Friday, April 20, 2018

Civil Christianity

We are nicer when we journey together.
In writing about civility, Gil Rendle (Behavioral Covenants in Congregations-A Handbook for
Honoring Differences) cites the work of Yale professor Stephen Carter who argues that riding in a subway, bus, or train full of strangers requires us to understand our obligations to treat one another with due regard.  Carter cites popular guides from the past that counseled people on how to behave well on trains.  Having traveled mostly by train and bus for 10 years while living in Europe, this resonated with me.  You find yourself bumping up against all types of people.  Sometimes you spend the night in a sleeper car with complete strangers.

Most of us travel alone or with a family member in our cars; we are less prone to develop discipline of accommodation.  We see commercials advertising luxury cars where a driver glides through a city isolated from noise, disorder, odors and, of course, other people.  This seems to be our aspiration, to move through the world untouched by others.  This is the radical individualism so prevalent in America.

When we travel together we must make sacrifices for the sake of a pleasant journey.   Carter defines civility as “the sum total of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together.”

There is a place between law and freedom.

Rendle goes on to draw upon the work of Lord John Fletcher Moulton.  Moulton wrote about three domains of life.  First is the domain of law; this encompasses those things we must do. In this domain we obey.

The other end of the continuum is the domain of free choice.  This is the category that includes all those things over which we claim complete freedom to do or not to do.  We recognize this as personal autonomy.

Moulton posited between the domains of law and freedom the domain of obedience to the unenforceable.  In this domain we comply with obligations and duties to which we cannot be compelled.  Moulton calls them “manners.”  Another word for manners could be civility.  This is the arena in which we sacrifice what we cannot be compelled to give up for the sake of others and the wellbeing of the larger community.  Thus, it is more than simply being polite or pleasant.  This domain has a moral dimension; it trades in the currency of right and wrong, humanity and inhumanity.   This dimension is undercut by our radicalized sense of personal autonomy.

Civility is no stranger to Christian conduct.

The discipline of obeying the unenforceable is at the center of the Christian life. The believers in Corinth were having trouble balancing their freedom with their obligation to the wellbeing of others.  Paul wrote: “’I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others [1 Cor. 10:23-24].”  Paul is calling his readers to do what no one can compel them to do—in this case not eating meat that has been offered to idols. This is not a problem we face in our churches, but Paul does hold up sacrificing for others as a higher priority than exercising freedom.  He is asking them to make a sacrifice for the higher purpose of living well together.

Paul admonishes his readers in Colosse to forebear one another (Col. 3:13).  In other words he advises that they put up with each other.  A piece of civility is putting up with others because we know they are putting up with us.  Civility is about giving one another room to breathe and grow.  It is also about creating safe spaces for people to be authentic without fear of rejection, or retribution.

We live in an uncivil time bred of an overwrought sense of freedom and autonomy, and this taints the lives of our congregations.  As believers we can guard ourselves against being conformed to the spirit of our age by deliberately practicing civility in our churches, our families, and our relationships.  We can find that place between law and freedom where we voluntarily sacrifice for the wellbeing of others, where we do good things that no one can compel of us. 

This is a part of loving our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. Matthew reports the following exchange between a Pharisee and Jesus: 
     “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the  
     Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and  with all your mind.’ This is the 
     greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as
     yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (22:36-40).

Jesus takes that middle domain, the domain of obedience to the unenforceable, and makes it a type of law for believers.  He elevates radical civility as an inherent dimension of love of God.  Faith is lived in that middle domain, where we sacrifice for us others, freely doing what no one can compel us to do.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister-American Baptist Churches of New York State


Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Going Tactical

The powerful strategize; the powerless engage in tactics.  So writes Emmanuel Katongole (Mirror in the Church—Resurrecting Faith after Genocide in Rwanda, pp. 44ff.).

People in power plan the way they want things to be.  They do research and analyze from a distance.  They employ technology and expertise. They are pragmatic and lay out a set of sequential steps to get to their goal.

The marginalized, on the other hand, employ tactics; they are guerilla fighters, writes Katongole.  This is how people survive in a world they do not own.  The marginalized assume that the world cannot be entirely remade; it will not bend to their will.  Thus, they look for spots of vulnerability and exploit them to subvert the status quo as much as possible.  They do not work at a distance; they are in the midst of things.

