Monthly Archives: August 2012

Claims to Legitimacy

 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’ He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ He answered them, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’ Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. (John 9:24-30, NRSV)

The struggle for a voice in society is normative. The differences between people who have access and make things happen, versus the people who lack that access are part of the fabric of human relationships. That access, (or the lack thereof), often means that an individual does not have a ‘presence’ in the society. They are physically present, but have no active influence on the community in which they are merely existing in. Having a voice or being voiceless can be determined by many different factors. Gender, religion, race, ethnicity, creed, and sexual orientation all can be used to elevate ones voice or to deny ones right to be heard. Thats what makes it a struggle…. one must push through the community to have their voice heard.

Key to fight against giving audience to all, is the role of power. Powerful people/institutions/organizations play an intricate game of oppression simply to keep the voiceless from gaining an audience and/or being heard. It’s true of dissenting political groups as much as it is true of patriarchal systems that reinforce hierarchy. Systems in power want to keep their power; very often at the expense of the people who simply need the world to hear their pain and suffering, joys and concerns, fears and triumphs. There are subtle ways that these power systems keep the status quo and negate those who seek presence in the larger society.

One way that was on display this past week, was demonstrated in our country’s culture and political wars. Member of Congress Todd Akin’s off the cuff comments regarding “legitimate rape” highlight an example of what power does to keep things in check. You see, legitimacy is a cloak for power players to maintain their status. One way to deny the authenticity of person/being/humanity is make a declaration of legitimacy. African-Americans, at one time in our nation’s history were denied the right to vote, bring a court case or even be a full person…..they were considered illegitimate. Many insurance companies and other businesses invoke clauses within contracts that deny access to certain contractual rights. In so doing, they delegitimize the nature of the contract (and maybe the claims of the person). Legitimacy, is a qualifying term that can easily undermine relationships, stall negotiations and patronize people who are seeking equal voice in any situation (see equality around marriage, equal pay, etc.).

Struggle between power brokers and the powerless is nothing new and in our passage, this dichotomy is undergirding the text. Specifically, in chapter 9, Jesus brings sight to a blinded man. He was known to a great many people and so the healing brings a great deal of attention to the blinded man. So much so, that the power structures of the day, the Pharisees call the man before them an attempt to discern what happened to the man. Their rationale is that, defects are signs of sin and that Jesus is not a healer or prophet of any kind…….he is illegitimate. This blinded man is also a voiceless person in ancient Israel. A former blind person is a bullhorn!!

The resulting confrontation is one in which the miracle that Jesus has performed and demonstrated through this man who was once blind is being negated (or at least trying to be) by the Pharisees. In the end, the blind man, in response to berating of questions of legitimacy decides to simply state the obvious, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.” In other words, “y’all are supposed to be the experts on religious purity and healing and you don’t know what the h@#$ is going on. All I know is he healed me!”.

The former blind man gives us great instruction when it comes to people making claims of legitimate or illegitimate actions……its all legitimate. This man’s healing is just as legitimate as the rest of them. The experiences of the individual cannot be undermined in the eyes of God. They are all credible. Whenever we try to delegitimize the experiences of another, we really show our own insecurities before God and our neighbor. We do not have the power to question legitimacy of the other’s lived experience. For one to claim such authority, means the person making the declaration has ‘power’ over the other individual…..a claim none of us can credibly make.

 

 

Rep. Todd Akin exposed a deep flaw in religious patriarchy (to which religion has been used to cover up). The flaw uses rules and regulations to stifle and undermine and expel many who the power structures deem illegitimate. In today’s world, many Christians feel the need to define the world according to the rules and regulations that have been edited and refined in scripture. Rep. Akin’s comments, while they are his beliefs, expose a power structure’s party line that is rooted in an undermining worldview of women who have both been raped and/or experienced abortion, or both. Those rules are interpreted through the lens of scripture and tradition and enforced to define who is legitimate and who is not. Yet, the Jesus of the scriptures took care to break those same rules when the were applied to him. They called him illegitimate…… what do they call you?

Jesus and this blind man give us a vision of truth that labels us all legitimate sons and daughters of the most high King. Let us be brothers and sisters legitimized by the word and work of the Christ…….

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Its not about the Hair…

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, Give me a drink. 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria? (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, Give me a drink, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.(John 4:7-10, NRSV)

Throughout our life together, our societies develop practices, ideologies and beliefs that are rooted in myth and rumor. These beliefs developed most strongly at times when “otherness” and difference were highlighted in identity formation. Exaggerated stories about African-Americans and their brute strength or sexual prowess were born at the height of the slave trade. Warped portrayals of the work ethic of the Polish and alcoholic tendencies of the Irish were born during the mass immigration of the early and mid 19th centuries.

These dysfunctional and detrimental portrayals of various groups of people have defined many societies, (and most strongly the United States). Many of these ideologies have been with us so long that we inculcate them and identify with traits that have no basis in fact or reality. A lot of these stereotypes are furthered by marketing and media that uses preconceived notions to sell products and materials. Images of African-Americans with ‘kinky’ hair and big lips or Asian persons with slanted eyes and short statures were used to sell everything from toothpaste to wax.

