Saturday, April 2, 2011

Keeping God at a Distance: Missing Poverty? Missing God?

-Ryan Fasani & Eric Paul

In the last five installments, we have affirmed that “the mission of the church in the world is to continue the redemptive work of Christ in the power of the Spirit” (Manual, Article 11). Jesus’ ministry—his redemptive work on earth—was the proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favor, the Jubilee, the Kingdom of God, the Good News to the poor (Luke 4). Good News to the poor, we think, is to not be poor, and the Jubilee was largely an economic leveling between community members. Christ’s redemption is preoccupied with poverty. Consequently, the church as the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12), continuing the redemption of the world, is also preoccupied with poverty—proclaiming the Good News to those that suffer from poverty, the poor.

We understand, however, that we have unfairly left unexplained what it is we mean by poverty. To assert that God is a God of the poor without making some strides toward at least a working definition of poverty weakens our project. Perhaps the following assessment of poverty should have been the first piece. In part because it informs our reference of poverty throughout the series, but more importantly, because in the church’s diagnosis of poverty lies the biggest potential for missing the God of the poor. If God’s redemptive work in the world truly liberates people from that which enslaves, then the church must ask whether we have placed ourselves physically as a body working toward human freedom or “distanced” ourselves from God’s work. While this last section in the series explores further how we miss God by misunderstanding poverty, it leads us into the next step in our journey: a definitional series exploring the nature, causes, and interconnectedness of poverty as well as the church’s habit of largely misperceiving it.

Should the church have a chance at being Christ’s body in the world, should we have a chance at being God’s agents of redemption, then it is without option that we know from what people need to be “bought back” (redimere, the Latin root for redemption). Namely, the church must understand poverty, as poverty holds ransom the poor from living life fully in God (Matt. 20:28; John 10:10). To understand poverty is to recognize and comprehend it (diagnosis) and respond effectively (prescription).

An untrained eye sees poverty as deficit, a lack of things. In this view, income is the largest determinate of poverty—one is poor if one has a deficiency in buying power. A broader definition might include non-material deficiencies like education and political knowledge. Christians have sensitivity to the immediate limitations of these definitions and will add to them a spiritual deficit. All these definitions, though different, assume that if the poor receive what they do not have, for instance, money, water, education, and a working knowledge of the bible, then they will cease to be poor. If the diagnosis of poverty is the absence of things, the prescription is to acquire those things. It comes as no surprise, then, that many Christian ministries to the poor are “gift drops.” When one lacks, Christians should give.

Economic development professionals have discovered that poverty is far more complex than the simple experience of deficiencies. A glance at three— Jayakumar Christian, John Friedman, and Bryant Myers—will not enable us to develop an alternative definition of poverty, as that would require a more lengthy assessment of their work. Instead, all three development professionals will lend a hand in us suggesting that poverty is and therefore the church’s response must be far more complex and nuanced.

Christian, in his PhD thesis, Powerless of the Poor: Toward an Alternative Kingdom of God Based Paradigm of Response, explains that poverty is the experience of living in power-stealing systems. These systems that disempower individuals are social and personal. For instance, personal systems that steal power from the individual are physical (weakened body and mind), personal (inaccurate identity), and religious (deceiving spiritualities). Social systems that can disempower include one’s culture (ideology) and social place (relationships to others, especially the non-poor). These systems complexly interact and influence each other, further reinforcing the experience of powerlessness—poverty. Poverty is essentially being caught in disempowering systems.

John Friedman, in Empowerment: The Politics of Alternative Development, contests that if poverty is the experience of deficit, then the deficit is a lack of power in rather stationary and overlapping domains. This creates a layered and nuanced experience of power or its lack—a layered experience of poverty. Different types of power arise from these overlapping domains (e.g. power arises through party affiliation in the overlap of the political domain and the economic domain). The poor have a particularly difficult time engaging these domains—economy, civil society, politics, and state—precisely because of the pressures on them as ones impoverished. The poor do not have the organizational resource, political influence, or judicial access to realize a different future. Poverty is essentially disconnection from the power found in social organization and political representation.

Bryant Myers, in his Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development, attempts to build on Christian and Friedman’s analysis by explicitly utilizing the biblical story as guidance. Myers largely agrees with the aforementioned analyses but diagnoses a more fundamental commonality between all that are poor: poverty is the result of broken and unhealthy relationships to self, God, others, the environment, and one’s community. Poverty is at its core a spiritual brokenness, but not in a way that deems other components subordinate. Instead, Myers uses a theological understanding of sin to assess the spiritual nature of individual (relationship to oneself) and systemic (relationship to other individuals, the community at large, and natural resources) causes of poverty.

As Christian, Friedman, and Myers suggest, poverty is a complex experience, and it’s simply inaccurate to diagnosis it as the experience of basic deficit. If the disease is complex, the diagnosis, then, must be complex and sophisticated. And if the diagnosis is complex—and the church is to be faithful to its call to redeem the impoverished—the prescription (ministry to the poor) must be at the very least complexly appropriate to the need. What might this suggest about our clothing collections, food drives, and hygiene kits? What about our clothing closets, our free hot meals, or our Christmas toy collections?

