Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Why I am Such a Poor Pastor

It is odd to watch with what feverish ardor Americans pursue prosperity. Ever tormented by the shadowy suspicion that they may not have chosen the shortest route to get it. They cleave to the things of this world as if assured that they will never die, and yet rush to snatch any that comes within their reach as if they expected to stop living before they had relished them. Death steps in, in the end, and stops them before they have grown tired of this futile pursuit of that complete felicity which always escapes them. Alexis de Tocqueville
I had been stopped by my last post and, like the centipede asked which leg comes after which, found myself lying in a metaphorical ditch considering how to run. And then along came Davos:

Everybody in the audience was excited when Bill Gates started talking about how much extra wealth flood-resistant rice strains brought to some of the poorest rice farmers in south-east Asia. But no one talked about creating relatively small and self-sufficient agricultural communities: the model is still very much that you sell your one crop for money, and then use that money to buy whatever other food you might need.
Or, as Wendell Berry puts it: "Think locally, act locally." It's really the only way that makes sense, and takes us out of the business of being Masters of the Universe, which is a role we're not nearly as good at as we think we are. Especially since that title was first applied by Tom Wolfe in The Bonfire of the Vanities, to Wall Street traders in the 1980's. Remember the 1980's? Gordon Gecko? "Greed is good"? Wolfe wrote after all of that went smash. Then we cranked it up again, on the internet; and it went smash again. Then we cranked it up a third time, in real estate. Third time, it turns out, was the charm; it all went smash, but the people at the top were saved. Climb the ladder high enough, you become invisible, bulletproof, and immortal. And you decide you are truly a "Master of the Universe," and like the Gods of Olympus, you are now entitled, nay obligated, to concern yourself in the affairs of mere mortals. And like the Gods of Olympus, it turns out you are only human, albeit with seemingly superhuman powers, which, it turns out, aren't really all that much help to people.

Think about it: if you had the powers of Superman from the comic books, what good would they do you? Could you solve world hunger? Help Haiti recover faster from it's earthquake? Feed millions by yourself? The people who gather at Davos surely don't presume they have the powers of Clark Kent/Superman, but they presume the systems which have made them rich and notorious, give them at least superhuman powers when it comes to applying systems to seemingly intractable problems of food supply and disease and maybe housing (though on that latter you'd think we'd have learned a lesson, at least in the "Western" world.). So from atop their lofty perches, mostly created by buying enough real estate to keep the crowds away, they think globally and imagine they can then act locally. In truth, of course, they can do neither.

Ever notice on science fiction movies how non-Earth planets are terribly mundane? They never have oceans or mountains or volcanoes or blizzards or tsunamis or hurricanes or deserts or swamps? There is no bio-diversity, no environment so diverse it can produce platpyi and toads and snakes and lizards and echidnes and seals and whales and squid and even transparent headed fish, or birds and mosquitos and bumble bees, and plants from Venus fly-traps to nasturtiums? Until it was discovered, who in Europe even imagined a platypus? Did you ever think anything in nature would have a transparent skull for the purpose of protecting its eyes? Planets in science fiction usually have such little biodiversity it's impossible to imagine life existing on them. How many insects and bacteria and jellyfish and bacteria exist on Pandora? How many cultures are there among the Na'vi? How many languages? How varied is the terrain?

"Global" thinking is easy, because we simply expand the tiny portion of the globe we know into a universal application. I live in the 4th largest city in the nation, and yet if I applied "global" thinking to what it is like based on the portion of the city I shop, eat, work, live in, I'd be completely wrong about the nature of Houston. How, then, am I to "think globally" about an entire planet with its diversity of terrains, environments, living things, human cultures, nationalities? Listen to the news this morning about Iraq's leaders declaring government dissidents "enemies of God," you might conclude all Muslims really are religious fanatics; unless you stop and realize more Muslims live in Asia than in all of the "Middle East." Can we really think globally? Are we that capable of getting that much outside of our own interests, our own limited knowledge of the world?

Religion actually has many things to teach us, not all them utilitarian. I've been reading more and more about the "utility" of religion, the idea being if you can't lick it (and you can't), you might as well find a place for it in the tool-box of modernity. It's that tool-box thinking that is the problem; Davos is just a symbol. not a source. But one thing I will say about the "utility" of religion is that it makes you realize you are responsible. Not in charge, not in control, not in the driver's seat: just responsible.

Responsible like that, of course, is one of the ways we don't want to be. We want the authority, but we never want the responsibility. Conferences like Davos highlight this: the captains of industry declare an end to disease or world hunger, and have a PowerPoint presentation or snappy binders and a comprehensive plan to make it so. And, of course, it always involves the status quo, only ever so much more so of it.

Which, to sound like the Stephen Patterson trained, Dom Crossan inspired, Eden Theological Seminary graduate that I am, puts me directly in mind of the basiliea (empire) of Rome, to which Jesus of Nazareth offered the basiliea tou theou.

Most modern scholars agree, that's what killed him. And Rome rolled on until it collapsed; and then came the feudal system, and the Renaissance city states, and the Enlightenment, and the Neo-Classical period, and the nation-states, and eventually, Davos. The world teaches us to call this "progress." Rome was all about what you could buy with money. So was Israel, once upon a time. Jesus said why worry? God feeds the birds of the air, and clothes the flowers of the field in finer garments than Solomon ever owned, so if God loves you, what won't God provide? But we fear the poor; and we want to remain in charge. Who knows what would happen if we challenged our systems to be humane, instead of relying on our systems to finally, this time, we really mean it!, produce humane results?

