Saturday, July 28, 2007

There's something about a mesa

I've gotten used to the idea of spending summer vacation in the high desert. When the weather gets hot and muggy here, I find myself thinking about the desiccating heat of New Mexico, its barren landscape, striated rock formations punctuated by an occasional sprig of green, and a place called Ghost Ranch. There's something relaxing about the mesas. I sit and stare at them for hours. There's something cleansing about the sandy, pebbled terrain from which they rise, something that allows me to forget the meaningless routine of much of my daily existence. routine. Allowing the tenderly abrasive landscape to rub away the material surface, I am again exposed to the Spirit beneath.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Thanks to a discussion on a French-language Quaker site, I feel like reposting these thoughts that I wrote for a previous version of my blog.

...More recent thoughts on the subject to come.


The Nonviolent Atonement

--and its shorter form: "Violence in Christian Theology," both by J. Denny Weaver

About a year ago I came across a collection of essays entitled Teaching Peace: Nonviolence and the Liberal Arts (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003). One of the essays, "Violence in Christian Theology," was contributed by J. Denny Weaver, who also co-edits the book with Gerald Biesecker-Mast. The essay, as it turns out, is based on Weaver's longer work, The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2001).

Weaver is a professor at Bluffton University, which is affiliated with the Mennonite Church, USA. I presume that his writing is grounded in nonviolent Anabaptist theological thought (something I don't know much about). In "Violence in Christian Theology," Weaver "outlines the way that a presumed standard Christian theology has accommodated violence." He does this by "focusing especially on on the central Christian doctrine of atonement" and he finishes up "by sketching a specifically nonviolent understanding of atonement."

Words like "error" and "heresy" constantly rang in my head as I read this essay. My grade school religion teachers took great pains, especially during Holy Week, to describe the sufferings of Jesus to us in excruciating detail. I can remember a particularly graphic retelling of how the soldiers fashioned the thorny crown and pressed it oh so slowly and sadistically into Jesus' forehead until blood spurted out. (The blood-drenched stills I saw in the "souvenir" book to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ --which I did not go see-- were only slightly more vivid than my gradeschool memories. Maybe Mel attended the same gradeschool?)

Explanations of Why Jesus Died for Us

Weaver first summarizes the interpretations of the passion and death of Jesus that form the basis for traditional Christian atonement theology. They are as follows:

a) Christus Victor: According to this explanation, Jesus was the ransom paid to Satan, who held the souls of sinful humanity hostage. This was "the predominant image of the early church." In a variation on this theme, a "cosmic battle" is described as having been waged between God and Satan. "God's son was killed, but the resurrection then constituted the victory of God over the forces of evil and definitively identified God as the ruler of the universe."

b) Satisfaction atonement: "the predominant atonement image for much of the past millenium," developed by St. Anselm in 1098 in is book Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man). "Human sin had offended God's honor and thus upset divine order in the universe. The death of Jesus as the God-man was necessary in order to satisfy God's honor and restore the order of the universe." The Protestant Reformers devised a variation on this theme. "For them, Jesus' death satisfied the divine law's requirement that sin be punished. With his death Jesus submitted to and bore the punishment that was really due to us --humankind-- as sinners." I think this is also sometimes referred to as the "substitution theory" of atonement, an innocent Jesus substituting himself as victim and paying the price that we sinners should pay.

c) The "moral influence" atonement image, developed by Abelard (1079-1142): "God the Father shows love to us sinners by giving us his most precious possession, his Son, to die for us." According to this interpretation, Jesus' death is not so much an act that placates a vengeful God but "a loving act of God designed to get the attention of sinners and reveal the love of God for sinners while they were yet sinners."

Another succinct explanation of these interpretations of the atonement can be found at

Who Needed Jesus to be Killed and Who Killed Him?

Weaver proceeds to the inescapable question of "who needed the death of Jesus?" The answer (in multiple choice fashion, using the letters assigned to each theory) is a )the devil, b) God's honor, or c) we sinners. This leads the author to the jackpot question: "Who arranges for or is responsible for the death of Jesus? Or put most crassly, Who ultimately killed Jesus?"

