We the People

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A week and a half back when I took my oath to become a U.S. citizen. I duly decked myself out in suit and Stars and Stripes tie – courtesy of my mother-in-law – piled the family into our minivan, and headed out for the naturalization ceremony, which was at the U.S. courthouse, downtown. I had imagined that there might be a fair few people there to take their oath and others to celebrate them from the viewing gallery, yet as has been my experience with much about life in America over these past 11 years, things were bigger than I had imagined.

The only place where I have ever seen a longer line is at Disneyland. It consisted of about 1700 to be U.S. citizens who snaked their way around two sides of the city block. If the Department of Homeland Security had staged it, I think it would have been hard to come up with a more diverse crowd. There were all manner of national costumes, 105 countries of birth represented, speaking who knows how many more languages and dialects. Filipino, Arabic, Spanish, all around me, bubbling over in excited anticipation for a ceremony that marked the end of a long, hard journey, which for some began with them leaving the country of their birth with only the clothes on their back and the children in their arms to take with them.

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We the people’, were the words emblazoned on the cover of the brochure they handed us. We the people, a diverse, hopeful, buoyant, cacophony of immigrants. I was right back on Liberty Island, with Emma Lazarus’s New Colossus, 

‘A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome’.

It was an image of the kind of America I had wanted to belong to; the kind of world I want to belong to. Nation by nation, the judge invited us to stand and be applauded as a preamble to taking our collective oath. ‘Our strength as a nation is in our diversity’, the judge told us, and for that hour I truly believed he was right, and with each act of atrocious violence, across this nation, across France, across the Middle East, across this world, those words have meant more and more as a defiant hope in the promise of our global life together: our strength is in our diversity.

The West Wing

In order to make it to the naturalization ceremony in this country  you have to pass a test. I am one of those strange people who likes tests, and it had been a long time since I had had the opportunity to take a test in anything, so I duly devoted myself to a hard course of study in U.S. civics and history by watching at least two seasons of ‘The West Wing’ before I sat my exam. After all, being the hopeless overachiever that I am, only 10 out of 10 would do. I had to know the answers.

This is often how we see knowledge, isn’t it? We see it as a question of knowing the right answers about something. Since over a year ago and until November 8th, two political parties will have invested inordinate amounts of money, trying to demonstrate to us that their candidate has the right answers to the questions Americans are asking, and it would seem an equal if not greater amount of money will have been spent on letting us know how the other candidate has all the wrong answers to those questions. It’s not just politics. Religious belief is often seen this way. We either possess right knowledge or we don’t. We are either in the right camp, or we are off the reservation.

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This is not, however, what the Bible means when it talks about knowledge. True knowledge is not something that can be taught as much as it is something that needs to be discovered. Just take Jesus’ parable about the foolish rich man who wished to store up his treasured crops in greater and greater barns. As far as he can tell, a bigger barn is simply a wise investment, and there are many who have come to similar conclusions today in their own striving for accumulation. However, it is only when he is faced with the end of his life that he can see that his attempts at feeding his soul have been futile.

For the rich landowner, knowledge has to be discovered, for had been clinging to something, like the ‘alien people’ T. S. Eliot describes in his poem, ‘The Journey of the Magi’, mired in ‘the old dispensation’, ‘clutching their gods’. As long as he kept his grip tight on his wealth, his power, his supposed knowledge of what was best, he was unable to recognize that there was another way to live. His desire for wealth in the power of the world had impoverished him toward God.

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To gain true knowledge requires us to let go of our previous certainties, to loosen our grip on our preconceived views of the world and its people. For in many ways, to truly know is a question of truly being able to see. It is for this reason that the Christian vision of diversity is not one that requires you to become like me, but a vision that recognizes that we are all to become like Christ, the one who truly accepts us for who we are, exactly as we are. What’s more, such a vision is not a once for all view of the world, but an ongoing process of being changed moved on of our singular view of reality to the infinite richness of God’s view.

