pastorsmurf

…seeking knowledge of God and of ourselves….

Month: March, 2018

Easter: A Church-meh User’s Guide

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Why is Easter called “the most important day in the Christian calendar”?

Easter celebrates the central miracle in the Christian story: that Jesus, the man from Nazareth, died on the cross and yet rose again three days later, because he was not just a man, but also “the Christ” (which is Greek for “anointed one”), the Son of God.

Easter is the day when this occurred, and when his followers truly began to understand the truth about who he was for the first time.

What if that seems a little “woo woo” to me?

 It’s hard to be a Christian without some kind of relationship to Easter.

I don’t mean that judgmentally, but in the more specific sense that Easter is the warrant for a lot of key claims about Christian life and values.

For example, if we are moved by the idea that Jesus calls us to be peacemakers, maybe that’s because we just really, really like peace.

But if we understand peacemaking as some sort of broader duty, rather than as just a personal preference or a strategy of some kind for getting what we really want, we need to understand how peacemaking operates as a “should.”   For Christian tradition, Easter is the backing for that sort of “should.”

In response to such questions, it’s how Christians have been taught to answer, “Because God said so.” Easter is why we believe it’s actually God who said it: because Jesus is not dead, but risen…the very Son of God.

No offense, but I’m not really working on that level with this stuff. Can’t I just enjoy the flowers and the trumpets and the ladies in their hats?

Of course! No matter what your faith looks like or “how much you have” (which is an expression I don’t like at all), you should feel free to be part of a church service, and never feel guilty about enjoying what you enjoy about it.

Even so, give a tip of your bunny ears to the symbolism of joy and new life expressed in so many ways on Easter.

Most of us know the powers of diminishment and death. Whatever their specific forms in our lives (and there are many), these powers are all too familiar and all too real. Brokenness is a thing, whether it is personal or collective, ethical or political, cultural or environmental.

Easter is saying that, despite what might first appear, these powers that break us do not have the final word.

It’s saying we shouldn’t be fooled into despair and inaction.

It’s hope is that, once we begin to see the power of resurrection, or imagine the possibility of new life, our confidence in its power will grow even stronger.

So why has Christmas become bigger than Easter?

Gift-giving.

But we shouldn’t be snarky. I think Christmas has developed practices that anyone can take part in, and which hold a lot of meaning. There are so many ways to say “I love you” at Christmas, and so many people who ache to know that they are loved. There is tremendous power in that, and Christmas brings it out in us.

Jellybeans really can’t compete with that.

But new life surely could.

In that spirit, sometimes I wonder what it might be like if Easter developed its own practices of giving.

What if on Easter, the people closest to us had the right to request one gift from us–one way in which our life together might be made new?

For every sixteen year old who took it as an opportunity to ask for her own car, I have to believe that many more families would ask for things like more time together, or for dad to take better care of his health, or for a little more commitment to joy in their daily living together.

Those things are often deeply holy in their own way — and certainly they become so when behaviors that seemed “impossible to bring up, much less change” turn out to be neither. Faith often grows in soil just like that.

To me, there’s a whole lot of Easter in it, too.

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Great Mills High School and the Logic of Misogyny

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This week’s tragic school shooting in Maryland offers an interesting lesson in what Cornell philosopher Kate Manne has described as “the logic of misogyny,” in her powerful new book, Down Girl (2018), a careful analysis of the language and thought-structures of patriarchy.

Manne makes a central distinction between sexism, which she understands as “the branch of patriarchal ideology that justifies and rationalizes a patriarchal social order,” and misogyny, which she argues is “a system that polices and enforces its governing norms and expectations.”

Misogyny encompasses a range of behaviors, from physical violence to various kinds of social pressure (often internal as well as external). Sexism is more typically expressed as the scientific or quasi-scientific essentializing of gender norms under the banner of biology.

That distinction is already a fruitful one, for it gives a framework to understand how, for example, Austin Rollins, the shooter in Maryland, and his subsequent portrayal by police as “a lovesick teen,” are distinct but still related moves. Killing a classmate when a “relationship” is over? (The quotes are here because it’s still somewhat unclear just what that means in this case.) According to Manne’s framework, this is misogyny. Calling the murderer a “love-sick teen”? That seems closer to sexism, with his deliberate violence almost a kind of coming-of-age helplessness he was powerless to control.

