Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Acts 17: 16 - 34 or: How I Learned to Stop Whining and Love Christmastime

What follows will form the basis for the first of a four-part Advent adult forum series on the ongoing secular vs. religious "Battle Over Christmas" in American culture. The main premise is that hopeful desire and longing is at the heart of both the Christian liturgical season of Advent and secular Christmastime, and thus that there are more pastoral and useful ways to proclaim the Gospel to folks than zealously critiquing secular Christmastime culture. This adult forum series is the final assignment for an ethics course at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia entitled Christian Discipleship in a Consumer Society. If some congregation actually makes the huge mistake of actually calling me to be a pastor next year (heheh), I'll probably do an adult forum series that's something like this, so I'd love to hear your thoughts.

So here's the deal... I was planning on going in an entirely different direction for this adult forum series until this past Friday. I was sitting in Georgia, enjoying leftovers from Thanksgiving, trying hard not to check my email while on vacation and watching college football when I opened up Facebook and was immediately flooded by blogposts, comments and the like critiquing Black Friday and arguing that we should put Christ back in Christmas. There was even an official Black Friday Death Count that was particularly ominous. Most of what I read though, at least from my Christian sisters and brothers, tended to go in one of two directions. Folks on the more liturgically theologically/ politically conservative side of the spectrum tended to be lamenting the fact that in American culture Christmas is joyfully celebrated throughout the month of December thus resulting in the hopeful, prayerful liturgical season of Advent being ignored. Other issues from these folks included nativity scenes not being allowed on public town greens and the like. Folks on the more liturgically/ theologically/ politically liberal side of the spectrum primarily were attacking the radical consumerism that has become a part of secular Christmastime tradition. Christian criticism of consumerism seemed particularly pointed this year, probably because of Black Friday sales increasingly eating up Thanksgiving itself.

Most of the posts I read made some good points, some more than others, but the one I found most insightful was "On Black Friday" by Micah J. Murray at Redemption Records. A main premise of the post is that its all too easy to zealously tell folks what to do rather than listen to their own perspectives. Check out the perspective of one of the commenters on Micah's blogpost, for instance:
This is a very generous and thoughtful post.
My family is lovely, but we grew up really poor. Money has always been scarce, and as you say, it's easy to be a minimalist when you have no money. And sure, making homemade bread, putting in a garden, and raising goats and chickens sounds idyllic, but becomes less fun and more urgent when your skills determine how you will eat.
Black Friday is an important time for my parents to be able to buy Christmas gifts, but also it's when my mother buys basics like jeans and winter coats for the family. The things she can't make herself she tends to buy at thrift stores or rummage sales, but Black Friday allows my siblings to have new things. It's a small but significant joy.
I love my family and can't imagine a better place in which to grow up, and when people get preachy about what other people should do, it's unkind and offensive. Many families barely get by, and we shouldn't forget or belittle them. ~ Holly Houston
So then, as all Christians, not just pastors, are called to spread the Gospel, especially to folks who haven't heard it, the question simply becomes how should we respond to God's call during our secular, overly consumeristic American Christmastime without sounding like overly zealous, whiny jerks? I really dig the Bible, and find it tends to be a great starting place for resolving these sort of problems. One of my favorite passages, Acts 17:16-34, provides a great deal of insight here:
16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the market-place every day with those who happened to be there. 18Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, ‘What does this babbler want to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.’ (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’ 21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new. 
22Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said,
“For we too are his offspring.”  
29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’ 
32When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ 33At that point Paul left them. 34But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them. (NRSV)
Christianity, when it is at it's best at least, tends proclaim the good news of God's act of liberating love in Christ through a culturally relevant means, just like Saint Paul did in Athens by referring to "the altar to an unknown god." Our American culture is no longer a predominately Christian culture, and thus sharing the good news through the same old nativity scenes, Advent calendars and critiques of consumerism is like trying to talk about the Gospel in a foreign language. So, while it doesn't mean we'll be able to reach everybody (even Paul couldn't do that), if we can point to and embrace how Christ is already at work in our American secular Christmastime culture rather than zealously critiquing it, we'd probably do a whole lot better at fulfilling our Christian calling to spread the Gospel.

So, how is Christ at work in American secular Christmastime culture? The central theme of the Christian season of Advent and the true central theme of secular Christmastime is one and the same: creating space for the hopeful longing for the fulfillment of legitimate human desires. Think Christmastime and Santa and reindeers and toys is all about consuming material goods? Think again. In recent decades at least, most branding and advertisements for consumer products or commodities have veered toward emotional branding. It's not about selling the product on its material merits, but rather on the emotions or experiences that having a given product will bring. Just check out this famous Christmastime Folger's Coffee commercial as one example:

Everybody loves Peter! That great nineties hair, epic cable-knit sweater... huge fashion whoa! And everybody in the family is so happy that Peter is home for Christmas! While the commercial somewhat indicates Folger's Coffee smells good, the commercial isn't really about the coffee at all... it's about a longing for family, for togetherness, for lasting memories with loved ones, all legitimate human desires. And buying Folger's Coffee somehow will magically result in the fulfillment of all these desires.

If you still need further evidence that secular Christmastime is about hoping and longing for the fulfillment of legitimate human desires, check out these two famous and (primarily) secular Christmas songs:

David Bowie and Bing Crosby: "Peace on Earth/ Little Drummer Boy" (lyrics here)

The Peanuts: "Christmastime is Here" (lyrics here)

See? These two songs, and plenty of other cultural documents indicate secular Christmastime at its heart isn't about the toys or plasma TVs or wild drinking parties but rather hopeful longing for legitimate human desires: peace, family, love, joyful memories, cozy fires, olden times and ancient rhymes. Christ is present in all these legitimate human desires, and it would be pretty darn silly for Christians not to share the good news through these legitimate "altars to an unknown God."

So, the next question becomes how can we talk about and reflect on legitimate on the hopeful longing for the fulfillment of legitimate human desires through the lens of the good news of God's act of liberating love in Christ? While there's plenty of sinners/ saints who could help us out in this regard from our collective Christian heritage, I'll bring up two here, one for more rational thinking folks and one for more spiritual/ mystical thinking folks: Martin Luther and Gregory of Nyssa. While they both come at the question of desire using somewhat opposite approaches, they pretty much land in the same place.