Katongole argues that the teachings of Jesus smack more of tactics than strategy.  Jesus showed no indication that he thought that he, or his followers after him, were going to remake the Roman Empire into the Kingdom of God.  Turning the other cheek was not a strategy to break the power of the Roman army.  Settling before you get to court would not make a corrupt and exploitive justice system fair.  But both these acts would disrupt the rhythm of the system.  The early church in Jerusalem knew it could not reform the unjust distribution of wealth in society, but it did subvert the status quo in a small way by sharing all things in common. 
The powerful lobby the legislature to change a law.  The marginalized just sit down in the front of the bus one day.
Perhaps the church in America is still living with a hangover from the days when the church had civic power, when planning strategy was our posture.  We talk about the end of Christendom in America, the passing of the Protestant Franchise.  Yet, we still want to plot strategy, like in the good old days.  We want to be players in the power structure.  One protestant ecumenical organization complains because the State governor won’t meet with them anymore; now he offers to send an aide.  The group refuses to meet with the aide.  They still want their “seat at the table.”

Perhaps it is time for the church in America to return to tactics—find the weak places in the “powers and principalities” of our age and exploit them in whatever ways we can.  We can live our lives in dissonant ways, rattling the cages of those around us.  This is where we began two millennia ago.

“Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same [Luke 3:11].”  This is not a plan for a universal redistribution of wealth.  This is an act of insurgency, a solitary act of charity that challenges the way things are.  It is a refusal to go along with the mainstream.

“Even tax collectors came to be baptized. ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘what should we do?’  ‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to,’ he told them.  Then some soldiers asked him, ‘And what should we do?’  He replied, ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay [Luke 3:12-14].’”  This is not a strategy to make an unjust system just or to dismantle the military.  Rather, these are tactics to subvert the system where one can.

I heard a man being interviewed on the radio one day.  He was working with a ministry that provided food to hungry people.  The interviewer asked him if he thought he could remake the whole world.  The man replied:  “No, maybe I am simply trying to keep the world from remaking me.”  He had gone tactical.

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:2).

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State


Friday, March 16, 2018

Unhooking from the Reactvity Train

We will call her “Nancy.”  She was a key leader in one of my churches and was chair of a committee and on a church board.  She, like is sometimes the case, was one of my best and one my most challenging church members.  She was bright, cared about the church, and brought good expertise to her work in the church.  On the other hand, she would be critical of other people and react negatively to proposals before there had been any real discussion or thought given to them.

She often would steer a board meeting in an unproductive direction, infecting all of us with her reactivity.  I was one of those who got swept up.
I knew she was harming the work of the board and reducing my effectiveness, yet I didn’t know what to do about it.  I came up with a mind game that set me free.  Every time “Nancy” got up a head of steam, I would envision her as a steam engine building momentum as she went down the rails.  I cast the board members as train cars being pulled along behind her; I was the last car in the train.  I would visualize reaching out and pulling the pin connecting me to the train.  I would then in my mind watch the board roar down the track pulled by “Nancy.”  I would roll to a stop as the train steamed out of sight.  This did not stop the board, but at least I was not going on the journey of reactivity with them.

One day the chair of the board and I were talking about a recent meeting, and he expressed frustration about the dynamics of the group.  I shared with him the mind game I played.  At that point it occurred to me that he, as chair, was the first car in the train.  If he could disconnect from the engine, perhaps the whole train might roll to a stop with him, sending “Nancy” down the track alone.

When the chair and I freed ourselves from “Nancy’s” reactivity, we were in a better position to free others and salvage the meeting.
To this day when I feel I am being carried away by someone’s reactivity, I envision myself pulling the pin.  I go on fewer unplanned trips that way.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

Monday, March 5, 2018

Mass Shooters Don't Arrive from Mars

My first pastorate was in Philadelphia.  From time to time people shot one another in that city, thus the unkind insult “Kiladelphia.”  Most of these shootings were not mysteries; we knew why they happened.  The victim had something the shooter wanted.  The shooter was afraid they were going to lose something they wished to retain.  The shooter knew and was angry at the victim.  The shooter felt the victim to be in some sense a threat.  These were tragic deaths, but there was little mystery to most of them.We realized this violence was part of a larger cultural system.  This did not excuse the violence, but we knew that conditions in the lives of both shooter and victim played a role.  We knew that if we worked on reducing poverty, improving education, and increasing economic opportunities we could mitigate some of the violence.

We also knew that Philadelphia was part of a larger regional cultural system.  We knew that the drug trade in the city was driven in a significant way by young men driving in from wealthier suburbs in their mothers’ Buicks, buying their drugs, and getting back on the Schuylkill expressway to return to their neighborhoods.  The violence did not arise unrelated to this broader context. 