Manne also notes a puzzling phenomenon she terms “himpathy,” the often shockingly sympathetic portrayal of male perpetrators, often despite even the most violent behaviors (cold-blooded murders, rapes) and the most definitive evidence (eyewitnesses, video).  Again, Rollins’ in school killing as an expression of “lovesickness” is a case in point.  It also need not be so extreme. “Himpathy” reframes even less lethal misogynistic behaviors into shell-games of agency and self-control, complicating in subtle ways our ability to make moral judgments.

For example, “himpathy” often masquerades as a broad-minded appeal to fairness. It  teaches us to seek some proper balance between the punishment a male “deserves” given “all he’s been through” (often because “whatever really happened, now he’s become a victim in all this, too”) versus the justice a woman “deserves” for having suffered at his hands.

“Himpathy” is generous in its offer of context for the perpetrator, making the issue bigger than just “the crime,” per se, and the story therefore not reducible to any bottom line of clear facts or concrete legal definitions of when and how laws were broken.

By making constant appeal to the broader justice to be seen in the light of that context, “himpathy” proposes even that, “given all the facts,” particular punishments (jail time, a recorded felony conviction, sex offender registration, or mere expulsion from school) should not apply for the perpetrator — because, well, he’s more than just a perpetrator. And “fairness” demands that this ought to matter.

Thanks to “himpathy,” the false equivalence of their respective forms of “deserving justice” obscures that it’s her actions (not his), and his ordeal (not hers) that often end up on trial.

Heads, patriarchy wins; tails, we lose.

 

Palm Sunday For People Getting Dragged Against Their Will

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What is Palm Sunday?

Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter, and it commemorates Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem in the days before his death at the hands of the city’s Roman occupiers.

What’s the big deal?

A little history is helpful here.

A triumphant entry by God’s anointed rescuer had been imagined in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) hundreds of years before Jesus.  It was anticipated as a moment of liberation for the Hebrew people, and the beginning of God’s reign of righteousness and peace, ultimately for all Creation. Jesus is boldly claiming to be the one his people have been waiting for.

What if I don’t believe in Jesus?

There’s still a lot going on in the story. For example, scholars debate whether Jesus knew he would be killed for such a public display of defiance. Certainly, he would have recognized the risks, to some extent.

But there are important questions in the story for everyone to ponder. Which truths in our lives call us to take risks? How far would we be willing to go in order to speak truth to power? Is there a line (or are there multiple lines) for us? Are we satisfied with lives that let others do our truth-speaking for us? Those are just a few.

You’ve said that Palm Sunday might be Christianity’s “most edgy” holiday. What’s that mean?

It’s edgy for Christians because it names how easily triumph can become triumphalism, or as one scholar has put it, how quickly a crowd can become a mob.

Most Christians recognize that throughout history, the Church as an institution has not always stood on the right side of justice or stood up for the dignity of all people. Christians can be quick to identify with Jesus as an outsider who stood for those things, but all too easily, we can fall into seeing others as sacred enemies — as “Romans” who need and deserve to be resisted, if not punished — in the name of justice and dignity for “us.”

But Palm Sunday is not about cheering the triumph of Jesus in any simple way. It’s also very much about recognizing ourselves in the crowd, as people who cheer his arrival on Sunday and then cheer his execution by the next Friday. Are there ways that we are more about winning than transforming the world? That’s a key question of Palm Sunday.

Why isn’t it a day that’s shrouded in black and built around quiet reflection, or asking forgiveness from those we have wronged, then?

Part of me thinks that would be amazing, actually.

But I think Palm Sunday still gets to be a triumphant, joyous day. It marks the triumph of the God we don’t expect or somehow get to vindictively deploy over the powers and rules of the world at its worst. Jesus wasn’t the warrior-king that many people were looking for — his understanding of liberation was a lot bigger than simply throwing the Romans out of his native land. The Old Testament had always said that, too.

His point was not that he should be the one sitting in the palace, running things. His point was that from the beginning, the world had been called to be a different kind of place.

Further, since the world wasn’t as it was supposed to be, it needed to be shepherded in the right direction, particularly by a people with a different set of values. Jesus saw that the world, left to its own devices, seemed to teach the wrong things. He believed that God, especially working in and through imperfect, but faithful people, would change that.

Palm Sunday was a symbolic reclaiming of the nation’s capital in the name of those values, and as a call to people of good will to get busy remaking the world.

It’s a call we need to follow more than ever.