Thursday, 27 March 2014

World Vision, The Biblical Text, and 'Good News to the Poor'.

It was less than a week ago that World Vision, an Evangelical Christian humanitarian aid, development, and advocacy organization, announced their decision to hire and extend equal employment benefits and opportunities to same-sex married couples. At that  time, Vice President Richard Stearns made clear that the organization was not changing its belief that sexual relations outside of marriage were sinful, but rather that:

changing the employee conduct policy to allow someone in a same-sex marriage who is a professed believer in Jesus Christ to work for us makes our policy more consistent with our practice on other divisive issues. It also allows us to treat all of our employees the same way: abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage.
Stearns went on to say that the decision was World Vision’s alone, not the result of outside pressure, and that the board were ‘overwhelmingly in favor’ of the new policy. He went on to reassure World Vision supporters:

…we are not sliding down some slippery slope of compromise, nor are we diminishing the authority of Scripture in our work. We have always affirmed traditional marriage as a God-ordained institution. Nothing in our work around the world with children and families will change. We are the same World Vision you have always believed in.
Regardless of those assurances, the backlash from certain segments of the Evangelical Christian community was immediate. The Assemblies of God, one of the largest denominations in the US, urged its 3 million members to cut their support. This was no idle threat; according to Christianity Today, about $567 million of World Vision’s $1 billion budget comes from private contributions, according to the 2012 annual report. Individuals can personally sponsor a child in an undeveloped or underdeveloped nation for $35 a month. Through this programme, World Vision is able to sponsor 1.2 million children worldwide; within days, 2000 supported children had been dropped.

In the face of this backlash, World Vision have been forced to withdraw the new policy. In a statement, they said:

The board acknowledged they made a mistake and chose to revert to our longstanding conduct policy requiring sexual abstinence for all single employees and faithfulness within the Biblical covenant of marriage between a man and a woman…
Stearns told reporters, ‘We’ve listened. We believe we made a mistake. We’re asking (supporters) to forgive and understand our poor judgement in the original decision.’

Needless to say, my emotions over all of this have been on a roller coaster, from surprise and delight with World Vision’s original decision, to anger and depression in the midst of their subsequent decision. I was so angry last night I could barely speak. 

Thankfully I could type, and what you’re reading now is the result.

I am so embarrassed for the World Vision board, its employees, and the many supporters of the organization who supported the original decision. I am outraged for World Vision’s LGBT employees- and for those who honestly believed that World Vision had become a safe and embracing place to apply to work. And I am positively furious that a large portion of World Vision’s global work, and so many children’s lives, were put at risk- and remain at risk.

Make no mistake, that risk is coming from a portion of the Christian community who believe their reading of scripture is more important than the lives of the most poor and the most marginalized people on Earth. The wealthiest Christians on Earth- those in the suburban US- took the poorest and most vulnerable children on Earth hostage, threatened to refuse them food, shelter, medicine and a their advocating voice, all over an employment policy, an issue that the children had never heard of and which didn’t affect them in the slightest.

This is not Christ; this is anti-Christ. This is satanic.

I’m not going to take the time here to get into a biblical exegesis of the issues surrounding LGBT people; regular readers know my views on that topic, and I'm conscious that it is not my area of expertise. My field is liberation theology, and my thoughts on the World Vision issue that I'll give here come from that direction.

Liberation theology arose out of Latin America in the late 60s in the wake of Vatican II and the watershed 1968 meeting of Latin American Catholic bishops in Medellín, Colombia.  Over the next two decades, Latin American theologians such as Gustavo Gutiérrez, Juan Luis Segundo, José Bonino, Leonardo Boff, and Jon Sobrino developed and broadened the movement, but liberation theology is not so much a corpus of their works- impressive as it all is. Rather, liberation theology represented a new theological moment, an attempt to do theology in a new way.  It begins not with doctrine but with a focus on social reality, the social reality of poverty, oppression and marginalization. It prioritizes theological reflection as a means of drawing on the experiences of the people and helping to build their consciousness as the people of God, finding themselves and their circumstances in the biblical text. Liberation theology was methodologically rooted in an attention to praxis, the cyclical process of reflection and action which saw theological reflection not as an end in itself or simply a means to develop a stronger personal piety, but as a component of fundamental social transformation. Finally, liberation theology represented a new theological direction; it was theology done from the perspective of the most poor and the most marginalized. Liberation theology emphasized God’s ‘preferencial option’ for the poor; it recognizes a fundamental incompatibility between the priorities of capitalist economy and the Christian Gospel; In God’s economy, the liberationists contended, the needs of the poor come first. This is not to say God loves the poor more, but in a world where wealth, power and command are prized, God, so said the liberationists, was to be found with the poorest, the most marginalized and the powerless… And so should his Church.

