Shuck and Jive

Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Cheeky Response--A Sermon

A Cheeky Response
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
April 29, 2012

As you know, we once were told, ‘An eye for an eye’ and ‘A tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, don’t react violently against the one who is evil; when someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well. If someone is determined to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat along with it. Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go along an extra mile.
Matthew 5:38-41

When the Jesus Seminar searched through the Jesus tradition to determine what deeds and words might be part of the voice print of the original historical Jesus, they decided that witty aphorisms and parables were more likely to belong to Jesus than long speeches. What was remembered from Jesus was more likely to be little nuggets of wisdom rather than long theological discourses.

These three “case studies” (turn the cheek, give your coat, go the second mile) are found in Matthew with a parallel in Luke. The theory is that they go back to an earlier source, scholars call Q, the first letter of the German word Quelle, which means source. That is material is common to Matthew and Luke not found in Mark.

These three “case studies” turn the cheek, give your coat, and go the second mile, seem to belong to Jesus. They were all voted “red” as in “Yep, sounds like Jesus.” They are non-literal, comic, surprising, and transformative for those with ears to hear.

It is also likely to be true that the primary audience for Jesus would have been peasants. These would be people who would know first-hand the indignities of being in debt, of losing land and livelihood, of being occupied by a foreign army, humiliated by superiors, and having nothing more than the shirts on their backs.

It is likely that Christianity was not at its beginning a movement of the rich and famous. It was of the poor and infamous. In the second century a man named Celsus criticized Christianity. He ridiculed it because of the company it kept. We know of Celsus’ writings because early Church father, Origin wrote a treatise called Against Celsus. He quotes Celsus remarks about the early Christian movement. Celsus is speaking sarcastically from the first person as if he were a Christian inviting people to join:
Let no one educated, no one wise, no one sensible draw near. For these abilities are thought by us to be evils. But as for anyone ignorant, anyone stupid, anyone uneducated, anyone who is a child, let him come boldly. By the fact that they themselves admit that these people are worthy of their God, they show that they want and are able to convince only the foolish, dishonorable and stupid, and only slaves, women, and little children.

Later he says:
In private houses also we see wool-workers, cobblers, laundry-workers, and the most illiterate and bucolic yokels, who would not dare to say anything at all in front of their elders and more intelligent masters. But whenever they get hold of children in private and some stupid women with them, they let out some astounding statements as, for example, that they must not pay attention to their father's and school-teachers, but must obey them; they say that these talk nonsense and have no understanding, and that in reality they neither know nor are able to say anything good, but are taken up with mere empty chatter.

What Celsus noticed is that these early Christians upset the social order. Slaves, women, and children are worthy of the Christian god. That is not a good thing from the point of view of Celsus. The Jesus’ movement earliest appeal was to those who had been left out and marginalized by the dominant social order.

We should remember that the founding narrative of Christianity is that its hero, Jesus, was executed and tortured as a common criminal by established, legitimate authority. In elevating this person to son of god like Caesar, the earliest communicators of the Jesus’ message were making radical statements about life, life’s meaning, the meaning of justice and peace, and whose side they thought God was really on.

“Let no one educated, no one wise, no one sensible draw near,” said Celsus.

From the point of view of the slaves, women, children, and day-laborers who did draw near, the educated, wise and sensible of Celsus’ class were part of the problem. It was that class who were backhanding them on the cheek, taking their coats in payment of debt, and conscripting them to carry their military packs.

These three case studies of Jesus that were preserved could have been just a snippet, headlines of longer teachings and conversations that Jesus would have had with people about dignity and resistance. One could imagine all kinds of arguments, a lot of back and forth with Jesus and others about what to do and how to respond to the oppression and humiliation. One can imagine the arguments would have been heated and passionate:
“What do we do with these Romans? What do we do about these landowners? What do we do about these priests and accountants who side with them over us? Do we have an armed revolution? Do we just take it and let them abuse us, starve us, and kill us?”

These are serious questions. I can imagine that Jesus was in the thick of it. The choice as we know was armed revolution in 66 CE that was crushed by the Romans. It resulted in the destruction of the temple and the burning of Jerusalem. This is the context of Mark’s Gospel.

Historical Jesus scholar, Dominic Crossan, thinks that Mark’s gospel account of the execution of Jesus is a parable not about Jesus’ own time and life, but about the destruction of Jerusalem in 66-70. The choice of the people to release Barabbas the revolutionary rather than Jesus was the choice the Jews made to choose armed revolt rather than non-violent revolt. It was a choice that the author of Mark’s gospel thought was a bad idea.

It is after this failure of the Jewish War from 66-70 that the gospels are written. It is as though the gospels are written looking back and through the revolt and war of 66-70 to Jesus 40 years on the other side and saying, “What if we had listened to him? What was he saying again?”

What was Jesus saying? Was he saying, “Armed revolt! Take up the righteous cause of God!”

Or was he saying, “Be passive. Just take it. Your reward is in heaven. God will take care of all of it.”

Or was he saying something else?

These three case studies provide the clue. Jesus offered a third way. These case studies, these three sayings are remembered not by any means as his complete teaching but the briefest of outlines for a program of resistance to oppression that is non-violent with the emphasis on non-violent and resistance.

According to Dominic Crossan, the kingdom of God is participatory. We can’t do it without God. God won’t do it without us. It isn’t a violent intervention by supernatural power. It is non-violent and takes over like leaven in bread and a mustard weed in a field. It transforms all, including enemy, to friend. The evil is the violence. You are simply not going to get peace through violent means. Peace comes through justice not through victory. The way to peace is not violence. Peace is the way.

Jesus is speaking to people who are humiliated. His first lesson to them is:

You are a human being.
You are the light of the world.
You are the salt of the earth.
You are a child of God.
Do not participate or cooperate in your own humiliation.

Jesus is not to be interpreted as saying, “Allow yourself to be a punching bag. If your spouse hits you just go back and submit. Turn the other cheek.” That is a misreading. That is what happens when bullies get control of the Bible. The Bible does not belong to the bullies.

Notice the detail. “When someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other.” The setting here is a backhanded slap from the superior’s right hand to the right side of the face. What do you do when that happens to you? When a slave-owner, a person in authority, a father, or a husband does that, what do you do? Do you hit back? That would result in death, a severe beating, or imprisonment? Do you cower? That is what the superior wants. The bully wants you to be humiliated.

No, says Jesus. You neither hit back nor cower. You stand there and turn the other cheek. You are making a communication that you are a human being. It is an act of defiance. You might get whipped for it. But you are showing yourself and the other that you are a human being. The invitation is for the other to recognize you as a human being as well. It is not an aggressive act. It is assertive.

If someone takes you to court and takes one of your garments, give them your other garment. To survive people had two garments. The outer garment served as a blanket at night. The law was that in payment for a debt you could take a person’s garment but you had to give it back to them at night. It is a setting of humiliation in which people lost everything to burdensome debts. The owners have nothing left to take from you except your coat. What do you do?

The first principle is that you do not participate or cooperate in your own humiliation. You make a public spectacle. You not only give them your coat, but you take off your undergarment too. You stand before them naked. Rather than receive this injustice passively and cower with humiliation, you stand up and act. Your nakedness shames the oppressor.

This has become a technique in modern non-violent movements. This is from ABC News:
Nigerian villagers who have long clashed with oil companies doing business in their backyards are trying a creative protest tactic. They've dropped their guns, and some have even threatened to drop their clothes.
Hundreds of unarmed women from local tribes in the oil-rich but desperately poor Niger Delta region brought production to a halt recently at pipeline facilities owned by ChevronTexaco by merely occupying the sites. Several dozen village women are still holed-up today.
To make their point, the women threatened to disrobe — a strong local shaming symbol — and managed to strike a deal with ChevronTexaco that will bring jobs and funding for schools, hospitals and other services into their struggling community.

Check out The Righteous Mothers and their song “Old Fat Naked Women for Peace” as they sing about this non-violent resistance tactic.

The inspiration for Ghandi and King for non-violent resistance came from Jesus. Jesus was not about passivity. He was about transformation.

