death, funeral, grace, love, mutual recognition, september 11, war on terror

The Attack on September 11 and the Funeral of My Grandmother on September 11: Two Very Different Visions

Today is September 11. As usual, this date is the occasion for a lot of talk about the ‘terror attacks’ and the unending ‘war on terror.’ For many the frustration has mounted. ISIS has arisen as a threat to Iraq, but didn’t we just get out there? I’m not sure the tail is wagging the dog, but rather, we and the Iraqis are reaping what the US participated in sowing. Historically we are not so innocent. Saddam Hussein did indeed use mustard gas and nerve agents on the Kurds, slaughtering thousands and thousands, and horribly affecting many thousands more. However, that was in the 1980s when the US still supported Iraq as a barrier against Iran. Now we are stuck with a mess, at least partially of our own creation. We went into Iraq under pseudo-humanitarian, but largely fearful pretenses given by our leaders who knew quite well that they were lying, and would profit immensely from it. To make matters worse, much of the 31-44 longitude region above the equator is characterized by bloody, political conflict: Israelis-Palestinians; Syria’s civil war; Iraq’s…whatever it is (dissolving? conflict is too tame); Iraq-Turkey boundary dispute with the Kurds in-between; Afghanistan; and Ukraine-Crimea-Russia. So, apparently, now we are compelled to stay in Iraq, if just to clean up our mess so the justifications go. We have a problem. Now those justifying the ‘war on terror’ are comparing it to the length of the cold war. We are in trouble.

What answer do we have? My family and I buried my grandmother a year ago, to the day. Generally one might chalk up the date to a coincidence since she had died a few days before, but in point of fact, she was a person of excellent timing. She had her major stroke the Easter before. Well, actually, it was on the morning of Good Friday in her church’s sanctuary during a small service. While on my long drive down that same day, I worked out a theology of timing as beautiful (fitting-ness), good, and true. It was fitting and good––in a sort of iconographic imitatio way––to have a massively debilitating stroke not simply during a church service, but also just after lighting one of the candles as part of a Methodist take on the ancient tenebrae liturgy. I had something for truth; however, I forget what it was. It was probably something like a witness to the truth, but whatever I had for truth was eclipsed by the timing of her funeral. I do not know how else it would be possible to get so many people into church on an anniversary of September 11, much less not hear a word about it. For at least a few hours there was only grief; there was no sense of retribution that drove our national response to September 11. There was also a deep sense of remembering truth, both of who she was and Christianity’s hope for the resurrection of the dead because Jesus overcame the void. Funny how all of that is diametrically opposed to the ‘war on terror’: remembrance of US action before September 11 did not exist during our response; truth was sacrificed; and no one is even contemplating the hope of resurrection for all the dead, much less reconciliation. My grandmother’s funeral was an occasion of imagination and re-orientation.

But what good is imagination since it is so often negatively equated with ineffectual dreams? I did not mention my theology of timing to anyone, not from the pulpit or privately, for two reasons. First, it could appear as, although it would not have been, a politicizing of my grandmother’s death. I’m an ‘intellectual outsider’ to that small-town agricultural society; they have plenty of smart people but also suspicion. And who says I would be understandable? Never mind, that I’m not a Methodist or part of the church there, and I was leaving in a few days. One does not cause a potential stir like that without being part of the community. In truth, that may actually have made ineffectual my ‘imaginative work’ and the imaginative re-orientation of my grandmother’s funeral. Yet, there was something else that was practical and effective.

Second, I suggested a certain someone else should speak instead of me anyways. They had become part of the family, and because, in my own take on Scripture, there should be no separation between black and white in the church, particularly south of the Mason-Dixon line in what was historically a slave state. There was far more racial diversity at the burial than in the church, presumably affirming the very real persistent legacy of slavery, segregation, and the Klan; indeed, the Missouri town is still rather strictly divided, geographically along racial/socio-economic lines. Nevertheless, a black woman willingly, truthfully, front and center from the pulpit, and side-by-side with one of my cousins eulogized her once employer turned friend-family. My grandmother’s funeral not only paused the political narrative of the status quo, but also, in so doing, was a very real site for the proleptic, albeit partial, realization of the eschatological vision.