This is why, as a theologian who roots his work in liberation theology, I don’t blame World Vision for reversing their decision. The primary idea that underlays the 'preferential option' is that, when decisions need to be made, priorities set, resources allocated, or money spent, we should begin all discussion from the standpoint of the effects of any action on the poorest or most marginalized in our community. I believe World Vision did that. Faced with a  situation where the health, safety and indeed the lives of children and communities in which they work and for whom they advocate were put at risk, they opted for the poor and for their communities. That is their calling. It is all of our callings. There are any number of things they could have done- many things that I personally believe they should have done. But I want to keep the focus on what they did. 

Don’t blame World Vision; blame those who threatened those in World Vision’s care.

When I first heard about the circumstances that led World Vision to reverse their decision I was immediately reminded of the Hebrew prophetic tradition, the prophets Hosea and Amos, who announced God’s solidarity with the poor and his judgment against the seemingly righteous who couldn’t care less for them. The similarly-themed Sirach 4:1-6 came to my mind:

My child, do not cheat the poor of their living, and do not keep needy eyes wanting. Do not grieve the hungry, or anger one in need. Do not add to the troubles of the desperate, or delay giving to the needy. Do not reject one in distress, or turn your face away from the poor. Do not avert your eyes from the needy, give no one reason to curse you; for if in bitterness of soul some should curse you, their creator will hear their prayer.
These are the Hebrew biblical texts known so well by Jesus, that serve as the basis of his proclamation of the Gospel, which will always be, first and foremost, ‘good news to the poor’ (Luke 4:18) and very bad news indeed for those that oppress and defraud them. The Sirach text goes as  far as to give us an image of the poor- frustrated, desperate, angry with the massive injustices daily heaped against them- crying out ‘God damn the rich!’, and the prophet assuring them that God heard and answered…
In the reality of all these biblical texts, how do those who threaten the poor in World Vision’s care have the unmitigated audacity to dare say that their actions are motivated out of a reverence for scripture?
How can any of them dare to declare themselves ‘Christian’- ‘follower of Christ’- and yet idolize their own reading of the biblical text- their own intellect, their own opinion, their own interpretation- over human lives?

How dare they idolize random proof texts that seem to confirm their cultural biases over the person of Jesus revealed in the Gospels?

Jesus’ love and care for the ‘least of these’, for the desperate, the marginalized and the vulnerable is the foundation of the Gospels, and stands in utter contrast to those who threatened World Vision. When asked who was the greatest in the kingdom of God, Jesus did not call a heterosexual married man and woman to him; he called a child- a vulnerable child, weak, in need of care, trusting and innocent. These, Jesus insisted, were the greatest in God’s kingdom. With that, he issued a warning: ‘If anyone causes one of these little ones who trust in me to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and be thrown in the sea and drowned; Woe to those who cause the weak to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!’ (Matt. 18:6-7)

It was Jesus who said, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them, for God’s kingdom belongs to such as these.’ (Matt. 19:14)

It was Jesus who said ‘I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was destitute, sick, imprisoned, a stranger…’ (Matt. 25)

It is the Gospel of Jesus, ‘good news to the poor’, that invites us to find ourselves in these texts. Are we feeding the poor, or are we starving them?

Are we giving fresh water, or are we dumping pollutants in the river?

Are we  giving, or are we withholding?

Are we healing, or inflicting?

Are we welcoming, or are we abandoning?

Are we liberating, or are we incarcerating?

Do we wear the cross of salvation round our necks, or a millstone?

Where do you stand? 

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Mass Disillusion, or, Why I (Still) Go to Church

Since I was a child, church attendance has always been a regular feature in my life. Our family was in church every Sunday, and usually several times a week. And I always enjoyed it, not simply the social aspects but the ritualistic and spiritual aspects as well. Church interested me; I felt like it nourished me; it gave me a sense of energy.

Over the past four or five years, I haven’t felt that.

Rather than gaining energy from regular church attendance, I feel like it saps it out of me. I really don’t enjoy going to church.

Well, perhaps that’s not quite the right sentiment; it’d be closer to the truth to say that I find going to church more and more difficult.

There’s been much written in the theological blogosphere about church attendance and how my generation is attending less and less. I’ve read much of it and can relate to some of it. Yet I still feel a personal disconnect from a lot of it. Many writers- as well as many of my friends- seem to be quite content to have given church the push. I don’t feel that way. I really want to go; I don’t want to stop; in fact, I’m not sure if I’d know how to stop going altogether.

Many people I know have stopped going to church for very serious reasons of feeling abused or victimized by church or churchgoers. This hasn’t been my experience, but I completely understand it. And they were right to stop.

