Friday, December 27, 2013

Morality and culture change in Tama-Toledo

From Toledo, IA
Heath Kellogg, Director
Tama Co. Economic Development
The saga of the closing of the Iowa Juvenile Home (IJH) here in Toledo, Iowa, continues. This week the Director of Economic Development in Tama County, Heath Kellogg, used his weekly column in the local paper to directly address our state's governor on his order to close the facility.

After opening with his characteristic folk tale, Kellogg has a few great things to say here. In his appeal to the governor, he's attempting to bypass the political and even economic dimensions of IJH's pending closure, and pushes into the realm of morality and culture, two things that I have an abiding intellectual and ministerial interest in.


Friday, December 20, 2013

The Iowa Juvenile Home: It takes a village...

From Toledo, IA
Town hall meeting at South Tama High School gym; Dec. 19, 2013
Just over a week ago, it was announced by the Iowa Governor's office and the Dept. of Human Services that the Iowa Juvenile Home and Girls Training School (IJH) here in Toledo would be closing on January 16, 2014. The IJH has been a staple of the local community for nearly a century and has served over the years as a state care facility for some of Iowa's most troubled youth, coming from some of the most dysfunctional family circumstances imaginable.

The news of IJH's closing was a huge blow to the local Tama-Toledo community. In a very short period of time, concerned staff, citizens, and elected representatives sprang into action in ways that have been inspiring to me, a relative newcomer to the community. A Facebook group was created as a way to organize support to protest the facility's closing. It now has over 9,000 members. Flowing from that online effort and the amazing support it received, a town hall meeting was organized and carried out last night at the local public high school gymnasium. So my friend Travis, a local councilman, picked me up at about 6:45pm last night and we attended the nearly 2.5 hour event. I went with my camera and notepad to do a little citizen journalism...

Saturday, December 14, 2013

We Are a Vulnerable Communion: Radical Democracy and Christianity

From Keezletown, VA
This post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm. This post reflects on chapter 8, "The Politics of Gentleness: Random Thoughts for a Conversation with Jean Vanier" by Hauerwas.

If I had a canon of saints, Jean Vanier would be among them. In a confessional moment, Hauerwas might admit the same. Vanier’s writing on community, vulnerability, and brokenness has resonated deeply with me and influenced the way I think about the capability of life together. He writes simply and he writes gently. There is tenderness in the composition of his sentences. I don’t only mean the thoughts he communicates, which express grace for and within the weakness of our bodies and the fragility of life. There is also tenderness in the way his sentences are formed, the grace that is style and movement and sound.

Hauerwas is at his humblest in this chapter on Jean Vanier’s politics of gentleness, and Hauerwas is at his most honest: he worries that his polemical attempt to defend gentleness betrays Vanier and the work of L’Arche (196). For Hauerwas, gentleness is necessary for any just politics, and the world of L’Arche – communities where differently-abled people live and work together – is gentle (195). Gentleness is important for Hauerwas because it redefines power and rule through the concreteness of friendship. L’Arche fosters friendships between people with varying abilities so that diverse gifts can be recognized. Gentle friendships like those at L’Arche are cultivated by tending to the ordinary, actively caring for things nearby. These sets of practices are sustained by conviviality and cooperation, which do not erase weakness but instead welcome it.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Planting the Church of the Brethren in Toledo: A modest proposal

From Toledo, IA
Photo by snowmentality (via Flickr)
This post is part of the NuDunkers conversation on church planting in the Church of the Brethren, on which we'll be hosting a live video chat this Friday, Dec. 6th, at 10am Eastern. Check out the event page on our G+ community page for more info on that.

I've been talking recently about how "seeking the peace of the farm town" has been my mantra for living and ministering in the rural communities of Tama & Toledo, Iowa, since moving here last year.

This phrase is an adaptation of the Lord's commandment in Jeremiah 29, addressed to the exiles in Babylon in the 6th century BCE. The command is to "seek the peace/welfare/shalom of the city to which I've sent you into exile." The exhortation is an echo of the creational mandate found all the way back in Genesis, to "be fruitful and multiply," and that in seeking the welfare of the pagan city (and empire) in which they found themselves, God's people would find their own welfare.

I fell in love with this text in seminary, wrote a paper on it, and posted it here a few years ago. It became a paradigm for me, helping shape my early thoughts about what my church ministry might look like after seminary. In particular, I've found the thematic metaphors of "building" and "planting" throughout both Jeremiah and Isaiah to be particularly, um, productive ones. So church planting and community peace-building have for years now been inseparable concepts in my theological reasoning, and practical mission/ministry planning. My aim has been toward forming worshipping communities with community peacebuilding teachings and practices wired in from the get-go.

Cultivation takes time and patience and risk - among other things - and planting is just one step in the cyclical process of life (and death). So when I discovered the Slow Church blog a year or two back, which takes its cues from agrarian-minded sustainability movements, I found another fruitful metaphor for church planting.

Most recently, I've written and submitted a church-planting proposal for my local community that takes cues from this "slow church" movement. As a bi-vocational minister (i.e. I have a day job that is not professional/paid "church ministry" in a congregation), I've committed to a small, open-ended, slow, patient, and discerning approach to church planting, with explicit nods toward community peacebuilding. It's been approved by the committee overseeing these things in my district and is on its way to the Northern Plains District Board for final approval at their meeting next month. I'll outline a few major points below, and embed the entire document at the end if anyone is interested in seeing how I approached this proposal...

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The painful work of gratitude

From Toledo, IA
"Lead me not into..."
It's Thanksgiving week here in the U.S., and last month I agreed to speak on the topic to our local Kiwanis club meeting/lunch, which was today. For a simple, fairly informal 15-20 min. talk, I agonized over it since first receiving the invitation.

It is difficult for me to think and speak about - much less practice - being thankful in the context of our national Thanksgiving holiday. It is difficult for a range of reasons, many of which have to do with the triumph of consumerism in American life in general, but especially for the months of November and December. This relates not only to shopping but also our food system and practices. All this consumption, all this excess, all this waste, all in the name of it being "good for the economy" - and none of which makes anyone happier, healthier, or better people. To the contrary...

So my critical brain goes into overdrive during this season, quickly and easily sprinting down the paths of critique and lament. Capital-T Thanksgiving, for me, then, always has scare quotes around it.

