Oscar Romero: A Genuine Christmas

No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas
without being truly poor.
The self-sufficient,
the proud,
those who, because they have everything,
look down on others,
those who have no need even of God –
for them there will be no Christmas.
Only the poor,
the hungry,
those who need someone to come on their behalf,
will have that someone.
That someone is God,
Emmanuel,
God-with-us.
Without poverty of spirit
there can be no abundance of God.

– Óscar Romero; December 24, 1978

Exodus or Exile?

Originally posted in our church newsletter.

The exodus is a major theme in the Bible. The story of how God rescued his people from captivity and brought them into the Promised Land is one that many of us know well. The exodus gave language to European immigrants who left behind religious persecution for the promise of a new land and it formed the imaginations of enslaved Africans who prayed and planned for their escape:

I’ll meet you in the morning
when you reach the promised land
on the other side of the Jordan
for I’m bound for the promised land.

As important as the exodus is for those of us who know God’s salvation, there is another dominant biblical theme that we tend to forget: exile. Yet despite our neglect of this part of the biblical story, it’s huge throughout the Old Testament. Many psalms and much of the prophetic literature was written in an exilic context as God’s people suffered under one empire and then another.

Maybe we focus more on exodus than exile because the latter doesn’t fit the expectation of much of American Christianity. After all, the exodus brings with it promises of security and prosperity while the experience of exile is ambiguous and sorrowful. Yet as I look around I have to wonder whether out situation is closer to exile than exodus. Without downplaying God’s powerful salvation in our lives and his sustaining presence in our communities, don’t we have to admit that the world we inhabit is a long way from the Promised Land?

Theologian Raymond Rivera says that once we acknowledge our exilic status we are free to think creatively about “doing ministry in a situation of captivity.” Rather than thinking that we’ve settled into the land of God’s promise – or even that it’s around the corner, attainable by a bit more hard work or strategic ministry – we instead accept the foreign land to which we’ve been led by God. From this vantage point we begin to ask different questions about community, friendship, work, family, and church. We worship and work for the good of this foreign land without looking to it for approval or permission.

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Pastor Michael Neal at the prayer vigil.

At times this means taking public stands in protest and prayer against the injustice of this land’s powers. Pastor Michelle demonstrated this powerfully on Monday at the prayer vigil when she publicly lamented over Chicago and its racist policies. Other times it means finding common ground with those who don’t share our Faith but whose work reflects the kingdom of God. And all of the time it means building structures and nourishing communities that contribute to human flourishing and Christian witness in the midst of exile.

In 2016 we will build structures and ministries that will help us be more deeply rooted in Bronzeville. The bitter fruit produced by this foreign land has been especially visible lately, yet we’ve not been called to flee for some promised land of our own making. No, we hear the prophet’s word to the Babylonian exiles to “plant gardens and eat what they produce.” (Jeremiah 29:5) In this place of exile we are called to put down deep and sustaining roots that God might produce in us “fruit that will last.” (John 15:16)

As we approach the second Sunday in Advent we are reminded that, although we’ve experienced the promise of God’s salvation, the eternal Promised Land awaits our Savior’s return. Until then, we are a people in exile. But we have not been left alone. And, thanks be to the God who was born into our exile, we’ve not been left without hope.

“So there is much to repent for.”

JET: What role do white Christians play in justice for African Americans?

Daniel HillPastor Daniel: That’s a question that I regularly ask my African American friends, co-workers and mentors. And it’s a question that we as white Christians should pay close attention to when answers are proposed. One thing I do feel clearly convicted of is the need for white Christians to actively and collectively repent for our complicity in the creation of our racist landscape. While I’m grateful for the exceptions that have stood in solidarity with the oppressed, the overwhelming history of our country reveals a picture of white Christians standing on the wrong side of justice, and often serving as the ones to perpetuate injustice. So there is much to repent for.

Daniel Hill is a friend and pastor here in Chicago. He participated in the prayer vigil on Monday and his prayer of repentance on behalf of white people caught the attention of CNN and Jet magazine. If you read the entire interview you’ll know why Daniel has become a good friend and trusted guide in matters of reconciliation and the multi-ethnic church. I’m sad for the ugly response by some to his honesty but I’m incredibly grateful that so many are benefitting from his witness.

Can I love you without knowing your Myers-Briggs type?

Apparently it’s been common knowledge for a while, but I’m just hearing about the relative uselessness of the Myers-Briggs test. This is great news as someone who has taken the test many times (as required by different jobs) yet struggles to remember my profile and why it matters, much less how my profile is supposed to interact with other profiles. This is what these things are meant to do, right?

Photo credit: visualpun.ch.
Photo credit: visualpun.ch.

Beyond my own incompetence about the Myers-Briggs, there’s always been something a bit unsettling about how important one’s profile can become. The supposed predictive capacity of the test (and others like it, perhaps) take on a talisman-like quality, a necessary item to thrive in enlightened society. I’ve worked in a few settings where not having a quick enough response to What’s your Myers-Briggs profile? is met with concern or surprise, as though my ignorance in this regard could do real damage to my coworkers.

