My Kingdom for the Church.

Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.”

Mark 4:30-32

“My Father’s Kingdom”, the “Kingdom of Heaven”, or the “Kingdom of God” are oft mentioned by Jesus throughout his teachings in the New Testament. Yet, after his ascension the concept of a Kingdom was almost immediately forgotten about by Christ followers as churches began to take shape.  Many of us grew up being taught that the kingdom of God is in us, or the church, or creation, but its more than that. Jesus preached about a kingdom that brought together Israel, the newly defined Church or body of Christ, and the earthly creation to live together in God’s presence. But as Christianity spread after Jesus’s death the focus on God’s Kingdom disappeared all together while the Church rose to power throughout a growing world.

  According to Walter Rauschenbusch, the historical tendency for Christian theology to leave the Kingdom of God as Jesus preaches out of their studies explains why many Christians shy away from any involvement in social justice. Without the concept of the Kingdom of God to teach that God places intrinsic value on all life, what theological motivation is there to fight inequalities among people? In the essay The Kingdom of God Rauschenbusch states that “The Kingdom of God is humanity organized according to the will of God.” Unfortunately for humanity, God’s will for creation as revealed in the myths of Genesis places humans in a position of responsibility for and to the rest of creation.

There seems to be a sort of default for Christians to turn solely to prayer when it comes to the problems of the world. To pray in the face of struggle or when presented with a difficult issue is something we are taught to do, but too often that is where action halts. This is the type of inaction identified by H. Richard Niebuhr as being held by those who believe in a God who is ultimately in control of  the universe, so there is no human responsibility to act. Just because a person is not being constructive does not mean something constructive is not being done (see The Grace of Doing Nothing, 1932). However, this worldview is challenged when paired with Rauschenbusch’s assessment of the Kingdom of God and the social responsibilities it calls Christians to.

Ultimately, when Christendom rose to become a political power it lost sight of the inclusive vision Jesus preached to the masses. The elitism of the church remains as prevalent now as it was then. Can the Kingdom of God be reclaimed by Christians? Yes. Rauschenbusch gives eight propositions to be considered by the church for reinstituting a focus on God’ Kingdom, but I think this one summarizes them all.

The Kingdom of God is not confined within the limits of the Church and its activities. It embraces the whole of human life. It is the Christian transfiguration of the social order.

Walter Rauschenbusch, The Kingdom of God


When is it ok to do nothing?

We’ve been spending a lot of time here talking about many things that are wrong with the world and what we can do to fix them – or at least lessen the negativity. I do my best to promote active participation in society and culture and have often been convinced that there is always something that one can be doing, ANYTHING. I believe creative thinking can help you weasel out of the worst of situations. But is there ever a time that nothing can or should be done?

First of all, how can we possibly define inaction? There are so many different ways and reasons to be uninvolved in an event or culture. In the essay The Grace of Doing Nothing, H. Richard Niebuhr toys with every kind of inaction; from pessimism to pacifism to faith that God is being active so we don’t have to be. Then there are the instances where inactivity is as much of a statement as activity. Its not possible to be uninvolved in society because whether by action or inaction, we are participants in the story of this planet. Niebuhr writes in a time where the sense of human participation on a global level was just being realized, the first of the World Wars.

What is fascinating about this writing on the various types of inactivity is that it was written in a time of such great global activity.  Niebuhr writes of the world he knew in the rocky years between World War I and II where Germany was collapsing, Japan was building, and the citizens of the globe realized how small the world had become. Niebuhr saw the judgement that America was passing on other countries and realized that one nation condemning others was not having a positive effect on the world, it was negative action. Every country sought its own self-interest, generating the wars and creating tensions within and between nations. As a Christian Ethicist, Niebuhr developed a Christian perspective on this self-interested tirade and developed this response:

To do nothing.

In H. Richard Niebuhr’s perspective, the best thing Christians can do is not pass judgement, not follow the path of the self-righteous, and to do this all internally in order to reconstruct human nature. It is a mental practice of resisting the urge to look down on others, regardless of their beliefs and actions. Doing nothing suddenly requires a large amount of discipline and a defiance of human nature.

Niebuhr has convinced me that there is a form of positive inactivity, and it is in how we view the world around us. It is easy to condemn the people in your life internally and support them externally, but that is not the best we can do.  We can change the sinful nature that brings harm to others, and its by doing nothing.

“…it is the inaction of those who do not judge their neighbours because they cannot fool themselves into a sense of superior righteousness.”

