Sunday, August 14, 2011

6 Ways Jesus Breaks Down the evil, despicable SELF/OTHER DICHOTEMY! (buwahahahaaa)

In case you were wondering, I can summarize postmodern philosophy in a few sentences: “Beware of constructed identities! Don’t create an us/them duality! Don’t create strict categories of understanding!”
             Basically, this framework for viewing the world came of age during Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement. Its proponents justifiably took umbrage at the categorization of blacks or Communists as “those people” instead of just “people”. They argued that the evil policies in Nazi Germany began when certain groups of people were labeled as the Other. The ‘good decent normal’ people had to watch out for those ‘bad, weird Other’ people (and ultimately boycott, quarantine, and exterminate ‘Them’). Postmodern theorists than apply this calculus to every other aspect of life. Virtually every paper I write in college can make some reference to the danger that the Self/Other dichotomy poses in one aspect or another. Gender (male/female). Citizenship (citizen/noncitizen). Species (human/nonhuman). Race (one of us/one of them).
Thus, we see in postmodernism attempts to deconstruct these divisive constructs. Now, I don’t agree with all of postmodernism’s tenets, but I think this one has value. And so I think it’s very interesting that God, as seen in the Bible and in Jesus, breaks down nearly every self/other dichotomy I can think of. I’ll make a list, feel free to add to it :)

1. Male/Female. This is a huge, seemingly insurmountable divide. Yet God handles it with tact and aplomb. One particularly epic verse, Galatians 3:28, states that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor is there male nor female; you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Wow. That’s so much oneness in one sentence. I doubt if even a cross between Yoda and the Dalai Lama could have thought of that. But apparently God did, and that’s the way he intends Christians to see the world. Obviously we’re not perfect, but that’s our fault, not Christianity’s.
            Jesus as a person, moreover, took incredible steps to empower women in the patriarchal society of his day. He defended prostitutes from persecution, and spoke with women as equals. These are 21st century values found in a first century man. Extraordinary.
Powerfully, God frequently even portrays himself in feminine terms. Isaiah 42:14, Isaiah 66:13, Luke 13:34, Proverbs 4, and Jeremiah 31:22 each have God portraying himself as an over-pregnant woman, a mother hen, or some other feminine image. While the majority of the Bible’s allusions to God are masculine, it is interesting that God does not necessarily see himself as “male” in the way we humans think of it. I think God is beyond gender.

2. Poor/Rich. This one’s a bit more obvious. Jesus’ ministry focused especially on helping the poor and on encouraging the rich to give their goods to the poor. There’s too many verses to count on this one. But basically the overall message is that poor people are closer to the kingdom of God—maybe because there’s less stuff distracting them from it. Anyway, in Acts 2 and 4 we see the early Christians shared all their possessions and held everything in common. The original Communists! Thus the first thing we see when people take Jesus’ message seriously is an immediate destruction of class and economic lines. Everyone’s needs are taken care of, and there is no more room for greed.

3. God/Man. In the greatest paradox of all time, God came to Earth disguised as a human. As one both fully God and fully human, Jesus was the culmination of God’s plan to reconcile humanity and rescue it from itself. Not only that, but humans are offered the chance to become Jesus’ brothers and therefore also to be sons of God like Jesus is. Since children have the authority of the father, what we see is a blurring of the strict distinction between God and Man.
            Moreover, in the thrilling conclusion to the New Testament, the apocalyptic book of Revelation, we see the marriage of Jesus and the Church (representing Christians). Since in marriage two become one, we can see that this wedding feast is symbolic of the eternal union of God and Humanity that will eventually occur. God is not separate from his creation; in fact he loves it so much he chooses to make himself one with it.

4. Heaven/Earth. Earth is evil, trapping our souls in awful physical pain and suffering. Heaven is wonderful; where our spirits are finally free to float around in bliss. Right? WRONGG. This view of heaven and earth is more Plato than Paul. Unfortunately, as NT Wright writes in his book, Surprised by Hope, this view has taken over much of Christian thought. What is the truth?
            Often, Evangelicals portray the Bible’s message as an evacuation: one way or another, Christians will get off this wretched planet and escape into heaven. They see the Earth as good for nothing but destruction. However, the Earth as portrayed by the Bible (Romans 8) is a conflicted space–with much beauty yet waiting for the day when it is finally freed of its decay and bondage to entropy. Ultimately, in Revelation 22, God comes down from heaven to live on earth-forever! Heaven is not God’s final home! It’s the (very nice) motel he’s been staying at until he can finally move in with the people he really wants to spend eternity with—us humans.
            Obviously, God has not yet remade the earth. God still has to renovate. But Jesus’ told his followers to pray and act that God’s will would be done on Earth as it is in heaven. Thus taking care of the earth and others is a foreshadowing of the final reality, the marriage of heaven and earth, the merging of two separate realities into one incredible paradise.

5. Jew/Non-Jew (i.e. racial boundaries). Jesus’ opening of the closed Jewish religion to non-Jews was heretical in his day. But in the same spirit of the verse mentioned above, he taught that there is neither Jew nor Greek, black nor white, French nor EYEtalian, Hispanic nor Asian. In God’s eyes, all are the same. That’s powerful, and that’s an innovation Jesus brought.

