Love stands stronger than death and violence

Our congregation’s latest article for the Center for Diversity and Reconciliation column published by the News-Leader

For Christians, Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of the season of Lent, a six-week journey preparing Christians for Easter and the hope of the resurrection — a hope which stands as an age-old symbol that love is stronger than all the powers that try to contain it, including the powers of death and violence.

There’s no doubt that far too much death and violence takes its toll in our world, so much so that sometimes it feels like all hope is lost. For those who have suffered the sheer brutality and horror of ISIS, for victims of violence in our own community, including Officer Aaron Pearson as well as all of the others in our community whose lives have been affected or even taken far too soon, and for those who feel like their lives are empty and meaningless and don’t know if the world needs them anymore, or if it ever did, our hearts break, and we weep.

Sometimes we don’t have words for the sadness that overcomes us, and all we can do is hope that, indeed, love is stronger than all the powers that try to contain it.

At the Center for Diversity and Reconciliation, we don’t sentimentalize the realities of our world or try to escape into some ideological vault that serves as a buffer for what negatively haunts it. Instead, we try to dig deeply into the root causes of violence and victimization in order to try to help give birth to a better, more humane world.

While we are a faith-based organization, we recognize that this requires a partnership that crosses many historic divides and barriers in order to do the shared work of peacemaking. We know that there isn’t any perfect tradition — whether faith-based or not. We are all flawed in one way or another, which is part of what makes us human. At the same time, one of the gifts of being human is that we recognize that another way of being is possible, and it is our responsibility, and desire, to live into it. Together.

If you would like to join us on this journey, whether you consider yourself religious or not, we hope you will do so. There are too many victims of violence in our community and our world. What we need are those with the courage and conviction to be peacemakers in the spirit of Jesus, Gandhi, and King. It isn’t easy work, but in the long run it’s perhaps the most important of all.

10 things that the Book of Revelation is… And is not

[Here are Phil’s notes from the first Sunday of reflections on the Book of Revelation. Spoiler Alert: Most of the ways that Revelation is interpreted in contemporary culture, such as in the pop-theology of the Left Behind series of books, is hardly the way biblical scholars approach the meaning and significance of the book…]

“What the Book of Revelation Is… And What It Is Not”

1. It is symbolic commentary… It is not literal history
— Revelation is full of rich symbolism, allegory, and metaphor that is connected to events that transpire in history, but should not be confused for literal narrations or descriptions of events exactly as they transpire in history. Originally, the symbols and such helped early Christians make sense of the oppression and persecution they were enduring at the hands of the Roman Empire (an empire sustained by violence), and gave them language to express their hope and belief that the goodness of God would prevail, even though it didn’t always seem like that was the case.

2. It is about God acting in history… It is not about God ending history

[and]

3. It is about God renewing the world… It is not about God destroying the world
— At the end of Revelation, the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven and restores the world. (This echoes the prayer Jesus taught his followers: “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”) Revelation’s vision tells us that God ultimately destroys evil, but God does not destroy the world.
— Furthermore, contrary to pop-culture “Left Behind” rapture theology, God overcomes evil not through violence (remember, throughout Revelation, it is Rome that is symbolized by violence), but rather, God overcomes violence through the slain Lamb (imagery connected to Jesus, with images of the lamb symbolizing peace, not violence). It is Rome that seeks victory through violence; it is the way of the Lamb (Christ) that opposes such violence. (As the New Testament scholar Barbara Rossing has said, “‘For God so loved the world that he gave us his son,’ not World War III.”)

4. It is set within the context of early Christians in the late first and early second centuries… It is not set in some far off future
— As John writes, “the time is near.” The images and symbols that John invokes stand for figures and events that were prominent in his time and place — they are not reserved only for figures and events that will one day emerge in some far off future which he and his listeners would never be part of. Revelation’s promise that God’s goodness will overcome evil was written for oppressed and marginalized people living under the violence of the Roman Empire. (With that said, part of the beauty of Revelation is that it becomes a book in which oppressed and marginalized people from all ages can find hope and promise. As the philosopher Walter Benjamin once said, “Every moment contains a door through which the messiah can enter.”)