But as a minister of the Christian faith, and the gospel/good news that Jesus announced, enacted, and invited us into - I know that (small-t) thanksgiving is a concrete expression of gratitude and should be the first thing to escape our lips when we pray to God. I also know that joy is a fruit/gift of the Holy Spirit, and one that Christians can and should embrace and embody. So yes, Lord, I am grateful; help my ungratefulness!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

'Round and 'round it goes: The turnstiles of trinity, church, and world

From Toledo, IA
Photo by Tim Green/Flickr/CC-BY-2.0
This post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Romand Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm. This post reflects on chapter 7, "The Pregnant Reticence of Rowan Williams" by Coles.

First off, it seems right that a bit of an update is in order. In addition to the slower pace of our posts, our e-mail chatter about this book has died down over the past month and a half, and I'm certain that has mostly to do with more "life happening" for each of us. I know Jon's been deep in studies recently, on top of his family and work commitments, all of which add up to quite a load this time of year. He was originally going to write the reflection for this chapter, but sensing his heavy load, I volunteered to take it on for him...which was two weeks ago.

And John's been busy with work, planning for some upcoming transitions, and also dusting off a few of his grad school papers and getting them posted in some cool online places:
For my part I've been juggling my work for EMU, local ministry, a writing project, and a church-planting proposal that needs to be done this week - oh and watching a lot of the show Parenthood with my wife in the evenings. So yeah, things have been a bit hectic but our reading continues and is, at least for me, still stimulating some good thoughts for my local context and work.

While it does take some wild patience to follow Coles' writing at times (and being somewhat snarky, it kind of reminds me of this) - this chapter succeeded in further convincing me that Rowan Williams is someone I should pay a lot more attention to. (Good timing since he's now giving the Gifford Lectures at University of Edinburgh over the next week.) So here are a few scattered thoughts on this chapter...

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Seeking the peace of the farm town: The never-ending sermon

From Toledo, IA
Uptown Toledo during our annual Stoplight Festival; July 3, 2013
I recently preached at the three local United Methodist congregations, including the one in our neighborhood where we worship. The sermon was titled "Seeking the peace of the farm town" and it was from Jeremiah 29, verses 1, 4-7, & 11-14, which reads:
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. […]

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare (shalom/peace) of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. […]

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
Here's the sermon:


Thursday, October 24, 2013

Down in the muck: Wendell Berry on the "inescapable cruelty" of life

From Toledo, IA
"Down in the Muck"
(photo by Andrew Stawarz/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0)
Until yesterday while watching the fantastic Bill Moyers interview with Wendell Berry, I had never read or heard his poem, "For the Hog Killing." I'm grateful that my first exposure to this poem was hearing Berry read it aloud, with his soft northern Kentucky drawl.

Around minute 30 of the interview, Berry talks about the gross mistreatment of and cruelty to animals that our industrial food system requires. He then pauses and acknowledges an "inescapable cruelty" to all human life, even for vegetarians. "We have to live at the expense of other creatures." The rule then, he says, is to use fellow creatures (plants and animals) - and the land upon which we all dwell - with the minimum of violence.

Moyers then asks Berry to read the poem, "For the Hog Killing":
Let them stand still for the bullet, and stare the shooter in the eye,
let them die while the sound of the shot is in the air, let them die as they fall,
let the jugular blood spring hot to the knife, let freshet be full,
let this day begin again the change of hogs into people, not the other way around,
for today we celebrate again our lives' wedding with the world,
for by our hunger, by this provisioning, we renew the bond.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Still and Still Moving: Radical Democracy and Christianity

From Keezletown, VA
This post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm. This post reflects on chapter 6.

Democracy is indeterminate. Its ends are open to a risky acknowledgement that we don’t know where everything is going. Real democracy is on the run from the suffocating tentacles of institutionalization, aware that the “emergent irregularities” along the road suggest that what we get may not even be called democracy. In this telling, democracy is always followed by a question mark addressed to itself and a curiosity addressed to others and the future. So says Sheldon Wolin. Rom Coles leads a dizzying chase after Wolin’s fugitive democracy, following it from its inception through its development. This chapter is the longest in the book and probably the most complex and convoluted.

According to Coles, Wolin offers a vision of “radical democratic theory, judgment, virtues, power, and practices that is at once synoptic, nuanced, and ordinary in the most profound senses” (114). Wolin corrects a regrettable reluctance on the part of radical democrats to theorize about their practices, an effort needed to overcome the anti-democratic trends of most political theory, obsessed with patriarchal heroism (115). Wolin believes that the New Left failed to articulate a radical theory beyond liberalism and socialism because it lacked a deep and diverse language; they even lacked vision and theory regarding their own practices (119).


Monday, October 7, 2013

Healing for the healer

From Toledo, IA
Stained beauty; in the former Otterbein United Methodist Church, Toledo, IA
Last night our monthly prayer group met at an unused and slowly deteriorating church sanctuary here in town, as is our custom - but after our initial worship and opening prayer we went outside into the gray afternoon and walked a few blocks to the home of a husband and wife who usually meet with us. They were home because the wife had recently undergone open heart surgery and was still recovering, so we went to them to pray for her continued healing.

But last night I was not in the healing mood. I was in a real funk and struggled through the praise songs (I usually struggle through any praise song, even on my best days) and through the prayer. They did soften me up a bit but I was still carrying a lot of angst as we walked from the church to the house, and my friend Travis - who leads our prayer group - could see it on my face.

When we arrived at our friends' house they welcomed us in with smiles and embraces. Their hospitable welcome started softening me up more. As we sat listening to the wife's recounting of her successful surgery and good initial recovery, I paid special attention to the look on the husband's face as he watched his wife tell us her story. He had a smile of profound joy and love for his partner and her wellbeing. It softened my heart yet further.

When we gathered around her to lay hands on her and pray, we prayed for specific areas of healing for her ongoing recovery. As we each spoke our prayers for her, I gave thanks to God for the picture of Christian love I was witnessing in their marriage. When the husband prayed, he gave thanks for the spiritual heart of his wife which had only grown stronger through this and other health trials of recent years, and how it's impacted their wider family. He also acknowledged that our life is not our own and whatever the outcome for any of us - more days or fewer, sickness or health - life itself is a gift we receive and ultimately relinquish for the hope of resurrection on the last day and life abundant beyond that. For the meantime he had this prayer: "It's not how long we have, it's what we do with what we've been given. It's not what we know, it's what we do with what we know."

