… Jesus of the East …

When I was in Bible College in Regina (long ago) a couple of my friends told me about original sin. I probably hadn’t heard about this until then, but I didn’t quite buy it. We debated it in the dorm laundry room now and then. They had more background than I did, but I could not agree that we humans are fundamentally depraved and that our default is towards evil, from which we have to be redeemed. I’ve always thought that our default is towards good, and that despite mountains of horror and depravity in human history, it’s because we are basically good that our reaction has always been and continues to be … that we can barely stand to look upon the evil we see. 

When Orlando (Assoc Director of MCC Alberta) returned from an MCC trip to Ethiopia a few years ago, he talked about the Eastern Orthodox church, its long history in Ethiopia (since the 4thcentury) and the belief systems they represent. There are 220 million baptized members in the Eastern Orthodox church of whom more than half live in Russia, and about 36 million in Ethiopia. (98% of the Ethiopians say religion is very important to them, and only 15% of the Russians say this.) Apparently the Eastern Orthodox think differently about some parts of the Jesus story than we do in the Western Christian world. Western Christianity has largely adopted a belief in original sin (from St Augustine) and in a transactional atonement in which a hard-to-please God needed to be appeased by the shedding of blood. There had to be an exchange. We’ve centered the Jesus story around the death and resurrection and the individual salvation narrative. I grew up around that thinking bu now, later in life am realizing that not everyone has quite that understanding. A whole part of the Christian world in fact, doesn’t.  

Does it matter?  Maybe not. God is God and we really know very little for sure about God, but I’ve often thought that the New Testament is deliberately inconsistent in its notes about these things. In Matthew 19 salvation is about selling what we have and giving to the poor. Jesus, in Matthew 25 says what’s required is that we feed the hungry and clothe the naked. In John 3 we are to be born again, and in Acts it’s simply about believing. I wonder if the Eastern Orthodox allow a bit more place for the mystery of how God really is?  We westerners have liked to contain God. We define him and then we preach that God never changes.     

In his book, Jesus of the East (reviewed in the Canadian Mennonite August 17)  Phuc Luu writes that western Christianity has become nationalistic, oppresses the poor and teaches that God is an angry avenger.  Since the time of Constantine (Roman Emperor 306 to 337), Luu writes, the western church has also had a cozy relationship with governments which, as a result, reshaped Christian theology into a tool for those in power. We don’t have to look far to see plenty of evidence of what happens, today, in 2020, when the church cashes in its soul for the temptation of power and political gain. Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world, but in many churches we’ve insisted on it anyway, largely disregarding how Jesus lived and instead making an idolatry out of belief systems that serve our odd and unfortunate need for power.  

Luu says part of the problem is that we westerners have turned our Christian faith into something private and spiritual so that ethics and social concerns, so clearly a major part of Jesus’ teaching and of all his interactions, are considered to be less relevant to our faith. As if the spiritual and the beliefs can be somehow separated from the mundane and the ordinary.  The responsibility of Christians in the Eastern understanding, says book review, is to restore the image of God in themselves, the first part of which might be to acknowledge that it’s already there. An image, a God DNA in each of us. And how we are to live with each other is more the God story than how we turn it into a transactional story of our own, individual salvation.   The Eastern church, says Luu, would commonly reference the story of the prodigal son to show what Jesus believed and who he really is.  

I believe in the power of the crucifixion and the resurrection and all the mystery around those events … but I’m also certain that what attracts anyone to Jesus is how he lived and what he said. The parables, his visit with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, the lepers and the blind and the lame whom he healed, his in-the-tree connection with Zachaeus the tax collector, his acknowledging the woman who touched his garment hoping to be healed, intervening for the one caught in adultery whom they wanted to stone, the children who just wanted to be near him … . 

So now I’m a little curious; maybe the Eastern Orthodox church does a better job of letting Jesus be Jesus, of checking the temptations of power, and of acknowledging the goodness of the God/Jesus image already inside each of us.  

… the space between us …

Our parents had 11 kids to feed and clothe and somehow keep safe, which means that there was actually quite a lot of space between us and them. No, we weren’t neglected. They were completely committed to raising us well, keeping us healthy and providing all possible growing-up guidance, but there was just a lot to do and so we tended to find our own way, usually with one or another of our siblings nearby with parental interventions now and then when it had become urgent. 

An on-line sermon yesterday morning was about the conversation between Jesus and some of his followers – Matthew 16 – just after he fed 4000 people with what appeared to be a few leftovers. Seven pieces of bread and some fish.  Kind of a big deal, but the preacher said it seemed as if the people didn’t really notice what was happening. They were hungry and they ate.  So, a bit later, Jesus asks his followers who the people think he is. Several names of prophets of earlier times are mentioned – Jeremiah, Elijah, also John the Baptist – so Jesus brings the question a bit closer and asks who they, themselves, think that he is.  Only one of them, Peter, responds and boldly declares that Jesus is the Messiah; we don’t really know what the others said, nor what they thought.  

The pastor yesterday was making an interesting point about God’s interest in us. I’m sort of used to thinking that God’s primary interest in us is correctional, a little grudging, and that because God knows everything anyway, well, the relational part of our ‘relationship’ with God isn’t really of much personal interest to him.  But the pastor thought something else was happening here. He said that Jesus’ questions came from a genuine interest God has in who we are and in what we think. It wasn’t just a rhetorical little q and a there between Jesus and the disciples, nor was it a test of whether they had read their scriptures or to see if they had been listening to Jesus at all. God doesn’t hammer us with ‘truths’ to subscribe to until we get them exactly right.  God, said the pastor, actually wants to know us, and he allows space around us where there is room for confusion and curiosity. The place of grace, Paul briefly names early in Romans 5.  And that really is kind of a big deal and a bit new to me.  God, the speaker said, is fascinated and curious with us, and leaves room for whatever it is we are in fact, thinking. It’s the power, said the preacher, of ‘the space between us’.  An undefined, imprecise space, where faith germinates and grows, not because of how exactly we believe and articulate anything, but because it’s where there is room for curiosity, for searching, for mystery. 

We may and we do crowd each other, we humans do.  But as I grow older, I think more and more that God never intends to crowd us. God is fine with our faith journeys, our lame insecurities and doubt-filled guessings at truth and love and understanding. He allows us plenty of space and plenty of grace.  