Let's start with good ol Luther, a major 16th century reformer whose work pretty much touched off the Protestant Reformation. He's probably a better resource for more rational sorts of thinkers. I'll just provide one excerpt from his model sermon for "The Gospel for Christmas Eve" on Luke 2: 1 - 14, but I encourage you to check it out in its entirety. You can find it in Volume 52 of the English Edition of Luther's Works:
For the Gospel teaches that Christ was born for our sake and that he did everything and suffered all things for our sake, just as the angel says here: "I announce to you a great joy which will come to all people; for to you is born this day a Savior who is Christ the Lord" [Luke 2:10-11] From these words you see clearly that he was born for us.
He does not simply say: "Christ is born," but: "for you is he born." Again, he does not say: "I announce a joy," but: "to you do I announce a great joy." Again, this joy will not remain in Christ, but is for all people. A damned or wicked man does not have this faith, nor can he have it. For the right foundation of all salvation which unites Christ and the believing heart in this manner is that everything that have individually becomes something they hold in common...
A central teaching here is that while its extremely legitimate to have all sorts of human desires, including desiring God, God desires us more than we could ever desire anything, even to the point of being born in a manger amongst farm animals to an unwed virgin and a lowly carpenter.

Let's see what Gregory of Nyssa has to say, a 4th century Cappadocian Father who writes from a more spiritual/ mystical perspective. The following excerpt is from his "First Homily on the Song of Songs," discussing Song 1:1-4. I encourage you to check out the whole thing, especially as the more mystical side of Christian theology is lesser known in our contemporary times, at least in the Western churches:
Moses conversed with God face to face, as scripture testifies [Dt 34.10], and he thereby acquired a still greater desire for these kisses after the theophanies. He sought God as if he had never seen him. So it is with all others in whom the desire for God is deeply embedded: they never cease to desire, but every enjoyment of God they turn into the kindling of a still more intense desire.
Even now the soul united to God never has its fill of enjoyment. The more it enjoys his beauty, the more its desire increases. The words of the bridegroom are spirit and life [Jn 5:24], and everyone who clings to the Spirit becomes spirit. He who attaches himself to life passes from death into life as the Lord has said. Thus the virginal soul desires to draw near to the fountain of spiritual life...
A main premise here is that God is the gift that keeps on giving. Although God draws us closer and closer to Herself in faith, our ever increasing desire for her can never be satiated, through our own action or otherwise. Thus, the central focus once again becomes not on what we're doing, but how God's love is for us an infinite "fountain of spiritual life."

Martin Luther and Gregory of Nyssa are only two of many possible saints/ sinners in our collective Christian history that can help us think about how to proclaim the good news of God's act of liberating love in Christ through the "altars to an unknown god" that are the legitimate human desires celebrated during secular Christmastime. I'd love to hear more perspectives as well.

As a final bit (and one I don't have a lot of time reflect on), check out this letter from Lutheran World Federation General Secretary Martin Junge. Entitled "God’s Free Gift of Grace in Market-Driven Times" and written for Reformation Day 2013, it talks about how the LWF's upcoming celebration of the 500th anniversary of the reformation in 2017 will focus on three related themes: 1) salvation is not for sale, 2) human beings are not for sale, and 3) creation is not for sale. This letter can definitely help us think about consumerism, the hopeful longing for legitimate human desires celebrated by secular Christmastime and how we can respond as Christians. Thanks so much!

God's peace,

Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Only Nativity Scene I've Ever Felt Comfortable With

What follows is a post I recently wrote for my Christian Discipleship in a Consumer Society journal, a semester-long assignment regularly making entries for a course at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, where I'm currently in my last year of a Masters of Divinity program. Please comment! I'd love to hear what you think!

As we celebrate the Feast Day of Christ the King and begin preparations for the expectant, hopeful season of Advent, many folks (both Christian and otherwise) are probably not looking forward to the fact that Advent/ "the holiday season" is a time of the year when America's ongoing culture wars are probably the most pronounced. Things like fights over whether a child can mention the birth of Jesus in a public school, debates about whether a Christmas tree or even a nativity scene is allowed on the local town green and a common Christian lament about "the secularization/ commercialization of Christmas" around this time of the year are all too common.

While different understandings of the American concept of church/ state separation, concerns about the commercialization of Christmas and the skipping over of Advent are legitimate and thus are rightfully subjected to "spirited" public debate in our culture, there's one humble suggestion I have for my fellow sisters and brothers in Christ that would lessen tensions around this time of the year... if you have a nativity scene outside your church, make sure it conveys the good news of Christ that it's supposed to. With the exception of the nativity scene Saint John's Lutheran Church on Christopher Street in NYC had up last year, I can't really think of a particular outdoor nativity scene that does a good job of proclaiming the gospel (with some of those "living nativity scenes" as notable exceptions). Now I may think this because I haven't seen enough nativity scenes to make an honest judgement, but I do know that most of the non-Christian friends I talk with about the subject (if they notice them at all) tend to think one of two things about the nativity scenes they see sprouting up around town: 
  • Nativity scenes are sometimes offensive. This is because the human characters in nativity scenes are frequently all European American (especially odd since Jesus and everyone else except for perhaps the three kings/ magi would have been West Asian).
  • Nativity scenes are sometimes oppressive. For folks whose primary brushes with Christianity have been extremely oppressive, judgmental and perhaps even hateful, a nativity scene that doesn't proclaim the radical hospitality that Jesus is all about can simply become another reminder about all the sinful aspects of Christian history. For folks how have a sort of neutral view of Christianity but don't know the Biblical stories behind the nativity, such scenes can simply look like a bunch of pious "perfect people" standing around an empty manger with a bunch of farm animals instead of a display that proclaims God lovingly frees and welcomes in us sinners of all shapes and sizes.
So, with all that in mind, the two photos you see here are of the nativity scene outside Saint John's Lutheran Church last year in the heart of Greenwich Village. It depicts the nativity in a way that culturally translates... occupiers, a drag queen, a business man, hip-hoppers and a beat poet are all gathered around the manger with Mary and Joseph, expectantly waiting the coming of the Christ-child. What an amazingly creative way to get noticed and more importantly proclaim the gospel in a way culturally translates what Christ's coming is all about!

Many thanks to Pastor Erson for sending these pictures to me, but all the writing above reflects my thoughts and my thoughts alone. Please don't take this post as a challenge at all... I bet there's a bunch of really great nativity scenes out there! Rather, read this as an invitation to share some of those creative ways your faith community has discerned how to proclaim the gospel during Advent and Christmas.

God's peace,

Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

LWF Youth Desk: A Journey to Climate Justice

What follows is a video presentation on sustainable development and climate justice I recorded for the Lutheran World Federation Youth Desk's recent "A Youth Journey to Climate Justice" online quiz game. For more information and to play the entire game yourself, click here. "A Youth Journey to Climate Justice" is an AWESOME resource for helping your youth group or individual teen think about the intersection between climate change and faith. Presenters in the quiz game are young adult Lutherans from around the world.

Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. Recently approved for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in faith communities seeking to translate the rich and ancient traditions of the Church to proclaim the good news of Christ in a post-modern world. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Martin Luther's Anti-Semitism

What follows is a book summary and review of Martin Luther's Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgement by Eric W. Gritsch that I recently wrote for my Church and the Holocaust course at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. The review is meant to assist educators in congregations prepare an adult forum or in-depth study series on the sin of historic Lutheran anti-Semitism. I hope you find this helpful and I'd love to hear what you think!