The third test case is if “someone conscripts you for a mile, go a second mile.”

This isn’t just someone. This is a Roman soldier. Soldiers were allowed to grab civilians and force them to carry their gear. In a similar vein, in the gospel of Mark, the story is that Simon of Cyrene was conscripted to carry Jesus’ cross.

The law was that Roman soldiers could only force someone to carry their pack for one mile. Jesus says, “So when this happens to you, don’t give the pack back. Offer to continue to carry it. Force the soldier to break the law and see what happens!” Imagine the soldier and the peasant fighting over the pack. Rather than be humiliated, you take the upper hand.

Some of the principles of non-violent resistance are found in the gospels and in these case studies of Jesus. Thanks to Walter Wink, author of The Powers That Be for interpreting these sayings in the light of non-violent resistance. These principles are in general:
  1. You are a human being with dignity and so is your opponent.
  2. Do not cooperate with your own oppression or humiliation.
  3. Do not return violence with violence.
  4. Find creative ways to assert to transform relationships from “power over to power with”.
These are principles that can be used in interpersonal relationships, at work, at home, in communities, perhaps even between nations.

It is the third way.

The way of transformative peace.


Thursday, April 26, 2012

Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel Primack on Religion For Life, April 26-30

My guests on Religion For Life are Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel Primack, authors of a new book, The New Universe and the Human Future: How a Shared Cosmology Could Transform the World. Dr. Primack is professor of physics at the University of California at Santa Cruz and Nancy Ellen Abrams is a cultural philosopher. Together they find a way of integrating our cosmology with meaning and offer a hopeful vision for our human future on Earth.

Listen via livestream…

Thursday, April 26th at 8 pm on WETS, 89.5.
Sunday, April 29th, at noon on WEHC, 90.7.
Sunday, April 29thd, at 2 pm on WETS, 89.5.
Monday, April 30th at 1 pm on WEHC, 90.7.
Via podcast beginning May 1st.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Test the Waters!

If you live near our mountain, come test the waters on Saturday May 5th.   You will get a chance to find out about our congregation, tour the facilities, meet some fine folks, and enjoy a free lunch.   We are a pretty unique congregation for this area.  We are More Light (LGBT inclusive), progressive, and a lot of fun.   Here is our webpage.  

There is no pressure "to join" but we would sure to love to have you do so if that is where Spirit leads.  Send me an email if you think you might like to come so we can get an idea of how much food to prepare.  Our nursery will  be open! 

Test the Waters, Saturday, May 5th from ten to one!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Breaking the Spiral of Violence--A Sermon

Breaking the Spiral of Violence
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

April 22, 2012
Earth Day

Luke 22:24-27
Then they got into an argument over which of them should be considered the greatest. He said to them, “Among the foreigners, it’s the kings who lord it over everyone, and those in power are addressed as ‘benefactors.’ But not so with you; rather, the greatest among you must behave as a beginner, and the leader as one who serves. Who is the greater, after all: the one reclining at a banquet or the one doing the serving? Isn’t it the one who reclines? But here among you I am the one doing the serving.

As we move through the season of Spring, we are walking the path, or dancing the spiral of the via transformativa, the way of compassion and justice-making. This is the path of naming, unmasking, and engaging The Powers That Be.

The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium is a book by Walter Wink. Walter Wink is an interesting guy. He wrote a book on Jesus and Nonviolence and had it delivered in secret to clergy in South Africa. He snuck into to South Africa illegally and led workshops on non-violence. He thus exerted influence in helping the movement against Apartheid be non-violent and have the basis for that non-violence based in the teachings and life of Jesus.

Walter Wink has not backed away from walking with those who are most oppressed by The Powers That Be. He knows Empire’s cruelty and violence. Yet he firmly holds out hope and participates in a way of living and being that is transformative. He really does believe in non-violence and trusts that the human race will get it. He writes:
“The reign of God means the elimination of every form of violence between individuals and nations. This is a realm and a possibility of which the imprisoned by their trust in violence cannot even conceive.” P. 89

We can, from Wink’s perspective, conceive that the human race could move beyond violence as a program of solving conflicts even at the level of nation-states. He believes that believing that humans will always solve conflicts violently and always have is part of the socialization we have received from the Domination System. For Wink, violence is not innate and inevitable. It is learned. It can be unlearned.

That is why I am spending quite a bit of sermon time with his ideas. I think that radical statement that violence is learned needs a hearing. I am spending valuable sermon time on his book because his ideas have been influential to me and because I think they are important. That doesn’t mean of course that I say, “Yes, yes, yes,” to everything he writes. But I say “Yes” often enough.

When I first read about his analysis of the myth of redemptive violence that I spoke about last week, it changed my way of thinking. I can’t see anything now, whether they be cartoons, movies, advertising, propaganda, orchestrated patriotic spectacles, and so called news reports, without seeing that myth playing itself out before my eyes time and time again. That myth is in short: violence saves. Only by violent means can the good guys beat the bad guys. Our salvation is to identify with the violent--yet good--hero.

His understanding of the Domination System as a translation for the word kosmos in many places in the New Testament helped me make more sense of the Gospels and Paul. It brought the scriptures down to Earth in the struggles that we face everyday with the powers. The Powers are not individual people, for people are interchangeable and expendable within these institutions. The Powers That Be are those personalities, commitments, rules, and forces that lie behind and within institutions.

Wink sees the historical Jesus as enacting a program of non-violent resistance with the emphasis both on non-violent and resistance, not passivity on one hand nor becoming the very evil we deplore on the other. Wink sees this message not just in the historical Jesus but as a thread that weaves itself through the whole witness of scripture.

The myth of redemptive violence is presented to us by the powers as part of our socialization into the Domination System. Whenever a conflict rises, we consistently give in to the argument that is offered as the clincher: the only way to save the world is to stop these bad people with force of arms. It is the only way. The Powers have to do one thing. Repeat the myth and insert the enemy of the day as the bad guy.

The myth is necessary to keep the inequity in place between the wealthy and powerful and those without wealth and power. That inequity is as much within a nation as between nations. As inequities increase within a nation, it becomes by necessity more violent both to people within the nation as well as to those outside of it. Stories of domestic spying and harsh crackdowns on protestors are some examples of this.

One of the ways a violent society keeps the lid on things, is to let out its violence in a ritualized, orderly way by way of scapegoating. French philosopher, Rene Girard, saw this by analyzing myths. Collective violence from the perspective of the persecutor against a particular group served to focus the violence of a society on a scapegoat. Blame the troubles on this person or group of persons and focus ritual, programmatic violence upon them.

Girard in analyzing the New Testament saw that that scapegoating mechanism was turned upside down. The gospels were written from the point of the persecuted. Jesus is the scapegoat. But, his violent death showed that the scapegoating mechanism was wrong. An innocent person was tortured and killed. The powers were wrong to do this. The powers were not keeping order and peace by executing bad guys. Jesus’ death unmasked and exposed The Powers That Be as wrong and needing overthrow.

Jesus’ death did not show that he was the last scapegoat. It showed the end of scapegoating. Throughout Western history, Jesus’s torture and execution has been used successfully to show that scapegoating is wrong.

On the other hand, The Powers That Be have had success in getting us to reinterpret Jesus’ death as some kind of transaction to satisfy a violent God. God kills Jesus instead of killing you and sending you to hell and whatever. That is the interpretation of Empire. When Christianity and Empire are in bed together, that is what you get.

But the original and powerful and liberating interpretation is that Jesus’ violent death exposed the violence of the powers and thus defeated them.

One modern illustration of how this was used was during the civil rights movement. In Nashville students, black and white together, sat illegally at all-white lunch counters. They brought their cameras and the news media. They were treated violently but did not retaliate to violence with violence. They resisted. They were not passive. They didn’t leave. They didn’t acquiesce. They received violence but did not back down. The purpose was to expose the violence inherent in segregation.

To see young students beaten and mistreated by The Powers That Be or the Law, exposed to the rest of the country that the Law was wrong. Eventually, enough people could see that blacks were being scapegoated so that the laws would change. These laws, such as segregated lunch counters, were part of the larger systemic violence against black people.

