‘Politics’ affirms an unblinking recognition that we deal with matters of power, of rank and of money, of costly decisions and dirty hands, of memories and feelings. The difference between the church and state or between a faithful and unfaithful church is not that one is political and the other not, but that they are political in different ways.
– John Howard Yoder, Body Politics
Christian theology is a theology of liberation. It is a rational study of the being of God in the world in light of the existential situation of an oppressed community, relating the forces of liberation to the essence of the gospel, which is Jesus Christ. This means its sole reason for existence is to put into ordered speech the meaning of God’s activity in the world, so that the community of the oppressed will recognize that its inner thrust for liberation is not only consistent with the gospel but is the gospel of Jesus Christ. There can be no Christian theology that is not identified unreservedly with those who are humiliate and abused. In fact, theology ceases to be a theology of the gospel when it fails to arise out of the community of the oppressed. For it is impossible to speak of the God of Israelite history, who is the God revealed in Jesus Christ, without recognizing that God is the God of and for those who labor and are overladen.
– James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation
Many churches, particularly those driven by church growth models, come dangerously close to reducing Christianity to a commodity that can be packaged, marketed and sold. Instead of cultivating deep, holistic discipleship that touches every aspect of our lives, we’ve confined the life of faith to Sunday mornings where it can be kept safe and predictable, or to a ‘personal relationship with Jesus Christ,’ which can be managed from the privacy of our own homes. Following Jesus has been diminished to a privatized faith rather than a lifelong apprenticeship undertaken in the context of Christian community.
– C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison, Slow Church
As civil unrest continues in Ferguson, MO, there are plenty of stories being told. First hand accounts from citizens and the press, official news conferences from the police, politicians posturing, and on and on. If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, there are many more stories being told through pictures and videos. There are many voices speaking into the confusion, anger, violence and racism of the moment. I can’t add more to that from my position. What I would like to talk about is the power of narrative by pointing out 7 narratives present in what I’ve read and listened to.
The narrative of “Response”
The myth of redemptive violence is the idea that good can come from violence – namely safety and security. In American culture, violence is embraced through this lens. As long as the right people are in control of the violence, violence is considered good. As long as violence is not preemptive, but falls under the umbrella of self-defense, protection of innocent people, necessary to stop aggressors, and so on, violence is OK. The initial narrative of the Ferguson story was white police officer kills unarmed black teen, Michael Brown. That falls clearly outside of the boundaries of what most people would consider justified violence. If you listen carefully, you will hear – almost from the beginning – the narrative of response. The police officer was “responding” to a threat. The police are “responding” to the actions of rioters and looters. The narrative of “response” seeks to place police violence within the framework of justified acts of protecting themselves and others. It also seeks to place any violence on behalf of citizens within the context of unreasonable and unjustified violence. Consider these two phrases and how they change the way you think about justice. Police respond to violent mob with tear gas and rubber bullets vs. Peaceful protestors respond to police violence after tear gas and rubber bullets are fired into the crowd. It makes a difference in our perception of what is justifiable.
The narrative of “proportion”
One of the hallmarks of just war theory is that violence used in defense of one’s self or others must be proportional. If someone spits on you and shoves you, shooting them is not proportional. It is WAY over the top. Again, the initial narrative out of Ferguson, MO was one of disproportionate violence. An armed police officer shooting an unarmed teen is not proportional. Armored police vehicles with officers with military grade weapons, snipers, and so on is not a proportional response to peaceful protestors. This means that the more violent the police are in their tactics, the more necessary it becomes to paint the citizens as very violent. The narrative that accompanies the show of force and tactics used by the Ferguson police must restore proportionality. The story goes that they are only doing what is necessary to meet the kind of violence that is directed at them.
The narrative of “measured”
Another important narrative is the narrative of a measured response. In America, we expect our police officers to be stable, reasonable and fair in the discharge of their duties to serve and protect. For the most part, that is the experience of white Americans. It is decidedly not the experience of black and brown Americans. The idea of police officers flying off the handle, making rash judgments, and responding fearfully, violently and, perhaps, out of control is not acceptable. Therefore, it is necessary to place police actions within the context of a measured response. This brings us back to the narrative of proportion. In order for an action to be measured – controlled – it must be a proportional response to the aggression of others.
The narrative of “bad apples”
In every profession, we accept and expect there to be a few bad apples. This is a narrative that I’ve not heard yet. However, a common response to situations like this is that the police officer was a “bad apple”. This narrative gets more difficult when the particular officer is not, in reality, a bad apple and when the actions of a whole department are called into question. The “bad apple” narrative is normally used to deflect us away from systemic issues of racism within departments.
The narrative of “outside violators”
This is a narrative that I started to hear yesterday (August 19). This is a narrative the fulfills three important functions. First, it fulfills the need to paint police actions as a proportional and measured response. These are bad people who are coming here to cause trouble. Second, it paints ALL people who are not from Ferguson, MO with the broad brush of agitators (including journalists). Third, it is a veiled invitation for the people of Ferguson, MO – who are upset by the shooting of Michael Brown – to return to the status quo. The only problem is, the people of Ferguson, MO may not want to return to the status quo.
