Friday, October 22, 2010

The Dogmatic Identity of Christianity

I recently participated in a panel at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas. We had quite a crowd, thoughtful responses to the question, and challenging and stimulating conversation. It was an honor to be a part of the evening. The following are my thoughts on the question to which we were asked to respond.

“How can Christianity overcome its dogmatism without losing its identity?”

I take issue with this question. I take issue with the question because it doesn’t end with “overcome its dogmatism.” Perhaps the fear of losing identity in the forfeiture of dogmatism is simply dogmatism wearing a thin mask because now we have no clear distinction, no line in the sand, between us and the other. Identity is important, inevitable, necessary. Identity is our sense of self, giving us meaning and mission, as much performative as it is informative. But the formation of identity often stems from a desire for power, a fear of doubt, and a need to make enemies: we need to know who is different from us so we can protect ourselves.

I take issue with the question because people are still kicking and screaming about how to define Christianity after two thousand years and I only have five minutes. And I take issue with the question because it assumes Christianity actually exists. There is really no such thing as Christianity, only Christianities in different times and cultures. Church history is filled with councils and reformations, wrought with power plays and accusations of heresy, all in the effort to pin down identity. Creeds were written, doctrines set in stone, and dissidents burned at the stake for the sake of finally figuring out the definitive nature of Christianity. Change is too discomforting for institutions. Perhaps we could agree that dogmatism, the arrogant claim that one’s opinions are the Absolute Truth, has an acidic taste, a dissonant ring. But when our own opinions are questioned we uncoil and strike with venomous ferocity because someone shook our certain identity.

But identity is not so certain. Each second changes who we are, and our identity is new every morning. We grow old and lose our memories, forgetting faces and names and our life’s work. Our identities are not static. The only way we make sense of life is by living within a story that orders the flux. When our memories and concrete sense of self fade away, relationships remain. Whatever else Christianity has become, it began as a relationship to stories prejudiced by a love for the poor and poor in spirit, stories that subverted the accepted religious and cultural identity of their day, and for those who have ears to hear, perhaps ours. As long as Christianity is worried about losing its identity then it cannot overcome its dogmatism. Christianity is dogmatic because it needs to have an ultimate identity other than emptying itself for the least of these without blessed assurance.

The Greek word kenosis, in Christian theology, means “self-emptying,” exemplified in Paul’s recitation of a hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 (“Your attitude should be that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking on the very nature of a servant”). Kenosis is arguably the most unique aspect of Christianity: the Father self-emptied into the Son, who emptied himself for his own small corner of the world (a particularity which achieves universality), and who his followers are to imitate. Kenosis is not about metaphysics, but about performative identity. Christian identity here is not based on the self but is found by losing the self, by emptying the self for others. Aphorisms like “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all” and “Whoever wishes to save his life must first lose it” spin the desire to maintain our own identity on its head. Because in order for us to find our identity we must first lose it. And not because after losing our identity we will find it, but because the act of losing is finding. We have sold everything to posses the pearl of great price, but the only way to experience its wealth is by giving it away.

Christian identity must be willingly tenuous in response to the fragile event of the kingdom of God. The only dogma this kingdom knows is love, is justice, is compassion, is hospitality, is forgiveness. We invite in the stranger who might overstay their welcome; we clothe the naked who might take our cloak and our tunic; we feed the hungry who might eat us out of house and home; we forgive our transgressors who might not even be sorry; we love our real and invented enemies, men who might kill us in our sleep or who might even sleep with other men, or for that matter women with women, or women who demand equality with men. All of our doctrine and dogma and creeds must be like chaff to this wheat. Even those who know nothing, or want to know nothing, about the kingdom participate in its incarnation: “Lord, when did we see you? Whatever you did for the least of these . . .” If we are to be dogmatic, then we must be dogmatic about the madness, the illogic, the impossibility, the audacity of the kingdom of God.

Jesus had the audacity to take his entire religious wisdom tradition to the threshing floor and this is what he said remained: “Love God, love your neighbor,” which are inseparably one and the same. He knew the law and the prophets. He knew the commandments, purity codes, and Sabbath rules given by God that gave his people their identity, things he never abolished or rejected out of hand. But he knew that the only way he could remain faithful to this tradition was by betraying it when it favored the powerful, the wealthy, the holy, the clean, and the insiders. The prophets said that even God kept subverting God’s laws, saying mercy trumped sacrifice and liberation unseated fasting. Jesus said the voice in the burning bush who said “I-shall-be-there-however-I-shall-be-there” shall be there as love. And love is only love when it loves the unlovable. If the imperfect vessel of the law meant to direct love, prohibits love, then love disobeys to commune with sinners.

Jesus reveled in vulnerable communion by sharing meals with disabled, dysfunctional, disassociated people. His open commensality infuriated the religious elites because he didn’t require purity and assimilation before association. They called Jesus a glutton and drunk, probably accusing him of sleeping with prostitutes. And we have no record that he cared.

His hometown congregants were impressed when he told them that the Jubilee was fulfilled in their hearing; they tried to throw him off a cliff when he said unclean foreigners were in on it too. He bumped up against the cultural bigotry of his identity when he called one of those foreigners a dog, but she made him eat his words when she said dogs are hungry too; without hesitation he swallowed his words and said her daughter was free because she had freed him.

