Religion, Power, and the Radicalness of Jesus

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Art Display at Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts & Culture, Bethlehem 

One of the most painful learnings of my time in the Holy Land was recognizing the danger of religion getting wrapped up with power. One cannot hear the stories of the people of Israel and Palestine without glimpsing the dark side of religion, without witnessing the oppression, pain, and violence that emerges when one religious group fights to suppress the voices of another in order to secure their own place on top of the sociopolitical ladder. It is a vicious cycle; my own Christian heritage (particularly my German Lutheran heritage) cannot deny its own history of antisemitism and its devastating role in the Holocaust. Today, one cannot visit Jerusalem and the West Bank without coming face to face with the reality of religious and political groups vying for power and control in order to grasp their own freedom from powers of oppression that have been inflicted upon them. The weight of the horrors of what humanity can inflict upon each other in the face of fear is truly devastating. Mass annihilations of an entire people. Separation walls. Military check points. Denial of books and education. Suicide bombings. Occupation.

Despite my best attempts to avoid watching things that I know are undoubtedly going to make me angry, as I was flipping through the channels last night I got sucked into the tail end of the GOP Debate.  I was again struck with the entanglement of religion and power happening in my own country. Our own Christian history in the U.S. often looks a lot like this: We have faith in the Almighty to help us become a powerful nation, to grant us good fortune, and to side with us (and only us), to make us a superior people. In a season of campaigns, our conversations about religions are laced with war rhetoric. We are taught to fear the other: the immigrant, the refugee, our African American brothers and sisters, people whose gender identity or sexual orientation doesn’t fit into our neat definition of what love looks like. We are taught to fear those who threaten our [read: white, straight, upper-middle class, privileged] sense of identity by speaking their truth of oppression.

To hear another’s story, to see the humanity behind a label, to truly come alongside someone whose life experience differs from ours requires incredible vulnerability. It puts our own self-constructed identity at risk. (Allow me to indulge in my love of psychology for a second.) We like to think we’re good people; we construct narratives to understand who we are, and most of the time these narratives portray ourselves in a positive light. Having a healthy, positive identity is a good thing; blindly oppressing and inflicting violence upon fellow human beings for the sake of our own egos is not. Facing the reality of the oppressed and recognizing ourselves, our people, our histories among the oppressors puts us in a state of psychological disequilibrium. We are faced with cognitive dissonance: what we thought we knew about ourselves does not match up with the new information we are receiving about ourselves and our place in the world. It is an uncomfortable, painful place to be. Our natural instinct may be to resort to defensiveness, to restore our own sense of dignity. To justify our privileged place in this world, to excuse ourselves from the web of blame and guilt we are suddenly caught in, to insist that it is not our fault, that we really, truly are good people. We might do this by objectifying the very people we are oppressing, by writing their story off as insignificant, false, over-exaggerated. By assuming that “those people” are all the same: lazy, uneducated, violent, less sophisticated, two-dimensional. We certainly can’t be held accountable for their place in society.

Yet, I look at Jesus and nothing about this man, this God who takes on flesh and is born in a manger in a Middle Eastern town, who announces that he has come “to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18) cooperates with our traditional ideas of power. Nothing about Jesus lets me off the hook when I am forced to confront my own level of privilege, when I am forced to face the ways in which my actions oppress others. Nothing about Jesus allows me to ignore the cycles of fear and oppression afflicting my own country: Police brutality. Mistreatment of immigrants. Turning away refugees in desperate need of asylum. Dehumanizing our Native American brothers and sisters. Patriarchy that still infuses nearly every aspect of our culture.

I’m not saying any of these issues has a simple fix. I am only saying that if my faith practices do not call me into a place of discomfort as I examine the systems that serve me but inflict immeasurable pain on my sisters and brothers here and around the world, we have a pretty serious problem. If our Christian faith serves only to boost our own egos, to only tell us the ways in which we are right and superior and entitled, I think we need to ask ourselves if we really know anything about this Jesus of whom we speak.

