Just like the Prophets

Psalm 15:1-2 1 God, who may dwell in your tabernacle? who may abide upon your holy hill? Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right, who speaks the truth from [their] heart.

Introduction

Did you know that the Sermon on the Mount was probably given in the hills?[1] I mention this little detail because there are texts and stories, teachings and preachings that we’re very familiar with, so familiar that we are prone to pay them less attention. We take them for granted and lock them in some form in our memory. We are familiar with the tonality and the cadence of the textual rhythm. We can recite some of them from memory. We may be more familiar with some over others; we may even know the blessed statements show up altered in other gospels. Maybe it’s time we did what Jesus’s disciples did: follow Jesus and sit with this divine Rabbi, [2] listening (again) to these words meant for those who follow Jesus out of the river Jordan, even those of us who sit here these many years later. As we do, may we come into an encounter with the love and passion of God anew, for God’s Word seeks to awaken us from our slumber, provoke to animation calcified hearts, invigorate sluggish souls and exhausted minds, graft us into God’s mission on the earth,[3] and to place us into the great prophetic tradition of God’s representatives bringing God’s love and life and liberation to the captives.[4]

Matthew 5:1-12

Before beginning our dive into the statements, I want to address a little, teensy-weensy textual thing: the word, markarioi is fairly hard to render into English. The complication comes in that “‘Macarisms’ are essentially commendations, congratulations, statements to the effect that a person is in a good situation, sometimes even expressions of envy.”[5] This isn’t “blessed by God”,[6] but “happy”. They are happy who… However, this is misleading in our context because it is not as if the person is happy but that they find themselves in a happy place demanding envy from others.[7] In short, these statements are not merely colloquialisms about happy go lucky, but describe and commend the good life,[8] and not the good life or an ethic for back then but even now, for us.[9] To be envied is to do and be like this…

To be envied are the beggars for the Spirit, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.[10]

The “poor in spirit” are not those who lack God or have weak character. Rather, these are the ones claimed by God but poor, those held captive by oppression, those refused the material liberation of God. [11] These people know their need for God, cry out to God, call on God, and take God as God. It is these who have the kingdom of God because they are with God[12] and loved by God and in this love the kingdom is now and to come.[13]

To be envied are the ones who mourn, because they, they will be comforted.

Like those before who are “poor in spirit” and those who follow (the meek and those who hunger and thirst), those who mourn have comfort in that they are those who are with God because God is in our suffering.[14] And in being with God, having God’s life and love there is the possibility that this heavy grief will not always be so, that there is more to this material existence than what can be seen and touched right now.[15]

To be envied are the meek, because they, they will inherit the earth.

Meekness here harkens back to “poor in spirit”, these are the ones who love their neighbor as themselves, serving the neighbor in their freedom, feeling compassion and sympathy for the plight of their neighbor. The meek live among the sufferers in this life and make it their aim to alleviate that suffering, to bring God close.[16] For these meek ones are servants of all, live by the law of love for their neighbor before God, and are the ones who inherit the earth at the expense of those claiming the earth for themselves now at the expense of their neighbor.

To be envied are the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness, because they, they will be satisfied.

Those who are hungry are hungry for justice, those who are thirsty are thirsty for righteousness; and this hunger and thirst fuels the embers of the fires of God’s love and justice.[17] These are the ones who desire earnestly (2x!) to live into the calling of God on their lives made known through their baptism and faith in God, and to participate in God’s mission of love, liberation, and life in the world. These are they who step into the responsibility of representing God in the world and eliminating alienation and isolation.[18] By this activity they satisfy their hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness come.

To be envied are the merciful, because they, they will be shown mercy.

Just like those who judge will be judged and those who forgive will be forgiven, those who show mercy will be shown mercy. In other words, those who are merciful are those who offer grace to other fellow humans trying to get from point A to point B, those who share in the pain in the world and celebrate the joy, those who are willing to let go of societal standards of “an eye for an eye”.[19]

To be envied are the pure in heart, because they, they will see God.”

This is less about being sinless and more about being declared pure apart from your material and social circumstances that would render you “unclean” for lack of “outward purity”.[20] Godliness is about one’s trust and faith in and love of God made most manifest in love of one’s neighbor; it’s not about being ritualistically clean and upright thus removed from being able to love one’s neighbor no matter what.