The narrative of “thugs”
The narrative of thugs may be the most heinous of them all. This narrative seeks to paint police actions as proportionate and measured responses by painting the victims of police violence as “thugs”. The power of this narrative reveals both the latent and overt racism that continues to exist in America. It plays upon, reinforces and sustains a view that black men are, by default, dangerous. An overt attempt was made to flip the narrative in Ferguson, MO. The initial narrative was white officers shoots unarmed black teen. Then it was released that Michael Brown was involved in what I heard called “strong armed robbery.” Turns out to be petty shoplifting, which is wrong, but hardly strong armed robbery. It was later revealed that his participation in this robbery wasn’t even known by law enforcement at the time of the shooting. This knowledge came after the fact. This was a deliberate, and despicable, attempt to paint Michael Brown as a thug. The real narrative, underneath the thug narrative, is that is that it is OK to shoot thugs. It is the same narrative that got George Zimmerman off of a murder charge.
The narrative of “power”
The narrative of power is harder to discern. In my opinion, the narrative of power has been most clearly displayed by the police department’s lack of transparency and good information. The truth is, we still don’t know what happened. We don’t know the officer’s side of the story. We don’t know what the investigation has turned up. We don’t know the forensics. We don’t know. Why don’t we know? Because the police have the power and the very strong message delivered when people hold back information is – I’m in control. You’re not. In spite of all the armored cars, and snipers and what look like stormtroopers with assault weapons – the most violent thing the police have done to the people of Ferguson, MO is to refuse to be transparent. Any search for justice has to involve transparency. When it looks like a cover-up out of the gate, you are already heading in a dangerous direction. When silence is what comes from the police department, that silence is deafening.
And many more…
As you take in the news and reporting and press conferences surrounding the unrest in Ferguson, MO and the shooting of Michael Brown, pay attention to these narratives. See if you can find some more. Rhetoric is powerful. How situations are framed is powerful. Our understanding of who is right and who is wrong and what is justified and what is not is related to how we understand the bigger picture.
Inerrancy is a disruptive child in the theological classroom. He or she gets all the attention of teacher and students. A biblical view of inerrancy demotes it under the word true, all as part of God’s choice to communicate efficiently and sufficiently. When the word “true” governs the game it’s a brand new, healthy game. Good teachers know how to handle disruptive children. – Scot McKnight
As I was preparing for worship this morning, I was reading a brief article with the title “God uses ordinary people”. It was a well written article about a woman that has made a big impact on children’s hunger in our area. She is the ordinary person the author was referring to.
I believe that God uses ordinary people. In fact, I believe that God only uses ordinary people.
Here’s my problem: whenever we use the term “ordinary people”, we are also saying that there are “extra-ordinary” people.
This distinction between ordinary and extraordinary people in reference to ministry is just a 21st century version of the clergy/lay-person divide of old. However, the distinction is not along the lines of role or position, but something inherent to the person themselves. How did this happen?
The culprit, in my view, is the virus of America’s celebrity culture which has infected the church as well. Yesterday I read a piece by Tom Krattenmaker entitled ‘Rock star’ pastors lose their luster. (read here). He makes the same point.
Somewhere along the road, the virus of celebrity pastors, caused all pastors to stop being thought of as “ordinary people”. They are placed on a pedestal. Held to different expectations than the “ordinary” people. The example of what the Christian life should look like. Super-disciples. When they do positive ministry, it isn’t “God using ordinary people”, it is expected. Their vocation is not seen as a sacrifice for the kingdom of God – at least not like someone who worked a secular job, made a lot of money, and then “left it all” for ministry (the ultimate ordinary person story) . Their faithfulness to their calling is not seen as obedient discipleship or a faithful response to God in the midst of a idolatrous culture. It is often assumed that they choose to pastor, want to pastor, love the position, are comfortable under the pastoral mantle, etc. (actually, some of them – more than you may think – said “Yes” to God’s call to pastor while kicking and screaming).
This hurts the church.
Your pastor is ordinary. You are ordinary. The only difference is that God has called your pastor to a particular role within the church. The calling doesn’t make them extraordinary, while you remain ordinary. It doesn’t mean that he or she is called to live as a different type of disciple than you are – Jesus’ call to follow is the same. It doesn’t mean that they have more responsibility for the community called the church than you do. It just means their gifts are going to be used in a different way.
That’s why I think it is best to stop using the word “ordinary” when referring to people and ministry. It sets up a false distinction between folks within the church.
We’re all ordinary. If something extraordinary happens, it is God, not us.