Thankfully, the same God who calls me into this place of discomfort also provides me with abundant, overflowing, unimaginable grace even as I recognize my own status as an oppressor. But I think we can hardly comprehend the beauty of this grace, love, and mercy from our throne of privilege and entitlement. It is only when we recognize our own profound need for forgiveness that we can even begin to celebrate the radicalness of the Gospel message for both the oppressor and oppressed. And it is when we taste the abundance of grace that we are moved into action and are invited into God’s reality breaking into the here and now.  But more on the grace stuff later. I tasted a lot of it in the Holy Land. 🙂

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Adventures in the Holy Land (Part 1)

As I’m sure many of you know (especially my Facebook friends who have put up with an obnoxious amount of picture posting), I just returned from the trip of a lifetime—a two week pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On January 15, thirty-two Luther seminary students, alumni, faculty, and significant others boarded a plane in Minneapolis and approximately 20 hours later groggily stumbled into the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv where our fabulous tour guide, Hussam, greeted us and ushered us to our tour bus. The following two weeks were filled with adventures all around Israel and the West Bank. We went on excursions in and around the Sea of Galilee and visited the ancient sites of Caesarea Philippi, Caesarea Maritima, Capernaum, and Megiddo. We stopped in Nazareth, Cana, Bethany, and Bethesda. We ventured into the desert to see Jericho, Qumran, and Masada. We floated in the Dead Sea, splashed in the Mediterranean, and remembered our baptisms in the Jordan River.  We visited the site of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and retraced the steps of his final days before his crucifixion in Jerusalem. We ate copious amounts of pita, hummus, falafel, and fresh fruits and vegetables. We bought souvenirs made of the olive wood of Bethlehem, glass made in Hebron, and pottery painted in Jerusalem.

But perhaps most importantly we listened to people’s stories. We heard from Palestinian refugees, Israeli settlers, Lutheran pastors, Muslim leaders, and Jewish human rights activists. We caught a glimpse of what it is like to live under the heavy weight of occupation. We grew almost accustomed to seeing armed soldiers with machine guns on every corner. We grappled with the complexities of what it means for an oppressed people to become the oppressors and too often recognized ourselves among the oppressors as well. We visited the poorest areas of Palestine and tried to imagine living our entire lives inside the “open air prison” created by the dividing wall (constructed by the Israeli government), but just when we thought we knew who was right and who was wrong, we spent an afternoon at the Holocaust museum. We were confronted with our own privilege and were disturbed to see our own country’s oppressive systems reflected back to us, in ways even more obvious than before.

We felt the beauty of diversity and the dangerous tension in the Old City of Jerusalem in our visits to the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. We tried to understand what it means to have the identity and validity of entire groups of people so deeply intertwined with a particular piece of land—with the ancient stone and marble of the Old City of Jerusalem, with the lush, rolling hills of the Galilee, with the rocky desert surrounding the Dead Sea, with the countless groves of orange, lemon, and olive trees. We joined thousands of other pilgrims from around the world who travel to this very piece of land to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, to touch the sacred rocks, to visit the majestic cathedrals, and to try to understand the beauty and complexities of this holy, mysterious place. We saw the horror of what happens when religion gets intermixed with power and were crushed by the seeming impossibility of peace.

But just when the weight of it all seemed devastating, we would catch a glimmers of hope. The innocent giggles of Palestinian and Israeli children, the creation of prophetic art emerging in the midst of oppression, the resilience of the peace workers, the promise of the Gospel spoken to a church primarily composed of refugees, the goosebumps on our arms after singing hymns in a hodge-podge of languages with our brothers and sisters from around the world, in the remarkable hospitality we experienced nearly everywhere we went. The Holy Land is a deeply disturbing, incredibly beautiful place, and I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to go and experience it for myself. I have been changed in ways that I cannot yet fully articulate—but have no fear, there are plenty more blog posts to come.  Stay tuned, and thanks for joining me as I try to make sense of this crazy journey. 🙂

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Sea of Galilee

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Jerusalem

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Bethlehem

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Separation Wall in the West Bank

My New Year’s Resolution: Learn to Fail.