As I discussed at length in my film review of The Cross and the Star earlier this month, we are at a unique point in the history of Jewish/ Christian relations. While still living under the shadow of the Holocaust, we know the horrific, sinful consequences of following many traditional Christian lines of anti-Judaic if not outright anti-Semitic thinking. Indeed, many church bodies have publicly confessed these sins, and extremely productive relationships between Jews, Christians and their respective organizations continue to thrive on all levels. Yet, as apartheid-like conditions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories worsen and as an increasing number of our Arab Christian sisters and brothers are forced to emigrate, Christians are also called to carefully, responsibly, yet boldly work for a just and lasting peace in the Holy Land. If we are to engage with this important, complex social justice issue in a responsible way, and indeed with many of our likeminded Jewish allies, we as Christians must also continue to learn about, recognize, and confess the anti-Judaic sins of our collective history.

Particularly in Lutheran congregations, Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgement will prove an invaluable resource for pastors and lay members preparing to lead an adult forum or even an extensive course on Christian anti-Semitism. The book is researched and authored by notable Lutheran historian Eric W. Gritsch, who despite his affiliation with the Hitler youth as a young boy grew up to be an active participant in Christian-Jewish dialog, particularly during his tenure at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg (Gritsch xiii). Through three relatively short chapters and a brief conclusion, Gritsch guides the reader through the difficult concept of anti-Semitism, the most notable of Luther’s anti-Semitic texts and finally how those texts were used by subsequent generations of Lutheran scholars. Written in an academic yet easily approachable style, Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism allows Luther to speak on his own terms through robust and frequent quotations, all the while showing how the 16th century reformer was writing “against his better judgement.” Following a summary of its arguments and evidence, this review will briefly highlight particular strengths and weaknesses of Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism, concluding with suggested discussion questions for use in the parish.

In the first chapter of Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism, Gritsch provides a concise background discussion of the concept of anti-Semitism itself. After a brief etymological  history of the word, Gritsch cites a variety of sources in search of a definition. The Roman Catholic historian Edward H. Flannery for instance identifies four historic forms of anti-Semitism: the political and economic anti-Semitism of Cicero and Charles Lindberg, the theological or religious anti-Semitism of “anti-Judaism,” the nationalistic anti-Semitism of Voltaire and the racial anti-Semitism of the Nazi Holocaust (Gritsch 2). The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia on the other hand defines a variety of actions as anti-Semitic, including an overly critical view of the modern Israeli state and one’s complete rejection of Zionism (Gritsch 4). The chapter then delves into the relationship between anti-Semitism and race, particularly highlighting Ludwig Schemann’s late 19th century adoption of Arthur de Gobineau’s concept of race to justify societal hatred of Jews (Gritsch 6).

In his discussion of scapegoating and the Scriptures, Gritsch identifies three specific Christian teachings of contempt: “1) that the Jews were deprived of a homeland and had to live in dispersion, 2) that the Jews were superseded by Christians in the promise of salvation by a new covenant, and 3) that Jews committed ‘deicide’ by crucifying Jesus who, as the ‘son of God,’ was God” (Gritsch 10). Gritsch disproves each teaching by citing scriptural evidence, most notably Paul’s teaching that there is a “one and only covenant that unites Christians and Jews” in Romans 11:27 (Gritsch 11). In a brief yet detailed history of Christian anti-Semitism/anti-Judaism, Gritsch mentions some less well-known examples of the phenomenon, including Ambrose’s defense of arsonists who burned down a synagogue and John Calvin’s belief that the promise of salvation still belonged to the Jews, but only if they converted (Gritsch 17, 26). The first chapter then concludes with Gritsch’s working definition of anti-Semitism, which he identifies at its core as “hatred of the Jews” or “the projection of stereotypes on the Jewish people as a whole that portray them as essentially evil” (Gritsch 31).

The second chapter of Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism begins with a section on Luther’s hermeneutics. Martin Luther, who by today’s standards would have been considered a “Professor of the Old Testament,” nonetheless preached nearly thirty times more sermons on the New Testament throughout his career than on the Hebrew Scriptures (Gritsch 34). Despite his love for Genesis and especially the Psalms, Luther largely ignored early humanist historical-critical hermeneutics and thereby “intensified the traditional view of the church that Christ was prefigured in the “Old Testament” (Gritsch 35). Reading Christ into the Hebrew Scriptures in turn led Luther to distinguish between the faithful Israel of old and later “Talmudic Judaism,” cursed by God for rejecting Christ (Gritsch 35). Gritsch then delves into Luther’s commentary on Romans in detail, specifically discussing how by ignoring Paul’s teaching that Jews and Christians will be reunited by God on the Last Day , the reformer went against his better scholarly judgement and principles of interpretation (Gritsch 41). The concept of Mosaic law as leading to Christ through terrifying the conscience, the so-called “second use of the law,” is also briefly touched upon in Gritsch’s discussion of Luther’s view of Moses as doing the “alien” work of God (Gritsch 45).

Gritsch then follows the historical arc of Luther’s changing attitude towards Judaism and the Jewish people, primarily by citing textual evidence from the reformer himself. In his earlier work Luther’s anti-Semitism was grounded in the traditional Christian polemics of the day, albeit with uniquely colorful language. In his “Lectures on the Psalms” for instance, Luther employs scatological imagery to describe the Jewish rejection of the Messiah while commenting on Psalm 78:66:
But at this place, what seems to be more expressly denoted is that the recta, their innermost bowels, are sticking out through the rear, because their rear is different from the buttocks on which we sit… Their recta stick out, that is, the innermost feelings of their heart and their desires in opposition to Christ they display to the present. Therefore, the recta sticking out means that their will to harm and do evil appears, since they are not able to vomit the feces of evils against Him (Gritsch 50).
In this same period however, Luther disagreed with the medieval missionary practice of forced conversions and additionally supported a converted Spanish Jewish Hebraist’s call to the Wittenberg faculty (Gritsch 51). By 1519 Luther began preaching against the usury of his day by linking it to Judaism: “Look at those who lend wine, wheat, money, or whatever, to their neighbors, the oppress them with annual interest rates that are high than the sum of money borrowed. These are the Jewish little tricks” (Gritsch 57). Yet, in a sermon given the Saturday before Easter of 1521, Luther also spoke out against using the Passion of Christ as an occasion to be hostile to Jews.

