice becomes normalized although occasional outliers can be found in poems or liturgical texts.

A major indicator that these changes were made based on the issues around gender roles is found in the Peshitta, a revision of the Syriac New Testament made in the early fifth century. “Rather surprisingly there are only two places in the Gospels where the revisers who produced the Peshitta chose to alter the feminine of the Old Syriac to the masculine; it so happens that both are passages where the Holy Spirit ‘teaches’ (Luke 12.12 and John 14.26).” (Brock) The fact that the feminine was maintained in other parts of the text speaks to their belief that the gender of the holy Spirit was originally only an issue in spaces when the holy Spirit served in a role that was culturally only acceptable for men; She could no longer be a she.

This same shift is visible in the treatment of Logos and mellta and compels us to push beyond the assumption that the gender change was only due to the role the holy Spirit was serving. If the femininity of the holy Spirit were not an issue for the Church what reason would it have had to alter the texts that serve as the foundation and support for their faith? The collective community would be unlikely to systemically shift the holy Spirit from feminine to masculine unless the femininity was considered a problem and/or the shift to masculinity was an opportunity.

“In Syriac Logos, ‘Word’, is translated by another feminine noun, mellta. Accordingly in the Prologue of the Gospel of John the Old Syriac treats Mellta, the Logos, as feminine, and this usage is reflected, not only in the fourth-century writer Ephrem (which is to be expected); but also very occasionally in texts of the fifth, or even later centuries, even though in the Peshitta revision the gender had already been altered to masculine.” (Brock)

When we contrast this change to words we find in verses like Galatians 3:28 (NAB), where an equal, mutual love is held up as the goal, we can see an incongruity begin to reveal itself. The early Church was a body of people who were all one in Christ Jesus, who saw themselves equal in their relationship to the Godhead.   “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Bible 1776) Yet this aspired-to state has a relatively short-lived existence over the lifetime of the Church. “…despite the irreplaceable participation of women in the founding and spreading of the church, women were marginalized once the community became somewhat established…Banned from the pulpit and altar, their wisdom has not been permitted to interpret the word of the gospel nor their spirituality to lead the church assembled in prayer.” (Johnson 91-92)

Rather than maintaining the roles originally given to them, a shift began in the male body of the church on their view of woman. Thinkers of the time began to focus on the female body as a gateway to the enemy rather than a person made in the image of God. Instead of operating as ‘one in Christ,’ women were reframed as temptresses of men and came to represent the reason that men fell from favor with God. “In the third century Tertullian viewed women as a second Eve…and because of their sin the Son of God had to die. Augustine, while affirming that woman is equal to men in her spiritual capacity, taught that in view of her body and social role, ‘she is not the image of God,’ but can be considered so only when taken together with man who is her head.” (Johnson 92) While Augustine could see the image of God in man alone, the feminine was only redeemable through her relationship with the masculine. Thus, man was independent while woman became interdependent: her access to the divine could only be found through the opposite sex, thereby becoming the secondary, less desirable gender not only in church but in society; ironically, this suppression of women was propelled by the very faith that once lifted women beyond the stature of chattel to equal standing with men in relationship with Christ.

To understand the true obstacles faced by Jesus in transforming the world, consider the account in Luke 13:12-16 (NAB) of Jesus healing a woman on the Sabbath: note the response that religious men in power have for a woman crippled for 18 years and the way that Christ responds not only to her, but to that man:

When Jesus saw her, he called to her and said, “Woman, you are set free of your infirmity.” He laid his hands on her, and she at once stood up straight and glorified God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant that Jesus had cured on the sabbath, said to the crowd in reply, “There are six days when work should be done. Come on those days to be cured, not on the sabbath day.” The Lord said to him in reply, “Hypocrites! Does not each one of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger and lead it out for watering? This daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen years now, ought she not to have been set free on the sabbath day from this bondage?”

The man in power showed no compassion for the woman, nor did he celebrate the miracle that was her healing. Instead, he focused on the violation of the Law. Jesus points out the man’s hypocrisy and elevates the status of the woman. Unlike the religious man who saw her as a broken Law, Jesus described her as a daughter of Abraham: Jesus’ treatment of her wasn’t because of her actions as an individual but rather because of her general identity as a woman of God’s chosen people. Indeed, the men Jesus addressed had greater compassion for a thirsty ox or ass than they did for a woman crippled for nearly two decades. Jesus asks, “…ought she not to have been set free on the Sabbath day from this bondage?” Jesus takes issue with her bondage and desires freedom, something that honors God more than honoring the Sabbath. There is a tremendous lack of alignment in values between the men and Jesus, particularly regarding the value of women.