The students used the symbol of Jesus on the cross, the innocent victim, to expose the powers of inequity and violence. The death of Jesus when interpreted as exposing scapegoating and domination as unjust is liberating. This is a way in which the spiral of violence is named, exposed, and defeated.

The Powers That Be don’t want Jesus’ death interpreted in that way. They want it to be seen as Jesus receiving the torture and death you should get because you deserve God’s wrath. That is an incredibly abusive interpretation. It lets the powers off the hook. In this scheme Church and Empire work together to keep people passive and to continue to scapegoat whoever it is they want to direct violence upon whether they be “heretics” or enemies of the state.
Jesus was a Capricorn, he ate organic foods.
He believed in love and peace and never wore no shoes.
Long hair, beard and sandals and a funky bunch of friends.
Reckon they'd just nail him up if He come down again.

'Cos everybody's got to have somebody to look down on.
Who they can feel better than at anytime they please.
Someone doin' somethin' dirty, decent folks can frown on.
If you can't find nobody else, then help yourself to me.

Kris Kristofferson’s Jesus Was a Capricorn is a great song about the scapegoat mechanism. The song itself shows how Jesus’ death exposed the scapegoat mechanism as unjust and exposed the violence of the powers. The song also demonstrates how the powers continually want to turn it back on more scapegoats. “Everybody’s got to have somebody to look down on…”

The reason we call this a spiral of violence is that everyone thinks they are on the good side. Only in cartoons and in silly movies do people think of themselves as an “evil genius.” Everyone thinks that he is the good guy. Whether these guys live in Pyongyang, Tehran, or Washington DC., each one operates from the myth of redemptive violence.

It is no surprise that weapons and militarization are increasing. It is no surprise that individuals are amassing as many personal guns as they can. There are bad guys out there. We are good guys. We have to stand our ground. If we don’t have a scapegoat, “someone to look down on,” what do we do with our violence?

We need to learn a new plan. As Walter Wink writes:
Either we learn to stop the spiral of violence and scapegoating, or, having been stripped of the scapegoating mechanism as an outlet for our violence, we will consume ourselves in an apocalypse of fire. P. 93

We have to die to the Powers. That is we have to die to the socialization and the values we have received by the Domination System. As Wink writes:
“…we have been socialized into patterns of injustice…[we have] become complicit in our own alienation and that of others…we grew to love our bondage, to rationalize, justify, and even champion it.” P. 94

This dying and rebirth is a part of the symbolism of transformation. But it also must include a social dimension. It is not simply private peace. Wink says:
Many North American Christians die to their privatized egos, but not to the arrogance of American imperialism. Thus, dying to one’s ego can be just another false spirituality unless it involves dying to the Powers. P. 96

So when Jesus' disciples debate among themselves who is the greatest, who is the good guy, who is the one on top, he scolds them. Those are the values of the powers. They lord it over others. That is the foundation of the Domination System. Violence is built on that foundation. This is seen in violence and exploitation against people and Earth. This task of dying to the Powers does not happen once and it is over. It is a lifelong process. Writes Wink:

This means our abandoning egocentricity not only as individuals, but as cultures, as nations, even as a species, and voluntarily subordinating our desires to the needs of the total life system. P. 97

The reason we have Earth Day is because of the violence against Earth by The Powers and our complicity with them. On Earth Day celebrations all over the world today, people are resisting the powers of domination and violence to Earth and to all Earthlings.

Here is the take home:

We can do this.
Violence is not inevitable.

Human beings can and do solve virtually all of their conflicts without violence. In fact, in virtually all of our interactions, violence is not allowed as an option. Violence is not the way to solve conflicts in the home, at school, and at the workplace. The members of the Elizabethton City Council do not bring their six guns to work out budget issues. Violence is not an option. We learn violence.  We learn nonviolence.

We don’t believe and act as if our family members are so evil and vile that they must be controlled by violence. I am not saying there is not violence in homes. I am saying that we know that is wrong.
We call on our educators, social workers, and counselors and teach people skills to solve conflicts non-violently so that we can live equitably. We teach people to solve conflicts without violence. We help people leave violent situations. Violence is not an option. At almost every level of our individual and collective lives we know that and live that.

If we can do this at the level of personal interaction, we can do it at all levels of interaction if we want to do so. We could declare and live into the reality that violence is not an option. To do that we have to make commitments for justice and equity. We may have to take risks and make sacrifices because The Powers That Be do wish to keep the violence and the inequity gong.

But we could do this.
We can engage the powers and transform them.
We could decide that violence at any level is not an option.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

I think Earth Day is a fine day to make that commitment.
One Earth.
One beautiful blue ball.
One home.
One family of Earthlings.
Living in peace.
Living in equity.
Living sustainably.
Imagine it.

What a beautiful world.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

I Am No Longer Standing, Crouching, or Fawning for Vice-Moderator

It was a quick campaign, but scrappy.

It appears that our five candidates standing for moderator of the PC(USA) have chosen their mates.    Yes, I know it is a shock, but none chose me.   I just want to thank all who worked so tirelessly for my campaign.  Please don't think your hopes are dashed.  There is always tomorrow.  We gave it a go, didn't we?  Yes, we did, Beloveds.  Yes, we did.  

I received an email from someone who thought I was mocking the church, its candidates and what all.  No.  I think the candidates are all fine folks and I like our system of government.   I am happy to be a participant and delighted to be a commissioner.

I was mocking something, however. 

This was all in response to Parker Williamson's trash talk regarding me and a candidate for moderator, Rev. Janet Edwards.   I don't know of a person who is more gracious, more willing to dialogue across divisions, and more sincere in her faith than Rev. Edwards.   She is more than qualified to be moderator and if elected will represent the PC(USA) well.   When Williamson has the gall to imply that the "once-esteemed office of moderator" is no longer esteemed because Rev. Edwards is standing for it, he needs to be called out.  

It would be good for the denomination if the other media outlets would call him out.   Since they won't, I guess I will.   The LayMAN is a multi-million dollar media enterprise.  By PC(USA) standards, an empire.  Williamson can afford to put his trash and slander in the mailboxes of every Presbyterian member.  He smears people and seeks to ruin careers.   He "parades with impunity" his meanness and bullying.   That is what I was mocking.

On to General Assembly.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Rev. Jane Spahr and Marriage Equality on Religion For Life, April 19-23

In 2008, during that period of time when same-gender marriage was legal in California, Presbyterian Church (USA) minister, Rev. Jane Adams Spahr, officiated at 16 same-gender weddings. She was taken  to church court and accused of violating her ordination vows. The case finally ended up before the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, the "supreme court" of the PC(USA). By an 8-6 vote she was found guilty. Marriage is officially one man and one woman in the PC(USA) regardless of state law. She is my guest. She talks about the case, what it means for clergy and the church, and her ministry to LGBT people on Religion For Life.
“To turn my back on the love and lifelong commitments of these wonderful couples would have gone against my faith, the ministry where I was called, and most of all, against God’s amazing hospitality and welcome where love and justice meet together.” --Rev. Jane Adams Spahr
Here are some posts of mine about her work.

Listen via livestream…

Thursday, April 19th at 8 pm on WETS, 89.5.
Sunday, April 22nd, at noon on WEHC, 90.7.
Sunday, April 22nd, at 2 pm on WETS, 89.5.
Monday, April 23rd at 1 pm on WEHC, 90.7.
Via podcast beginning April 24th.

My Hope for the PC(USA)

Now that I have been made famous by none other than Parker Williamson of the LayMAN, I feel it is time to put this fame to good use.    His editorial is not only on-line but in the print edition as well.  I have been collecting copies.  I might send one to my mother.   It is also listed under the LayMAN's links for information about the upcoming General Assembly.   This is so cool.  I am so tickled that I decided to crouch and fawn for vice-moderator!  Please pick me!

Parker wasn't writing about me.  He was writing about himself.  David Walters has it right.   He also tried to belittle my colleague and friend, Rev. Janet Edwards, who has more integrity in her little finger than Parker could hope for in a lifetime.  From what I have read of Parker Williamson over the years, he thinks there are two types of people in the world:  people who think like him and unbelievers.   With that typology there is little else that he can absorb.    He has mastered the skill of bullying.    Parker's divine mandate is to bully "unbelievers" into silence.