All this tells me two things. First, like Stanley Hauerwas notes, timing requires time, and sometimes lots of it. Conflict resolution is not quick, in part, because healing human inflicted wounds takes time. However, how does this address the fact that innocents are still bombed right now or unarmed black men shot by police? Second, like Gary Dorrien understands, there are instances of break-through when all lights are green, a kairotic moment. Yet, historically this has been the justification for seizing or colluding with coercive power. So how does one reconcile the two types of time? Both points about time I attribute to God receiving and responding to human development qua receptivity. The Spirit works unevenly––sometimes in what seems like long stretches of silence and at other times in rapid succession––because the Spirit works in-between what human stubbornness will allow at the time, the possibility of human transformation, and the fullness of transfiguring humanity for theosis.

So how does this apply today? The issue is stubbornness: the refusal to love qua openness towards the other, ekstasis, and mutual indwelling with the other; the refusal to recognize the other as giving themselves that calls for one to reciprocate with self-gift. The answer, I believe, is in Rowan Williams’s work. We have to get to a place of dialogue to mutually develop. Dialogue is built on mutual recognition, rather than some sort of ‘pure’ rationalism; and mutual recognition is predicated on the love’s openness and grace’s receptivity. So the question, upon which lies the balance of many human lives and the environment, is: how do we get to the corporate realization that we mutually constitute each other?

Funerals need to be more like my grandmother’s. I do not ascribe to the sovereignty of the void, as if it ultimately determines meaning; but we need to learn how to deal with loss in a way that stresses our mutual interrelatedness. The death of a person should recall the full history of the community, as well as be a site for steps towards dealing with the loss of them in relation to the life of the community. Unfortunately, funerals now are little more than sentimental, ineffectual bandaids. This is ridiculous. First, the truth is a pre-requisite to properly mourn someone and heal. Second, funerals are the most important, public place for how those most affected can deal with violence. Funerals need to be deeply sensitive while having a kind of public social inquest as a strong element, and ‘both sides’ (if there are ‘two’ sides) present in some manner and under a banner like the medieval “truce of God.” These wars will not end if we grieve separately. Gee, doesn’t that sound kind of similar to the “Truth and Reconciliation” vision?

Elizabeth Johnson, feminism, gift, grace, Hans Urs von Balthasar, mission, political theology

The Map of My Missions Paper

I’d like to thank those who raised questions. CTN, you’re answered in the paper, even though it doesn’t show so much here in the conclusion. And Brad, I had to make certain moves, so Israel played a smaller role — very, very small actually — than I wanted. Your concern was one of the many footnotes that I used to give the body of the paper more focus, and I still went over the page limit. Sigh.

My Provisional Conclusion:

I have sought in this essay to provide a politics proceeding from and based on the triune economy of gift. I began with Christian dogma, noting God in action in human history through the incarnation, the Spirit, and the economy of gift. In doing so, I noted that the work of God should be understood as gift, while elaborating on human participation in the response of Mary. I then moved to the inner life of the Trinity by assuming Balthasar’s assertion that the triune God is not hidden, but revealed in the Cross. I elaborated on the dynamism of gift in the inner trinitarian life with the help of Balthasar and Johnson. This step located and defined the economy of grace in the giver of all that is good. Next I moved to the implications of the gifting God working in human history, framing the step in terms of apocalyptic, Christian formation, and liberation. Recent work on the apocalyptic was noted to highlight my own move: the church is not theologically a dispossessed church, but when rightly living, drawn up into the economy of God — in a word, possessed rather than ever a possessor. This gifting church then spreads gift into the surrounding world, hence the recognition of Romero and Church of the Servant King.

In short, I have sought to draw a line from the inner life of God directly to our action in the world. I have done this through political theology, because, as I understand the recent turn in missiology, there is much overlap between the two. I have re-framed everything underneath gift because that is fundamentally how the divine works with the cosmos and within human history. Thus, from gift, we can re-understand the apocalyptic work of God and therefore, the church’s purpose in the world: to live the gift economy of God for the sake of creation.

D. Stephen Long, grace, love, ontology

Long on Gift, Love, and Ontology

I do not mean to keep quoting from Long, but he has put forth an interesting work that intersects well with some of my own interests. And since I refer to this blog more than I’m sure any other reader does, so as to help organize my own thoughts, here is another post with another quote.

Here we find Milbank answering the question why there is something rather than nothing. The answer is ‘gift.’ The gift of Christ to redeem us is the plenitude that allows us t ‘glimpse’ the Fall and thereby Creation. This answer assumes that love is as basic to our existence as reason, which is something Balthasar endeavored to show. We do not understand reason well if it remains unrelated to love. We can only know what we love and love what we know. Love is the perfection against which Creation and reason can appear.