– H. Richard Niebuhr, 1932

 Modern Worship

In the past few years I have been at very inconsistent time in my life. Living in two different provinces and bouncing around various jobs in between studies has caused me to move far beyond the consitencies of my upbringing. One of the biggest challenges for me had been finding a church to attend during my Manitoba months. I spent my entire life in one Christian tradition attending larger and larger churches where emphasis on really great music worship grew to greater and greater importance along with the size of the church. When I left my 800+ member home church in Northern Alberta I firmly believed that good music worship was an integral part of my church experience, I wanted another church that had an eight member band and all the equipment to go with it.  I spent a year and a half church hopping around Southern MB between low-german speaking Mennonite churches to non-denominational (and somehow still mennonite?) churches, and nothing fit.  I talked a friend into taking me to the city with him where I was shocked when I walked into a tiny Anglican church in the middle of Winnipeg and felt more uncomfortable and more welcomed than I had anywhere before.

I am a piano teacher, musical theatre lover, actor, and pretty much all things art lover, and yet I fell in love with a simple church and extraordinarily humble worship practice. I discovered that I did not in fact care too much how well we could replicate Hillsong’s newest hit,  I actually found myself leaning quite the opposite. I find modern worship songs to be romanticized, overemphasized, or just ridiculously repetitive, and I’m not the only one who feels this way! More and more the youth of the church have begun to criticize how we do “worship” in our churches (see Blimey Cow’s How to Write a Worship Song). What is it that is changing how we feel about church worship?  My early teens to twenty seemed to have been boom years for the mega youth conferences and big, building worship songs. But now I often hear Christians around me saying how we have moved into a “secular” a age and the smooth, indie-rock that has gone with it. Is it the secular world that is affecting worship practices within the church? 

Alexander Schmemann defines secularism as being something that is incapable of communicating with the divine, a foil to worship. Worship is people seeking to communicate with God, traditionally through rites and sacraments intending to bridge the gap between humanity and God. So if we are living in a secular age, there is less of a general understanding that humans seeks community with God.  It is true that Christianity does not maintain the same standard of faith it may have had at one time, but I have no doubt that the innate human need to worship has not changed, we just change the objects of our praise. 

This is the problem modern people face: there is a general shift away from belief in an omnipresent Creator God and no change in the natural human necesssity to worship something, anything, and I think this is Schmemann’s point. Secularism means inability to communicate with God because it can’t acknowledge that kind of divine presence. Secularism fills the void with many things and beings that can receive our undivided attention without ever reaching the point of true worship. Because worship expects a response, and a secular worldview just can’t reciprocate.  

In his essay Worship in a Secular Age Schmemann goes so far as to challenge the legitimacy of continuing liturgical practices by arguing that now in a secular age, theses rites are not bridging the gap between Christians and non-believers but rather widenening it, staving off potential believers.  Litiurgical piety does not communicate with the divine and is therefore secular. As a person relatively new to liturgical practice I find it difficult to fully agree with Schmemann here because corporate and personal worship are both important in community with Christ, and I’m not ready to condem any particular practice over another. But we do get stuck in trends. I do think litirugical traditions have the advantage of acknowledging more kinds of worship though because in my Christian and Missionary Alliance upbringing, anything that was not “worship music” related was completely absent.

The idea of worship is something I am still toying with. Do I sing along with “Oceans” when my church band plays it (see Stop Singing “Oceans)? Can I actually make my yoga practice a time to communicate with God? I would like to think so but there are people in my life who disagree. So I guess I’ll just have to keep working it out, and I hope you do too. 

 The Unwelcomed Guest: Making a Room for Equality

Feminism has become a bit of a hot word in the Christian and Secular realms alike with people seeming to feel quite strongly one way or another. What does it mean to say “I am a feminist”? There are many opinions and satirical Buzzfeed articles making matter-of-fact statements about equal rights and curteous practices, but feminism isn’t just a pop culture issue but a topic that has been studied and formulated for decades. A simple and practical essay by Rosemary Radford Ruether neatly packages the three major streams of feminism: Liberal, Social, and Radical feminism. Using the descriptions from The New Earth: Socioeconomic Redemption from Sexism, we can see the contributions each stream has made to society and decipher which theories contain the best approaches to continue to implement in whichever context you find yourself. I will summarize.

Liberal Feminism:

 Though many raise their defenses at the term “liberal”, Liberal Feminism was the first form of organized uprising. Liberal feminism seeks “liberation” for women from the patriarchy that has always suppressed females. 

Focus: the historic and traditional low status of women in comparison to men. Bringing equality through dismantling patriarchy. 

Brought us: political office and all other political rights that came with the right to vote, access to higher education and the professional sphere. 

Concerns: equal pay, control of body, changes to marriage laws (made marital rape a criminal offense).