I’m aware that most of the issues I’ve chosen to highlight here are matters of personal preference and aesthetic taste rather than many of the issues of feeling hurt or traumatized by the structures of faith practice that many others feel; what I’ve felt from church over the years has been alienation rather than abuse. But I am still aware of what many others might feel from going to church; there is a sense of ennui, disillusion, and fatigue. I often feel like it takes an enormous amount of energy for me to go to church now. And that just doesn’t seem right.

I’m part of the Catholic Church, and feel a real sense of belonging to the worldwide Church, as well as to all of the worldwide Christian faith in all its diversity. I am constantly being nourished by the lives and experiences of my Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Reformed, and non-denominational brothers and sisters, and feel deep connections with them all. But that doesn’t translate into wanting to go to church- it sometimes does, and it certainly used to, but I feel it less and less.

So what is it that makes me not want to go to church? 

I don’t get much out of the music.

I have a B.A. in Music Performance, which included four years of taking music history. That’s where I fell in love with the full corpus of western sacred music. Early Christian liturgical music, from the chants in Arabic, Coptic, Greek, and Latin through to the music of the European Renaissance, is all very precious to me. But Palestrina was who changed my life. Italian composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525 – 1594), wrote sacred music that sounds like this:

That type of music is called polyphony, and Palestrina was the absolute master of writing it. To me, it sounds like a long piece of beautiful, rich silk being pulled over glass spheres laid out on a perfectly smooth wooden floor. Every time I hear the ‘Kyrie’ from his ‘Missa Aeterna’ I cry. Every. Single. Time. To hear it in an actual worship setting, as I did so many times in the cavernous sanctuary of the Cathedral of St. Anne in Belfast, was such an extraordinary privilege. It ruined me for anything else.

Of course, it’s unfair to expect to hear that kind of stuff from a small choir in rural Montana, and I do appreciate their time and their effort. But the music they pick is just insipid. The ‘Gloria in Excelsis’ we sing every week is just worthless. It’s not really their fault; any and all attempts to translate and sing it in English make it (I think) incredibly awkward and clunky. And it goes on forever. And I don’t like worshipping to piano and guitar. I’d get rid of instruments altogether, but no one asks me.

I don’t get much out of the teaching.

I have a PhD in theology. That doesn’t necessarily make me smarter than our priest or other clergy that I know, but it does mean that I’ve spent a lot of time reading theological reflection that is rich, creative and incredibly rigorous. I liken it to almost a physical discipline. I’ve had to develop and exercise theological ‘muscles’ beyond what is typical- and it felt really good. Sometimes I feel like an athlete who loves to do iron man triathlons taking part in a community fun run; I do it, but it’s not pushing those theological ‘muscles’ that way they’re used to being pushed. Lots of people I know, who have studied theology on an academic level, can relate to what I’m talking about. Many have told me so.

Like what I said about music, it’s not that the teaching is bad… ok, sometimes it is. I’ve heard the biblical text abused- made to say or mean what it absolutely does not say or mean. That’s incredibly destructive to our faith and to people within it. But more often than not, I simply hear the biblical text taught from the lowest common denominator, reduced to mushy little ‘feel good’ bits. It’s often lazy and soft. Don’t get me wrong; theological reflection doesn’t need to be complicated to be good. But it does need to be nutritious and constructive. A simple truth briefly stated can stay with you all week and helps you live a more meaningful Christian life. If I get that, I’m satisfied. But I rarely do.

I don’t like ‘folksy’ clergy.

Our priest seems to believe that the more relaxed and informal a worship service is, the better. He begins every service with a run-down of the local high school and college sports news. He’ll stop in the middle of everything to relate quick, clever asides.  His homilies are a series of humourous quips. He’ll break into light banter with congregants. I find it extremely distracting. I don’t need every worship service to be grim and somber, but it should feel different from a parish congregational meeting. I came here to experience the infinite; please shut up about the football.

I don’t like assumed uniformity.

Since the Catholic Church is hierarchical and centralised, this can be a particularly Catholic issue. But across Christianity- whatever the denomination- there is often a tendency to simply assume that everyone in our denomination or congregation all agree on any number of issues. I’m not saying that everyone can or should be able to believe whatever they want to believe; but we need to realistically acknowledge that our readings of social issues, doctrine and Holy Scripture are diverse, complex and growing. And that’s a good thing! Growth and adaptation are signs of life. But believe me: issues surrounding gender, sexuality, and reproduction are spoken of from the pulpit, in the announcements, the newssheet and the website as though we are all in agreement about how these issues should be approached. For those looking for more engagement and complexity, it’s alienating.

I don’t like default prayers for the military.

This dovetails with assumed uniformity. Every week, at the end of the prayers, our priest tacks on a sentence prayer for the members of our faith community serving in the armed forces overseas, for their safety and their safe return. This isn’t in the liturgy; it’s a personal addition. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but if personal additions to the liturgy are permissible, would it be ok for me to chirp up and ask for prayers for those I know who are active peacemakers, anti-war activists, or even incarcerated war resistors? Probably not…

I don’t like sweets for kids who haven’t had their first communion.

