Friday, September 23, 2011

Reform and Maintenance: Part 1

Bold. Inclusive. Relevant.

There is a United Methodist congregation in Chicago that opens almost every worship service that I've attended there with an explanation of how those words guide its mission. Bold because the folks actually believe in Jesus Christ and seek to share that belief and lifestyle with others. Inclusive most notably because it accepts and affirms the LGBTQ community. Relevant because...well, it just has to be somehow relevant in 21st century Chicago, right?

I have a tendency to recoil at the use of these words. They are indeed very catchy, and the congregation is very hip, possibly hip-ster. But I see these words as the catchiest of the catch-phrases, and thus I get a bad taste in my mouth.

However, the United Methodist Church does have issues with these things. Perhaps the UMC is best at being a least theologically inclusive, which is why we will see some very interesting fireworks at General Conference next spring. Yet the American conferences are 90% white. So--maybe we try to be inclusive, but boy we are not diverse.

That speaks to the other two catchphrases. Where is the United Methodist Church bold? Where is the United Methodist Church relevant?
When I had my interview to be a US-2 missionary, I was asked what I thought we should do to reverse the trend of declining membership. I remember that I mentioned something about being active in social justice, which was very vague, and I couldn't help but think about how my "home" church back in Pennsylvania would deal with such a thing.

My thought is that if the church were truly bold to "to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captive and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour" (paraphrase of Luke 4:18), then we would truly be relevant. We would also look very, very different. Rather than idolizing middle class prosperity, we would live for and with and among the poor. It is likely that we would become poor ourselves.

See, folks have wised up to the obvious hypocrisy of claiming a gospel that actually changes things when the people claiming that gospel have a stake in keeping things exactly the way they are. While much of the popular evangelical narrative hinges on a metanoia that only touches a personal holiness--from drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll to "Ozzie & Harriet" stability—we are much more implicated in sin than that. Our various social systems—from food to transportation to marriage to labor—help to ensure that those of us at the top stay above everyone else. Our gospel obviously is not good news, and it’s not news at all. Surprise! Nothing has changed!
It is no wonder that we in the United Methodist Church are not particularly relevant to 21st century folks, whatever class, race, gender, sexuality they may identify with. 

So what must we do to become relevant again? To help answer this question, I will draw heavily from Theodore W. Jennings’ Good News to the Poor: Wesley’s Evangelical Economics, and I will answer it in my next post. However, just to whet your appetite, consider this passage: 

“The success or failure of this project depended not on increase in numbers and influence, but on an increase in faithfulness … By Wesley’s own standard, the Methodist movement must be reckoned a failure.”

Luckily, God enjoys using those the world considers failures.

Friday, September 9, 2011

9/11: What I Saw Then and What I See Now

I was in Mr. Rose's history class. Looking back, I suppose that the teachers in that wing had collectively decided to let the social studies teacher break the news to us. It seems a little surreal now that I gone through science and English class while planes hit the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, and I remember that algebra class did feel surreal after we knew. I mean, a 13-year-old definitely knows where multiplying matrices ranks against what we know as 9/11.

The next day in English class we wrote short essays about what we were thinking. I had tried to imagine what it must have felt like to be trapped in one of the towers with smoke pouring out of it. I imagined chaos. My teacher disagreed with me. We can't really know how things were in those top floors, so I guess you can imagine it however you like.

I kept a copy of the Harrisburg daily newspaper from September 11, 2001, with a big picture of a fireball countering the clear, blue mid-Atlantic sky. Almost immediately the political cartoons I enjoyed so much depicted comparisons of the terrorist attacks to the Pearl Harbor attacks in 1941. One showed an eagle sharpening its talons.

Fast forward ten years. I am no longer a teenager imagining a world outside of Central Pennsylvania's hills. I'm in an office on the fourth floor of a North Side Chicago building, working with people of different ethnicities and faiths. I go home to a South Side former Lutheran parsonage where I live with people of different ethnicities and faiths. And when I get the chance, my radio is turned to a station that plays the "Thom Hartman Show", not the "Rush Limbaugh Show".

Guess what? I think of 9/11 a bit differently now then I did 10 years ago.

Whereas the world was impossibly large back then, with people Over There so different than people Right Here, I suppose the world has shrunk a bit. I've had the incredible opportunity to see how similar people really are. And how different they can be.

I learned in my social psychology class in college that what happened in the United States after the attacks--the much-celebrated, post-9/11 unity--was a classic example of rally-'round-the-flag behavior. In-groups and out-groups crystallized as hundreds of thousands of American soldiers went first to Afghanistan and then to Iraq to punish those who were responsible for the carnage--or who could, some day, be responsible for other carnage (see Wikipedia article for Bush Doctrine here).