Weaknesses: In the capitalist context, women can only become equal to men by hiring other women to fulfill domestic duties. Equality becomes available only to the upper classes. 

Social Feminism: 

The differences between the liberal and social approaches to feminism exist mostly in the approaches to equality. While Liberal Feminism focuses on bringing equality through bringing down patriarchy, Socialist Feminism seeks creating institutions that bridge the gap between the male and female realms as well as social classes. While upper-class women are able to enter the professional sphere, it is because they can pay other women to do the domestic labour that had been holding theh women back. Social feminism would implement government funded childcare programs to better enable all women to enter the workforce not just in menial labour. 

Focus: enabling women to be self sufficient partners of men, creating equality in the workforce as well as the home.

Brought us: Publicallly funded childcare, maternity and paternity leave.

Concerns: equality for all women, regardless of class. 

Weaknesses: would require a societal shift that strays from the free market making it perhaps more dificult to implement.

Radical Feminism: 

This stream of thought recognizes patriarchy as male domination over women’s bodies resulting in a more negative approach to mankind. 

Focus: full control over personal experiences and bodies. Liberating women from being objects of male sexual control and desire. 

Concerns: sharing domestic labour (equally with partners or community).

Weaknesses: Alienates males completely. Becomes the reversal of patriarchy. 

Ultimitely, feminism is about acknowledging that there are inequalities in our society and offering ways to abate some of them. Some may argue that equality has been achieved, all are equals under the law. But it is not the law that is the daily struggle for most women in the west; its the second shift, unachievable beauty standards, minimal expectations and opportunities in the workplace, and the constant need to prove themselves. Its not just the laws that protect male hierarchy, its the people of our own society who are stuck in a system. It is difficult to question practices that have just “always been”.  Weddings are an excellent example of this as they have changed very little in structure over the centuries. Christian and non-Christian weddings may vary on what vows are included in the ceremony, but most follow the pattern of idolizing a woman’s virginity. The white dress, woman being “given” to man, and the various other pomp and circumstance that ensures all focus is on the appearance and virtue of the woman have remained unchanged, yet I doubt that the many people who practice these traditions are also practicing the meanings. It has only been since the rise in acceptance of same-sex marriage that this ceremony has begun to change and encourage some heterosexual couples to follow suite.

Though each of theses branches of feminism have their virtues, each begins to crumble when pressed to apply to society as a whole. This does not mean that feminism cannot work but rather that perhaps we need to work towards a more integrative feminist approach.  According to Rosemary Radford Ruether; 

“We seek a society that affirms the value of democratic participation, of the equal value of all persons as the basis for their civil equality and their equal access to the educational and work opportunities in the society.

We seek a society that acknowledges the importance of both male and female participation in it. A balanced society requires both sexes actively participating in it. It is overwhelming to think of how far we yet have to go, but the only way there is one piece at a time.  Equality cannot occurr all at once, so pick a goal and work towards it. Encouraging the use of gender-neutral language among your peers can be a full tme task,  advocating for a childcare facility in your workplace, and organizing complimentary work schedules with your partner that allow an equal sharing of domestic duties increase awareness of the female challenge. These seem like comparatively simple lifestyle changes, but you may be surprised at all the ways you can start changing the worldview of those around you. 

Some Social Theory for your Theo-thoughts

Taking a subject matter as dense as theology and combining it with a section of society so complex as political theory is going to uncover the need discourse about many other subject matters pertaining to the human condition. It is my intention to try and form a basis for these discussions by presenting different stakeholders in political theology and flushing them out in basic terms so they can be reincorporated into later discussions.

So today I want to talk about social theory. One of the things I deeply respect about the social sciences is that there is a basic understanding throughout the fields that nothing is beyond discussion. Its a discipline based on discussion. All theories are constantly being updated and modified as more and more research is conducted, there are very few disciplines that have such openness to differing opinions let alone the expectation that there will be differences. In the beginning of the tradition, Christian theologians were all about social integration, so why, as I mentioned in my last post, have Christians stepped away from social and political involvement and theory?

In his 2007 article titled Theology and Social Theory Kwok Pui-Lan uses the emergence of Liberation Theology from South America to discuss postcolonial critique and how it allows theologians to overlook “…how Christianity has colluded with colonial interests and camouflages contradictions in the postmodern world.”  The thing about Christian Theology that we often forget is that it is historical and subject to same pitfalls of other historical texts. Namely, Christian theology has been written by, for, and interpreted by white, heterosexual, and wealthy male citizens for most of it’s existence. So when Catholic priests in Latin America were living in poverty, they began to realize that poor read the Bible differently than the rich do. And then we discover that women read the Bible differently, as does every other people group and culture that the biblical texts are translated into. So what does that mean for theology?

