I am sad to close the Theos Project, and I have been delaying this post for quite sometime. Most of you probably know that I started a new blog, A Love Supreme. I felt like I needed a new blogging start and a new forum. It's helped me a good deal. Turns out that the medium is, in fact, the message.
Whereas my blogging at Theos Project was primarily theological, my blogging at Love Supreme is an attempt to blog about a greater number of subjects and to be a more narrative blogger, reflect a bit more on the events of my life. This is a bit of a challenge for me, but it's been going well so far. Blogging at Theos Project put pressure on me to come up with things that were deep or intellectually vigorous, and at the same time, blogging at Theos Project also made me hesitant to blog about myself.
Blogging here at Theos Project has served me well, and I am thankful to all who have followed me here, read my posts, and left stimulating comments. (Never fear, though, because this blog, like all things in The Cloud, will remain online for eternity!)
Thank you and good night,
P.S. I will still be sharing theological thoughts on my new blog. =)
A LOVE SUPREME
If you post comments here at Theos Project, please know that I will respond and engage your thoughts in a timely manner.
Sunday, July 31, 2011
I am sad to close the Theos Project, and I have been delaying this post for quite sometime. Most of you probably know that I started a new blog, A Love Supreme. I felt like I needed a new blogging start and a new forum. It's helped me a good deal. Turns out that the medium is, in fact, the message.
Wednesday, June 01, 2011
Most Americans, even those who consider themselves educated and fairly intelligent, find it difficult to navigate the intricate complexities of today's economy, especially as one wades through the muck and mire of the current economic recession. For me, reading Deep Economy was a refreshingly human way to contemplate the best elements of what makes economies work: the way they can pull together communities and provide us with a meaningful way to work and toil. McKibben's description of deep economy is actually about deep community. Local community, that is. McKibben's suggestion is that it is time to think about decentralization, creating local communities that are self-sustaining.
Deep Economy begins by criticizing the current economic axiom that we all take for granted: that our economy should expand. He questions our national obsession with growth, for three reasons. First, McKibben asserts that our current system has produced inequality and insecurity. The rich and powerful keep getting more rich and powerful, and the poor remain poor. The current system is also prone to the up turns and down turns that make us all feel insecure.
His second criticism is ecological. Our current global economy runs on cheap oil. What happens when the oil runs out? Or when oil becomes more and more difficult to find? Furthermore, we must ask if we can deal with the pollution caused by our current mode of operation. Further still, can we afford to fill the air with more carbon, thus contributing to greater and more devastating consequences from climate change.
McKibben's last criticism is the most simple: are we happy? Is our approach to work and economy enriching our lives. We may be producing more, we may be buying and selling more. We may be pushing ourselves to work harder and smarter, but is this all really translating into a full life?
Still, McKibben is understanding. "Up to a certain point, more really does equal better." He continues, "money buys happiness right up to about $10,000 per capita income, and after that point the correlation disappears." In other words, we are wired to think that more is better, and that is understandable; but after a certain point, the law of diminishing returns kicks into high gear.
McKibben's solution is to localize. We should, as a society, reduce our consumption while at the same time locally producing most of what we consume. This is where McKibben is folksy and old fashioned, in the very best way, because by moving economies to a smaller scale and relying on locally produced goods and services, communities will be more closely bound to each other, working together and becoming more neighborly in the process. This is the antithesis, says McKibben, of the hyper-individualism that now dominates and controls our national psyche.
Food is a good example of the main arguments of Deep Economy. "The average bit of food an American eats has traveled fifteen hundred miles before it reaches her lips." This requires oil to ship this food around. It also requires oil to fuel the machinery that runs the farms. Americans have gone from having half the population farm to now only 1%. Machines have replaced the human worker, with the profits not going to farmers but to owners, distributors, retailers. Farmers get "less than 10 cents of the typical food dollar."
What if we produced our food locally? It would keep the profits in the hands of the farmers, keep more of us busy with farming, and reduce our dependency on oil (with its resulting harm to the environment). It might feel better, too, to get to know your local farmer. After all, McKibben says, people who shop at farmers markets are 10 times more likely to stop and chat. This is the good old fashioned community values that is so refreshing to read.
One of the icons of our current growth-motivated economy is Wal-Mart. I was interested to read McKibben citing a study showing that Wal-Mart makes communities poorer. "As University of Pennsylvania researchers concluded in a particularly comprehensive study, counties with Wal-Marts have grown poorer than surrounding counties, and the more Wal-Marts they had, the faster they grew poor." (See cecd.aers.psu.edu/pubs/povertyresearchsm.pdf) Wal-Marts (and the global economy in general) also rely on cheap oil and contribute to sustaining sweatshop workers and exploited labor.