Sadly, this has had some effect.  There are people in our denomination who have been more careful than they wanted to be about speaking on issues theological and otherwise because of the way that the LayMAN operates.    Normal people don't like to be bullied, misrepresented, and used.   They will avoid that.  That avoidance can result in not speaking out regarding issues of importance.   Of course, I am not normal.   I love it.  I would love it if the LayMAN wrote about me every week. 

What is happening is that the LayMAN is losing its teeth.   Parker has become less and less credible to more and more people.     He can't even do anything about me, a loud-mouthed nobody right across the border in a neighboring presbytery, and a conservative presbytery at that.   I parade "with impunity [my] unbelief" and Parker is impotent to do anything about it.  That must irritate him something fierce.

Since, thanks to Parker, I have your attention, I invite you to explore this blog.   That is a pretty big task since I have been writing it for nearly six years.   Parker helped with that, though.   In his editorial, he quoted from two recent sermons (March 4, February 26) and from a blog post from two years previous.    Those are good places to start.

Here is the deal.  I put my sermons and my theological musings right out there.   I take seriously what I learned in my seminary experience as well as what I continue to learn every day.   I talk about it openly.   From Parker's perspective that is called "parading with impunity."   He is all about being punitive.    I think the denomination has had enough of Parker's punitive policing.   We can think for ourselves.

So, I read, write, and now host a radio program, Religion For Life, that tackles religious issues.    I recently interviewed PC(USA) vice-moderator, Landon Whitsitt, and this week I speak with Rev. Jane Spahr about the GAPCJ decision and what this means for the PC(USA) and for equality and compassionate ministry in general.

Within a few weeks WETS and WEHC will broadcast my interviews with Bishop John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan, Bart Ehrman, and Robert Price.  The series will be called, "Will the Real Jesus Please Rise?"  It will be entertaining and thought-provoking.   For Parker, it will be further evidence of "unbelief."

I do have a belief.  I am not an "unbeliever."  I believe that God is a lot bigger than Parker Williamson's view of God.   God is certainly a lot bigger than my view of God.  So it would seem logical to expand my view.     That is what I try to do in my ministry.  That is what I think the church does when it is at its best.    I think that is the direction the PC(USA) is going.

These will be rough waters for some time as the LayMAN and others who think the denomination is sinking into apostasy and unbelief will write their articles and editorials from that point of view.    We will lose some people.  We have already.  We will gain some as well.  My congregation is an example of that.  My hope and my belief is that the PC(USA) will find its voice.    From my point of view that voice will be for open-ended inquiry, compassion, and justice.

In the meantime, I am looking forward to representing my presbytery as a commissioner to the General Assembly.   I thank my colleagues of Holston Presbytery with whom I serve and worship for this opportunity.  They are good people.   Even though we may disagree on certain things, overall, we are a community.   Parker's divisiveness will not end that.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Myth of Redemptive Violence--A Sermon

The Myth of Redemptive Violence
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

April 15th, 2012

On that day the Lord with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.
--Isaiah 27:1

All of a sudden one of those with Jesus lifted his hand, drew his sword, struck the chief priest’s slave, and cut off his ear.  Then Jesus says to him, “Put your sword back where it belongs. For everyone who takes up the sword will be destroyed by the sword.
--Matthew 26:51-52

I'm Popeye the Sailor Man,
I'm Popeye the Sailor Man.
I'm strong to the finich
Cause I eats me spinach.
I'm Popeye the Sailor Man.

I'm one tough Gazookus
Which hates all Palookas
Wot ain't on the up and square.
I biffs 'em and buffs 'em
And always out roughs 'em
But none of 'em gets nowhere.

If anyone dares to risk my "Fisk",
It's "Boff" an' it's "Wham" un'erstan'?
So keep "Good Be-hav-or"
That's your one life saver
With Popeye the Sailor Man.

It is clear by the calendar and the leaves on the trees that we are in the season of Spring. At First Presbyterian we have structured our worship services around the four seasons. Each season corresponds with a spiritual path in theologian Matthew Fox’s typology of Creation Spirituality. The spiritual path associated with Spring is the via transformativa, or the way of compassion and justice-making.

The spiritual life is an earthy life. Creation Spirituality is not ethereal. It is not about escaping the body or transcending the body, the earthly, or the material, but recognizing, celebrating, and an engaging the sacred nature of the body, the earthly, and the material.

These four paths
celebrate with awe and wonder the universe in all its vitality and mystery,
honor mortality, limits, struggle, and the need to let go,
welcome creativity as the vital force of change,
and engage Earth and all of life with compassion and justice.

An image for working through these spiritual paths is a spiral danced rather than a ladder climbed.

Creation Spirituality is neither fluffy or spooky in my opinion. It is not about denying reality and substituting pipe dreams in its place. At least as I have adopted and adapted it, Creation Spirituality is a way to engage the contingencies and the mystery of life with awareness, commitment, and possibility. It isn’t about believing dogmatic theologies that control, punish, and reward. There is nothing you have “to believe.” There is no orthodoxy.

There is an acknowledgement that religion is a human product. The stories that we have created regarding God are our stories. They are the stories of our ancestors as they used their creativity to find meaning in this strange mystery of existence. Since our religion is a human product, so are the religions of others. We approach them as we do our own, with curiosity, respect, critique, and engagement.

The fourth path, the via transformativa, or the way of compassion and justice-making is taking that creativity (path 3) which arises from the intersection of wonder (path 1) and struggle (path 2), and directing that creativity toward justice for all earthlings, including our more than human earthlings and Earth itself.

Creation Spirituality embraces science of course. The rise of science is the icon of human creativity. Creation Spirituality also invites humanity to direct that creativity, that scientific and technical knowledge, toward sustainability and justice. Creativity is not a good in and of itself. Not all ideas, not all creativity leads to justice, fairness, and sustainability. Our creativity has created the most destructive weapons imaginable. The challenge of our time is place our creativity in service to humanity and to all earthlings and to Earth, for present generations and to the thousandth generation into the future. No small order.

It is critical that each of us consciously takes up that challenge. The path of compassion and justice is the path of engagement and it is a spiritual path. This path involves awareness and critique. That critique exposes destructive mythologies and values. This fourth path of Creation Spirituality is the path of exposing, naming, unmasking, and engaging those forces that are certainly creative but behaving in ways that diminish the goodness of life.

We can call these forces “The Powers That Be”. “The Powers That Be” are not particular people. They are the unseen forces that determine how the world works. “The Powers That Be” make up the personality of institutions. They consist of the ideology, the mythology, the structures and the rules. I talked about this last week. I’ll repeat it here.

When we speak of things like the “mainstream media” or “Wall Street” or “corporations” or “the government” or “the church” we are not speaking of particular individuals, except as those individuals participate in their role as agents for “The Powers That Be” of the institution in question. The individuals, the managers, the executives, and so forth are interchangeable. Sometimes when speaking of “The Powers That Be” we use the phrase “they”. That is what “they” say. That is what “they” do.

These “Powers That Be” lose sight of their intended purpose and instead become self-serving. Theologian Walter Wink says that the powers are good, fallen, and redeemable, all at once. When they are “fallen” they do not act on behalf of what is good for human beings or for Earth, but for their own self-interest or their own profits or power.

This is not hard to see. The resources of Earth, whether it be fresh water or forests or fossil fuels and minerals, that have been formed from deep time, hundreds of millions, even billions of years, are being processed and used within a few human lifetimes, two centuries perhaps, with an ever-increasing gap between those who have access to these resources and those who do not.

“The Powers That Be” the personalities of our institutions that include, government, corporations, education, media, and religion, act as though this is perfectly normal, that there is no other way to live. We are told that there is this “economy” that must grow indefinitely. Whatever it takes to feed it must be done. It is as though it is alive, like a monster.

