Friday, February 27, 2015

The Rise of the Remedial Christian

I attended a church service recently (bully for me) as part of our ongoing quest to find a "church home" in Colorado Springs. The search here is something akin to going to the grocery store for cereal when you don't really know what you have a taste for: Colorado Springs is the land of evangelical ecclesiastical overchoice, which, I assure you, can be paralyzing and perplexing.

(My friend Sean Gladding, on loan to the United States from England, once complained about the cereal aisle: "How many combinations of white flour and sugar do we really need?!?" He's a foreigner, folks; cut him some slack.)

My antennae may be up a little higher these days as I visit these churches; I notice little quirks and tics of each preacher, I scrutinize song choice, I look for typos in the bulletins. Admittedly, I'm not my best self in these moments. But at this particular church service I noticed something interesting: the pastor started to say something, caught himself, took a deep breath, and went for it:

"I think ... it's possible, actually ... that Jesus ... might have ... maybe ... been a progressive?"

Nobody stormed out of the sanctuary, to my knowledge, and I think he still has his job - even here where "progressive" seems to be a euphemism for "heretic." Seriously. I was forewarned by a friend never to say anything nice about President Obama. Anything. Even "Nice suit, Mr. President" requires a pronounced tone of sarcasm.

I've only scratched the surface of the broad swath of Colorado Springs churches, so I'm sure progressive is not a universal byword here. But it did strike me how scandalous a mere word could be, how damaging a label it can become.

Meanwhile, I recently read a portion of Martin Luther King Jr's letter from Birmingham Jail for a video project some friends of mine put together for Martin Luther King Day. (You can watch the fifty-minute video here.) The portion I read was in praise of my wife's great uncle Ralph McGill and other "white moderates," whom King acknowledged had taken brave stands against segregation and for the reconciliation of the South. "They are still all too few in quantity," King wrote, "but they are big in quality." It struck me at the time (you can read my reflections here) that King didn't call these folks "white radicals" or "white progressives"; he referred to them as "white moderates." This is significant, I think: championing the civil rights of another human being isn't a radical or even progressive stance; it's fundamentally moderate, almost the least a person can do.

And then I went to a brief conference to discuss the church's relationship to the millennial generation, which was described at one point as a mosaic of "nomads, prodigals and exiles." All nouns. All labels. All fixed identities which can quickly degrade into caricature. It's saying a lot about a person to say that they are a nomad, or an exile, or a progressive, for that matter, It says a lot about a person to call them (even to call yourself) a conservative, or an evangelical. It simultaneously sums a person up and says more about them than is possible to know.

When adjectives (such as "progressive" or "conservative") become nouns, beware. When words are applied to human beings that are better applied to abstract concepts (such as "exile"), we are in danger of abandoning our humanity and converting ourselves into abstractions.

Abstractions can be helpful, as means to an end, and so conversations about progressivism and conservatism, nomadicism and the like, and how they are embraced and engaged among various demographics can yield helpful insights. But people are not abstractions: they are not means to an end. They are not even ends, really; they are active subjects, in constant flux. If anything, they are middles, or beginnings.

In any case, to quote the great Ferris Bueller, "Isms in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an ism; he should believe in himself." Good point there. We are more than the isms that enthrall us, and we should be wary of where our isms take us. A progressive or a conservative becomes a caricature to her ideological opposites: to the progressive, all conservatives are probably racist, xenophobic, homophobic tyrants; to the conservative, if you're a progressive, you must have been at some point dropped on your head.

But more than that, a person who has been absorbed into an ism will find herself with strange bedfellows, uncomfortable allies, Facebook friends who demand explanations but are without excuse. Who hasn't winced at the careless comment of an ideological ally, knowing that we're somehow going to have to excuse or defend them for saying it?

We are tempted to surrender our identities to our isms, and once we've done so, we've succumbed to idolatry and become accessories to all kinds of evil.

The kingdom of God will allow no isms. There are Jews and Greeks in the kingdom of God, but there is no Jew nor Greek. There are men and women in the kingdom of God, but there is no male or female. There is no slave or free in the kingdom of God, because slavery exists only under the auspices of our isms, and our isms have no place in the new creation. It is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for our isms to accompany us into the kingdom of God.

That's why I propose a new category of Christian, one that abandons the artificial polarities of conservatism and progressivism, which are far too often partners in pointlessness. Please join me in welcoming ... the rise of the remedial Christian!

