‘Around the Way’ Ethics: Have you felt the clash of dominant cultural sensibilities?

The Church is filled with divisions. For the most part people have simply accepted this as a given and an inevitable reality. Hardly do people find themselves with enough Christian instincts to be deeply troubled with what’s going on. Even more rare than that, it is almost impossible to find followers of Jesus committed to doing the hard work of having honest and hard conversations in hopes of discerning a more truthful way.

I’ve been glad to find some communities and networks that are trying to do just that. These Christians are not doing the liberal ecumenism which ignores differences for the sake of unity, or conservative ecumenism, which sees its only faithful role as conquering ‘the other’ in debate. Instead, I have witnessed genuine attempts at true dialogue; speaking honestly and listening attentively in a manner that often (though not always) results in clarified disagreement and demonstrable growth in common understanding and renewed solidarity. This only happens through perseverance and ‘stick-with-it-ness’ because our one faith, one Spirit, and one baptism that we belong to under the One Lord, Jesus Christ. Many of these conversations are not for those that desire to avoid conflict (fake peace) at every turn, but instead demands vulnerability and a desire to pursue truth while guided by the Spirit. I can personally say that I have learned and grown much from many of them.

What is particularly interesting is that this group is able to discuss politics, atonement theory, racism, sexuality, gender, and a whole range of social concerns, always with people present coming from different perspectives and experiences on all of these concerns. That conservative, moderate, liberal, progressive, and marginalized perspectives can come together in pursuit of mutuality despite at times having varying theological commitments and diverse experiences is a great testament to the possibilities latent in the Church that are scarcely attempted.

However, things aren’t all roses. Certainly any number of concerns could be brought up, however, I believe that one important factor that often does not get taken into consideration is the “around the way” factor. While race is spoken of often, it does not always expose the power-dynamics of cultural logics at work that often set the rules and norms of engagement. Because of this, there is constantly an unfair burden for folks from “around the way” to utilize their “code-switching” skills while operating in these 2nd cultures that they have been forced to learn, but never seeing reciprocity. The result is that dominant cultural logics (which are predisposed to accept civility only by its own definition and terms) hegemonically shape and limit the nature of the conversation, and hence forth its outcome. This is not because it limits the topics being discussed, but because it dismisses the validity of “around the way” ethics, considering it as inferior to the dominant culture’s sensibilities.

More clarity is most likely needed here. Many middle class and suburban (in formation, not necessarily current geographical residence) Christians that engage in dialogue on race or class, for example, tend to only engage “bi-cultural” code switchers. That is people that have been formed “around the way” (aka the hood), yet also by necessity have learned how to embody dominant cultural norms in speech and behavior when necessary as a strategy and tool for gaining access. These folks move back and forth into various cultural communities engaging fluently on the terms of both their original communities that formed them culturally as well as the dominant cultural space they had to learn. They are, in a manner, bi-lingual. The middle class and suburban Christian engaged in “reconciliation” work, often in reality, only engages with people on their own suburban and middle class terms. What seems to be lacking is any effort from those brought up in dominant culture to become fluent and formed by “around the way” ethics and norms. When will “Peter and Jane” so to speak, who claim to want “reconciliation”, begin to immerse themselves (not just physically but in cultural logics) in the poor urban centers, which would demand that they also code-switch and embody a different set of norms? It is one thing to converse with someone like me, whom has been conditioned to play by the behavior rules and speech norms of dominant culture when I occupy those spaces, and it is something else for Peter to do “life together” with ‘Jamal, Puddin’ & dem’ on the block. If someone is intimidated dialoging and listening to me (who is committed to doing it in truth and love because of my faith and code-switches culturally), how will you engage my neighbor who doesn’t want to have anything to do with white people because of the way this country has treated him?

The truth is that both the ethics on the corner as well as majority and mainstream sensibilities are culturally and contextually biased norms. Neither are better examples of civility than the other. The only reason so many unconsciously assume otherwise is because they have bought into a dominant cultural framework rooted in American Civil Religion. From there, dominant culture is universalized and moralized as right. No longer recognized as a cultural expression it is deemed sacred and holy culture. (Western European civilization has always been erroneously conflated with being Christian culture, which explains western colonization practices historically).

