Wednesday, October 5, 2016

On Winning and Losing, Politics and Religion

There's a sort of running joke among colleagues in the field of religion that goes something like "as someone who studies religion, politics, and economic discourse, I am incapable of polite conversation."

This being said, I think it's time to take a deep breath and calm down a bit.

There was a vice presidential debate last night.

Before, during, and after the event, American newscasters and social media posts were clamoring to know/claim that one or the other had won the debate.  Afterwards, I offered the following assessment:

Across three social media platforms (facebook, twitter, and instagram) these comments have received 9 likes/hearts so I am *literally* lighting the internet world ablaze with my brilliance.

The post, though, gets at the idea that we are asking the wrong questions (every time I say this, Abbey says some variation of "that's all you ever say"...which is probably true). We ask the wrong questions because we all make assumptions of common ground.

Notice the "we" there - did you feel included or do you feel the urge to push back and wonder which group I'm including myself in? Maybe I'm trying to be relatable, including myself in your group so that we can come to a common conclusion.

So who won the debate?  Some say Kaine, some say Pence, some say this doesn't change anything because we all know who we were voting for.  Our assumptions were set (there I go with all that second person plural again, pay attention to that). But this is where I think the field of religion may be able to help us, assuming we are still relaxed from the deep breath we took at the beginning of this post many small, choppy paragraphs ago. Religionists specialize in examining, questioning, and critiquing ambiguity, assumptions and naturalized contingencies.

"Winning" is an ambiguous word when nobody is keeping score or elucidating rules. However, like the term "religion", we assume to know what it means (there is a definition we take as natural, obvious, or common-sense) until we are questioned a bit on what we assume and why it may matter.

Did Pence win the debate because he acted more in accordance with assumptions about how debates ought to function? Did Kaine win because he successfully achieved his campaign's own goals for the debate? Did we all win because we now have a firmer grasp on the most viable future for our country and a clear way forward?

How are we measuring winning or losing in this instance? Or should we keep assuming enough common ground to move forward without comparing criteria? Maybe we need binaries - a good and an evil, a just and an unjust, a sacred and profane, a winner and a loser - to make sense of the world? But why these binaries? How do we come to agreement on these categories? Their definitions? How do we enforce and reproduce them as natural?

If I had all these questions, I'd ask a scholar of religion.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, October 3, 2016

I preached this weekend.

After opining a couple months ago about how I might preach about contemporary issues, I was invited to preach at a local church. I preached on Biblical interpretation and the American legacy of racism.

Guest preaching/pulpit supply is interesting. It requires balancing an interpretation of the text with the knowledge that, for one morning, I am a guest - I'm just passing through. My words carry some authority due to the space I occupy that morning, but my presence doesn't carry the authority of one who lives with and among the community to which I am preaching. There's a desire to speak to "the issues of the day" but also wondering if those issues are of particular concern to that congregation on that day and the hope that my words will be useful.  

The following is a portion of the sermon on Luke 17:5-10.