2015. What a year! It was filled with moments of adventure and moments of mundanity, promising new friendships, tear-filled goodbyes, and long-awaited reunions with old friends. I cried tears of gut-wrenching lament and tears of uncontainable laughter, and I traveled from the mountains of Colorado to the classrooms of Luther Seminary. I experienced moments of vocational clarity and even more moments of “what. the. heck. am. I. doing.” 2015 has been a beautiful, crazy, messy, bittersweet year, and I am so very grateful.

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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at freedigitalphotos.net

And here we are, on the verge of 2016, a year that is yet to be lived and explored. It sits before us filled with promise and hope, anxiety and uncertainty. And in the meantime, the pressure’s on to make those dreaded New Year’s resolutions. It’s hard to ignore those “motivational” commercials urging us to embrace the mantra, “New year, new you!” The bar is set to strive to live and to be better: to be healthier, to make more money, to spend more time with family, to travel more, to accomplish more… the list is endless. Don’t get me wrong; there’s not necessarily anything wrong with any of these goals. The overachiever in me longs to make a nice, neat list of lofty New Year’s resolutions so I can achieve them (ideally even overachieve them) and cross them off one by one. However, I’ve come to the hard realization that maybe, at least for me, my New Year’s resolution needs to be one of a slightly different nature. I think my New Year’s resolution needs to be to embrace imperfection. To maybe even (dare I say it?) fail.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of perfectionism lately. The term “perfectionist” is often thrown around nonchalantly, oftentimes even being spoken of with a twinge of pride. We speak of perfectionism as though it’s a harmless personality trait, at its worst nothing more than a slight quirk. A minor annoyance at times for sure (particularly for those poor souls who have to work with us), but also often the key to one’s success in school, at work, and in life more generally. In fact, I would argue that we live in a society that praises perfectionism and consistently rewards the overachievers among us. Yet, we rarely speak of the darker side of this unrealistic (and straight up impossible) pursuit of perfectionthe side that speaks words of unworthiness and shames mediocrity, the side that leaves us always longing to do more and therefore to be more in order to prove to ourselves and others that we too deserve to be loved. Perfectionism is the villain that too often prevents us from fully showing up in community and from participating in activities that carry with them the possibility of failure, meanwhile creating a vicious cycle of anxiety and isolation. I know this because perfectionism is far too often the reality in which I allow myself to dwell.

Things get really uncomfortable when my perfectionistic tendencies come into direct contact with my faith and theological convictions. I profess in a God whose unconditional love and overflowing grace knows no bounds, yet I continuously get caught up in my own desire to be good, to prove my own worthiness. Sure, grace is a beautiful concept but do I really believe it for myself? On my especially perfectionist driven days, I’m not so sure. And I believe in the importance of community and the beauty of the diversity of vocational gifts poured out through the Spirit, yet I so often insist on doing everything myself—to make sure everything is done “just right” and to again make known my own worthiness in my own eyes and the eyes of those around me. Yet, it is on the foundation of imperfection that community is built. Where one person lacks, another can provide. My lack of skills in one area can allow for the empowerment of another person’s gifts. When I am struggling, a friend is strong, and other times I get to be the strong one. To live in community is to claim and embrace imperfection, inviting others to see the imperfect pieces of ourselves as well. And to live faithfully is to show up amidst the risk of failure and to even embrace failure as the place where grace meets us most profoundly.

It is a strange concept to pursue failure, or at the very least to welcome it. But perhaps it is exactly what I need to embrace my own identity as a child of God and to dare to believe that maybe, just maybe, I am enough even without my good grades and list of achievements. And maybe, in embracing my own imperfection, I can grant others the permission to do the same.

Here’s to 2016!

Peace,

Alex

For some really great reading/listening on the less than glamorous sides of perfectionism check out the following:

http://www.stuffmomnevertoldyou.com/podcasts/little-miss-perfect/

http://brenebrown.com/2009/03/18/2009318perfectionism-and-claiming-shame-html/

http://www.apa.org/monitor/nov03/manyfaces.aspx

http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/perfection-community