Monday, February 11, 2013

Stories from a Prophetic Tradition

By Allyson Carr, Associate Director of the Centre for Philosophy, Religion and Social Ethics.

What is the relation between a life of faith and the call to act justly? The Centre is beginning a project (about which you will hear more from time to time) with the CRCNA and another research centre called the Centre for Community Based Research on just such a question. In preparation for that project, several of us have been doing a lot of reading on the topic across many different sources--articles, books, other blogs, etc--anything that deals with the relation between faith and how it works itself out in response to questions of justice. (In this case, the faith we are speaking of is specifically Christian faith, though we are hoping to do a second inter-faith project on the same topic soon.) In doing the research, I have been struck by the really profound insights available in some of the Christian literature, both popular and academic, on the issue of justice and a life of faith. I have seen  impassioned calls for action, and deep, searching questions. I have seen policy platforms meant to move the governing powers to transformative engagement with vital issues of justice, and I have seen devotional materials that look at scriptural resonances of faith and justice. I have also run across ambivalence and confusion. However, most of the material I have found has demonstrated, to me at least, the potential that Christian faith can have for being a voice for justice--though such demonstration is situated in the sometimes negative or hostile relationship to justice that has also been demonstrated in times and places throughout Christianity's history, and which continues, in varied ways and places, even into today.

It was with that in mind that a particular paragraph I came across struck me. The author was speaking at the time of the "disestablishment" of the Church; of its decrease in "numbers, influence, power and place in society"--this is of course happening in some denominations, and some places, more than in others. But, the author went on to say, "Despite all this, I believe that our being disestablished is a good thing. Christian theology and practice have always found solid and inspiring roots in the prophetic tradition of the Older Testament and in the Jesus movement of the Newer Testament. We are at our best when we exemplify these approaches to being faithful to the God we know in Jesus."

The author who wrote this, former Moderator of the United Church Bill Phipps, makes a very important point here, as he discusses what he means by speaking of the opportunities disestablishment offer: "as a disestablished minority we no longer need to feel obligated to defend the status quo... We can freely ponder honestly what the God of compassion, justice and peace would have us do and be." (Both of these quotes can be found on p. 141 of his book Cause for Hope.) The roots of justice and faith, if we look in the Old Testament prophetic tradition and in the person of Jesus in the Gospel accounts is not necessarily straightforward, nor (it must be said up front) always oriented toward peace. But there are, it seems to me, some over-arching themes that one can pick up. The prophets, and Jesus, tend to be known for speaking to the powers that be and calling them to task--though Jesus did this more by his actions than with words, if we are talking about the Roman powers. The religious powers of his time and place felt the full brunt of his words, however. Think too of the prophet Nathan, who used a story about taking resources from the disadvantaged--that of the poor man's lamb stolen and slaughtered to feed the rich man--in order to confront King David about the murder of Uriah. (2 Samuel 12:1-10; there are many dimensions of this complex story we could address, but for now I will leave them aside.) The examples we glean from Jesus' words and actions, and from the words and actions of the prophets, are telling. They draw on the tradition, and the law, prior to them to address those in power and point out with conviction where they have acted unjustly.

This, it strikes me, is one of the greatest things that the Biblical tradition, in its Jewish and Christian forms, has to offer. There seems to be an understanding, and a divine mandate, to address those in power when they are not doing right. Has the Christian tradition always done this? We must answer, no. Sometimes hierarchies within Christianity have even been the powers doing significant and drastic wrong. But voices speaking from and within the Christian tradition have spoken to address wrong before, and are doing it now in many places, and can do it in the future. We have the resources in this faith tradition to understand the call to justice and just living as a call that comes out of a faithful response to God. Not everyone is called to be an Elijah or a John, or an Anna. But, if we act as followers of Christ, we act to bring compassion, food, comfort, hope and change in this world, on our streets. If we act as followers of Christ, we work to stop mob "justice" (John 8:1-11); we work to heal (take your pick; there's plenty of stories of Jesus healing!); we work to include children and not push them away to the margins of society (Luke 18:15-16).