McKibben, though, is no economist. Dealing with the complexities of the current economy is not his area of expertise. So, in a world that is already running in this direction, it is unclear exactly how (and if) we could make a transition from the current economic engines to a more localized model. McKibben himself seems to acknowledge that such a transition would likely take a while and move slowly. Still, for those who are really schooled in economic theory, Deep Economy would leave much to be desired; but then again, the book was not written for those schooled in economic theory. It was written to motivate average people to act in practical ways, changing the way they buy and sell: to buy less stuff (that we don't really need), to live a life that is fulfilling, to support local artisans and food growers, and to get people out of Wal-Marts and into farmers markets.
Deep Economy seems to be suggesting that we can succeed and live a rich life without the cut throat competition that marks our current economics of globalized capitalism. This doesn't mean that McKibben wants to do away with markets or the market system. It's just that he sees it working better (in a more sustainable way that is more life giving) in localized contexts where neighborliness and community are rediscovered as an important element of a sustainable economy.
I found this book refreshing and hopeful. It is also very empowering, because there are very simple things that individuals can do to impact the economy in positive ways while at the same time making life a little bit richer and more fulfilling.
Posted by Jonathan Erdman at Wednesday, June 01, 2011
Monday, November 15, 2010
Friday, November 12, 2010
Sermon from 11/7/2010 at the Unitarian Universalist fellowship in Kodiak, Alaska.
We have always strived to be immortal, haven’t we? We have always struggled with our mortality. This struggle is central to any religion, and it is written into the myths of the Greeks, where the boundary between “god” and “human” is oftentimes blurred.
For a group who calls themselves “Transhumanists,” immortality is not an ancient speculation but a modern reality. Transhumanists anticipate a day in the not-too distant future when the contents of our minds—our memories, intelligence, emotions, and consciousness—can be uploaded into a new, machine-body, something that could extend our lives indefinitely.
It is a riveting idea—incredible and unbelievable really. The stuff that excites the imaginations of novelitsts and filmmakers. Yet this group of Transhumanists are credible philosophers and technology experts. They are MIT grads and university professors, not comic book writers.
Our rate of technological advance is so profound and exponential, that what was once a fantasy is now a credible theory and movement. For example, one dedicated and convinced Transhumanist, Ray Kurzweil, takes 250 supplements a day and undergoes six intravenous therapies a week. Other like-minded intellectuals possess Alcor cryogenic-suspension contracts. For the price of $120,000, one can have one’s body cryogenically frozen. It’s a bit of a gamble, a bet that at some point in the future, when human mind can merge with machine, their minds can be revived and transferred into a machine.
We hear a good deal these days about “growing our economy.” Few stop to ask if we can continue such “growth” indefinitely.
As a culture and society, we seem to be intent on limitless growth and eternal progress. We want to push to push the boundaries of possibility and pursue not only a life without limits, but a life without end.
They were one in their purpose and plan. Their vision was to build a tower that would reach high, into the heavens. Their desire was to “make a name” for themselves, to a leave a legacy.
This is the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, found in the eleventh chapter of Genesis. It is the last of what is called the “primeval passages,” the old stories, like the creation of the world, life in the Garden of Eden, the strife of Cain and Abel, and the Flood narrative. After the Tower of Babel story, the book of Genesis shifts the focus to the life of Abraham and his descendents.
The desire of the people in Babel was that their tower would “reach the heavens” (sh¹mayim). This was likely a divine aspiration. In ancient cosmology, within the ancient worldview, the heavens and the underworld were the homes of the gods. To reach these heavens would, indeed, make a name for them; and what a name it would be!?
So, the people are united in their language with a common goal: build a great city with a tower to the heavens. At this point in the story, the biblical narrative pokes fun at the project. God says, essentially, “Let us go down and see what they are up to.” The implication is that their tower to the heavens wasn’t quite high enough for God (who lived in the heavens) to notice. So, God had to come down from heaven to see about the progress.
After surveying the situation, God says, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (NRS) There is a shift here: God expresses a concern. Now, presumably there is no sense of threat. The ancient Hebrew God had no rival. My interpretation is that the Tower, itself, is not a problem. On my reading, the text is teaching that there is a danger in a collective spirit to pursue a project without limits. The residents of Babel are pursuing a society of unlimited expansion. Put simply: growth is their primary objective, expansion for the sake of expansion.
For a few days this week, I enjoyed a personal getaway. I spent some time in front of a wood stove in a cabin some forty miles or so away from Kodiak. The first day I was fortunate to have some good weather and great hiking, and I’ll tell you something, it was gorgeous and inspiring. The next day it rained. As such, I spend a good deal of time indoors, working on this very sermon, and watching the fire burn in the wood stove.
Speaking of fire…In Greek mythology, the wily Prometheus tricked Zeus into allowing humans to keep sacrificial meat for themselves, only offering the fat and bones to the gods. Not happy about this turn of events, Zeus took fire away from human beings. Prometheus responded by stealing fire and giving it back to mortals. Having reached his limit with Prometheus, Zeus chained him to a rock and vultures ate out his insides every day. Every night Prometheus grew them back, and the next day the vultures returned.