It’s easy to do, and pretty common among us fixers and missionary types (most of us), but whenever we crowd that space too much in our own relationships with partners, children, grandchildren, colleagues, fellow people of faith or those of other beliefs …  with our answers and ‘how-tos’ and interpretations and prescriptions … that’s also when we are sometimes least helpful to each other.  When we are interested and sincerely curious about each other and we allow that ‘space between us’ to become richer, less predictable, less compressed, and more open to surprizes, I’m pretty sure life becomes kinder to all of us.  

… family, friends and neighbours …

A few days ago I read a note from a missionary now working here in Canada. She wrote about a person with whom she’s in touch and asked for prayer that this person would let her into her life. It’s a pretty common assumption among missionaries and evangelicals raised with the conviction that we must try to get into the lives of other people to be helpful, to share a message with them, to ‘witness’ about the kingdom of God. I’ve heard that line many times but this time, reading it, I wondered if something was missing. Should there be a reciprocal wish for the other person to enter into the life of the missionaryCspOpJSISEOVIk2KQaEhwg

Is a mutual entering ‘into each other’s lives’ assumed without saying it? I’m sure it happens quite often, but there is also a temptation among us to think of ministry as normally and appropriately a one-way intervention.  Us …  helping … saving them. But is the work of the Holy Spirit ever just a one-way presence? Is the genius of the Holy Spirit’s work not really always our mutual salvation? Are we not always affected and healed and redeemed and transformed best … in some kind of actual relationship with each other?  Where two or three are gathered? Love your neighbor as yourself?

Back in the mid 90s MCC Bolivia had 6 workers in a large region about 600 km from Santa Cruz. We had been there since about 1988 and were cooperating with the Methodists and some community organizations in various water, agricultural and health projects. But our projects were quite small, and we began to hear complaints from a group of leaders to the point, eventually, where they demanded that MCC leave.  It was a difficult time for the 6 workers and for MCC. Eventually the workers were reassigned and MCC did leave the region, but during many confusing meetings we tried to understand what the real issues were. At one point, they requested in writing that for every north American worker MCC placed among them, they would send one of their people to N America for a similar period of work and learning. A kind of exchange. At the time we thought the idea was absurd and unacceptable, especially since it was to happen at MCC expense. We dismissed it as simply an obstructionist tactic. But looking back … why not?  …  we were privileged to live and work among them! Was it any less legitimate for them to want to enter into our world on some kind of equal terms? Why not indeed?

A couple of Sundays ago, I heard a sermon about how some of us evangelicals were brought up to always be thinking of spreading the Gospel. As teenagers and young adults we were routinely told in tent meetings, radio broadcasts and church services that the message of salvation as we understood it needed to be spoken and shared. It was urgent …  to be shared with anyone and everyone … and if we didn’t, then somehow God would not be able to save those people and it would be our fault. It’s a pessimistic kind of theology which makes God – who we also say created hundreds of infinitely complex universes, only one of which is ours – to be quite small and oddly dependent. I think God chooses to be dependent on us, and there are verses in the Bible, said the pastor, that do exhort us to believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths … the story of our salvation. I’m not disagreeing with that, but that confessing part kind of haunted us. It did me at least. It was not acceptable to be quiet about this message. It had to be spoken and sung, we were told.  I sometimes had the impression that it was even ok, to annoy people with our messaging. That meant it was working, for some strange reason.  The thing is … there was nothing annoying about how Jesus lived nor about how he spoke – unless you were a wealthy, Hebrew religious leader or a Roman soldier.  People wanted to be near him. They felt good around him. They were attracted to his message and to him as a person.  So would it not be assumed that our messaging would be consistent with the Way Christ was among us?  Something like him, at least?

I’ve sometimes thought that some of the things we heard as we became teenagers and young adults were a bit over the top.  They built into us a kind of permanent guilt about never doing enough. Even today, some sermons are pretty much about that: we should do more; it sits there, embedded in our subconscious, stalking us in our moments of happiness, making sure that even in such moments we won’t be too joyful, because, you know … we should do more.  And so we become a little addicted to flogging ourselves. If a pastor simply and exuberantly preaches grace and forgiveness and joy in living … he or she isn’t quite delivering the goods as they are meant to be understood.  We feel more blessed when we feel badly walking out of church. On top of all that, there is that assumption that the message is ours to interpret and deliver, with little need to let those other people share their understandings back with us.  That’s a lot of ownership! What if we Christ followers had understood some things a bit differently, with the basic assumption that the Holy Spirit really is everywhere present, and that Jesus’ ‘I am the way’ is spoken into all cultures and we could all learn at least a little from each other about that?

But the pastor speaking to us wasn’t disparaging nor even critical in his assessments.  Not like I might have been. I’ve sometimes thought some of those early and today evangelists need to be gathered into a hall and confronted by the thousands and millions of people whose lives they mess up when they make our God into a very small, punitive, ever vigilant, rarely happy, never smiling and hardly ever approving God.   But the pastor didn’t say any of that. He was quite gentle and generous with it all.  What he did say though was that, in fact, most church growth anywhere has not come from evangelists nor missionaries. It has come, he said, from family, friends, and neighbors being family, friends, and neighbors to each other.  This pastor, not so long out of his own years in seminary was making the point that really, it was and is in all those normal places and vocations and relationships … that there is any real encountering and knowing of the kingdom of God.  Where two or three are gathered …   vf%bWmzAT0GkXO29U8dGzA

I kept thinking that he would finally tell us just to be quiet. That’s where he seemed to be headed. Like God to Job. Just live our lives and the Word, the person of Christ, will come among us and become known.  He didn’t do that either but I found myself wondering, as he spoke … if we of fervent belief and evangelical commitment would not do better with a bit more of being quiet, of just living with our families, friends, and neighbors, of sharing our resources, doing that one thing Jesus and Paul were very clear for us to do: loving our neighbors … and letting the Holy Spirit do what the Spirit does.  And what if in our global, cross-cultural mission and outreach work, we would do the same … working and living as if we were with family, friends, and neighbors.  Intervening less, speaking a bit less, and maybe learning and struggling together a bit more.  The Holy Spirit will always be there, long before we were.