Diving into biblical accounts like these and recognizing what they reveal about the society in which Jesus walked, demonstrates how necessary discernment is in recognizing what is of man and what is of God. This discernment given to us by the holy Spirit, who not only scrutinizes everything but also reveals truth to us, can lead us down a path of deep relationship and greater reconciliation between each other and God. This is critical; in fact, the Kingdom of God is not even available to us if the Spirit isn’t with us. It says in John 2:5-8 (NAB)

Jesus answered, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I told you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (Bible 1588)

This kind of relationship with the holy Spirit can sound weird, but the ramifications are profound. Cath Livesey is a leader within what she calls a prophetic church, which means (in its simplest terms) that they listen to God for each other. Prophecy in this context is understood as something given by the Holy Spirit that points towards Christ. While most churches like hers understand the holy Spirit as a he or an it, the notable difference of a church operating in relationship with the Spirit is a shift of power. The Church is not threatened by their inability to control the Spirit but celebrate operating in its fullness; the gender of the follower being moved by the Spirit is of no consequence. “…prophecy is about hearing God for other people. When we look at the Bible we see that prophecy involves the process by which the thoughts and intentions of God are communicated to his people via a human vessel. It origins are… divine revelation.” (Livesey 35) They see the power given by the Spirit as the primary means by which they can bring freedom and transformation to the church and the community, not as means for domination. This is certainly progress, but it still does not take us to a place where the feminine is inherently recognized in the Godhead. Do communities like this demonstrate that the gender of God doesn’t matter if you operate in the Spirit?

“While language reflects our world, it also shapes the way we construct our experience of the world. As hallowed by tradition and currently used, all-male images of God are hierarchal images rooted in the unequal relation between women and men, and they function to maintain this arrangement…Instead of evoking the reality of God, they block it.” (Johnson 96) We still aren’t knowing God as fully as we could because we limit how God can be understood. And while language and power are neither good nor evil the way those two things are applied and used by humans can be alter our trajectory greatly. When we look at how power is used by what is a vastly androcentric world, we discover a systemic marginalization of women:

While women make up one-half of the world’s population, they work three-fourths of the world’s work hours, receive one tenth of the world’s salary, own one one-hundredth of the planet’s land, and constitute two-thirds of the worlds illiterate adults. Together with their dependent children, they comprise 75 percent of the worlds starving people and 80 percent of homeless refugees… they are also raped, prostituted, trafficked, and murdered by men to a degree that is not mutual. (Johnson 91)

This same imbalance of power exists within many religious organizations. Within the Catholic Church, only men can serve as priests, and only men have authority over many of the rites Catholics understand as being critical to their entry into the kingdom of God.  “Exercising public authority in the church, men assume the right to speak of God; their own privileged position then served as the chief model for the divine. As a result, verbal depictions of God in liturgy, preaching, and catechesis, along with visual representations in art, have forged a strong link in the popular mind between divinity and maleness.” (Johnson 98) Human history teaches us that when one group holds all the power, it effectively subjugates or oppresses those that are not of that group (examples include apartheid, ethnic minorities in Europe during WWII, the current crisis in Syria, etc.). While some might consider such comparisons to be dramatic, the point is to emphasize the disparity of power and the inevitable lack of freedom it creates. In effect, the patriarchy becomes a barrier to people better knowing God.

In summary, what the current Church perspective creates is a decision point for women. The first option is to receive relationship with God only through male bodies; that they are her intercessor, her priest, her path to Elohim, Jesus and the holy Spirit. The second is that, “As Carol Christ astutely observed, a woman may see herself as created in the image of God only by abstracting herself from her concrete bodiliness. But she can never experience that which is freely available to every man and boy in her culture of having her full sexual identity affirmed as being in the image and likeness of God.” (Johnson 99) The risk of these two options is that our community continues moving forward with God as a male icon, resulting in a failure to reconcile relationships between women and God, women and men, and God and men. The Church also continues to limit the triune God: “…it reduces the living God to an idol. Exclusively male language leads us to forget the incomprehensibility of holy mystery and instead reduces the living God to the fantasy of an infinitely ruling man.” (Johnson 98) By embracing the holy Spirit in her feminine identity as she was spoken of by Jesus, by remembering that she is equal to the persons who form the Godhead and by walking in the truth that not only does she possesses the attributes of God but that women are made in her image, we gain a richer and deeper answer for the questions we seek as individuals as well as a fulfillment to our calling as the Church. For the Church, “…to call for justice in the world the church must itself first be just. If church structure is in service of mission, then without just internal structures the church’s mission in the world will not be credible.” (Hines 167) Ultimately the femininity of the Spirit expands who God is to us, who we are to God and who we are to one another, thereby transforming the Church.

