Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Thing with Feathers

Pardon me while I make some strange and seemingly tangential connections.

First, I'm very heartened by this book mentioned by Father Jake. Pastor Dan has had it up before, too, and now I'm convinced I need to get a copy and read it. In part that's personal; what Diana Bass describes is what I was trying to do in my last two churches, and it's good to see I wasn't just a lone nutter with an inflated sense of importance (although perhaps I was, anyway, but at least I was going in the right direction). I am thoroughly convinced the kind of church she describes is essentially the church as it has always been, and that the mega-church is an anomaly both sociologically and eccelsiologically. It has, however, outsize influence largely because it is so perfectly a product of American culture: it is marketable, it is meant to be endlessly appealing, and it wears it success on its very large, very prominent, sleeve. And it makes us think church was always like that, when, indeed, it never was. But letting go of that model is one thing; having a new model to go to, is another. Which brings me to the seeminly unrelated topic of Guantanamo Bay.

Apparently prompted by this announcement in Britain, NPR ran a story this morning about the Gitmo detainees and the problems involved in releasing them.

The US has offered to return nine British residents being detained at Guantanamo Bay, provided they are kept under 24-hour surveillance if set free in the UK, it was reported today.

The offer was made in June this year during secret talks in Washington, but was refused by the Government on the grounds that as the men were foreign nationals, they have no legal right to return.

Although the men are accused of terrorist involvement, British officials say that there is not enough evidence to justify the level of surveillance demanded by the US and that the strict conditions stipulated are unworkable and unnecessary, according to documents obtained by The Guardian.

"They do not pose a sufficient threat," the head of counter-terrorism at the Home Office is quoted as saying by the newspaper.
NPR notes that the US government has portrayed these detainees as "the worst of the worst," and now is having trouble convincing other governments these prisoners aren't that bad after all, or should be imprisoned in their countries, or at least, as was requested of Britain, monitored 24 hours a day.

In essence, there are 120 prisoners the US wants to release, but can't; and, as NPR notes, the prisoners don't even know they are being considered for release. According to John Yoo, of course, that's how it should be. Yoo acknowledged this morning that "enemy combatant" can be anyone the President says it is, and that the law just passed by Congress means that can mean a US citizen as well as a foreign national. Enemy combatants, according to Yoo's idea of justice, can be imprisoned without trial for as long as hostilities last. Consider this argument, from his book:

Once, only nation-states had the resources to wage war. Al Qaeda is able to finance its jihad outside the traditional structure of the nation-state, and this may well extend to nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. Mere networks of individuals—affinity groups—can now tap military power. Terrorist networks should not, through this loophole, be allowed to evade the laws of armed conflict among nation-states. While we are at war, we must also recognize that it is a different kind of war, with a slippery enemy that has no territory, population, or uniformed, traditionally organized armed forces, and that can move nimbly through the West's open channels of commerce. We must take aggressive action to defeat al Qaeda, while also adapting the rules of war to provide a new framework to address the new enemies of the twenty-first century.
Apparently Mr. Yoo never heard of the Thuggee cult, or any of the rebellions which lead, eventually, to the collapse of the British empire and the end of the European colonial system. So far as I know, all of those groups "waged war" on governments, per Mr. Yoo's definition, yet none of them were nation-states. What he wants to describe as new and unique, is neither.

But his conclusion as good as says we are now, and must be, a police state.

In order to save the republic, Bush had to destroy it.

In order to save the church, the mega-church has had to destroy it.

Except, irony of ironies (and I know I've mentioned this before), I remember the article I read in a "church growth" magazine I used to get by virtue of having an office with a church address (I didn't subscribe to it, but they put me on their mailing list anyway). This was a magazine that always promised to help me with the "business" of my ministry (don't get me started on the idea of ministry as a "business"), and one article in November especially caught my eye (just before the whole thing went into the round file).