Following his appearance before the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther’s anti-Semitism moderated as he moved into a period described by Gritsch as “pastoral evangelism.” In “The Magnificat, Translated and Expounded,” Luther wrote, “We ought, therefore, not to treat the Jews in so unkindly a spirit, for there are future Christians among them, and they are turning everyday… If we lived Christian lives, and led them [the Jews] with kindness to Christ, there would be the proper response” (Gritsch 60). Luther’s anti-Semitism moderated in relation to practical concerns as well, as indicated in “The Estate of Marriage” in 1522: “Marriage… is like any other worldly undertaking. Just as I may eat, drink, sleep, walk, ride with, buy from, speak to, and deal with a heathen, Jew, Turk, or heretic, so I amy also marry and continue in wedlock with him. Pay no attention to the precepts of those fools who forbid it (Gritsch 61).” During this period its clear Luther believed his reforms would make Jewish mass conversion more likely, and further that such a conversion would signal the imminent eschaton (Gritsch 63). Luther even mentioned to dinner guests that he discussed messianic prophecy in the Hebrew Scriptures with three learned rabbi, likely in 1526 (Gritsch 68).

However, as the years went by with few Jewish conversions, Luther became extremely frustrated. He increasingly spoke of the Christian Church as “the new Israel,” a term brimming with supersessionism. After hearing rumors of Jewish proselytizing in 1530, he approved of Jewish/ Christian segregation in the city of Prague. By 1536, Luther even agreed with Elector John Frederick’s decision to remove Jews from his territory (Gritsch 69). By the late 1530s, Luther became convinced Jews, along with Muslims, “papists,” unitarians and radicals were part of Satan’s plan to destroy the Christian foundations of the world (Gritsch 70). In response to new reports in 1538 of Jewish proselytizing and a Christian movement committed to following the Jewish sabbath, Luther authored his first radically anti-Semitic work, “Against the Sabbatarians: Letter to a Good Friend.” In this treatise he argues there is a new Christian covenant because Jews the failed to keep their first covenant with God. Most notably, Luther concludes God is actively punishing the Jews with exile because they have rejected God’s new covenant through Christ:
In brief, since these fifteen hundred years of exile, of which there is no end in sight, nor can there be, do not humble the Jews or bring them to awareness, you may with good conscience despair of them. For it is impossible that God would leave his people, if they truly were his people, without comfort and prophecy so long… it is evident that he [God] has forsaken them, that they can no longer be his people, and the true Lord, the Messiah, must have come fifteen hundred years ago (Gritsch 73).
At a key juncture in his argument, Gritsch concludes that when Luther assumed he knew the historical fate of the Jews in “Against the Sabbatarians” and subsequent works, he went against his better judgement, namely that one should speculate about deus absconditus, the “hidden God” which God has not ordained to reveal (Gritsch 73 - 74).

Gritsch then discusses Luther’s most notable anti-Semitic work, “On the Jews and their Lies,” published in 1543. After warning his readers to expect nothing but a “den of devils” in synagogues, Luther affirms a Christ-centered reading of the Hebrew Scriptures before citing the most egregious of medieval anti-Semitic claims, including that Jews contaminate wells and kill Christian children (Gritsch 81 - 83). In a final desperate attempt to convert the Jews through what he termed “sharp mercy,” Luther encouraged Christian action that foreshadowed the horrors of Kristallnacht nearly four centuries later: “… set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom…” (Gritsch 86). This, unfortunately, was only the first of seven similar actions Luther advised. After writing additional anti-Semitic treatises in his remaining years, Luther, although too weak to finish preaching on February 15, 1546, gave an “Exhortation Against the Jews” in which he described Jews as “public enemies,” “poisoners,” and “blood-suckers.” These were his final public words before dying three days later.

Gritsch’s final chapter summarizes how subsequent scholars used Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic writings. Only one reference to the Jews as “the prime example of divine punishment” made it into the normative Lutheran teachings of the second generation reformers, the “Formula of Concord” (Gritsch 98). Although Luther’s anti-Semitic tracks were occasionally re-published until the early seventeenth century, there were no subsequent reprints until Luther became a role model for German nationalism under Hitler (Gritsch 101). Although cited by some anti-Semitic writers, Luther’s earlier, more moderate missionary years tended to be the focus of most scholarly works. Lutheran Pietists such as Philip Jacob Spener and Count Nicholas of Zinzendorf even used Luther’s earlier writings to support their respect for Judaism (Gritsch 103). Although anti-Semitism was frequently critiqued during the Enlightenment, Luther was rarely criticized for his most egregious works until the late nineteenth century (Gritsch 105 - 111). Moving forward to Nazi Germany however, the Lutheran bishop Martin Sasse celebrated the burning of synagogues on Kristallnacht by calling for “the liberation of Germany from Jewish economic oppression” and praising Luther as “the greatest anti-Semite of his time” (Gritsch 117).

Following his third chapter, Gritsch summarizes his conclusions, which in addition to those alluded to above include that Luther moved away from his famous “theology of the cross” into a “theology of glory” in his anti-Semitic works. Indeed, perhaps the greatest strength of Gritsch’s book is that he holds nothing back from properly criticizing the reformer, even stating that “Luther’s anti-Semitism… dimmed the light of the gospel he rediscovered as part and parcel of the ancient covenant between God and Abraham” (Gritsch 141). Gritsch’s emphasis on allowing Luther to speak through his own words is extraordinary, as his discussion of how Luther’s Christo-centric hermeneutics for the Hebrew Bible partially led to his anti-Semitism. The extensive bibliography provided, including multiple film suggestions, is also helpful for those readers wishing to do further research. Finally, Gritsch’s brilliant discussion of anti-Semitism and summary of anti-Semitic Christian history allows Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism to serve as a “one-stop shop” for those clergy and lay leaders preparing to organize an adult forum. The only weakness of the book was that although briefly alluded to on page forty-five, there was little discussion of the inherent anti-Judaism of Luther’s tight law/gospel dichotomy. Overall however, Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism proves an amazing work Reformation scholarship, one that all Lutheran leaders should read during this unique point in Jewish/ Christian relations. We conclude with three suggested questions for group discussion:
  1. How did Luther’s reading of Christ into the Hebrew Scriptures lead to his later more vehement anti-Semitism? Is it possible for Christians to not read Christ in the Hebrew Scriptures?
  2. How did Luther’s anti-Semitism veer from “a theology of the cross” to a “theology of glory? How do we in our own churches interpret Scripture with a “theology of glory?”
  3. Knowing what you know now about Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism, what responsibilities do we have as contemporary Lutherans to move past this sinful aspect of our past?
Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Cross and the Star: A Resource for Unpacking Lutheran Anti-Semitism

What follows is a film review of "The Cross and the Star - Jews, Christians and the Holocaust" that I wrote this past week for my Church and the Holocaust course at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. The review is meant to assist educators in congregations discuss Lutheran (and general Christian) anti-Semitism, especially with young people. I hope you find this helpful and I'd love to hear what you think!