Now, to hedge just a bit, I’ve found some of the language around these profile tests to be helpful. As a generally more introverted person who’s married to a generally more extroverted person, it’s been helpful to have language to describe how we experience the social world. It allows us a level of empathy we might otherwise struggle to experience. I’m not sure personality profiles are necessary for this though, a hunch my great-grandparents would likely affirm.

Maybe at the most basic level, my concern has to do with the idea that we require professionals to facilitate the kind of human interaction and love that was possible long before such professionals existed. The professionals seem to assume that if we just have enough knowledge – about ourselves and others – we can experience flourishing relationships. But is that right?

Eugene Peterson mentions the Myers-Briggs in a couple of his books. In Take and Read he writes about where a Christian’s identity is found.

The reality, of course, is that God is sovereign and Christ is savior. The reality is that prayer is my mother tongue and the eucharist my basic food. The reality is that baptism, not Myers-Briggs, defines who I am.

And in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places he writes about the act of sacrifice that all healthy, loving relationships require.

In the jargon of the day, we pray: “sacrifice is not one of my gifts – I want to serve God with my strength, with my giftedness.” It’s a strange thing, but sacrifice never seems to show up on anyone’s Myers-Briggs profile.

The Myers-Briggs promises us that if we know enough we can interact better with those we care about. What Peterson points out is that knowledge alone, especially from professionals who require no in-person interaction with their clients, is not enough. And I know my Christian friends who like the Myers-Briggs would agree with Peterson in principle. But as I listen to us talk, I sometimes hear more about INTJ (that’s me!) and ESFP (that’s my wife!) and other personality types as the key to healthy relationships than I do about loving sacrifice and identities rooted in Christ.

Or maybe that’s just my personality type talking.

Police, Violence, and the Idolatry of Data

This morning NPR featured a story from Chicago about police becoming more cautious as a result of increased public scrutiny. The idea here is that post-Ferguson, when it has become common for police misconduct to be captured on video, police are less likely to get involved in situations that could turn ugly. Our mayor has recently advanced this same theory to explain the rise in gun violence our city is experiencing.

Photo credit: John W. Iwanski.
Photo credit: John W. Iwanski.

In other words, the reason certain communities are suffering increased violence is because those same communities are looking for ways to protect themselves from violence. This, as best I can tell, is the logic.

About halfway through the story a former Chicago police officer is interviewed. This officer remembers a time when community policing was a priority, when neighbors knew and respected their beat cop. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard similar things from neighbors and community leaders. But community policing programs are no longer a priority, ostensibly because they cost too much and our city is too broke. In place of officer-community relationships that were built over time, Chicago, like so many cities, now relies on big data to fight crime. Our mayor and police superintendent praise the ability of data to predict crime and stop it preemptively. Stop-and-frisk is viewed as a reasonable and even necessary tactic within the logic of big data, despite its inherently discriminatory nature.

Old-school community policing is never mentioned by our city leaders as a realistic response to violence despite the benefits to those who suffer the most from our city’s violence. Why? Because our city, like most of us, have believed the lies promised by technology. Technology, in the form of data-driven policing strategies, promises to save us money because software and a few number-crunchers are cheaper than employing trusted women and men to police specific neighborhoods. Technology has also promised to do the hard work of policing better with machines than can be done by people.

But these are lies and we’ve believed them because technology is our beloved idol. The data does save the city money, but the cost is passed on exponentially to the communities that are suffering violence. And data does allow the police department to operate efficiently on paper, but this efficiency is unjust and harmful to those who are sliced, diced, and generalized, to those whose experience of the data is not efficient but discriminatory.

It’s not surprising that the communities suffering violence are being blamed for this year’s increased shootings and murder. It’s not surprising but neither is it true. And only by worshipping at technology’s altar could we believe that those suffering our city’s violence can also be blamed for it.

“The revolution out of which our tradition came has not ended…”

The revolution out of which our tradition came has not ended; it is accelerating. The movement of those forty million Europeans to the North American continent was only the beginning. There is not place on the globe today that can stand secure and changeless. It is all changing. It is changing before our eyes. No one can predict what will happen to global culture in even the near future. If you have come out of the pilgrim tradition of the children of Israel, from Egypt to the promised Land, and have used that magnificent opportunity only to become a Philistine, then take heed. Do you live comfortably behind high walls and bronzed gates, and worship regularly at the altar of Baal? Are you pleased with the prospects of Social Security and a special pension plan, or the apparent security of America’s nuclear deterrent and the overwhelming power of its society and technology? If that provides comfort, then live in fear and trembling, because it will all be taken away from you as surely as the security of our forebears. I proclaim it.

-Zenos Hawkinson in a sermon in 1978. Hawkinson was a history professor at my denomination’s college and he was addressing a people with strong immigrant memories.