…the truth is rarely in the details …

The people Jesus had the most trouble with were the hair splitters. Religious leaders who kept wanting to trip him up with one detail or another, usually with the intent of establishing and underlining their understandings and belief biases and probably their place in the order of things.  To be sure, there were also those who split hairs with him in what seemed to be sincere searching for truth, as for example the rich young rule who wondered if he had done all that is required for him to inherit eternal life (Matthew 19, Mark 10, Luke 18), or Nicodemos (John 3) who wondered about the details of being born again. Jesus had a way, every time, of pointing out the bottom line without distractions.CPzQdJXgTOuJ1xqhRFUrRw

Back in my Bible College and University days, some of us church-going students would talk about details that we thought mattered to our faith. Like salvation and getting to heaven; evangelists were always reminding us to be sure of these things.  Jesus said a few things about this, none of which included the specific steps we added to the mix back only a few decades.  Bible College was probably the first place I ran into people who were convinced that we are all inherently evil.  We could not possibly be inherently good even though a God of endless love created us? Original sin was a real concept among us.

We were young and it was all still quite new and interesting to our untested minds and we were reading books and hearing lectures.  Did the 10% ‘tithing rule’ apply to a gross or a net income?  At the time, it seemed at least an interesting question, but there really didn’t seem to be any way of being sure. How to get to 10% isn’t clear in Leviticus 27:30,  but in Deuteronomy 14:22/23 it looks like a required giving amount based on net produce … so, out came the calculators to see how we could apply this to our limited incomes. Did it matter? Maybe it really is just about learning to be generous but it felt a bit like we were trying to find a way to give less rather than more and to feel right about it. Jesus (Matthew 23:23) kind of mocked the strict tithing rules followed by the religious leaders of his day; they followed the letter of the law, he said, on details like tithing, but ignored important teachings about justice, mercy and faithfulness.

The one we young evangelicals fussed over most was the will of God in our lives. How do know it. Could we know it?  And then, years later, someone at Regent College said that divining the Will of God is a pagan idea. We know the will of God, he said.  It’s to love God and love your neighbor. The rest is detail. It’s not something we need to look  for.  We know it.

I don’t know if we talked about the roles of men and women in a marriage as a bunch of well-meaning precocious singles, but I do remember sitting around a fire with a group of church people a few years later where the conversation drifted to the leadership of men and the submission of women in a heterosexual marriage. I began to think then that even to ask the question about male leadership is already stepping into the danger of claiming a role never intended. Paul does use that language but he also makes clear in Ephesians 5:25 that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church, which means an entirely sacrificial love. Nothing else applies in that discussion once you think about that and to then pull out the prior verse (22) and somehow claim a ‘ senior position’ in the relationship and in the home or in church or anywhere else seemed pretty much like our debates on tithing … a way to justify what we were thinking while missing the point.

A week ago Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, the young Congresswoman from New York made a speech in response to a verbal assault she experienced from Republican Congressman Yoho. It happened on the steps of the Capital, and 2 days later he offered a non-apology in which he somehow implied that what he did was ok because he has a wife and 2 daughters and because he loves God.  It was a ridiculous and offensive comment, an attempt to distract the public from what he had done earlier.  Offensive even to his own wife and daughters.  AOC had not planned to speak about the offense in the House, but she said that after Yoho made his non-apology, she needed to. Her speech is worth reading. She names and describes the continuous ways in which so many men in churches, in politics, in business, in families … still manage to demean, to dehumanize, to objectify women.  Near the end of her speech she makes this bottom-line-truth comment: ‘when a decent man messes up, as we are all bound to do, he tries his best and does apologize. Not to save face. Not to win a vote. He apologizes genuinely to repair and acknowledge the harm done so we can all move on.’


Except they become as little children

Aside from the dangerous insanities of so many Trump-like world leaders, we also have leaders, intent on doing good perhaps,  but also so intent on image and winning that they’re willing to hide behind the hairsplitting discernment work of forensic ethics advisors and ethics probes … to find out if they did in fact compromise ethical standards they are expected to work by.  That our Canadian Prime Minister needs to have an ethics commissioner tell him and the Canadian public whether or not his most recent decisions break the detail of some code of behaviour is in itself already troubling. It’s all too much a ‘non-serious’ approach to government and leadership, some people have said, more about image than about critical leadership.  Ocasio Cortez would probably sum up the latest Canadian scandal in a short paragraph, as could most Canadians. The whole country knows that it smells, beginning to end, but we will wait for the ethics people to tell us how badly.

The truth about ethics, racism, tithing, salvation, the will of God, the roles of women and men, Israel and Palestine, immigration and frankly, most other conflicts and issues is hardly ever buried in the details … much as we, like the Pharisees, try ever so hard to put it there.


… what is right and just and fair …

Kathy and I once took a couple of courses at Regent College in Vancouver.  Mine was a 3-week seminar on the Book of Proverbs with Bruce Waltke.  Every lecture was a feast with this man, who himself seemed a fountain of the wisdom Proverbs talks about. He had us memorize different parts of the book, including a few commonly known verses at the beginning: … ‘for attaining wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of insight; for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life, doing what is right and just and fair, for giving prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young … the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.’aThvEGx1TdyWaq1htbIMSA

Presumably the book was written to help the young people of that time to develop character, a sense of prudence, of how to live healthy lives and make decisions that are for both personal and the common good.

These days, 2020, it’s easy to think we are in serious trouble. A world-wide pandemic spooking leaders, politics, faith and work communities,  front line workers and pretty much everyone else, everywhere. At the same time we seem to have leaders around the world so corrupt and devious that you have to think a little to come up with names where there is still an operational sense of wisdom and discipline.  And when you do, they tend to be countries led by women.  Germany. New Zealand. Norway. Ireland. Finland. Taiwan. Nepal. The list that makes me sweat includes Trump, Netanyahu, Putin, Duterte, Modi, Assad, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Ali Khamenei, Kim Jong Un, Xi Jinping, Bolsonaro. We’d be hard pressed to find something in any of these leaders that comes out of those first verses in Proverbs.