It means theology needs social theory. For centuries the Bible has been interpreted by one sect of humanity on behalf of all of it! Not only has this limited our interpretation of the text, but its excluding entire races of people from fully engaging with God’s special revelation to humanity. The mystic worldview of middle eastern cultures could contribute so much more to Christianity as could black spirituals, the experiences and history of Latin America and so many others. Not that there are not hard truths to be found in Christian teachings, the core beliefs are very simple and everything else is, I believe, up for discussion. And with so many translations, historical contexts, the Old Testament in light of the New, there is so much to discuss! If only Christians were as willing as sociologists to discuss their differences.

There is one little catch Pui-Lan employs in this essay as a safeguard and minor complication to re-thinking theology. This is a sentiment shared by many liberation theologists, that no one can presume to speak on behalf of those whose lives we have not experienced and consequently cannot know. The wealthy cannot speak on behalf of the poor for the wealthy don’t know what it is to be poor. While I agree with this sentiment, I also believe that we must speak on behalf of those who cannot. The marginalized do not yet have a voice, they require those that do to speak on their behalf and then hand over the microphone. If the privileged do not give the subaltern a way to speak, how will they be heard? This has been the strategy behind Emma Watson’s HeforShe campaign, and now needs to be employed by activists bringing attention to the plight of and racism against Canada’s Aboriginal peoples.

The analogy of churches being “spoon-fed” by there pastors is a cliche that is tragically true. In my experience, the average Christian is pretty sure what they believe but would be hard pressed to formulate a rationale behind most faith statements. We rely on the “learned” leaders to tell us how to interpret the Bible and live our lives. In light of this discussion, what is just one problem with this way of “practicing” faith? That would be that until very recently, only straight white men have been allowed to be church leaders. Christians, stop excusing yourselves from conversations because you’re not a theologian. Read, discover, discuss. The answers are there for you to discover for yourself.

Faith in Politics (?)

Growing up in the oil-rich, conservative north of Alberta, I distinctly remember the 2006  federal elections and my mother explaining to my 14-year-old self that we “vote for the Conservative party, because that is the Christian party and we support them.” So in 2011, I was 18 and dutifully handed in a ballot that contributed to the historical moment that the Conservatives won the first majority federal government since 1988, and made Steven Harper the Canadian Prime Minister. Harper is a member of the Alliance Church of Canada, the tradition I grew up in, who could have been a better choice? And yet, in the four years since that day, I have moved provinces, earned a degree, and watched the government I helped place in power accelerate prison building (C-10 crackdown on crime ),  abolish the possibility of publicly funded child care systems, and completely disregard international agreements combatting climate change (remember the Kyoto Protocol?). Needless to say, I have seriously reconsidered my political choices. But what role does my faith have to play in election times? Are there really such things as “Christian” politics?

When it comes to seeking political insight from Biblical texts, Christians tend to try one of two approaches: try to find applicable instructions from the writings or, ignore the Bible completely on the basis that it cannot relate to the modern world. As I’m sure you can imagine, neither of these approaches is particularly practical if one seeks to join political action with a personal faith.

The difficulty of approaching the Bible as if it could provide instructions to modern politics is that the audiences of the Old and New Testaments are so vastly different from their respective contexts and our own. While the Old Testament is addressed to a theocratic state where religion and politics are one, the New Testament speaks to a deeply religious people living under the oppression of a secular power. Neither of these reflect or relate to the largely democratic societies of the modern Western World. For these reasons, selectively choosing texts to promote one idea or one party over another as instructions for political behaviour simply does not work. In the words of Richard Baukham “None of [the Old Testament] applies directly to us as instructions, but all of it is relative to us as instructive.“Selecting Old Testament texts to apply in our politics is impractical and ineffective, but if we can study the text as whole and see the choices of God’s people in their context, historical attitude, and  the complexity of government systems which evolve with humanity, maybe a we could find some instructive testimonies to aid in the political decisions of 21st century life.