5. It is coded communication that makes sense for early Christians familiar with Jewish traditions… It is not a special code that only the lucky few can crack
— Revelation draws on prominent imagery in the biblical texts, especially of the apocalyptic variety (e.g., Daniel and Ezekiel). The symbolism is not intended to conceal meaning, but to reveal meaning, and those familiar with Jewish imagery and traditions are well-equipped at understanding what John is saying. Modern interpreters who take Revelation grossly out of context (with all of their end-time charts and such) rob it of its original symbolic meaning (as will become clear in subsequent weeks). To treat Revelation as some sort of magical code, decipherable only to those with special revelation, is to do it a great disservice.

6. It is connected to well-known apocalyptic and prophetic genres… But it is not a magical crystal ball that predicts the future
— Revelation is commentary on unjust powers and principalities, and it exposes them for what they are. Prophets speak for God in the sense of exposing the truth (i.e., “speaking truth to power”), not predicting the future. As is obvious, those who use the Bible, particularly the Book of Revelation, in order to predict when the world will end have always gotten it wrong (which is why books like “88 Reasons Jesus will return in 1988″ always have to be revised and updated!).

7. It is a word of hope for people oppressed and persecuted by violent powers… It is not a word of comfort for those doing the oppressing and persecuting
— Revelation speaks a strong word of judgment against powers and principalities that violently oppress and exploit. Such powers and principalities are symbolized by the Beast and by Satan. God’s goodness judges them and, ultimately, overcomes them.
— Here, the old adage by Reinhold Niebuhr is apropos: “The gospel comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.”

8. It is best heard today with the ears of the oppressed… Not with the ears of those who represent the status quo
— The book of Revelation condemns representatives of the status quo (even including early Christians who turn a blind eye to the violence of Rome). Modern day people often don’t want to treat the book for what it is — a radical, unveiled critique of violence and power — because as a culture we are so enamored with violence and power. As such, those living relatively comfortable, affluent lives in the United States (for whom the status quo often works in their favor) frequently wish to soften and avoid the more radical edges of the Book of Revelation.
— For example, the radical Christian revolutionary Thomas Munzer (1489-1525) was quite a fan of Revelation, whereas Bishop Eusebius, a fourth century confidant of Emperor Constantine, expressed major doubts about including it in the Bible.

9. It is set within a particular time and place… Yet its meaning transcends time and place
— While it is set within the context of Roman oppression, its indictment of violence and its word of hope can carry meaning for all people in similar situations down through the ages.

10. It is a book that at first glance can seem difficult to interpret… But with a little background, it’s a book that reveals more meaning than it conceals (as we will talk about together in subsequent weeks).

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*As mentioned in the previous post on Brentwood’s blog that announced this series of reflections on Revelation, Phil is deeply indebted to the scholarly work of Richard Lowery and Barbara Rossing. Those interested in learning more are encouraged to check out their respective books:
“Revelation: Hope for the World in Troubled Times” & “The Rapture Exposed”

The Book of Revelation: Hope for the World in Troubled Times

revelation1Phil’s new sermon series on Revelation will walk us through a book in the Bible that is often misunderstood and misused, and will help us reflect on how Revelation functioned among its early hearers and how it might — surprisingly perhaps — still have meaning for us today. (Spoiler Alert: Most of the ways that Revelation is interpreted in contemporary culture, such as in the pop-theology of the Left Behind series of books, is hardly the way biblical scholars approach the meaning and significance of the book!)

Feb. 1 – “What Revelation Is — And What It Is Not”

Feb. 8 – “What the Symbolism in Revelation Means — And What It Does Not” part I

Feb. 15 – “What the Symbolism in Revelation Means — And What It Does Not” part II

Interested in learning more?
Some excellent books Phil has used in prepping for this series include:
Revelation (Covenant Bible Studies) by Richard Lowery
The Rapture Exposed by Barbara Rossing

And here’s a great intro illustration by Quaker theologian, C. Wess Daniels:
Rev

Phil’s latest News-Leader Column: Honor Dr. King by fixing societal structures

Phil’s latest Springfield News-Leader column

As each year goes by, I’m experiencing more and more mixed feelings when celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

It’s not that I think Americans shouldn’t take time to honor the legacy of Dr. King. After all, I believe Dr. King is the greatest Christian theologian in our nation’s history.