This injustice which is another name for unsustainability, against future generations and against those who lose out in this resource race in this generation, is held together by organized violence. Weaponry and militarization on behalf of the powers are needed to keep this inequity and this injustice going. You cannot have inequality without violence. When the media report a violent outbreak among the Palestinians or in Greece, what they are not reporting is the systemic, organized violence that has been present there all along. Just because there is quiet that does not mean there is peace.

Underlying the violence itself is the myth of violence. That is what I want to speak about today.

This myth of violence, or as Walter Wink calls it, this “myth of redemptive violence” is what needs to be addressed at an intellectual and spiritual level. This is part of the work of the fourth spiritual path.

What is the myth of redemptive violence?

Let me put it this way. If everyone on Earth consumed at the rate of the average North American, we would need five planets of resources. Or another statistic. The world currently produces 78-80 million barrels of oil each day. The United States consumes about 18 million barrels of oil each day. The U.S. consumes about 25% of the world’s oil. We are about 5% of the world’s population. That is an inequity. I am not making a judgment, just stating facts.

Here is another fact. The United States spends more on its military than the next 17 nations combined. The U.S. spends six times more than the next big spender, China. We have military bases and a military presence all over the world, especially in those places with prized resources.

Is there a correlation or a connection between those facts? Is there any connection between being the biggest military on the planet by a factor of six and the consumer of resources vs. the rest of the world by a factor of five? Anyone who might look at those facts objectively would say, yes. The military-industrial complex keeps this inequality in place. But, it would not be polite to say that, nor patriotic. More than that, for most Americans it is impossible to see. You are squirming in your pews right now and you are the liberal bunch. “He can’t talk about that. That isn’t spiritual.”

The reason we cannot see it is because we have been trained from childhood with the myth of redemptive violence. Everywhere we look, from movies, cartoons, national celebrations, media editorials, and media reports, reinforce the belief that there are bad guys out there and they can only be stopped by good guys with weapons. We have to defeat terrorism. The enemy used to be communists, and we will use them again if we need to do so. Muslim fundamentalists are the latest incarnation of bad guys.

The myth of redemptive violence is the myth that violence saves as long as it is in the hands of the good guys and not the bad guys. Popeye is good. Bluto is bad. Superman is good. Lex Luthor is bad. The Terminator is good. The Terminated were bad. This myth is as old as civilization itself.

How does good defeat evil?

By recognizing that we all have good and evil within us and if we honestly talk about our feelings, wants , observations, and thoughts, and work together with negotiation and collaboration, we can come to solutions on shared problems?

Ppppssshhh. What kind of movie is that? What kind of entertainment is that? Popeye doesn’t have a conversation with Bluto and work out their problems by using “I” statements and acknowledging feelings. No, after 25 minutes of being pounded by Bluto, Popeye, miraculously finds his spinach, and at last minute biffs him and buffs him and always out roughs him. This continues episode after episode after episode. Neither of them ever learn a thing.

This plot, this myth, is played out in every cartoon. Our children know this myth simply by breathing the air. It doesn’t end with children. It is provided in adult formula as well in movies, television and in the news reports about war heroes. We are the good guys. We are fighting the bad guys. If you ever have a lingering doubt and have a fleeting heretical thought that connects consumption with war, just calm yourself and say, “We are the good guys. We are fighting the bad guys.” Then go shopping.

When “The Powers That Be” decided that Iraq wanted a regime change, they obliged by pounding the American and British populace with the message that Saddam Hussein was evil, had weapons of mass destruction, and the only way to deal with him was to bomb and invade the country. The heretics said things like, “You don’t think this might need more conversation? You don’t think there might be other ways of engaging this than war? Do you think your own geopolitical interests might be coloring your judgment?”

The answer was, “Of course not. Why do you hate America?”

Why do you hate America? If you question the myth of redemptive violence, that is the answer. What you are hating is the myth that has taken on spiritual depth in our psyches. Violence saves. We are saved by identifying with the hero who God has blessed with victory by his glorious sword. To say anything else is blasphemy.

The answer is from my perspective that I love America. I want it to do right. When it is uncritical of its violence and consumption it isn’t doing right. We need a better guiding myth than the myth of redemptive violence.

This isn’t just about the United States. This myth is as old as civilization.

The Ancient Near Eastern Babylonian version is the Enuma Elish. In this ancient myth, Marduk slew Tiamat the sea monster with an arrow. He took his sword, and cut her carcass in two parts. From her carcass he created the heavens above and the earth below. Her blood became the blood of the gods who in turn created human beings to be their slaves. This myth gave license for the king to control the people with violence because it is believed they were created by violence and that is all they understand.

In the 5th century BCE, the ancient Hebrews were in captivity to the Babylonians. They learned their myths. They took this story of Marduk and Tiamat and rewrote it. I t became Genesis chapter one. They demythologized the story. Tiamat became the deep, or the unordered waters. Same root word. The sun god became the greater light that God turned on. And so forth. The creation itself was not an act of violence but of creativity. God called to be and it was. Humans were created not as slaves but as good and in God’s image. Violence is not part of the created order but an aberration. It could be conquered as YHWH said to Cain, “Sin is crouching at the door, but you must master it.”

There are earlier more violent versions of creation in the Bible. In the Psalms and in Isaiah, YHWH creates by destroying Leviathan or Rahab the sea monster. Those are leftovers from the earlier mythology. The Bible is ambiguous about the myth of redemptive violence. At times it is critical as in the teachings and parables of Jesus and in some of the literature of the Hebrew Scriptures. Sometimes it uncritically embraces it as in the violent stories of Joshua and in Revelation when Jesus is seen as the conqueror at the end of time. We should read the Bible critically as well.

The fourth spiritual path of Creation Spirituality is to engage the powers and challenge them to do justice. Yes it is spiritual work. I am going to be spending the next several weeks talking about this work. Walter Wink and his book, The Powers That Be, will be a conversation partner.

What I want you to take away today is this. Organized violence that we see in the empires of civilization is taught. It has become mythologized. The myth reinforces a lie that humans are either good or evil and that the good must overcome the evil by violence. By violence we are saved and redeemed. This myth of redemptive violence is used to justify inequity. It is legitimated by religion.

I invite you this week simply to observe. Watch the cartoons, the video games, the news reports, the movies, and see if you can identify the myth of redemptive violence.

We can break this cycle. We can embrace a theology that says human beings are not inherently violent. We are a mix of motives. We can do the important work of being self-aware. Maturity and salvation comes from recognizing that the evil is not the other. The evil is the violence. What we do on an everyday level, solving conflicts by conversation, sharing feelings, separating observations from our evaluations, can be done at all levels. Religion does not have to legitimate violence. We have resources within our Christian tradition, traditions about Jesus that can empower us toward a non-violent and sustainable future.


Friday, April 13, 2012

I Want to be Vice-Moderator of the Presbyterian Church General Assembly

I am officially tossing my hat into the ring to be Vice-Moderator of the 220th General Assembly (2012) of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Please pick me.

As I reported previously, Parker Williamson of the LayMAN heralded with trumpets my election as commissioner from Holston Presbytery.   He even included this grand pronouncement in the print edition!    I have been as giddy as a schoolboy ever since.

I now realize that this must be a calling from the Lord.

I humbly offer myself as Vice-Moderator.  
I know that candidates who run for moderator don't really run.  They stand for moderator.   What is the correct posture for a vice-moderator?  Crouch?  Limp?  Creep?  Waddle?

I just want you candidates for moderator to know, that whatever posture is required, I will serve.

For those candidates who have already chosen a crouching mate, rest assured that you can dump him or her.  It is OK.  I am in the race now.  Pick me.  God said to.

Was Jesus a Parable? A Review of John Dominic Crossan's New Book

John Dominic Crossan's latest book is a reminder of why I like him so much.

More than any other individual scholar, Dr. Crossan has enabled me to remain in the Christian tradition and to discover a credible Jesus within it.

Does that mean that beyond a doubt his reconstruction of the historical Jesus is "the guy?" No. It could be that the historical Jesus was a deluded apocalyptic fanatic. It could be that the historical Jesus never existed. It could be that the historical Jesus resembled one of or a combination of any variety of portraits that have been painted.