The stories we have in this tradition, even as varied and sometimes violent as they are, provide us with a wealth of concrete examples of just and unjust actions. They are examples on which we can draw to discern the direction to take in living responsively and faithfully to the call issued by Christ to follow him. Learning which stories (from both the Old and New Testament) are examples of faithful action and which are stories of unfaithful action is not always the easy choice one might think. But in living a life of faith that is reflective of Christ's call, it is important that we examine the resources we have, and what calls they place on us.


  1. I like the idea of disestablishment that you raise here Allyson. I think the life of faith needs to be radicalized. Faith is not a matter of putting faith in something in particular over against the rest of the world, e.g., in an establishment such as a church, but is rather a matter of putting faith in all things and in no-thing in particular, so that we can "freely [and] honestly," or, in a word, nakedly, express ourselves to and/or share ourselves with the (whole) world. The distinction I would draw is between nudity and clothing, with the idea of disestablishment cohering well with the idea of disrobing. (See the Gospel of Thomas on this: "His disciples said: On what day will you be revealed to us, and on what day shall we see you? Jesus said: When you unclothe yourselves and are not ashamed, and take your garments and lay them beneath your feet like little children and trample on them, then you will see the Son of the Living One, and you will not be afraid.")

    My concern, however, is that as soon as there is disestablishment, there is the risk of re-establishment with the way that you lay out, i.e., turning to established examples in scripture as our clothing (or as a safe, albeit not unproblematic, space where right and wrong actions can be discerned). As a minor addendum to what you say, I think we need to be very careful about the role that scripture plays in our lives, as it can be just as faith killing as, say, the established doctrines of a church, which are/were just as sensitive to scriptural examples at some point in their history too.

    (As for justice, and relating faith to justice, I think this idea of disestablishment has great potential, as it allows us to finally come out from behind our coverings and hiding places and finally connect with each other (in a radical act of faith). This in turn facilitates mutually enriching partnerships and enhanced productivity, setting the conditions for justice for all. Good stuff.)

  2. There is a sense in which the community of faith that looks to Jesus in order to learn what it means to live God-with-us is tilted toward the lowly and the oppressed. "Preferential option for the poor" is a slogan that has recently emerged out of this dynamic within Christian history. An example of how deep seated this dynamic is in Christian life is provided by Innocent III (1198-1216), arguably the most politically influential Pope of the Middle Ages or any age thereafter. This Pope who received the Kings of England and Spain as political vassals also added a new element to the title of the bishops of Rome: servus servorum Dei--servant of the servants of God, or maybe even better, serf of the serfs of God. However, high and mighty he and his office had become, he remained tied to, perhaps haunted by, the deep "preferential option for the poor" that is intrinsic to the example of Jesus. This had to come to expression within the very title of Christ's vicar, Christ's place-keeper. On the other hand, the history of Christianity is ambivalent; we Christians have been part of the problem quite as often as part of the solution over the course of the ages. We give ever so much grist to those who wish our community and sense of the world ill. What often results is an act of discernment. What in the ambivalence of Christian history flows from its true essence and what is perverse accretion? The skeptic sees the evil and identifies that with the true essence of the faith; the faithful come to the opposite judgment. When it comes to the concrete body of faithful both the faithful and skeptic are surely right and just as surely wrong. The ambivalence of our history must be faced in all it ambiguity. We faithful must learn to live up to its glorious dimensions and learn to face up to its ignominious moments. There is no honest reducing of the ambiguity and ambivalence by amputation. The same is true of the skeptic but we'll leave it to the skeptic to deal with that. Perhaps acknowledging the ambiguity and ambivalence of the followers of the Christ is what you Jared mean by 'nakedness', perhaps not. Cutting away what seems perverse, refusing to acknowledge that it is a part of our religion as concrete historical phenomenon, is no way to follow Jesus. That would be just as bad as using the bad to legitimate doing nothing--it will all spoil anyway no? This is something of the situation I read implicit in your original post, Allyson. There are a host of stories about the ways of the Creator-Redeemer-Enabler in his world and of the faithful living in and out of their faith. Some are disturbing and difficult, others are inspiring. Those stories that collect around a divine love of the poor and the downtrodden inspire; let them propel us forward. May we receive them in wonder and seek to live similarly even in the face of ambivalence and ambiguity. Anyway that is how I would interpret your post into my own way of writing and thinking.