Our prime minister, after first becoming PM in the fall of 2015, was pretty confident that he would lead Canada as head of a transparent, helpful, problem solving government.  He promised ‘sunny ways’ for Canadians, and I suspect he was sincere.  But since then he has been found guilty of breaking conflict of interest codes twice, and is in the middle of a third investigation in which almost certainly he will be found wanting again.  Several other episodes have haunted him, including a state trip to India which he seemed to think was a foto-op for him and his family wearing various kinds of Indian dress.  And that black face habit.  And the intense personal and government investment in getting a seat on the UN Security council. It’s a bit of a list for a man who is very image conscious and really really wants to be seen as an excellent, progressive, inclusive leader. But after 5 years he seems like a young man a bit desperately seeking that image, wanting to do good things to get there, but not realizing that he’s going about it backwards. The image may come. But when it begins to look like the primary motivator, it leads to trouble and smells of a shaky inner core.  Proverbs would be asking questions about prudence, insight, and a wisdom about doing what is right and just and fair. The inner stuff. The inner guide that doesn’t need policies and protocols written out for him to know what is the right decision. Ironically such inner wisdom comes from looking outside ourselves to the good of the other.

When I was a teenager and young adult, I watched our dad make decisions and visit with people who came by.  Church people.  Neighbors.  Relatives.  His 11 kids. He and our mother seemed to have an inner wisdom, a guide, a north star that guided them.  I wondered how they got that inner wisdom and worried that I wouldn’t ever find it myself.   When I worked with Fairview College in Northern Alberta, a teacher once said this to me: … ‘stop worrying so much about doing things right; worry more about doing the right things.’ And that might be a little part of our prime minister’s latest stumble, offering enormous amounts of money to help unemployed young people but through an organization that has long promoted himself, his party, paid hefty speaking fees to his mother and brother, and gave his finance minister two expensive family ‘donor trips’.   If he really wanted to do the right thing, he would have found a better way to roll out $900,000,000 dollars and a 43,000,000 fee for doing it. Ten seconds of reflection with the wisdom of proverbs would have suggested this was not the way to do it.

American Congressman John Lewis died recently. In his early 20s he worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr, was arrested more than 40 times for his work and was often referred to as the ‘conscious of congress’. Joe Biden referred to Lewis as truly ‘one of a kind, a moral compass who always knew where to point us and which direction to march’.  By his own example, he encouraged a generation of activists to get into ‘good trouble’, bending the arc toward justice and freedom. House Republican Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana said that one of Lewis’ greatest attributes was his relentless commitment to improving life for everyone. The son of Sharecroppers in Alabama, John Lewis, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, said not long ago that his mother always warned him not to get into trouble. But he saw the harsh and relentless racism all around him and said, why? ‘I’ve been getting into trouble ever since’, he said. ‘Good trouble. I tried to do what is right, and fair and just’.IMG_0912

I can easily fall into a kind of despair about leaders – and plenty of others – around the world these days, and I could ask the question someone once asked after the violent and horrific first half of the last century … ‘will we make it?’  But the fact that most people of all cultures and faiths and politics recognize in a second the goodness of a man like John Lewis … makes me think we will.  The arc bends towards goodness and decency, because of people like John Lewis and millions like him, who have something of the wisdom of proverbs inside them.

… democratic lotteries … ?

In his meditation today, Richard Rohr features Fannie Lou Hamer, an American voting and women’s rights activist who died in 1977. He writes about not needing to know. About living with the ambiguous.  In order to have the capacity to move the world, he says, we need some social distancing and detachment from what we think is acceptable and normal, a tolerance for ambiguity, an ability to forgive, to allow for a degree of anxiety and a willingness to not know; to not predict. IMG_5216

But this is a bit foreign to some of us evangelicals because we have been, for a very long time about assurance, about having a God who answers our prayers, and particularly ours, because we think of ourselves as uniquely his. But what if we aren’t uniquely his. What if others are as well?  Would we not be a healthier, happier place if we didn’t worry about being the ones who hold the truth?

In the fall of 2013, visiting the Armenian University in Beirut with a small MCC group, the President spoke to us for morning.  He had studied at Princeton in New Jersey, and he said one of the things that most puzzled him about us western Christians was our obsession with numbers. History in the Middle East, he said, is seen over long time periods, but we westerners for some reason have this need to track, to number and to measure. Our obsession with being right and getting it all done before closing time messes with our health and with our relationships at home and around the world … and especially during this covid time, it disorientes us because we can’t control this. A silent little monster is stalking us; we can’t see it, but we know it’s out there, in the air between us and the next person, and we are desperate to nail it to a wall somewhere.

I’ve lost track of all the change happening these days. A world in various stages of lockdown, some countries doing well and others in stages of desperation with fatigued or just plain lousy leadership, overwhelmed health systems and disintegrating economies.  But amazingly, in this anxious reality, humanity manages to give life to a long-overdue awakening to racism, to the fact that minorities and particularly those of color have been made to survive on the margins for a very long time.  Monuments to people who enabled all manner of oppression are coming down and except for a few in the White House, this movement to acknowledge wrongs and to commit to something better is now, finally, acceptable in the corporate and business world and in major sports leagues. It’s not clear to me yet whether the church and the missionary and non-profit world is part of this awakening or whether we are somehow thinking this isn’t about us.

Driving to Calgary this past week from MacGregor, I Iistened to a couple of Malcolm Gladwell podcasts. Revisionist History, season 5, Powerball Revolution. Democratic lotteries. Seriously! The podcast isn’t referencing Black Lives Matter directly, nor the pandemic, but without saying it, it’s about that.  Adam Cronkrite says he had a bit of a hero complex.  Was going to save the world. Young man.  Reader of history.  But a dreamer more than a doer.  From Ontario he went to NY to join the Occupy Wall Street movement back in 2013 but he wasn’t impressed with their vision. There was no ‘how’, he said. But one speaker from Bolivia was talking about a fight over water access.  They became friends and Adam found himself in Cochabamba with Marcelo, the water activist. When they asked Adam what he did, he talked about the idea of changing the way we elect leaders in our democracies.  Democratic lotteries, he called his idea. They invited him to test the idea in a couple of schools.