To be envied are the peacemakers, because they, they will be called children of God.”

Those born of God are born of love, of life, of peace. Thus, the peacemakers are not those who merely present a peaceful demeanor in the world, benefitting only themselves. These are they who “make peace” by causing reconciliation where there is estrangement, reuniting others, and letting love do what love does: turn the enemy into the beloved.[21]

To be envied are the ones who are persecuted on account of righteousness, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. You are to be envied whenever people revile you both persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be fully of joy, because your reward is great in the heavens, for in this way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Of interest here are those who are blessed because they are persecuted and not only because they’re upright, but upright specifically related to following Jesus.[22] It’s not a lifestyle that is good, but one that adheres to the authority and principles of Jesus; this is the reason for the persecution. In adhering to the radical demands of Christ by pursuing justice, peace, mercy, and love in the world,[23] the disciples will end up challenging the self-conceptions of others who live according to the world[24] and persecution will follow. Then Jesus does something at the end of the text, according to Matthew, he draws a correlation between those who do his will with the prophets. Those who follow Jesus and do as he did are grafted into the great line of prophets, those who declare God’s kingdom come, those who advocate for the sufferers and oppressed are those who share in the great prophetic tradition and participate in the prophetic voice.[25]

Conclusion

Beloved, the “sermon among the hills” is the foundation of our ethical activity in the world. Loved by the radical God of Love made known to us in Christ, we love radically like God, risking our creaturely comforts and daring to stand out[26] we bring and declare this love into the world.[27] We’re called by and in faith to be born anew into a new life defined by God’s will and desire to seek and save the lost, to liberate the captives, to bring good news to the poor and destitute, those struggling to live and exist. We are created anew to be God’s representatives in the name of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit in the world. We are to feel our discontentment with the world because God is discontent with the way the world is for God’s beloved.[28] We’re to press into God by pressing into the plight of our brothers and sisters, in this the light breaks through the darkness, hope defeats hopelessness,[29] and love births life.[30]

The following is taken from Ernesto Cardenal’s poem, “Coplas on the death of Merton”,[31]

Love, love above all, an anticipation
of death
            There was a taste of death in the kisses
                        being
                                    is being
                                                in another being
            we exist only in love
But in this life we love only briefly
and feebly
            We love or exist only when we stop being
when we die
            nakedness of the whole being in order to make love
                                    make love not war
                        that go to empty into the love
                        that is life


[1] RT France, in his commentary, makes the compelling case that the location where Jesus sits and teaches his disciples in this pericope are “hills” rather than a mountain (which is the technical translation of to oros). France uses the corresponding text in the gospel of Luke which describes Jesus as going down to this location…

[2] R. T. France The Gospel of Matthew The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Gen. Ed Joel B. Green. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007. 157-158.

[3] Anna Case-Winters Matthew Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2015. 71-72. “The Sermon on the Mount, in its clarion call to a radically different way of life, does unmask the sinfulness of the life we now live—turned in on ourselves as we are. Indeed, it makes our need for God’s grace very clear, but the message also moves and motivates us toward the higher righteousness to which Jesus calls us. It does so not by giving a set of prescriptions to be followed in a legalistic manner but rather examples of life oriented by the love of God and neighbor.”

[4] Cardenal, Solentiname, 89-90. “WILLIAM: ‘And Jesus compares us with the prophets. The prophets in the Bible were not so much people who predicted the future as people who denounced the present. They were protesting against the celebrations in the palaces, the cheating on the weights and the coins, the things that they bought very cheap from the labor of the poor, the swindles of widows and orphans, the abuses committed by the mafias of priests, the murders, the royal policy that they called prostitution, the dependence on foreign imperialisms. And it’s true they also predicted something for the future-the liberation of the oppressed. Christ says that our fate has to be like the fate of those prophets.’”

[5] France, Matthew, 160-161.

[6] France, Matthew, 160-161. The Hebrew equivalent of Makarios is asre rather than the more theologically loaded baruk, ‘blessed (by God).’ The traditional English rendering ‘blessed’ thus also has too theological a connotation in modern usage; the Greek term for ‘blessed (by God)’ is eulogetos, not makarios.

