Pain Medicine: Trayvon, Simon of Cyrene, and Jesus #MennoNerdsOnLoss

For several weeks I have been telling people that Zimmerman would not be found guilty. Silly folks all around me had convinced themselves that the evidence would result in the outcome of a guilty conviction. Most thought 2nd degree murder was possible but figured that Zimmerman at least would be convicted of manslaughter. I insisted that American history from 1619 all the way up to the present had data predicting another, less satisfying outcome. You see, I wasn’t going to get my expectations up, only to be crushed like I knew folks all around me were doing. So I did what I have been trained academically to do, to analyze and interpret the data from a more objective stance. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been very clear that the Zimmerman case is all about race, racial profiling, intimidation, and senseless and unnecessary violence. Trayvon Martin, still a child, became another victim of white people’s gaze of suspicion that has been cast on black bodies. However obvious that was, I still knew that America (dominant culture) was (and is) unwilling to admit to itself that it is sick, and that same pathology is what killed Trayvon Martin.

So when I finally heard the verdict ( a bit late, cuz I was socially unplugged), I found myself deeply confused with my own response. There I was, the one trying to not get emotionally set up for devastation, and I broke down and cried. Simultaneously, an anger burned deep down to my soul. All I could do was look at my two beautiful sons and consider what type of world they would grow up in. However, I was also confused with myself and why at this time I felt so broken, even when I had been telling people this was the most likely outcome.

Well, I think, deep down, I wanted to be wrong. I wanted to believe that America was able to come to grips with the oppressive racism and the long history of black vulnerability in this land. I apparently had outwardly and intellectually rejected the idea, but deep down in the black community is an optimism (most often rooted in naivety from the dominant culture but sometimes flows from a deep spiritual hope) that would not accept the obvious reality and state of the collective racial dynamics in the U.S.. Either way, I had bamboozled myself and played the fool.

Many black folks (and other people who stand in solidarity with our suffering) are broken. Big cases like these are very important in the black community. They are significant because often they are used as symbolic thermometers to measure the racial climate that we are living in. A win in the suburbs of Florida is a win in Philly, Chicago, Detroit, NY, and L.A. . Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And so, Trayvon became our symbolic Sons, because we know that if someone can racially profile and hunt down Trayvon and not be found responsible, then all young black men are at risk of being gunned down because of white suspicion. Through the country, racial profiling is already an out of control epidemic, as black men are being harassed and stalked legally because of the xenophobic fear of black men among the dominant society. NYC right now is the most infamous for this right now, as the ‘stop and frisk’ program has been exposed as an unprecedented systematic tool of harassment aimed disproportionately at young black and brown men, whom statistics vindicate as having done nothing wrong. While many wrongly try to associate racist policy with the south, the truth is that throughout the country and especially in the North, black and brown youth are instantly seen as criminal and therefore are vulnerable to being grabbed, seized, searched, and often arrested without due cause.

In Mark’s Gospel account, in chapter 15 verse 21, we are told about a man name Simon of Cyrene who was observing the crucifixion process being carried out by the Romans. What was it about this North African man that fastened the eyes of these soldiers of the powerful Roman Empire onto him? Was it that he was darker than the others and therefore became more visibly ‘the Other’ to those Westerners? Was there an ethnic tension involved that brought undue attention to this man from Cyrene? Those things we can only ponder, but what we do know is that this man lacked protection and safety from the ever-reaching arms of the oppressive Roman empire. He was vulnerable and therefore was seized expectantly. Today, we remember Simon of Cyrene, who is only mentioned in this one verse and no where else, because he in many ways symbolizes the modern African diasporic experience. At mere sight, our bodies are the site of vulnerability in a foreign land, lacking protection. Therefore, we are seized. We were once seized for labor and we are now seized out of racial fear. And like our dear brother Simon, the end story of how it will all turn out is unknown, a hazy future that continues to haunt us. With such unknowns, we are left broken and often forced into death-dealing despair.