He invited terrorists and imperial brownnosers to join him; he overturned patriarchy by honoring women and receiving children; he challenged the scribal authorities by reinterpreting the narratives they championed; he told stories with Samaritans as good guys and fathers embracing stained sons before they repented. The law required the death penalty for adultery, but Jesus said only the perfect man could throw the first stone.

As long as Christianity protects its identity with authoritative doctrine from living face to face with the suffering world, as long as it refuses the call of responsibility from an encounter with the other by citing scripture, then dogmatism insidiously persists like an unholy ghost.

After all, the Sabbath was made for man . . .

Monday, October 11, 2010

Turn the Other Cheek

New Testament scholar Walter Wink coined the phrase “the myth of redemptive violence” and reinterprets angelic and demonic principalities and powers as the ethos exuded by groups, institutions, and governments. He also challenges the Sunday-school versions of Jesus’ teachings, identifying them as much more earthy, radical, and subversive when situated in the sociopolitical, economic, and religious matrix of first-century Roman-occupied Palestine. In particular, Wink vehemently challenges the assertion that Jesus taught passive compliance, or said nothing at all, toward the powers that be. Faulty translations and ignorance regarding cultural and historical context have led to the assumption that Jesus promoted submission in the face of conflict. However, says Wink, Jesus offered an alternative response to fight or flight, a third way. That third way is what we call nonviolence, and what Jesus called “do not resist an evil person with evil” and “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” Nonviolence, loving our enemies, is a way of engaging conflict without dehumanization through violence. Blessed are the peacemakers, those who go the second mile, who give their cloak as well as their tunic, who turn the other cheek.

These are not spiritual platitudes uttered from a serene mountaintop, encouraging good little boys and girls to play nice in the schoolyard. These are life-threatening reversals strategically crafted in the dirt of poverty and imperial occupation for the weak to use the power of powerlessness. Peacemakers are like sheep among wolves, but these sheep have a few tricks up their wool coats, as innocent as doves but as shrewd as serpents.

“Now,” says the Galilean prophet, his voice lowering to a humming whisper as the crowd leans in to listen, “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek.”

Wink digs down to the gritty nature of this act. A strike on the right cheek logistically requires a punch with the left hand. But the left hand was considered unclean in that right-handed world; a member of Qumran could be excluded for only gesturing with the left hand. Striking the right cheek meant using the back of the right hand, and a backhand slap was an insult, reserved for punishing or humiliating inferiors. “Masters backhanded slaves,” Wink writes, “husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews.” Responding violently would be suicide. The only possible reaction was submission.

But turning the other cheek, Wink explains, “robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate.” The oppressor can’t backhand with the unclean hand, but using a fist recognizes the inferior as an equal. The first attack reinforced humiliation, but the second, if it comes, will unintentionally level the ground. In that moment, for a brief moment, the dehumanizing hierarchy of power shatters with the slightest turn of the head.

My family's good friend Edward Tabash owns a souvenir shop near the Bethlehem checkpoint, inside the ghetto formed by the separation wall. The store sits on Hebron Road, once the main road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. With a prime location on the shoulder of the major street and his own olivewood factory, Edward and his store garnered an esteemed reputation and a steady stream of customers. However, the second intifada exploded and the separation wall fell on Hebron Road like an axe, amputating it on either side of Edward’s shop. Business rapidly evaporated without the regular procession of tour buses. Instead of firing anyone due to budget losses, Edward paid his entire staff out of his pocket for several years.

Edward’s commercial transactions have awarded him some privileges, including a Businessman's Card which occasionally allows him to drive into Jerusalem and fly out of Ben Gurion Airport. However, the card does not prevent ethnic profiling even though he has flown out of Ben Gurion for years and his status as a businessman is well-known by security.

On one particular trip, airport security escorted Edward to a backroom. He asked why this was necessary. He received no answer. Guards stood nearby as security officers strip-searched him, invading every cavity and exploring every stitch of clothing, even turning up his collar and feeling along the seam. Edward speaks perfect Hebrew and said, "Look me in the eye when you do this. Treat me like a human being. You have absolutely no reason to harass me like this. I have come to this airport for many many years. What is so suspicious about me?"

Simply protocol, one of the officers responded.

When security finished, Edward picked up his cane. He contracted polio as a child, before the vaccination was readily available, and he walks with a pronounced limp. He followed the officials back into the expansive main terminal where hundreds of passengers filed through metal detectors and baggage checks. Suddenly Edward stopped.

"You forgot something,” he said as airport personnel turned to face him. “You didn't check my cane."

He tapped his cane on the floor between them.

They assured him they were quite satisfied. He was free to go. But Edward adamantly refused.

"No, you must check my cane,” he said, his voice rising. “It could have a bomb! You checked everything else. Why would you not check it?"

Security said it would be unnecessary.

“But if it is protocol to strip-search me, why would you not search this?” Edward yelled, shoving his cane toward them. “If I deserved that, then surely you must make certain I do not have a bomb!”

His loud voice began drawing attention from the terminal. Curious passengers and passersby watched as the guards attempted to usher Edward to the front of the line, but he shrugged them off.

"I insist you check my cane! I could have a bomb in this cane! You must check it now!"

The security officers finally took Edward’s cane and scanned it before letting him pass through. He didn’t have a bomb.