    1. Hi Bob, Is your point that, whether good or bad, all parts of Christian history are a part of Christian history, and as Christians we have to own (up to) them all, and not cut away what we do not like? Or is it more along the lines that discerning the good from the bad is an intractable problem, and that our Christian history needs to be faced in its ambiguity, versus amputating the parts that we perceive as perverse? Or is it a little bit of both or none of the above?

      Either way, I wonder how you would deal with, e.g., Matthew 18:9:

      "And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell."

      There seems to be a recommendation for amputation here, or at least the amputation of what causes us to sin. With this in mind, could not historical phenomena, or at least those in our Christian history which may cause us to sin (e.g., an event that sets a precedent for sinful action), be deemed appropriate for amputation, at least insofar as historical phenomena can be excised from history?

  3. Wonderful question. I take the teaching of Jesus to be in the first instance an oral phenomenon. That has implications for a statement such as one finds in Matt. 18: 9. The use of hyperbole to tell the truth is a widespread phenomenon within oral traditions. I take this statement to be as good an example of the trope as any. Hyperboles are not false; they tell the truth, but do so in their own way: allusively, obliquely, not straightforwardly. I am not saying do not resist evil. I am saying that you will not control the outcomes of your resistence. Some of your effects will be a grace in our lives; others will be a millstone around our effects. Act, and act by our best lights, to be sure. But let us realize the likely ambiguity in our own actions and take that with us when we are forced to wrestle with the effects of others' actions present or past. What I am worried about is the idea that there is a pattern hidden but humanly available somewhere in the basis of which one can decide with surety and for all times what is good and what is evil. That let's us stand as inquisitors of our ancestors consigning some to the Isles of the Blessed and others to Tartarus and its tortured unpleasantness. It let's us off the hook--that's not Christian. Inversely a similar judgment allows the skeptic off her or his hook--yes those goods came to us from a Christian culture but inspite of its Christianity. Such judgments necessity an escape from the phenomena of Christianity in all their ambivalence and ambiguity that is not good for the moral development of either the faithful or the faithless judge. The faithful must look at the dark sides of their own faith community past and present with an honest acknowledgement that they are part of a community capable of that. The faithless must be prepared to look at the glory of the faith community they reject with the honest acknowledgement that it is not the origin of all that is perverse and evil, that is like all else in this perplexing world of ours a mixture of good and evil, the fair and the ugly and so on--wheat and tares, inextricably, even to the end of the age. Again, that does not mean that we do not have intuitions, accounts, judgments about what is to be received in gratitude and what is to be resisted with might and main. We do and must are called to live in and out of them. It does however mean that we recognize that we are not the lords of history, that it is bigger than we are and exceeds our capacity to grasp. Some humility goes a long way to temper our determinations. My best guess is that such temperateness is a good thing, but I admit there is a debate to be had.

    1. Hi Bob. I don't mean to be disagreeable. I see the truth of Christianity, but I don't see the need to be ambivalent. Yes, awfulness. Before, now, and until the end. But I don't see the necessity for an escape into ambivalence. I would like to hear the talking about that ambivalence, have it fleshed out before me, such that I can hear it well. That's not a selfish demand, that's a humble request. JW

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    3. Sorry, the comment above included a typo that changed the meaning of a sentence... speaking of our finitude! I have fixed it and reposted:

      I could be wrong (and correct me if I am, Bob!) but I'm not reading "ambivalence" in what Bob is talking about here, but rather his call for us to attend to the *ambiguity* with which we are presented. Bob's point that "we are not the lords of history" is well said--though I do think, and my guess is that he would agree, that we are called sometimes to agree or not agree with actions of the past. Some of them I would even pass judgement on. But I would do so with the caveat that my word is just one among many, that I am a finite person and do not have an infinite understanding of all that is right or wrong, and that those who follow after me may similarly pass judgements on my actions or beliefs. I may truly believe I am working for what is good and right; believe that with all my heart, and all my mind and all my gut. But who is to say now whether "history" will agree with me 100 years later? Or 200, when "history" will have a different viewpoint than it does now or 100 years in the future.

      The ambiguity is in our very finitude... that is, in our very human-ness. We cannot know all. Neverthless we do have to live and act, and so it is my belief and hope that we do our best to live out our calling (whatever that calling is in our concrete situation) and to work for the good, insomuch as we understand it. We just must, in my opinion, understand that we may *not* understand, and may fail despite or even because of our best of intentions. That, to me, is precisely why the notion of grace is so powerful.