It sounds like a bad parody of an NRA slogan, but systems do not save people; systems save systems. They benefit a handful of people, who in turn think they are either deserving of the outsized benefits they reap, or can make themselves deserving by. Systems are machines which we imagine are both benevolent and caring, and will bestow upon us what we most need, if we know only how to ask. It isn't that we have moved so far away from imagining a "Father" in "heaven" who can "give us this day our daily bread," as we have recreated "him" in our image and imagine he is our servant, and like magic (the imposition of our will upon the world, without the need of our will or an agency) this servant will produce for us just what we always need, if we just learn how to access it. Or placate it; which amounts to the same thing.

O machine, O machine!

It just goes 'round and 'round, doesn't it? The same song, second verse, a little bit louder, a little bit worse. If we mention it, if we point it out, we sound like a crank, or seem as melancholy as the existential Dane, and while some imagine this would be good news for us, anyone who speaks it soon learns better.

Are these things right or wrong? There is a way to determine that, but it's not a very systematic one; and it doesn't focus us on what is, or is not, right or wrong. Those are, it turns out, the wrong questions. It's almost a cliche with me to say the right question might be: "Lord, when did we see you?" But that's never stopped me before:

Matthew 25:31-46
25:31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.

25:32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,

25:33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

25:34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;

25:35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,

25:36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'

25:37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?

25:38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?

25:39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?'

25:40 And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'

25:41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;

25:42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,

25:43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'

25:44 Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?'

25:45 Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'

25:46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
And here's the phrase, the one we so often and conveniently overlook: "'I was in prison and you visited me.'" It's easy to set that one in a false anachronism, to see it as the legitimate response to an illegitimate government (Rome, ruling over Palestine by right of might, not legitimacy of sovereignty). But it is actually a human response to a system, a system meant to solve social problems by removing certain people from society in order to make things better for the rest of the people in society. If we think of visiting people in prisons today, we think of it as something family and friends should do; we seldom think of doing it ourselves. But nothing in the context of that parable indicates the aid is only being offered to family members and friends. And why would be visit strangers in prison? To tell them we care? Or to break down the legitimacy of the prison, to de-limit the boundaries prisons are meant to set around prisoners and the rest of society? Isn't the challenge to visit the prisoners in fact a challenge to "lock 'em up and throw away the key", even to "put 'em away where they belong"? Isn't it a challenge to the very idea that systems serve the people, when in fact systems serve only a few, and make servants of the rest of us?

But that isn't what Jesus did; he did something altogether different. He said in substance, "Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you're going to be my disciple, you must be." But he reordered priorities. And he said, "Yes, don't give up this instinct. It's a good instinct if you use it right. (Yes) It's a good instinct if you don't distort it and pervert it. Don't give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. (Amen) I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do."

And he transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness. And you know how he said it? He said, "Now brethren, I can't give you greatness. And really, I can't make you first." This is what Jesus said to James and John. "You must earn it. True greatness comes not by favoritism, but by fitness. And the right hand and the left are not mine to give, they belong to those who are prepared." (Amen)

And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. (Amen) That's a new definition of greatness.
That is absolutely un-systematic. You cannot be in charge of a system, or employ a system, or rely on a system, and still be last of all and servant of all. You can't redefine greatness by tinkering with a system that already establishes you as ruler over others if only because you can reach the levers of the system that they can't. Notice in that parable Jesus doesn't say feed the hungry; he says give a hungry person some of your food. He doesn't say clothe the naked; he says give a naked person some clothes. He doesn't say free the prisoners; he says lighten their burden and let them know they are still human beings, that they still matter. He doesn't say make the stranger a member of the family; he just says, "Welcome them." It isn't that hard, really. It isn't that much to ask. You don't even have to be systematic about it. Probably better if you aren't, in fact. Hard to help a person through the other end of a system. Much better if you just do it yourself. Much easier than trying to be Superman, or construct a systematic answer to this "futile pursuit of that complete felicity which always escapes [us]."


  1. For now I only know you from a few characters on my screen. I am impressed by the intellect and tradition I intuit behind what I see!

    I would be grateful if you took the time to correspond with me. If I become a pest, let me know, and I will leave your blog alone.

    If I'm hearing you, you are advocating personal social service. That those that are able feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned?

    Both my parents where teachers, so I am wed to the teach a person to fish school. A lot of my friends have caught the millennial 2012 bug. Because you are a Christian, I assume you believe Christ's return is imminent. I think humanity is here for the long run. Wanting to minimize our suffering, I want systems developed to empower underprivileged people.

    The system has improved since Roman times for both rich and poor. If people of good will work together never ending improvement is possible. A naive statement of faith, I admit... My faith is in people. My faith is in nature.

  2. You may be a poor pastor, but I claim you as my pastor! In the name of your Lord Jesus Christ you are commanded get to work!!!

    Deuteronomy 7:1-3 is a call for genocide. It claims that God told Moses' gang to take land, and exterminate seven nations. This old testament god doesn't seem good to me! What is your understanding of this foundation of your faith?

    This Old Testament legacy provided the pattern and justification for the theft of The Americas, and the concomitant extermination of the indigenous population.