As we left their house, I reflected with Travis that through our service of healing prayer for our friend and sister in Christ, I had experienced healing myself.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Small town vitality: No community without economy

From Toledo, IA
Uptown Toledo, Iowa - "Remembering our past, looking toward the future..."
Evangelical blogger, Jake Meador, had a piece put up on Christianity Today just over a month ago that I had been meaning to read:

Why We Need Small Towns

Having just moved to a small town last fall, the title caught my eye, and being somewhat familiar with Meador's postings, I wasn't surprised to see him talk positively about Wendell Berry, who has been an inspiration to us both. Indeed, Berry's work has helped inspire me to persevere through what has been a hard transition back into small town life, after leaving my own small hometown 15 years ago.

It was all college towns and suburbs in those intervening years, and it's been this difficult transition back that prompts me to wonder about the title. Need? We need small towns? What, precisely, is here that's needed elsewhere? - In what follows (and it's a lot) I don't so much respond to Meador directly, as much as I reflect on my own small town context and current struggles with it, in light of his little piece on small towns...

Monday, September 30, 2013

Yeoman theology

Chaucer's Yeoman
After taking the summer off, the NuDunkers are having another chat this Thursday, from 9 to 10am Central, on the topic of "Dunker Theologizing: How we do our God talk." Check out that link for posts from others and details on how you can join the conversation, live or otherwise! This post is part of our prep for that conversation...

Two dear pastors/sisters in Christ addressed the following sentences to me; the first in my mid-20s, the second in my late:

"Brian, you'd love seminary!"
"Brian, when are you going to seminary?"

Here's another from a former pastor, upon seeing some of my undergraduate work (mid-to-late 20s), a class project where I interviewed pastors and the children of pastors:

"I know you'd love studying theology."

They were all right. I loved everything about my grad school/seminary years at EMU (except the exhaustion), and I excelled at the work of academic study. Mid-way through those studies I started hearing from peers and profs alike: "You could be a teacher," "you could do a PhD." It was intoxicating music to my ears.

Yet by the time I graduated, this intoxicating music began to take on ominous undertones in my hearing, and so I shook my head to clear out the siren song of the academy and instead moved with my family to rural Iowa to see what being an organic intellectual seeking the peace of the farm town might look like. (I'm still trying to figure that out...)

There are numerous reasons for my leaving academics when I did, but the one I want to explore here is what I take to be the Dunker-inculcated attitude toward theology/theologizing/"God talk" and its place in the body of Christ. It's an attitude that could be characterized as "yeoman theology."

Monday, September 23, 2013

The once and future pastor(s)

From Toledo, IA
[Insert here the appropriate Anabaptist
theological commentary about
kingship, swords, etc...]
Last week I had a meeting with two of my mentors, one of whom is my "church boss," to discuss next steps on my path to ordination as a minister in the Church of the Brethren. I don't write about that process much (if at all) here because, for one thing, I have a lot of questions about formal ministry in the free church/priesthood of all believers tradition. To call me "minister" and not, for instance, my wife - who serves as a mental health counselor in our local community and does so out of a sense of spiritual gifting flowing from her Christian faith - has and continues to seem somewhat off-kilter. Brethren have come up with some cute ways to address this in theory, but the institutionalization of the ministry has nevertheless created some power differentials.

So that's just my hangups about being characterized as a "minister" in some formal sense. The term "pastor" is even more touchy for me...

Let me first say that pastors have long been my favorite kind of people. Even after seminary and being approved for ordination, I continue to be very reluctant to think of/call myself a "pastor," mostly out of a sense of deep respect for those pastors who have played significant and various roles in shaping me as a person, generally, and as a minister in particular.

Put simply: I don't think I'm a "pastor" in the amazing ways that pastors have pastored me.

But the other week I conducted my first funeral service as a formal minister in our local community. The departed was a man who married into my wife's side of the family, and they wanted someone close to preside over the graveside service. So I happily and without hesitation said "yes" to that. For preparation of the obituary for the local paper, I emphasized to the family that when it came to ministerial titles, I preferred "Pastor" rather than "Reverend." (Oh, don't even get me started on Reverend!!)

So I guess I'm a pastor now. It's in print. And a sweet child in our local congregation called me "Pastor Brian" yesterday, so her word carries weight for me as well...

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Celebration and justice: Christianity, Democracy, and the radicalordinary

From Harrisonburg, VA
This post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas and Romand Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, and Brian Gumm. This post covers ch. 5, a letter to Coles from Hauerwas.

Hauerwas opens his letter to Coles by recognizing that for him to attempt to answer the question "what do you mean by haunting?" would have required a defensive posture that would do nothing to advance the conversation between the two of them. So Hauerwas takes Coles up on his suggestion to simply write about what inspires and excites him. While I would have really enjoyed reading Hauerwas' direct answer to the question asked of him, I can also support the "appreciative inquiry" approach that seems to form the basis of this letter, and thus allows space for further constructive conversation.

Hauerwas writes of being inspired by the L'Arche community at Trosly-Breuil in France. The inspiration that comes from this L'Arche community (as well as countless others for sure) emanates from the reality that the community is formed to resist the idea that there exists a group of people called "we" that do things for the mentally handicapped. The audacious claim of L'Arche is that assistants (the "we") learn to be loved by the mentally handicapped. Henri Nouwen's Adam is an exploration of this very idea. Hauerwas reports that when Jean Vanier was asked how the work of L'Arche is sustained over time he unhesitatingly responded: "celebration."

"Celebration names the regard for each member of L'Arche" (104) and includes birthday parties, funerals, and making Patrick (a core L'Arche member) the center of attention on St. Patrick's Day. But the culminating celebration is the community's Mass on Sunday evenings. Sunday evening Mass is when the community gathers without regard for time (no one is in a hurry) and joyfully celebrates the Eucharist.

