Monthly Archives: June 2015

Systems of forgiveness

Last Thursday I was rather thrilled with the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si,” which speaks an eloquent and urgent pastoral word regarding climate change.  Rather than addressing just his fellow Catholics, or even fellow Christians, the document opens by saying, “Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet.”  Early on the Pope cites his namesake, Francis of Assisi, who taught that “Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.”

I was only able to read the first number of pages before learning of the news from Charleston, South Carolina regarding the murder of nine churchgoers at the Emanuel AME Church.  Such hopeful and brave words from one corner of the religious word, accompanied with such painful and destructive actions in another.

One could argue that the same spirit of fear, and the impulse to dominate and subjugate, is behind both situations.  The ideology of white supremacy has been at work for centuries, leaving a trail of tears and violence in its wake.  It is far older than the social construction of “white” and has also played itself out in humans’ over-zealousness to subjugate the natural world to our wishes.  This spirit or impulse is what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he spoke of “the principalities and powers.”

In the days that followed I glimpsed a couple of the videos of Charleston family members expressing both their anger and their forgiveness to the killer, calling on him to repent.  The path of forgiveness will no doubt take a lifetime, but, as many survivors of abuse and violence have testified, forgiveness is just as much about one’s own survival than it is a selfless act toward the perpetrator.  There’s a sense in which forgiveness enables one to both absorb the evil of an act into one’s own person, while also letting it go in a transformed state.  Certainly outrage and forgiveness must go hand in hand in order to be genuine.

Sustainable farming pioneer Joel Salatin speaks about his philosophy of building systems of forgiveness into his farm (HERE, starts at 5:00).  Healthy grass and soil and animals help shield against inevitable drought and flood and disease by absorbing the potentially harmful extremes.  Forgiving food systems are not completely subject to the whims of political legislating and global markets.

For millennia our earth has been resilient and forgiving of so much of what we have done to it.  It has absorbed and released so much violence, and renewed itself and us in its abundance.  I wonder how much more capacity the earth has to forgive, and how much rage and wrath await us if we do not repent and radically change our ways.

“The purpose of the institution…”

Keeping on the theme of wider church gatherings this summer (Central District, Mennonite Church USA, Mennonite World Conference) …

My favorite book to read devotionally these days is The Experience of God: Icons of the Mystery by Raimon Panikkar.  Panikkar was the son of a Spanish Roman Catholic mother and Indian Hindu father, and became one of the world’s leading voices in interreligious dialogue, active up to his death in 2010 at age 91.

I usually read about a page or two a day (it’s dense) and Monday morning came across this lovely paragraph, about the nature of institutions:

We ought to recognize institutionalization as a constantly open process.  Only the conservative fossilization of established experiences ends in becoming an obstacle; of itself, institutionalization is a necessary human process.  We must see this sociological dimension as the crystallization or manifestation of an experience, that the experience is not exhausted or fixed in its structure, and that this structure makes it possible for others to have access to this experience.  The purpose of the institution is to make transparent the experience that established it.  But experience is incarnated in a human being who never stops changing and developing.  For that reason the institution ought to adapt itself in order to remain transparent in a perpetual process of transformation.  (emphasis mine)

To translate to non-religious institutions, it may work better to substitute “mission” for “experience.”  The establishing mission of a hospital is to heal.  The establishing mission of a university is to teach and explore knowledge.  Institutions are at their best when they “make transparent” their mission “in a perpetual process of transformation.”

The church also has a mission, but I find it quite helpful to follow Panikkar’s intuition of the church-as-institution as a manifestation of a founding experience.  For the Israelites it was the experience of exodus, of delivery from slavery, that initiated their peoplehood.  For Christians, it was the experience of the “Jesus event” as it has been called.  One can view the entirety of scripture as a sustained attempt at working out the implications of such experiences, of being caught up in the inexplicable overflowing Divine life.

It is frustrating that institutions so easily become focused on self-preservation rather than “making transparent the experience that established it.”  It is also a beautiful thing when institutions “make it possible for others to have access” to the transformative experience/mission for which it was established.

Some recent and upcoming examples of living gifts of institutions: This Sunday at CMC we will be blessing 150 comforters made in the past year, ready for MCC to distribute where most needed around the world.  This past weekend Central District Conference gave scholarships to six young adults who will be attending Mennonite World Conference in Harrisburg, PA.  In Kansas City delegates of MC USA congregations will be challenged to witness for peace in a nation now engaged in perpetual war.

A miracle at the table?

It is church conference/convention season.  Tomorrow through Saturday is the Central District Conference Annual Meeting, this year in Elkhart, Indiana on the campus of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary – my old stomping/studying grounds.  Six of us from Columbus Mennonite will be attending.  This gathering is mostly focused on relationship building and worship, and is always full of laughter.  Delegate sessions this year include discussion and a vote on a resolution called “A call to greater faithfulness in our witness for peace.”  We will also be receiving a copy of a ten page study document produced by a task group which, in the words of one of its writers, “is the first statement I know of commended for consideration by a Mennonite conference that articulates a biblical basis for the full inclusion of LGBTIQ persons, including same-sex marriages.”

Central District is one of 21 area conferences of Mennonite Church USA, and June 30-July 5 the national denomination will be holding it biennial convention in Kansas City.  I’ve written some about this in a previous blog.

Coincidentally (there was no centralized coordinating of this), both gatherings are drawing from the same scriptural text for their theme and theological/biblical grounding: Luke 24:13-35, the Emmaus Road story.  In this passage, two disciples are walking together from Jerusalem to the town of Emmaus.  Jesus had been crucified two days prior and they are discussing their experiences from the past week when a stranger, who we are told is Jesus, comes and walks alongside them.  Not recognizing him, they fill him in on the recent events.  The stranger then responds by giving them a Bible lesson, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets,” about Divine solidarity amid the persistence of suffering.  When they get near their destination, the two insist that this third traveler stay and eat with them before going on.  At the table, the stranger blesses and breaks and gives them bread – and they recognize that this is Christ – and he “vanished from their sight.”

One of the things I take from this story is the significance of when Christ is recognized.  I find it interesting that they don’t recognize Christ when he was talking with them about the scriptures.  He was no doubt giving a skillful biblical interpretation of the meaning of a suffering Messiah, but the point of recognition comes not through a Bible study but through a meal, when they are looking each other in the face around a table, gathered around food.  The miracle happens at the table.

I don’t mean to minimize the scriptures – this story is scripture!  It is vital that we continue to gather around the scriptures as a hermeneutical community, and search for wisdom together.  But we’re not being honest with ourselves if we don’t recognize that experience and relationships also play a major role in how we interpret life and the Bible.  Experience, relationships, tradition, rationality, and Scripture are in a dynamic relationship with each other, in constant conversation with each other, and sometimes the simple act of sitting around the table with someone does more to deepen our awareness of Christ-among-us than reading about it in the Bible.

At both the CDC and the MC USA gatherings we will be meeting at round tables to discuss important matters of church life and how we might be Christ’s agents of healing and hope in our world. And I gladly welcome the miracle of looking one another in the face and recognizing Christ.