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Chasing After Wind

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As part of my fellowship I am required to periodically write theological reflections relating to my time in Zambia. I thought this one would be good food for thought for this blog.

“Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun.  Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them!  On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them.  And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 4:1-3).

 

These lines from Ecclesiastes offer one of the most exquisite expressions of despair I have ever come across. They take the refrain of “Everything is vanity!” and give it meat, filling it out with the realities of oppression. The oppressors have power and continue to gain power over the oppressed who have tears and continue to shed tears. In saying that neither the oppressed nor the oppressors have anyone to comfort them, the teacher reveals that this unjust relationship creates a condition of brokenness for both. The teacher then shows that this condition of brokenness rooted in unjust power relationships has become systemic in all the world. For, it is better to be dead and still better to have never been born than to witness this evil that exists under the sun.

I cannot help but read this in light of the teacher’s image of chasing after wind—an image evoked no fewer than nine times throughout the short book (1:14, 1:17, 2:11, 2:26, 4:4, 4:6, 4:16, 5:16, 6:9). It is an image illustrating what is often interpreted as the futility of our actions, from the toil of our hands to the quest for wisdom. The teacher initiates this image in the opening chapter by describing the circuitousness of the wind, going round and round and back again (1:6). In effect, when we embark on the impossible journey of chasing the wind we end up running in circles, retracing over and over again the same steps we and others have taken before.

Having spent significant time in India and now in Zambia, I have gotten much more in touch with paradigms of circular continuous time in which patterns of life and history repeat themselves as time progresses towards some end—of course with the belief that perhaps after that end it all might start over again. I include “continuous” not only because time still progresses but because there is a general continuity of life in the persistence of spirits, ancestors, and even the self on this same plane of existence after death. I do not buy into the often oversimplified distinction between Western paradigms of time as linear and progressive and Eastern paradigms of time as circular, but I do think that in broad strokes the West has been more controlled by the narrative of progress. 

I think that the teacher of Ecclesiastes is also more prone to view the world through the narrative of progress, though perhaps with a healthy understanding that progress should not be the end goal of life. With progress as the major driving narrative, each repeating pattern seems like a failure, as it shows we have not learned from what has come before. It thus makes sense that chasing the wind in circles and realizing that there is nothing new under the sun would cause great exasperation and despair. If, however, the seeming failures and futilities of life were viewed through the lens of circular continuous time, there would be an acknowledgement and even acceptance that history repeats itself. The key, though, is that these circular repetitions are still continuing along toward some end. Further, without linear progress as the central narrative, there would also be more acknowledgement of the good that is repeated throughout history as well as the incremental growth that does occur.

I am learning that I need to keep integrating my linear progressive paradigm with the circular continuous paradigm, for if I do not then I will indeed sink into the despair portrayed in the verses at the head of this reflection. It is difficult to be away from the U.S. each time there is another mass shooting, another black life lost to State violence, another hate crime, another drone campaign, and another weekend of killings in Chicago. Every single time I hang my head and cry out, “Why haven’t we learned? How do we allow this to keep happening? There is no comfort for the oppressed! There is no comfort for the oppressor!” 

The same thing happens when I see the recolonization of Africa and the rise of despots and civil wars on the continent. Along with continued neocolonialism by major corporations, there seems to be an actual recolonization by China. Money is paid to governments, and Chinese companies take over the extraction industries. They even bring their own laborers, increasing the unemployment rate for African laborers. I cannot help but think of the history of colonization by trade companies—i.e. The Congo by the Belgian trade company under Leopold  and the many places across Africa and Asia by the Dutch and British companies. Likewise, the likes of Robert Mugabe and Joseph Kabila remind me of Latin American and European leaders of old who took their countries to hell just for the sake of staying in power. Finally, the flaring up of civil wars in the Central African Republic and South Sudan hearken to those in Rwanda and the Sudan. Again, the temptation is to despair.

And then there are those persistent oppressions that happen across contexts. Patriarchy, racism, colorism, casteism, homophobia, ableism, human trafficking, and xenophobia all lead to daily acts of systemic and interpersonal violence. These phenomena also seem cyclical to me. They repeat themselves and compound each other, and then when progress is made in one area we choose new identities to otherize and oppress. This can be seen in rising violence against migrant workers and albinos here in Zambia and in rising xenophobia and Islamophobia in the U.S. And of course we cannot forget our own individual patterns of behavior, of relapses, of neuroses, and of repeat relational mistakes. Linearly it is failure after failure after failure. We move forward in time, but we do not learn.

Sometimes making a punching bag out of a banana tree trunk and then walloping it as a release of frustration seems like the best way to deal with the repeating troubles of this world.