...the second part of the passage doesn’t really help me figure out, like the disciples, how to “increase my faith.”
Jesus asks “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?
My wife and I recently went on a trip to colonial Williamsburg to celebrate our anniversary. While we were there we toured Peyton Randolph’s house. It was interesting to learn about Randolph, an accomplished and influential statesman who died at a young age, but it was the details about his household, his day-to-day life, that captured my attention. Our tour guide made sure that we noted the artificial food on the dining room table and that there were glasses for neither water nor wine on the table. This is because enslaved men and women would have been standing around the perimeter of the room and when one of the men sitting at the table raised his hand, one of the enslaved men or women would place his glass in it. He or she would wait for the glass to be raised once again before taking it from one of the masters and returning it to the side table. Typically they exchanged neither words nor eye contact.
When your slave comes in, “would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?”
Our tour guide noted that prominent colonial leaders often dined here with Randolph, speaking of things like freedom and justice and liberty. She made sure to note that these words meant very different things to the men sitting at the table than they meant to the men and women standing, waiting to be told “serve me while I eat and drink.”  We, as a society, are still coming to terms with the fact that words can mean different things to different people.
            Verses like these are tough – slavery imagery may have illumined something about God for the disciples gathered in the first century – it was their world, it’s what they knew as normal and good. In 2016, this type of exercise (“how would you treat a slave? That’s how you should expect God to treat you”) might not be comforting or helpful for all who hear it. Now there are those who will interpret these verses to mean something like “we should do God’s work in the world without seeking approval, without expecting compensation, without praise being heaped upon us” and not focus so much on the slavery language. This type of interpretation is very much in keeping with our tradition – we speak often about giving glory to God, not wanting the glory for ourselves, working for something bigger than us, so this type of interpretation isn’t necessarily problematic with regards to orthodoxy. But with regard to history? With regard to what we now think and know and have experienced with regard to slavery? To interpret words without dealing with their history is irresponsible.
            As we are painfully aware, verses like this were used to suggest that slavery in America was just a part of the natural order, slaves should submit to their masters and neither should question or challenge these social arrangements – that’s just the way things are and the way they were meant to be. Katie Cannon, a Presbyterian pastor and professor at Union seminary in New York talks about three patterns of thought that made it possible for Christians in America to justify slavery.[1] First, the enslaved Africans were not viewed as people. They were thought of as property. Biblically, this was justified by citing the curse of Ham, the father of Canaan. Biblical scholars and pastors of the time would posit that people from Africa were descendants of Noah’s son Ham, who was cursed to slavery after the flood. They were descendants of Noah’s other two sons, Shem and Japheth. In the words of Noah,
May God extend Japheth’s territory;
    may Japheth live in the tents of Shem,
    and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth.” (Gen 9:27).”

There were slaves and there were masters. The way of the world. With this worldview accepted, American chattel slavery was seen as a sort of divine intervention into history. Cannon’s second point was that slavery was actually a good thing – it gave those millions of enslaved people an opportunity to be exposed to the Gospel. In Cannon’s words, “[North American Christian’s] joy in converting Africans was that they were giving to ‘heathens’ elements of Christian civilization. Being enslaved in a Christian country was considered advantageous to Africans’ physical, intellectual, and moral development. Slavery exposed Africans to Christianity which made them better servants of God and better servants of men” (Cannon 14). So if slavery was divinely ordained, then it could be used for divine purposes. The third and final pattern of thought follows from these: because these readings of Christianity coincided with their social situation, it seemed obvious to white biblical interpreters that this was not only natural, it was willed by God’s. When portions of the Bible match what we already think, it’s tempting to pat ourselves on the back rather than grapple with those portions that don’t so easily line up with our world view. Many papers were written and sermons were preached noting that neither Jesus nor the apostles nor the early church condemned slavery. Verses like today’s were probably evidence. Since the New Testament didn’t condemn it, God must have ordained that some people were not much more than animals meant to do the work the masters did not see befitting of their social standing, to be beaten when they disobeyed, and to be bought and sold as commodities.
“So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”
Hopefully we can see that this verse has a different ring to it here and now than it did there and then.
It’s hard for someone who looks like me to bring up these types of issues. I don’t know, first hand, what it feels like to listen to my grandmother tell me stories about being persecuted under Jim Crow laws. I don’t know what it’s like to hear my grandfather tell me stories about how his grandparents were enslaved (if he was lucky enough to know them). I don’t know this first hand, but I do know that the phrase “we are worthless slaves” is not a confession that many are willing to make, even before God. Like I said earlier, these words meant different things two thousand years ago. But just like we’ve inherited these words and this text we’ve inherited a tradition of interpretation – for better or worse. It is irresponsible, in America, to ignore the history of these words in our country. We are called to seriously grapple with what these words mean for us, today, here. I think it means seeing these words as a testament to where we’ve been rather than where we are.

[1] “Slave Ideology and Biblical Interpretation.”