In relation to the specificity of the Incarnation of God found in the birth, life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, the universal claims of civility in American dominant culture are exposed as false, and instead we are forced to re-situate it beside every other cultural context including all its societal norms and ethical claims. By fixing our eyes on Jesus (of scripture and present among us) we can keep sight of all false claims of universality that our society tries to disciple us into rather than after the particularity of Jesus’ life, which is the only full revelation of God. EVERYTHING that we assume and take for granted, especially our “common sense” values, outside of the revelation of Jesus is speculative. Jesus is the Truth that entered in our finite historical moment so that we could see the Universal God. And yet, this type of discipleship that subversively follows Jesus, is never done in a social and cultural vacuum. Just like Jesus participated in custom and engaged concrete Jewish practices, so too must we embody our ‘followership’ in varying geographical & cultural spaces that are always accompanied with power dynamics that are not being named. One unique practice of Jesus, that I believe helped forge true Kingdom solidarity was his habit of entering into people’s own spaces and then speaking to them on their terms. Whether living water for the woman at the well, a word of liberation to an oppressed people, or utilizing shepherd language to communities that understood about grazing sheep, Jesus’ engagement was ‘fluent’ and adaptable because of his willingness to occupy marginal spaces and their modes of being.

I have briefly named “around the way” ethics and dominant cultural sensibilities in still very broad terms. Hopefully, at the very minimum, I have helped to begin to name and unveil an existing problem that is rarely addressed. True Christian solidarity and ‘togetherness’ in Christ is fragile and cannot be controlled. And yet as followers of Jesus it always remains “at hand” when we yield to the Spirit and reorient our lives through constant immersion into the only honest story, the good news of Jesus as Lord and Messiah, and as we open our eyes to the truth about our societies violent and oppressive history and current state. In response, when we collectively repent and join the Messianic struggle for liberation and shalom, committed to truth and love, Christian solidarity is not only “at hand”, but it can be experienced “among you” as well.

2 Necessary Moves To Break Free from White Supremacy in the Church: Constantine, “the White Male Figure”, and the Centrality of Jesus

I am supposed to be reading about Constantine and his relationship to the bishops in the 4th century. H. A. Drake turns the discussion away from merely looking at Constantine and his actions, and whether or not he was genuine or not, you know the old Constantine scholarly debates. Instead, he looks at the Bishops and their role in the emerging form of Christianity, and their complicity in shaping a coercive Christianity. This is so important. For me, the issue of Constantinian Christianity (as Anabaptists often describe it) has less to do with Constantine, because heck, he is an emperor. Christian or not, he has imperial interests. Nothing surprising about any move or decision he makes.

What I am much more interested in is moving the discussion away from Constantine, to towards the way that the Church apostasized itself by displacing Christ as central and allowing Constantine to take that place. One must go no further than looking at Eusebius’ Church History to see that many Christian leaders were seeing Constantine rather than Jesus, as the new David. That Constantine presided over councils rather than the presence of Jesus, and the imperial edicts mandating and coercively enforcing orthodoxy following that council is not surprising when the way of Jesus is no longer normative. In fact, as people have noticed, even images of Jesus began to change after that point. Jesus himself begins to no longer be portrayed as a humble man, but as an imperial figure in art post-Constantine. The imperial figure, then is centralized, has the right to make calls on orthodoxy, and enforces those boundaries, reigning supreme over the Church.  It is the Bishops and the Church, and their gazing on “Christian” emperors that give them this power. It is a choice to fix one’s eyes on Jesus or the imperial figure.

Yet, can we really make huge distinctions between the past and the present, like we are above such problems? While no Roman Imperial Image reigns over us today, hasn’t the center still been occupied by something other than the Jewish anointed, crucified, and resurrected One? Certainly in America, that dominating figure since the 1600s has been “the White Male Figure”. The supremacy of the White Male Citizen as the standard to be measured against runs at the heart of the American experiment. When it was “self-evident” that all men were created equal, didn’t it really mean all “white men”?  Were not black people subjugated to the status of property? And finally, wasn’t Jesus himself recast and refashioned into a “white male figure” which remains on the walls of churches and homes even today?

When people want to learn about theology, there stands “the White Male Figure”. The White Male Figure has occupied the center, playing the role of the theological police for everyone else. Though western and American forms of Christianity have participated in some of the most atrocious and violent acts within Church History, the White Male Figure claims clarity and objectivity, accusing other ecclesial traditions without that violent baggage of actually being the violent ones or of transgressing faithful witness. Speaking from a position of power, those labels stick and stigmatize marginalized Christian groups. The White Male Figure, sees himself as apolitical, but in actuality, every statement, every accusation, involves strategic power moves and claims, that re-affirm hegemony and shut out dissenting voices.