Mary Shelly wrote her classic gothic novel Frankenstein as part of a summer contest. Shelly and friends were spending the summer in the country, and they found themselves surrounded by an exceptionally rainy and cold summer. (Sound familiar?!)
Frankenstein was written as a warning against tampering with nature. Victor Frankenstein is a young, gifted scientist who learns to create life. Yet he is incapable of caring for this new life, of nurturing its soft and gentle heart. In fact, Dr. Frankenstein abandons his creation, horrified by the appearance. Eventually, the creature becomes vengeful and wreaks havoc on Dr. Frankenstein’s loved ones.
The novel is instructive, I think, in this way: it takes more than ingenuity and scientific acumen to nourish the human spirit. Life is fragile, and the soul is delicate.
I think that we tend to think, to presume, that technology is neutral. We can use it for good or for evil. Is this really so?
My friend Bob Doede is a philosopher at Trinity Western University in Langely, British Columbia. What he says on this count is insightful, if not a bit provocative: “…technologies not only do things for us, they also do things to us. Moreover, they not only do things for us and to us, they also and at the same time undo things; they give and take away, often giving us something we desire (ease, efficiency, convenience, etc.) and taking away something we need (friction, concrete contact with nature, a sense of our limitations, etc.). For example, as they enable us to do more without as much physical exertion, they at the same time weaken our bodies.” DISCUSS A FEW EXAMPLES
This is not a sermon bashing technology. I like technology. And technology has done good things for our world, and it can do many more good things. The point is that our technological progress has extracted a price, it has changed us radically both in positive and negative ways, and my suggestion is that we be brave and wise enough to discern the impact of our “progress.”
Well, all of this—Prometheus and Zeus, Frankenstein and technology—it all brings me back to the cabin and the wood burning stove: Fire may be a gift of the gods, but it is only a gift if we respect and fear its capacity to destroy us.
The story of the Tower of Babel ends by God “confusing the language” of the residents of Babel. With this confusion of the language, the community is unable to continue with their plans for expansion, and they abandon their lofty aspirations for the Tower as well as their city-building, scattering across the face of the earth.
“Look, they are one people,” God had said, “and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (NRS) This was God’s appraisal of the situation, and I find it to be a fascinating assessment of the potential of human beings: united by language and a common goal, we are unstoppable, nothing is impossible.
Certainly human history testifies to this capacity to accomplish extraordinary feats. Sometimes humanity has united to advance evil and oppressive ends, while at other times we have come together to advance justice and equality, stand up for human dignity, give relief to the poor and oppressed, and usher in times of peace and harmony.
“Nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (NRS) The question, then, is this: what are the ends to which we aspire?
I recently read an article in the local paper, the Kodiak Daily Mirror, stating that there are 6,910 documented languages in our world. I would add one more: the language of consumerism. This is a shared language of advertising, of image and sounds, designed to motivate us to buy more products and services and to continually “upgrade” our lives. This motivation most often comes by a subtle (or not so subtle) method of making us discontent with what we have, to create within us a sense that we need something more in our lives.
A recent Disney Pixar film, Wall-E, has a humorous take on our consumeristic, disposable society. Set in the future, all of the human beings have left because there is too much trash. Wall-E, the little robot who is the hero of the movie, has a job: compressing and stacking the trash in piles as high as small sky scrappers. So, there are these massive monuments of trash. Perhaps our culture’s Tower of Babel might be the massive amounts of waste we are collecting in the dumps and landfills.
What are the ends to which we aspire? Have technology, progress, and consumerism become ends in themselves? Jon Kabat-Zinn is a medical professor Emeritus who has spent a good bit of his career merging eastern spirituality with medical science. Recently I heard him interview with Krista Tippett on the NPR radio show Speaking of Faith. He says that our technology is in some sense getting more sophisticated than our understanding of ourselves as human beings. (Speaking of Faith) “I'm not saying,” says Kabat-Zinn, “sort of like we should go back — I'm not taking a Luddite position on this. I think that technology is incredibly beautiful, and it's going to get more and more and more powerful and more and more beautiful. But there are issues associated with it…”
He continues: “You know, we're moving towards a very strange world in some ways, at least so far that we don't know what it's going to be. But one piece of it hasn't developed yet and that is our intimacy, our deep understanding of what it means to be human. We're still in our infancy as a human species. And before we start to talk about wet/dry interfaces where you start putting chips inside of the skull..to regulate certain things or upgrade our memory or whatever it is that might seem so attractive, that we really in the next few generations need to reclaim the full dimensionality of our humanity.”
I think this is a nuanced and instructive position. I would only add this: whatever it is that we call technological or economic “progress,” it must run a distant second to religious, moral, and humanistic concerns, because progress is only progress if it is life-giving and increases the fullness of our human experience: caring for each other, deepening our appreciation for the sacred and mysterious, and developing our awareness of ourselves.