6. Ally/Enemy. I wrote about this one a bit in my blog about the Fourth of July. Jesus told his followers to love their enemies, and I think that is the most radical command in the history of the world. It’s easy to love friends, or neutral things like nature, but to love people who hate your guts? That’s revolutionary. Moreover, once you start loving them as if they were your friend, your perspective changes. Psychologically, something happens and it’s impossible, once you start showing love to a someone, to continue treating them as the Other.

So those are just some of the ways I think that Christianity punches some serious holes in some Self/Other dichotomies…I don’t know, I think it’s kind of cool.

But of course, when talking to Liz about this concept the other day, she threw a wrench into the whole theory with two sentences… “But aren’t some differences good, and created by God? Like don’t the differences between males and females or between different cultures enrich the world?” She’s right.

I guess the point is that when these differences get blown out of proportion, they become evil. Jesus’ message deconstructs these concepts so that they can be restored to their rightful positions. 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Two Visits to a Mosque

Ah-Salaam-Malaiku. My mispronunciation of the standard Muslim greeting probably went unnoticed as I mumbled it under my breath to the man who held the door open for me. At least I knew I was getting the “Salaam” part right, having said it many times to Arabs I had met in Israel. Peace be with you.
Last Thursday night I attended a Ramadan gathering at a mosque. I had visited this same mosque three years ago and started the beginning of a blog post, left incomplete. Here’s the full result of what I had written then:

An evangelical Christian walks into a mosque…
Not a typical Friday.
My heartbeat quickened as I approached the door of the mosque. A seventeen-year old boy who had come of age in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I could not help but be nervous. I resolved to leave my prejudices -with my shoes- at the entrance.
            The whir of fans and the lush carpet beneath my feet
The imam’s message, while of course devoid of the “salvation by grace” theology characteristic of my church, had many points I found myself agreeing with. His criticism of American materialism and overconsumption came off not as that of a militant cleric but as a frustrated, chiding leader. More like Barack Obama than Pastor Ray, I decided, especially as the word “hope” peppered his sermon.” [End of Transcript]

My visit on Thursday was tempered by nearly five months in the Middle East and a greater exposure to Islam and Middle Eastern culture. Yet unlike the Palestinians I had met, the Muslims at this mosque were of either Southeast Asian or African-American background. It struck me that Islam, like Christianity, is a ‘universalist’ religion that does put a priority on proselytizing: the religion is not for a chosen few, but intended for everyone.

In this way, I almost connected more with the service at this mosque than I had at Jewish synagogues. My last name notwithstanding, I am not Jewish and thus cannot become a part of that community unless I choose to undertake a lengthy conversion process. Islam, on the other hand, would take me as quickly as you can say the “Sinner’s Prayer”. ­

Also I have to say that Ramadan, a month of fasting, seems like a really cool practice. The whole community comes together for dinners for a whole month, praying each day together instead of just once a week. The rhythm of fasting, while strenuous, certainly provides spiritual and mental discipline. Modern Christians who have lost the art of fasting have much to learn from our cousins (first cousins, once removed). Fasting deprives the suicide machine of modern life its fuel, necessitating a pause for reflection and meditation.

Breaking the fast, though, is of course probably the more fun aspect of Ramadan. I welcomed the eclectic mix of Kennedy Fried Chicken, Pasta, and these tasty fried dough patty spicy-Arab food cakes and downed them heartily.
“Brother!” an older African-American gentleman called down the table. “Have some more chicken!” I declined, stuffed already. Looking around, there seemed to be little integration between the African and Asian populations. Each group kind of sat on its own. I could pick up the words of dads speaking in Indian dialects to their children, but other than that conversation in the room was muted. At least there was a mixture of races there, I must admit. That’s something to be said for the mosque.

Perhaps I was only witnessing a quiet night, but maybe mosques are less conducive to the forging of community than the way I picture an ideal religious community. Another example is that during prayer and the meal men and women were separated entirely. I imagine in Mohammed’s day the mosque was simply an extension of the surrounding community. But here in America, mosques (like churches), face the difficult task of trying to bring together people who may have no contact with each other except on days of worship.

I think that is partly why I’ve connected a lot recently with the theology of modern Christian Anabaptists and the Emerging Church conversation. Among other things, these movements focus on creating space for community to grow. In post-modern America, life is fractured. I think that churches have a unique place and opportunity in society to provide a way to bridge gaps and reconcile people. I don’t think Islam has yet dealt with this problem yet: Islam in America predominantly remains a religion of the immigrant populations. If it hopes to grow, it will have to engage in the difficult, messy task of learning how to create mixed communities. The mosque I visited had some of the pieces in place: it was relatively welcoming to outsiders, people were friendly, and food was provided. But it will take more than that to bridge the economic and social divides of our local area. It will be interesting to see how Islam in America evolves over the coming decades, and what the reaction from their conservative leaders in the Middle East will be.
Mosque in Hebron, Palestine called the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Where Abraham, Sarah, and others are said to be buried.