Hauerwas makes the claim that worship (celebration) is the heart of justice. In this way he claims (if I read him correctly) that L'Arche communities are doing the work of justice in their celebration of Eucharist together. This also seems to be the connecting thread to people like Ella Baker and Bob Moses, because "they do not need a 'conception of justice,' because they have something better, namely, a way of being with the poor that is celebratory."(106) This something better, this celebrational quality to the lives of (not only the work of) Baker and Moses is perhaps another way of saying that their lives embodied justice.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

White dudes against racism: Be reconciled!

From Toledo, IA
Will Cambell (right) & Ralph Abernathy
on the day of MLK's assassination.
(Henry Groskinsky/Time & Life Pictures, via NYT)
This post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Romand Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm. This post covers ch. 4, "Race: The 'More' It Is About," by Hauerwas.

I had never heard of the late Rev. Will D. Campbell before August of last year, when I read a post from "The Amish Jihadist," Tripp York: The Ballad of Will Campbell. York said there that:
Campbell is one of the few Christian thinkers who understands how (classical) liberal theology ultimately created both right and left-wing Christianity, and, because of this, his understanding of how Jesus does not fit into this matrix often proves to be an obstacle for some readers. This is not because his writings are dense, but because he is neither a liberal nor a conservative.
Then I come to find out that Hauerwas blames Campbell for "screwing up my life" (88). Recalling a time he saw Campbell speak at Yale Divinity School in 1962, when Hauerwas was a student there, he describes Campbell:
He was not wearing a coat or tie, and I am pretty sure that he was chewing tobacco, which he spit into an empty coke bottle. I do not remember much that he said, but I do remember thinking that this is my kind of guy... (80, emphasis added)
A southern white Baptist preacher/activist who saw through liberalism, hated racism (because it is a sin), took active part in the Civil Rights movement, but also took concrete steps to love his racist enemies...all while having a taste for whiskey and chaw? Sounds like my kind of guy, too!


Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Laboring at conflict on Labor Day

Image via VeloTraffic/Flickr
Yesterday my wife, daughter, mother-in-law, and my folks met in nearby Grinnell and rode a nice paved bike trail from town to Rock Creek State Park, about 7 miles west. Once we got there, we stood around the boat ramp for a while and decided to ride further west on the county highway to see if we could circle the lake. We got a few miles out but couldn't find or see a south-bound paved county road, so we decided to turn back around.

On our way up the last hill before the lake, in a single-file line on a road with no paved shoulder (the norm on county roads in Iowa), a huge pickup truck pulling a fishing boat came barreling down the hill behind us and didn't slow down whatsoever as he came upon us on the uphill side. Rather than giving us the full lane (which is the lawful and safe thing to do), he pulled maybe into the middle of the road and flew by us going probably 65 mph (speed limit is 55), scaring the crap out of all of us, given his speed and the truck's and boat's proximity to our exposed bodies, and the fact that trailers aren't exactly the most stable things when being pulled down the road.

Reactions were mixed. My dad swore (one of my friends has lovingly nicknamed my dad "Swear Gumm"), my mom said something about wishing she had rockets on her bike to catch the guy. My daughter up in front of our line was shaken. Like most of us, I too was angry, but I knew where the guy was headed: The boat ramp, where we had just come from and where we were again approaching. I rode up to my wife and said, "If that guy's at the boat ramp, I'm gonna go have a talk with him."

"Take your dad with you," was her response.

Friday, August 30, 2013

#MennoNerdsOnSyria: A personal connection

Mohammed & I; April 2012
See other MennoNerd reflections on the escalating situation in Syria.

In the spring of last year I sat on the lawn of Eastern Mennonite University and participated in the university graduation ceremony. Clustered by program and by the order of our last names, I was happily seated next to a friend from my days at EMU's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, Mohammed.

Mohammed is from Syria, and shortly after he began his graduate work at the CJP, the civil war in his home country broke out. I remember seeing him in those early days of the conflict deeply troubled, and mentioning in class his distressing phone conversations with family back home. (I blogged about this two years ago.) The conflict became the intense focus of his peacebuilding education (of course it likely was even  before the conflict). After graduation, Mohammed began working in DC, advocating foreign policy with regard to Syria to US lawmakers.

I offered him my prayers then, just as I continue to offer prayers for Mohammed and his country now, in these dark days of a tragedy of vast humanitarian and environmental proportions. And with his permission, I'd like to offer a few remarks on where I sit with respect to the conflict...

First off, Mohammed is not a pacifist. It might come as a surprise to some that not all who go through EMU's graduate program in peacebuilding are committed pacifists, but it's true. Indeed, even some of the faculty are peacebuilders who hold to the just war tradition.

Mohammed has been very active on Facebook in recent months, posting a stream of updates on his work and the situation in Syria. In the past week, in the wake of the chemical attacks that Assad seems to have carried out on his own people, and as the US has begun signaling that it will indeed militarily intervene in the conflict, Mohammed has become joyous, even exuberant, at the news of this military intervention.

So on the one hand, I have Christian friends both pacifist and otherwise saying, basically, "This is not a good idea." On the other I have my friend, Mohammed, whose first-hand witnessing to the conditions on the ground in Syria, his home country that he loves, saying this military intervention will be a good thing and it won't be like US interventions in recent years: Limited in scope, targets already communicated, no "shock and awe," etc.

I hold to my Christian pacifist convictions in this or any other situation, yet my empathy for and friendship with Mohammed and his longing for justice in his ravaged country I also hold in my heart and mind.

My only meaningful response is this: Kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy. Grant grace and peace to those who suffer in Syria; and patience, humility, and wisdom for those with their hands on the levers of world power. Kyrie eleison.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Inside, behind, and beyond King's "Dream"

From Toledo, IA
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; August 28, 1963 (AFP/AFP/Getty Images)
This post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm. This post concludes our reflections on chapter 3.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This massive rally is often remembered primarily for the final speech of the day, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech. But the organizers and other speakers had been striving and longing for this day for at least twenty years. A recent segment on Democracy Now! and an article in Dissent Magazine have helped me see more fully the radical roots of this march, which made possible King's speech. But it's been a long road for me to appreciate any of this...


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Life happens, we deal with it

From Toledo, IA
The right place to talk; notice who got the big-boy glass
(the little guy/me)
This is a meta-post in our ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm.

The Coles-Hauerwas book blogging project has slowed down a bit in recent weeks for a number of reasons. It all started when I spent a week in Virginia for work, which among other things (like a mild existential crisis) granted me a bit of time to hang out with these two yayhoos on the right, the Brothers Jonathan. We had a great chat, and at the time we were wading into chapter 3, which John had just posted on.