Now, there is of course a bit of fate or a loss of free will inherent to the paradigm of circularity. But that is also there in certain doctrines of providence. It does not have to be defeatist or fatalistic. It can be a simple acknowledgement that things may happen that are beyond our control, and we can expect those things to look like that which has come before. In light of this, we Christians should take heart and have great hope. For, if we look at time as carrying circular patterns moving us towards an end goal then we should notice the repeating patterns of creation, fall, and re-creation; life, death, and resurrection; wholeness, brokenness, and reconciliation; righteousness, sin, and redemption. With these repeating cycles as the driving patterns of our faith, then we should be the people of hope in this world.

We should acknowledge the fall, death, brokenness, and sin, but we should proclaim re-creation, resurrection, reconciliation, and redemption. We should also proclaim the fact that God decisively broke into the patterns of this world through the Incarnation, changing the trajectory from a downward spiral to an upward whirlwind. And through the Incarnation we were given an imperative not only to live as people of hope but to be active agents in bringing about that which is hoped for. This means that we must do all that we can to hasten the coming of re-creation, resurrection, reconciliation, and redemption each time we find ourselves in a moment of fall, death, brokenness, and sin.

When we spiritually dwell on the latter, then we inevitably extend the reality that we physically dwell there. We allow the oppressive stage of the cycle to become that which dominates the most time. If, however, we dwell on the hope and indeed promise of our faith that we have seen over and over again, then we can actively fight and shorten the time of oppression. As we strive towards this, then I believe we will also press onward more rapidly towards that end goal, the completion of the Kingdom. At the level of daily life this should change our entire perspective. We should recognize evil, but we should dwell on that which defeats evil. We should lift up the re-creations and resurrections that occur all the time in every context. We should change the entire narrative that gives power to oppression and defeatism as a response.

When we make this our work, then indeed we should rejoice in our toils. When we are celebrating re-creation, resurrection, reconciliation, and redemption, then we should indeed enjoy our food and drink. When we understand that the object of chasing the wind is not catching the wind but rather learning from the steps we have traced before, then all will not be vanity. And when we change society so that the fall, death, brokenness, and sin are not the dominant realities, there may just be fewer oppressions under the sun. Then there would certainly be something new under the sun.

 
Posted July 18, 2016

 

Eid Mubarak!

Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church - Outreach - Blogs - TEEZing Out The Roots

Last week I had the joy of being in Blantyre, Malawi, alongside of my brother Josh, some sisters from other misters (Mandy, Andrea, and Deb), and some brothers from other mothers (Wanangwa, John, and Bob)—all from Indiana. Wanangwa Kamwendo arranged for his home church of Second Presbyterian Indianapolis to meet his other home church of Michiru CCAP Blantyre. I took a week to join this beautiful delegation, see the mountains of Malawi, do a tiny bit of manual labor, practice some Chichewa, and spend time with some of the people I love most in this world. 

You can check out their blog here: https://bridgestomalawi.wordpress.com/

The Brothers Orem + Chikonde after hiking to a waterfall on Mt. Mulanje

One of the nights we were there the Michiru CCAP youth and young adults graced us with a welcoming ceremony which included some challenging back and forth about church and society in our various contexts as well as musical and dramatic performances. There was a skit that specifically stands out in my mind. It was written, directed, and even performed in by the one and only Foster Bulla, a member of the youth. Let me detail my experience of this skit and why it was so profoundly moving.

Bear in mind that this was the evening before Eid al-Fitr, the breaking of the fast of Ramadan.

As the skit began, actors portraying two Christian evangelists from Nigeria were walking around Blantyre, exhausted from journeying for a long time without food. We could also see an actor portraying a Muslim man praying at a mosque off to one side. (At this point I was already groaning in anticipation and anguish that this would be a skit about converting Muslims during this high holiday season). As the evangelists approached the mosque they were strategizing on how to get food from the place. One suggested that they change their names and started listing some names common to Islam. (Again, I groaned). The other evangelist, however, disagreed. When they came to the mosque they were greeted by an imam who asked their names. The former said something along the lines of Ishmael Muhammed. The latter said his real name, something like John Moses. The imam proceeded to invite John in for a feast. To “Ishmael,” though, he said, “Ah, my brother, this is still the month of Ramadan. We will be breaking our fast when the sun goes down.” The evangelist was horrified and began protesting, finally revealing that he was a Christian. The imam then rebuked the evangelist, telling him that if he is a Christian then he should stand firmly and boldly in his Christian identity, just as he himself would stand firmly and boldly in his Muslim identity.

I was stunned. Here I was expecting the worst in terms of Christians doing a skit that involved Muslims on the evening before Eid al-Fitr. Instead, I witnessed the best portrayal of authentic interreligious dialogue and life I had ever seen. The religious “other” was shown offering great hospitality even during a time of fasting. There was no encouragement of conversion. An evangelist was shamed for appropriating an aspect of Islam for his own personal gain. The religious “other” encouraged the Christians to stand firmly and boldly in their own beliefs and identity. I realize now that in expecting the worst from the CCAP youth I was projecting my own experience of white U.S. American Christianity. I was expecting my Malawian brothers and sisters to treat the religious “other” as I have seen so many white U.S. American Christians treat the religious “other.” In short, I was allowing a single, power-majoritarian strand of Christianity to control my perception of other Christian identities.