Who knows? That is the point. Nobody knows. I tend to think that Jesus the prophet of distributive justice through non-violence was not only credible then but credible now.   His vision inspired action then and it inspires action now.  His movement was hopeful then. It is hopeful today. That is the Jesus I can preach.  I find it reasonable that a Jesus that can preach in the present also was credible in his own time as someone to follow.

You will find that Jesus in The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus by John Dominic Crossan.

His book consists of two parts with an interlude.  In chapters one through six, he discusses the parables that Jesus told.   He describes three types of parables, riddle, example, and challenge.   Dr. Crossan demonstrates that the parables of Jesus were shaped by the gospel writers. 

A riddle is a puzzle to figure out such as when Mark has Jesus tell the parable of the seed that fell into the various types of ground.  The riddle is that each type of ground represents a type of person.   If you have insider information, you will get the riddle.    That is not the way Jesus told the parable.  That is how Mark mis-understood the parables of Jesus.

An example is a parable that teaches behavior such as the way Luke has Jesus tell the parable of the Good Samaritan ("go and do likewise").   An example parable is like a visual aid.  The real point is the exhortation, be good, pray often, don't give up trying, etc.   That is not the way Jesus told the parable.  That is how Luke mis-understood the parables of Jesus.

The preferred type of parable told by Jesus is the challenge parable.  An example of this parable is found in  the stories of Ruth, Jonah, and Job in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Challenge parables are not attacks.   They are not examples or riddles.  They challenge by surprise.

For instance, in the time of Ezra/Nehemiah when Israel was forming itself after the exile, the men were to divorce foreign women (such as Moabite women).   In that context arises the nice story of faithful and courageous Ruth, who by the way, we learn in the last few verses, is the ancestor of David.   What would have happened if Boaz had not married a foreign woman?  No David.

A challenge parable doesn't insist.  It is subtle and therefore, powerful. 
They want to seduce you into thought rather than beat you into silence and batter you into subjection.  p. 137
The "Good Samaritan" is a challenge parable as opposed to Luke's bracketing of it as an example parable.  A "good" Samaritan is an oxymoron.   Pick a category of a person you truly despise as a lifelong or generation after generation enemy and tell a story of that person being good, in fact, better than your own kind.  And do it subtly so that people are forced to think before simply reacting or feeling browbeaten.   That is the artistry of Jesus who both in content and form articulated his kingdom vision.
My answer is that the challenge parables are a profoundly appropriate rhetoric--even, indeed, an absolutely necessary one--for the two aspects of Jesus's vision of that kingdom, namely, its collaborative and nonviolent characteristics.  p. 133
Dr. Crossan sees Jesus announcing that God's kingdom is not a future, supernatural, violent event that God will bring.  Instead it is among you if you will take up the challenge:
Jesus is not just announcing to his audience that God's kingdom is now present.  He is announcing that is only present if and when it is accepted, entered into, and taken upon oneself.  p. 134
Jesus told parables.  He told fictional stories about fictional characters.  We have these stories as they have been collected and retold by the authors of the gospels.  The gospels are parables as well.  They are fictional stories about an historical figure, Jesus.   In the interlude, Dr. Crossan recounts Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon.  Is that parable or history?   It is parable, but parable about an historical event.  
The entire earthly life, death by assassination, and heavenly ascension of Julius Caesar were rampant with parabolic history and historical parable.  So were the earthly life, death by execution, and heavenly ascension of Jesus Christ.   p. 152
In Part 2, chapters seven through ten, Dr. Crossan discusses each of the four gospels as megaparables about Jesus.  As opposed to myth, he prefers the term parable.  But what kind of parables are they?   Are they challenge parables in the way that Jesus told challenge parables?  Sometimes.  They are also attack parables.  Such as when Jesus rants and raves about the hypocrites who are all going to hell.  Probably not Jesus.  More likely the gospel writer using Jesus as a mouthpiece to take on his/her own enemies.   At times the gospel writers are consistent with the vision of Jesus and at times not.  Each has a story to tell and a challenge to offer.

Mark's parable is a challenge to the leadership of the Jesus movement who chose the wrong path as seen in the choice of Barabbas over Jesus.  This is parable not history.  History was the choice of violent resistance to Rome by the Jews in 66-70 CE.  That is when Mark is written.  Mark creates the parable of Jesus trial, death, and resurrection as a challenge to leadership to stay in Galilee and choose the non-violent resistance of Jesus as opposed to the violent resistance of Barabbas.

Matthew's parable is an attack parable.  He creates a fantastic portrait of Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount and then turns him into a raving psychotic in chapter 23.   This attack has unfortunate consequences throughout the centuries against Jews and all others who are "to be cast into outer darkness."

What about Luke-Acts?  Dr. Crossan calls it "an attack on Judaism but also a challenge to Rome."  p. 218   Christianity will have a Roman future.  Luke-Acts paved the way for the eventual marriage of church and empire.  The challenge to Rome was not distributive justice as Jesus preached, but charity. 

John's parable is an attack on Judaism and also Christianity.  It also (like all the gospels) challenge the Roman Empire.  John more than Luke-Acts wants to transform Rome's violence rather than accommodate it.
This book is packed with interesting insights into the gospels and how they shaped the historical Jesus.  It provides a plausible account of a person whose vision and style of articulating that vision created a movement that endured beyond his violent death.  Dr. Crossan's Jesus is a real person even as he has been made into a parable by the gospel writers.  In the epilogue, Dr. Crossan takes on the question of whether or not Jesus existed at all by appealing to external and internal evidence.  
Externally, therefore, two historians at the turn of the first to second century explain "Christ" as the founder of a movement that was not stopped by his execution, but spread in time and place--whether as "an unbroken love" with Josephus or as a "pernicious superstition" with Tacitus.  That is the external proof of the factuality of Jesus, but, for me at least, the internal one is even more decisive.  p. 249
The internal evidence for Dr. Crossan is that Jesus himself morphed from a challenge parable to an attack parable.  The attack escalates from riding a donkey into Jerusalem to riding a war horse in Revelation.
The nonviolent incarnate Jesus has become the violent apocalyptic Jesus.  p. 250
How is that again?
Here is the point:  If you are inventing a non-historical figure, why invent one you cannot live with, but must steadily and terminally change into its opposite?  In other words, I find it much more likely that Jesus was an actual historical figure whose radical insistence on nonviolent distributive justice was both accepted and negated by the tradition it engendered.  I conclude that Jesus was an actual, factual, historical figure and not a metaphorical, symbolic, or parabolic invention by his first-century Jewish contemporaries.  p. 251
Dr. Crossan asks one more question.  Would it matter for the Christian faith if Jesus was a fictional character from top to bottom?   Dr. Crossan offers this interesting answer.  If Jesus were real, it means his vision could be enacted:
If it were done, it could be done again--and by others.  That, of course, is the challenge of Jesus as an actual, factual, historical figure.  If any one human being can do anything in life and death, other human beings can do likewise....The power of Jesus's historical life challenged his followers by proving at least one human being could cooperate fully with God.  And if one, why not others?  If some, why not all?  "Ashes denote," wrote Emily Dickinson, "that fire was."  And if fire ever was, fire can be again.  p. 252
I might quibble over this last paragraph.  I think there have been people throughout history who have followed this vision of Jesus in some form or another however imperfectly.   In fact, I think there are people today who do so.  Some may even be reading the words of this blog.   They may or may not do so because Jesus actually existed.  They might have been inspired by the mythos or parable of Jesus, or they may have lived it because they think it is a good way to live.  

I like Crossan's Jesus (with a little mix of Funk, the Five Gospels, Horsley, Herzog, and Wink).  But if he fades into fiction and leaves nothing but a smile, I will have to manage somehow.  And I will.  Until then, this Jesus preaches.  

Bob Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar used to say:   
“Beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you.”
I am pretty sure that goes back to the Historical Funk.  That is good advice.   It is true that Crossan's "peacenik" Jesus is more congenial to me than  Ehrman's "looney" Jesus or Price's "nobody's home" Jesus. 

Does the criterion of congeniality alone make Crossan's Jesus less credible?