But I've been holding the ball for a few weeks now, still in ch. 3 with no post up, so I got some 'splainin' to do. Long story short: life circumstances for Jon and I are changing. Just this week (this morning, in fact), Jon is starting another semester at EMU as a dual-degree student as well as taking on some new work responsibilities. Balancing all that with his family life is tricky business, and having done that myself (though with not as many children!) I can sympathize completely.

For my part, I'm ramping up for a writing project, some curriculum planning for a course I'm teaching next spring, and some new church ministry responsibilities starting this fall. Add to that my day job and family life, and my plate is looking rather full. So in light of that, we're making a mid-course correction in this here project...

Sunday, August 18, 2013

When home is not yet home

From Toledo, IA
Morning devotions; Aug. 16, 7:30 a.m.; Harrisonburg, Virginia
The authors says:
So then let's also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses [martyrs] surrounding us. Let's throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith's pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God's throne.
(Hebrews 12:1-2; CEB; Revised Common Lectionary reading: Year C, Proper 15 (20))
It was an interesting time in Harrisonburg last week. I was back for my second return trip for my ongoing work with EMU, and this time my wife and daughter accompanied me, their first trip back since moving back to Iowa last summer. And...all three of us wept at various times.

My tears came on suddenly during corporate prayer last Sunday as we worshiped at Park View Mennonite Church, our last church home in Harrisonburg. "And for those who are grieving, Lord...," the leader intoned. - Boom. Quivering lips, the whole nine yards. My daughter patted and rubbed my back. It had been a while since she'd seen her old man cry.

Grief. I'm still in it.

We're home in Toledo and our sense of God's calling us to move here remains unshaken. But it's also the case that I miss university life and the dynamic community of Harrisonburg. Plus struggling rural Midwestern towns are not easy places to live for people with visions of radical ecclesia and community peacebuilding/development. The fruits of the Spirit - especially patience - are rarely manifest in my daily being in our still-new nearby. My cup of compassion runs low and it impacts my ability to faithfully love my family, neighbor, and enemy.

The text above from the lectionary is water for my dry soul. The race metaphor is familiar, but the cloud of witnesses strikes me afresh when I was doing devotions the other morning (from which this post is derived - the filling out of the blank page pictured above). This cloud of witnesses, it's as if they are watching the race we run, cheering on the runners who yet toil on this earth; not in vain (we pray), but for the joy of life abundant in Jesus Christ.

It's important to notice in the previous chapter that this cloud of witnesses is comprised of those prior champions of the faith who...
...were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.  Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect. (Heb. 11:36-40)
Not without "us" are we made perfect. Suffering, resurrection, and the body of Christ - all inextricably linked. Taken with the other New Testament texts like Romans 5:3-5 which reflect on the fruits of suffering in the Christian faith, this is an encouraging text. It helps put my "suffering" (a strong word for what I'm experiencing, yes) in perspective.

As we continue to discern what faithful and radical discipleship looks like here - seeking the peace of the farm town - I'll continue to seek spiritual nourishment where I can (trips back to Harrisonburg; my dear friend Travis here in town) and try to run the race that's laid out before us here in Toledo...

Monday, August 12, 2013

Baptized at the Folk School: Christianity and Radical Democracy

From Keezletown, VA
This post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm. This post begins our reflections on chapter 3.


How might we move west of Cornel West? How do we follow him down the trail he’s blazed with the intention to bushwhack beyond his surveying? Rom Coles reviews West’s Democracy Matters for the American Academy of Religion, admiring his rhetorical skills and critical mind, but he thinks West favors prophetic voicing at the expense of prophetic listening. He worries that West underemphasizes the long and slow building of receptive relationships within social movements (50-51). I also hope that Cornel West continues to listen to the “movements in the streets, on front porches, at kitchen tables” (48), as Ella Baker and the early Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) did. But I also hope he doesn’t stop speaking because I need to keep listening to the scarfed philosopher who inflects to the cadence of the beatbox in his head. 

I read Democracy Matters last fall and was impressed with its scope and style. West insists that we must resist the three great threats to democracy: free-market fundamentalism, aggressive militarism, and escalating authoritarianism. West knows these threats aren’t new to America, a nation born with a schizophrenic vision because the “contingent origins of American democracy and the ignoble beginnings of imperial America go hand in hand . . . The fight for democracy has ever been one against the oppressive and racist corruptions of empire.” According to West, this fight will need three traditions for energy and inspiration. The first is a Socratic commitment to questioning ourselves, authorities, and dogmas of the day. The second is a Jewish prophetic commitment to justice for all people that condemns the golden calf of wealth and the blood-soaked flag. And the third tradition is the tragicomic commitment to hope, expressed by the “painful eloquence of the blues” and the “improvisational virtuosity of jazz,” both staring “painful truths in the face” and persevering “without cynicism or pessimism.” West’s account of democracy challenges and strengthens my anarchistic tendencies.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Tracking (nearly) vanished footprints: Christianity and radical democracy

From Harrisonburg, VA
This post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas and Romand Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, and Brian Gumm. This post continues our reflections on ch. 2, a letter to Hauerwas from Coles. 
This wound is in me, as complex and deep in my flesh as blood and nerves. I have borne it all my life, with varying degrees of consciousness, but always carefully, always with the most delicate consideration for the pain I would feel if I were somehow forced to acknowledge it.
Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound, (4)
In Romand Coles' "Letter of July 17, 2006" (Chapter 2) he suggests that "we care for the world as we care for the dead" (32) and that this gets straight to the heart of a radical-democratic relation to time. This responsibility to ancestors means that our focus of responsibility shifts from only being about saving the present-moving-to-the-future. We've got to do the slow work of sifting through the past, getting to know those who have walked before us, tracking those footprints that are still (but just barely) visible on the soil of this earth we all inhabit. We must do this because, as Coles suggests, "The disaster has already occurred" (33, emphasis in original).