John Paul II states this well. “The truth Revelation allows us to know is neither the mature fruit nor the highest reach of the reflections of human reason. On the contrary, it is the expression, together with its particular characteristics, of a totally free gift: it stirs up and disturbs ideas and requires that it be accepted as a declaration of love.” Only on the basis of an ontology of love can gift be understood Because love, and not pure reason, is the basic structure of being, the failure of human reason to achieve its infinite desires is not negative but positive. Thus we do not need to negate reason in order to believe, but rather supplement and intensify it. We receive knowledge as a gift. To forget the necessity of gift, or to bracket it out as philosophically problematic, is equivalent to forgetting that our very being only comes through the laborious gift of another. Of course, gift’s necessity does not entail reception. I can reject the gift of being. Gift, another name for the Holy Spirit, is the fullness of being, the perfection that surrounds us with an inevitable desire for truth, goodness, and beauty. It illumines our lives.

Page 158-159.

death, grace, movie

Maintain the Humanity in Humans or Become the Nazi

One may find the trailer below disturbing.

First thought: Dehumanizing is exactly what the Nazis did. I hope for the best in this movie, that it will shed light on what we should not do: fall into the equally violent and sinful way of seeing people as animals to be scalped. And for those readers who are protesting, this criticism is nothing new. However, Tarantino has given me little in the past to hope that such a criticism will be written into the movie. Although, perhaps the title is an indication to the contrary, or perhaps not. After all, Tarantino is not beyond the Norse understanding of the hero — the hero seeks to transcend death by doing great deeds so as to be remembered in lore.

Death calls out death. It is toxic and creeps into us all. This the trailer shows so thoroughly. How could we respond differently than a murderous cycle where all humanity is lost? Thank God for the interruption of grace.

In other movie news, Watchmen did alright in my book. Even if the Christology in it was just as terrible as the Dark Knight.

covenant, grace, Hans Urs von Balthasar

Von Balthasar Synthesizing Grace, Covenant, and the Transcendent God

The great qualities of God, which make his holy sublimity concrete for man, seem at first glance almost to obliterate his utter otherness, for all are taken from the world of human relationships (where, admittedly, they always had a religious reference), and have taken on a unique character only when they are attributed to the absolute subject. But not for a moment is it forgotten who is the object of the affirmation: i.e., the one who as the only Lord stands alone over against all other beings, which are his creatures and servants. God’s remoteness does not actually lie in the fact that he is unknown, so much as in the incomprehensible fact that he, the only one (Is 43.10-12), who is absolutely free and sovereign, deigns to communicate himself to the others, to the many, permitting them to enter the sphere of his uniqueness and holiness. This grace is an unheard-of demand made of the creature, something that snatches it from its own dwelling in the land of servitude into a ‘land’ that belongs to God, and all the creature’s concepts are transformed thereby: a ray of God’s glory touches them all, and this makes them more beautiful, but also heavier. Everything is now measure against the standard of divine rightness, of this ethical ‘justice‘ and his aesthetic ‘justesse‘. In God’s covenant, grace and demand are inseparably locked into one another.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics: VI: Theology: The Old Covenant, 177.

grace, Johann Metz

Metz on Grace

Living differently: this was indeed always a characteristic mark of Christians. And when Christians truly believe in grace, in its free and liberating presence, in its intimate connection with our senses, then it must also mean that in society as well they do not just live under the anonymous constraints of the issues, but under the “constraint” of grace. But grace signifies here the ability to interrupt, to stop; it means not simply having to go on living as before. Grace is the capacity, manifested at last in the political dimension also, not to see ourselves and evaluate ourselves with our own eyes, but with the eyes of our victims, out of which, in the end – the Lord himself impressed this on us with unmistakable clarity – he himself looks upon us.

Metz, The Emergent Church, 61.

grace, incarnation, Louis-Marie Chauvet

Chauvet, Grace, and the Incarnation

I’m working on my incarnation paper, due all too soon. Below is an excerpt. If anyone has a word about the following content (yeah, I know, I’ll get an editor soon), I would be interested. Especially the last sentence.

The world, humanity, and history, must be reconciled. But what method for reconciliation would God incarnate use? Grace and interruption was and is the method.

Grace is characterized by an over-flowing, or beyond what is necessary. As Louis-Marie Chauvet put it: “grace is essentially that which cannot be calculated and cannot be stocked.” Grace is not achieved in bargain, but through “super-abundance.” Indeed there is a sense of joy at providing more than is necessary, further than any need may go. With grace understood as such, the method of grace speaks partly to the measure of the incarnational action and life, that the incarnation is immeasurable. This over-abundance indicates that grace supersedes, or meets and surpasses a need, but through a process from one to another that is not understood through an economy of bargain.