[7] France, Matthew, 160-161. “The sense of congratulation and commendation is perhaps better convened by ‘happy,’ but this term generally has too psychological a connotation: makarios does not state that a person feels happy … but that they are in a ‘happy’ situation, one which other people ought also to wish to share.”

[8] France, Matthew, 160-161. “The Australian idiom ‘Good on yer’ is perhaps as close as any to the sense, but would not communicate in the rest of the English-speaking world!…Beatitudes are descriptions, and commendations, of the good life.”

[9] Case-Winters, Matthew, 71. “I would propose that the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount is a fitting ethic nor just for ‘the interim’ and not just tor an inner circle, but for followers of Jesus in all times and places. It has been pointed out that a new way of life is at the heart of the gospel call.”

[10] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[11] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname Trans. Donald D. Walsh. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010. 82. “I said that in the Bible the poor are often called anawim, which in Hebrew means ‘the poor of Yahweh.’ They are so called because they are the poor of the liberation of Yahweh, those that God is going to liberate by means of the Messiah. It’s like what we now understand as the ‘oppressed,’ but in the Bible those poor people are also considered to be good people, honorable, kindly and holy, while their opposites are the oppressors, the rich, the proud, the impious.”

[12] France, Matthew, 165. “‘Poverty in spirit’ is not speaking of weakness of character (‘mean-spiritedness’) but rather of a person’s relationship with God. It is a positive spiritual orientation, the converse of the arrogant self-confidence which only rides roughshod over the interests of other people but more importantly causes a person to treat God as irrelevant. To say that it is to such people that kingdom of heaven belongs means (not, of course, that they themselves hold royal authority but) that they are the ones who gladly accept God’s rule and who therefore enjoy the benefits which come to his subjects.”

[13] Cardenal, Solentiname, 83. “And OSCAR’S MOTHER: ‘It seems to me that the kingdom is love. Love in this life. And heaven is for those who love here, because God is love’”

[14] Case-Winters, Matthew, 76-77. “The first four beatitudes declare blessing for those who were traditionally understood as being defended by God: the poor, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, justice.”

[15] France, Matthew, 166. “For those who, as God’s people, find their current situation intolerable and incomprehensible, there are better times ahead.”

[16] France, Matthew, 166. “‘Meek,’ like ‘poor in spirit,’ speaks not only of those who are in fact disadvantaged and powerless, but also of those whose attitude is not arrogant and oppressive. The term in itself may properly be understood of their relations with other people; they are those who do not throw their weight about.”

[17] Cardenal, Solentiname, 86. “MARCELINO: ‘He blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice. Hunger and injustice amount to the same thing. Anyone who hungers for food also hungers for justice. They are the ones who are going to make social change, not the satisfied ones. And then they’ll be filled with bread and social justice.’”

[18] France, Matthew, 167-168. Dikaiosyne “It is thus better understood here not of those who wish to see God’s will prevail in the world in general or on their own behalf in particular, but of those who are eager themselves to live as God requires, those who can say, as Jesus himself is recorded as saying in John 4:34, ‘My food is to do the will of the one who me.’”

[19] France, Matthew, 168. “‘Mercy’ is closely with forgiveness, but is broader here than just the forgiveness of specific offenses: it is a generous attitude which is willing to see things from the other’s point of view and is not quick to take offense or to gloat over others’ shortcomings (the prime characteristic of love according to 1 Cor 13:4-7). Mercy sets aside society’s assumption that it is honorable to demand revenge.”

[20] France, Matthew, 168. “In the context of first-century Judaism, with its strong emphasis on ritual ‘purity’, the phrase ‘pure in heart’ might also be understood to imply a contrast with the meticulous preservation of outward purity which will be condemned in 23:25-28 as having missed the point of godliness…”

[21] France, Matthew, 169. “This beatitude goes beyond a merely peaceful disposition to an active attempt to ‘make’ peace, perhaps by seeking reconciliation with one’s own enemies, but also more generally by bringing together those who estranged from one another.”