We’re afraid to say it, but we must: our churches do not understand poverty—certainly not its complexities. We know our poor neighbors need Jesus, but we are unaware, for instance, that they may be trapped in a system of disempowerment largely bequeathed to them by generations of broken social relationships, reinforced by marred personal identity and cultural stereotypes, and augmented by untreated physical disease. Being Christ’s body in the presence of such experience—being near to God in the poor (Matt. 25) and being God to the poor (Luke 4)—necessitates far more than warm clothes in the winter or extra toys at Christmas. By missing the diagnosis of poverty, the church is missing its role in redemption. By missing poverty have we missed God altogether?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Keeping God at a Distance: Why Sanctified Believers should listen to Hip-Hop

(This was written a while ago and I somehow forgot to post it).
Ryan Fasani and Eric Paul-

[Entire Sanctification] is wrought by the baptism with the Holy Spirit, and comprehends in one experience the cleansing of the heart from sin and the abiding, indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, empowering the believer for life and service. - Article of Faith, Entire Sanctification as found in the Nazarene Manual

I (Ryan) am particularly interested in the “power” sanctified believers receive from the Holy Spirit. I recently read about the obliteration of mountaintops in the South East for the extraction of coal. That’s power! From the dynamite, to the massive trucks, to sheer mass of earth that is relocated—it’s all the result of power. But power is used for good or for ill; it is wielded by an agent to an end—to detonate, to destroy, to heal, or to build. The sanctified believer is empowered by the baptism of the Holy Spirit. But this empowerment personifies the love and grace of the Spirit of Christ, rather than the power of domination, oppression, and violence. The power imbued from the Spirit through sanctification works through human agents as participants in the coming Kingdom of God, which stands against the principalities and powers of this world. Thus, the power given by the Spirit is situated toward an end. Stated in a question: “To what end is a sanctified believer sanctified?”

We think that sanctification ought to teach us how to give up certain vestiges of power in order to put on the full righteousness (a word synonymous with justice in the Hebrew Scriptures) of God’s power. To better understand this process, we will critique the traditional process and progression of sanctification through the lens of Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop music has traditionally given expression and voice to the black experience of growing up in a racially charged, poverty-stricken society. We believe these voices are necessary to inform the merger between our material lives and spirituality, so that the two are indistinguishable.

Entire sanctification “comprehends in one experience the cleansing of the heart from sin and the abiding, indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, empowering the believer for life and service.” Sanctification is for (to the end of) life and service. The “holiness chronology” of a believer begins with regeneration then sanctification then glorification; these are distinct works of grace by the Holy Spirit.

Sanctification is “wrought by the baptism of the Holy Spirit,” but its purpose “to [empower] believers for life and service” is undeniably material. We’re sanctified at an altar, during worship, which are spiritual activities; we live life in our homes, at school, when we eat, which are material, bodily activities. Between the experience of entire sanctification and the experience of its practical import—“for life and service”—lays a wide chasm, one quite difficult to traverse.

Our (Nazarenes) concept of sanctification presupposes a widely accepted dichotomy: a wide chasm between the spiritual (experience of sanctification) and the material (result of being sanctified). From this dichotomy, pragmatic (and theological) tension emerges. Ministerial practitioners labor to find new and creative ways to encourage disciples to move from the altar to the world, from the sanctuary to culture, from sanctification to service. Service projects, mission trips, random acts of kindness, church grill-outs, shut-in visits: these are a few pragmatic catalysts to encourage the power inherent in sanctification to, well, do something!

There is a problem before us, though. Service is not the end (completion) of sanctification; rather, it’s the ends by which the means of the ever-renewing power of the Holy Spirit manifest itself in the ongoing life of the believer. In other words, the altar isn’t the only place the Spirit works to sanctify, nor is the act of serving the material conclusion of the Spirit’s work. There is a tension that emerges from our understanding of sanctification because no chasm should exist between the sanctifying baptism of the Spirit and service. Service is not the result, as if to finish it, but it’s a constitutive part of the perfected love of a disciple. This is why sanctification is “for life and service” (italics added), because life is where the “spirituality” of sanctification and the “materiality” of service meet. But also, life is not static. Sanctification is not a static state of power (as though such a thing exists), but it is daily moving toward the end of service in context—where and when a believer is. Entire sanctification is the bodily bent of believers toward serving others as fully devoted followers of Christ (Matt. 5:1-7:29).

For some, we are flirting with heresy; for others, this understanding of sanctification is affirming and perhaps refreshing. But to all of us who are privileged (likely everyone reading this article), we run the risk of never experiencing this sanctification. With our understanding of sanctification as an “act of God” separate from our material lives, our historical lives become of secondary importance. What happened before sanctification is a backdrop to the importance of our spiritual sanctity, and only then, the life and service that is to follow receives attention.

But isolating a spiritual experience like that of sanctification is a discipline of the privileged, which from a position of security and power posit a “holiness chronology.” In other words, those not fearing actual death isolate sanctification from lived experience. Because (historical, material) life is where sanctification and service meet, it is a necessary component of both. As Jon Sobrino states, “The intuition that has gradually forced itself upon our perceptions is that without historical, real life there can be no such thing as spiritual life” (Spirituality and Liberation, 4).