Wanangwa Kamwendo, Andrea Kamwendo, Bob Neary, and Foster Bulla (Photo by Wanangwa Kamwendo)

Then, as I was flying back to Zambia, I was seated next to a Muslim man originally from Malawi who was living in the UK. It was from him that I first learned of the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the latest massacre via assault rifle in Dallas. Having told him that I am a pastor, he asked me how it is that white U.S. American Christians can paint all of Islam as evil based on the actions of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah when it is white U.S. American Christians who most vocally support the proliferation of guns, the militarization of an institutionally racist police force, the mass incarceration of Black Americans and immigrant Americans, and the continued bombing of Muslim civilians via drones. In other words, how could we claim that Islam is the religion of violence when so much of the violence in this world is perpetrated by Christians. We proceeded to talk about many things, including the rise of Donald Trump, Brexit, and even the inadequacy of Christian and Muslim responses to the theodicy.

As with the skit, his first question has stuck with me. For, it points to the truth that the face of Western Christianity that permeates the world is that of violent oppression. It is the same face that I was projecting onto the Malawian youth with my negative expectations. With these two experiences in mind, then, I have had to deal with the truth that I have allowed this violent, white U.S. American Christianity to control my own perception of Christianity. It has caused me to be jaded and cynical. It has made it so that I use it as the starting point of understanding all modern expressions of Christianity, even in Malawi and Zambia. It has made it so I do not stand firmly and boldly in my own Christian identity because I fear that doing so just spreads more violence and hatred.

I believe that I have seen some of the best of U.S. American Christianity in certain congregations and gatherings of the PCUSA, at McCormick Theological Seminary, at ecumenical events, and while marching in protests. I have also had the privilege of being fully immersed in the vibrant Christianities of India and Zambia.

AND YET the power of dominant (in terms of power, not numbers), violent, white U.S. American Christianity still holds sway over my very understanding of Christian identity. With this truth, it is very difficult to follow the profound conclusion of the skit. It is difficult for me to stand firmly and boldly in my Christian identity when my understanding of it is that it is fundamentally violent and oppressive. It is so hard for me to get away from this because I benefit fully from this dominant (again, in terms of power and not numbers) version of our faith. I am a white U.S. American Christian male. My continued acceptance of the power and security inherent therein leads to the continuation of that very Christianity. By letting it be the default Christian identity, I give it more power.

I am learning everyday that this simply CANNOT STAND. I have to be an entirely new creation in Christ, as Paul exhorts in 2 Corinthians. All of us who occupy the space of this world with our privilege but are awake to the damage caused by that privilege must become new creations. Only then can we make white U.S. American Christianity a new creation. I and we must do the work of learning from the best of Christianities that are there in the U.S., in India, in Zambia, and across the world. I and we must use existing privilege and power to eliminate future privilege and power. I and we must live out a Christianity that embraces the following truths that are the basis of our faith:

-All humans are created in the image of God and thus continue to carry the sacredness of God.

-Jesus, the Son of God whom we worship as part of the Triune God, was a person of color who was executed by the State.

-Jesus sought radical community, meaning justice-based redistribution of wealth and power. He defied an empire to do so.

-The prophets Isaiah and Micah promote destroying weapons of murder and using the materials to create instruments of life.

-God exercises a preferential option for the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned, the orphaned, and the widowed. If we look at rates of incarceration, economic indices, access to political and social power, and orphanhood and widowhood forced by State violence, this means people of color in the United States. God is declaring, “Black Lives Matter!” 

-Above all, GOD IS LOVE.

These must be the foundations of our faith. These must be the rallying cries we shout in the streets with Mother Wisdom. These must be our rebuttals to the voices we have allowed to take over our narrative of belief. These must drive us to flip the tables of the power brokers that control both the doors of our sanctuaries and the laws of our land. These must push us as white Christians to stand up as barriers between the guns that shoot and the black lives that are targeted. These must give us joy. These must give us hope.

It is these truths that I have witnessed being proclaimed by communities of color across the U.S. and across the world. It is these truths that have survived and persisted in spite of the false prophets and prophecies of imperial Christianity. It is these truths that we should see as our reason for evangelism. It is these truths that white U.S. American Christians need to rediscover, reclaim, and proclaim. It is in these truths that I can firmly and boldly proclaim my identity as a Christian. 

Eid Mubarak.

In one of those full circle moments life has to offer, I had the joy of meeting up with Susan and Joel Rembert, whom I met at New Wilmington Mission Conference just before coming to Zambia.

Posted July 11, 2016

 

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Being planted in the rich soils of Zambia to inspire regrowth at home. “Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit” -Matthew 13:8