Tuesday, 23 February 2016

The Feast of St. Polycarp: Celebrating a Multiracial, Multicultural Church

Today is the feast of St. Polycarp, Church Father and 2nd cent. Bishop of Smyrna (Now Izmir, in Turkey). 

Polycarp occupies an important place in the history of the early Christian Church. 

He is among the earliest Christians whose writings survive, and is revered equally by Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches, Evangelicals, mainstream Protestants and Catholics alike. 

But what's most important at this moment of rising hate, intolerance, nativism, racism, the 'war on terror', the 'migrant crises', and willful ignorance is not the fact that he was a righteous man, a scholar, or even that he was a Christian.

I think the most important aspect of Polycarp to us, right now, is that he was Turkish. 

Christianity was birthed in an incredibly multi racial, multicultural region. And Polycarp was bishop of an important city. 

Walking the streets of Smyrna, you would have seen goods and wares for sale from the Caucasus, India, China, Africa...

You would have heard the majority speaking Greek, but also would have heard Arabic, Armenian, Aramaic, Amharic, Farsi, Balkan dialects, Celtic-speaking Gauls...

Asia Minor was a global crossroads... And the Christian Church was in the middle of it. 

To be Christian is to be multiracial and multicultural. 

We were black, brown, and multilingual long- long- before we were white and English-speaking.

When we forget that, Christianity dies. 

Holy St. Polycarp, pray for us...

Monday, 15 February 2016

How (Not) to Pray For Richard Dawkins

The Church of England, the mother church of the Anglican Communion, recently got itself into a bit of a Twitter spat.

In response to the news that scientist and author Richard Dawkins had suffered a minor stroke, the Church’s official Twitter feed announced:

Praying for Richard Dawkins and his family

The message was deemed insensitive and ignorant by many on Twitter, and the Church was widely accused of smugness or even sarcasm, ‘trolling’ the famously-outspoken atheist and opponent of organized religion.

An equal number of Twitter users defended the Church, as did the Church itself. The Rev. Arun Arora, the Church’s communications director, issued a statement that the criticism of the tweet ‘stemmed from a misunderstanding of what prayer is’, adding that he would indeed be praying for Dawkins as well; ‘It is the very least I can do.’

You’re welcome to jog over to Twitter and read the comments (which, this being Twitter, runs to well over a thousand).

Much of the Twitter debate has revolved about the Church’s right- indeed, its duty- to pray for Dawkins. The Church’s raison d'etre, they argue, is to pray for those in need;

Some of it argues that the criticism of the Church is just another attempt to forcibly remove religion from public life;

Some of it is a back-and-forth argument about the efficacy of prayer;

Others point out what they see as the insensitivity of praying for someone who has so often made clear their contempt for prayer itself…

There are strengths and weaknesses in all of these debate points, but I don’t think any of them are the central issue.

The important issue for me is not the Church’s prayer, but the Church’s public announcement that it was praying.

It’s a small distinction, but I believe it’s a vital one.

In the account of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6, Jesus makes clear that public prayer, or the public announcing that you are praying, is not only unnecessary, but uncalled for:

When you pray, you must not be like hypocrites who love to stand and pray in the assemblies and at the street corners, being seen by others. 
Truly, I say to you, if that is what they want, then that is all they shall ever have.
But when you pray, go into your room, shut the door, and pray to God who is in secret. And God who sees in secret will hear you.
And do not heap up empty phrases as the unrighteous do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for God knows what you need before you ask him.

In the age of mass communication, Jesus’s words can seem utterly confusing and counterproductive… which might be why so many Christians simply ignore them. Not let people know what I’m doing, especially when I’m doing something good and righteous? Are you insane?

Evangelism-the idea of openly and practically communicating the message of the Kingdom of God- is so central a tenant of the Christian faith that doing so at every opportunity, by any means available, and as publicly as possible is seen as an intrinsic good, a ‘no-brainer’.

But Jesus seems to be tempering that desire with a certain caution, an admonishment that our desire for public display of religious devotion might actually spring from other desires, less positive and darker…

He also seems to be trying to convey the goodness and benefits of private religious practice- benefits that are always in danger of being beaten into the ground by Christianity’s penchant for very public witness. The desire to ‘get the message out’, to ‘be seen and heard’, to ‘show the world our faith’ overwhelms all concerns of deference, sensitivity, and grace.

This is why Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount remains such a radical declaration. Prayer, fasting, and acts of charity are all put into the realm of stuff we just shouldn’t bring up:

Put simply, if you’re tweeting that you are praying for someone, you’re missing the point;

If you post to Facebook what you’re giving up for Lent, you’re missing the point;

If your church posts photos on its website of the youth group working with Habitat for Humanity, you’re missing the point.