Privilege provides us power in a way that isolates spiritual experience, but the poor and oppressed remind us that life itself—and not just sanctification—is a powerful act of God. We exert our power over our poor neighbors, in its most benign shape, as a form of isolation. Rather than being empowered by the Spirit to love we tend to further entrench ourselves from the poor, and hence from the God that stands with and for the poor of the earth. This is why Jon Sobrino contends that some histories need to be opposed, namely the ones that serve their own power: “Christian holiness is nothing more nor less than likeness to Jesus, [which can be] in opposition to historical realities, in opposition to objective sin” (Spirituality and Liberation, 128-9). The impoverished majority have historical realities of oppression—powerlessness. Is our sanctification in jeopardy as we exert our power as distance between ourselves and the immanence of God with the poor?

We (the privileged) need the poor, not to receive our service, which ostensibly validates our sanctification; rather we need the poor because the poor teach us that a sanctified life requires a) access to actual life, and b) that we oppose oppressive histories. “Poverty is something more than material. Life is at stake—the life of my neighbor… the feeble, debilitated bodies of the poor [give] us access to the material world from within a spiritual perspective” (Spirituality and Liberation, 55). We need the poor because in the struggle for life, the poor collapse the chasm between the “spiritual” and “material,” which indicts our privilege (distance from them) and demands our power to be used to the end of opposing oppression (service).

My (Ryan) experience is that Hip-Hop music is a forum well suited to teach us this. Artists in this genre both expose the culprits of oppression and acknowledge that life is at once historical (material) and spiritual. Let us consider two songs, one that I recently heard playing on the radio and the other a faint memory from the 90’s. I will provide a sampling of the lyrics and then a brief comment on their importance to sanctified believers. (Disclaimer: we do not necessarily hold the same opinions as these artists, nor do we condone the use of profane and derogatory language that the following artists use. As we engage in the world in which we live, however, such songs as these express the culture, environment and setting in which the Gospel of Jesus Christ is lived out. The mission of the Center is to step into the brokenness of our world, which is brought to life through the following lyrics, to bring healing, justice and reconciliation from a loving and merciful God.)

“Soul Survivor,” by Young Jeezy (Featuring Akon)


If you lookin’ for me I’ll be on the block
With my thang cocked possibly sittin’ on a drop, now
‘Cause, I’m a rida, yeah
Yea I’ma soul survivor, yeah

‘Cause everybody know the game don’t stop
Tryin’ to make it to the top for you’re a*** get popped now
If you a rida, yeah
Yea I’ma soul survivor, yeah


We let the doves do it for us
We don’t cry tears, that’s right
Real ****** don’t budge
When mail man got his time
He shot birds at the judge, yeah

I’m knee deep in the game
So when it’s time to re-up
I’m knee deep in the cane, ****
Real talk, look, I’m tellin’ you Mayne

If you get jammed up don’t mention my name, no
Forgive me Lord, I know I ain’t livin’ right
Gotta feed the block
****** starvin’, they got appetites, ayy

And this is everyday, it never gets old
Thought I was a juvenile stuck to the G-code
This ain’t a rap song, ***** this is my life
And if the hood was a battlefield then I earned stripes, yeah

Young Jeezy and Akon, in this song, assert what many have claimed before them: Hip-Hop is the lyrical outlet for a suffering generation of black Americans. The young, black, urban American experience is like war. Not unlike the lives of many young Americans, these men experience the spectrum of human emotions: anger, sadness, angst, pride. But for these men, the “hood” is where one fears for their life, where “cocked” guns are the norm, where survival is a complex milieu of hunger (“gotta feed the block”), violence (“with my thang cocked”), incarceration (“when mail man got his time”), macho-ism (“real ***** don’t budge), and drug dealing (“when it’s time to re-up”).

Strikingly, Young Jeezy and Akon don’t understand themselves as only surviving, as if surviving is the perpetuity of physical life. Instead, they are soul survivors; their struggle to stay alive is quite literally a “physio-spiritual” challenge. The conflation of “soul” and “survivor,” as self-identity (“I’m a soul survivor”) and as survival strategy (“letting the doves do it for us”), is a profound theological statement: the suffering of God’s children is at once a material and spiritual reality (Exodus 3:7). Consider the next song.

“Still I Rise” by 2Pac.

Dear Lord

As we down here, struggle for as long as we know
In search of a paradise to touch (my ***** Johnny J)
Dreams are dreams, and reality seems to be the only place to go
The only place for us
I know, try to make the best of bad situations
Seems to be my life’s story
Ain’t no glory in pain, a soldier’s story in vain
And can’t nobody live this life for me
It’s a ride y’all, a long hard ride