And it’s not that I think we shouldn’t have a national holiday in his honor. We have a variety of national holidays, and one of the primary things Dr. King left us with is a legacy of non-violent resistance (deeply rooted in, but not confined to, the example of Jesus), and it’s vitally important for us as a nation to remember the virtues of non-violence, especially when we so frequently rush to arms and valorize warfare.

Every year my church and my family march with hundreds of others in the Springfield area out of a shared commitment to justice, dignity and equality, and I wish to continue these practices well into the future. Indeed, I want to see them grow.

So why am I experiencing such mixed feelings?

Part of it, I fear, has to do with the way our nation frequently runs the risk of trivializing the deep import of Dr. King’s memory and message — a trivialization that harbors the potential of distracting us from the true — and much more difficult — pursuit of justice and equality.

During the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, we hear a lot of quotes on television and social media related to how everyone — no matter their background, race, or class — is created equally and therefore should be treated with dignity. Which is no doubt true. And we celebrate the beautiful call in Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, reminding ourselves that our treatment of another person should be based on the content of their character and not on the color of their skin. Something else that is no doubt true.

But what we don’t hear much about are Dr. King’s penetrating critiques of societal structures that systematically take advantage of people — structures that produce unfair playing fields in which a person — no matter how good the content of their interpersonal character may or may not be — doesn’t always share in the same advantages that others might have, whether related to education, business, safety, or economic security (this is why racism is always about far more than personal prejudice — it’s also about systems of power that are set up to benefit some at the expense of others).

When Dr. King retold the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, he certainly highlighted the importance of the Good Samaritan helping the man who was robbed, beaten, and left for dead along the Jericho Road. But he didn’t limit his analysis to the interpersonal virtues of the Good Samaritan. He went on to say that:

“A true [transformation] of values will cause us to question the fairness of many of our policies. On the one hand, we’re called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.”

Even though segregation and inequality are actually on the rise in America, we’re conditioned to believe that to talk about systemic racism is no longer necessary in our so-called “post-racial America.” After all, doesn’t our annual celebration of Dr. King prove that we’ve arrived? That justice and equality have been achieved? Hardly.

It’s far too easy for us to neglect the full import of Dr. King’s legacy — a legacy that many white Americans like myself wish to conveniently repress or ignore. But when we reduce his legacy only to how we treat one another in interpersonal exchanges, and don’t pay attention to the way systems of power can be structured in unfair ways that prevent everyone from getting a fair shake, we don’t truly honor the man or the message. In such cases, we prefer celebrating the parts of his legacy that don’t challenge or push us out of our comfort zones.

If we really wish to honor Dr. King, we must look at the way systemic injustice is structured and brokered in a society in which too many people are left hurt and abandoned along the Jericho Roads of our world. This is no easy task. But it’s precisely what Dr. King did. It’s also what got him killed.

Do we truly have the courage to pick up where Dr. King left off? Or is the weight of pursuing true justice — and liberty for all — more than we can handle?

Annual Martin Luther King Day March — Jan. 19th

IMG_1008-1.JPG“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

We encourage you to honor the legacy of Dr. King — and reflect on how you might participate in the ongoing work of justice in our world — by taking part in the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. March, on Monday, January 19. The march will begin at 9:30 a.m. at Mediacom Ice Park, 635 E. Trafficway, and end at the Gillioz Theater, 325 Park Central Square. A program dedicated to the historic pursuit of justice will follow.

ANIMATE — A new Wednesday evening series begins Jan. 21

Animate

Weekly sessions from 6:30-8:00 p.m. (facilitated by Rev. Snider) include the following topics and presenters:
God: Faith Is a Quest — Brian McLaren
Religion: Spirituality Is not Enough — Lillian Daniel
Jesus: The Revolution of Love — Mark Scandrette
Salvation: Abundant Life Now — Shane Hipps
Cross: Where God Is — Nadia Bolz-Weber
Bible: A Book Like No Other — Lauren Winner
Church: An Imperfect Family — Bruce Reyes-Chow

Interested in purchasing the journal that accompanies the series? You can learn more about it here.