Given the longevity of western Christianities tradition of exalting the White Male Figure as the standard of perfection and the model for citizenship and discipleship, it becomes the norm to see the White Male Figure at the center. Once people are accustomed to that norm, it is no longer seen as a violent practice, but instead, the one that points out this form of domination is the one accused of participating in violence. It is the irony of people becoming mal-adjusted to injustice and white supremacy. In fact, to even call out white supremacy in relation to mythic “White Male Figure” is in itself seen as heretical and anti-Christian.

However, what must be understood is that as long as the “White Male Figure,” in its mythic and legendary glory, stands at the center, then that inevitably means that the Jewish Messiah and Lord over all creation, Jesus the Victorious One, does not stand in the center. The Jesus that has been manipulated to look like, think like, and bolster the agenda of “the White Male Figure” is not the Jesus found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but is an imposter and enemy of Jesus. The Living and Resurrected One does not take the mode or disposition of the oppresser, but rather his disposition is found in his being crucified by earthly authorities that found him to be a threat to the status quo. Two moves are necessary for the Church to get back on track:

  1. The Church must decentralize “the White Male Figure”: Unlike popular opinion, this is not an attack on “the White Man” but instead it is a humanizing project. The “White Male Figure” standard demands people to be apathetic to the racialized other, to gaze on them with contempt and see something other than someone who God found to be worth dying for in the person of Jesus Christ. When one succumbs to playing this role, it is unfortunately them that become monstrous, being enslaved to the elemental forces of this world and the dominion Satan. Only through being transferred from that dominion to the Kingdom of the Son in which humanity can do “life together” through the Spirit in solidarity and mutual sharing of love, can the humanizing project be accomplished. This means that those that have stood in the center must step off the table as referee and are now free to sit around the table sharing and embracing God’s beloved as equals, no longer enslaved by the logics of race and white superiority.
  2. The Church must centralize the Jesus of scripture and encounter the Resurrected One. This is a human and fleshly Jewish Jesus. Jesus of Scripture (who is synonymous with the Real Living Jesus that we can encounter and follow) moves on the margins, making those spaces the Main Stage of God’s mission. This Jesus must be followed. What is interesting when we encounter this Jesus, is that he opposes the option of both the Imperial Figure & the Dominating Figure for his followers. Check Luke 13:31-35, Jesus is on the move among the broken and oppressed but Herod wants to kill him. Jesus prophetically unveils Herod’s mythic foundation as a ruling figure to be respected, by naming his problematic praxis. He calls him a “Fox”! Let’s be clear, in Jewish tradition and Jesus’ usage there, it is clear that Jesus is not complimenting him for being smart, but rather that he is in actuality small, deceptive, and a predator. Likewise, when Jesus’ own disciples aspire for greatness, like that of Roman rulers, Jesus cuts that mimetic desire off as an option and says “not so” for you. He explains that the Gentiles dominate and “lord over them”, but his followers instead are called to be servants in the way he himself has served the least and the last of society. In following Jesus and centralizing him in the Church, God’s people will find an alternative response to racialization and white supremacy in our society. Right under the nose of our racist society a space is created for “Beloved Community” and “Life Together”. And from that solidarity, a prophetic movement that is a light to the dark corners of our world can begin.

But do we have the courage to follow Jesus faithfully in this way, or will “the White Male Figure” remain centralized in our Christian communities and movements. The challenge before us, given our long history of faltering, is great, but our God is able!

A Black Missional Critique of the Missional Movement (Guest Post by D. Kyle Canty)

(This post is written from a friend and old seminary peer of mine, Kyle Canty. As one of the pastors of a black, missional Church in Philly, I thought his perspective would be especially helpful for my readers in considering the larger missional movement’s homogeneity. Please join the conversation and let us know what you think.)

There’s a complex question that gnaws at my heart as I observe evangelical culture; “Does the broader evangelical church in America recognize that there is something that they can learn from the African American church?” I follow conferences and as of late, I’ve kept up with the missional movement. I love listening to those who have mined the themes associated with everything missional and topics around justice and mercy for the marginalized. I frequent blogs, YouTube videos and the major declarations put out by the evangelical machine. During the past couple of years I’ve recognized the homogeneity of these circles—most of the speakers are white. Interesting enough, many of the topics that are being written about and presented at these events are topics that I’ve heard about throughout my life. (e.g., justice, mercy, meeting felt needs, etc.)  Well before these were popular topics within evangelicalism, these were important issues among black pastors, preachers and theologians. The black church finds its uniqueness in the soil where it is cultivated—usually within marginalized and oppressed communities.