Do not Christ’s “scandalous” words from Luke point in the direction of such universality, which ignores every social hierarchy? “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his mother and his father, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26) Family relations stand here for any particular ethnic or hierarchical social bond that determines our place in the global Order of Things. The “hatred” enjoined by Christ is therefore not the opposite of Christian love, but its direct expression: it is love itself that enjoins us to dissociate ourselves from the organic community into which we were born; or, as Saint Paul put it, for a Christian there are neither men nor women, neither Jews nor Greeks. No wonder that, for those fully identified with a particular way of life, the appearance of Christ was seen as either a ridiculous joke or a traumatic scandal.
– Slavoj Zizek, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously
What does N.T. Wright’s answer here say to Mennonite Church USA’s ongoing discernment regarding homosexuality and a, perhaps, looming split?
When the gospel is offered to man, and he stretches out his hand to receive it and takes it into his hand, an acute danger arises which is greater than the danger that he may not understand it and angrily reject it. The danger is that he may accept it peacefully and at once make himself its lord and possessor, thus rendering it innocuous, making that which chooses him something which he himself has chosen, which therefore comes to stand as such alongside all the other things that he can also choose, and therefore control. … Wherever the gospel is proclaimed…it is exposed at once to the danger of respectability.
– Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1, p. 141
An artist owes only to his art. Anything else is propaganda.
My favorite novel is My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potak. In that story I encountered the above quote. Not only does this apply to the serious artist, it applies to the preacher as well. The preacher owes only to the message God has laid on his heart through careful, prayerful and Spirit-led preparation and attention to Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. Some people call this the preacher’s burden – that thing that God has laid on their heart that they cannot NOT say. As someone who preaches regularly, I believe that delivering that message faithfully is the best measure of effective preaching
Unfortunately, the consumer context of early 21st. century America has infiltrated the church to such a degree that many preachers have their eye on a different measure of effectiveness. That measure is how well they think people in the audience will received a given message. John W. Wright gets at this better than I can when he writes;
In a market driven ecclesial economy the preacher knows that members of the audience (it’s hard to speak of congregations anymore) can and will go elsewhere to find preaching that will meet their perceived needs – or, worse, drop out of church all together. It is not surprising then that contemporary preaching consistently seeks a comedic end – not through providing humor (although audiences usually enjoy a funny preacher) but through successfully fusing the horizon of the biblical text into the preexisting horizon of the audience/congregation
– John W. Wright, Telling God’s Story
The challenge created by “fusing the biblical text into the preexisting horizon of the audience/congregation” is that the biblical text often becomes secondary to the preexisting horizon. This is seen over and over in American congregations where the biblical witness, in the fullness of its prophetic power, is made to bow to the the “dominant scripts” (1) of American culture; especially in the form of the fusion of God and country through forms of Christian nationalism.
To further complicate matters, these dominant scripts enter our lives through ideological formation that is largely invisible. Zizek defines ideology with this simple phrase “they do not know it, but they are doing it.” (2) Most of the Christians I know (and love) are unaware of the ways they have been shaped to think and act in particular ways by the way they were taught the American story. Furthermore, the ideology that has shaped them goes largely unchallenged by the right or the left – as both are different sides of the same ideological coin. Therefore, the dominant ideology that shapes their will and way in the world is reinforced constantly by the powers that continue to benefit from that ideology. Dissenting voices are often marginalized, silenced (think the assassination of MLK), sanitized (think the legacy of MLK), and co-opted by the powers that be (think the way all in our culture claim the legacy of MLK).
I may have a high view of preaching, but I believe that the preacher stands at a crucial place and is called to proclaim a prophetic message to the church. The proclamation of the Kingdom of God in all its power and fullness is intended to be a light shining in the darkness, not a night light that allows people to sleep better at night. By subjecting the biblical texts into this preexisting horizon, the preacher is taking away the very event whereby, in the Christian tradition, the ideology of the principalities and powers is brought to the surface and subjected to the light of the good news of the Kingdom of God.
For the preacher, meeting this challenge -week in and week out – requires spiritual resources that come from places well beyond our degrees and preparation. There is a battle – not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers – that is very real and very present in the preaching event. Winning that battle requires, first of all, the willingness to fight it, and, second of all, the power of the Spirit in preparation and delivery of the preacher’s burden.
For the congregation, the challenge is to stop being individual consumers and become rooted to a people in a place. We have to unwind the belief that preaching is about tickling ears or meeting my felt needs (which Peter warned us about). We need to embrace the spiritual practice of sitting under the preaching and teaching authority of the church (which itself is rooted in the authority of Jesus, extend by the Spirit, via the Scriptures, to the church – which is the body of Christ and the individuals who are a part of it). That doesn’t mean becoming puppets controlled by ecclesial authorities and pastors. That means being open to the reality that God speaks through the preaching event, with power, and that when that happens we might not always like it. It may challenge our unspoken assumptions and commitments and that’s OK. It’s better than OK, it is the way by which we become aware of the distance between the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of God. It is the way by which we see ourselves clearly in relation to those two kingdoms. It is the moment where we can choose to repent, if need be, turn to God and participate fully in God’s Kingdom.
(1) See Walter Brueggemann’s 19 Thesis for more on this idea.
(2) See The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Zizek.