Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, Part III

There was a time when the Church was very powerful - in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the Church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators." But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven" called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary Church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the Church's silent, and often even vocal, sanction of things as they are...but the judgment of God is upon the Church as never before. If today's Church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early Church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. (The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, in Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963.)
I have not forgotten that this post is the third in a series, intended to reflect on the third volume of Walter Wink's trilogy on The Powers. Part I and Part II can be found here and here.

But it cannot go unmentioned that on this day in 1968, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis. Five years earlier he had written the words above from a Birmingham Jail cell, words that ring as true for me in the early years of the twenty-first century as they did when he wrote them almost fifty-four years ago. And, interestingly enough, I think they provide a way into today's post...

Wink says in a couple of different ways that the thesis of this series in it's simplest form is this:
  • The Powers are good.
  • The Powers are fallen.
  • The Powers must be redeemed.
He notes that all three must be held together because each by itself causes serious problems. King might note as a preacher what Wink is suggesting as a Biblical theologian: that this redeeming work of love requires  a Church that is more thermostat than thermometer, a discerning Church that is proud to agitate and disturb the peace as "a colony of heaven" called to resist the Domination System of this present age. 

In the Preface to Volume III, he suggests that there are really four volumes to this series - the three I've been reading but also, he says, another book he wrote entitled Violence and Nonviolence in South Africa: Jesus' Third Way. "That book," he writes, 
...provides what this one lacks: a practical case study of the relevance of nonviolent direct action applied to a concrete situation. Some of the abstractness of this study can be mitigated by a reading of that volume. 
I would simply add that one could make a similar case for reading the Civil Rights Movement under the leadership of Dr. King in the same way: as "a case study of the relevance of nonviolent direct action applied to a concrete situation."

What does Wink mean by "the Domination System?" He means the "Beast" that emerges when an entire network of power is hellbent on control. Wink quotes from Jose Comblin's The Church and the National Security State:  
...the survival of the nation is the absolute goal, National strategy intends to incorporate the whole nation into the national survival plan, to make it the total  and unconditional object of each citizens' life. 
Such a worldview must destroy authentic faith, even as it saturates the language of propaganda with religious platitudes. It uses the language of Christian faith to
...enhance the power of the wealthy elite and the goals of the nation narrowly defined...[even though] it has no interest in compassion for the poor or for more equitable economic arrangements, or for the love of enemies. It merely uses the shell of religion...
Wink has a brilliant reading of Revelation 12-13 here that I'm sure I'll be coming back to. He begins by noting that John of Patmos was a seer; that is he sees what is, to others, invisible. And then he writes this:
Discernment does not entail esoteric knowledge but rather the gift of seeing reality as it really is. Nothing is more rare, or more truly revolutionary than an accurate description of reality.
It's hard not to think of King's "I Have A Dream Speech" as relevant here: King was able to see the world God intended, a world where people are judged by the content of their character, and to call out the Domination System that tried to trick people into not seeing that the Jim Crow laws were in violation of that Truth.  In this same way, Wink notes that:
The Roman Empire had brought peace to a fratricidal world. It presided over a period of unparalleled prosperity (for the prosperous.) It's might was so legendary that a single emissary could prompt surrender. But this facade of magnificence was bought at a horrible price. The revelation that comes to John strips off mask of benevolence  and reveals, beneath it, the true spirit of Rome...
John "sees" Rome's monstrous spirit. He sees the Domination System and then names it as "Beast."

Perhaps the most powerful quote in this book for me, however, comes when Wink is discussing the "priestly propaganda machine of Empire." I'll refrain from editorializing except to note that this book was published twenty-five years ago, before 9/11 and before we were trying to "make America great again." Here is what he writes:
...the Beast knows that the public is fickle, that opinion swings wildly in response to the slightest shift in the world scene...ethnic feeling is not enough. Patriotism is not enough. What is needed is worship of the state...Nationalism is not, in its essence, a political phenomenon; it is a religious one...propaganda is not merely deception, then. It is the manufacturing of idolatry. It is not enough that people be misinformed about the nature of the System, for powerful disconfirming truths could easily slip in to shatter such illusions. But if you can cause people to worship the Beast, you have created a public immune to truth. As studies of cognitive dissonance show, worshipers do not surrender their beliefs in the presence of disconfirming facts. They simply adjust their beliefs to neutralize the facts. (The emphasis is Wink's, not mine!)
This is huge! Let me reiterate that if I am reading Wink correctly, we make a big mistake if we try to associate any one person with "the Beast." People are not Domination Systems. They may serve them to greater or lesser extents and be used by them in greater and lesser extents, but even Hitler is not the Beast in this reading, even if a very bad man. Rather, the Domination System that colluded in making it possible for Hitler is what Wink is trying to unpack: namely the kind of nationalism that seeks to usurp the place of God and demand our worship. When that happens, it seems to me that you don't change people's minds with information - which is precisely the point Wink makes here. Transformation comes through seeing what has been previously made invisible to our eyes. This is all really important as I am getting ready for a close reading of the Book of Revelation. It's also really important in clarifying the work of the Church in our time, which is not about giving people more "data" which will be neutralized by their previously held beliefs and idolatry, but rather to help them to see the Beast for what it really is.

Maybe that's enough for today. Maybe like Wink (who made his three-volume series into a four-volume series) I'll need a fourth post on this third volume of the series because, I've mostly been focused here on discernment and not yet on resistance.

But there is one further point worth making, and pondering. There is a lot of talk out there these days about resistance. When I told people I wanted, in my Sabbatical, to focus on a Church that is learning to practice resistance, I think people got what I was saying and most were excited with, and for me. But what I'm beginning to get some clarity about is that without discernment, resistance is a futile and even dangerous endeavor. If we skip the crucial steps of Naming and Unmasking the Powers and then discerning/seeing what is really happening and go right to Resistance, we run the (high) risk of becoming what we hate and/or fear. In fact Wink raises this very question as a question that runs through the book: "how can we oppose evil without creating new evils and being made evil ourselves?" (page 3) I'll simply add that King wrestled with this question as an ethicist trained at Boston University School of Theology, and chose non-violence for a reason.

And I think I'll stop there for today.

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