That the disaster has already occurred suggests that this tracking of nearly vanished footprints will be work of the dirtiest, messiest and most lamentable sort. If the disaster has already occurred, then at least some of our tracking will put us on the trail of that disaster - and being on the trail might mean that we are actually led to the disaster. Tracking takes time, patience and an incredible attention to detail, all the more so when the sands that hold the footprints are shifting and the wind is howling and the rain is making it hard to see. I know I shouldn't have to write it but the fact that the work of uncovering these footprints is called "tracking" should help us to recognize that we most likely aren't going to find nearly vanished footprints in standard textbooks and public histories.

I opened this post with the quote from Wendell Berry because I think he suggests what might be involved in uncovering the wound of slavery and racism in America. In so far as I was born in this spot of land now referred to at the United States of America and was raised in it the quote could be mine, were I as eloquent as Berry. Yes, the wound is in me. It is not something external to me that I can merely look at from time to time and admire how well (or poorly) it is healing. And much like my children enjoy keeping their band-aids on as long as possible so as to avoid the pain of tearing it off so I, like Berry, am often hesitant to open the wound to the fresh air. But the fresh air is what the wound needs, it cannot be hidden forever to fester and become infected. Thankfully Berry continues thus:
But now I am increasingly aware of the opposite compulsion. I want to know, as fully and exactly as I can, what the wound is and how much I am suffering from it. And I want to be cured; I want to be free of the wound myself, and I do not want to pass it on to my children. Perhaps this is only wishful thinking; perhaps such a thing is not to be done by one man, or in one generation. Surely a man would have to be almost dangerously proud to think himself capable of it. And so maybe I am really saying only that I feel an obligation to make the attempt, and that I know if I fail to make at least the attempt I forfeit any right to hope that the world will become better than it is now.
Berry, The Hidden Wound, (4)
There is a vulnerability here that I think has resonance with the kind of radical-democratic practice that Coles is suggesting. It is the vulnerability of diagnosing disasters of the past (actually, maybe its letting others diagnose the disasters of the past), and the recognition of complicity in those very disasters. Its the vulnerability of refusing to cover over the past with immediate return to the present-moving-to-the-future. I suppose its the vulnerability of risking death, or at least the death of the story I used to tell about the past. I think it requires something akin to Rizpah's commitment to sit with the dead, for a whole blazing hot summer, (2 Samuel 21:1-14) in order to keep bodies safe from scavenging animals. But the kind of sitting still that Rizpah embodies I find to be extremely difficult if not impossible.

Preventing Re-Murder: Christianity and Radical Democracy

From Keezletown, VA
This is post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm. This post continues our reflections on ch. 2, a letter to Hauerwas from Coles.

Soon after I graduated from college, several friends and I started a reading group called The 451, in honor of Ray Bradbury’s novel. We each nominated several books to a shortlist and decided together which ones to read. Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being, in many ways a poetic anti-theodicy, was one of the finalists. As Brian pointed out in the previous post, Coles references the unbearable theme of suffering throughout Dillard’s book that reminds us of our responsibility to the dead. “Under emperor’s orders,” says Dillard, “living workers crushed their fellows’ dead bones and stuck them into the Great Wall as fill.” Coles wonders out loud how we might live haunted by these disasters that have already happened, because responsibility to the dead can’t mean preventing physical violence because the “disaster has already occurred” (33).

Burning olive groves at Ni'lin to clear a path for the wall.
Photo by Jonathan McRay
During my time in Palestine I occasionally worked in a small village called Ni’lin. Three Israeli settlements on hilltops surround Ni’lin. In 2008, Israel began constructing the Separation Wall through the outskirts of the village. Like many Palestinian villages, Ni’lin depends on its olive and citrus groves and livestock. But the wall annexed or destroyed 6,000 trees, many of which were the oldest and most productive. The wall also impeded Ni’lin’s access to neighboring towns and cities, schools, and healthcare facilities. In response to construction, Ni’lin residents launched a grassroots nonviolent campaign to resist the seizure of land. I was in the village the day the bulldozer came to begin construction and when the nonviolent protests started.

In 2009, Ni’lin residents organized a tribute to Holocaust victims through a village memorial exhibition held at their municipality. Most of the villagers had read about the genocide but this event was the first time many of them had seen pictures. The exhibit tried to remember and lament this disaster, to express that Palestinians had nothing to do with the Holocaust, and to acknowledge that fate has now put these people together on the same land. These villagers give one response to Coles’ question. We need more responses like this. We need litanies for those who died and survived like Against Forgetting, an anthology of poetry from the 20th century’s wars and conflicts.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Upon these innumerable bones: Historical harms and ethics

From Toledo, IA
A mass grave in post-genocide Rwanda
(Photo copyright AP)
This is post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm. This post kicks off our reflections on ch. 2.

This chapter takes the form of a letter which Coles wrote to Hauerwas in July, 2006, from his mother-in-law's house in northern California. After telling Stanley a bit about the surroundings, Coles leads off his response to the essay found in the previous chapter with a rather striking image:
Have you ever read Annie Dillard's For the Time Being? She writes there in a way that repeatedly evokes the unfathomable numbers of dead humans and nonhumans in the earth underneath our feet... I'm frequently overtaken by this sensibility. By a sense of the dead everywhere around me... by a sense that responsibility travels backwards, first toward the dead - their works, their unfulfilled dreams, their memories. (31, emphasis added)

Thursday, August 1, 2013

RAGBRAI 2013: A coffee snoot's dilemma, Pt. 2

Photo by Richard Masoner/Flickr
This is the second and final post on my thought experiment/journaling last week while riding my bike across the state of Iowa on RAGBRAI. See part one.

RAGBRAI Day 2: Mon. July 22; Perry, IA

I'm writing from the house of an extraordinarily hospitable Presbyterian minister, a colleague-of-a-collueague-of-a-pastor/friend...the kind of connections you make when trying to secure your own overnight stays for RAGBRAI. We didn't know this lady one little bit before tonight but she's treating us like royalty, even with her difficulty getting around due to health issues and simultaneously babysitting her adorable grandson. So grateful.

No entry for yesterday due to passing out from exhaustion, and I'm getting there tonight. Adventures in coffee snobbery continue: Yesterday on the route, just outside Council Bluffs, there was a Fair Trade and Organic coffee hut. All the magic words to which coffee snoots swoon! The place was called "Fair Shot" (cute). But I passed it by; the guilt of Day 0 was still too close at hand. Later, my sister-in-law expressed her being impressed by my self-control. I didn't tell her it was based in shame.