Pistol in my hand, this cruel world can do without me
How can I survive? Got me askin white Jesus
will a ***** live or die, cause the Lord can’t see us
in the deep dark clouds of the projects, ain’t no sunshine
No sunny days and we only playED sometimes
When everybody’s sleepin
I open my window jump to the streets and get to creepin
I can live or die, hope I get some money ‘fore I’m gone
I’m only 19, I’m tryin to hustle on my own
on the spot where everybody and they pops tryin to slang rocks
I’d rather go to college, but this is where the game stops
Don’t get it wrong cause it’s always on, from dusk to dawn
You can buy rocks glocks or a HEROINBONG
You can ask my man Ishmael Reed
Keep my nine heateR all the time this is how we grind
Meet up at the cemetary then get smoked out, pass the weed *****
That Hennessey’ll keep me keyed *****
Everywhere I go ****** holla at me, “Keep it real G”
And my reply tilL they kill me
Act up if you feel me, I was born not to make it but I did
The tribulations of a ghetto kid, still I rise

Here, again, we read (hear) many of the same cathartic language. 2Pac is in a war of survival, violently fending off enemies, wielding lethal weapons, and trying to meet his basic physical needs. This song more so emphasizes the role of illegal substances in the plight of young black men’s lives. The imagery suggests that the drugs and violence create such “deep dark clouds of the projects” that one has no vision of a different future, hopeless. The “ghetto” context is so oppressive and dark that the eyes of God are even without focus (“Lord can’t see us”), nor can the luminous power of sun penetrate the cloud of death (“ain’t no sunshine/no sunny days”).

But even in this hell-on-earth experience, where death is a better option than living (“this cruel world could do without me”) and he’s destined to fail (“I was born not to make it”), 2Pac’s material reality is shot through with the presence of God. 2Pac is isolated and likely depressed (“can’t nobody live this life for me”) but it’s the immanence of the divine that enables 2Pac to succeed (“still I rise”). This is most explicitly affirmed in the opening prayer. The struggle for life (“try to make the best of a bad situation / …a long hard ride”) begins by acknowledging that resistance of oppressive realities is beyond the material and finite work of human hands; God is necessary and therefore invoked (“Dear Lord / As we down here, struggle for as long as we know”). In 2Pac’s suffering the spiritual is physical and vice versa (“I search of a paradise to touch”).

It has become clear from these songs the struggle for life is a sanctified struggle because the power of the Holy Spirit is manifest in concrete historical realities—the manifest realities of daily bread and daily safety. There is no chasm between the spiritual and the physical. The “physical” is “spiritual” and yet it’s not promised; all power that is wielded is given by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, survival in the face of death is an act of God.

Hip-Hop and by extension the historical realities of the poor in urban America teach us that “it is impossible to live with spirit, unless that spirit becomes flesh” (Spirituality and Liberation, 4). Sanctification cannot be a spiritual “act of God” that ramifies in our subsequent material lives, as this denies that life and service are not “follow-ups” to sanctification but are constitutive parts of a life perfected in (the very acts of) love. Sanctification is “perfect love,” which is to say, the power of the Spirit in flesh—incarnational.

We need the message of our Hip-Hop brothers and sisters because they help us know to what end the sanctified believer is empowered. We’re empowered to be participants in the work of a new creation in which poverty and oppression do not exist. Therefore, we’re empowered now to live on behalf of the poor in the belief and hope of the resurrection—“Still I Rise.” To serve and live for the poor is to experience the power of the Spirit in sanctification. Serving the poor and therefore affirming the struggle for survival is non-negotiable, lest we not experience sanctification—God’s fullness of blessing (Romans 15:29).

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Keeping God at a Distance: Poverty and Grace

“Inscribed on the very heart of God’s grace is the rule that we can be its recipients only if we do not resist being made into its agents; what happens to us must be done by us.”

-Miroslav Volf

Every year at Christmas, my (Eric) Mom and Dad would pick up gifts for children through the Angel Tree Program at our church. I remember pouring over the lists of possible gifts we could buy, and I was always thankful that I was a part of a family that was giving beyond our familial boundaries. I assume that for many of us Christmas is a time that we give more; we recognize our abundance and want to share it with others, even if only for a short season.

After all, Christmas is the season of giving. As Christians, we recognize God’s gift of Christ for the world, “who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Phil. 2:6-7). In this same passage, Paul admonishes us to then have the same attitude of Christ. As Christ is in the world, so ought we be in the world—servants. And so, gift giving has become a ritual that recognizes God’s gift of God’s self on behalf of the world’s brokenness. Christ is the gift of grace for us.

Over the past few weeks, I (Eric) listened to some friends talk about their recent experience with giving through the Salvation Army. Each year, the Salvation Army compiles a list of families who cannot afford giving gifts to their children and distributes this list to churches and organizations willing to help. These friends “adopted” one of the families and picked up everything off the list. A few days after the gifts were distributed, they received a phone call from the Salvation Army coordinator inquiring about the gifts that were given. Apparently, the family who had received the gifts called to complain that there were not enough presents, didn’t like the ones given, and was left unsatisfied.

The news hit pretty hard. They wondered whether they left something out, whether it was their fault. Then incredulity hit. How could this family have the nerve to call and say that the gifts were inadequate? How ungrateful! How rude! How self-entitled! Then one of my friends said, “The worst part is that this family just stripped me from the joy of giving. I no longer have that good feeling.”

I think we can sympathize with this position. Anyone who has worked for any amount of time with a social organization trying to combat poverty has come face to face with an array of responses, from sincere gratitude to outright rejection. Sometimes grace is received and sometimes it is even rejected.