I recently read through Herman Melville’s great classic novel, Moby Dick. It is not small feat! =) Melville narrates a grand and epic tale in an equally magnanimous prose. One of my favorite lines speaks of the growing insanity of Captain Ahab, who has long harbored anger and maddening malice against the whale, Moby Dick, who left him with a peg leg the last time they met on the high seas. The narrator of the tale, who is also a crewman, says this, “God help thee old man, thy thoughts have created a creature within thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart forever; that vulture the very creature he creates.”
Ahab has built a tower of anger in his soul, he has created a creature of bitterness, and this creature will feed on him.
What creatures do our egos create? What towers do we seek to build within ourselves? Henry David Thoreau said, “only that day dawns to which we are awake.” Whatever inner towers we construct, whatever creatures our egos create, their primary limitation is that they keep us asleep to the beauty and possibility of the present moment. That is to say, there is something profound, indescribable really, about being able to fully engage each moment of our existence.
We so often become so caught up in every thing except what is happening around us. Consequently we fail to appreciate the limiteless beauty that our limited moments bring.
Thomas Merton, a monk and Roman Catholic spiritual writer said, “Most growth in religious understanding is the deepening of the experience of what we already know.” [cited by James Finley in Merton’s Path to the Palace of Nowhere, audio CDs]
James Finley, an author, psychotherapist, and spiritual teacher who was also a monk for a period of time, at the same monastery as Merton asks, “What would it mean to walk into a room and instantly become aware of the inherent holiness of everything that’s there, and to inherently reverence it and to honor it and to be faithful to it?”
There is a paradox here: By being faithful and awake to the limited nature of ourselves, the world, and others, we discover something truly unlimited, infinite.
We feel all around us the impulse to add more and more, to live a life without limits or boundaries. This impulse is a part of the air we breath, it has been the primary motivation of our American society since Europeans first walked on the soil. But it isn’t just an American impulse. Perhaps we magnify it and make it into a central psychological and spiritual motivator; but it didn’t start with us. It is written in our oldest religious texts, in the Greek myths, and in our recorded histories. We want to build towers that reach the heavens, to have unlimited potential.
We could walk the path of the Transhumanists who look forward to a merger of human and machine, shedding our mortal, physical bodies. We could go the way of those who push to make more money, to eternally expand the economy. We could seek to make ourselves gods, limited by nothing.
Or we could seek to understand what it truly means to be human before we seek to become superhuman, deepening our understanding of living with limits before we live without limits.
And isn’t this the impulse of the artist? The artist begins by limiting herself to modest tools—a canvass and brush, a camera, paper and pen, or clay. The artist then attunes herself to something beautiful, or something true, or something profound. She expands herself, she learns from her art, and she deepens her understanding. When she is finished, her creation fixes our attention to something important about human life. Paradoxically, through a finite and limited creation of an artist, we can catch a glimpse of something infinite.
This glimpse of the infinite goes through the finite, not around it. It does not seek to circumvent our mortal humanity but is content and grateful simply for what is. We can only “reach the heavens” by being grounded on this earth, through a humble bow of thanksgiving.
Sunday, October 17, 2010
This is a copy of the sermon that I preached this morning. It is an exploration of my time teaching creative writing (with Tamie) in the Kosciusko County Jail.
It was a surreal sensation. The first time I walked through the cell blocks of the Kosciusko County Jail in the small town of Warsaw, Indiana, I felt like I was walking through the film, The Shawshank Redemption. I was immersed by concrete and steel, surrounded by walls that were ugly and unforgiving. The walk through the blocks was short, and before I knew it I was at the center, the small room where the watchman sits. In this space every cell is visible, the camera transmits all of the movements and behaviors of the incarcerated and projects them upon screens: to monitor, to regulate the jail and its inmates.
Walking by the cells, I can see through the glass, into the cells. I can see in, but they cannot see out, except if they come really close.
The inmates wear stripes. For some reason, I was anticipating orange jumpsuits. But here, stripes. Black and white for the men, pink and white for the women.
All of the men wear ink on their skin and hardened expressions on their faces, especially the younger ones. They want you to know that on no uncertain terms they are not ones to be trifled with. Their situation is ironic, of course, because they are almost completely powerless, trapped behind walls, stripped of their civil rights, subjected to a schedule, and subjugated to the orders of the guards. So, perhaps, this is all the more reason for some to assert their manhood.
There are exceptions to this machismo, this harder-than-nails exterior shell. Some are broken and haggard. These are the ones that have nothing to prove, who are resigned to a system that has beaten them. The name they have for this system is "life." It takes me a while to see these men. It is the tough guys who most often make their way to the glass, who assert themselves, make themselves visible. It is their broad shoulders and prominent tattoos that greet me on this my first visit to the Kosciusko County Jail.
It's a funny thing. After living in this small Indiana town most of my life, it is only at the age of 31 that I first make my way through these cell blocks. I have been to countless suburban homes and visited many respectable places of business. I have darkened the doors of the churches hundreds of times and listened to as many sermons. I am thoroughly familiar with the ins and outs of the local college, the grocery stores, and I am intimately familiar with all of the spaces in the natural world where one can retreat to in order to enjoy a bit of quiet reading time.