Historical scapegoats (an honor accorded traditionally to the Jews) and exquisitely finessed theological arguments (again provided in abundance by my teachers) notwithstanding, I have to agree with Weaver that the traditional atonement theories, particularly the doctrine of satisfaction, turn God into a "divine avenger or punisher ... one who arranges the death of one child for the benefit of others." The author eventually concludes: "Any and all versions of satisfaction atonement, regardless of their packaging, assume the violence of retribution or justice based on punishment and depend on God-induced and God-directed violence."

The Unpinnings of a Violent Christian Theology

I was thunderstuck by Weaver's essay. To me it meant that the traditional doctrines of the atonement constitute the very underpinnings justifying violence of all sorts in the names of God and of Jesus. After all, here was God himself not only authorizing the violent death of his son but absolutely requiring it. How can such a God, I wondered, then turn around and urge us to heed the words of his son:

"Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword "(Mt. 26:52)?

Or "Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you" (The translation given in The Message of "You are to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48)?

And what effect does the dying Jesus' plea have: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Lk 22:34)?

God the Father seemed to be claiming some sort of retributive exception for himself, thus making him the Grudgebearer of the Ages.

In pursuing his argument, Weaver shows how the traditional atonement doctrines lead to a warped interpretation of the person of Jesus himself. The Jesus of the gospels becomes "a passive victim, whose purpose was to get himself killed in order to satisfy a big cosmic legal requirement." He counters:

"Rather, Jesus was an activist, whose mission was to make the rule of God visible. And his acts demostrated what the reign of God looked like -- defending poor people, raising the status of women, raising the status of Samaritans, performing healings and exorcisms, preaching the reign of God, and more. His mission was to make the reign of God present in the world in his person and in his teaching and to invite people to experience the liberation it presented...."

What happened to Jesus was what we have seen happen in our own time to people like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.: "When Jesus made the reign of God visible and present in that way, it was so threatening that the assembled array of evil forces killed him."

Weaver calls this explanation of the atonement "narrative Christus Victor." To sum it up:

"Narrative Christus Victor... is grounded in assumptions of nonviolence-- the nonviolence of Jesus-- rather than violence. In particular, it does not assume retribution or that injustice is balanced by the violence of punishment.

"It does not put God in the role of chief avenger nor picture God as child abuser. And it is abundantly obvious that God did not kill Jesus nor need the death of Jesus in any way. Jesus does suffer, but it is not as an act of passive submission to undeserved suffering. Jesus carries out a mission to make the rule of God present and visible, a mission to bring and to give life. When this mission threatens the forces of evil, they retaliate with violence, killing Jesus. This suffering is not something willed by nor needed by God, and it is not directed Godward. To the contrary, the killing of Jesus us the ultimate contrast between the nonviolent reign of God and the rule of evil....

"God does not need the death [of Jesus] because [narrative Christus Victor] does not make use of the idea of retribution...If anything or anyone 'needs' the death, it is the forces of evil who kill Jesus. They 'need' the death as part of the futile effort to annihiliate the reign of God. The death of Jesus is very pointedly not something needed by God or God's honor. It is rather what the forces of evil --the devil-- do to Jesus. Rather than being a divine requirement, the death of Jesus is the ultimate indication of the difference between the reign of God and the reign of evil. The reign of the devil attempts to rule by violence and death, whereas the reign of God rules and ultimately conquers through nonviolence."

If God Didn't (Doesn't) Need Jesus' Death

If I understand Weaver correctly, he is saying that Jesus suffered death at the hands of those whose power was threatened by his message of unconditional acceptance and love. I found this theory nothing short of revolutionary as it seems to remove many of the underpinnings of Christian theology.

For one thing, it restores the importance of the actions and words of Jesus before he died. His healings and acts of forgiveness become deeds that we can strive to emulate in an active, life-affirming way.

Of course, narrative Christus Victor creates a few problems of its own. I've raised one already by alluding to Gandhi and King. How was the death of Jesus more "special", more "significant" than theirs? And if it wasn't ... well, then why all the roadside billboards proclaiming "Jesus Died for Your Sins"?