    4. Yes, Allyson, thank for making things clearer. My comment came out of wondering about what ambivalence meant. It means more than mixed feelings, which is the dictionary. Is it a rarified tension within the one who considers his or her tradition honestly? I wondered: Is ambivalence at the core of our creaturely selves, a part of our created self? Or is it a character of the standard by which we judge? So, is it ontological or epistemological?

      I interpret Bob as saying that ambivalence is like receiving well the evidence of our fallenness. I don't think he is talking about the structure of our selves. It made me think of the posture of forgiveness, because that is also a reaction to evil that Christians do. Probably because I was taught by Bob, I found myself listening to him describe a wise practise, like a spiritual exercise, written in a beautiful short-hand, that helps us to see the past well.

  4. If I may pick up on Jonathan's comment on spiritual exercise, I have found a thread of crucial references to such exercise working throughout this conversation. It began with Allyson's inquiry into resources serving a faith that does justice in her call to attend to scriptural texts that aid in discernment. Discernment is the spiritual exercise par excellence by which any person of faith comes to know what the best path to a just resolution is in any particular set of circumstances. Discernment enables this by tuning us in to the Spirit who worked through the prophets (in their best practices), the same Spirit who, Isaiah 11 reminds us, will be fully present in the One, the Messiah, who is the source of all peace. Jared's reflections bring out another aspect of discernment, the way in which it assists us in revealing our own and others' biases, our attachments to those things of the world that are not of God, not directed to human flourishing, but rather directed to human disintegration. So I think that in addition to looking to the scriptural texts for ways in which they help us to discern, it is also helpful to look to those texts for ways in which they themselves reflect authentic discernment, as I think the evangelist Luke does. Here is a faithful writer attending to an audience of listeners who are Gentile, marginalized, and he points them to Jesus Christ as the one who teaches that the path to all true discernment begins with a willingness to be both filled with the Spirit and led by the Spirit amidst all of our quests for true justice in any given situation (Lk 4.1-13). To translate this conversation into the language of the marketplace is, I think, to point out how, when as human beings we are being honest with ourselves, we acknowledge that an ambiguity surrounds even our best intentions, and so, as we continually search deeper within our own selves and within our sources of wisdom, we are engaging in a process to uncover, if you will, our biases and misdirected attachments. We are ultimately seeking exercises in discernment. Many serious thinkers in the area of faith and justice are currently exploring the crucial need to attend to such dynamics of individual and communal discernment for moving forward.

  5. Wow. Turn one's back on a conversation and something wonderful can happen. Allyson's exegesis of my use of ambivalence is very much where my head is at. I am not talking about being ambivalent Christians but recognizing the ambivalence intrinsic to the history Christianity and indeed that to use Dooyeweerd's language the spiritual tear in the universe that Christians identify with the Fall rends my very heart; it too is ambi-valent, bearing the presence and action of two powers although that is not to say determining our heart's responses. Recognizing this ambivalence as intrinsic to the history of Christianity contrasts with a practice that identifies only the good (or evil) as truly part of that history such that the evil (or good) is identified as an accretion coming to it from another source. I think that falsifies the struggle to be faithful in the world we all know ourselves to inhabit, a world in which we act both as part of the problem and part of the solution, if I may put it that way.

    I also agree that one has a responsibility to discern and then pursue what seems the very thrust of Christian faith in the gritty business of living in our world, and that will include resisting what seems to be the presence of evil, but to do so knowing that one is indeed operating out of a place in history and culture etc., and that that there have been and will in the future be different places in which Christians will find themselves from which things will look significantly different than they appear to me right here and now. Again I think this sense of things maps well onto Allyson's note.

    Jonathan's response to Allyson adds not only the recognition of ambiguity and ambivalence but the posture of forgiveness and I would hazard that forgiveness is the flip side of resistance. One resists evil but always as a means to a further end, an end that requires the often difficult posture of forgiveness. Knowing when to forgive is itself a matter of wisdom and hence of discernment but resistance to evil cannot be the last word, for evil is neither the first nor the last word. The question however is: When does one recognize that the evil have been successfully resisted and are in need of a healing that involves the balm of forgiveness? No easy question that but my guess is that one might avoid a sense of the opposition between resistance and forgiveness if one sees forgiveness as the culmination of one's resistance. To find a way to reintegrate the evil doer is surely the most powerful resistance to the evil that afflicted him or her was thrall to. But when does one move there, to the forgiving denouement? Surely that is a matter of intense discernment both individual and communal as Jennifer puts it.