Works Cited

Bible. Saint Mary’s Press College Study Bible. Winona, MN: Christian Brothers Publications, 2006. Book.

Brock, Sebastian. “The Holy Spirit as Feminine in Early Syriac Literature.” Ed. Soskice, Janet Martin. After Eve. Collins Marshall Pickering, 1990. http://www.womenpriests.org/theology/brock.asp. Electronic.

Clouzet, Ron E. M. “The Personhood of the Holy Spirit and Why It Matters.” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society (2006): 11-32. Electronic.

Distefano, Matthew. “The Holy Spirit is not a Male, Conservative Evangelical.” 25 April 2016. Patheos. Blog. 25 April 2017.

Hines, Mary E. “Community for Liberation.” LaCugna, Catherine Mowry. Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective. United States of America: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1993. 161-184. Book.

Johnson, Elizabeth A. Quest for a Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God. United States of America: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2014. Book.

Livesey, Cath. My Sheep Have Ears: Exploring Prophecy with Discipleship and Mission. United Kingdom: 3DM Publishing, 2015. Book.

Migliore, Daniel L. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014. Print.

 

Criticizing Justice Seekers

When I look at the landscape of the United States right now, the number of times I see patterns of well-intentioned people criticizing others seeking recognition and justice can, at times, overwhelm me. Often within church circles I’m around, you hear an emphasis put on personal sin, with the belief that repenting from it will transform our lives and thus the systems around us (if they even include systems in their discussion). In schools, we are often taught that those that fight for recognition and justice (of minorities) are threats, deviants, mentally ill, etc. In the public sphere, the growing tension between Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter and All Lives Matter creates a telling dialogue around what we value and why we value it. Central to each of these issues and many more is power: who has power, doesn’t have power, and who deserves power.

Let us consider the various social circles I’ve been exposed to within religious organizations. There is a tremendous emphasis put on personal sin and the power of God to transform lives if we repent. This belief is well-intentioned and not even something I disagree with, but it is incomplete; there must also be an acknowledgement of sin against others, of a disparity in very real resources, of discrimination in the distribution of goods and services or even the long-term effects of the systemic ways we degrade people of certain races or genders. As one person explained, “Look, if you’re white, heroin addiction is a disease that people want to treat, to HEAL. But if you’re black? Drug addiction is justification for incarceration or an excuse for why you can get shot by the police.” People in these circles often criticize those who speak out and fight for change within our systems, explaining that “all” people must take responsibility for their personal sin, that it was their choice to break the law. Again, none of this is untrue, it’s just incomplete. We cannot stop there, insisting that they must face judgment for their sin while we accept cheap grace. We have a responsibility to ask how we, as a society, have sinned against them and take responsibility for reconciliation.

Within schools, we can also see patterns where people seeking recognition and justice are not only criticized, but misrepresented. Consider, for instance, Andrew Jackson. In high school history books, accolades are spoken of him and the work he did in building the nation into what it is today. Unless you do your own research, you are unlikely to be taught that Jackson’s success was built on the systemic dehumanization, oppression and slaughter of native people across the country. Yet when we study the Turner Rebellion, it is often mentioned that Turner was potentially schizophrenic, mentally ill, etc. He is rarely shown as a man of faith who lived as a slave and possessed a righteous anger at the suffering and bondage pressed upon slaves from every side. Emphasis is put on the fact that Nat and his rebellion killed men, women and children but often neglect to mention that the state militia executed those involved as well as people with slight connections, reimbursing their masters afterwards for the loss of their property. The white response across the South of murdering black people without cause (to such an extent that numbers aren’t known) is also usually absent from the teaching. This is just one example of how we disparage one who fights for justice while lifting-up someone driven by power and wealth.

