Wednesday, April 5, 2017

One More on the Powers: Practicing Resistance

I am not yet one week into a three-month Sabbatical. But I realized sometime last Friday afternoon that my brain tends to get very "occupied" by work, even when I'm not at work. I carry the joys and challenges of diocesan ministry in my head and on my heart. Setting it aside for a while has meant...what exactly? An empty head? That's not quite right, but maybe you get my point. Certainly it has meant some space for other things, including Walter Wink's trilogy on The Powers. (As well as blog posts here, here, and here.)

This reading and blogging may seem like a busman's holiday to some. In truth, however, it's far from that. I don't get to read Walter Wink much in my present job! It's not that I'm not allowed to; I just don't seem to find the time or the energy to do so. Even when I am reading (or listening to audio books) related to church life, they tend these days toward the leadership development side of things. For example, the last book I read before Sabbatical was Thanks for the Feedback: The Art and Science of Receiving Feedback Well. It's a wonderful book that I highly recommend; a book I very much enjoyed reading. But it's very much "work related."

In the largest sense, I suppose that Walter Wink is "work related" too. But it feels very different for me, and incredibly energizing. This reading takes me back to the core of vocation: my own as a priest, but also I think the vocation of the Church into which I've been ordained. I think of that great line from T.S. Eliot in "Little Gidding," that all of our exploration brings us back to the place where we started, to "know the place for the first time." Whether one serves a large urban congregation or a small rural one or is a Canon to the Ordinary - whether one is a United Methodist or Lutheran or Roman Catholic - there is this larger question of what the Church is even for. Why does it matter? The theologians speak of ecclesiology - from the two Greek words meaning "words about the assembly/church."

We sing that the Church's one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord. But most days we don't act like we really believe that. Most days we function as if it's "my" Church to either fix or break. Most days we think the Church depends on whether or not we can learn to receive feedback well or whether we can rediscover the Church's mission in a post-Christendom context or preach the sermon that changes hearts and enlivens a congregation or bring in enough resources during the pledge drive to keep the doors open another year. 

All of these things matter. But there is something underneath it all, something that holds it all together. Or someone. Jesus Christ, her Lord. Our Lord. My reading list for this Sabbatical is about remembering this underneathness of the risen Christ. Wink is a helpful guide toward this end and re-reading this series has been extremely helpful. The luxury in fact of being able to carve out time just for reading and thinking is an incredible gift and I think at least one part of what a Sabbatical is for. (Next week I'll be spending Holy Week with the brothers of The Society of St. John the Evangelist without a laptop and embracing the gift of silence; which I trust will also be a great gift.)

So try this: the last two parts of Wink's third volume in The Powers trilogy are about God's New Charter of Reality, namely the Reign of God that is an alternative to the Domination System. And then Wink turns to the question of how the Church can engage the Powers non-violently. There is some amazing material in this section that I'm sure I'll come back to on this Sabbatical as I search for communities/examples/case studies of times when the Church did just this, however imperfectly and mustard-seed-like. 

But for here, and for now, before I leave Wink for a bit, I want to offer an extended quote from the section he entitles, "The Church and The Powers." He writes:
The Church has many functions, not all related to the Powers. With reference to the Powers, however, its task as we have seen is to unmask their idolatrous pretensions, to identify their dehumanizing values, to strip from them the mantle of respectability, and to disenthrall their victims. It is uniquely equipped to help people unmask and die to the Powers. (emphasis mine, page 164)
And then this:
No social struggle can hope to be effective if it only changes structured arrangements without altering their spirituality. All our letter writing, petitioning, political and community organizing, demonstrating, civil disobedience, prayers and fasting move to this end: to recall the Powers to the humanizing purposes of God revealed in Jesus. We are not commissioned to create a new society; indeed we are scarcely competent to do so. What the Church can do best, though it does so all too seldom, is to delegitimate an unjust system and to create a spiritual counterclimate. We may lack the wisdom to determine how homelessness can be solved; and our attempts as churches to feed, clothe, and house the homeless may only obscure the true causes of homelessness and fill us with false self-righteousness. But what we can do is create an insistent demand that homelessness be eradicated. We are not "building the Kingdom" as an earlier generation liked to put it. We simply lack the power to force the Powers to change. We faithfully do what we can with no illusions about our prospects for direct impact. We merely prepare the ground and sow, the seed grows itself, night and day, until the harvest. (Mark 4:26-29) And God will - this is our most profound conviction - bring the harvest. (page 165)
This, it seems to me, "will preach." This, it seems to me, is what connects the work we do whether it is as a bishop or priest or deacon or layperson. Whether we do it inside of the congregation as a member of the altar guild or vestry or outside of the building at a protest march or public liturgy. We refuse to let those whom the Powers would "disappear" be eradicated from our memories, our prayers, our work.

This morning I was watching again the horrible and tragic news out of Syria. The United States blames Assad, the President blames his predecessor. I would add (since the President appears to be unaware of it) that the Russians deserve a lot of blame too. But in the end, blame won't bring Shalom/Salaam, and probably it won't even bring an end to the violence. After all the blame game, might it be helpful to say that what we are battling in Syria is against more than flesh and blood, that what we are fighting against are the fallen Powers and Principalities of this world?

The Church can, and must, pray for those children and their families. The Church can and must recognize the blood on our own hands and then welcome the refugees from that war-torn land who would much rather be playing soccer in the street and going to their own schools, but the streets are not safe and the schools are no longer there. But the Church must also remember how to do what we so seldom do: delegitimate the unjust system that has created this mess and remind one another that we are called to repair the breach and restore streets to live in, with God's help. (See Isaiah 58:12.) We can offer an alternative vision of the Reign of God. Or as the seer on Patmos put it:
...I heard a loud voice saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them as their God.; they will be God's peoples.and God will be with them; God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more; for the first things have passed away. (Revelation 21:3-4)
Wink concludes this section with a series of questions that are worth sharing here:

  • How then can the Church carry on the struggle with the Powers more effectively?
  • How can it shake off the suffocating weight of institutional self-preservation and make a difference in the world?
  • How can it engage the Powers with the redemptive power of the cross?
  • What kinds of action and spirituality must it cultivate to be able to serve God in the redemption of the Powers? 

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