Yet, how do we respond to grace rejected? What happens when the gifts of time, money, and friendship are trampled underfoot? Is our response to no longer offer our love and grace? Sometimes we think that if they cannot accept what we have to offer then it is better not to offer it. We would rather give to those who are willing to accept it, we reason with ourselves. In this scheme, though, our level of “charity” is in direct proportion to their level of “work.” Do they deserve these gifts? In this way, grace is no longer grace.

We ought to have the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus.

John, in opening his gospel narrative, explains the incarnation in terms of giving and receiving. “He came to that which was his own and his own did not receive him” (John 1:11). It feels like an echo directly from the Prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures in which The Lord tells Samuel that God alone has been rejected by the people (1 Samuel 8). This rejection of God’s gift culminates in the ultimate rejection: death on a cross. Miroslav Volf writes of this moment, “When God sets out to embrace the enemy, the result is the cross. On the cross the dancing circle of self-giving and mutually in-dwelling divine persons opens up for the enemy…We, the others—we the enemies—are embraced by the divine persons who love us with the same love with which” the divine persons love one another in communion (Exclusion and Embrace, 129).

The story of scripture is the story of a rejected Deity who refuses to be rejected. Grace is given despite the receiver’s response; God’s very nature is to continue showing grace and forgiveness. Like the Father of the Prodigal Son, God anticipates the return of the lost son, keeping a watchful eye on the distant horizon. Likewise, grace can be the only truly Christian response to the rejection of grace, just as Christ-the-Servant gave all the way to the cross.

There is a temptation here: that we would believe we have a “thing”—food, clothing, shelter, but namely, grace—like a present, which we must continue to give, even in the face of rejection. But that “thing” is not a thing at all, as if we have what the poor need, a commodity for giving. Christ was full (John 1:14), not because he was in possession of a “thing” called grace and therefore different than those in need, but that he could also be emptied (Phil. 2:7) and enveloped with humanity in the movement of God’s love. “Inscribed on the very heart of God’s grace is the rule that we can be its recipients only if we do not resist being made into its agents” (Exclusion and Embrace, 129). We are not only the recipients of grace alongside the poor but we must continue being the extension of God’s first act of love. We are not the handlers of a gift but agents within a Divine drama of love in the face of rejection. In this way, agents who find themselves within the body of Christ give of themselves in such a way that creates space for receiving all into the life of love.

In such a drama—hopefully one that comes into focus during the Christmas season of giving—the lines of social and economic division dissipate and friendship and communion can be restored. But when the drama is reduced to the exchange of gifts, division re-emerges; when God’s grace is owned and its recipients are not transformed into agents, communion is severed (“This family just stripped me from the joy of giving”). And when the rejection of grace is reciprocated with resentment; God’s drama of servant-love found in Christ Jesus is distant. Alternatively, when grace upon grace is given despite circumstance, the community of believers begin to understand that when needs are met we are all blessed together.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


In human terms death is the last thing of all, and in human terms hope exists only so long as their life;
But to Christian eyes death is by no means the last thing of all,
Just another minor event in that which is all, an eternal life.

Soren Kierkegaard

There are precious few moments when head and heart collide- when one is fully immersed in the present so infinitely that the cosmic dance takes place on dirt. And to put words to such a moment is even more remote. Yet we try with our heads bowed and our hearts open to find ourselves fully immersed in God’s future as we take the celebratory march to get drunk on blood.
The grapes are ripe this time of year. If not picked this morning, they were yesterday. It’s my first afternoon in Jerusalem, and I’m walking through the Old City, getting lost only to find where I am. Shops on either side of the road, I brush shoulders with Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The sun already burning on my neck, I look around to catch landmarks for the return trip to my hostel. Via Dolorosa. MFA1 Assault Rifle.
The sign marking the Way of Suffering juxtaposed revoltingly with the two Israeli soldiers standing directly underneath. They couldn’t be any more than nineteen, just boys with the responsibility of life and death. A child no more than six passed with a plastic gun, pointing it at random people and pretending to shoot. But for these soldiers, playtime had ended. The guns were real and the bullets pierced flesh. I’m not used to guns. I see them back home on police officers, but even in the patron state of shootin’ stuff, you don’t see assault rifles casually slung over shoulders. It would become a sight I would abhorrently become used to over the next few weeks. A few times pointed in my direction.
I continued through the stone alleyways, noting the difference in architecture as the city was built and rebuilt through the centuries. Up ahead, what looks like a short walk is the Mount of Olives rising over East and West Jerusalem, the cemetery quietly passing judgment as its inhabitants await the Messiah. My group passes Mary’s tomb, and walk into the Garden of Gethsemane. The olive trees, centuries old twist and contort toward the sky, providing shade and food for any who whish to lay underneath. How beautiful a picture to think about each having their own tree. This is supposedly the place where Jesus prayed such a prayer on the night he was betrayed, arrested, nailed to a tree.

Betrayal. Deception. Violence- these are the reasons some have more trees than others.

The walk up the hill is steep. Passing Christian landmarks on either side, we pass Dominus Flevit- a small Franciscan chapel shaped as a tear drop. Overlooking the city, one sees the Wailing Wall to the left and to the right the Dome of the Rock penetrating the skyline.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! Look your house is left to you desolate.