[22] France, Matthew, 172. “A significant new note in comparison with v. 10 is that the cause of persecution is not simply ‘righteousness,’ the distinctive lifestyle of the disciples, but more specifically ‘because of me,’ a phrase which makes it clear that this discourse is not just a call to conduct but is grounded in the unique authority and radical demands of Jesus himself.”

[23] Cardenal, Solentiname, 88. “ALEJANDRO: ‘And he says that they are going to be persecuted because they seek justice, and for that also he blesses them. Because it’s clear that people who look for this kingdom have to be persecuted.”

[24] France, Matthew, 169-170. “The pursuit of ‘righteousness’ (v. 6) can arouse opposition from those whose interests or self-respect may be threatened by it. Already in the commendation of the merciful and the peacemakers these beatitudes have marked out the true disciple not as a hermit engaged in the solitary pursuit of holiness but as one engaged in society, and such engagement has its cost. As the following verses will spell out more fully, to live as subjects of the kingdom of heaven is to be set over against the rest of society which does not its values, and the result may be – indeed, the uncompromising wording of this beatitude suggests that it will be—persecution.”

[25] France, Matthew, 173. “Those who have spoken out for God have always been liable to the violent reprisal of the ungodly. In the light of that heritage, to be persecuted for the sake of Jesus is a badge of honor. The phrase ‘the prophets who came before you’ perhaps suggests that Jesus’ disciples are now the prophetic voice on earth (cf. 10:41; 23:34).”

[26] France, Matthew, 159. “The sharply paradoxical character of most of its recommendations reverses the conventional values of society—it commends those whom the world in general would dismiss as losers and wimps; compare the presentation of disciples as ‘little ones’ in 10:42; 18:6, 10.14; 25:40 (cf. the ‘little children’ of 11:25). The Beatitudes thus call on those who would be God’s people to stand out as different from those around them, and promise them that those who do so will not ultimately be the losers.”

[27] Case-Winters, Matthew, 77. “In a way the beatitudes are ‘more description than instruction;’ they are a kind of report from the other side of radical commitment for those who have entered into life within God’s community of love and justice. For those who have ‘crossed over’ there is genuine blessedness. They are living-even now-in the reign of God.”

[28] Case-Winters, Matthew, 78. “If we would-even now-live under the reign of God, there are implications. The alternative reality will chaff against the present reality. To love as God loves is to be discontented with the present reality. ‘Until the eschatological reversal takes place, it is not possible to be content with the status quo.’ In our discontent, we may pray with William Sloane Coffin, ‘Because we love the world. . . . we pray now… for grace to quarrel with it, O Thou Whose lover’s quarrel with the world is the history of the world…’”

[29] Dorothee Soelle On Earth as in Heaven: A Liberation Spirituality of Sharing Trans. Marc Batko. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1993. 50-51. “Christian hope in the tradition of the supernatural virtues, that is, of virtues poured into us by grace, is distinguished from the hope of the observer by sharing, cooperation, and participation. Chrisitan hope is hope in which I share in the production of another state. The hope of peace lives with the peacemakers and not beyond them. Participation in the struggle distinguishes this hope form the contemplative observation that is optimist once moment ad resigned the next.

[30] France, Matthew, 171-172. “Light is of no use under a bowl. It is the town conspicuously sited on hill which people notice. And the outcome of distinctive discipleship is intended to be that other people will notice and, though sometimes they may respond with cynicism and persecution, ultimately the light will have its effect and they will recognize and acknowledge the goodness of the God is its source, Disciples, therefore, must be both distinctive and involved. Neither the indistinguishably assimilated nor the inaccessible hermit will fulfill the mandate of these challenging verses.”

[31] Ernesto Cardenal Apocalypse and other poems Trans. Thomas Merton, Kenneth Rexroth, and Mireya Jaimes-Freyre. Eds. Robert Pring-Mill, Donald D. Walsh. New York, NY: New Directions Publishing, 1977. 47.

Love + Action = Freedom

Psalm 77:13-15 13 Your way, O God, is holy; who is so great a god as our God? You are the God who works wonders and have declared your power among the peoples. By your strength you have redeemed your people, the children of Jacob and Joseph.

Introduction

The way freedom is spoken of today leaves little to be desired. It’s a big concept, described by truncated language reduced to me and mine. While there is some me and mine involved with the concept and the working out of freedom, it doesn’t end there.