But these cell blocks? They are another world to me.
They were seated on a sloping hill, most scholars say. This is the setting for The Sermon on the Mount. Of all of Jesus' teachings, this homily is his most well-known. It is both instructive and poetic. It is somehow both familiar and simple, yet at the same time provocative and perhaps even revolutionary.
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
10Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Most of what Jesus says is directed toward the future: "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." It is a future hope and a promise to come. Yet Jesus begins his sermon by saying "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." This is no promise delayed for a day to come. Jesus speaks in the present tense: "theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven, if it is anywhere here on earth, is to be found with those who are spiritually poor, those impoverished souls.
But can it really be this way? Who builds a kingdom of the poor, made up of poor spirits and broken souls?
Who does this?
Within a few months of moving to my small, Indiana town, Tamie, now my fiancé, was restless, ready to do something significant and to give. She decided that she wanted to volunteer for the local literacy council, maybe teach English as a second language to local Hispanic people. She called the local director, who in turn asked Tamie if she would like to start a literacy class at the jail. That literacy class quickly evolved into a creative writing class that we taught together. Our incarcerated students were soon composing poetry, writing their life stories, even crafting persuasive essays. We taught two classes each week—one for women and one for men. The women came in wearing their pink stripes, the men in black and white.
Each week they would write. They would process their lives through words. Almost to a person, our class was made up entirely of people from the lower class, the poor. We encouraged them to push the boundaries, the boundaries of their social class and the boundaries that they set up within themselves. Be creative, use your imagination. Don't settle for words and sentences that you've heard before, create your own.
We knew that they already were creative. They tear out threads of their clothing and other material, use dye made of crushed pencils to color the threads, then weave the threads together and create necklaces. One of our students fashioned a necklace complete with a Christian cross pendant. With nothing but time on their hands, they could create these beautiful things. Some of our students were incarcerated for their creativity, like creating a clever or smarter way to cook methamphetamine (or just "meth" for short). For those who grow up with an expectation for failure and live their lives in poverty and violence, creating meth is a way to kill that reality, to escape and live high. Meth only promises death, and it delivers every time: death to pain and poverty, and a deteriorating but inevitable death to the body and the spirit.
It occurs to me to ask: what do we do with this incredible gift, this gift we have to create? Is it possible that one of the most fundamental human characteristics is our imagination?
Our students could imagine and they could create. Last Christmas they assembled a collection of their poetry in a small journal. We printed a few hundred copies or so and sold them, using the proceeds to purchase books for the jail. The poetry was raw and it was well-formed. It was free of pretense, simple but at the same time complex because of this simple pain that they were exploring.
Together, our classes discussed a name for the poetry collection. They eventually settled on "the guilty's innocence." They all really liked this title. For them guilt is one of the most fundamental powers of the soul, a force to be reckoned with. That they were guilty was the given. What they wanted to do with their poetry is let the reader see into their innocence. Looking back now, I think that it's their innocence that surprised me more than anything. There was a certain guilelessness that permeated each class and every written assignment. For example, Tamie and I quickly learned that our postmodern irony was lost on the class. For all of the ways in which they were wise to the world—much wiser than ourselves—for all of their soul-numbing experiences of abuse, violence, and oppression, oddly, they were too sincere for irony.
From my observations, I've found that many Christians these days prefer the version of the Sermon on the Mount found in the Gospel of Matthew. There is, however, another lesser-read version of the Sermon found in the Gospel of Luke. Matthew's account is what we might call a more "spiritual" interpretation. Luke's version isn't so lofty. It's raw and more prophetic, a bit more blue collar. It is also more compact. My earlier reading was from Matthew, which pronounces nine blessings. Luke slims down and gets to the point with only four.
There is certainly much to learn from Matthew's version. For example, I want to think about how the kingdom of heaven is to be found with those whose spirituality is poor. These days, there's money to be made in the business of promoting spiritual richness, and there are churches to be filled with congregants ready to hear a message about becoming spiritually wealthy. What might it mean to flip this paradigm? I want to learn how to identify with this poverty of the soul and see what it is that Jesus saw.
Turning to Luke, however, I can see that the interpretation and application of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount opens up….with a bit of a bite you might say.
woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
25Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26Woe to you when all men speak well of you,
for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.
These are the words that follow right on the heels of Jesus' blessings. It has all the fight of the ancient Hebrew prophets who denounced oppression and injustice in the land. The emphasis here is almost "economic." The blessing is not for the "poor in spirit," but for "the poor." Period. The version in the Gospel of Luke omits the term "in spirit" and simply states,
Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
When Jesus speaks in this prophetic tone, he is tapping into his Jewish roots. These are deep roots. The Jewish holy writings overwhelmingly speak for the poor.
That these scriptures advocated for the poor was something I knew, but in preparing for this sermon, in reviewing again the writings, I was surprised when I read again the uncompromising emphasis of this message.