Systems theory teaches us that we all play a role in shaping one another’s behavior.  This does not exonerate people; it simply suggests to us that to some degree we co-create one another.  To address the violence in the city, we needed to look at the whole system.  We had to look at the city itself and the role people living in the suburbs played in shaping life in the city.
Mass shootings, unlike urban shootings, are usually inexplicable.  Why would someone shoot strangers with no apparent benefit to themselves for doing so?  We are quick to talk of mental illness as a way, perhaps, to minimize the discomfort this puzzle breeds.

Mass shootings do have something in common with urban violence.  Mass shootings occur in a cultural system, and the shooters are a product of that system.  This does not excuse them; but if we want to reduce the prevalence of these tragedies, we would do well to look at the culture in which they are spawned. 
In the 8th chapter of John's Gospel, local leaders bring to Jesus a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery.  Jesus responds:  “If anyone of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”  The woman is guilty; Jesus is not condoning her choice.  Yet he sees that she, although guilty, is part of a larger community that has shaped her.  Perhaps if the community had lived out their common life together in a different way, the woman would have been less prone to sin.  This does not exonerate her; it does suggest that you cannot extract her from the sinful cultural system in which she lived.  She was part of a larger drama. We are constantly co-creating one another.

This might be a good thing to keep in mind as we sort out what we can do in our communities and our nation to reduce the prevalence of mass shootings, or violence in general for that matter.  None of this excuses mass murder, but it does remind us that these murderers do not arrive at the scene of the crime from Mars, untouched by the broader culture in which they were nurtured.

Jim Kelsey—Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

Friday, February 16, 2018

Sticks and Stones

We learned it as children:
    Sticks and stones may
        break my bones,
   But words will never
      hurt me.
I assume it is to be a comfort to children when someone speaks unkind words to them.  It occurs to me that it also could be a taunt that dares actual physical violence.  In either case, it is not true.  Words do harm us.  To speak is to act; it is to do something.   The writer of James knew this when he wrote “the tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell [James 3:6].”  If we think we can say whatever we wish and then the world around us can remain unchanged, we are mistaken.

We can never unsay what we have said, retract what we have written.  Once it is out there, it remains despite all our denials, apologies, and disclaimers.  The world is then a different place.

I recently was in Rwanda and had the chance to talk with both a victim and perpetrator of the 1994 genocide.  The perpetrator had killed the mother-in-law of the victim.  Through a reconciliation ministry in Kigali, they were reconciled to one another and now live in peace as neighbors.

I asked each of them how their experiences shaped the way they raise their children.  They both answered that they talk with their children about what they are hearing and then seek to correct anything they have heard that might give birth to prejudice.  They both realize that words are dangerous, in some cases deadly.

The Rwanda genocide did not just happen overnight.  It was the result of decades of ethnic tension and animosity created, crafted, and disseminated by the government, by both former colonial powers and the Hutu government in power preceding the genocide.  The government began by fomenting animosity and divisions and in this way brought the nation to the point where one group saw another group as “cockroaches.”

This all did not begin with the word “cockroaches.”  It began by fostering a sense of victimhood and resentment on the part of the perpetrators.  They were told they were being denied something they deserved by their inferiors, the Tutsis.  On the foundation of this rhetoric the perpetrators were being groomed for violence.

Sometimes we say “look at what someone does and not what they say.”  This is a mistake.  To say something is to do something that has consequences.  As James says, words can be a spark that ignites destruction and violence. 

Jesus said   But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles [Matt 15:18].”  Our words can defile us and everyone and everything around us.  Words can desecrate God’s creation and humans who are made in the image of God.

Paul suggests that we use language only in a positive way, to enhance and nurture. “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear [Eph. 4:29].”  Paul knew that to speak is to act.  With our words we build up or we tear down God’s creation.

When we say “look at what someone does not what they say,” we make a mistake, and we can be laying the groundwork for powerful events that will hurt others.  Just ask the men I met in Rwanda.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister-American Baptist Churches of New York State

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Lamb That Was Slain

“The Meeting”
Malcolm X’s Chicago house had been firebombed that morning.  Both Malcolm and Dr. Martin Luther King were in New York for speaking engagements.  Malcolm had requested a secret meeting with Dr. King.  King had agreed.

It is a fictional account by Jeff Stetson entitled “The Meeting.” In this play Stetson speculates what these two influential yet very different civil rights leaders would have talked about had they met.  In the drama, they both want the same thing:  better lives and more opportunities for people of color in America.  They both operate out of many of the same assumptions, and they are both deeply religious.