This morning, though, I had a hankerin' for Good Coffee. We left Elk Horn... (We stayed there instead of the official overnight town of Harlan because we have family there. We ended up riding 10 extra miles the first day and 10 fewer miles the next. So we kinda cheated.) - Anyway, we left Elk Horn just before 6am this morning and got to our mid-point of Guthrie Center around 9am. Due to said cheating we were very early, and there were very few cyclists in the vendor village set up in the city park at the edge of town. I only found one vendor selling coffee, and I hovered there, consulting with Erin - who was at that point supportive of my quest for Good Coffee.

A few teenaged boys working the stand, watching me hover, asked me if I wanted anything. "Um...aaah...what kind of coffee do you have?"


Wednesday, July 31, 2013

RAGBRAI 2013: A coffee snoot's dilemma, Pt. 1

Photo by Richard Masoner/Flickr
Last week, the Bros. Jonathan and I took a break from our book-blogging series. For my part, I completely disconnected from digital technology, hopped on my bicycle to ride across the state of Iowa with my wife's family and tens of thousands of other cyclists in the proud Iowa cultural liturgy called RAGBRAI.

When I get away from computers, the slower pace - and whatever else - tends to put me in an observant, reflective mood. I notice things, something catches in my eye-and-brain, I think about it for a while, and sometimes I write about it.

And before we even got to the western edge of the state to our starting town of Council Bluffs, something struck me and stuck with me. So what follows in the next few posts is a topical travelogue of sorts for my RAGBRAI 2013 experience, culled from the pages of my diary/journal, in which I scribbled as we traversed the state from river to river, Missouri to Mississippi - seeing again after four years on the east coast the subtle beauty of my home state. Now, the entire experience for me was much more fun and awesome than what follows, but this is what got written down...

Monday, July 29, 2013

5 theology-rocking books

Photo by Aaron Suggs via Flickr
While the series on the Hauerwas & Coles book proceeds here on Restorative Theology with the Brothers Jonathan, I'm slipping this post in as part of an ad hoc NuDunkers "summer interlude" series. We've been too busy with summer commitments to organize any topical discussions, but Josh Brockway had the great idea for each of us to write up a list of "5 books that 'rocked my theology."

Dana just put hers up Saturday, Josh put his up today, and mine appears below. I'm looking forward to the other NuDunkers chiming in! And as always, anyone's more than free to join the conversation in the comments on any of these posts and at the NuDunkers G+ community page.

Like Dana, I share a distaste with systematic theology as a genre. My only substantive engagement with anything considered "systematic" is the three-volume series by James McClendon (which was an intentional short-circuting of the systematic genre). I found McClendon's work somewhat helpful but it doesn't make the list below. Next, this list will not strike some theology snoots as "proper theology," so what I'm listing below are books that have profoundly shaped my theological approach, rather them being straight-up works of theology. Finally, I'll be listing the books below in the order in which they appeared in my life (a narrative approach), thereby rocking my theological world.

Ghosts and Water: Radical Democracy and Christianity

From Keezletown, VA
This is post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm. This post continues the conversation about the first chapter.

Radical democracy haunts Hauerwas, which indicates that he still sees himself as an outsider to that praxis. This first chapter charts his friendship with Coles, whose appropriation of Yoder is the bridge between these Durhamites. But Rom Coles haunts the high-church Yoderian just as Yoder hovers over the shoulder of the radical democrat: these specters rattle the walls of fortified thought and propel engagement with new ideas (17). Coles reminds Hauerwas of stories about radical political imaginations that see Christianity and radical democracy as partners. Our deepest convictions are troubled by ghosts and noises in the night. They whisper open-ended questions in our ears. Coles sees democracy not as a possession but as the practice that listens to these voices (18), almost akin to deconstruction. As John Caputo says:
deconstruction describes the ghosts that haunt us, the spirits that inspire us, and the difficulty of discerning among these several spirits. Deconstruction . . . is not a determinate position . . . but a ‘how,’ a way of holding a position, of being under way or being on a path. It is an affirmation without being a self-certain and positive position.
I think radical hermeneutics (borrowing from Caputo) and radical discipleship (borrowing from Ched Myers) help contingency and commitment haunt one another. The former deconstructs our stories by exposing their utter contingency alongside traces of other possible meanings: “God” is a cultural and historical construct shaped over time. The latter exposes the roots of our socioeconomic and historical crises by recovering the transformative roots of our stories: “God” is the wild ruach that in the naming refuses to be named. Because in the end stories are all we have. We are sustained and subverted by our stories in their very contingent reality. “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asks the rich landowner in a book clearly depicting Jesus as, at the very least, good. The star of the show takes himself out of the spotlight. The story deconstructs itself even as it commits to the story it’s telling.

Maybe this is why I don’t have the jealously for Jesus that Hauerwas does. I’m not that possessive, though I’m not wholly opposed to jealously. As Hauerwas and Coles note, certain accounts of jealously can be “unavoidable, necessary, and helpful in resisting odious forms of power” (22). But I don’t think I’m willing to risk ruling to place a bet on my own preferences, as Hauerwas says he and Yoder are willing to do (22). Coles is concerned that Yoder’s insistence on biblical language, like “Jesus is Lord,” could mute postcolonial, liberationist, and ecological voices (and, as Osage theologian George Tinker notes, these voices from the underside of history show that you don’t need Derrida, or Caputo, for deconstruction).

Friday, July 19, 2013

Augustine on war and martyrdom: Grounding death in humility

From Toledo, IA
This post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. Brian's post today continues our discussion on the first chapter, "A Haunting Possibility: Christianity and Radical Democracy," by Hauerwas. See Jon's previous post, and make sure to check out the comments!