Some time ago, during my first year of seminary, a member of a youth group I was working with told me a story I will never forget. A couple years ago in history class he learned about Lutheran anti-Semitism and even outright support for Nazi policies during the 1930s and 1940s. Embarking on further research, he discovered the virulent anti-Semitism of Martin Luther, particularly in the reformer’s later writings. Being in confirmation class at the time, he brought the issue up with his teacher, who in turn simply responded by saying it was no longer a problem. From that point on, the young adult told me, he did not think he could ever again consider himself a Lutheran.

We live in a time when the Church is increasingly called to carefully and responsibly work for an end to apartheid-like conditions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and in a time when young people are better educated with easier access to global conversations than ever before. In such a context Lutherans in particular must continually work to name, confess and move forward from the anti-Semitic elements of our collective history. Although the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America officially confessed these sins in a statement to our Jewish sisters and brothers as early as 1994, congregational resources for discussing Lutheran anti-Semitism remain somewhat limited. After reviewing a number of films, I believe The Cross and the Star - Jews, Christians and the Holocaust, a documentary released in 1994 and available on Netflix, is the best resource currently available due to its concise history of Christian anti-Semitism and its use of engaging interviews with Holocaust survivors. What follows is a synopsis of the film, an evaluation of its strengths and weaknesses and a list of suggested discussion questions for use in the congregation.

Produced by John Michalczyk, a former Jesuit priest and current Chair of the Fine Arts Department at Boston College, The Cross and the Star begins by confronting the viewer with a number of provocative statements. For example, Rabbi Harold Kushner argues Christianity has regularly throughout history improved its standing in the public by denigrating Jewish communities. Rabbi Joseph Polak, a Holocaust survivor, moves even further by suggesting the New Testament’s many anti-Judaic passages should simply be de-sanctified and removed from the Bible. He does however soften this statement with recognition that such an action would leave Christian theology “in shambles.” The film then explores anti-Judaic theology of the early Church Fathers, including John Chrysystom’s characterization of Jews as “a plague” and Augustine’s belief that there is “no salvation outside the Church.” The Lateran Council, which foreshadowed future Nazi policy by requiring Jews to wear yellow stars, is also mentioned.

Moving forward in history, The Cross and Star briefly refers to the indiscriminate murder of Jerusalem’s Jews during the Crusades before discussing the anti-Semitism of Martin Luther.* After alluding to his earlier hope that Jews could be converted, Luther’s more later, more hateful words are read as “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” plays in the background: “… next to the devil himself, a Christian has no enemy more cruel, more venomous, more violent than a true Jew.” The film then forms a link between Kristallnacht and Luther’s encouragement to burn and destroy Jewish homes and synagogues. The general theological tenets of anti-Judaic Christianity are also summarized, including the beliefs that Jews deserve to suffer because they bear “the mark of Cain” and that all Jews are guilty of deicide.

Following its summary of historic Christian anti-Judaism, the film next discusses religion under Nazi Germany in detail. Although the 1933 Concordat and the weakness of the Barmen Declaration are aptly criticized, there is a glaring overemphasis on the persecution of Christians under Nazi Germany. Most notably, the Nazis are described as “at war with the Catholic Church” and clergy are listed as a major group of victims along with Jews, Roma and differently abled persons. However, there is helpful exploration of how the faith lives of both Jews and Christians were affected by the Holocaust. Dr. Vera Laska, a Jewish resistor, gives a heart wrenching interview about how she lost her faith entirely, while the poet Sonia Wetz argues we should ask “Where was man?” rather explaining how in no way did the Jews “simply go as lambs to the slaughter.”

The final portion of The Cross and the Star begins with the stories of various Christian rescuers and resistors. For instance, Kaj Munk, a Danish Lutheran pastor and playwright, was martyred for opposing the Nazi occupation in Denmark. In France, Pastor Andre Trocme led the Huguenot villagers of Le Chambon in assisting between 3000 - 5000 Jewish refugees. Pope Pius XII, while heavily criticized for not doing more to stop the Holocaust, instructed Vatican Radio to tell Catholics in Vichy France not to make distinctions between Christians and Jews. Additionally, during the Nazi occupation of Rome, many Jews were hidden directly in the Vatican. Contemporary efforts to atone for Christian complicity with the Holocaust are also discussed, including the liturgical reforms of Vatican II and Pope John Paul II’s visit to Auschwitz. Finally, the films concludes by stating the policies of “the Final Solution” did not form in a vacuum, but rather grew out of centuries of Christian anti-Judaic and anti-Semitic sentiment.

The Cross and the Star has many strengths, particularly for use with young adults. With a short fifty-two minute runtime, the film could easily be watched and discussed over two confirmation classes or youth group sessions. In packing a great deal of history and first-hand accounts into a short timespan, it serves as a strong introduction to Christian anti-Semitism without requiring additional background knowledge. Although the focus on Luther is especially useful in a denominational context, the film could provide a basis for rich ecumenical and interfaith dialogue as well. The stories of rescuers and resistors are inspiring, as are the stories of Jewish survivors struggling with their faith. The rabbis’ statements and the film’s uncompromising conclusion will jar most Christian viewers in a useful way. In a time when so few first-generation Holocaust survivors remain, the film’s many personal accounts make it an invaluable resource.

The Cross and the Star suffers from a number of weaknesses however. There is a clear Roman Catholic bent, particularly in its neglect to mention Protestant efforts to make amends and its casting of the papacy in a decidedly over-positive light. The assertion that a stronger stand by Pius XII could not have helped prevent the Holocaust seems overly pessimistic. As mentioned above, there is an over-emphasis on Nazi persecution of the Church, and particularly its clergy. Now nearly two decades old, the film is also beginning to show its age. Since the early 1990s, the myth that Hitler “brainwashed” the German population has largely been disproven by recent historical research… most bystanders did indeed know something was wrong. Furthermore, the notion that low-level conspirators were “forced” to take part in the Holocaust is simply generally untrue.

In a time when the Church is called to carefully work for justice in the Holy Land and when our global community (and especially are young adults) are more connected than ever before, it is particularly important that we as Lutherans confess and address the anti-Semitism of our collective story. Whether viewed in confirmation class, an adult forum or in an interfaith setting, The Cross and the Star can provide the necessary basis for such confession and dialogue through its concise overview of Jewish/ Christian history and its stories from first-generation Holocaust survivors. This review concludes with related discussion questions for use in the congregation:
  1. What aspects of Christian anti-Semitic history were you surprised about? What did you know before watching the film?
  2. How do you affirm your Christian faith and follow Jesus’ call to share the Good News without implicitly putting down Jews and Judaism?
  3. Do you think God was present amidst the Holocaust? If so, how? Is that even the right question to ask?
  4. Why do you think so many Christians and Lutherans in particular, both in Germany and elsewhere, showed such complicity with Nazi policies towards the Jewish people?
  5. How can we continue to make amends and strengthen our bonds with our Jewish sisters and brothers, both locally and around the world?
  6. Could something like the Holocaust ever happen again? Has it or is it already? What does Christ say to us amidst such horrible events?
* Throughout this review I carefully minded the difference between anti-Judaism, the religious opposition or hatred of the Jewish faith one finds in some New Testament passages, for example, and anti-Semitism, the racial opposition or hatred for the Jewish people.  While “race” did not exist as a category for human beings until at least the 17th century, and 
the concept of “anti-Semitism” did not exist until the 19th century, many of Luther’s diatribes are squarely leveled at the Jewish people themselves (including the quote above) and thus could be described as anti-Semitic.

Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Bread for the World Sunday at Saint Michael's Lutheran Church

Two Sundays back I had the honor of preaching at Saint Michael's Lutheran Church in Germantown, Philadelphia, PA as part of an ongoing advocacy series related to Bread for the World Sunday. The following sermon was given after two weeks of temple talks on the subject of food insecurity and hunger (thanks so much to John Luttenberger for the audio):

Following the service members of the congregation were invited to either sign petitions for President Obama to create a plan for ending hunger or invited to record their own advocacy videos. We got a huge number of petitions signed and one great video from Tamara Anderson, speaking below:

Thanks so much to everyone who was a part of this important advocacy ministry, the people of Saint Michael's Lutheran Church and the folks at Bread for the World for providing such great resources!

God's peace,

Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

Reformation Sunday Sermon at Emanuel Lutheran Church

Hi folks! What follows is a rough manuscript of a sermon I delivered at my home congregation of Emanuel Lutheran Church in Manchester, CT this past Sunday. It's primarily on the appointment Gospel story for Reformation Day, John 8: 31 - 36 and also relates to Emanuel's stewardship campaign for the year. I'd love to hear what you think!

If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed! If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed! What a timely Gospel message for this morning, for the celebration of Reformation Sunday here at Emanuel. One reason Jesus’s message to us is so timely is because in recent years, and perhaps especially in recent weeks, the concept of freedom has become so confused. The concept of freedom, especially in America, is used rhetorically for all sorts of causes. When they shut the government down Washington many politicians were talking about freedom simply meaning freedom from taxes, government regulations and our new healthcare laws. On the other side of the political spectrum, freedom frequently means predominately freedom from want or freedom from injustice. Going back a few years, at the height of the American occupation of Iraq, if you were someone critical of our country’s foreign policy you may remember hearing the retort “freedom isn’t free.”

While all those concepts of freedom may have some elements of truth, some I think more than others, my sisters and brothers I propose to you this day that the Christian concept of freedom, that the concept of freedom which Jesus’s shares with us in today’s Gospel message is something much deeper than all that. Freedom in Christ means being able to remember, both to confess and rejoice about our past and present, and through God’s act of liberating love in Christ thereby be freed to move boldly forward into life in community with Christ and one another. Let me repeat that... freedom in Christ means being able to remember, both to confess and rejoice about our past and present, and through God’s act of liberating love in Christ thereby be freed to move boldly forward into life in community with Christ and one another.

Jesus’s Gospel message about freedom is also important today because that’s exactly what we do on Reformation Day, we look back in order to move forward. Ya know, to be honest, I wasn’t much into Reformation Day until recently... as a kid, perhaps because I was never very good about paying attention in Sunday School, I remember vaguely knowing that the day had something to do with church history, and that either my mom would make me wear my one red dress sweater, which was really hot and scratchy, or when I got older I’d outright forget to wear a red shirt and be teased about it. As I got older, and eventually went to seminary, all the singing a Mighty Fortress is Our God and Lutheran pep rally sort of stuff just didn’t seem to recognize our entire past, it seemed a little too triumphant and therefore just didn’t seem genuine. It was only in fact when thinking about today’s Gospel message while preparing for this sermon, when I realized that God’s act of liberating love in Christ frees us to both confess and celebrate the past, that my feelings about Reformation Day changed.

Confession is important, not because we want to feel guilty about everything, but rather because in naming those negative aspects of our collective and individual pasts, we’re reminded that God lovingly and freely liberates us from such things. As a Church in general, and as Lutherans specifically, we do have sins to recognize as part of imperfect history. The violent anti-semitic writings of Luther, even the very last sermon he gave before his death that argued all Jewish folks should be removed from the country, were used extensively to gin up Christian support for the sinful and horrific policies under Hitler in Nazi Germany. Speaking about the Church as a whole, the immense violence of the crusades, the apathy or outright hostility of many white Christians during the time of slavery, the support of western imperialism and colonialism through “missionary activities” that formed the beginnings of the ecumenical movement, the apathy or outright hostility of many churches during the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and the lack of bold action from many churches in the early days of the AIDs crisis are only a few of our collective historic sins.

In our own time, we have some parts of the Church’s continued attack on the rights of women and girls and a glaring heteronormativity that prevents many from boldly embracing the rich diversity of folks across the human gender spectrum. I’ll never forget wearing my collar on the subway in New York last year while on internship, when a young man came up to me and immediately said “don’t worry father, I’m not a sodomite.” The very first thing he and many folks, especially young people, think today when they see a Christian isn’t about worshipping or praying or God’s love, but rather that wow... there’s someone that simply doesn’t like gay people. In our own faith community of Emanuel, let us recognize that while we’ve done great work on many of the issues I’ve just listed, including our embrace of the Reconciling in Christ program and our longtime support of the Manchester Area Network on AIDS, its certainly not the same thing at the same level but we do have our own baggage... like most churches, at least in the Western world, we face a decline in budget and attendance numbers. We’ve also faced years of difficult staff turnovers, and currently a period of careful discernment our beloved music program, just to name a few I know. My sisters and brothers, let’s boldly put that out there, name it, confess it, and just simply recognize that we have some healing to do. And doing that, my sisters and brothers, is okay.

For on this day of looking back and moving forward, we also have a heck of a lot of good things to celebrate as a Church and as a congregation... While I could name a bunch of these things on a macro-level, I figured I could zoom down a bit here, and just tell a couple stories of how the amazing ministry that takes place at Emanuel Lutheran has helped me over years. I’ll tell two quick stories, one kind of serious and then one a little bit funny just to lighten up the mood…

Back during high school, during my freshman year shortly after I was confirmed just like you four folks are today, I was battling a fairly serious case of depression and social anxiety disorder, although I didn’t know what to call it at the time. Eventually after seeing a show on MTV about depression, I realized that probably what I had and I asked my mom for help. Unfortunately, partially because of the poor healthcare system in this country, I wasn’t able to get into a therapist or psychiatrist for months, and thus things only got worse. By the time Christmas break came around, I left school that day and told my parents I could never go back… my social anxiety had gotten so extreme in that place. I didn’t return to school that year until mid-February… I had my classwork brought home, eventually began seeing a therapist and psychiatrist, but it was really was the support of the community at Emanuel that turned me around.