The first step in this daunting task is to understand the thoroughly human origins of government in the historical context of the Bible. The earliest political being is documented as Nimrod in Genesis 10, a great hunter who protected the people from wild animals, becoming an early form of king.  Kingship became the most common form of government in the ancient world and the defence against the others of creation is fulfillment of God’s promise to Noah in Genesis 9.  Baukham’s essay Reading the Bible Politically uses this example to argue that government must always be a reflection of God’s will for humanity. This model forces Christians to recognize that the Old Testament is filled with stories about societies that have little similarity to our own.  Trying to apply commands in place for the people of those societies to members of our own is futile and often results in Christians feeling overwhelmed with their inability to effectively defend political choices with biblical reference. At this point, Baukham makes the statement that he feels this lack of transferability might be the reasoning behind “…the relatively modern tendency for Christians to disengage from political and social reality. ”

For me, this statement sums up my frustrations with the approach to politics the Christians in my developmental life exemplified. Why did my mother feel that voting Conservative was the Christian thing to do? She didn’t tell me, I don’t know if she even knew. But that was and is the belief, that’s what all her friends said, my dad said, my pastor said.  And if you had asked me at 18, its undoubtedly what I would have said. Simply voting does not mean that you are engaged in political reality, anyone (over 18) can do that. But to challenge a cultural assumption, especially one that could bring much criticism upon yourself and your faith is not only what’s best for society but is itself a truly Christian act. Even if in the end you choose the popular opinion, you came to the decision critically. Like I discussed previously, Jesus called us to challenge authority, be creative, be thinkers.

Ultimately, whatever political choices a person makes can be respected if they have taken the time to do some critical thinking and are able to defend the decision. Popular opinion is the achilles heel of democracy, curating your own decisions makes you an active member of society and by extension – of God’s creation. Whatever you do, do in faith.

A War for the Creative

“This violence is for a world that has lost its imagination.” — Doctor in Iraq during the shock and awe bombing

Pacifism. The pastime of the lazy. A refusal to fight for beliefs. Passivism. Apart from world heroes such as Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr., those who choose the path of non-violence are rarely respected as viable tools for instigating change. Unfortunately these misconceptions stem from a long history of human lust for violence and tendency to glorify the physically strong. When found in frustrating situations, I have often caught myself saying “I can understand why violent revolutions are so attractive!” or something to that effect. There is something so biologically satisfying about breaking things that emits the illusory hormones of accomplishment, not to mention the quick results violence produces compared to non-violence. At least that is what I have always believed, yet is violence truly the best way to force positive change?

In the Christian faith, pacifism has often been grounded in the command from Jesus in the New Testament “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” At first reading, this sounds like “If someone hits you once, don’t hit them back, but let them hit you twice”, a kind of non-reactionary response to violence and wrong doing. But if we look at the anthropological context, is that really what Jesus is saying? I would argue no, and so would many others, including author Walter Wink of The Powers Trilogy.

In his book The Powers that Be Wink spends much time arguing for an active Christian faith through pacifism in how it was meant to be. Whether or not you believe Jesus Christ was the son of God, his life and teachings are the ultimate example of  true pacifism, an active faith. All of Israel thought that He had come to overthrow the Roman empire and free them all from Caesar’s oppression, but instead he made friends with those below the poverty line and shattered the order of the synagogue. When He saw the deception occurring by the merchants in the temple, he overthrew the tables and set the animals free. Jesus taught how to revolt against the Romans by giving instructions like “turn the other cheek” and “walk with him two miles”. To be struck on the left cheek (the ‘other’ cheek) was to be treated as an equal and refuse the back handed blow that was used for those in lower standing (the right cheek). Roman soldiers were allowed to force anyone into labour and march up to one mile carrying packs and supplies, but there were severe consequences for any soldier who forced a person to labour more. Jesus was not instructing his followers to be willing lapdogs to the Roman Empire, but rather empowering them to think of how to use the oppressive laws of Caesar against him.

Ultimately, pacifism is not a refusal to enlist violent methods to solve conflicts, but rather means making conscious daily decisions to force a permanent change into the world. The thing about violence is that it doesn’t change the rules of a society, just the rulers. So lets be the leaders and change the rules.

Don’t just vent, implement! “But Shevaun, these examples aren’t much help to me, so how can I practically use these tactics of social change?”

I’m so glad you asked! The difficult thing with being an activist is that after a very short study, it is easy to be overwhelmed with all that is wrong with the world. The best you can do is pick something of personal importance that you think should change. Does the factory food system make you ashamed to be a member of the human race? Try only buying from local butchers or choosing a vegetarian diet. Are you struck by the plight of the homeless? Maybe thrift some clothes or winter gear and listen to their stories. We live in a country and time of excess, take some time evaluating the things in your life you could really live without. The important thing is to stick with it. We vote with our dollars and time, so put these things to use in a way that brings about a change.

Some sources: Wink, Walter. “Practical Nonviolence.” In The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium. New York: Doubleday, 1998.

Claiborne, Shane. “A Desperate Need for Imagination – Red Letter Christians.” Red Letter Christians. July 7, 2011.