I realize that this idea will horrify some Christians. ‘How will people know we’re Christians if they don’t see our good deeds?! People need to see the love of Christ in action!’

They do need to see our good deeds… but there’s no need for us to announce that we're doing them.

It’s not up to me- or anyone else- to pass judgement on the motives behind the Church of England’s tweet. But I can think of several instances in my own life when someone informing me that they have been, or will be, praying for me has come not as a comfort but like a smack in the mouth- condescending, judgmental, or point-scoring.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to be saying, just get on with praying; talking about it just puts the whole exercise at risk…

And who knows? There might be instances when not praying for someone at all might be- just might be- the better option, the more Christ-like option.

Taking part in a public debate in 2011, author, journalist, and notoriously trenchant critic of all religion Christopher Hitchens related an experience from his treatment for cancer:  

I’ve had very involved in my care a great American, Francis Collins, who is the director of the National Institute of Health, and who has helped me sequence my genome- amazingly- and possibly find a cure for an individualized mutation from which I suffer.

Francis is probably one of the most devout believers I’ve ever met. In fact, I’m lucky to be his friend because of the religion debate. He’s a very sincere and devout Christian.

And all he does is say he won’t pray for me…

And on that, we have one of the nicest armed truces it’s ever been my pleasure to observe.

Collins chose to place the beliefs and feelings of a dying man above- or at least on an equal footing- with his own.

He chose to avoid utterly the dangers of public use of religious piety to which I think Jesus was referring in Matthew 6- pride, hubris, self-importance…

Beyond even that, he abandoned the petitioning of God on Hitchens’ behalf altogether- as though God is dependent on us to tell him to get to work, or needs us to specifically inform him of what needs to get done…

Collins obviously deemed the contribution of his considerable medical expertise to Hitchens’ life as sufficient enough.

That, to me, was an act of true and genuine faith.

For Christians living in the age of the smart phone, social media, and the ‘selfie’, I think it’s a type of faith we might want to cultivate…

Saturday, 13 February 2016

The Politics and Spirituality of American Immigration:

I was taking a break at work last night, picked up a copy of the local newspaper, and found this in the letters section:

now we must endure an influx of recent "invaders" (illegals) and supposed "Syrian" refugees, because our "general government" has decided that we are the dump of the world for its poor cowards afraid to fight for their own lands and powers? We, the people of Montana, do not need to take the poor of the world…

It was a depressingly familiar rant.

The fact that it was being written by the ancestor of European migrants living on land originally held by the Salish, Kootenai, and Pen d’Orielle  peoples is particularly ironic.

But that’s a whole other blog post…  

Anyway, another letter on the same page tried to be more even handed:

Unlike legal immigration of the past, where immigrants have properly assimilated and contributed to American culture and way of life, the current wave of refugees do not.

But is that true? Did previous generations of legal immigrants receive a welcome and assimilate easily into American society? Addressing these questions throws up the reality of America's conflicted relationship with the idea of immigration.

On the one hand, America is proud to be a nation of immigrants. It fits into the national narrative of America as the ‘Land of Opportunity’, where the populations of the world- fleeing stifling monarchies, cruel oppression, and universal health care- bravely make their way to the golden shores of the USA. Old languages, dress codes, and social mores are delightfully abandoned and the shared values of individual hard work and adopted patriotism combine to create that most noble of humans, the ‘American’.

It has never been that simple.

American immigration history roughly breaks down into four distinct periods: the colonial period; the mid-1800s; the early 20th century; and everything after the mid-1960s. Each period brought different types of races and ethnicities different global regions, and the US has responded to them very differently. 

In the colonial period, most immigrants were Europeans, about half of whom were wealthy business people looking for investment and the other half indentured servants with the promise of freedom after a set amount of time. This is probably the source of the twin American notions of ‘wealth=job creation and development’ and ‘hard work+thrift=opportunity’.

Crucially, most of these immigrants were English, Scottish, and Dutch and shared both the Protestant faith and the politics of Republican representative government. Equally crucially, there were less than 1 million of them.

The mid-1800s saw the first large influx of what we might call ‘foreigners’, mostly rural Irish fleeing what they simply called an Gorta Mรณr (the Great Hunger). Many didn’t speak English and had a very different social structure. The vast majority of them were Catholics, which immediately made them suspect both in terms of religion andwith their supposed allegiance to the Pope- politics. And they were arriving in huge numbers, poor and unskilled. 

