Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Border at the Core: Radical Democracy and Christianity

From Harrisonburg, VA, USA
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. 9, "Gentled Into Being"

As in earlier chapters, Coles names the profundities in the writings of his friend, Stanley Hauerwas – he clearly appreciates that Hauerwas wants gentleness to be “constitutive of any politics that would be just” (208). Further, Coles sees gentleness as a current sweeping through Hauerwas’ writings (influenced by Vanier of course, but Coles thinks John Howard Yoder is just as important to Hauerwas’ gentleness) even though this gentleness is sometimes obscured by the kinds of impatient and polemic writing that Hauerwas engages as he wrestles against the secular theology emanating from nation-states and markets. This secular theology produces an impatience that “cuts deeply into possibilities for becoming communities through which we might learn better to befriend time and enact a politics of gentleness” (208-9). Hauerwas is impatient with the impatience of secular theology – better, he’s downright pissed. The art of gentleness is thus intertwined with the arts of “critical biting” (Hauerwas’ language in the previous chapter) – Hauerwas “never said gentleness somehow implies that one should not have and identify enemies” (209).

Coles has no difficulty sharing these convictions with the theologian, he also wants to hold together gentleness and struggle with enemies – but he senses at least several differences in how they might approach the entwinement of gentleness and struggle. Coles, revisiting a theme from an earlier chapter, is looking for a vulnerability that he wonders if Hauerwas is willing to admit and adopt; and he probes The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics in search of vulnerable offerings. Coles is NOT worried that the church imagined and practiced in The Blackwell Companion constitutes a sect – he values the passionate commitment to hospitable engagement with the world beyond the church. Coles is more worried that the church imagined is a church that “makes the border secondary to an interior volume that is at the center and that only prepares for rather than is itself partly constituted by the borders themselves” (212). Coles’ seems to want to de-center the assumptions of what constitutes a center. Or he wants to make sure the form includes the boundaries. 

In relation to practices this means that the church becomes the foot-washer (but not also in need of being foot-washed by non-Christians), the host of the Eucharist (but not the one who might sit at the lowest spot), and the server (but not needing to be served by those outside the church). “It is as if there is a people called and gathered prior to encountering others, rather than a people equiprimordially gathered and formed precisely at the borders of the encounter” (212). Coles is concerned that a church so imagined will assume that the form is prior to the edge and fail to see that the edges also constituted the form. A church so imagined can tend to assume that it has all it needs to be what it needs to be in the world. A church so imagined tends to avoid the receiving that is at least as important as the giving – “We must not refuse our feet to Jesus… We must feel the pressure of his touch, the touch of the stranger” (213).

The Pastors Brian on baptism

From Toledo, IA
For the past year my family has been worshiping at Christ United Methodist Church here in Toledo. It's the church my wife and I were married in nearly 15 years ago, and it sits just a block away from our house. It's in our neighborhood and so that's where we've gone to church.

Christ UMC is shepherded by Pastor Brian Oliver. When I first showed up last year I approached him after worship and asked, "Need any help?" What pastor doesn't need help? So Pastor Brian and I have had a great time getting to know each other over the past year and we of course have had a lot of fun playing around with the fact that we're both named "Brian." It's been great to have another seminary-educated friend/colleague right here in town. To me, he's "Pastor-Brother Brian."

I've filled the pulpit a few times for him, but this past Sunday we did something new: We team-preached on the topic of baptism in our respective traditions, Methodist and Brethren (esp. the Anabaptist part). Here's the video...

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

"I owe you..."

From Toledo, IA
(Photo by Nils Geylen via Flickr)
I've had debt on the brain lately. Our only car died last week and we had to rush out and get another, financed by a loan. We just signed papers yesterday for a home loan to finance some renovations on our old house. I look regularly at our outstanding student loans from grad school, which we've been paying on for just over a year, and will be for years and years to come.

Everywhere I look, financial debt constitutes a great bit of what we have to worry about in conducting the "business" of our household. We always attempt to be wise with our use of debt; we've never gotten in over our head, we've always been able to make payments on time, even paying a number of loans off early and aggressively. My wife and I both have jobs that pay, relative to the local economy, pretty well. Lenders in the past year have commented that our credit score is quite good; it is therefore quite easy for us to obtain loans.

That it is so easy is not simply a testament to the fact that we've played by the rules, though we indeed have. But as this provocative essay by Pamela Brown argues, the rules are surreptitiously geared to privilege well-off white folks like me. Lending and tax laws have changed over the past few decades, and combined with other socioeconomic and political shifts, consumer debt (credit card and mortgage, primarily) has disproportionately and negatively affected non-whites, particularly African Americans. Sub-prime mortgages, for instance, have not only affected poor blacks but also those solidly in the middle and upper-middle class. The impact of this racially-defined collective loss of wealth could take, by one estimate cited in the essay, take two generations to recover.

Similar to the New Jim Crow, then, a kind of "debtor's prison" has enclosed a large portion of the African American populace in the U.S., under a system that is purportedly "colorblind." That notion of colorblindness is, however, a smokescreen.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The gentle virtues of Grandpa Bud

From Toledo, IA
Grandpa Bud (center), his son (left), and my family
at the WWII memorial in Washington, D.C., April 2012
On the last day of 2013, we buried my wife's grandfather, Bud Thiessen. He had been "Grandpa" to me since I married into the family nearly 15 years ago, and it was an honor to be asked by the family to officiate his funeral and graveside services.

Bud was a farmer and a truck driver. He was also a WWII veteran and proud of his service, which inspired a number of men in subsequent generations to serve in the military. He's pictured here at the right on an "Honor Flight," a program that transports WWII veterans from all over the country to the memorial on the National Mall in D.C. We were living in Virginia at the time and so were privileged to be there with him and his son, Sam, my wife's uncle. In light of all this, he could be rightly characterized as a "man's man."

So while courage and honor were two of his noble virtues, in my eulogistic reflections I wanted to also lift out what I took to be Grandpa Bud's "gentler" virtues that were crucial to his being a good man, as he indeed was. My intent for doing so was theologically rooted in the fact that virtues which might commonly be called "gentle" are precisely those that Jesus taught and exhibited himself, and the New Testament writers commend to those who would follow Christ. In naming and celebrating them in Grandpa Bud, I also encouraged those who knew him to embody these in their/our own lives. So they are...