 

I was originally introduced to the missional conversation by my pastor; who is one of very few African American professors teaching within evangelical seminaries. We engaged in doing contextual ministry within Philadelphia with limited resources and tremendous opposition. One of the things that missional theology taught me was to question the things that contradicted God’s kingdom agenda. The thing that was missing for me as I viewed the movement was color. I wondered to myself, ‘Does a black pastor of an inner city church have anything to teach a white suburban pastor?’ This question gets me thinking through power structures. The question is loaded with complications. Although loosely associated, the decisions regarding the broader missional movement rest in the hands of the few.  The answer to my question gets to the heart of a problem.

 

The missional movement is relatively new within evangelical circles. In fact, the missional movement is still fighting back accusations that the overall movement is a sinister break from ‘traditional conservative Judeo-Christian principles and values’. There is a rapid delivery of books, blogs, conferences, fashion, tweets, FB pages and posts about this Biblical theme that’s been missed for so long by so many. Although there is this rediscovery of mission Dei and what it means to be sent, there is also a danger that the voices are predominantly white and suburban. If the voices of the missional movement remain largely those of the dominant culture, then there is the possibility that the movement will begin to speak with a privileged accent. Call it what you want—whether it is in a suit, tie and comb over or in skinny jeans, fashion rims, tatted up, it is still coming from a place of access, comfort and homogeneity.

 

Although we are in the age of post-Christendom, the existing structure of evangelicalism still wields a significant amount of power. The presence of Christian publishers, magazines, academic institutions, conferences, conference centers, radio programs and mission organizations are all part of a construct designed to win the battle.  The proverbial ‘table’ that is so often talked about is actually nestled inside evangelicalism’s board room. So it is often said that Blacks need a seat at this ‘table’ in order to influence what goes on as the movement becomes more mainstream. Why is it so hard to sit down at this table called the Missional Movement? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the missional movement is nestled inside of evangelicalism and this movement has not properly dealt with race. Different clothes and music, but the same homogeneity exists.

 

The movement that sought to deconstruct Christendom needs deconstructing. The task of addressing inconsistencies within the movement is best handled by those who can view omissions and pathology from the outside. As the black church gets used to hearing about missional theology and the movement, it will recognize and embrace and add its unique accent to the conversation. However, I wonder if many will simply bristle at yet another predominantly white movement talking about Christians opening up coffee shops to engage in post-modern conversations when the national unemployment rate is 6.7% for whites and 13.3% for blacks.

 

In conclusion, yes, the black church is not without blemishes and the need to transform.  We are not perfect, but who is able to speak to the ills of White Evangelicalism like the Black church?  Additionally, one black conference speaker, professor or friend is not diversity, but could be construed as tokenism. It was brought to my attention recently by a friend and mentor that most Blacks can sniff out tokenism and so the Missional Movement needs to know that many of us know that a black woman on a panel covers two categories on the diversity checklist.  I guess one of the things that I need to say is that there are many things that the movement can learn from the Black church outside of gospel music and our unique preaching style. The Black church and those it has produced are not novelties to be observed from afar—instead the body was meant to benefit from parts. (1 Corinthians 12:12-27)

 

Let me make this clear—preachers, pastors, Bible believing black folk have been busting their tail ministering to people in the worst conditions for a very long time. Suburban White academics are ‘probably’ not the best folk to reference when you need to figure out how to minister to oppressed people groups. If the missional movement is concerned with reaching the kind of folk that Jesus reached, then perhaps they may want to diversify their think tank to include inner city, bi-vocational Black pastors who serve within extreme conditions.

 

Bio

Married to my lovely wife Pam for over 13 years. I love my children, 10 year old Micah, 8 year old Karis and my new born Shiloh Elyse, born May 4, 2013. I enjoy the challenge of seeing how the Biblical text interacts and speaks to culture. I love the city and reading about God’s heart for the marginalized of society. I love Jesus, His church and the city. I am an assistant pastor at Great Commission Church in West Oak Lane, Philadelphia, where I presently live. My love for urban culture springs from growing up in North Philly–those that know can understand why your heart never really leaves this place.

Graduate of Cairn University (formerly Philadelphia Biblical University) with a B.S. in Bible/Pre-Seminary and an M.S. in Christian Counseling. I also have a Master of Divinity Degree from Biblical Theological Seminary. I’m currently pursuing a DMin in Urban Missiology at Biblical Theological Seminary.