Malcolm faults King’s approach of nonviolence and suffering love.  He accuses King of exposing his own people, including children and women, to beatings and abuse — making them victims of a racist system.  He argues that King plays into the hands of the racists and segregationists.

As Malcolm made his case, I found myself siding with him.  A part of me wanted to meet force with force and give the oppressors what they deserved.

King repeatedly makes the same defense to Malcolm.  Suffering love is redemptive and transformative.  This conviction is King’s only defense of his methodology of non-retaliation.

At the end of the conversation, King gives Malcolm a doll King’s daughter gave King to give to Malcolm.  The doll is to replace the doll that Malcolm’s daughter lost in the fire.  Nonetheless, at the end of the encounter, their disagreement is unresolved.

King is distinctively Christian.  As I watched the play and found Malcolm’s argument resonating with me, I realized how difficult it is to be Christian.

King and his organization trained and drilled their people not to retaliate in the face of degradation and brutality.  They conditioned them to resist their human tendency--that of all of us--to strike back.

Revelation 5
In Revelation chapter 5, the writer John weeps because no one in heaven or on the earth or under the earth is worthy the break the scroll.  As long as this scroll telling of the future remains unopened, God’s plan will remain unaccomplished.  Then one of the elders says to John, “Do not weep; the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David has triumphed, and he is worthy to open the scroll.”

At this point we might expect an armored lion fuming at the nostrils, but instead we are introduced to a lamb, looking as if it has been slain (vs. 6).  This is not just any lamb:  this is the diminutive form of the noun; a young lamb, vulnerable and unprotected.

As the passage continues, we learn that, indeed, this lamb was slain (v.9).  The verb here is the perfect form, meaning that the lamb continues, in a way, to be slain.  The lamb still bears evidence of the violence done to it. 

The lamb, of course, is Jesus.  There is something in his being wounded on behalf of others that makes him worthy to open the scroll and inaugurate God’s future.  Only a love that is willing to suffer can open to us and creation a future worth living.

Dr. King believed that suffering love is redemptive.  He called his followers to live by that conviction.  He was, in reality, simply calling all of us to be Christian.  It is not easy being Christian.  As we remember his legacy this Monday, he challenges us to continue to work at difficult things.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister-American Baptist Churches of New York State

Friday, December 22, 2017

Unsettling Bible Angels

We have all seen it. A child is coaxed onto Santa’s lap, and then the child begins screaming and frantically trying to escape.  Truth is, some children find a strange loud man in a bright red suit and long white beard frightening.
The angels in Luke’s Gospel are a bit like that.  When an angel confronts Zechariah in the Temple, he is startled and gripped with fear.  The angel reassures him not to be afraid.  When the angel Gabriel approaches Mary, she is greatly troubled and wonders what this means for her.  Again the angel tries to calm her natural fears.  When an angel appears to the shepherds in the night, they are terrified; and the angel again tells them not to be afraid.

Why are these people afraid of angels?  They are fearful because these are real Bible angels, not the domesticated little kewpie dolls of popular culture.
In our culture, angels have become background music for our modern dance of self-indulgence.  They guide lost children home and protect us from robbers.  They stay busy rescuing us from car accidents and fixing flat tires.  They even find lost keys; no job is too trivial.  One cynic asked what angels did before the advent of the car.    In general they give us what we want, a bit like Santa Claus without the beard and loud suit.

In the Bible, angels are as fearsome as they are comforting.  They guard the Garden of Eden with flaming swords and wrestle with Jacob all night.  In the book of Revelation they battle dragons.  They are as often warriors as deliverers.
Bible angels bring messages of correction as well messages of comfort.  They sometimes have hard and challenging things to say because they speak of what God wants and not of what we want.  These are Bible angels.

So Zechariah and Mary and the shepherds get a bit nervous when an angel comes close. 

The angels announce that the presence of God is about to get a lot more immediate, for a Savior, who is both Christ and Lord, has been born.  This inevitably will force a choice in people’s lives.  If you think the angels’ presence is intrusive, just wait until this child grows up and begins demanding a level of commitment from people that they had not anticipated giving, even the religious among them.

For now we are all safe.  Jesus is just an apparently harmless cooing baby in a manger.  The angel Gabriel makes clear to Mary, though,  that it will not long remain this way:

He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
     he has filled the hungry with good things,

    and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
   according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:51-55)
These angels are a bit intrusive, but this is just the beginning of the disturbance.  If you are proud and powerful, you are going to have to make some tough choices.  If you hunger for the things of God, you are in for some pleasant surprises.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State