Sculpture of Augustine by
Jan Baptist Xavéry; photo by
Haags Uitburo
First, these words from Augustine:
(I)s it reasonable, is it sensible, to boast of the extent and grandeur of empire, when you cannot show that men lived in happiness, as they passed their lives amid the shedding of men's blood - whether the blood of enemies or fellow citizens - under the shadow of fear and amid the terror of ruthless ambition? (From City of God, quoted on p. 26)
Just before the U.S. Independence Day this month, I made a post about technology and the impossibility of a "just" war, wherein I described Augustine as "the imperial church's first political theologian" to preface a striking observation from a post by Vietnam veteran-turned-Christian pacifist, Stan Goff, that:
Augustine's idea that a good human heart could guide the sword never grasped the reality - the reality I have seen with my own eyes in the modern military - that the sword can drive every goodness out of one's heart.
The Anabaptist tradition isn't exactly known for its high esteem of the church fathers such as Augustine, and I certainly absorbed that bias/ignorance from my upbringing in the Anabaptist stream. But I've been warned by a wise Mennonite theologian that we peace church folks shouldn't be so quick to write off the likes of Augustine, and I think the quote above is a good example of that. It seems to temper any imperial bloodlust that pacifist-types (like me) might want to read back into him, and may offer a rejoinder of sorts to Goff's observation (which I still think is powerful and should be taken seriously).

But why is Hauerwas using it here, in a discussion on Christianity and radical democracy?


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

From the farm to the (unstable) table: Radical Democracy and Christianity

From Harrisonburg, VA
This post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. Jon's post today opens up our discussion on the first chapter, "A Haunting Possibility: Christianity and Radical Democracy," by Hauerwas.

First this connection to Brian’s post and the events of the last week moving towards a discussion of our book. Note: this is from bell hooks’ 2001 book All About Love and as such is not specifically discussing the Zimmerman case, but as you’ll see I think it relates (with thanks to Paulette Moore).

White supremacy has taught him that all people of color are threats irrespective of their behavior. Capitalism has taught him that, at all costs, his property can and must be protected. Patriarchy has taught him that his masculinity has to be proved by the willingness to conquer fear through aggression; that it would be unmanly to ask questions before taking action. Mass media then brings us the news of this in a newspeak manner that sounds almost jocular and celebratory, as though no tragedy has happened, as though the sacrifice of a young life was necessary to uphold property values and white patriarchal honor. Viewers are encouraged feel sympathy for the white male home owner who made a mistake. The fact that this mistake led to the violent death of an innocent young man does not register; the narrative is worded in a manner that encourages viewers to identify with the one who made the mistake by doing what we are led to feel we might all do to “protect our property at all costs from any sense of perceived threat. " This is what the worship of death looks like.
That last sentence. Connections between glory, security, violence, and fear/worship of death. Germane to our conversation here for sure.

Now on to the content of Chapter 1...

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Race, state justice, and radically ordinary theology

From Toledo, IA
This is the third post in a series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm. For a bit of context, see the intro post, and posts one and two.

A few things happened this morning that have given focus to my reflection on the introduction to our book. This is also the first post that wasn't first written out over our e-mail conversation, so in some ways I'm breaking from that thread. I hope you guys won't mind, and I think you won't given the circumstances...

Those circumstances are: The family of Trayvon Martin, and indeed a great many more people, are grieving today. For those seeking justice in the wake of Trayvon's death last year, yesterday's ruling - that the gunman, George Zimmerman, was found not guilty of any wrongdoing - is a terrible tragedy, and a miscarrying of justice. I won't dwell on this news or the case other than to say it grieved my heart this morning as I scrolled through my Facebook news feed.

After reading a few reflections on the ruling, I turned to this morning's lectionary texts for devotional reading, and was immediately floored when God put Psalm 82 before me/us. It's worth quoting in full:
God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: "How long will you [i.e. the gods] judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? ... Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked."

They [i.e. the gods] have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

I say, "You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince."

Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!

Friday, July 12, 2013

Moving to the farm: Hauerwas and Coles' introduction

From Harrisonburg, VA
This is the second post in a series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm. For a bit of context, see the intro post, and here's the first post from John.

[Originally an email back to John and Brian]

As I read the intro there were two things that I knew were going to be mentioned in our discussions, and I knew they were going to come from you John: the introductory Wendell Berry quote and the reference to ecotones! And you've come through on both! 

Actually I do find a lot of resonance with this from Berry: "My point is that when one passes from any abstract order... to the daily life and work of one's own farm, one passes from relative simplicity into a complexity that is irreducible except by disaster and ultimately is incomprehensible." Both Christianity and Democracy have become abstractions and many assume that one can speak of either and assume common definitions. Coles and Hauerwas helpfully point in the direction of "moving to the farm" (in terms of making the abstract more concrete) in this book, and I hope it will be a conversation that becomes fruitful. Berry’s quote also mentions, (you know, you've read it too) that to move to the farm in this way by necessity puts us into touch with the complexity (and wildness) of Creation and reminds us of our limitations. I think it notable that he mentions the limitations of knowledge, intelligence, character, and bodily strength - that's a lot of limitations. Also notable is that these limitations don’t seem to be despair-inducing for Berry, just observations about what happens when one passes from abstract to daily life and work (or when one moves to the farm).

I do think that to attempt to make abstractions concrete is to recognize place, at least I think it difficult to avoid place in these kinds of discussions (not that it hasn't been avoided in plenty of cases), and I'm happy that they have employed what seems to be a pretty ad hoc approach to these conversations. They are open about the reality that even as they went about other duties they kept this conversation in mind as a way to keep working at it. Excellent stuff. 


Thursday, July 11, 2013

The "And" In Between: Hauerwas and Coles' Introduction

From Keezletown, VA
This is the first post in a series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm. For a bit of context, see the intro post.

[Originally an email to Brian and Jon]

Well my friends, I think I’ll like this book. It may not be the best dialogue on the subject or include all my desired themes or case studies, but it sounds like a good conversation, which always holds open the possibility for mutual conversion. Hauerwas and Coles hint that this is a commonality between Christianity and radical democracy: both are stories and traditions about conversions in our lives. John Caputo says that the most interesting word in the phrase “philosophy and theology” is the and, and the same might be true for “Christianity and radical democracy.” The and is where all the tension, possibility, and pollination is located.

And that’s why I got excited at the mention of ecotones! Permaculturist Toby Hemenway says that ecotones are where things happen, sites of transition and translation with blurred boundaries. This whole book is about that fertile margin, that and. Maybe that’s what convinced me that I’ll like this tag-team, especially because to them “collecting and retelling stories of radical ordinary political initiatives” is the best way to explore this ecotone. Unsurprisingly, a long opening quote from Wendell Berry also convinced me. Judging from the index, he doesn’t feature prominently in the book but his life and writing weave together the three titular themes.