Early 20th Century:

Despite the evolution of political correctness and racial sensitivity, much of those early images still are ingrained in the people (both persons of color whose images were warped and distorted, as well as the people who have never seen a person of color a part from the images of they have digested in media. The most disconcerting to me is the carefree are careless attitude that some of the exploited groups carry when viewing countervailing images (which are true depictions) of themselves in media. Many times the image is a true reflection of real life scenarios that are not well known. In other instances, the media is coverage of real events happening in real time. In both of these situations, many reactions of persons of color and/or the society at large is a rejection or critiquing of the image that breaks the mold……..mostly in a negative perspective.

Mid 20th Century:

21st Century:

Case in point is the wonderful success of gymnast and London 2012 Gold Medal winner Gabby Douglas. She is the first African-American woman (African-American PERIOD!!!) to be awarded the gold medal in all-around competition. That means that she is the best female gymnast in the world when it comes to all of the major gymnastic events. No African-American (woman or otherwise) has ever won this title or this prominence (Dominique Dawes won Gold as a part of team USA in the 1996 games). Gabby also won Gold as a part of the team competition and was part of the hype, celebration and success of the United States’s record Gold haul in the London 2012 games.

Yet, what seem to be all the rage in this country was not her athletic abilities or the historic triumph in the Olympics at the age of 16. What many of the bloggers, radio talks shows and other non-traditional media outlets discussed was her hair. Clipped back and in a ponytail, kinky and knotted up, Gabby’s hair was of particular pre-occupation to some in the African-American community. Comments ranged from “she need to get hair done”, to “her mama let her compete on the world stage looking like that”, to “she did a wonderful thing…..but that hair!” Give me a break!!!!

In this very familiar passage of scripture, Jesus encounters a woman at a well at noon (read the entire encounter for further insight). This woman is a Samaritan and by Jewish custom, she is unclean and forbidden to speak to a Jewish man. Likewise, tradition says that rabbi Jesus has no business approaching any woman alone, but especially a woman of Samaritan and unclean ancestry. It was said that Samaritans were liars, backstabbers, condemned to death and had no part in the kingdom of God. Most of those beliefs were formed through a propagandistic view of Jewish history that distorted (or omitted) history of the exile and the Davidic Kingdom of Ancient Israel.

In the heat of the sun, Jesus and this Samaritan have an exchange that is tense and ripe with all sort of preconceived ideas and ideologies. In this simple encounter, Jesus (and this woman) are confronting centuries of tradition, racism and discrimination. They decide to engage with each other to see and experience one another in the fullness of their being (both of them must engage in this, he because he is Jesus, and she because she is curious about this man). Jesus and this woman see beyond the cultural condition to see the truth of each other. He recognizes her by her humanity and not by her stigma, while she recognizes him as the Christ who sets captives free. It isn’t romance, its revolution. It isn’t flirtation, its restoration….

The text calls for us to move beyond superficial judgements and stereotypes. It calls us to celebrate the humanness of one another in the places and spaces of greatest expectation. See one another as simply that…..the other, with all images and ideologies aside. Gabby’s hair is not the issue, it is the preoccupation of some in the African-American community to be stylish and not historic. Many would focus on their on dysfunction about ‘looks’ and ‘home training’ instead of acknowledging that self-worth and identity are internally nurtured and are lasting beyond the two weeks it takes for a ‘perm’ to stay fresh! Some of y’all will get that later…..

The bottom line is this: We all have been shaped by the images we have consumed in our society. Instead of blaming Gabby Douglass, or The Cosby Show (some said it was too fictional to be absorbed by the African-American Community) for widening our scope and mindset about what it means to be Black in America, why not deal with your own misgivings and shortcoming about Black image. Instead of demeaning the people who break the normative expectations of the images we consume, why don’t we acknowledge our insecurities about letting go of the norms in our society? Instead of chastising the people who break the stereotypes and marketing ideologies, why not celebrate them as truth reflections of the other in our experiences? Each time someone shatters our negative image of them, each time an individual expresses their individuality and takes great strides, each time we leave “the wells of Christ encounter” with a new revelation of the other; we are treated to a vision of truth that helps us all be better Christians Humans……..

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Too Big to Trust…

5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Luke 21:5-6, NRSV)

The building block of any society are its institutions. Institutions help to concretize traditions, meaning and culture into the life of the society. Churches, temples, mosques, governments (local, state and national), and universities/schools all work to maintain the societal norms in any culture. Sure some of these institutions convey different norms and acceptable beliefs but all of them govern themselves within the parameters established by the overarching culture.

However, we are living in an age and time when the cultures and societies of the world are experiencing upheaval and challenge in ways they haven’t felt since revolutions began to rattle the western hemisphere in the 18th century. Whether its the Tea Partiers, Occupy Movement (where are they now??) in the United States or the Arab Spring, or Eurozone Crisis on the international scene, there is a general sense of distrust of societal structures around the globe. This distrust is inclusive of banks, churches and even families. We are seeing this distrust manifesting in protests, and more specifically in the U.S., out-and-out hostility toward the structures of society. Schools, corporations, families and religious entities are all treated with suspicions and hostility. Many times it is because of the failure of these institutions to be……..trustworthy!