-- The "narrative Christus Victor" explanation ultimately calls into question the divinity of Jesus, I think. Weaver himself does not seem to take his argument to that length and seems to still treat Jesus as, if not the divine son of God, then at least the one to whom God gave a name above every name. But if God didn't require Jesus' death ... then he did not require that infinite act of satisfaction that only the divine son could perform, the very reason the Word became flesh.

Walter Wink, building upon the writings of René Girard and Raymund Schwager, does a bit of foundational unpinning himself by saying that "Jesus never succumbed to the perspective of the persecutors by seeking revenge. He totally rejected complicity in violence....His arraignment, trial, crucifixion, and death also stripped the scapegoating mechanism of its sacred aura and exposed it for what it was: legalized murder." (The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium. New York: Doubleday, 1998).

On he plus side again, the "narrative Christus Victor" explanation encourages us to dwell quite a bit less on the verses in both the Old and New Testaments that show God wreaking vengeance and certainly to cease using them as justifications for visiting violence upon others in the name of God's justice. Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer does a more than adequate job of listing and expounding upon these verses in his book Is Religion Killing Us?

Finally, I suspect that there are more than a few theologians out there who would say that Weaver, Wink, Nelson-Pallmeyer, et al., are guilty of projecting onto God and Jesus their own twenty-first century, politically correct notions of divine justice and pacifism. And I'm sure the theologians can muster countless passages from the Fathers and Doctors of the Church to refute these newfangled ideas.

I find narrative Christus Victor a very powerful and even empowering explanation of Jesus' life and death. It gives me the courage to follow the example set by Jesus in his lifetime and to do what I can to help those in need -- not for the sake of saving my soul by doing "good works" but because "This is what the kingdom of God is like" (Mk 4:26).

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Force feeding is not healthcare, Michael...

We went to see Sicko last evening, Michael Moore's latest movie. Lots of laughs of the type the French call le rire jaune. That's when you laugh at a pathetic, outrageous situation instead of crying.

A man who has severed two fingers in an accident is forced to choose which one he will let surgeons reattach, because he can't afford to get them both operated on ... too bad he didn't have the good sense to wait for the hospital's two-for-one bargain week. A mother watches her baby die from complications of a spiking fever because the hospital where she rushes her does not accept her HMO plan. An elderly woman who looks as though she's been beaten is unceremoniously dumped onto a sidewalk by the hospital where she sought treatment. (The doctor or hospital honcho tells us with a straight face that skid row is the sa
fest place for her.) A teary-eyed Congressman declares his boundless love for his mother. That's why he's sponsoring the Medicare Prescription Law, the primary beneficiaries of which are the pharmaceutical and insurance companies. However, retirees are guaranteed hours of fun trying to figure out which convoluted prescription plan may actually save them a few dollars.... oh, the laughs never stop...

We're also treated to gushy encomia of the Canadian, British, French, and Cuban healthcare systems. Hey, if those countries do even half of what Moore and his interviewees claim, their systems rock compared to ours! Explaining the origins of the British system, Moore shows a photo of one of their bombed-out cities after WWII. The thought came to me that their government made sure that the citizens who had suffered so muc
h would be properly cared for once the country was rebuilt. We, on the other hand, made sure that Big Business would be properly cared for.

I do have one rather serious bone to pick with this otherwise excellent skewering of our for-profit, patient-unfriendly healthcare system: Michael should not have fallen for the administation's hype about the medical care the Guantánamo detainees are receiving. There are prisoners not being treated for life-threatening illnesses, while others, cozily strapped down to a table, have two nutritionally complete (not to mention culturally appropriate) liquid meals direct delivered to their stomachs daily via NG tube. "They are alive and healthy and we are going to keep them that way as long as they are here," according to one doctor.


Friday, July 13, 2007

So here's what I did ...about Mr. Al-Ghizzawi

I called Sen. Specter's office and --first of all-- told the aide that I wanted to thank the senator for sponsoring the Habeas Corpus Restoration Act. I also asked when the bill will come up for a floor vote, but it hasn't even been scheduled yet, and it's almost time for summer recess. So, not until the fall.