  6. As I read and ruminated on Bob's second comment in this thread, I couldn't help but pick up and wrestle with Jesus' teaching on false prophets (perhaps germane to this post).

    "You will know them by their fruits. ... A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot produce good fruit."

    This caused me to wrestle with Bob's (quite agreeable) point that we cannot control the outcomes of our actions, and that the best actions may beget evil as they are taken up by history just as the worst actions may beget good.

    How could both Bob and Jesus be speaking the truth??

    It also caused me to pick up another teaching from Jesus: "It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but what comes out of the mouth."

    Putting all of this together (with a flourish of the hand), I'm inclined to think that it doesn't matter so much what the outcomes of our actions are. That's outside of our responsibility and concern. What IS our responsibility and concern is doing good right now, or our immediate outputs/fruits versus the longterm outcomes of our actions. How the good fruits that we produce will be processed by others, and what defilement they may cause through others, is a concern for another day. Today, and today only, is our concern and responsibility today.

    So it is not that Bob is wrong that our actions can lead to both good and evil (or to stress ambiguity/ambivalence), since he is not, but that this is not something that needs to be part of our calculus when acting. Jesus is teaching, I think, a radical simplification of things: DON'T WORRY ABOUT OR FACTOR IN THE FUTURE. No one, not even God, knows what outcomes the future will bring. Just worry about the here and now, helping those that you can through the immediate outputs (versus outcomes!) of your actions.

    But anyways! The conversation may have moved beyond this. But there you go.

    1. You've opened the conversation in an interesting direction, Jared, and it so happens that "you will know a tree by its fruits" has been one of the passages that has stuck in my head more than many others and become at least one of the "measuring sticks" by which I approach life. There is a wisdom to it that seems to get at the heart of some of what we are talking about here in the past several comments. But I think I would take a different meaning from it than what you are taking.

      You say that what Jesus appears to be teaching a radical simplification not to factor in or worry about the future, but that's not what I take from this parable, nor those around it. His main target, as I interpret it in this story, is teaching his audience to be able discern a "false prophet" from a "true prophet" (in the Matthew version of the parable, MT 7:15-18) or a "good person" from an "evil person" (in the Luke version of the parable, LK 6:43-45.)It's important to be able to do this because it influences how we act today... and tomorrow. And the next day. And when we think about that, we do, to some extent, factor in the future. Discerning deals with acting in the present circumstances to be sure, but it also has a side of seeing where those circumstances might lead.

      I think you are right to point out that there is a tone of "do not worry" woven through the Biblical account. But I buck a bit at the idea that the outcomes of our actions are outside our concern. Certainly we can't control them, and won't be able to understand all the possible outcomes that could happen, to plan and make sure no ill could come of our present actions. That is outside our ability. But it seems to me that we are called to *consider* the future in our present actions, to the best of our ability, even while addressing to the best of our ability the needs of the present. But perhaps that is closer to what you are saying than I am understanding?

  7. Jared,

    I agree with your distinction between outcomes and output (though different terms might be preferable)as we cannot control how our actions will be interpreted and impact the world. Like breathing, we must let go of what escapes us to continue living a healthy life.

    I also agree that we are called not to worry about the future in the sense of trying to control or maintain it for our own sake. That said, I can't agree that we shouldn't factor in how our actions will impact the world. While they are beyond our control, we are still responsible to make life-giving decisions (yes, I agree that we can not always know what those are beforehand, but that is part of trying to live with wisdom). Particularly if you take the concept of election as a call to servanthood, I feel that it is safe to say that the 'elect' will be judged for their intentions and the actions that follow. If, as the ones called to bring the grace of God to the entire world, they choose to neglect this calling out of fear of unintended consequences (or out of a fear of losing control), they will surely be judged as failing to live up to their calling.

    I have in mind the example of Israel wandering in the wilderness. They were called not to worry about where the food they were going to eat was going to come from (as they were not allowed to stock up on the manna), however, they were certainly expected to be concerned with the future and how their actions would bear upon that future.