But for those that are hurting and struggling today, here is some pain medicine. God has and continues to hear the cries of the oppressed and violated. God, took on human flesh so that he once and for all could overcome the death-dealing and sinful forces that oppress and do violence to the poor, oppressed, and vulnerable. Jesus did not just take on human flesh, he took on Doulos flesh, in the Greek that is Servant/Slave flesh. Jesus did not come as emperor, governor, or as a part of the wealthy elite. Jesus did not come as one who benefited from the privileges of Roman society. No, Jesus was a poor Galilean Jew under Roman oppression, and who was under Roman suspicion and threat throughout his ministry (Luke 13:31), and ultimately died being accused of being a threat to the empire, dying a poor revolutionaries death, also known as crucifixion. That is to say that God took on the story of the vulnerable as a type of solidarity with those that suffer violence and vulnerability as way of life. God knows your pain and has joined in your struggle.

More than that, Jesus at the site where Rome exercised its legal and decisive power (blasphemously choosing to extend life or take life as though it had divine status, and as though Rome had the final say) exposed the powers of this world for what they are. They are stripped and unveiled as mere impostors. And so their greatest threat, death, which is supposed to be ultimate finality, doesn’t actually have the last word. Jesus conquered death and the cross through resurrection. And God invites us to be part of his Resurrection world that overcomes the violence and oppression of this current world and to participate in the world to come, where the vulnerability of young men like Trayvon (and our loved ones) will no longer happen.

And so, as we struggle today, let’s not struggle in despair, but in a hope for what is to come. A hope that stirs deep in our souls as we struggle for justice and peace with our backs straight and our heads lifted high, because God is with us and will vindicate us, no matter what the courts rule, the laws enforce, or how people respond. Today, we proclaim that Jesus our liberator, in solidarity with us, reigns and is victoriously marching us towards Zion.

This post is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog on the topic of Death, Loss, Pain and Grief, July 14-30, 2013. Check out our page on MennoNerds.com  to see all the other posts in this series.

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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)

Book Review: Dem Dry Bones by Luke Powery

There is little doubt that preaching can be big business, a commodity of sorts, which can be manipulatively packaged in a way that is extremely profitable. And while forms of ‘prosperity gospel’ are both popular, and if honest, speak to the aspirations of many poor people, the question still remains, how does it minister to one’s soul in the midst of actual life with all its hardships? Luke Powery sets out to counter the fluffy death-avoiding pulpit ministry that is unquestionably sweet but yet ultimately superficial.

With an insightful and prophetic witness, Powery reminds his readers that “Preaching hope is inadequate without taking death seriously. Not only is death the context for preaching hope, but hope is generated by experiencing death through the Spirit who is the ultimate source of hope.” (10)  Given this, he argues persuasively that  preaching death, both our daily little deaths and Big Death, are not just for funerals and Christology, but are essential for any word that sets out to offer life-giving hope.

The site of Powery’s homiletical inspiration is located primarily in two sources that have been a great means of hope in countless African American churches in the midst of painful suffering and death. The first reservoir for homiletics is the Spirituals. Powery makes the case that the Spirituals in essence are sung sermons that provide hope at the location of death. They offer a model for Spiritual preaching which is sorely needed in our communities. The second location which provides the primary metaphor and model for spiritual preaching death and life for Powery is found in Ezekiel 37’s popular narrative of ‘the Valley of Dry Bones’. With the Spirituals and Ezekiel 37 at hand, we are called to, and reminded of, the need for a preaching ministry that has an intertwining encounter with spirit, death, and hope.

If you are seeking to more faithfully preach a word of hope and more honestly engage the full depth of the gospel to people who are dying little deaths everyday and will face Big Death one day, then this book is for you. It is an excellent resource and ought to be on every shelf of those who are given the heavy responsibility of preaching gospel to our broken world.

(As full disclosure, I was given this as a review copy. I am not receiving any funds and there is no expectation of necessarily receiving a positive review. These are my genuine thoughts.)