Then --fully aware that the aide must wonder what planet I just dropped in from--I started to tell her about Mr. Al-Ghizzawi and how his condition is critical. I asked if I could email her the information so that she could forward it to somebody (the janitor, maybe?) who might care or bring some attention to his plight.She made it clear that, although Sen. Specter is our senior senator, the White House is not listening to anybody on this one. (As if I didn't already know.) I pressed her for a suggestion of someone to contact. She suggested the ACLU. She was very understanding and listened patiently to my concern. I really have to thank her for that. So, next stop will be the ACLU-PA on Monday morning.

Then I called the FCNL ... figuring they'd at least tell me who to write a letter to. I was referred to an intern specializing in human rights, torture, etc. As she wasn't available when I called, I emailed her. She sent me a kind response, suggesting that I contact the Center for Constitutional Rights ... which I'll certainly do.

Civil liberties? constititutional rights? Of course, that's the whole crux of the issue. Mr. Al-Ghizzawi doesn't have any civil liberties or constitutional rights, according to our current administration. If he did, he wouldn't be imprisoned for five years without a trial. Well, it's worth contacting the organizations anyway. And I'm working on a letter to send to a deserving editor.

So, all this has taught me something about human rights activism: it has to be a sustained effort. Now I know what the meetings and grassroots organizing are all stop things like this from happening.

URGENT! Whatsoever you do to the least of these...

I have been following the blog of H. Candace Gorman, an attorney who represents (or who has been trying, anyway) two Guantánamo detainees. One of her clients, Mr. Al-Ghizzawi, is seriously ill and, despite public claims that the detainees receive the best in medical attention, his condition has been worsening and is now at the point where his attorney is alarmed.

Please, write and phone anyone you can think of to bring attention to this man's plight.

Here is an excerpt from Ms Gorman's blog entry for today:

...Mr. Al-Ghizzawi was extremely weak and had a very difficult time communicating. He was confused, disoriented and depressed. We had planned on spending the first of our two days of meetings discussing legal issues and going over documents that we were readying for court.... but that was not to be as Mr. Al-Ghizzawi was not allowed to bring his documents (with all of his notes and questions) to our meeting. Our choice was to start from scratch or wait until the following day...given his medical condition I opted for waiting to review the legal documents the following day in the hopes that he would be allowed to bring the legal materials for that visit. Unfortunately the second day of meetings did not take place as Mr. Al-Ghizzawi, for the first time since I have been coming to the base, was too weak to attend the second day of meetings. Mr. Al-Ghizzawi sent me a heart wrenching note apologizing for not being able to meet with me; he explained to me not only the physical reasons why such a meeting was not possible but also the mistreatment he had received on the day of our meeting and the effects he was suffering from that ill treatment. ... I must prepare papers to file with the court seeking (perhaps in vain) the court's intervention in what will otherwise result in the death of Mr. Al-Ghizzawi.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

...a memory

The moon's a harsh mistress
Sang Judy Collins on one of her 7
0's albums...

Well, the moon may be cruel to lovers at times

but for total hardheartedness
the sun takes takes the prize...

on a humid, 96-degree day
as I cross the street from the parking lot
facing another day at work
with vacation still so far away
another three weeks away

And the sun
aims its beams straight down
activating my brain's memory cells
and it's not 2007 anymore
it's 1998 or 1999
my oldest is 11 or 12
and the younger one 8 or 9
and I take them to the shore for a few days
just the three of us
leaving my husband alone back at home
(which is all t
he vacation he really wants...)

We make plans for the half-week get-away
days on the beach
an evening at the amusement pier
another at a movie

They're still in early morning rising mode
but they go watch TV and joke with each other
while I get to read and listen to the radio
in the bedroom

and drink lots of coffee
till it's time for brunch and a trip to the beach

A modern architectural wonder in miniature
rises from the sands
then they play frisbee and collect shells
and jump into and over and under the waves

as a plane flies overhead
a banner in tow

they're well-behaved and having fun
even the younger one never complains
never says he's bored

they amuse each other
like a couple of sand crabs

While the salt air permeates the days and nights
and for three whole days
no one fights
or shouts
and for once I'm happy
really happy
be a mom

And strolling the boardwalk in the evening
I can't decide
which tastes better
on my tongue
the ice cream cone or the salt air

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Lord, what fools these mortals be!