Not really.  One could equally redact the Historical Funk to say:
"Beware of finding a Jesus entirely despicable to you."
The Historical Funk was speaking with the assumption that scholars actually liked Jesus.  That assumption no longer holds.  There are scholars whose theology or a-theology would benefit by finding a Jesus who either doesn't exist or is someone few would care to admire let alone follow.   A more reprehensible or non-existent Jesus is not necessarily more historical.     

I think the Jesus of distributive justice reflects a long-standing tradition within human history and literature including the Bible.   I think it is credible that an individual captured that vision and hope and inspired others to do the same.   

Monday, April 09, 2012

Singer/Songwriter Andrew McKnight on Religion For Life, April 12-16

Singer, songwriter, guitar player, and poet, Andrew McKnight is my guest. He performed a benefit concert for us a few months ago to raise awareness against mountain top removal mining. He sings about the people, places, and passions of Appalachia:
Since permanently leaving his corporate environmental engineering career in 1996, award-winning folk and Americana artist Andrew McKnight's musical journey has traced over half a million miles of blue highways, and earned him a wealth of critical acclaim and enthusiastic fans for his captivating performances and five CDs.
While he was in the neighborhood, he stopped by the studio, talked with me and sang a few of his songs. I have the interview and the songs he sung just for you this week on Religion For Life!


Listen via livestream…

Thursday, April 12th at 8 pm on WETS, 89.5.
Sunday, April 15th, at noon on WEHC, 90.7.
Sunday, April 15th, at 2 pm on WETS, 89.5.
Monday, April 16th at 1 pm on WEHC, 90.7.
Via podcast beginning April 10th.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Easter and the Powers That Be--A Sermon

Easter and The Powers That Be
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

April 8, 2012
Easter Sunday

I Corinthians 2:6-8

Now of course I do have something to say about wisdom, when I am with those who can fully comprehend it, but it’s not a wisdom of this age nor of those who rule it at present, all of whom are destined to be deposed. I am talking about a hidden and mysterious wisdom of God which God intended before time began: to raise us to the glory of God’s presence. None of the rulers of this age knew anything about this. If they had known, they would not have crucified the one who has become our exalted lord.

I want to speak today of the phrase, the concept, and the reality of “The Powers That Be.” You know that phrase. The Apostle Paul in the scripture I just read from I Corinthians uses the phrase, “the rulers of this age.” I am pretty sure that is the same thing as the phrase we know as “The Powers That Be”.

“The Powers That Be” or “the rulers of this age” are not particular people. They are the unseen forces that determine how the world works. “The Powers That Be” make up the personality of institutions. They consist of the ideology, the mythology, the structures and the rules. If you want to get ahead in an institution you play by the rules. You learn those rules that are unwritten. Everyone knows the rules.

When we speak of things like the “mainstream media” or “Wall Street” or “corporations” or “the government” or “the church” we are not speaking of particular individuals, except as those individuals participate in their role as agents for “The Powers That Be” of the institution in question. The individuals, the managers, the executives, and so forth are interchangeable. Sometimes when speaking of “The Powers That Be” we use the phrase “they”. That is what “they” say. That is what “they” do.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck told of the story of a family migrating from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression. In the telling of this family’s journey Steinbeck painted for us a portrait of the times. He wrote about how people lost the land and how bewildered they were in how it all happened. Unseen forces and powers were at work that were beyond their control and comprehension.

This is an excerpt from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. It describes what happened when the bank repossessed the land from those who had worked it, in some cases for generations:
The owners of the land came onto the land, or more often a spokesman for the owners came….if a bank or finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank—or the Company—needs—wants—insists—must have—as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time….

You see, a bank or a company…those creatures don’t breathe air, don’t eat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don’t get it, they die….the bank—the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die. No, taxes go on. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size…we have to do it. We don’t like to do it. But the monster’s sick. Something’s happened to the monster….
Sure, cried the tenant men, but it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours….

We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.

Yes, but the bank is only made of men.

No, you’re wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it. Pp. 42-45

I don’t repeat this quote in my sermon to pick on banks. It is just that Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath happens to be one of the finest illustrations of “The Powers That Be” in literature.

It is important to say that institutions and the powers that be that are the driving forces within these institutions are not necessarily bad. They simply are. In fact when they uphold the good they are good. Theologian Walter Wink writes that the powers are simultaneously good, fallen, and redeemable. All three all at once.

There are times when the powers become like monsters as in the excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath. That is when the institutions lose sight of wisdom, that is, of their intended vocation, and instead become ends in and of themselves. This is the situation in The Grapes of Wrath. The banks lost sight of their intended purpose. Instead of enabling people to stay on their land, by means of sharing capital, they made their own profits their purpose. This story is being played out before our eyes every day in the present.

“The Powers That Be” have their effects on us individually as well. When we become self-absorbed, cynical, and despairing, that is a sign that we are beaten down by the powers. The work of engaging and transforming “The Powers That Be” is the work of Easter. That work is both within and without.

All the images, symbols, and themes associated with Easter such as resurrection, rebirth, a new day, dying to an old way of being and rising to a new way of being, are part of this engagement and transformation of the powers within us and outside of us.

Easter is a shift. Easter is a shift in consciousness. It is what Paul called the wisdom of God “that raises us to the glory of God’s presence.”

That is why we say liturgically that we are invited to live the Easter faith in the present. Christ is risen today, in the present. Today is Resurrection Day and so forth. Today is the new day. Today you are a new person. That is the spirit of the poem from Mary Oliver that I included in the bulletin:

What I want to say is
that the past is the past,
and the present is what your life is,
and you are capable
of choosing what that will be,
darling citizen.

So come to the pond,
or the river of your imagination,
or the harbor of your longing,

and put your lips to the world.
And live
your life.

That is I think the wisdom of God that Paul speaks about. Had the powers that be, or the rulers of this age, known that wisdom, “they would not have crucified the one who has become our exalted lord” writes Paul. They wouldn’t have felt they needed to do so. Had they known that wisdom they would not have seen Jesus as a threat.

Regardless of “The Powers That Be” we, that is you and I, have the capability of choosing what we will be at the deepest level of our self. That is the wisdom of meditation, for instance. Through the practice of meditation or through the practice of participating in the life of a conscientious community we experience ourselves free, liberated from thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and powers.

This individual liberation that is part of the Easter experience is very important especially for those who engage the powers of the institutions. Our congregation is an activist church in many respects. While we try not to tell people what to think or do, we nevertheless do engage issues of importance. Whether those issues include our environment, working for peace, for healthcare, for civil rights for LGBT people, or for science and religious literacy, we engage the powers. It can be discouraging work. The powers are called powers for a reason. They are powerful. At times intractable.

If we don’t have a center, if we aren’t careful, we can take many paths that are going to be dead ends. I am not speaking hypothetically, I am speaking from experience. We can be discouraged or cynical, even immobilized. We can be self-righteous or aloof. We can even become what we hate and return violent speech or actions with the same.

Paul knew this. Jesus knew this. Krishna and the Buddha knew this. The wisdom is not to avoid engagement but to engage with awareness. Krishna spoke of it as doing one’s duty without being attached to the results. The Christian way of saying it is to live and act with integrity and leave the results up to God.

Easter is a celebration and an acknowledgment that the wisdom of God has been around for a while. As Paul writes, “I am talking about a hidden and mysterious wisdom of God which God intended before time began: to raise us to the glory of God’s presence.” That is poetic and metaphorical language. What other language can we use? It is language that speaks about the glory of being human as God created us. We are now in God’s presence. We are human beings created with and for dignity. Nothing can take that away.

That is why I think the original followers of Jesus did not give up when Jesus and thousands of others were tortured and executed by “The Powers That Be”. Rather than give up in despair and rather than return evil for evil, they found inner strength and became creative. They said,
“Every time we gather for a meal of bread and wine we will remember. We are Christ's body. Christ is alive with us. We will continue to remember and to resist. We will show hospitality to those who are victims of imperial bullying, to the outcast, to the slave, to the stranger. We will lean on and support each other. We will remember and tell the stories of the victims. When we get self-righteous or discouraged and when we lose hope, we will remember who we are and whose we are. And we will dream, hope, and work for the day in which the kingdom of God, the empire of God, the empire of justice and peace, the wisdom of God which God intended before time began, will be realized on Earth.”