Other Religions

I am currently in a World Religions course at Biblical Seminary (a great place to learn for anyone interested in studying in the Philadelphia area, especially if your interested in the urban context.) Anyway, one question that I am forced to wrestle with over and over again while thinking about folks all around the world who are seeking after God (or gods)  through alternatives means than Christianity, is how, if at all, has God been revealing himself for generations to the world.  If I assume, which I do, that God is revealing himself to all humanity and that he is close rather than afar from everyone, then in what ways had God’s wisdom, truth, and presence shaped even the most antichrist religions.

I imagine that wherever we can find God’s wisdom and truth no matter the source, we can find opportunity to build bridges from where they are at to the Crucified One.

Visiting Buddhist Temple

Tomorrow as part of my World Religions class we will be visiting a Buddhist temple. While I won’t me converting, worshiping Buddha, or practicing any eastern form of meditation, I do want to engage on some level. My hope is that I can empathize with those who will be at the service, understanding what specific motivations draw them there, and how they see this ancient religion as relevant for their lives.   If I can empathize and stay engaged, my mission will be accomplished for what I can get out of the experience.

A Child is Born

We don’t know exactly what Jesus looked like, in the Occident most portrayals of Jesus are blond haired and blue eyed. Some scholars are describing him as Afro-Asiatic in descent given his background, geography, and the common ethnic mixing of that particular time. While we don’t know exactly what he looked like, I always appreciate various African and Black expressions of Jesus.  While many are offended by such pictures (while never giving a second thought to European depictions of Jesus), I think it is important for those who have been oppressed (socially and psychologically) to be able to identify with the God who came down and incarnated to identify with us.  It is not a visual message of colonial oppression, power, and dominance, but rather of liberation, empowerment, redemption, solidarity, and love.

Granny Chen (Great Grandmother past away).

My Great Grandmother past away yesterday at the full age of 103 years old.  She was blessed to keep her mind together basically for her entire life, which is often rare these days for those who have the privilege of living that long. The picture below was taken during her big 100th birthday a few years back, with all the (blood-line) fellas who are children and grandchildren of my grandfather, Granny Chen’s son (there are others, but these are who could make it out).

During her party, she actually took sometime to speak to everyone, I wish I could remember everything that was said, but basically she reminded us of who we are, as well as to remind us of our Rock (Jesus the Christ) who we ought not let go of.  I imagine after living a long life like that (over a century) you have a particular vantage point, especially as you see all the various families that have sprung up. Yet that was the message she wanted to pass on the next generations.  The things she has seen, I can not imagine. But now, we are believing that she is at REST. Love ya Granny Chen!

You are Wretched, Pitiful, Poor, Blind and Naked!

The third chapter of the book of Revelations Jesus writes a letter to the church of Laodicea. This community is a relatively wealthy community that seems to have all the material possessions one could want.  The letter written to them speaks into their context of financial security and wealth, greed, complacency, and self reliance.  Sounds a bit like America in my opinion.   This is what is the letter says…

14 “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.

Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me. To those who are victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

(Revelations 3:14-22, TNIV)

What is interesting is that this is a familiar passage in many churches in America, yet I have hardly heard it exegeted in consistency with the message and main point addressed there.  Many either isolate the section about being hot or cold from the rest of the passage… or some grab  vs. 19 about Jesus knocking oustside on the door and wanting to come in, using it as a evangelistic verse to ask unbelievers to “let Jesus in”.  The reality is that this verse is written to the church, to those who already believe, not unbelievers.

These folks were wealthy and self reliant, not fully following after Jesus. Apparently, Jesus is not present at their community and fellowship according to the passage.  They have been enticed by the things of this world, and have tried to chase after those things while attempting to follow Jesus.  The reality is that they can’t have both and so really all they have is the temporal wealth of this world.  They are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.

Lord, forgive us for our self reliance, pride, arrogance, and greed that continually pulls us, and has us chasing after things other than you.  Help us to truly see our brokenness and poverty without you. May we follow after only you, may you be at the center of our gatherings, may you shape and mold us to be more like you, may we be good stewards of your stuff, may we become generous and compassionate like you, and may we be fully committed to you.