In the first school there were 200 students so they put 200 beans in a hat. Eight beans were colored because they needed 8 people on the student’s council. The 8 of 200 students who drew the colored beans became the council. Crazy? They did this experiment over a period of years in several schools in Cochabamba and discovered that in fact, those students, most of whom had assumed no one would ever vote for them had they run in a campaign, always rose to the challenge and brought diversity, and ideas from all parts of the student population and they got things done.

Cronkrite says three things:  Elections are supposed to encourage participation. They do the opposite.  And that applies, I suspect, to hiring practises in any organization or business and most religious organizations as well. Every organization has a culture that it inevitably works to preserve. I’ve worked in a couple, including MCC. It’s not necessarily a bad thing but we promote the obvious ones, those whom we have anointed all along. The rest settle into the assumption that they are not called to such roles. Elections, promotions, selection panels … tend to discourage participation. HR departments can easily make sure those who are not part of the anointed culture don’t get close to the final screenings. King David almost missed the cut because of that kind of biased selection process.  Second, a council out of a lottery draw brings a natural diversity.  Most elected councils are people who have become friends, who support each other’s elections. Political parties work the same way.  A lottery brings a range of talent and perspective to the task of leading. Imagine what would happen if Putin tried something like this? Instead, he consolidates his position for life.  And third, in a council chosen by lottery, nobody knows anything.  They figure it out. They rise to the invitation to be at the table.I9Tmlo8wSHeTiXf96kY%+g

The way we predict good leaders is flawed says Gladwell, and he corroborates this with material from the National Institute of Health in Maryland, where they assume that the best grant applications for research will also do the best research.  They discover, when they change it up, that in fact, the opposite it true. Draw lots to see which of the eligible proposals get the grants, and you get better research than if you try to predict it based on the application itself.  Good medical research can’t be predicted by the ‘best’ proposals, and voters and selections panels aren’t that good at predicting good leadership.

So does any of this have anything to do with Black Lives Matter and control and an obsession with counting and monitoring?  Quite a bit, I think.  Our systems of hiring, of promotions, of grant applications, of church leadership, political leadership, school councils, maybe even of selecting refugees to come to Canada … are built on the assumption of protecting what’s in place, not drifting too much off course by hiring the surprize, or giving the chair to the one whom we haven’t predicted.  What if we opened this up like the students did in those schools … in a country hardly anyone ever hears about?

… now you have power …

In the book of Judges the Gileadites defeated the Ephraimites and the latter are trying to make it back across the Jordon River to their homes. But the Gileadites know that the Ephraimites don’t have the ‘sh’ sound in their language.  So they identify any Ephraimite approaching the river by asking them to say ‘shibboleth’.  If they say ‘sibboleth’, they are taken away and killed.  It says they killed 42,000 Ephraimites that way.  The book of Judges is one of the more gruesome in the Old Testament and this little story told near the end, almost in passing, illustrates a systemic and racial finishing of a conquest. A winner-takes-all approach.    2OR4jp69SD24o7g24QAWug

Brooke Prentis is an accountant in Australia and CEO of Common Grace, a movement only a few years old, now numbering 47,000 people working on human rights and justice issues. She is of Waka Waka Indigenous descent. Pete Enns interviewed her on his podcast (The Bible for Normal People) recently.  She is a devout Christian (most aboriginals in Australia are Christian, she says) and an articulate advocate for Aborginal rights in Australia. Three hundred different indigenous groups, she says, in Australia.  They numbered a million when the Europeans arrived and dropped down to 90,000 for all kinds of reasons, including massacres and disease.  Today they are about 500,000. Until the 1960s, Aboriginals were paid ‘in kind’ for work they did for the dominant culture, which translates into virtual slave labor. Aboriginals die 11 to 17 years younger in Australia then other Australians.  Since 1980 there have been 500 deaths of Aboriginals in Australian prisons where, as in Canada, there are far too many in prison.

A current speech writer for the Premier of Alberta once said the residential schools story in Canada is a ‘bogus genocide story’.  150,000 children were taken from their parents with the single, systematic intent being to ‘take the Indian out of the child’. They accomplished that, with assistance from the Christian church, but left many scarred and disoriented for generations to come.  Residential schools began in Canada in the late 1800s and didn’t end until the later 1990s. A hundred years of forcibly turning a culture on itself.

Black lives matter is busting out in the USA and all over the world. It’s tragic that it’s happening at the same time as a virus makes every public gathering a place of high risk but that is not stopping the long simmering anger and outrage among those who have been systematically disadvantaged since slavery was first imagined in North America. When Lincoln passed the Emancipation Act in 1865, Southern States found a convenient loophole in the legislation. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” (Ratified in 1865) By 1866, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Tennessee and S Carolina began to lease out convicts for labor (peonage). This made the business of arresting Blacks very lucrative, which is why hundreds of White men were hired by these states as police officers.

Once arrested, these men, women and children would be leased to plantations where they would harvest cotton, tobacco, sugar cane. Or they would be leased to work at coal mines, or railroad companies. The owners of these businesses would pay the state for every prisoner who worked for them.It is believed that more than 800,000 Blacks were part of the system of peonage, or re-enslavement through the prison system. In some states, a Black person could be arrested for loitering or vagrancy if they didn’t have a job.  It didn’t end until around 1940.  (Damon K. Roberts). A racism entrenched immediately after the ‘end of slavery’ inside the police and prison system for the sole purpose of keeping Black people serving White masters.  155 years later, what we see and hear looks a lot like what Roberts describes and we are surprized at the outrage.