The last example I’ll discuss is that of the evolution of the “Lives Matter” movements. “Black Lives Matter,” came first and at its root, was a cry of a people who feel that they exist in a society that tells them through words, treatment, and resourcing that their lives don’t matter. Thus, the statement “Black Lives Matter,” was a means of affirming that a black life has value, that it does indeed matter. This is also a way of building power through solidarity with one another; alone it is easy to be cut down. Together, but asserting that one another’s life matters, there is a collective building of worth and power. A response by predominantly white people came through the phrases “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter.” This response is, I believe, an example of people who are most often well-intention but also deeply biased. I believe that, for the most part, they recognize that they do not value the black life the same as the lives of white people or police and furthermore, believe that if they MUST value those lives, it comes at a cost to blue lives or white lives. Herein lies the fundamental flaw of those who believe value is a finite resource: valuing the lives of other people does not change the worth of your own life. It’s saying, “As I possess human dignity and worth, so should others who currently do not.” When we consider the power that lies in the police, the statement that black lives matter doesn’t negate the life of police, it cries out for the black life to be valued by the blue. In other words, “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” view the lifting up of black lives as a zero-sum game: where each race or demographic’s gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of another race or demographic. “Black Lives Matter” views the value of humanity as many people view love: just as our capacity to love others grows and expands without loss of love in one’s self, we can value more and more people as we value ourselves without loss. This sentiment is echoed in the words of Jesus himself, when he says in Mark 12:31, “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

The three examples I’ve provided are just a few places where I see the manifestation of the patterns of criticism towards people seeking recognition and justice. While not all-inclusive, I believe these examples highlight how deeply rooted and systemic the issue is: life and liberty are valued far less in this country than maintaining power, and this truth is found within the heart of what we say and implement in our political, economic and social structures. Just as in the time of slavery, while the elite are a small number, they are mighty, and they are also effective in sculpting the culture and beliefs of larger white America so they feel that they have more in common with the elite than they do those that have been silently and systemically disenfranchised. Thus, the non-elite, white majority continue to voluntarily give over more of their freedoms and wealth to those in power while believing it is those with the least amount of power who are stripping them of it, all with the best of intentions.

What is Theology and its Purpose (A Pre-Assignment)

Webster defines theology through the following description: “the study of religious faith, practice and experience; especially: the study of God and of God’s relation to the world… a theological theory or system…. a distinctive body of theological opinion.”[1] Theology is often perceived as the lofty language of the religious who possess plenty of knowledge but lack wisdom in its application. That they spend so much time studying God and what faith, practice and experience look like that they fail to actually have faith or practice their beliefs; that they miss out on the experience God has to offer those who seek Him. It raises the question, is this really theology and if so, what purpose does it serve? As we begin to ask ourselves why we study generally, and specifically God, we can begin to understand the reason for theology.

Many people have very different motivations for studying, but the root of the work to gain knowledge is often change. Perhaps we are studying to change our career, or to move up at our job, or to better understand the systems in place and how they influence our lives. Maybe we study the past so we can better understand the future. Ultimately, we find a very close relationship between studying and a desire to move beyond the place we are. While there are many reasons why one might seek knowledge regarding God, most often they are motivated by a desire for something different.

If we did not study God, as it is phrased, if we did not dive deeply into the words of the Bible as well as the history of God’s people we could quite easily lack the understanding to correctly apply the teachings we find. Consider that Jesus, the foundation of the New Testament, was well versed in the word of God through the Jewish people’s sacred documents. Even the Son of God sought to have a thorough understanding of those books and often made them the foundation upon which he built his teachings. Contrast this to an example of poorly formed theology, such as Christians who used the Bible as justification for the enslavement and abuse of Africans brought by force to America and its profoundly heart-breaking impact. By selecting the verses that were meant to encourage the enslaved and ignoring verses that called for followers of God (both Old Testament and New) to care for the foreigner, the widow, the orphan, and to work against poverty, they formed a theology that elevated them rather than one that was seeking God.

Thus, the purpose theology should serve is as a means of preventing ourselves from forming our faith around truths we’ve created that serve ourselves rather than God. By learning about God and putting those teachings and the context of them first, we can transform our lives from ones defined by moral convenience to lives lived according to the values and principles that God provided to us. It can be challenging not to become lost in the seeking and easy to forget the application but a well-formed theology should always be something that a person walks in, speaks to and demonstrates. As it is defined, it is not just the study of God but of God’s relation to the world. The way God views and interacts with the world ought to guide us on the ways in which we do.

[1] Marriam-Webster. n.d. Definition of Theology. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/theology.