Grief and lament give way to tears and sacrifice. The death meant to expose the ridiculousness of violence- killing the innocent One- has given way to even more desolation. Here, where the land seems to drink an endless amount of blood and tears, the Via Dolorosa remains the status quo. Jesus continues the slow march through the city, walks the hills surrounding the City of David, through the streets of Hebron, and the along the borders of Gaza. We find him in the homes of Jewish parents who have received their sons and daughters in bloody pieces, and we find him in the bedroom of the traumatized Palestinian boy whose father ‘disappeared.’

His back scourged by the onslaught of US made missiles, he begs for us to follow. Such foolishness. Such stupidity. Only death awaits those who follow the insane man from Nazareth. Who, in this world, refuses self-defense? Who, in this world, chooses the irrationality of love over the concreteness of a bullet? Who can have faith in the absurd thought of peace?

This is my body broken for you. This is my blood poured out for you. My body and blood show a new way of living in this world. Just as you have received forgiveness, so forgive one another. Love your enemies, and pray for those that persecute you. It will not be easy, as they persecute me so shall they persecute you. But do not lose hope for I will return to you. And there will be a new heaven and a new earth- behold, even now I make all things new!


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Keeping God at a Distance: Turning Into Christ and Toward the Poor

Ryan Fasani and Eric Paul-

Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.

“Now I’m a church going woman, but we have a problem here in Antioch, and it’s the homeless. I work in a service station and these people steal ice…Nashville has a bad reputation for being soft on the homeless. This community is in danger. We don’t want them here.” I (Eric) sat and listened to her demonize God’s children, responding to her new homeless neighbors more in anger and fear than thoughtfulness and love. This woman spoke in one breath of her Christian faith and in the other breath her dissatisfaction toward the temporary relocation of Tent City.

Tent City, under the Hermitage Avenue Bridge, was the home to nearly 150 homeless neighbors until The Flood in May of this year. With most of their assets awash in the rising Cumberland, many found shelter with the Red Cross at Lipscomb University. But emergency shelter is only temporary, and in just a week, these homeless brothers and sisters relocated—this time to a privately owned field in Antioch leased to them by the owner.

A Town Hall Meeting was called to address this ‘problem’ that had now invaded Antioch. A cacophony of voices formed a unified front against those who had nowhere else to go. The same phrase repeated throughout the night: “We love the homeless, but…” We can all finish the sentence, because we all feel the tension. If we’re honest, our Christian faith and our actions toward those that are without home are at odds.

We believe in the value of all of God’s children (Psalm 139:14), but when we pass a man or woman on the street, we pretend they are not there. We believe that status and prestige are turned over in Jesus’ ministry (Luke 14:12-13), but when we sit by them on the bus we turn our noses. We believe scripture calls us to model God’s hospitality (Rom 12:10-13), but when they approach our churches we lock the doors for fear that they might steal, or worse, unsettle our public image.

I (Eric) once met with a pastor of a downtown church who told me that they lock the doors on a Sunday morning because the homeless make the worshippers nervous. What makes these people such a threat? Sometimes I think the church needs a third work of grace, another conversion.

Mark’s Gospel begins with John the Baptist preaching a message of repentance, a call for conversion. Jesus then proclaims this same message once John is in prison (Mark 1:15). To repent, literally means a slow turn. It is not a coincidence then that John’s message came with a call for baptism. Baptism, as the church carries the tradition, is the ritual that dramatizes one’s turning away from the powers and systems that bring death and turning toward new life and hope in Christ’s resurrection (Romans 6). In the early church, this was literally demonstrated when the catechumen (an individual being baptized or confirmed) would turn from facing the West to the East, in anticipation of Christ’s return. After baptism, the catechumen would then join the fellowship of believers for worship in Holy Communion. The whole process narrates a turn (conversion) from isolation toward fellowship in the body of Christ.

In other words, baptism turns us toward and ties us to one another and to Christ. To be converted to Christ also means that we are converted to one another. John puts it this way, “Since God so loved us, so we ought to love one another” (1 John 4:15). Baptism, then, in the words of NT Wright, “is more than merely an image of unity-in-diversity; it’s a way of saying the church is called to do the work of Christ, to be the means of his action in the world.” Baptism teaches that to be Christian is not to think one is Christian. It is not a cognitive assent to predetermined doctrine. To be Christian is to be grafted into the practices that form one as a Christian.

But, what happens when the church neglects certain people based on economic status? It appears that the church as Christ’s body and our actions toward the poor are at odds. In short, we don’t embody Christ well in the world. “The church loves the homeless, but…” The church is in need of a slow turn from practices that are destructive and toward ones that serve life.

If our presupposition from earlier articles stands—namely, that God’s actions in the world generate the mission of the church—neglect of the poor is incongruent with God’s revelation. This is a clear accusation of our unfaithfulness. The church, then, must always be repenting. As we encounter those with little means and without permanent residence, we must perpetually repent of our neglect in loving them well, and turn toward a more hospitable future, God’s future as open to all people.