Thousands died on the Atlantic crossing, leading many to simply equate ‘Irish’ with ‘poor, stupid, starving, and diseased’. 

Most Americans argued that they didn’t fit into any accepted definition of ‘white-ness’ and were closer in social and racial characteristics to blacks.

At the same time as the Irish came the Chinese, who spoke no English at all and had no connections with white Americans in terms of religion or- if they were even capable of contemplating it- politics. They were seen as utterly inscrutable, pagan, brutish, and good for nothing but essentially the most dangerous and crippling of slave labour, for which they were paid nearly nothing and died in their hundreds.

In 1846 America invaded Mexico and fought its first war solely of aggression and conquest. When it was all over two years later, half of Mexico was now the United States. In contravention of the Treaty of Hidalgo, Mexican citizens and Native American nations who had possessed Mexican citizenship and were now located in the newly-seized territory were denied US citizenship, losing most of their civil and political rights. It was hoped in Washington that they would simply flee south, which many did. It is not for nothing that many present-day Latinos in California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah ruefully point out, ‘We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us’…

The early 20th century saw the arrival of immigrants mainly from Southern and Eastern Europe. This was the era of the Italians, who spoke even less English than the Irish, but- in the opinions of most Americans- shared their same slavish devotion to degenerate Catholicism. Worse, they brought their secret criminal societies with them, to the point that ‘Italian’ was almost synonymous with ‘gangster’ for close to a century.

The outbreak of war with Japan in 1941 brought the full weight of American injustice down on its large population of Japanese citizens. Thousands had their property and belongings confiscated and were deported to concentration camps.

After 1965, most immigration the US has been either Central Americans fleeing dictatorships often supported by the US and the drug wars being fueled by US consumption. The Vietnam War led to a huge influx of Southeast Asians.

All during its history, America sought to curtail or end the immigration of one group or another- all except for the white, the wealthy, and the Western:

The 1790 Act limited naturalization to "free white persons";

In 1875, the Page Act effectively banned the immigration of female Chinese, on the assumption that they were mostly prostitutes. This effectively stopped Chinese in America from starting families;

A few years later, the transcontinental railroads completed, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, banning all immigration from China. It wasn’t repealed until 1943;

In 1921, the Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act, revised into the Immigration Act of 1924. It severely restricted immigration of Jews, Italians, and Slavs in favour of Northern and Western Europeans, while at the same time maintaining the ban on Asian and Arab immigration altogether. According to the US State Department, the measures were necessary to ‘preserve the ideal of American homogeneity’.

This history must be included in any discussion of immigrant assimilation. 

It points to a two-fold reality: first, each new influx of immigrants to the US has assimilated to the best of its ability- and to the extent to which they were allowed. It wasn’t that these communities didn’t want to assimilate; most Americans thought them unable to assimilate and were vehemently opposed to them assimilating. Assimilation has always been a hard-fought struggle for every new group of arrivals.

Secondly, the notion of America eagerly and helpfully creating a path to assimilation is a false one; assimilation- where you can live, where you can shop, what clubs and organizations you can join- is a struggle for immigrants and has very often been achieved in spite of the prevailing culture rather than with its assistance.

These are simply the complexities of a ‘nation of immigrants’ constantly trying to define itself and what it means to be an ‘American’.

My political anarchism and my devout Christianity seeks to transcend nationality and embrace a common humanity. My faith holds sacred the Hebrew scriptures and prophetic writings that point to a God who demanded that we ‘love the stranger’ and that the ‘alien who resides with you’ must be thought of as a ‘citizen among you’ (Deut. 10: 19; Lev. 19:34).

I follow after the life of the man Jesus who insisted that I love my neighbour as myself, and not just my neighbour, but even my enemy (Luke 10:27; Matt. 5:43-44);

This ethic is not bound by any temporal or political understandings of ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’; it transcends nationality, party politics, or legislation. However they arrive, they are ‘among us’ and we are to give them comfort and love;

If they are fleeing a maniacal leader that our government has supported or an intractable war that we have incurred or prolonged, we give them our hospitality and support;

If the State makes it illegal to help them, we resist. For Christians, there is no way for us to practice our religion without taking in and caring for the poor, the stranger, and the refugee. The words of the Gospel make clear that it is Jesus himself who is hungry, thirsty, ill, incarcerated, and a stranger, and if we don’t care for them, we don’t care for him (Matt. 25: 35,40) and, as we are constantly reminded, 'Congress shall make no law...'

Americans must welcome, care for, and assimilate anyone who comes to our shores, for whatever reason.

Very often, we do this not, because of our history, but in spite of it.