For example, the law made explicit provisions for the poor and vigorously forbade taking advantage of the weak and powerless:
For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, 11 but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it…ex23:10-11
Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. 23 If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry…. If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest….ex. 22:22-27
Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. 7 Have nothing to do with a false charge… "Do not oppress an alien…ex. 23:6-9
The poetry of the Psalms also speaks on behalf of the poor, saying in no uncertain terms:
He will defend the afflicted among the people
and save the children of the needy;
he will crush the oppressor… For he will deliver the needy who cry out,
the afflicted who have no one to help. ps. 72:4, 12
Lastly, there are the Prophets. They are aflame with righteous indignation on behalf of the poor and against those who oppress the poor and do not provide for them:
You trample on the poor
and force him to give you grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine. Amos 5:11
The LORD enters into judgment
against the elders and leaders of his people:
"It is you who have ruined my vineyard;
the plunder from the poor is in your houses.
15 What do you mean by crushing my people
and grinding the faces of the poor?"
declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty. Isaiah 3:14-15
Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
2 to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.
3 What will you do on the day of reckoning,
when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
Where will you leave your riches? Isa. 10:1-3
Now, my objective this morning is not to preach a hell-fire-and-brimstone sermon against the rich, but to simply draw attention to the way in which the ancient Hebrew faith aligns love for God and love for neighbor. There is no "love of God" without compassion and care for one's fellow human soul. Love for God cannot exist without love for the neighbor. It cannot. This religion has deep roots in the real world of caring for others, and Jesus, the orator of the Sermon on the Mount, practiced what he preached.
Jesus was poor. Jesus was homeless. Jesus was also a prisoner, a prisoner who died on death row.
As we read through our student's writings each week, we started to see definite trends. One thing in particular was that there were certain ways in which they wrote about themselves that revealed a very low sense of self-worth, particularly amongst the women. Many of our students had done things to cause themselves and others great suffering, and they had to live with that. As convicts and soon-to-be ex-convicts, they also had to live with highly negative (and often unforgiving) societal stigmas.
In light of this, Tamie came up with an assignment for the women's class: write something about yourself that is both true and kind. Only two, simple requirements: it has to be true and it has to be kind.
The next week the women had nothing to turn in. A misunderstanding? "Okay class, it's simple: a writing about yourself that is kind and true. Any questions? Alrighty then, try it again this next week."
The next week came, and still nothing. What then began to sink in, for us, was the fact that after two weeks, the women in our class could not conceive of a true kind thing to say about themselves. Not a one of the ten women could do it. After dialoging a bit with the class, Tamie responded by saying, "You think that you have nothing kind or good to write about yourselves, but I've read your writings…." She then went on to tell the class how as a young teenager, one of our students found herself with a child and in the midst a difficult marriage, and yet in the midst of all of the turbulence and chaos of her life, she was trying to make her house a home: cleaning, lighting candles, and scrubbing the kitchen floor until after a long while she realized it was in fact a dirt floor. In the middle of abuse and violence, fear and uncertainty, she was lighting candles.
After Tamie shared her story, the women in the class all had tears in their eyes, their homemade mascara running down their faces.
This story reminds me of another passage in the Christian scriptures, a rhetorical question really, with a certain echo: "Has not God chosen the world's poor to be rich in faith and heirs to the kingdom?" (James 2)
I think that much of the reason why we do not align ourselves with the poor is because we don't see the poor. Poverty, both material and spiritual, is so difficult to look at; it is unsettling and disturbing to the eyes and to the spirit. We fear poverty, we run from poverty, we protect ourselves against poverty. It was a difficult thing, even for a few hours each week, to go into the Kosciusko County Jail, to enter this new world where everything is so hard and yet so fragile. In our class, we saw the concrete dissolve into a fine powder, and we saw souls of steel become as breakable as dried twigs.
That's a scary thing to see. It makes me want to ask: who builds a kingdom with sticks and dust?
A rich young ruler once came to Jesus asking about eternal life. Had he kept all of the commandments, Jesus asked? Check. Okay, then sell all of your possessions. This was too much for the young man, and he left saddened in his heart.
In all of this, somehow I feel like we are talking about inverting the paradigm, turning common-sense on its head. To deepen the soul and widen the spirit, become humble. For humility, go to the poor, those impoverished hearts. Jesus puts it this way, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
It's like the spiritually and materially rich must go to the poor to seek deliverance and salvation from their riches. Like any religion that is authentic has to be a poor one. That sounds strange to my ears, I admit, and it certainly doesn't sound like any kingdom I've ever heard of. These are also teachings that are very disturbing, because to identify with the poor in spirit is to identify with heartbreak, violence, and brokenness in such a way that one weeps the tears of desperation.
There were many times when being teachers in the jail took its toll on us. Over the course of the one year we taught in the jail, we saw students create spaces for joy, hope, and truth, but we also saw students descend into depression, spiral into cynicism, and even one who was found dead in a ditch only weeks after being released. The unsettling nature of the poor in spirit leads to a good deal of questioning and speculation about one's religion.
