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.

Using the New Testament story of Mary anointing Jesus feet (John 12:1-8) Hauerwas asserts that those of us who burn with a passion for justice might end up in collaborating with none other than Judas Iscariot. Why? Judas is worried about justice, he's worried that the most "right" thing be done with that expensive perfume! And Hauerwas suggests that truth be told most of us should just go ahead and admit that we agree with Judas. We too have bought into the economy of scarcity that death appears to create. (Remember the connection between death and poverty in the story; Mary is preparing Jesus for his death) But we too often look back at this story with the assumption that Mary (the poor) is anointing Jesus (the rich). (Sidenote: So much would change about how we read the New Testament if we could remember first that Jesus was poor/marginalized/outcast, no?) We perhaps do better to consider a reading of the story that helps us see that Mary anointing Jesus is one poor person anointing another poor person in preparation for death. Mary is giving Jesus a just preparation for his death; she is "doing justice" to Jesus by preparing him for his death.

In celebrating the Eucharist we celebrate a poor man, given for the world. A poor man was resurrected for the world. If it is a poor man who was given and resurrected then how can our zero-sum game not be disrupted and shattered? It is those who see most clearly the justice of Mary's anointing of Jesus that can celebrate with the poor because they have been graced to see that the poor are the riches of the church. "Mary the sister of Lazarus has done for Jesus what the church must always be for the world, that is, a lavish gift poured out for the poor by the poor." (109)

It took me reading an assigned chapter in Richard Bauckham's Bible and Mission to more fully appreciate the connections here between Ella Baker, Bob Moses, Jean Vanier, L'Arche, and the point that Hauerwas is making. Bauckham ends a chapter with this: "It is to these - the poorest, those with no power or influence, the wretched, the neglected - to whom God has given priority in the kingdom, not only for their own sake, but also for all the rest of us who can enter the kingdom only alongside them" (Bauckham, 54).

Baker, Moses, Vanier and L'Arche seem to understand the difference between living as though "they (the poor, marginalized, etc) can't get there without us" and living as though "we can't get there without them." If the first is true, that they can't get there without us, then we won't do much celebrating with the poor and/or marginalized. And any "justice" work that we do will simply perpetuate the same problem, we will assume that they can't have justice without us (which connects to Brian's answer to my "white-guilt" question after Brian's last post). All of this can easily become self-referential to the point of idolatry.

If the second is true, that we can't get there without them, we can celebrate with regard for each one. Judas would have us believe that celebration is wasteful. May we be haunted by the possibility that he is wrong.

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