To conceive of freedom as strictly how I’m unrestricted by the demands of another renders the concept of freedom malnourished. Does freedom even exist apart from another? If I’m isolated to myself, do I know what freedom is? The discussion is moot; I’m neither free nor not free. I’m just without demands from others. I’m (essentially) free from others for myself.[1] It’s a perpetual turning in of the self, rendering the self wrong-side-out,[2] and locked in its own prison of death. Here, isolation informs the need to pull further and further apart from others, and in that space grows the evil of the devaluation of the other to the point where the other is the enemy.

Freedom, to be something worthwhile (something that one would literally risk life and limb) must be something that exists with others. To be free while still in the presence of another is true freedom. You are you as you are and I am me as I am me; as different as we are, we affirm each other—self-differentiated and together—two Is forming a we of yous. I’m not restricted by you, but voluntarily restrict myself to see to your thriving. This voluntary self-restriction is freedom because I freely enter into it for you. I’m (essentially) free from myself for others. It’s a contagion of affirmation, rendering the self right-side-out, liberated into the realm of life. Here, togetherness informs the need to see myself more and more a part of the group, and in that space the other’s liberation becomes my liberation and love informs my action for the other who is beloved.

Galatians 5:1,13-25

For liberty [a state of freedom from slavery] Christ liberated us. Therefore, persevere and be not ensnared again to the yoke of slavery.
For you, you are summoned into liberty, brothers and sisters, only not liberty for the occasion for the flesh, but through love be slaves to one another. For all the law has been fulfilled in one word, in which “You love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite [harm seriously] one another and you eat up [injure seriously] one another, beware (!) you do not consume one another.[3]

(Gal 5: 1, 13-15)

Our friend, Paul, spends much of Galatians working out the concept of freedom of the person in the encounter with God in the event of faith. For Paul, as mentioned last week, we are liberated from a problematic (idolatrous) relationship with the law; a relationship that rendered our obedience to the law ultimate, and love of God and of neighbor as penultimate. You don’t need the law to inform your love of God and of others, rather you need the love of God and of others to inform your relationship to the law.

Jesus is the hinge upon which all realignment hangs. When Christ is proclaimed, there God is encountered; where God is encountered, the divine Spirit of Love resurrects those who were once dead in themselves and ushers them into new life. This new life, according to Paul in Galatians 5, is about freedom informed by the spirit and activity of love. This new life is freedom from the law for others; this new life is the business of law serving love and love serving others. Remember: in the encounter with God in the event of faith, according to the philosophical and theological logic of Galatians, our misalignment to the law is broken and we’re re-centered (each of us) with our faces turned to God and (thus) necessarily to our neighbor and the world (those whom and that which God loves very much).

So, for Paul, if freedom is inherently connected to the reordering of love of God and love of neighbor, why drag in that which is septic and toxic: our misalignment to the law? Paul isn’t an antinomian; Paul isn’t arguing for the law’s abrogation (a word defined as, “the act of formally ending a law, agreement, or custom). Thus, law isn’t gone; it’s just the law, it’s been debarked, it’s become a tool for us to use so that love + action = freedom. In other words, when I enter a space with others, I’m motivated by love for them and either reject or submit to whatever law brings the other life. In that this rejection or submission brings life to my neighbor, I find myself liberated here, too, because now there’s more freedom spreading about and thus more love informed action. In this equation, the law isn’t lord, love is.

While I know the church has done a dastardly job not allowing many people—not part of the dominant group—to be themselves, I have to add that both Paul and Jesus advocate for the full receipt of self. Jesus exhorts one finds themselves when they lose themselves; Paul advocates for a sense of other demanding a real and present self. Both argue for the death of the self from the prison of the self, which does not end in death for death’s sake (this would be the death of the self ending in no self) but in new life (of the self) which is categorically re-oriented for others informed by the love of God’s life-giving Spirit. Herein is freedom: a substantiated self who loves and acts for the other, calling out death-dealing systems and refusing to ever again be yoked to slavery to the law in such a way that the law triumphs over love and over the other.