A pastor had discovered something new, something to ignite his preaching in December, just when the year is getting tired and the days are getting long and the culture expects (demands!) cheeriness and joy from a pastor who's supposed to preach that message 52 weeks a year, and even more often and with more vigor between Thanksgiving and December 25th. This was something that lifted his spirits and gave him a new message and a new way to look at the season we call Christmas, and just generally find a new approach to "doing church". And what was this new thing he's discovered?


I kid you not. He had discovered Advent. The very idea of a church season, one that had a specific focus and reason and theme, gave him a new preacherly lease on life, and new messages to preach (aside from salvation and Jesus loves you) for his congregation. What the mega-church hath taken away, the mega-church hath to restore. Because preaching the same old sermon 'round and 'round the year, over and over again, only works for so long.

So, how do I sew all this together? Hope. Hope born of tradition, custom, and new life. Hope born not of despair or fear or power, but of powerlessness and faith and trust. Precisely the things George W. Bush does not represent. Those are the things starting to flourish now. Hope.

The churches that are flourishing, according to Bass, are rediscovering core Christian practices: hospitality, contemplation, diversity, justice, discernment and worship. All of those, it seems to me, have a common thread, and that thread is vulnerability. I'm about to write a lecture on the challenge of God, and the key to my thesis is that if we were to "live backward," worship would be the most challenging part of our week, as we would stand fully in the awesome and awful (in the oldest sense of that word, i.e., awe (also the old sense of that word) inspiring) presence of God, and after that, the week would be a piece of cake. Not because we'd eaten that live toad for the week, but because the presence of God that would fill us would put the rest of our world into proper perspective. So even worship can be seen as making us vulnerable, if it is truly and properly approached. Hospitality, justice, diversity, contemplation, discernment: is there any doubt those make us vulnerable? Is there any doubt John Yoo would gladly scrap justice, just to let us imagine we have increased our security? Is there any doubt the paradox of vulnerability, just like the paradox of powerlessness, is at work here, and our very willingness to accept risk in the name of justice, is what makes us stronger than any enemy who denies justice to us?

When Isaish said he had come to announce the year of jubilee, or release of the captives and sight to the blind, he meant precisely the restoration of justice. Jubilee meant all land went back to the ownership of origin, and all property control started over, so that no one had an undue advantage over anyone else maintained in perpetuity. Even the so-called Rule Against Perpetutities in property law tried to recognize that basic element of justice (although it is no more practiced than the Jubilee ever was). Sight to the blind is an easy one for us to grasp as a justice issue; indeed, it's one variant of the theodicy question about a just God. But release of the captives? We always balk at that. We never take it quite seriously. We are sure it must mean something other than what it says.

But what if it meant tearing down the prisons? What if it meant releasing those in jails? What if it meant do justice to them, or let them go?

Israel, as the people of the covenant through Abraham, stood under the judgment of God. The US does not stand there. But justice is still justice. What justice is there if we abandon our justice system and replace it with a prison system? To abandon habeas corpus is to do just that; it is to take the courts out of the system of capture and imprisonment, and to make the Executive sovereign. The President, after all, can declare anyone an "enemy combatant" and so deny them access to the courts. That way lies madness. But that is what our Congress has done.

So what do we do?

Look at the places where the world is going right, and have hope. Weeds are coming up in the garden; the edges of the wasteland are spreading. But even among the weeds there are new flowers blooming. Even in the desert, springs of water are bubbling up. Can you not see it? Even now a new thing comes forth. And if our ideas of justice are being challenged, let us use that as an opportunity to challenge all our ideas of justice. We incarcerate more of our population than any other industrialized country in the world. Why is that? What good is habeas corpus if we insist on locking so many people up? What good are tiny churches if we insist mega-churches have all the answers? But we know they don't. We know there are other ways.

We also know there are other ways to do justice, and to seek justice. And we can do it. We are on God's side, if we question what is, and ask why. We have God on our side if we take tradition and custom and convential Christian values, Jewish values, religious values, and live them out in our lives. We are on God's side. We have hope.

Consider it a sign of Advent.

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