This type of turning is difficult. We don’t like to be confronted with the reality of poverty. Like the woman in Antioch, we just don’t want to have to deal with it. “We love the homeless, but…”

So we give five dollars to assuage our guilt. But, giving is not necessarily turning. Giving in the form of charity too easily becomes a device to avoid our baptismal call out of isolation and into fellowship. Charity keeps the poor at a distance. In this way, the poor have taught us that the church has not learned how to love as Christ has loved. The poor have become for the church a perpetual reminder of our inability to be a faithful, baptized people—to be God’s presence in the world. In the meantime, we are missing out of the gift of grace that can be found through true relationship with these loved ones. Perhaps the church is due for a conversion.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Keeping God at a Distance: Taking Seriously (Our 'Un-Belief of) Matthew 25

Ryan Fasani and Eric Paul-

‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.’ -Matthew 25:34-40 (ESV)

Let me just say it: Christians don’t like Matthew 25. And as the scriptures Christians don’t like go, so goes Matthew 25. It is relegated to the catalogue of biblical obscurity, and ultimately pushed right out of many Christians’ mental back doors, never to be heard again in bible study or from the pulpit. In other words, Christians systematically “un-believe” it. The result is a tragedy—a tragedy we need to take seriously if we are to live faithfully in urban America.

We (the authors) think Matthew 25 is actually quite clear. Given the array of possible interpretations of, say, the beast rising out of the sea with ten horns and seven heads in Revelation 13, or the “woes” to the rich, the well fed, the laughers, and those spoken well of in Luke 6, Matthew 25 only has two possible interpretations. The first possibility: serving food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, being hospitable to the stranger, clothing the naked, and caring for the sick is just like (similar to) serving Jesus. The second possibility: serving those in need and being with the suffering is actually (literally) serving Jesus.

My (Ryan) mom ran a “tight ship” when I was young. She had to; she was juggling five boys, no girls. We didn’t have a lot of rules, but the ones we did have were non-negotiable. The one that comes to mind is that despite where we were or who we were with, if an adult was present, they deserved our unwavering respect. This meant we annunciated our Pleases and Thank Yous, we made eye contact when we were spoken to, and we listened and obeyed immediately. She required that we show the same respect to other adults as we did her. I remember when mom would drop us off at friends’ houses, her farewell injunction was, “Behave just as you would if I were there.” My friends’ parents were astonished by our manners. Of course they were; we were behaving as if we were at home, as if mom was calling us in for supper, just like mom was asking us to take a shower.

There are many opinions on the technicalities of translating Matthew 25:40 from the Greek. Every English translation does it differently. It seems to be something like a simile, with an “as” or “like.” Should we emphasize this verse of the passage—treating the hurting and disenfranchised just like or as if they are Jesus—the implicit injunction is something like this: “Behave just as you would if I, Jesus, were there.” There is, however, consensus on the preceding verses (35ff). Jesus says quite clearly, “I was hungry, thirsty, naked, and in prison.” If Christians fight back the inclination to avoid the obvious because it’s difficult, Christians are forced to understand that the poor, oppressed, and hurting are actually Jesus. Consequently, the implicit injunction is more piercing: “Show compassion to ones that bear pain because it is my pain!”

Either the poor and suffering of the world are to be treated like Jesus because it is as if he is there, or they are to be treated like Jesus because he is there. Is the moral upshot different? In other words, does it change how we treat, engage, serve, or advocate for the suffering whether we understand our hurting neighbor to be like Jesus or actually to be Jesus? The Church of the Nazarene’s Manual implies that the previous questions elicit inadequate answers—ethical technicalities according to hypothetical scenarios. Instead, the Manual suggests that a better question is: How do I make the plight of the poor and the suffering of sick my own? Because God is empathetic (in-suffering) with those that suffer, Christians should do likewise, “identify[ing] with and [entering] into solidarity with the poor and not simply to offer charity from a position of comfort” (Appendix 903.4). Whether it is like Jesus is there or Jesus actually is there, Jesus takes on the pain of those suffering by entering into it. Christians too should enter this pain and share it with our neighbor, fighting for its resolution.

My (Ryan) mom taught me good manners, but in terms of teaching me Christian compassion (to suffering with), her stern rules and persistent injunctions reinforced our tendency to keep God at a distance. To her credit, it’s difficult to teach the value of compassionate solidarity. But as Christian disciples, difficulty does not relieve necessity. We believe that God identifies with those that suffer. Just as God moved into the plight of human existence, God continues right on past the gated community and pricey restaurants, Victorian homes and office buildings, and associates (identifies) with those struggling to make it (perhaps those in the subsidized housing “projects”). This is not just an injunction on how to behave (as if God is around) but where to be (where God is)! It’s a matter of location—emotional presence and physical proximity. Matthew 25 is a call to Christians to move themselves into the lives of those hurting in our communities; not a call simply to act polite as if God is watching over our shoulders, but to act with a God who is already there in solidarity.

The Manual calls this life of solidarity a “struggle.” And it is! We (Christians) want to do without this “essential aspect” of Christian discipleship because life is easier (Appendix 903.4). We’ve systematically purged ourselves and our worshipping communities of the truth that God is with and for the poor. But the clear absence of this struggle has wounded our church; we’ve been forced to suture this gaping wound by moving emotionally and physically further and further from any semblance of poverty. Charitable giving (i.e. sending money from afar) has become our mode of service, and unfortunately, we now experience the worst of tragedies: God is distant.