Thus Chauvet touches on the other half to grace – a gift freely given from someone not ourself. Grace, rightly understood, is gift. But Chauvet does not simply stop with gift, possibly extended without hope for response; rather, for gift to be gratuitous, it must be dialogical: “the gratuitousness of the gift carries the obligation of the return-gift of a response.” Grace, the process of extending graciousness and waiting for reply to complete the “whole circuit,” is not safe, but includes exposure to rejection. The incarnation then was the literal embodiment of divine gratuitousness and graciousness open to humanity; a different kind of messiah than expected, Jesus of Nazareth was divine hesed within humanity seeking reciprocation. Thus, the incarnation was grace, or, by another name, a eucharistic self-giving that affirmed existence, but called for the human story to participate in reconciliation.

The quotes are from Symbol and Sacrament, pages 108 and 109.

death, grace, modern nation-state, peace, political theology

The Christian Life: The Comedy of Death (Pt. 2)

In the past two posts, “Moving Towards the Comedy of Death” and “The Christian Life: The Comedy of Death (Pt. 1)“, I’ve been putting forward something titled “The comedy of death.”

The first post was on scientific soteriology and the inability for science to truly deal with death. Indeed, science is more than impotent, but rather, at times hurries death along farther than we could on our own, sending millions to the reaper. Humanity’s greatest achievements are equally destructive and not actually salvific. The Christian answer is not to run from death, but to face it and live well together, participating in the redemptive work of God.

The second post functions like a case study of sorts, mentioning three movies based on grace — being given what you need from an estranged family member, rather than getting what you want. These movies function as a way to imagine justice and solidarity at work while undergoing unusual, stressful circumstances, with the theme of death.

Consider this last one, yet another different view of the Christian life functioning redemptively in the face of death, but this time summed up in the phrase, “Memento mori“: Remember (you too are) mortal.

In Republican Rome, conquering commanders coming back from a victory against a new people group could maybe get a triumpha grand parade where the commander is literally is dressed up like a god, decked out in red and the recipient of the city’s adulation. Now, tradition says that in the moment of such praise, the commander was reminded of his mortality by a slave with the words: Memento mori. Such a job is the height of prophecy, yes? I would pay money to be given the time and space, during his Roman triumph, er, I mean, his Inaugural Address, to proclaim to the next president: Memento mori. Remember you are but dust! Remember your death!

This is a Christianity that is not necessarily at the service of the state — as a Bible used to swear in an office holder — but rather this is the work of God, making clear to the people of the world that they are not gods. This is comparable to the Barthian “Nein!” This is the loud refusal to confuse the state’s justice with true justice and true peace.

This comedy of death is first a liberation through the acceptance of our limits. This isn’t liberation from death, but the acknowledgment of our finitude — our status as creature and not creator — and to face death throughout our life. Instead of cheapening or avoiding death and tragedy, this takes evil seriously. The comedy of death, in many ways, is the Christian stabilizing weakness (strength) for our world — seeking justice/redemption and peace — in the face of frustrating, trying, bizarre, or farcical circumstances. The way this often plays out in a crazy world of violence, coercion, and commodification, we peaceably seek a scandalous redemption. After all, in a crazy world, the actions that are in step with the world are crazy as well. Part of the nature of the peaceable scandal is that it doesn’t fit into crazy and looks to the masses like foolishness.

The Christian life is death because the grim is always at our door, and comedy because God’s work culminates in redemption where the scripture “Death where is your sting?” is fulfilled, as death, the last enemy, is addressed for the last time.

death, grace, peace

The Christian Life: The Comedy of Death (Pt. 1)

This post is the continuation of the previous post, Moving Towards the Comedy of Death.

The “dark” comedy. It may be my favorite film genre, partly ’cause I like the brand of humor — which is generally irony and understatements in the face of frustrating, trying, bizarre, or farcical circumstances — but mostly because the good “dark” comedies are the gospel parables of our time. Simply, they’re about the redemption of broken relationships.

I have in mind three great “dark” comedies, The Royal Tenenbaums, Little Miss Sunshine, and Death at a Funeral. These extend beyond the wikipedia definition for a dark comedy, which in my opinion (although I am no professional film critic) is lacking: “a sub-genre of comedy and satire where topics and events that are usually regarded as taboo (such as death, rape, or domestic violence) are treated in a satirical or humorous manner…. usually includes an element of irony, or even fatalism.” Instead, I find that a more adequate definition of the wonderful movies listed above centers around the following: an odd assortment of diverse and well crafted characters who strive for what they want but do not receive it. Instead, in the end the characters get what they need.