To solidify his point, Paul highlights what works look like when trapped in the prison of the self unliberated from the self, and he compares those works to the fruits of a self liberated from the self for others. I won’t deliberate long on those, for that’s an entirely different sermon. But when you get a chance, look at the difference and see where love + action = freedom; where that formula is lacking there you will find death, and where it is present you will find life.

Conclusion

Dorothee Sölle writes,

“Unless we are free, we cannot be instruments for the liberation of anyone else. And what prevents us from being free? Anxiety. Liberation is a problem which first begins within us, of not having any anxiety about the consequences. We can have anxiety, but we must control this anxiety. It is anxiety in the sense that we recognize the risk; otherwise it would be blind.”[4]

Dorothee Sölle Thinking About God

What Sölle is getting at here is, essentially, the liberation of the self from the self that is the seat of “being free”. Anxiety is a driving force helping us to protect the self from disaster; but it can also grow so large that it renders us useless in the prison of the self. Rather than just command people not to be anxious and just lose themselves, she articulates a need of self-mastery and self-differentiation that is informed by love of God and love of others. I can see my anxiety, acknowledge my anxiety, and then move forward with my anxiety. This momentum begins the freedom starting within and rippling outward into realms with others.

In other words, love of the other drives us to secure life for others. Is this not the gospel story of God’s love for the world manifest in Jesus the Christ from Nazareth who loved others with God’s Spirit of Love even to the point of his own death? Then, as those who follow Jesus out of the Jordan to the Cross, is this not also our story individually as Christians and corporately as the church? Aren’t we to be those willing to love others beyond our own anxiety so that there is life and liberation for all? When did Christianity and the Church become the message about the laws of power and privilege, the law of the self over and against the other? When did we lose ourselves to our pews and the obligations of standing and sitting for an hour on Sunday?[5] When did the church forget that she’s more than a coffee hour and is a little bit dangerous in a world bent in on itself?[6]

There’s no way around it: love is risky because love risks the security of the self for the security of the other. Love isn’t some saccharine feeling that ends in peace signs and always feeling good. Love propels us beyond ourselves for others and (paradoxically) in this activity we become more ourselves. And herein is freedom, beloved: to be those who are substantially for others with love and corresponding loving action that shakes the foundations of the world. In other words, we love as we were first loved by God, in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit of love.


[1] Grateful to Holly Tran for mentioning this for aspect to the way freedom is considered in America.

[2] This is the logical trajectory of Ayn Rands Objectivism and its promotion of the selfish.

[3] Translation mine, unless otherwise noted.

[4] Dorothee Sölle, Thinking About God: An Introduction to Theology Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1990. First Eng. Ed SCM Press, 1990. 129.

[5] Sölle, Thinking About God, 144. “One of the main dangers of Protestantism lies in its excessive stress on the kerygma, or more properly, on the kerygma reduced to preaching. The church is regarded as the place where preaching is done. Church takes place between ten and eleven on Sunday morning. The two other functions of the church disappear from view and hardly affect the ordinary members of the congregation. …“If church de facto consists in sitting still for an hour on Sunday without getting to know anyone else, the unity of kerygma, diakonia and koinonia is destroyed. How can any life develop which deserves the name ‘church’, in the sense of the assembled people of God?””

[6] W. Travis McMaken, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017. 150-1. “What overcomes this ecclesiastical banality is encounter with the church’s resurrected Lord, with ‘the Easter story [that] broken into our world, bringing with it a power, a world-overcoming revolution, which makes everything different in our life, which forces the church into a totally different direction.’ This encounter delegitimizes the church’s banality and demands that the church become an agent in proclaiming this world-overcoming revolution through word and deed. Instead of leaving the church to its comfortable domestication, ‘the one thing that matters for the church is that she should be both a danger and a help to the world.’ Gollwitzer’s ecclesiology calls for a dangerous church because a church that is not dangerous is not help at all.”