 

You can engage more with Kyle Canty over at his blog http://thecityrooftop.com/ and can follow him on twitter @kcanman.

Why do you call me Lord?: Praxis and Foundations

 

In America, it is common to hear people comment on how hard it must be to be a Christian overseas where persecution is rampant. Unfortunately, in response many begin cheering patriotically because of our so called American rights and our supposed ‘freedom’ to gather in Jesus’ name. While we could explore the faulty label and deployment of the word freedom in relation to American life we will forsake that explicit task for today. But there is something to say about reflecting on the nature and character of people’s faith in places where there is an inherent cost in claiming the name of Jesus and the absence of such opposition here in America. To be considered a Christian in many places demands deep conviction because their decision comes with a high cost or risk in their society. On the other hand, here in America, if someone pursued the most powerful position in the American empire (the Presidency), it is still strategically wise to identify as Christian if one desires to have an ‘effective’ campaign. What I am pointing to is the manner in which Christian rhetoric and association in America provides social, political, and economic space (for some) to move, gain prestige, obtain resources, and be considered a good and respectable citizen within American boundaries. Some may read this as positive but here it is not diagnosed as so. Instead, the end result is an expression of Christianity in which our adherence is cheap, easy, and comfortable; a life contrary to a life of following Jesus, as defined by Christ himself (Luke 9:23). 

Popular Christian expression and sentiment here on our part of the globe are found deficient, leaving many in a terrible position because they are being bamboozled and hoodwinked in their own identification before God. On one hand we have many who call Jesus Lord within the United States but on the other hand it is hard to find anyone who practices what Jesus taught or are willing to live alternatively in the world with Jesus as their foundation. Loving one’s enemies, not hoarding possessions, confronting evil, lending without expecting anything in return, making solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed, sharing the good news of God’s alternative Kingdom with the poor, doing justice, being merciful, and confronting empire and evil forces to the point of laying down one’s life are not compatible with American life or reasoning. Yet the absence of the markers of a Christian life has not even slightly worried  or bothered the self confidence  of self proclaimed Christians in America.

While Christianity in America is on a decline, it certainly has not gotten to the point where Christians are disenfranchised for their faithfulness to Christ (despite popular sentiment from many American evangelicals who complain about Christian victimhood from contexts of comfort, wealth, safety, and security). What a miserable condition we find ourselves in. We all believe that we are Christians and are followers of Christ and have been conditioned by our Christian leaders to believe that everything is fine and that there is nothing to worry about. At the same time, there is no fruit of discipleship (defined by the life of Christ rather than American standards of what is expected and reasonable for our 21st Century American lifestyles). We think that somehow the call to proclaim Jesus as Lord meant that we just had to verbalize the words but didn’t have to truly reorient our lives thoroughly around the reality of the gospel of Jesus Christ and his inbreaking Kingdom. This misunderstanding was something Jesus was fully aware of, warning his followers that true surrendering to Jesus’ Lordship demanded practicing what Jesus taught and emulated as the foundation of our lives. Here is Jesus’ teaching from Luke 6:46-49:

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and don’t do what I tell you? “Everyone who comes to me and listens to my words and puts them into practice – I will show you what he is like: He is like a manbuilding a house, who dug down deep, and laid the foundation on bedrock. When a flood came, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the person who hears and does not put my words into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against that house, it collapsed immediately, and was utterly destroyed!”[1]

            It’s time to move beyond empty words and cheap adherence. May we make Jesus’ life and teachings the foundations of our lives taking them seriously and putting them into practice as we yield to Christ thoroughly in our own life. When we step back and revisit where it is hard to be Christian, it is recognized that the domestication of Christianity in America provides a near impossible context to follow Jesus because we are completely enslaved to our way of life and logic. Thankfully, all things are possible with God.


[1] Biblical Studies Press., NET Bible: New English Translation., 1st Beta ed. ([Spokane  Wash.]: Biblical Studies Press, 2001).

John Howard Yoder: On Withdrawing to the Artificial Suburbs

While discussing the various Jewish sects during the time of Jesus, John Howard Yoder, zones in on the communities that produced the Dead Sea scrolls, most often referred to by Biblical scholars as the Essenes. However, he turns its application to what he sees as artificial and synthetic suburban life. He says the following:

The days of real rural withdrawal are fast passing, but the synthetic countryside we call the suburb, with its artificial old swimming holes, artificial expanses of meadow, and artificial campfire sites, set up to maintain artificial distance from the city’s problems, still represents some people’s vision of what to life for… But Jesus, although his home was a village, found no hearing there, and left village life behind him. He forsook his own handicraft and called his disciples away from their nets and their plows. He set out quite openly and consciously for the city and the conflict which was sure to encounter him there.[i]

What do you think about this statement from Yoder?  Are the ‘burbs’ a synthetic and artificial attempt at escaping the ugly systemic realities of the city? What was the relationship between White Flight and Evangelical Church flight to the suburbs while the great migration of poor, suffering African Americans from the rural south and to cities was taking place?


