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.

Into the radical ordinary of friendship

From Toledo, IA
Real nerd friends read real nerd books together!
(Jonathans McRay & Swartz; Hauerwas & Coles)
This post marks the start of a new project here on Restorative Theology. For at least the remainder of the summer, I'm welcoming two great friends - Jonathan McRay and Jonathan Swartz (yes, two Jonathans; more on that below) - as authors onto the blog and we're going to practice some intellectual disciplines here. We're going to be reading and blogging together about the book, Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas and Rom Coles (Cascade, 2008).

We're trying to model here the "better together" approach that is in the book itself, which is one that flowed out of the intellectual friendship between the two authors, one a Christian theologian (Hauerwas) and the other a radical democrat and political organizer+theorist (Coles). It only seems right to engage this book in such a way as what the authors call in the preface, the "much greater and more more mysterious profundity whose name is friendship."

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The anarchist genius of restorative justice?

Do "Grandpa" Zehr's lenses have an anarchist tint?
(Dr. Howard Zehr)
One of my abiding interests during and after my time studying at Eastern Mennonite University was the influence of Anabaptist-Mennonite thought and practice in the formation of the modern restorative justice movement, whose "grandfather," Howard Zehr, was my professor and mentor. (I wrote a paper about the subject, which was later published here.)

Howard has gone on record as saying his intellectual formation was influenced in part by the late Mennonite pacifist theologian, John Howard Yoder (to whom Howard was related; gotta love that Swiss-South German Mennonite gene pool!). And while I've never picked Howard's brain about the particulars of this influence, my imagination continues to look for hints and echoes of Yoder's thought in the vision for restorative justice that Howard taught me.

One thing I've picked out that Howard seems to have affirmed in my paper is the Anabaptist suspicion of the state, rooted in the early movement's historical experience of persecution in the 16th century at the hands of magisterial church-state arrangements. This suspicion of the state and its "wielding of the sword"/"carrying out justice" is one thing that  I argue influenced the formation of the restorative justice movement, and is a critique that remains implicit in restorative justice as I've received it. (More importantly and positively, I argued that it was the movement's ecclesial/social imagination that made it possible for Mennonites in Canada and the U.S. in the 1970s to come up with programs that would eventually get called "restorative justice.")

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Technology and the impossibility of a "just" war

"War is hell"; Sherman torches Atlanta; painting by Mort Künstler
In his book, God and Gadgets: Following Jesus in a Technological Age, Brad Kallenberg argues that we live in an age where we (Americans) have become "Bewitched by Technopoly" (the title of his first chapter). This technopoly, or technological monopoly, on our social imagination can be seen gaining its early footholds in 19th century American history.

As a nation born out of revolutionary violence and struggling to assert itself as a sovereign nation on the world stage, military leadership of this young nation saw that things were not well with the U.S. military. Kallenberg cites military brass of the day "(p)ointing to insufficient supplies, tactical errors, and faulty arms" following the War of 1812, and their desire "to draw up a system of regulations for the uniformity of manufacturers of all arms ordnance, ordnance stores, implements, and apparatus" (quoting Merritt Roe Smith).