There's nothing magical about the word remedial, but as a modifier of Christian I like it very much. It suggests what Dr. King declares: that submitting and subjecting ourselves to the right thing, even in the face of hostility or marginalization or ridicule or violence, is nothing terribly special. It's not especially progressive to say that all human beings are vested with the same God-given rights. It is at best moderate but in fact remedial, almost the least we can do.

Similarly, it's not especially conservative to acknowledge the fundamental responsibility of each person for their own decisions, though it's claimed as a tenet of conservatism. Such an idea is remedial, roughly akin to stating the obvious.

Remedial implies something basic, so basic that it's easily overlooked and often undervalued. It implies something that resolves a problem not by creating something new but by going back to the beginning. "This is a football" is remedial coaching; with it Vince Lombardi kicked off each season with a reminder that the basics are what's important, and everything else builds on it.

Remedial has etymological connections to remedy, which implies healing, relief. Ferris's dad, believing him to be sick, encouraged him to "wrap a hot towel around your head ... then make yourself some soup, get a nap." Not the cure for cancer, but then again, Ferris didn't have cancer. It was a remedial prescription, and everytime a Gen-Xer feels a fever coming on, it's one of the first things that comes to mind.

Remedial is a good thing in the same way that reform (a la "Reformation") is a good thing, in the same way that repentance (as in "Repent! For the kingdom of God is near!") is a good thing. But in the same way as repentance, remedial is nothing to brag about. "Amazing grace ... that saved a wretch like me" is a statement of remedial faith: its author recognized that grace is not an achievement but a gift. We can't be boastful or judgmental when we're being remedial, when we understand ourselves as remedial. It just doesn't sound right. It's hard to pull off blustery entitlement on a news show panel when the caption under your name reads "Remedial Christian."

Now, I recognize that what I'm proposing is a little silly, but then again, silly proposals aren't necessarily bad. Consider when Naaman, a general of the army of Aram, found himself leprous. He sought help from the prophet Elisha, who told him to take seven baths in the river Jordan. Naaman was offended at the lack of complexity in this proposed remedy, but his servant challenged him:

“Father, if the prophet had asked you to do something hard and heroic, wouldn’t you have done it? So why not this simple ‘wash and be clean’?”
Remedial, yes, but it worked: Naaman took seven baths and came out completely healed. Imagine how much healing might be available to us if we set aside our commitments to complexity, our idolatry of our isms, and just allowed ourselves and each other to be what we are already: basic people, all trying to figure it out together.

Enjoy it while it lasts, though. As soon as we embrace "remedial Christianity," we'll start crafting a new idol: remedialism. God help us, every one.


Sunday, February 01, 2015

A Prayer for Super Bowl Sunday by Walter Brueggemann

Leave it to Walter Brueggemann to have both the moxie and the skills to sacralize Super Bowl Sunday, which he does in his 2008 collection Prayers for a Privileged People. "It is no challenge to me," he writes, "to rethink myself along with other privileged believers, even if our privilege tends to work against openheartedness." It's no challenge to him because he recognizes that he is a person of privilege, enjoying benefits accruing to his ethnicity, gender and social class that were woven into the cultural fabric years, decades, even centuries before he was born. That's all well and good, but what could the Super Bowl possibly have to do with social privilege?

Read on and find out. If you have a little moxie, you might even pray it.

* * *

The world of fast money,
and loud talk,
and much hype is upon us.
We praise huge men whose names will linger only briefly.

We will eat and drink,
and gamble and laugh,
and cheer and hiss,
and marvel and then yawn.

We show up, most of us, for such a circus,
and such an indulgence.
Loud clashing bodies,
violence within rules,
and money and merchandise and music.

And you - today like every day -
you govern and watch and summon;
you glad when there is joy in the earth,
But you notice our liturgies of disregard and
our litanies of selves made too big,
our fascination with machismo power,
and lust for bodies and for big bucks.

TWEET THIS: Our life consists not in things we consume but in neighbors we embrace. Walter Brueggemann, Prayers for a Privileged People

And around you gather today, as every day,
elsewhere uninvited, but noticed by you,
those disabled and gone feeble,
those alone and failed,
those uninvited and shamed.
And you whose gift is more than "super,"
overflowing, abundant, adequate, all sufficient.

The day of preoccupation with creature comforts writ large.
We pause to be mindful of our creatureliness,
our commonality with all that is small and vulnerable exposed,
your creatures called to obedience and praise.

Give us some distance from the noise,
some reserve about the loud success of the day,
that we may remember that our life consists
not in things we consume
but in neighbors we embrace.

Be our good neighbor that we may practice
your neighborly generosity all through our needy neighborhood.