[i] John Howard Yoder, For the Nations: Essays Evangelical and Public (Eugene  Or.: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2002), 173.

Are We Celebrating Easter Right?

For Easter, many preachers will get into their pulpits and tell their congregations that the appropriate response to Jesus’ death and resurrection is gratitude. We must be thankful for forgiveness (for our individual sins), we must be thankful for assurance (meaning it doesn’t matter how we live), and we must be thankful for salvation (which is interpreted as our ticket to heaven).  While I certainly believe in our being grateful for what Jesus’ death and resurrection offers humanity, is that really the primary response that God is looking for. The next paragraph is probably not for you if you prioritize the ‘Sunday School’ answer over Jesus’ straightforward and clear teaching. (Can’t say I didn’t warn you!)

Contrary to popular opinion, the primary response in scripture to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection is not gratitude (although we should certainly be grateful) but it is imitation. Jesus, over and over again, invited those around him to follow him and imitate his way of life which inevitably leads to crucifixion (aka being crushed by hegemony and power). Jesus’ primary call to become his follower has always been about taking up the cross. This is primarily an ‘opting out’ of the worlds way of being and doing. Opting out of its violence, oppression, greed, apathy, selfishness and then ‘opting in’ to God’s kingdom of  servanthood, jubilee justice, holistic peace, forgiveness (of others sins and financial debts), and a courageous love not known by this world. Imitating the Way of Christ, in direct confrontation with this world, even to the point of death is what we have been called to as disciples of Jesus.

So as we celebrate Easter and the Resurrection of our Lord, let it not be a comfortable and complacent remembering, but may that memory of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection inspire and invigorate us to participate in the New Humanity and the New Way Jesus has provided for us.

The Will Of God: More Abstractions So We Can Avoid Following Jesus

My title says it all, I probably don’t have to say another word… but I will. 😉

I have grown up hearing Christians talk a lot about aligning themselves to the ‘will of God’. People wrestle constantly over whether they are aligned with God’s will’. This is the most sacred of tasks for many people. If one can be sure they are walking in the will of God, all is well. And so we try to ‘discern’. We try to discern if the church we are currently attending is the right one to feed us and our faith. We try to discern if that someone special is ‘the One’ for us. We try to discern if a particular ministry opportunity is what God is calling us to. If someone asks us to commit to help serve others because we are capable of doing so, first we need to pray about it. We pray about it because we need to know if it is in God’s will for our lives.

Following this logic, people amazingly tend to hear from God through the Spirit. The Spirit just so happens to lead most people into living lives that are self centered, apathetic, and in pursuit of the American Dream. But, one ought not question it, because it is God’s will, and the Spirit ‘led them’ to this point. Right?

In the New Testament, the primary motif for determining the life and lifestyle of a Christian is based on the call to follow and imitate Jesus. Consider Luke 9:23, 1 Pet. 2:20-21, 1 Cor. 11:1, 1 John 2:6 for just a few samples of this. What I am saying is that the Christian life is not a blank slate, upon which we need to discern how to fill it all up. Instead, the Christian life  is defined by a concrete lifestyle and ethics which demands following. We follow the life of Christ. Jesus is never on route to the American Dream (or the Imperial Throne of Rome), but to the cross. In fact, to choose to not live a life of the cross is to choose to no longer be Christ’s follower (Luke 14:27).

So back to discerning the ‘will of God’. Before we make the Christian life an abstract,and hence meaningless thing, we ought to start off by faithfully following and obeying Christ. However, I still do believe that we ought to be sensitive to the Spirit’s leading. Yet, we must insist that there is only one Spirit, and it is always guiding us concretely in the steps of Jesus. We can know the Spirit of God is alive in our lives and truly guiding us when our lives are aligned with the work and life of Christ. Jesus understood very well what the Spirit was leading him to: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

Let’s not use the ‘will of God’ as an excuse to avoid following Jesus and obeying his commands. To follow Jesus is the will of God for our lives.