“Jesus of the East”

Sancta Colloquia Episode 404 ft. Dr. Phuc Luu

In this episode of Sancta Colloquia, I have the honor and privilege to interview scholar, teacher, and theologian, Dr. Phuc Luu (@phuc_luu). One of the primary themes of this conversation is that we still need to do better in this world if we are going to make our churches and cities and states and country environments where all people thrive and have access to their livelihood. Dr. Luu exhorts me and thus you to reconsider theological dogmas and doctrines about the cross that we’ve (too) long held to be the standard because they are causing so much violence to those who, to quite Dr. Luu, are the “sinned-against” (a term well explained in the conversation). The formerly “tried and true” claims made by those who have of the powerful and privileged do not hold water for those who are suffering under the weight and burden of oppression by the powerful and privileged. There is a need to reconsider so much that white western Christianity has taken for granted so that we can stand in solidarity with those who are oppressed and marginalized. This conversation takes many twists and bends, but the theme is consistent: there is no time like now to do better so that all our brothers and sisters in the world may experience the truly liberative power of divine love made manifest in the incarnate good word, Jesus the Christ, by the power of the holy spirit–not by means of making everyone Christian, but by being better followers of Christ who so identified with those who suffer in the world at the hands of the powerful.

Excited? You should be. Listen here:

The following biographical information is taken from Dr. Luu’s website:

Phuc Luu (福†刘) immigrated with his family to the United States from Vietnam when he was four. Luu is now a theologian, philosopher, and artist in Houston, Texas, creating work to narrow the divide between ideas and beauty. If theology is speaking about God, Luu seeks to give new language to what theology has not yet said. He served for seven years on the Nobel Peace Prize Committee for the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers). He holds degrees in theology (MDiv, PhD) and philosophy (MA), but has learned the most from the places where people ask difficult questions, where they live in the land between pain and hope, and where these stories are told.

Phuc’s work has appeared in the AmerAsian Journal, The Journal of Pastoral Care, the Truett Journal of Church and Mission, the Houston Chronicle, and NPR’s This I Believe. He has published on a variety of topics such as Medieval philosophy, pastoral care, theology and culture, philosophy of religion, and art and culture. He has taught philosophy and theology at Sam Houston State University and Houston Baptist University. Phuc currently teaches Old Testament Prophets, New Testament: Gospels, and World Religions at Houston’s Episcopal High School. Phuc is working on his second book, a sequel to Jesus of the East, called Spirit of Connection.

Dr. Luu’s Website: https://www.phucluu.com/

Sacred Seminary Symposium

Episode 6: “Solidarity”

In this episode, Sabrina and I discuss Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s book Mujerista Theology, specifically looking at chapter 5: “Solidarity: Love of Neighbor in the Twenty-First Century”.

In this chapter Isasi-Diaz brings the word “Solidarity” under examination highlighting how often human beings, specifically those of us in the dominant culture, have a fondness for this word but miss the praxis aspect completely. Solidarity isn’t just a nice feeling of community, but a legitimate standing with the oppressed groups, identifying with them. Not in the terms of becoming as the oppressed but in terms of standing with them as you are. This distinction is a difficult one to walk through, but it’s necessary. In this discussion, Sabrina and I take up the mantle of Isasi-Diaz’s definition of and ethical for solidarity, her criticisms of “charity”, and her definition of sin as “alienation.”

Sabrina and I discuss some of the primary themes of the chapter and drive home the recurring theme that our praxis as Christians matters…And as Sabrina reminds us at the end, it shouldn’t be about “guns blazing” which leads to alienation but to listen and see what is necessary to communicate in that moment.

Here are some quotes from the chapter we look at specifically:

“From a Christian perspective the goal of solidarity is to participate in the ongoing process of liberation through which we Christians become significantly positive force in the unfolding of the ‘kin-dom’ of God. At the center of the unfolding of the kin-dom is the salvific act of God. Salvation and liberation are interconnected. Salvation is gratuitously given by God; it flows from the very essence of God: love. Salvation is worked out through the love between God and each human being and among human beings. This love relationship is the goal of all life–it constitutes the fullness of humanity.”