The first time I left my house during that period for a place besides the doctors office was to come see the pastor at Emanuel. In conversation with him we decided it would be a good idea to call a couple of my buddies from confirmation and schedule a time to hang out in order to help me begin socializing again. I was nervous as heck going over my friends’ house that night, but it was the major turning point in my recover… it was the first time I was able to talk about what I was experiencing with my peers, and it was the first time I had a chance to have fun in a really long time. We went to the church league basketball game together the next night and I never really looked back and I was shortly thereafter return to school. That’s just one story of amazing ministry, of amazing community here at Emanuel Lutheran.

Now for a sillier one. I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t particularly good at paying attention in Sunday school, but as might of the folks here today know from first hand experience, that was an understatement. Some of my friends and I probably even made a few of our Sunday School teachers cry over the years. Let me first mention, boy I’m very sorry about all that! Things got so bad at one point, probably when we were around ten, that we actually needed to have a meeting with the pastor and our parents about whether we could even continue in Sunday School at Emanuel. The only thing I remember from that day is yelling out that I didn’t believe anything in the Bible obviously because no one in the Bible had last names! I was even a quick thinker back then… But here’s the really funny part… out of that Sunday School class came three seminarians, five counselors at Camp Calumet, and a bunch of other great folks doing all sorts of ministries according to their callings. Wow, that’s absolutely amazing! If you need any indication about how the ministries called to participate in and the investments you’re making today might impact others in the long term, then this is probably a really great example.

... And those stories are just three of the things from my own life folks, and I haven’t even physically been around here for most of the past decade! I can only imagine all the amazing stories y’all have as well about how our congregation has supported you and our neighbors over the years, and how its ministered to our surrounding communities, and even our larger world.

We may not be perfect, but when remember, when we confess and celebrate on day like Reformation Sunday, we can also look forward in a bold, vibrant future together. And furthermore, we can look to such a future knowing the profoundly good news that whats important is not really about what we’re doing at all, but rather its about the amazing works of liberating love God is doing, and will continue to do in Christ. Let’s just think about some of those amazing things in the short-term... we have a new pope who has gone out of his way to wash the feet of Muslim girl, has said who is he to judge people no matter who they love and has refocused the church on economic justice. We have a great new presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, a great new synod Bishop, Jim Hazelwood and in our own local congregation, we have a great new associate pastor, Kathy Reed, who I’ve heard from a bunch of folks is doing some truly amazing work.

And the opportunities we have for ministry are immense... we live in a part of the country where 75% of folks don’t belong to any particular faith community. Well I say what an amazing opportunity we have to go out there to share that Good News that we know through Christ with them! We as wider Church I believe are really starting to finally get it... we are reforming once again as we did 500 years ago to reach new generations of folks who are asking new sorts of questions but who are seeking the same answers... the good news of God’s liberating act in Christ. Amidst chaotic times and great change, my sisters and brothers, we have a God of Change, who is and always will be at work, supporting us, guiding us and bearing us peace. In Christ, God promises to be a God not just of the past, but of the future, a God of freedom, a God of liberating love that is always at work. And, God is a God who keeps Her promises. Amen.

God's peace,

Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Bread for the World Sunday Sermon: The Power of Liberating Love

Hi everyone,

What follows is the draft of a sermon I'll be preaching tomorrow at Saint Michael's Lutheran Church in Germantown on the Gospel according to Saint Luke 18: 1 - 8. The sermon is a part of an ongoing advocacy effort to celebrate Bread for the World Sunday. I'd love to hear what you think!

God's peace,

Ya know, today’s message from the Gospel of Saint Luke is one of my absolutely favorite parables. There’s a bunch of good messages here for sure about prayer, persistence, and even gender equality, but the reason I particularly love this parable is because of what it says about justice. A widow, a person frequently near the bottom of the social ladder during the time the gospels were being written, keeps coming back to a cruel judge, begging him for justice over her opponent. And lets just stress here... this is not a Judge Judy sort of situation... the widow does not have any ordinary opponent... the word we translate as “opponent” in the original Greek means someone who keeps coming back to accuse you, to persecute you, again and again. In other words, this widow was in a state of constant oppression, but through her own persistence in prayer and action, she eventually convinces a judge to rule in her favor simply because she wears him down... he doesn’t want to be embarrassed by her any longer. My brothers and sisters, this parable proclaims to us across the millennia that despite human sin, that despite the very real evil that persists in ourselves and our society no matter how we try to change or deny it, that at least some of the time, justice can prevail. Yes, at least in some situations, with God’s help, justice can prevail... problems can be solved.

This parable teaches us something deeper about justice too, especially as it relates to our topic of advocating against hunger, if we take a closer look at the character of the judge. Although our hearts initially go out to the widow (with good reason), the judge is actually in just as bad of shape. He actually says to himself, “I do not care about God and I have no respect for people.” I do not care about God and I have no respect for people... wow. Can you even imagine being in that bad of a situation, where you openly admit to yourself that you don’t care about God AND the folks around you? That’s got to be a deep, dark, lonely place... the sort of place that’s pretty hard to get out of. Perhaps some of us here today can in fact recall such a situation, where either crushed under the weight of addiction, or broken relationships, or disease or loneliness or any other sort of evil that might oppress us, we had to recognize that we had become so entirely disconnected from our God and our fellow human beings that we simply didn’t care.

I myself haven’t been in quite that difficult of a spot, but I’ve been close, and that was especially the case while living in Washington, DC. I moved there right after high school to study political science at the George Washington University because I wanted to change things. I was a pretty progressive teenager, and I wanted to change things... I wanted to make the world a better place, and I thought Washington was just where I could do it! I eventually realized though that change wasn’t so easy. By no means do I think this happens to everyone, there’s still a lot of great folks there, but I eventually realized that I was stuck in a pattern that’s fairly common in Washington. Much like me, a lot of folks move there thinking they want to change the world. Soon though they see that in order to change the world, they have to attain a certain level of power. Whether by climbing social ladders or compromising their values or greatly overworking or building their resume in a cut-throat sort of way, folks in Washington can often lose sight of their original goals. Life for them, as it was for me, no longer is about changing the world... it simply becomes about attaining more power. And on that brutal quest for power, relationships with other people are inevitably lost and one’s connection with God feels broken. In other words, life in Washington easily begins to lack the liberating power of love. I believe God worked pretty darn hard to free me from that sort of life... I recognized I needed to leave Washington, at least for a while, and I’m much happier today for it, but unfortunately, many of our leaders there are still stuck in lives that seem to lack the liberating power of love.