A long time ago I was appointed Dir of a College Department in N Alberta. I had learned a lot from Sukumar Nayar over the previous two years and now he was retiring.  During the transition he didn’t say a lot but one day he said this:  ‘Abe, now you have power. Try not to use it because when you do, you will have spent it.’.  Say what?! A kind of mathematical equation? Power is a consumable? Try not to use it? Sukumar, like most people of wisdom, didn’t overly explain himself. But I think at least partly what he meant was the use of power and authority may subdue a classroom or a people in the short term, but in the longer term, it doesn’t work. People who feel crushed will not be productive, nor will they endlessly endure.  People who obey without feeling they are part of the team are never really on the team though they may follow all the required protocols.  How people feel about the authority, the CEO,  the rules and regulations, the police or the occupying military (in Palestine) … it matters. Orlando Vasquez of MCC Alberta would add this: how people feel about the dominant culture matters.IMG_3332

Malcolm Gladwell, Revisionist History, the Limits of Power, in response to the current upheaval in racial awareness around the world tells the story of a young African immigrant in NYC, who, in 1999, standing in front of his own doorway, is shot 41 times by the NY police as he reaches for his wallet to show them his ID. And then Gladwell reads a chapter from his earlier book, David and Goliath.  It’s about a riot in Belfast, N Ireland in a Catholic suburb, the Lower Falls, that led to 30 years of civil war. British General Freeland, in the early 70s thought that it didn’t matter what the Catholics felt, it was simply time to exert the full authority of the British military; they were tired of the Catholics and of the troubles, and they sent in 3,000 elite soldiers to ‘manage’ a suburb of 8000 people, imposing an insane curfew that kept everyone indoors to the point where mothers couldn’t feed their children. When women from nearby became aware of the nastiness of all this, they came out of their own homes, banging pots and pans, defying the British elite who started beating them as if they were in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. Gladwell quotes someone who has said, ‘most revolutions are not caused by revolutionaries but by the stupidity and brutality of governments.’

He illustrates from a couple of disengaged teachers in kindergarten classes, where the kids simply start to behave badly because the teachers were exacting obedience but weren’t paying the kids any attention.  Kids aren’t disobedient, he says. They become disobedient.  Did Jesus ever not pay attention to the oppressed? Those on the margins? Those who don’t have milk and bread for their children? Those consistently doubted and monitored? Those who don’t get hired, who don’t get the scholarships, who have endured and endured and endured?

… our time to weep …

Jeremiah may have written the short book that is called Lamentations, in the Old Testament. It’s believed he was there when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonian invaders in 586 BC. ‘How lonely sits the city that was full of people’ (1:1). ‘Children begging for food. Young men and women cut down by the sword, streets filled with rubble’… . It’s a tragic, bleak place and whoever is writing the book has witnessed the destruction … and is overcome.  He is wailing, God is silent … it’s terribly sad … a lot of which, he writes, they brought on themselves.7VfjYWs2QLGawXSalwQkdw

A friend in Calgary suggested the other day that maybe, at this point, like Jeremiah, we Christians and others of any faith and hope perspective need to step back and grieve what we see. To mourn and weep. To resist the prescribing and fixing that is often part of our (evangelical) western make-up.  ‘Our’ Jesus, we say, fixes things. He answers prayers.  But is that all there is to ‘our’ Jesus?  Well, first, he is not ‘ours’ and second, he is not really the God who fixes all things for us, much as, in some places, that message continues to be preached.  Satan tempted Jesus to become the fixer. The superman. Jesus rejected the temptation and in his lament, Jeremiah is experiencing a silent God.

It’s easier to believe that things are fixable if we can explain the calamities that overwhelm us. So for some, it helps to think that covid-19 must be a conspiracy. Maybe even a communist, Chinese conspiracy, enabled by the WHO. If we are able to explain covid in some way that fits for us, maybe we feel a bit less helpless. Even Jeremiah, in the midst of the rubble seems, for a minute, to retreat from what’s before him into a framing of it that makes sense to him:  the people had sinned terribly, a just God had allowed their destruction, but that same God is good to those who wait quietly. In the middle of his grief,  he writes as if reminding himself of how he really must think about this mess.  But the truth is … it’s a disaster.

Our current disasters are covid-19, and an awakening to a racism that has created and nurtured a deeply entrenched disadvantage in outcomes (Leslyn Lewis) for far too many people for far too long. So we also look for ways to fit all this inside our zones of rationalism. Racists are other people; it can’t really be very much about us and really, it can’t be as bad as they say it is; they have choices and benefits too … and soon it’s the demonstrators who are the problem,  and after a while, the system and the culture that enables it feels a bit better again. Maybe a few adjustments are needed, some firings, some better training. We can do that, and we will do it gladly, so long as it helps us to contain what we see in front of us.

But, what if, like Jeremiah during most of the 5 chapters of the book, it’s just time to weep over the wreckage … to lament what we see, and what many are experiencing.  As if Covid-19 wasn’t enough, the weight of racism and discrimination, being always watched and never quite trusted …  under which a lot of people live their entire lives inside even our most respected church organizations … well, maybe, it’s finally coming apart for all to see. How is it possible, as just one example, that a string of 5 black and hispanic men hang themselves in public squares from trees, in various parts of the United States (New York, Texas, California) this week, in 2020 … and in every case, the instant response is that they must have committed suicide. The Bible would likely add, those who have eyes, will see it.  And they will weep with Jeremiah, and with the Christ on the cross.

In our almost collapsing covid world, now erupting in long-overdue rage about power and powerlessness, to be quiet, to just stop, to weep, to watch …  can seem like yet another way to silently hope that it all just goes away, so that we can settle back into how it’s been … where the white people (yes, there are plenty of exceptions) usually do have the upper hand, the last word, the more money, the greater freedom of movement, the more options and choices. So, to be quiet about that, to not even acknowledge it, or to somehow rationalize it … seems especially wrong, especially now.  But instead of yielding to the always-ready apology, the ‘we must do better’, the pronouncing of more training, more engagement, more listening and more hiring, more rhetorical abstractions (Mr Trudeau), maybe we do need to see the suffering, wounded Christ on the cross … and ourselves, all of us, up there with him.img_1224

When we attended Principe de Paz church in Bolivia, back in the 90s, a single mother with two young girls often also attended. They were very poor and quite often she shared the difficulties of her daily life with the little congregation.  One Sunday I felt so badly for her, and so helpless, that I followed her out the gate and offered a small amount of money.  I really wanted to help her.  She didn’t accept the gift.  Maybe I had embarrassed her, I’m not sure.  Money, surely was at least partly what she needed? But I wonder, these days, if my ‘fix-it’ approach annoyed her a little? Maybe for her, sharing her struggles and outright misery with us on Sunday mornings was not a cry for anyone to try to fix things for her, but rather a plea to us to accompany her, and for her and her girls to be part of this community. I don’t know, but our wish to make things go away, to restore ourselves to a level of comfort, even desperately amidst the pressure of covid and the awakening to a racism that leaves so many always coming in second or third … is, yes, a legtimate call to action, but at the same time, a reminder that we need, like Christ, to be crucified, to suffer, to bear the burdens of the many, and the one or two or ten who are nearby. That little conversation with our friend in Bolivia, so easy for me to have misunderstood, made me wonder if in some way we of privilege and such always good intentions … somehow can’t really love people unless we can also make them better? IMG_6548

A former pastor in Calgary talks about his relationship with a well-known group of recent immigrants. They seem to have become friends. He is the white man among them and they meet and share their troubles and their longing to help their relatives left behind … back home.  Can anything be done? They live almost impossible lives. It’s an endless need and they know my pastor friend can’t fix this for them. He probably would if he could and they know that, but they’re not asking for that.  Maybe, in fact, it’s his weakness along with theirs that they are looking for.