  8. Can I agree and disagree?

    I have to disagree because, while I don't want to make wisdom easy, I do think that its challenge is less in the complexity of its calculations, which are really quite simple or non-existent even, and more in the difficulty of following through on what wisdom is.

    To use an example, the fear of God, if that is wisdom, then it involves no calculations, whether of future impacts of our actions or anything else. Wisdom, or right action, is through a simple posture, which may be difficult to keep, but which is not overly complicated to determine.

    Or to use another example, Jesus, if his dying on the cross was wisdom, then it is clear that he knew exactly what it was that he had to do. His mind was not murky with doubts about the future impacts of his action, but rather the challenge that he faced was in gathering the strength to follow through.

    Since it helps fill in my argument, and connect these two examples, I would come back to the concept of nudity. Take fear of God for instance: what is this but a name for the posture that stands nakedly exposed, before God even, with all of the fear that such an encounter would entail? To fear God, I think, is to take the simple way of nudity, something that a child or animal does with ease, but that we adults have difficulty with BECAUSE OF our complex concerns… Or take Jesus' death: what was this but him standing nakedly exposed, versus running and hiding (like Adam and the disciples), and being pinned up in mockery of his naked way? Again, no complex calculations about future impacts required. Just simple, difficult, nudity. (I could make a similar case about Israel going out into the wilderness: what was this but an act of nudity?...)

    I think the whole "don't worry" motif is the salve that we're given when we're called to carry out this challenging calling (to be naked). Yes, it is hard, because it means exposure to all kinds of dangers that we could easily save ourselves from (for a time). But we need not worry, because it will all be well in the end…

    And here is where I have to agree with you both, for implicit in all this is a calculation about the future outcome of acts of nudity. It is taken for granted in all that I've said that nudity *ultimately* leads to a good and prosperous end. The difference between us, perhaps, is that for me this calculation is always already done. It is not an ongoing concern but is implicit in the very statement that fearing God (i.e., nudity) is wisdom. For you, on the other hand, future impacts remains something that need to be actively determined as we decide each day how to act.

    Put otherwise, for you there is an ongoing need to discern God's will and what wisdom demands of us. For me, these things are clear as day and are stated right from the beginning. The challenge is in following through.

    1. Who is saying that wisdom is easy? I am certainly not making that claim. Wisdom is incredibly difficult and, I would contend, never certain.

      Also, let me be clear that if I am going to sign on to the language of "discernment" regarding wisdom, it will never be primarily/solely rational. Wisdom calls us beyond logic, rationality, and justification. (I'm not saying that you are suggesting as much, I just want to be clear because the word has some baggage).

      This is what would be disconcerting for me regarding God's will as "clear as day" and "stated right from the beginning". I agree that one challenge is following through, but so is determining one's calling (whether that be corporate or individual). I would also be wary of using the language of will in this situation because there is more going on than simple willing - but I know what you are getting at with the word.

      For me, determining how to move forward is something that we work out with God. This is a participatory process that precludes any claims of certainty. To use your language, God's will and what wisdom demands of us never arrives 'naked'.

  9. Hey Jeff, for you, "determining how to move forward is something that we work out with God" and "is a participatory process that precludes any claims of certainty." I think you're right, although I would be willing to leave God out of it. :) (I think the point all along has been for us to 'take the reigns' so to speak.)

    I would add though that it is only through nakedness (or self-expression) that there can be meeting with God, or anyone else for that matter, in the first place, and in meeting the participation and partnership that you speak of.

    That said, I've been too focused so far on the posture (i.e., nudity) that I think is required in order to get into the space that we need to be in to start working out a way forward. For me, it's 99% of the battle just getting into and staying in that space, and so it's easy to be dismissive of what comes next, or to subsume it in the nudity that enabled it in the first place.

    For instance, the vigorous debate that might take place in a meeting between a human being and God as they work out a mutual way forward is something that I would see as part and parcel of naked expression. It is through nudity that there is meeting with God in the first place, and it is through nudity maintained that there is fruitful debate and the determination of a mutual way forward.

    So hopefully we're not too far apart. I just emphasize (perhaps too much!) a concept that gets little to no attention, but which is extremely important (IMO).