And that my sisters and brothers is what we’ve seen recently in Washington, and what we see in the character of the unjust judge. We see the work of lives lacking love. We see the work of folks whose lives lack the liberating power of love, who have become so disconnected that they can’t see the suffering and injustice all around them. They can’t see the true problems in our nation and our world, nor can they ever dream how it can be better. As we discussed a couple weeks ago, we know that one in six Americans currently face hunger in some form, and that in the city of Philadelphia, the number goes up to one in four. One in six Americans face some form of hunger and one in four folks in this city of brotherly love face some form of hunger. Yet we also know that it doesn’t need to be this way, and that it hasn’t always been this way. Under Richard Nixon, not someone exactly known for being a liberal softy, hunger as an systematic problem was pretty much eliminated for a time in America through the increased use of food stamps, now referred to as the SNAP program. Just listen to what President Nixon said to Congress back in 1969:
More is at stake here than the health and well-being of 16 million American citizens who will be aided by these programs and the current Child Food Assistance programs. Something very like the honor of American democracy is at issue. It was half a century ago that the "fruitful plains" of this bounteous land were first called on to a great work of humanity, that of feeding a Europe exhausted and bleeding from the First World War. Since then on one occasion after another, in a succession of acts of true generosity--let those who doubt that find their counterpart in history--America has come to the aid of one starving people after another. But the moment is at hand to put an end to hunger in America itself. For all time. I ask this of a Congress that has already splendidly demonstrated its own disposition to act. It is a moment to act with vigor; it is a moment to be recalled with pride.
According to President Nixon, the very honor of American democracy was at issue... there could no longer be excuses for allowing hunger to exist in our great nation, and thus, for a time, the systematic problem of chronic hunger was eliminated. Unfortunately, under presidents of both major political parties, under President Reagan and President Clinton, food stamps and other programs were scaled back. And thus we’ve ended up in the dire situation we find ourselves in today.

My sisters and brothers, hunger does not exist in America because of one political party or the other... both parties have worked to eliminate hunger, and both parties have set us back at times. The case is similar on the international level. The Millennium Development Goals were originally signed onto by the Clinton administration, and due to increased foreign aid under the Bush administration, we’ve nearly cut to global hunger rate in half over the last two decades to what is now around 14 percent. Hunger does not exist because of one political party or the other and hunger does not exist because we lack the resources to alleviate it. The main reason the scourge of hunger still exists in our time is because, much like the situation of the judge in today’s parable, the lives of many of our political leaders lack the liberating power of love. Thus, today’s parable teaches us that in order to move towards justice, in order to solve problems that are indeed solvable, much like the widow, we should persistently pray, preach and proclaim the power of liberating love that we know through Christ to those leaders who most desperately need to hear it. So following the close of today’s worship service, I invite you to do just that. As we celebrate Bread for the World Sunday, we got all the materials you need to tell President Obama and the folks in Congress that we can and need to end hunger and to remind them about the liberating power of love that we know through Christ. You can either write a letter, record a short YouTube video, or sign a petition.

Amidst the hardest days of the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once preached,
To our most bitter opponents we say: ...One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory. Love is the most durable power in the world. This creative force, so beautifully exemplified in the life of our Christ, is the most potent instrument available in [human]kind’s quest for peace...
Love, my sisters and brothers, is the most potent instrument available in our quest for peace, love is the most potent instrument available in our quest for justice, love is the most potent instrument available in our collective quest for freedom. When our Christ rose from that most gruesome of deaths two millennia ago, He proclaimed to the whole world, including us in this time, in this place, in this city that even the worst of human evil, the actual killing of God, is absolutely nothing next to the power of love. God’s act of love in our Christ empowers us. God’s act of love in our Christ frees us. God’s act of love in our Christ liberates us from whatever or whoever may oppress us. And when we are wrapped up in the arms of God’s liberating love in Christ, we can’t help but share the good news of that love with others. Amen.

Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

The Role of Women in the Syrian Armed Conflict

Hi everyone,

What follows is a cross-post I just wrote for Ecumenical Women at the United Nations (EW), an organization for which I currently serve as Communications Coordinator. While I wanted to put this fairly in-depth peace on the role of women in the Syrian armed conflict both on my blog and on the EW site to more widely raise awareness about this issue, please head over to the EW post here if you would like to share it. Thanks!

God's peace,

Ever since I heard UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka speak so eloquently on the need for women's political participation in peacebuilding two weeks ago at a 'Peacebuilding Commission High-Level Ministerial Event,' I felt inspired to dig a bit deeper past the headlines coming out of Syria in order to begin learning a bit more about the role of women in the Syrian armed conflict. Ever since the UN Security Council unanimously adopted its landmark Resolution 1325 on 31 October 2000, the international community has repeatedly affirmed that women play an essential role in peacebuilding, conflict resolution and conflict prevention. For instance, as Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka pointed out in her address, "women’s political participation is associated with lower levels of corruption, more inclusive decision-making, greater investment in social services, job creation for women, and family welfare," all factors that lead to a more peaceful society. Furthermore, while correlation does not necessarily prove causation, there is a "statistically significant relationship between female representation in government and peace," as you can read about here.

However, well over a decade after the adoption of Resolution 1325, rates of women's political participation in formal peacebuilding negotiations remain extremely low. As an August 2010 report released by UN Women indicates, a "reasonably representative sample of 31 major peace processes between 1992 and 2011 reveals that only 4 percent of signatories, 2.4 percent of chief mediators, 3.7 percent of witnesses and 9 percent of negotiators are women." Women have specific concerns in peace negotiations, such as a need for gender training on all levels of armed forces, the elimination of sexual violence, and the protection of women refugees and internally displaced persons, yet these concerns are rarely addressed in final peace accords. As discussed in this video from IREX, violence against girls and women, especially sexual violence, has become widespread in the Syrian armed conflict, and thus it will be especially important that women are represented in any future peace negotiations in order to increase the likelihood that women's issues are properly addressed. For more information on sexual and gender-based violence in the Syrian armed conflict, as well as other issues, you can read this report from Human Rights Watch and this report from International Rescue Committee.

While we need to raise awareness about sexual and gender-based violence in the Syrian armed conflict, women are playing many leadership roles as well, both officially and unofficially. As discussed in the video from IREX linked to above, women are leaders of protests, civil society organizations and occasionally serve in the Free Syrian Army, although they are increasingly being marginalized as extremist groups to continue to gain power in the opposition. The work of women to protect other women and girls in refugee camps was also mentioned. Finally, we would like to lift up three women working providing leadership in Syrian armed conflict, all with different approaches. Although currently in exile, Suheir Atassi is a co-vice-president in the Syrian opposition and is one of the movement's leading secular activists. Razan Zaitouneh is a Syrian writing and human rights lawyer who still remains in the country, working to document human rights abuses. Finally, the young Yaman Al Qadri is a peace activist who was detained and tortured by Syrian police in 2011. She eventually fled to Canada after being released, and has recently toured in a play called "Let's Talk" about the complex issues Syrians have about the uprising. To hear more from these three amazing women, check out the videos below.



Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.