For myself, the answers to these questions are often found wanting. There is one thing that seems true, however; and it is that suffering, pain, and poverty are one of the most fundamental realities I know; it's so fundamental to our economic, spiritual, emotional, mental, and societal existence. Therefore, any religion or view of life that does not confront suffering, pain, and poverty only becomes "an opiate for the masses," as Karl Marx put it. What is religion, or what is life for that matter, if it does not align itself with the poor.
I would like to close by sharing a poem written by one of our students, the same woman I mentioned above earlier who lit candles and scrubbed the dirt floor as a young, abused teenager. She was transferred from the Kosciusko County Jail to a maximum security prison, where she still resides up to this very morning.
I'm sitten here at Rockville Prison looking out the bars thinking to myself, "When will this end?" "Will I learn my lesson and never get into trouble again?" This is not somewhere I would want to stay longer than I have to. "Girls!" Not women! They are so rude & loud & disrespectful. I don't want to say nothing because I don't want to get into trouble this is very hard for me "to shut my mouth." I daydream a lot. I think of all the memories I have or I sleep so I can dream. The dreams take me in to a different world, a better place than this.
Some of the girls date each other, most of the time all this means is girls write love letters to other girls. I think it helps them cope with this place. Maybe they need love or just want to fit in. I don't do this, it's not in my world to be something I'm not.
I know one girl who pulls her hair out just because this other girl cuts her arms. Yes, this is not a place I want to be. But here I sit.
None of my friends write me anymore. They all forgot about me months ago. My family don't care. They know I will survive. It's very lonely here. I miss my kids, I miss my life. When will this end? I'm in a fog, drifting by, I'm numb but I hurt on the inside at the same time. This is a nightmare. Someday I will wake up and it will all be over but for now I have to stay in hell until God blesses me. Here I wait.
Monday, August 16, 2010
“No doubt a particular beautiful landscape supports by its peculiar charm a particular moment of love, as do the particular brilliance of a picture, a particular moment of music, a particular elegance of dress or dwelling; but these marvels only frame: if no love had by chance turned them into a momentary resting place, their gathered splendors never would have been able to produce the least movement of love….Venice becomes beautiful only because one loves there, and not the inverse, despite appearances.” Jean-Luc Marion, God without Being
Recent days have found me contemplating the beauty of landscapes. Currently I find myself in Alaska, which certainly lends itself to a greater awareness of the marvels that confront the soul in wild spaces. I feel at times as though my soul has had a certain spaciousness that awaits to be filled by the natural world in its peculiar beauty.
Jean-Luc Marion is a French philosopher, a phenomenologist who has been accused of pushing the boundaries of phenomenology too far. I have been reading his God without Being as I have continued to research grace and the gift. Marion has a good deal to say, theologically, about the gift.
I find that this quote shifts my paradigm: “Venice becomes beautiful only because one loves there, and not the inverse, despite appearances.” Love of the natural world is what fills it with its particular wonder and awe, although it certainly feels as though the natural world fills us with awe. In reality, “these marvels only frame,” they only support the moment of love.
Quick blog explaining my whereabouts....well, a blog that links to a blog that explains my whereabouts....
Tuesday, August 03, 2010
Check out this video by David Harvey. It is a provocative analysis of capitalism in crisis by a Marxist theorist. However, I think you will be intrigued by the presentation style. I love it. I think it is a fabulous way to take in information. I will refrain from commenting on the style of the video and just allow you to view it. But please do leave me a comment and let me know what you think.
Two of his main points (for those who wish to discuss the substance of the presentation):
"Capitalism never solves its crisis problems, it moves them around geographically."
History of capitalism is about financial ingenuity and innovation. "Financial innovation has the effect of empowering the financiers."
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
This video is a short, ten minute lecture on the future of advertising if gaming merges with marketing. I tend not to pay attention to gaming all that much, but there is reason to pay attention to this industry and the way in which it could influence human behavior.
This excited lecturer reflects on how our entire lives could become a gaming module, where we score points based on our behavior, particularly in relation to what we purchase. He concludes by saying, "I do know that this stuff is coming. Man, it's gotta' come. What's gonna stop it?!"
This discussion reminded me of Spielberg's 2002 film, Minority Report. Here is a short, 45 second video. "John Anderton, you could use a Guinness about now!"
Monday, July 26, 2010
"We do not wake up in this world calm and serene, having the luxury of choosing to act or not act. We wake up crying, on fire with desire, with madness. What we do with that madness is our spirituality." -Ronald Rolheiser
(Continuing to borrow from Tamie's posts.)
I love Orion magazine. To those who classify and categorize, Orion would likely be labeled as "environmentalist" or "conservationist." However, it is concerned with broader questions of existence that have to do with place, the space that we inhabit and the ethical and philosophical questions surrounding it. It jives well with me because it places environmental concerns within the question of "what kind of human beings do we want to be?"