In spite of my UK friends sending me pictures of a disgusted looking Queen, I think those Brits will still let me into the country – after all I still have that British passport and don’t plan on giving that up any time soon. It’s more a case that my tent got a bit larger the Wednesday before last. We need a large tent, don’t we. It’s a diversity worth working for, and glory worth finding in one another.

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Church in an Age of Terror

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Another day, another tragic, senseless act of violence visited upon persons who have little to no ability to defend themselves. Today, the heretofore tranquility of St-Etienne-du-Rouvray, a suburb of Rouen in northern France, is beginning to come to terms with the brutal execution of Jacques Hamel, an 84 year-old Catholic priest who was murdered during morning Mass while four others were taken hostage. Fr Hamel’s killers are themselves dead. We will never know fully what made them choose him rather than another defenseless target. Perhaps the randomness of it is the point of those who seek to bring terror even to places seemingly far-removed from the centers of political power. ‘It could be anywhere next’, I suppose is the message they wish for the world to hear.

215b60540bafc83689b453e7c89382b445053_largeLorries plowed into scores of spectators, young and old, in Nice; gunshots fired from the roofs of a parking lot and shopping mall in Munich; a knife attack on the mentally disabled just west of Tokyo – each of them, and so many more in Kabul and Baghdad and beyond, ruinous and repulsively callous losses of human life. Such acts have their roots in mental instability, anger, poverty, and a jingoism whose myopic vision of the world has only enough room for a narrow slither of human life. We live in a time saturated by violent imagery and ideology, where each outburst of rage chips away at the edifice of what we had once thought of as the common good.

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So, what of the church? There are militant atheists who argue that religious tribalism is what has gotten our world into the mess it is enduring in the first place. Such thinkers, such as Richard Dawkins, claim that as a species we would make a giant step toward a more peaceable existence if we left religious thought and practice behind us. On one hand, it cannot be denied that religious institutions have proved to be effective vehicles for the human tendency toward extremism and exclusivism. On the other, it can be said that churches today in this age of terror have the opportunity to reach deep into their roots to be the alternative vision of life together that their vocation calls them to be.

school-of-athens1When the New Testament writers elected to utilize the Greek word, ‘ekklesia’ to refer to the gathering of individual followers of Jesus in the first century, dispersed and diversified as they were across the earliest diaspora of the Jerusalem church’s missionary expansion, they chose to take a common cultural reference point and offer it a resistive twist. ‘Ekklesia’ was the common term applied to the political assemblies of the hellenistic world, most notably and longstanding in Athens. The ekklesia was most simply the people called out to assemble. Ekklesia existed when the people, called out, had gathered. The New Testament writers, though, developed the concept of ekklesia to mean that the people called out exist as an entity, whether assembled or not. Thus, their identity as those called out is more than merely an expression of their having come together in one place, but as a presence in society beyond their gathering, constituted as followers of Jesus

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Such an identity was not neutral about the society it embedded itself in. In the steeply hierarchical world of patronage, from slave to emperor, socio-economic power was constructed via a pyramid of servitude, expressed in public displays of social power such as shared meals and other civic celebrations. Thus, the ritual meals of the early followers of Jesus, the dispersed and gathered ekklesia, with their radically egalitarian table fellowship, along with the ekklesia’s place for the leadership of women and freedmen, and the economic mutualism of one local ekklesia extended to another via Paul’s collection of monies for poorer communities, all offered a potent counter-cultural ideology and set of practices.
ichthusLike the walls of catacombs that testify to the resistive symbols of the earliest followers of Jesus, these people of the ekklesia literally left their mark on a society that was otherwise based on subordination and violently imposed control.  These first ekkelsia were what Hauerwas today calls ‘communities of character’, collectives that seek to live into distinctive rules of life that engrave difference into the world, even as that world’s totalizing narratives of terror seek to deny room for difference to exist.

We need the church to be a diaspora of communities of character. We need people to be formed and to form a world that can articulate a counter-narrative to a culture of violence and division. We need a movement that will identify with its deep collective roots and live in the solidarity of those who are subjected to fear and loss. We need a church that will re-member the witness of the life of Jacques Hamel and hold out in the hope that the resurrection truth we have lived by will gift us all freedom one day: that life wins in the end.