After enabling the administration in its pursuit of a war of adventure, the New York Times issued a lengthy editorial this morning urging a complete pull-out of our troops and accusing Bush and Cheney specifically of "demagoguery."

Unfortunately, the editors leave out a couple of important points:

  • In discussing the "human crisis" and the thousands of Iraqis who have fled the violence, they fail to mention the 650,000 Iraqi civilians who could not flee because the violence got them first.

  • They also fail to mention their own complicity in the tragedy. Obviously, the editors think that their mea culpa issued in May 2004 suffices. How about decking out the editorial offices in sackcloth and sprinkling them with NYT ashes?
  • In spite of their wordiness, the editors still don't get it, as their "bottom line" demonstrates: "The bottom line: the Pentagon needs enough force to stage effective raids and airstrikes against terrorist forces in Iraq, but not enough to resume large-scale combat." ... Raids and airstrikes from the safe vantage point of Kurdish territory. (And the editors disingenuously suggest that we could negotiate with the Kurds for the right to keep bases on their soil. But...don't the Kurds belong to the liberated country of Iraq? So why wouldn't we negociate with the Baghdad government that we established at so high a cost in dollars and lives?) "Raids and airstrikes" that we can keep adding to the 650,000 figure.
  • "One of the trickiest tasks will be avoiding excessive meddling in Iraq by its neighbors..." That's a good one. How about by us???
Thus does the newspaper of record finally call for an end to the war in sheep's clothing
the war in the name of Iraqi freedom
the war to topple a torturer
the war that made us torturers
the war that wasn't about oil
the war that was about what Christopher Hitchen's called "a bonanza for everybody."

Strange how
an old hymn rings in my head this morning...

Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.
Old now is earth, and none may count her days.
Yet thou, her child, whose head is crowned with flame,
Still wilt not hear thine inner God proclaim,
“Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.”

Earth might be fair, and all men glad and wise.
Age after age their tragic empires rise,
Built while they dream, and in that dreaming weep:
Would man but wake from out his haunted sleep,
Earth might be fair and all men glad and wise.

Earth shall be fair, and all her people one:
Nor till that hour shall God’s whole will be done.
Now, even now, once more from earth to sky,
Peals forth in joy man’s old undaunted cry—
“Earth shall be fair, and all her folk be one!”

(The Mae West character sings it better in Godspell.)

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Thin places...where God happens

Been reading Friends for 350 Years by Howard Brinton (Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 2000). The work is essentially Brinton's Friends for 300 Years, originally published in 1965, with notes and a historical update by Margaret Hope Bacon and reissued in 2002. I plunged into this very readable book to review the history of the Society of Friends and to get more background on our testimonies. This, because I recently discovered a French-language website, Quakers, communauté virtuelle francophone, and have been adding or supplementing blog entries at the invitation of its author, Piotr.

This passage, in which Brinton reviews the elements of Catholicism that were eliminated by each successive "Puritan" wave, really caught my attention:

The first Puritans subtracted the Pope, the Mass, images and five of the seven sacraments, thus creating the Church of England. Presbyterianism...subtracted the rule of bishops and substituted the authority of presbyters or elders. For this they found sound precedent in the New Testament. Then came the more radical Independents or Congregationalists, who subtracted the centralized form of church government which had not existed in New Testament times and substituted a decentralized and more democratic procedure. The Baptists...subtracted infant baptism and made church membership dependent on conversion and the gift of the Spirit as described in the New Testament. Finally arose the Quakers. They subtracted all ritual, all programmed arrangement in worship and the professional ministry, allowing for no outward expression except the prophetic voice which had been heard in the New Testament Church at the beginning....(p. 13)
Brinton then quotes passages from the journal of early Quaker John Gratton (1641-1712) who, "went through all the stages in moving from the Catholic right and proceeding through Presbyterianism, Independency, the Baptist or Anabaptist sect and finally finding rest in Quakerism." (p. 14) He concludes that Gratton and others found what they were seeking in Quakerism because
For them Quakerism added something new, whereas Puritanism had resulted largely from a process of subtraction... (p.17)...The Protestants rejected the authority of the Church. Instead they set up the authority of the Bible as the source of religious truth. Over and gone, they believed were the days of the prophets and apostles, when God spoke directly to each man. Religious worship consisted of hearing what God had said long ago and of expositions of the inspired written word. The Protestant preacher exhorted the congregation to have faith in the truth of the Bible and to obey its commands. The service was essentially pedagogical, a kind of sacred school where a lecture was delivered on God's plan of salvation for men. Assurance was given that if the plan were accepted through faith, salvation would follow.

The Quakers had a different conception. The Spirit of God which gave forth the Scriptures was still at work, as they believed, in the human heart. It was more important to hear what He was saying directly to them than what He once said centuries ago. Worship consisted in waiting upon the Lord to hear His voice and to feel His power. (pp. 20-21)
Brinton puts into words what I've been unable to articulate even to myself. Back in my 20's I had a friend who belonged to a local Presbyerian church. Feeling unsatisfied with Catholicism, I went with her to a few "small group" discussions and enjoyed them. But when I attended the Sunday service, I basically experienced the Mass with this or that left out. Same impression when I attended a Lutherian service, and then a Methodist. I think that's what kept me going back to Catholicism: the worship services of the Protestant denominations seemed to be the Mass with lacunae. They were OK as assemblies where prayer and praise were ascending to God, but none of them made me look forward to getting up on Sunday morning and attending again. No disrespect intended. As they say, we all interpret this world through our own personal filters.

Then one day I walked into a Quaker meeting and that was it. Someone rose and gave vocal ministry that was so genuine and touched me so deeply, ministry that could not have occurred within a Catholic Mass. That sort of vocal ministry and the spiritual power and refreshment I felt in my own heart were what kept drawing me back. When I did not attend meeting for worship, my longing for it just became stronger with each passing day.

Brinton hits the nail on the head. At Protestant worship I came away with a feeling of having missed something. At meeting for worship, however, I found something...and that something finally satisfied my longing.

Many times I've reflected on how irrational it all is. I could be worshiping in a church with beautiful stained glass windows, statues, stirring music and singing, and the mystical Eucharist...
but noooooo...instead I'm drawn to a 19th century one-room schoolhouse with no interior unadornments (except for the sunshine reflected off its white walls), silence (except for stomachs occasionally growling and the sounds of nature penetrating from outside)...and nothing "happening."

God happens.

In speaking with Catholic friends about my spiritual journey, some have told me that, they too often feel dissatisfied with many aspects of the church, but that they could never leave because of the Eucharist. I understand this perfectly. The celebration of the Eurcharist constitutes --I think-- what some religious writers call a "thin place," a space and time where we are able to come in contact with the Divine. Maybe even the Eurcharist got too ritualized --and less permeable-- for me, I'm not sure. Whatever the reason, I too would have expected to miss the Eucharist, but I don't. I do not have any sense of loss. I feel spiritually fulfilled in the "thin place" of Quaker worship. (Again, no disrespect intended toward Catholicism, the spiritual nourishment of over a billion persons around the world.)

Here's what "happened" when my heart entered that thin place this morning:

We read in Isaiah 40:13:

Who has understood the mind of the LORD, or instructed him as his counselor?
Actually, I think this verse would pack more of a punch today if it were translated something:
Who has understood the mind of the LORD, or who has been his advisor?

We spend millions upon millions of dollars to elect the best and wisest officials (supposedly), and yet they still must rely on advisors. And think of how unworthy some of those advisors have been...

Today it occurred to me that each of us at meeting for worship gets a little piece of God's mind (spin that however you like) and that if we continue on in expectant silence, we'll hear next if there is some action God would like us to take in response to that bit of knowledge.

And that is about as close to certainty as any knowledge we'll ever have.