My interest in environmentalism and conservation of the natural world stem from my concern for the heart and soul of a consumeristic culture. I wonder what kind of damage we do to ourselves if the primary force behind most of our lives (from the big decisions to the little decisions) is an impulse to consume, to have more and more stuff. I also have fallen in love with natural beauty and with the kind of "silence" that only things like trees, streams, mountains, chipmunks, moose, lakes and oceans can provide.
I also appreciate Orion even more after this article by Charles Wohlforth in the July|August issue. It is an honest evaluation of the connection between conservation efforts and eugenics. Check it out.
"The American environmental movement remains predominantly white and middle class, detached from minorities, immigrants, and the poor along the same lines of class and color that existed a century ago....More broadly, our political language for protecting the environment is about conflict between forces of good and evil, the fear of annihilation, and the exaltation of purity. It's the language of war, with dark undertones of racism we've inherited but no longer recognize."
The article traces the dark side of the history of environmentalism. For some, conservation of the natural world was rooted in a belief in the dream of early twentieth century eugenics: that Americans should breed a strong race of rugged, hard-working individualists, "oddly, the improvement of the dominant race meshed with the New Nationalism's utopia for a merit-based society." For Progressives like Teddy Roosevelt, it meant sticking up for the average guy, uh, white guy of course. So, preserving the average, strong working (white) man from the dominance of government and corporate powers that might impose on his freedom and destroy the land.
"Roosevelt was worried about the loss of a special American quality of strength and ingenuity that supposedly had evolved among whites on the frontier."
Said Roosevelt: "If our nation cares to make any provision for its grandchildren and its grandchildren's grandchildren, this provision must include conservation in all its branches--but above all, the conservation of the racial stock itself."
It gets worse, not better.
"Roosevelt wrote, 'I wish very much that the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding; and when the evil nature of these people is sufficiently flagrant, this should be done. Criminals should be sterilized, and feebleminded persons forbidden to leave offspring behind them. But as yet there is no way possible to devise which could prevent all undesirable people from breeding. The emphasis should be laid on getting desirable people to breed.'"
Well, that's one approach. It's the eugenics way, of course. And, actually, there was someone who tried to devise a way for a eugenics vision. Heir Hitler and the Nazis....which brings up more oddity, absurdity, and downright idiocracy, because "Nazi officials who slaughtered human beings in death camps also passed some of the world's most advanced legislation to protect the environment and endangered species, even outlawing cruelty to animals, including the sort of medical experimentation they performed on their human victims."
Weird. Very weird. But back to Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressives, whose perspective on the environment was couched within an overall worldview of superiority. It begs the question: "How could progressives who world for conservation, national insurance, and the rights of the workers adapt an ideology of hatred against the weak?"
Indeed. What is clear is that imperialistic thinking thoroughly permeated the heart and soul of the white race, even amongst reformers like T.R. and other Progressives.
The article has an interesting conclusion. "Power won't help us....This is a better job for the weak, who often have more at stake in the loss of nature, a closer relationship to its gifts, and a greater capacity to recognize when a certain level of material wealth is enough." This conclusion is intriguing because the article begins by suggesting that the environmental movement is a project of the white middle class, presumably those who want to protect nature (and the ecosystem) for their enjoyment (and safety). It is a movement detached from the marginalized, the poor, minority races, or immigrants. In this sense, it can become another "cause" that benefits the existing benefits of those who are higher in the power structure.
"Understanding the history of racism in the conservation movement is important, not to assign blame, but to diagnose our unhealthy relationships with each other and with nature, learn from our mistakes, and begin cooperating in the ways that we must in order to reverse our destruction of the Earth's ecosystems."
Agreed. But in order to cooperate with the marginalized, there must be something at stake for them, some benefit to their cooperation. These divisions between us are deep in the United States, and it is important to our power structure that we maintain them. As such, I imagine that the conservation movement will continue to be a project of the white middle class. In order to enlist the marginalized, they have to receive something in return, a greater share in the power and wealth of the nation, and a breakdown of the stigmas that make them marginalized. Cooperation means that the marginalized are no longer perceived as less than. Enlisting their cooperation means that the white power structure has to give something, something economic in return.
Knowing that this is the case, I doubt that such a cooperation will occur. More than likely, the environmental movement will continue to be a project of the white middle class. I will support it, of course. But these days, I am more inclined to think in wider terms; specifically, I want to ask about reconciliation in the broadest sense, the type of reconciliation that is at the core of the Christian faith, though it is often not recognized as such: "In Christ there is neither Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female." This passage and others suggest that the ultimate end for Christian reconciliation is the obliteration of all hard divisions based on ethnic groupings, class and social status, and gender privilege. All exist together, unified under Jesus the Christ.
Environmental and other causes often exist in isolation from greater philosophies of reconciliation. Articulating such a greater philosophy is one of the great opportunities for religion in general and Christianity in particular.