We don’t like Matthew 25. We pose questions about it in an effort to convince ourselves of its obscurity. Is Jesus psychologically or mystically present in the person suffering? Does Jesus understand them, is he with them, or is he in them? Meanwhile, God has hung up a sign that reads: “You know where to find me.”

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Keeping God at a Distance: Introduction to a Journey

As Found at

Ryan Fasani and Eric Paul-

“The gospel does not merely bring the kingdom of God to the poor; it also discovers the kingdom of the poor, which is God’s kingdom. The gospel does not merely call to conversion and faith. It also shows that the poor are God’s fellow citizens, like the children to whom the kingdom of God already belongs.” - Jurgen Moltmann

God associates with the poor. In the Exodus narrative, God liberated God’s own poor and oppressed people. Likewise, God became poor and homeless through the Incarnation (Matt 8:20) and his call to ministry (Luke 4:18ff), and God even pronounces blessing upon the poor—for they will inherit the earth (Matt. 5:3).

Does this indict the rich? Not necessarily. Does it disrupt Christian notions of financial security and upward mobility? Certainly. The mere utterance of the phrase “God associates with the poor” makes us middle-class Americans rather uncomfortable. What kind of a God chooses the poor to be blessed, and what exactly does that blessing look like? Honestly, we don’t know! Perhaps, even more than disrupting our notions of financial security, this is an indictment of the way we do church. Fundamentally, the mission of the church must find its purpose and vision as it relates to the Missio Dei, the Mission of God. In short, where God chooses to be and with whom God chooses to associate, the church ought to follow.

We’ve already covered some ground without a word about our project. We’re heading on a journey and you’re welcome to follow. We’re exploring the distance between God and the church—God and so many of God’s disciples. More substantively, we’re exploring the distance between the church and the poor and looking closely at the shortcomings of the church’s predominant method of missio: charity. We share common experience in our attempts at serving faithfully in East Nashville and we deeply desire to see the Missio Dei in our midst, guiding our vision of service.We shall begin with our presuppositions, namely, revelation. Resting on the belief that God reveals God’s self in particularities (i.e. acts in history), we know God’s association with the poor because of stories that have been passed down to us through scripture. While numerous references abound, we will only expound upon two narratives that help shape the Christian tradition: The Exodus and the Incarnation. Both narratives provide insight into God’s way of being in the world through relationships with those in the shadows of power.

Certainly the children of Israel were a destitute, oppressed, enslaved, and poor community when God appeared to Moses at the burning bush and said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering” (Ex. 3:7). God bound God’s self to this powerless people group and led them to freedom. The God who loathes suffering and oppression redeemed their spirits and their bodies from enslavement. Indeed, the Egyptians had wealth, land, and weapons, without parallel in their day. But God did not choose to dwell (associate) among them. Rather, God’s choice was for the weak and forgotten. God demonstrated God’s power not through the might of the powerful but through the weakness of the powerless.

Likewise, Jesus was born to a lowly, unwedded, poor couple from the outskirts of the Roman Empire. Their existence threatened by occupation, Mary and Joseph found themselves giving birth in a cave with the animals. Quite an entrance for the Messiah, the Jews hoped for a liberator, maybe a hybrid between Moses and King David! Instead, they got Jesus, a poor carpenter from the no-good town of Nazareth.

His first sermon came from the book of Isaiah as recorded by Luke, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” As he continued his ministry, he chose the B-team for his disciples: zealots, tax collectors, and fishermen. Jesus came preaching that the Kingdom of God is near. In Jesus, the one who announces God’s reign of love and justice actually brings love and justice. The tangible signs of the Kingdom, the restoration of the created order, became apparent throughout Jesus’ life: the sick were healed, the lame walk, evil spirits were cast out, and the poor have the good news preached to them (Luke 7:22-23). Jurgen Moltmann summarizes, “The gospel does not merely bring the kingdom of God to the poor; it also discovers the kingdom of the poor, which is God’s kingdom. The gospel does not merely call to conversion and faith. It also shows that the poor are God’s fellow citizens, like the children to whom the kingdom of God already belongs” (The Way of Jesus Christ, 100).

The revelations of God in the Exodus narrative and the Incarnation remind the church that we are to continue God’s pattern of healing presence with the poor. In fact, the Nazarene Manual explains this special relationship, “Throughout the Bible and in the life and example of Jesus, God identifies with and assists the poor, the oppressed, and those in society who cannot speak for themselves. In the same way, we, too, are called to identify with and to enter into solidarity with the poor and not simply to offer charity from positions of comfort” (903.4). Yet, we contend that most churches keep the poor at a distance. If the kingdom of God is a kingdom of the poor, then the church more often than not keeps God at a distance.

Over the next few weeks we will be using this space to discuss ways in which the church is both faithful and unfaithful to God’s association with the poor. Our project is an effort to take seriously the homeless Rabbi that says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” (Rev 3:20). Through the lens of two Christians working in East Nashville, we will use the tool of theological reflection to report on our experience with God’s church living out God’s mission.