The Particularity of Christ: Resurrecting Jesus from Abstraction

So, I am realizing more and more that I am more of a post-Christendom theologian than a purely postcolonial theologian (though they are highly related). This is especially true because of my concern that the ‘Christendom Shift’ (the imperial favor Christianity received during Constantine that mutated its core essentials) has marginalized, distorted, and domesticated Jesus. This has been done first by changing the center of Christian teaching to be something other than the narratives of Jesus and his teaching as something to be followed and obeyed, as well as by creating theology that accommodates and justifies dominant society’s self-interest.

If one does not start with the narratives of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John) to understand who Jesus is, but rather abstract and dogmatic doctrines about Jesus’ salvific work, then Jesus can either accommodate anything (crusades, persecuting the Jews for 1500 years, waging war against other nations, colonizing continents, and slavery to name a few examples). If it is not an accommodated Jesus, it is skirting Jesus all together. People try to dismiss Jesus by going backwards to the Old Testament (an unfulfilled narrative by all Christian account) or past him to Paul (unfortunately Paul is most often misread through European eyes as writing theology books rather than contextualized theological letters). Either way, the end result is one not having to follow Jesus’ life or obey his teachings.

We need to recover the ancient practice of  early Christians who understood that Jesus’ life and teachings were meant to be taken seriously and followed. It’s time to let the abstract and domesticated Jesus of the West die, and let God resurrect the true and living Jesus in your lives. This is the Crucified One that actually spoke and lived in a manner that was supposed to be ‘the Way’ to follow. We need to go back to the particularities of Christ. What are the actual and concrete ways that Jesus lived? What did he specifically teach? Howard Thurman talks about recovering Jesus’ Jewish ethnicity, poor upbringing, and minority status as important aspects of Jesus’ identity. Furthermore, Black and Anabaptist theologians have been pointing the Church towards Jesus’ particularity in both word and deed. This is why they can boldly talk about Jesus as liberator (Luke 4) and peace maker (Matthew 5). It is in the particularities of Jesus’ teaching and life as recorded in Scripture that he is known, not through the memorization of human articulations of doctrines, creeds, and confessions which are inevitably more abstract than the Gospel narratives themselves.

1 John 2: 6 “The one who says he resides in God ought himself to walk just as Jesus walked.” (NET)

‘Tweener Jesus’ Visits the Temple: Luke 2:41-51

Now Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem every year for the feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. But when the feast was over, as they were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but (because they assumed that he was in their group of travelers) they went a day’s journey. Then they began to look for him among their relatives and acquaintances. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Jesus were astonished at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were overwhelmed. His mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” But he replied, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Yet his parents did not understand the remark he made to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. But his mother kept all these things in her heart. (Luke 2:41-51)[i]

This passage in Luke is a familiar passage to me. However, if I am honest, I never spent much time practicing Lectio Divina with it, but would typically run through the passage thinking to myself that someone should have called child services on Joseph and Mary. Yes, Jesus was a special child, the end, right? Well, there are some other things that have struck me more recently.

In reality, it is understandable that Jesus’ parents lost track of him, given that they were most likely travelling in a large caravan full of family and friends from Nazareth to Jerusalem and back, which would probably offer a certain amount of safety and security in such a pilgrimage. If Jesus was hanging out with his cousins (possibly playing tag) then his parents could have easily lost track of him. However, it is interesting that the text says that “they assumed” Jesus was in their group. I’m not always an allegorical interpreter (not that I have anything against such readings), but a more recent reading lead me to jump immediately to how we as so proclaimed Christians in America so often venture off with our plans, mission, goals, and conquests, all while assuming that Jesus is with us. It is as though we believe that whatever we do and engage in, Jesus will automatically endorse and stamp his approval of divine will on.  This can be seen in historical events like the colonizing of lands or in the materialistic and self-driven decisions we make as individuals in terms of career choices and accumulation of toys (big houses and fancy cars). We just chase our dreams believing that God just so happens to always want us to go do it.

For Jesus’ parents, they are abruptly disrupted from this assumption with a moment of realization that Jesus indeed was not journeying with them. How devastating it must have been to realize your child has been left behind in the big city (remember, they are small time country folk from Galilee) and they have no clue as to where he is. As a father myself, I can only assume that they felt helpless, vulnerable, broken, and scared. It is no coincidence that they must go three days in Jerusalem, because for them the loss of their child is like torture and death, a psychological crucifixion.