Interestingly, each of the three movies relies on not the nuclear family, but an extended family. Halden has touched on the nuclear family, and I am quite sympathetic to his view, but would like to build upon it a little. Importantly, the only way redemption could exist in the movies above is through extended family interaction. Uncles need their nieces and nephews, grandparents need their grandchildren, and in-laws or future in-laws need the family they married or will marry into. Such notions of interaction and redemption ought to call into question how we exist today as family units. How much redemptive work are we missing in our family alone, much less the church? That gay uncle you have shunned? He is important, and if the movies are true, he is fundamental to any true fulfillment/redemption in the family.

Its not about grabbing what you want, its about being told and given what you need. Theology calls this grace. And in theory, the justice that the church works towards, the redemption of people and their broken relationships, is the climax. Peace is the aftermath, the dénouement; it is after the narrative resolution where peace lives between people and where almost, if not literally, the lion lays down with the lamb and swords are beaten into plowshares, or where in the movie, familial enemies hug and so begins the flowering of a previously damned relationship. This is the Christian life. In the face of death or farce, we peaceably seek a scandalous redemption.

(As for this last image, the family was arrested together because they showed real solidarity with Oliver.)

grace, political theology

The Problematic Theology of Blessing

“Count your blessings.” “America is so blessed.” “God bless the United States.”

I think blessings are a curious thing, for often, the receiver proclaims what blessings are. It is almost as if blessings are self naming from the perspective of the receiver, and that is the way they’ll always be. That said, it does seem that blessings are something we receive. In fact, as Christians, blessings would best be understood in terms of Grace. However, in order to do this, one must realize what Grace is and where it comes from.

It seems when people on the 4th say count your blessings, they’re talking about what America has gathered — the freedom to achieve the American dream of wealth and security and what people have already in terms of wealth and security. This is not necessarily God’s doing, but rather, America’s civil religion draped in its own theological language.

The method at which we get our blessings or receive Grace speaks to whom it comes from. Jesus died instead of killed others. The kingdom of God didn’t, nor does now, function as a colonial power like Rome. Therefore, on days like today, we ought to interrogate which blessings are really from God and which ones have been achieved through force and theft.

capitalism, grace, political theology

On Capitalism, Social Status, Hospitality, and Hamlet

The focus on hospitality in America today is a positive focus on grace and therefore a subversion of capitalism. No longer are people buying commodified comfort, but instead, people give gifts to those people in need. No artificial barrier like class, race, sex, etc. should have any limit on grace, for it is for all or it isn’t grace at all.

Hamlet speaks this well, and in fact, I can see the words of Hamlet, speaking of the visiting players, being the words of Jesus:

‘Tis well: I’ll have thee speak out the rest soon.
Good my lord, will you see the players well
bestowed? Do you hear, let them be well used; for
they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the
time: after your death you were better have a bad
epitaph than their ill report while you live.

My lord, I will use them according to their desert.

God’s bodykins, man, much better: use every man
after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?
Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less
they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.
Take them in.

Hamlet Act II, Scene II

grace, Louis-Marie Chauvet, market

Chauvet on the Language of Market and Gift

But these two poles in dialectic tension belong to two different levels of exchange. The logic of the marketplace (under the form of barter or money) is that of value; it belongs to the regime of need which seeks to satisfy itself immediately through the possession of objects. The logic of symbolic exchange is of another order. For what is being exchanged through yams, shells, or spears, as through a rose of a book offered as gifts in our own culture, is more and other than what they are worth on the open market or what they may be useful for. It is more and other than what the objects are in themselves. One is here outside or beyond the regime of usefulness and immediacy. Rather, the principle which rules here is one of super-abundance. The true objects being exchanged are the subjects themselves.

… Therefore, theologically, grace requires not only this initial gratuitousness on which everything else depends but also on the graciousness of the whole circuit, and especially of the return-gift. This graciousness qualifies the return-gift as beyond-price, without calculation — in short, as a response of love. Even the return-gift of our human response thus belongs to the theoligcally Christian concept of “grace.”

… Grace must be treated as something outside the boundaries of value, according to the symbolic mode of communication, and in the first place communication of the word. Rather than being represented as an object-value that one would “refine” through analogy, the “treasure” is really not separable from the symbolic labor by which the subject itself bears fruit by becoming a believer.

Louis-Marie Chauvet, Symbol and Sacrament: A Sacramental Reinterpretation of Christian Existence, Translated by Patrick Madigan, S.J., and Madeleine Beaumont, pg. 106, 108, 109.