… we moderates …

What is, I suppose, ironic is that in the middle of this existential battle between the desperate, the important and the convenient that covid-19 has foisted on us, George Floyd is murdered by a white policeman while two others hold him down, and Donald Trump sort of gets his wish: a major distraction from covid-19 and millions are back on the streets … as if the country has opened up, post covid-19.  It’s kind of what he wanted but what Trump wasn’t counting on is that they’ve had enough of being overlooked, second in line, second guessed, watched, hounded, harassed and murdered … just for not being white.  A social and systemic norm in our justice, education, public health, and plenty of church and not-for-profit cultures, that for a very long time has left a lot of people unable to breathe.

I was a little surprized when, back in the early 90s, a board member of MCC Canada visited Bolivia where Kathy and I were working with MCC.  He was a devout and good man, a church leader for whom I had, and still have a high regard. He and I were in the Central Plaza, away from the office and he mentioned, almost in passing, that it’s good we have national employees, but ‘we shouldn’t let them be in charge’.  So long as we others were in charge, it would be ok.SALVADORAN ARCHBISHOP OSCAR ROMERO

Over 10 years, spread over 3 decades that Kathy and I worked in Bolivia, it slowly became apparent to me that national workers, usually happy to work with MCC, tended to defer to us.  We were always ‘such very good people’, they said. As country director I became even more conscious of this power dynamic. Rarely did any national person disagree with any of us expats. Even when they had the most or the only experience on a project, they inevitably found a way to make sure that we, guests on temporary visas, had the last word. Sometimes I wondered what my dad would have said had a young Bolivian come to Blumenheim, to offer his or her services to the farmers in our village.

Back in Canada, we hired Nathaniel, a Liberian Canadian. I was again surprized when, at an anti-racism workshop he said that he, a black man, could never go into Safeway or any other store in Edmonton without quickly being followed, often by two security people. A couple, recent immigrants to Canada at the same workshop talked about how things worked for them on assignment in Southeast Asia. They felt that inside MCC, an organization with international programs that include a heavy emphasis justice and peace work, they did not have a voice.  Surely we weren’t like Safeway, I thought, but did we, in some way also ‘not quite trust’ those of another color? Another background? Orlando is a patient, forgiving man, the Assoc Director of MCC Alberta,  but he has much to say about this. Much that needs to be heard.

Alan Lane-Murcia, with roots in the segregated South and a former MCC worker in Bolivia recently posted a riveting note on FB saying, it’s NOT ENOUGH.  Marching, prayer vigils, heartfelt sermons and essays and demonstrations are important but NOT ENOUGH. He learned as a young student that Black students had to manage the world very differently than he, a white guy, needed to. Alan was one of a few white people on that campus whom Black students considered safe. Most whites, he was told, were not on the list. And why did Black students, in our model-for-the-rest of-the-world society feel the need to have a shared list of whites whom they considered safe?  Surely, it really isn’t enough.

Josh Dadjo, a student in Ottawa,  writes in the Calgary Herald that white people are not truly in this fight. He is glad that ‘folks who were usually content to say nothing, satisfied with being better than those who would commit such despicable acts, have now joined in, crying out for an end to the violence against people of color. But he adds that he doesn’t believe us.  When the media moves on to the next crisis, ‘you won’t stick around with us’.  We need allies, he writes.  Admit your mistakes and understand your privilege. Allow us to have uncomfortable conversations with you … and stay close ‘when the media moves on and it’s no longer the fashionable thing.’

In a June 1 post Glen Guyton, Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA says it’s the Amy Coopers of the world that scare him more than the white supremacists. Amy Cooper calls the police and tells them her life is being threatened by an African American who had simply reminded her to leash her dog in a leashed area.  She later apologizes for her action but she is yet another example of a good, even remorseful white person, perhaps unconsciously but fully assuming the power she has over any black person.  Guyton calls on the Mennonite, Anabaptist church of the USA to engage in costly peacemaking, to dismantle the system, the culture that is designed around privilege and power. And he is speaking not just about other white cultures, but of the one he leads, Mennonite Church USA.

Another writer, Vu, posts under this heading: Have non-profits and philanthropy become the White Moderates Dr King warned us about? King wrote from a Birmingham jail cell:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom and advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”

Vu writes, ‘we have seen this out in the world, in people who call for “civility” during heated dialogues about injustice, who advocate for folks to see “both sides,” who play devil’s advocate in the name of differences in perspectives, while claiming to be aligned with equity and progress. Right now they are the people who are worried about property damage, who loudly proclaim that rioting is not the answer.’

To funders and social development agencies he says, ‘your insistence on order and bureaucracy through grant applications and budgets and deadlines, dismissal of solutions proposed by marginalized communities in favor of those proposed by educated white elites … timelines at your convenience—these things make you part of the problem even as we look to you for help to solve problems.’

Nonprofits, says Vu, ‘we are guilty of white moderation.  We often become a fig leaf, a self-reinforcing cycle of pity-and-heroism that prevents the working out of true justice.