After three days of searching, they finally decide to look in the Temple. Contrast the parents with Jesus. The parents are anxious and frantic while Jesus hanging out, seemingly un-phased by this familial separation. Like any Mom, after realizing that their child is fine, Mary digs into Jesus, disturbed with how their child could put them through such hell. Jesus simply says “didn’t you know” that I had to be “in the things of my Father” (it’s a more literal Greek translation than Father’s house or Father’s business). Again contrast the parent’s posture and approach with that of Jesus. The parents assume that Jesus is journeying with them. However, Jesus has aligned and arranged his life in line with, and around, the things of the Father. And there is a great challenge for us. May we surrender our will to the Father, rearranging our lives and decisions around the reality of the Messiah, and may we be joining God in his subversive in-breaking Kingdom in the world rather than seeking God to merely rubber stamp and approve our conquests.


[i] Biblical Studies Press., NET Bible : New English Translation., 1st Beta ed. ([Spokane  Wash.]: Biblical Studies Press, 2001).


Baby Jesus Presented in the Temple: Luke 2:21-39

At the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was named Jesus, the name given by the angels before he was conceived in the womb. Now when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (just as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male will be set apart to the Lord’), and to offer a sacrifice according to what is specified in the law of the Lord, a pair of doves or two young pigeons. Now there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon who was righteous and devout, looking for the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. So Simeon, directed by the Spirit, came into the temple courts and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what was customary according to the law, Simeon took him in his arms and blessed God, saying, “Now, according to your word, Sovereign Lord, permit your servant to depart in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples: a light, for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” So the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “Listen carefully: This child is destined to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be rejected. Indeed, as a result of him the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul as well!” There was also a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old, having been married to her husband for seven years until his death. She had lived as a widow since then for eighty-four years. She never left the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment, she came up to them and began to give thanks to God and to speak about the child to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. So when Joseph and Mary had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. (Luke 2:21-39, NET).

At the start of beginning of Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited[i], the argument is made that there are certain elements that are often neglected in western Christianity. Particularly Jesus’ Jewishness, poverty, and oppressed and dominated state are highlighted as being often neglected. Here in the passage in Luke chapter 2, we see all three of those elements of Jesus’ humanity witnessed to in the text.

Jesus is not only ethnically Jewish, but he is obviously raised Jewish as well. He is circumcised, and even presented in the Temple to God, all according to the Law of Moses. Despite many people’s desperate attempts to cast Jesus as a western figure throughout history[ii], Jesus is very much a Jew. Sorry for those who continue to perpetuate the devastating lie that Jesus is a western hero, representing and endorsing all things European, but that house is falling fast. We must continue to argue for Jesus’ Jewishness, because in that particularity of ethnicity we are revealed to the universality of Jesus’ Lordship. It is because Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, that we gentiles can be engrafted into that story and salvation.

Ethnicity is not the only concern in the text or for Thurman. We also see that Jesus comes from poor and humble beginnings. This could be easily missed, but Jesus’ parents are noted for offering two birds. The preferred sacrifice would have been a lamb, the two birds as a replacement was a specific prescription for those who could not afford the costlier animal[iii]. The fact that Luke notes that they opted for the pigeons is not by mistake, but to remind the hearers of the gospel that Jesus was a common poor man, like the masses of humanity that struggled to make it day by day. Sorry folks that push that Jesus was wealthy, it’s not true, he was homeless and had no place to lay his head.

Lastly, we must take notice of the messianic expectation that is leaping of the text. The devout are anticipating the consolation and redemption of Israel. There is a common feeling of continued spiritual exile and political and social oppression because of the continued hostile occupation and taxing from the Roman Empire. Jesus is born under these conditions himself, and must be seen as a colonized person. The desire for independence and God’s full presence and reign for the Jews was real, and thoroughly shapes Jesus’ own experience, life, and teaching. Sorry for the folks that imagine Jesus as a part of the dominant streams of society, but Jesus has more in common with postcolonial thinkers and freedom fighters than he does with those safely situated in comfort and security without any fear of political incarceration or execution because of one’s ethnicity and social position.

Therefore, when we talk about the incarnation, life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we must allow these aspects of Jesus concrete existence to shape how we begin to perceive, imagine, and come to know Jesus. And it this Jesus that we are also called to follow, imitate, and risk life for. May we all find the courage to follow Jesus radically as we also link arms with the underdogs of the world in our own contexts and communities.


[i] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited. (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1949).

[ii] J Carter, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford ;;New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[iii] Biblical Studies Press., NET Bible : New English Translation., 1st Beta ed. ([Spokane  Wash.]: Biblical Studies Press, 2001), bk. Leviticus 12:8.