Page 89

“But why are the poor and the oppressed those with whom we must be in solidarity? Why does overcoming alienation demand a preferential option for the oppressed? The reason is not that the poor and the oppressed are morally superior. Those who are oppressed are not personally better or more innocent or purer in their motivations than the rest of us. The preferential option at the heart of solidarity is based on the fact that the point of view of the oppressed, ‘pierced by suffering and attracted by hope, allows them, in their struggles, to conceive another reality. Because the poor suffer the weight of alienation , they can conceive a different project of hope and provide dynamism to a new way of organizing human life for all.’ This contribution , which they alone can give, makes it possible for everyone to overcome alienation. The preferential option for the poor and the oppressed makes it possible for the oppressors to overcome alienation, because to be oppressive limits love, and love cannot exist in the midst of alienation. Oppression and poverty must be overcome because they are ‘a slap in the face of GOd’s sovereignty.’ The alienation they cause is a denial of God. Gutierrez refers to the profoundly biblical insight of the Bolivian campesino: ‘an atheist is someone who fails to practice justice toward the poor.’”

page 91

“Mutuality of the oppressor with the oppressed also starts with conscientization. To become aware that one is an oppressor does not stop with individual illumination but requires the oppressor to establish dialogue and mutuality with the oppressed.[..] Oppressors who are willing to listen and to be questioned by the oppressed, by the very action of listening begin to leave behind their role as oppressors and to become ‘friends’ of the oppressed.”

Page 95

“But this does not mean that we can wait until we have a perfect strategy or a perfect moment to act. No strategy is perfect. There are always internal problems and inconsistencies that need to be worked out. All strategies involve risk. This should never keep us from acting; it should never delay our work to try to establish mutuality, to create a community of solidarity committed to change oppressive structures, a community in which no one group of oppressed people will be sacrificed for the sake of another. This is what mutuality, the strategic component of solidarity, will accomplish.”

Pages 98-99

Sacred Seminary Symposium

Episode 4: “By the Rivers of Babylon”

In this episode, Sabrina and I discuss Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s book Mujerista Theology, specifically looking at chapter 3: “By the Rivers of Babylon: Exile as a Way of Life”.

Isasi-Diaz takes time to walk her reader through the structure and language of Psalm 137, a Psalm that marks her life journey as one of exile. Exile is not an easy place to live…when we think of exile we may think of one being a stranger in a strange land, but what if that strangeness is felt both at “home” and one different soil? Those of us accustomed to being “accepted” as part of the dominant and in group do not know this feeling of being neither here nor there. In a world that loves classifying bodies as “illegal” maybe we should stop and think about the strain of permanent exile?

Sabrina and I discuss some of the primary themes of the chapter and drive home the recurring theme that our praxis as Christians matters…even if small, Sabrina reminds us, those small acts have beautiful ripple effects.

Here are some quotes from the chapter we look at specifically:

“I learned how to do scientific exegesis. But no matter how much i tried, I was not able to acquire that disinterested objectivity that seems to be required for this discipline. There are two things that always troubled me about this. First, as a mujerista theologian, a Hispanic women’s liberation theologian, my hermeneutics of suspicion led me to conclude what most of the time thwart is considered objectivity is the subjectivity of dominant groups who can impose their understanding on others.”

page 37

“Then, as I struggle to stand in solidarity with the poor in this country and in other parts of the world, Psalm 137 helps me sustain hope and maintain a countercultural posture while living in one of the richest countries in the world. This means, among many other things, not succumbing to consumerism, not caring so much about always having enough money that I am not generous in sharing what I have. It means that I have to influence other Christians, in whatever way I can, to understand and accept that we cannot call ourselves Christian if we do not avidly work so all can have what humans need in the struggle for fullness of life; food, shelter, healthcare, employment. Psalm 137 helps me to maintain a countercultural position by remind me to ‘live simply so other can simply live.’” 

page 48

“The point of entry is precisely the reader: she is the one who frames the questions being posed about the text and to the text; her hermeneutics will ultimately influence what the text is understood to have meant and meant today. Because scientific biblical studies ignore this, they cannot get at the real meaning of the Bible. Attempts to recover the original meaning in reality turn the Biblical text into an undiscovered archeological artifact.”

page 38

“The ‘speech of assault’, I believe, often becomes not cathartic but rather as a screen for the complicity (by omission if not by commission) of all of us in exile in what has happened in Cuba. The cries for vengeance can indeed function to absolve us falsely of all responsibility for the situation in our country.”

page 46

“middle-class white woman”: “One of the most shocking things that I came to realize many years later was that in coming to the USA my race had changed from white to “Hispanic.” 

page 39 fn 7