The Penn State scandal is a foremost case as to the reason why there is genuine distrust of institutionalism. The initial acts of child abuse were committed by one person, Jerry Sandusky. If the University had done the right thing and offered Sandusky’s head on a platter, then we would be talking about all the proper precautions and values that the system upheld. Instead, we are talking about the worse failure of a college governance program (dare I say the failure of any governance program), ever. Most of the senior officials and Sandusky’s legendary boss, Joe Paterno, sought institutional self-preservation over any sense of societal responsibility.

This is the fallacy, when institutions begin to live for themselves and the service of the society, then very quickly, individuals get eaten alive in the machine of self-preservation. The text for today highlights the destructive power of God’s freeing presence. While the text specifically refers to Jesus and his body, the inference and the reaction from the Pharisees (as keepers of religious tradition) belies a stronger devotion to the bricks and mortar (and meaning) of the temple in Jewish life. It’s the concern over institutional preservation that overrides their concern, even though that is not what Jesus is talking about.

Many in our society have been so often is overly concerned with structures of institutional life that morality and ethics become warped and distorted for the sake of preserving the status quo. The societal distrust in universities, colleges, churches, government and family have been cultivated through acts of malice, contempt, deceit and misrepresentation of cultural values. Universities make decisions with no transparency or regard to ethics. Some Catholic Churches move known pedophiles and deviants from church to church in order to preserve and protect the larger institution. Government has mislead and deceived the masses with statements to preserve its own objectives. It is no wonder that many societies have openly revolted against the status quo in their countries.

The problem with distrust though, is that it never can build relationships. Societies are built on basic relationships that are informed by simple trust. With no trust in the basic institutions of society, (government, university, religious organization, family) we will begin to breakdown as a society. Blind trust is not the answer. The masses should invest in the restoration of hope while institutions should spend a great deal of their energy in rebuilding the relationships with the masses through trust.

Understanding the importance of our interconnectivity as a society is essential to getting to the vision of truth in the world.

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Bronze is Ok….

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. (Philippians 3:12-15, NRSV)

We are a little over halfway through the 2012 Olympics being held in London. As always is the case, commentators, retired athletes and sports officials around the world offer their critique of whose the best in the world in this field or that sport. In turn, the eyes (and citizens) of virtually every nation in the world converge on an industrialized city to observe the running, swimming, throwing, volleying, and even trampolining to see who will be the best in the world. The modern Olympics serve as one of the few places where the community of nations gather without the intense pressure of diplomatic success or failure. Instead, the glaring eyes of the world look on for one thing…….GOLD, SILVER or BRONZE.

In looking at much of the coverage I am awestruck and the ability and talent of all the competitors. The concentration, the discipline and fortitude it takes to swim 100m, 400m or any distance in a respectable time is phenomenal enough. To win the race is extraordinary. For athletes like Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Sonya Richards-Ross, Jessica Ennis, Gabby Douglas, and so many others, the God-given gifts and ability that they exercise display the reason why the Olympics are still as popular as ever.

The performance of these (and all of the Olympic athletes) require me to look at this profound passage of Paul to the church at Philippi. In Chapter 3 of the text, Paul displays his credentials to be a faithful Pharisee yet says he lives for Christ because Christ first chose him. In this famous passage, Paul then compares the work of living a faithful life to that of the athlete competing in the ancient Olympic games. His words conjure up an image of strain and struggle, sweat and tears, cramping and stretching. The race we run as disciples of Christ, means that there is work and strain, training and discipline, yearning and pushing all involved in order for us to be who we are called to be in the race of life.

I saw this disciples lifestyle most strongly on display in a preliminary race during the Men’s 10,000m race over the weekend. There were nine competitors from all over the globe racing for only three qualifying slots. The gun fires and off they run. It is going to take them about 20 minutes to run the roughly 6 miles of the race on the track. About halfway through the race, one of the frontrunners in the pack trips and falls. All of the others jump over and around him, but keep up the pace. It appears that he is getting left and he is out. But almost as soon as he falls, he gets up and starts kicking! I mean kicking!! He within one lap has made up most of what he lost when he fell and was back to keeping pace with the pack. He crossed the finish line to claim the fourth spot to qualify for the next round!

This runner embodies our quest for life as Christians. The shot is fired and we are sometimes in the lead, sometimes in the rear but always trying to keep pace with the pack of life. (Sometimes, all we can do is keep pace with the pack.) There are even times, that we slip and fall feel like we get left by the pack. Yet, we “press on toward the mark”, we get up and KICK! Push toward the end with love and faith, kindness and forgiveness. We dig deep and RUN so that we can finish. There is no need to be first in the race, for really it has already been won! We just need to finish the race we started. And the real good news is that there are enough qualifying spots for all of us who finish the race, to qualify for the next round!!!

Like Bolt, Phelps and all the others, we are athletes for Christ.   Pushing and struggling to make it to the finish line. It takes perseverance that only comes from God. I pray that you see the vision of truth that comes when you run the race that is set before each of us in Christ Jesus.

 

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