That is what the original acclamation, “Christ is risen” meant.

Christ was risen in them.
Christ is risen in us.
Christ is risen in you.

Today is a new day.
Our past is past.
Kiss it goodbye.
The old has gone,
the new has begun.

You who hunger and thirst for justice, wisdom, peace…
Come to the table.

As Mary Oliver writes:
So come to the pond,
or the river of your imagination,
or the harbor of your longing,
and put your lips to the world.
And live
Your life.


Friday, April 06, 2012

Good Friday? A Reflection

Good Friday?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
April 6, 2012
Good Friday
Mark 15:1-47

A few years ago a poster advertising Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion, featured an image of Christ wearing a crown of thorns. The caption read:
Dying was his reason for living.

The movie itself was about his supposed last hours cobbled together from the various accounts in the gospels and other traditions. It was an incredibly violent and bloody film, typical of a Mel Gibson film.

Why are we so obsessed with the death of Jesus?
Dying was his reason for living.


Much of Christian theology has been used to induce guilt and shame. You are so bad that Jesus had to die on the cross. The bloodier and more painful the death serves to demonstrate the depth of your depravity. You deserve all that beating. But Jesus took it for you. That is default Christianity. I call it spiritual abuse.

Jesus had a life before he died. The things he did and the things he said were provocative enough to put him on the wrong side of the authorities. From the things people remembered that he did and said, he was critical of the authorities. He was critical of the religious authorities and of the political authorities.

That is what got him killed.

He challenged systems of authority that took advantage of widows, of the poor, and of the outcast. He created a movement. And it was threatening enough that those in power felt the need to stop him. Perhaps to make of him an example.

That is what got him killed.

He was on the side of people who were oppressed by the economic policies of the temple. He was on the side of people considered unclean and sinners by the religious.

That is what got him killed.

He is remembered for telling parables and stories that upset people. He used a phrase "kingdom of God." That phrase means little to us because we have tamed it. Most folks thanks to the theologians think it is another phrase for heaven, a place the true believers go when they die.

It is likely that it was a political statement. It was a social statement. It was a statement of hope. As opposed to the kingdom of Caesar, imagine what the kingdom of God is like. It wasn't just a fantasy, a story. It was a movement. This is the kingdom to live for, to work for, perhaps even to die for. It is a kingdom of justice and compassion. In this kingdom, in this political economy the hungry are filled with good things. Now let's make it so. That was Jesus’ message.

Jesus was about making changes in this world.

That is what got him killed.

He talked about compassion. He talked about moving beyond ethnic boundaries and divisions. He talked about forgiveness. Not something you go to the priest for or even to God for, but your neighbor. The neighbor is who we hurt, not God. The neighbor is the one from whom we need forgiveness. We get it as we give it.

Jesus worked to bring people together: Samaritan and Jew, Greek and Roman. He practiced an open table, rich and poor, male and female. He challenged unjust boundaries and rules.

That is what got him killed.

Dying was not his reason for living.
Living was his reason for dying.

For life, he died. For integrity, he died. For compassion, he died. For justice, he died. For change, he died.

He was in the way. He was in the way of progress. He was in the way of Rome. He was in the way of the religious authorities who had sold out their people to Rome. He was killed as were many just like him.

Jesus didn’t die of old age. He didn’t die of cancer. He didn’t get trampled accidentally by a runaway horse. Jesus was bullied to death. Not only Jesus, but thousands of people were tortured and executed methodically in a spectacle of brutality and control. Jesus was a victim of imperial terrorism.

There was and is nothing sacred and holy about the execution and torture of Jesus or of anyone.  If anything, remembering the death of Jesus should summon us to honor life not death. It should give us the courage and commitment to speak out and not remain silent in the face of torture, execution, violence, injustice, and needless suffering around the world.

The Easter acclamation, “Christ is Risen!” meant what? I think it meant that they, the people, those who told and wrote the stories about Jesus had had enough. They had had enough of Rome’s bullying. They said,
“Every time we gather for a meal of bread and wine we will remember. We are Christ's body. Christ is alive with us. We will continue to remember and to resist. We will show hospitality to those who are victims of imperial bullying, to the outcast, to the slave, to the stranger. We will lean on and support each other. We will remember and tell the stories of the victims. And we will dream, hope, and work for the day in which the kingdom of God, the empire of God, the empire of justice and peace will be realized on Earth.”

Obviously, Christianity evolved and moved in all kinds of directions and embraced many different mythologies and interpretations, and some of them quite good and helpful. But it is important not to lose sight of our roots. The earliest interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus is this:
In Christ, Empire’s brutality is overcome by God’s justice.

I wear this cross around my neck to remind me whose side I need to be on.

Jesus' life was fast. Like Martin Luther King, they both died before reaching forty. But their lives burned with passion and fire. They burned out for compassion and justice.

Apparently, they believed that it is better to have burned out than never to have burned at all.

Whenever any of us stands up for those who are abused or put down or who suffer injustice from bullies big and small, we practice true religion.

We live in the example and spirit of Jesus.

Only if today helps us to live a life that matters can we dare call it Good Friday.


Thursday, April 05, 2012

Janet and Me to Rule General Assembly

After nearly twenty years in the ministry, I finally get to go to the PC(USA) General Assembly.  

The LayMAN broke the story.
Shuck has been elected by Holston Presbytery to serve as a voting commissioner to the PCUSA’s 2012 General Assembly.

That is the truth.  Even though there may be a thousand other commissioners (or however many there are) what is important is that I am going.  As we all know Beloveds, it is all about me.   

Well it is about me and Janet.
Shuck is not alone. At the General Assembly, he will find allies who are equally dismissive of God’s Word. The Rev. Janet Edwards, a self-identified “bisexual” whose officiating at lesbian wedding ceremonies have made the news in recent years, will also be there as a voting commissioner, promoting her bid to become moderator of the General Assembly.
Me and Janet the bisexual are going to occupy GA.   Because of that...
Biblically faithful Presbyterians by the tens of thousands are heading for the exit. That massive migration has so seriously enervated the few evangelical Christians remaining that Edwards may now campaign for the once-esteemed office of moderator while Shuck parades with impunity his unbelief.
I couldn't pay an advertising company to create a better endorsement.  Thank you, Parker!   He is my SuperPac Daddy!   Janet and I also received endorsements from his disciples:
"I am always amazed that leaders such as John Shuck are permitted to continue to minister within the PCUSA with their heretical teachings."  Rev. Soto
I am amazed too now and again.  But not all are amazed:
I cannot believe that anyone is surprised by the heresy and apostasy running absolutely rampant in the PCUSA.  With enormous hubris and arrogance, Shuck has been trumpeting his heresy in his blog and pulpit for years, aided and abetted by fellow travelers and non-believers in his "congregation" and his presbytery. 

"That he and Edwards ("... who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality...") and others like them will be allowed to pollute and poison the processes and activities of the upcoming GA, and is a completely foreseeable result of the capture of our hierarchy by liberal progressives who are hostile to, and dismissive of, the Word of God.  The orthodox believers remaining in this denomination should be prepared for even more apostasy in July.  Shame on Pittsburgh and Holston for even sending these people to GA."  Rev. Yearsley 
There you have it.

But you don't know the latest.   Janet is "standing for moderator" for GA.  What that means is that all the candidates for moderator stand there and the one who pulls the sword from the stone gets to be queen.   I am certain that Janet, as prophetess and anointed bisexual, will receive this divine honor.  

When Janet becomes Queen of Presbyteriandom she will in turn, crown me as Duke.


I already have the hat.

Together we will parade with impunity and pollute and poison the General Assembly with apostasy.  

Here is our platform:  
Free ice cream for everyone every Friday.
We learned our lesson from history.  It is not enough to let them eat cake as the fated Marie Antoinette learned too late.   

Let them eat cake and ice cream!