I now see the damage that some of that behavior caused. I now see how the imperialist West, led by the United States especially in the second half of the 20th century, sowed the seeds of tragic, violent backlash. I now see how oppressive dominant culture can be, especially in stressful times. I see these things because of other things I saw with my own two eyes.

In a loving, seeker-friendly Christian fellowship at college.

In a small, Methodist church in downtown Buenos Aires.

In an old Lutheran church on the South Side that loves well beyond its strict, German heritage.

In the gospel of John, the men who became Jesus' first two disciples followed Jesus because he invited them to "come and see" (1:39). Shane Claiborne worked alongside Mother Teresa because she told him to "come and see" what Calcutta was like (read the story in The Irresistible Revolution).

Seeing isn't believing, but it sure helps.

So what will you see on Sunday when we mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11?

I challenge you seek people who are different than you when you remember the attacks. Spend time with people with different shades of melanin, whose first language is different, who calls their god a different name. What you see you may not understand, and that's okay. Just be there, "with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love" (Eph. 4:2). After all, what is unity worth when we are all the same?

Do this, and I can guarantee you that you won't be the same. And that, dear friends, is the beginning of what the gospel-writers called metanoia.

Repentance. For the kingdom of heaven is, indeed, at hand.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Finding love in limbo and labor

And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.
For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man's hunger.
And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distils a poison in the wine.
And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man's ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.
                -Kahlil Gibran, in The Prophet

I read an article in the NewYork Times this past week that talked about how young people since the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent recession have struggled to find jobs that would start them out on the upwardly-mobile career of their dream. Business majors from various Ivy League schools found themselves working as bartenders, servers, cashiers and paralegals. While some relished the flexibility that their underemployment gave them, most complained bitterly with a refrain along the lines of “but we did everything we were supposed to do”.

This, of course comes as no surprise to most people, excluding those at the Hamptons and Capitol Hill. The Times article categorized my peers and I into “Generation Limbo” because the overachieving graduates of 2009 and later are more or less waiting for the jobs climate to improve before we try and start a career. I know that a large of number of my friends from Bucknell, a “sub”-Ivy League university, have gone to graduate school, done programs like Teach for America, Americorps and other similar relatively low-paying, temporary gigs to wait out the great, Siberian winter of employment. I can relate to this.

But gosh, does it reek of privilege and entitlement.

This coming Monday is Labor Day, a holiday which was established in 1894 after the bloody Pullman strike in what is now the South Side of Chicago. The federal government was careful to observe a holiday celebrating labor in early September, far away from May Day, the more radical International Workers Day. The United States has come a long way since the days when federal troops were regularly brought in to break strikes. Certainly all American workers owe an awful lot to folks like Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, Lucy Parsons, and A. Philip Randolph.

I have to admit that I’m tempted to go down a path of labor history—to talk about the Wobblies, Walter Reuther, Caesar Chavez—but the times don’t quite allow us to get too sentimental. The old factories have shut, leaving eerie industrial shells of former economic might. The new factories that are being built are either across the ocean or are rabidly anti-union. Wages are stagnant, and that college degree sure doesn’t get you as far as it used to. Ah, and yes, unemployment is holding at 9%.

In the face of all that, Kahlil Gibran’s words sound kinda hollow. We would love to work a job that is fulfilling, but we’ll settle a job that pays the rent. And our student loans.

But we are still celebrating something this weekend. Maybe it’s not necessarily the strength of the union movement, though there is still a lot power in it. I think we’ll be celebrating something more basic. It’s about sharing food and drink and sports and music and fun. It’s about community.

See, while things are tough, and we should be angry at how the government is acting, we ultimately depend on each other. While my college-educated brethren and I have a certain right to be disillusioned about careers right now, we still carry on with life just as past generations have. 

The real beauty in Gibran’s text is not really the self-help portion, but that it touches on the most basic of human needs: love. People will suffer all sorts of indignities and wrongs if it means that they can continue to act on the love they have for others. Of course, it is also my job to show how loving one’s children also means joining the picket line. 

So what does this mean for Generation Limbo? It can mean a few things. I’ve already mentioned that the six-figure salary will have to wait. However, this is also a wonderful opportunity for folks who are accustomed to the highest amount of privilege to truly understand solidarity with people who have been categorically denied it for generations. So the fine arts major waits tables with the undocumented immigrant who washes dishes. The dude with the 5-year-plan sweats with the H2-B visa worker. Nothing builds solidarity and—dare I say it?—love like suffering.

This Labor Day you can have the barbecue like you usually do. Eat a Polish sausage and watch the Cubs-Pirates baseball game. After all, one of them has to win, right? But keep the gate open and invite your neighbors over. Times are tough, but we get through it because we care about each other.

I promise you, community based on love is that one thing that does not sour.