My sister Jess, a farmer in Sask said this morning that ironically, she is ‘glad to be alive now.’ ‘Like we are on the crest of major change. Like churches and their message needs to change. Like we have been bombarded with feel-good messages, including those of being saved and that is where it has stopped.’ That ‘being saved’, she says, ‘is part and parcel of white privilege and we are in for some surprizes. It’s the meek and the poor in spirit and those who mourn, those we never give a second chance, the ones we don’t give a second glance … they are the ones who really will inherit the earth.’ ‘We try to become them,’ she adds, but we can’t.CPzQdJXgTOuJ1xqhRFUrRw

Menno Hamm puts out a weekly meditation and news sheet from MacGregor.  Last week he included a joke. Why did the Mennonite cross the road? The correct answer was ‘to get to the MCC Thrift Store’ but one person said Mennonites have been crossing streets, continents, countries and oceans for a very long time, at great expense to them and for the benefit of those who came after them. All true. A second response was ‘to get to the other side.’ I wonder if this time, we, Mennonites, Churches, Missions, MCC, and other wonderful but tending-towards-the-safe-and-moderate … will actually decide to try to cross the street? It will take courage and I think it will be costly.


… long after Pentecost …

It’s probably fitting that on this Pentecost weekend, inclusion, speaking each other’s languages and the sharing of resources is celebrated as a mark that distinguished the early church community.  The irony is that all over the USA (and in other places) people are protesting a culture of exclusion, of white power, outright racism and violence towards Black people. And it’s tragic that over many generations a significant part of the population that identifies as people of Pentecost has contributed to that fear-filled culture of exclusion, of white domination and privilege, and the oppression and marginalization of minorities. We didn’t get that from Jesus’ life, nor from his teachings. He was always about everyone and the Pentecost event (Acts 2) was a kind of baptism by fire, a sudden awareness moment for that early group whose Jesus had just been lifted up leaving them here with his story, which now became their story.w9oJbVg6Q8CEz4IT3aLKOg

Did they understand completely the radical concept that Jesus was the God of everyone … Jew and Gentile, slave and free, black and white, gay and straight? Probably not. It was soon after this event that Peter had a dream (Acts 10) about the animals coming down and was told they are all ok to eat, which led immediately to his meeting Cornelius the Roman Centurion where he realizes that Jesus, whom they have already appropriated as their Messiah, is also the Messiah of the Gentiles.  Transformation is underway, but apparently the Holy Spirit knows this doesn’t happen overnight.  It needs the memories of Jesus on the ground, the drama of Pentecost, and then it also needs endless follow up. Animals. Romans Centurions. Real people.  Life itself. Some of it stuck, but along the way, we have kept forgetting.

So we celebrate Pentecost. An annual reminder.  Some Mennonite churches mark this event with three holy days.  Sunday, Monday, Tuesday. We grew up doing that as well, though I also remember that on day three, there would sometimes be trips to the city and a little more work and play could happen on the farm, so long as we were quiet about it. But really, it’s a big deal what happened back there as the holy spirit descended upon the group; they spoke languages others could understand and shared their resources with each other. Was it the model for us to follow?  I don’t know. But at the very least, given those dramatic and historical beginnings it seems that the Christian community today might be out there on the streets and work places and mission offices pushing and pulling the broader white community away from an us-vs-them approach toward a this-is-about-all-of-us way of living together. For a time at least, I think those early people would have been known as the ones living out that love-your-neighbor teaching Jesus left with them. People liked what they saw (vs 47), and many joined.

A young pastor said to me yesterday that an organization she and I are familiar with has been built on a ‘white savior story.’  She named only one organization but added that ‘all of our systems’ need to be flushed out and rebuilt.  It’s a sharp, bold statement and I hope it’s not entirely true, but it makes me think that among us Pentecost people the message of Jesus as he lived and spoke it, somehow became a bit too much ours. That what Peter saw in the vision about the animals became lost to us along the way. That during the 2000 years of church history, we somehow forgot about Pentecost, about inclusion, about the holy spirit for everyone, and we made the message and the Messiah ours again. He became a little white and we learned to share his story of redemption and our good works on our terms and at least in part, for our interest, sometimes involving outright conquest, other times just making sure things keep being understood our way. We’re good at that. Those we share our good works and ‘our’ message with have often needed to become a little bit like us and if they didn’t then maybe they didn’t really get to sit around the table when the important decisions were being made.

Did any of this lead to the murder of George Floyd and all the brutality we keep hearing about?  Did any of this lead to the fact that being black in the United States means you are anxious leaving your own house to go for a jog or to pick up milk at the corner store or watch birds in a New York City Park?  Did any of this mean that to be indigenous or of any another minority in Canada you will develop an unexplained tendency to always defer to the in-charge, usually white people in the room? Maybe not directly, but it percolates and matures. It becomes us, I’m pretty sure. Entitlement and permission to take the lead becomes the default, and sooner or later it also manifests itself in the extremes we see and hear about. To protect that entitlement and privilege.

Jesus knew about those extremes. They were there already when he was among us in the flesh; he faced them down and exposed them and in the end, they killed him for it … and that was before Pentecost.

In the Gospel of John (10:16) Jesus reminds his hearers that he has other sheep who are not of this fold.  They also hear his voice! Paul repeatedly reminds the people he writes to that there is no Jew or Gentile, no this or that, no us and them.  That we are all with equal, grace-filled access to that Way!

II Kings 5: 1-17 has the story of Naaman, the Syrian with leprosy.  Jesus, in Luke’s Gospel story reminds his listeners that there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elijah, yet none of them were cleansed, only Naaman, the Syrian. Why would Jesus say this knowing it would be an affront to the Jews, who had learned to think of their God as pretty much … well, theirs? But he did.IMG_1122

In the same conversation (Luke 4) Jesus assured his listeners in the synagogue that there were plenty of Hebrew widows, also in Elijah’s time, but whom did God send Elijah to assist? A non-Jewish widow in the region of Sidon.  The Jews sitting in the synagogue, listening to his pointed comments were furious and tried to throw him over a cliff for this effrontery. He had reminded them from their own histories, that their God was not as they had made him to be. He was the God of all the others as well … already long before Pentecost.

And, so what? Orlando sent a short text this afternoon.  Jesus and Paul always wished for peace among their listeners. Not an ornamental, cosmetic, comfortable peace wish, but the kind of peace where all people can walk outside, watch birds, pick up groceries, jog freely, have access to health care and education, access to work … without being afraid. That kind of peace has a personal cost, said Orlando;  I’m pretty sure it requires serious on-the-streets, in-shopping-aisles, on-the-job, at-the-playgrounds and in-the-pews listening, learning, and giving up whatever is left of that we-are-right-after-all privilege.