Yep, you read that right; kids who haven’t had their first communion get to go up after communion for gummy bears and chocolate. Both of my kids are communicants, and trying to explain to them the superiority of the tasteless chip of wheat flour and water they get to the treats available to younger kids is a headache. The whole practice spreads confusion and misunderstanding about the nature of the Eucharist. Call me a grouch, but I think that it’s important to get that stuff right.

I don’t like hand motions.

Benedict XVI will be long remembered as the Pope who screwed up the Liturgy and then quit. And one of the more ridiculous things put into the new liturgy was a re-emphasis on hand motions- raising our hands at this and that, striking our breasts when we confess our sins, holding hands at the Lord’s Prayer… None of this was a big deal in the working class parishes in North and West Belfast; Irish Catholics just looked at all that and unconsciously let out a small, disparaging laugh that said, ‘well, bollocks to that’ and went on as normal. But Holy God, American Catholics do love their hand motions. I don’t. So there’s me at Mass in rural Montana in an Antrim GAA top with my hands in my hoodie pockets, thinking it all feels incredibly silly. Sorry.  

I don’t like passing the peace. 

Again, this was less of a problem in Ireland, where you quickly make eye contact, take the person’s hand and say ‘peace’. Do that with the three or four closest people around you and you’re done. Here?  Well, first, stand around and wait for the married couples around you to finish their long, lingering embraces. Then wait for them to do that with each of their four children. In the meantime, some people have started to mill around the sanctuary finding people they know to greet. The whole thing quickly becomes a refreshments time with no refreshments. And who needs that?

I don't like the applause.

There is a talented violin player who plays in our worship times, and quite often he  plays in the interlude after communion. He's a lovely player with a rustic, western/Hispanic flavour to his playing. He fills the quiet space beautifully, until he finishes and- usually instigated by our aforementioned priest- we break out in applause for his performance. I find it very inappropriate and hugely distracting. At a wonderful moment of calm spiritual transcendence, it's  like  a  TV announcer saying 'This moment  of calm spiritual transcendence has been brought to you by...' There are about a dozen people  who help to make our worship service a meaningful time- the communion servers, the deacon, the readers, the greeters, even the people who put together the coffee and tea for after the service. None of these people gets applauded for their efforts. Either applaud everyone or don't applaud anyone. Actually, I take that back-  just don't applaud anyone... 

I don’t like flags.

This was a bigger deal when I was part of the Church of Ireland, the Anglican Communion in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Anglican churches- as well as most other churches identified as Protestant in Northern Ireland- are typically festooned with British flags and flags associated with the British military. I found it very disconcerting, like I was being forced to honour a British military and imperial history with which I did not identify and wanted no part of. Since moving away from the Church of Ireland, this issue has receded a bit for me, but I still don’t like flags- any flags- in a church sanctuary. Nope, not even the stars and stripes... Our religious faith should transcend any form of nationalism. When it doesn’t- as all the research I did during my Masters work in post-conflict reconciliation amply shows- the results can be catastrophic. When I’m in church, I want to focus fully on my faith and my spirituality. Flags never help.

So, with all of this constant, low-level irritation, why do I go? 

I think, for me, it comes down to the deep love and devotion I have for the Eucharist itself, known by many names across many traditions- the Lord’s supper, holy communion, the holy mysteries, the breaking of the bread, an t-aifreann. It is an ancient ritual, one that- beyond its spiritual and symbolic understandings- we in the Christian religion believe comes directly from Jesus himself. It is something he did and called upon us to do; to do, he said, ‘in remembrance of me’. It is a long, unbroken string dating back to- literally- the very beginning of our faith.

I’ll struggle with teaching, doctrine, music, practice and people, but all that recedes into the background for me when I am in the presence of the elements- this bread and this wine that at the same time we believe to be so much more.

This is where I meet Jesus.

It is where I touch the divine, where I feel a part of an ancient body of believers stretching from Palestine to North Africa; from Byzantium and Rome to Canterbury; From Ethiopia to Syria to Armenia; From Iona and Lindisfarne to Inishfree and Croagh Patrick; from Swiss reformers to Spanish Jesuits to French missionaries to Irish immigrants; from Catholic Workers to Mennonite pacifists; from Ignatian missionaries to Native Americans to the Flathead valley of Northwest Montana… to now.

If that connection to the Eucharist ever goes away- if that feeling of stability and connection to faith and history ever recedes- then I will indeed stop going to church.

But I don’t think it will. I honestly don’t know how it could. 2,000 years of spectacularly bloated bureaucracy, thoughtlessness, carelessness, cruelty, abuse, and just plain idiocy have never been able to completely obscure the simple faith of love of God and our neighbour...

But that’s the bottom line.