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Resisting Fatalism

I sometimes find myself caught in the clutches of fatalism. I grew up in a family with an alcoholic father. Although he went through medical and psychological treatments, worked the Alcoholics Anonymous program, and managed to stop drinking for months and even years at a time, he is beaten by his illness. He is resigned to his addiction. And his resignation finds reflection in mine.

For the past 16 years, I’ve served among youth and adults with addictions – addictions to the streets, to gangs and to substances. While we’ve seen many of them come off the streets and some of them into healthy situations, a number of them are in jail, in hovels or on the streets. I feel like Lazarus’ sister, Mary, who went to Jesus and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” and Martha, who said, “‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days” (John 11:32, 39). Despite love, prayer, support and opportunities for change, we are watching our friends die in their addictions. I find myself being moved unwittingly by an undercurrent that says that people cannot change.

I also look at my own life and the changes that I hope for, pray for and work for but which, after years, I still don’t realize. The lack of change, of answers to prayer, of expected results all cultivates fatalism: no hope for the possibility of change. This reminds me of Albert Camus, a philosopher who deals with fatalism in many of his novels. In his book The Plague, Camus depicts the torturous disease that dominates people and over which they have no control. Camus’ character suggests that we resign ourselves to eminent death because we “… will [only] have suffered longer.”

The flicker of fatalism is fanned by society. Most of the public replies to the government with a defeatist sigh. They look at our environment and say, “That’s just Romania”. They look at the disenfranchised population among whom I serve and say, “Why waste your time and resources? They will never change. And if they do, they won’t amount to much. They were born into poverty, into a bad family, into dysfunction, and that’s where they’ll remain. That’s just the way they are.”

Of course, our kids, youth and families are raised and living in this very fatalistic society. Social psychologists, like Csikszentmihalyi and Seligman, affirm that helplessness is learned. Many of our kids lack any vision for the future other than what they see in their parents. There isn’t even a perspective which hopes for something different.

What is worse is that we witness fatalism creeping into the church. There I see mixed messages. Some overstress God’s determinism to such an extent that they make God responsible for sin and minimize any human freedom or responsibility. Others proclaim a prosperity gospel, which is a form of positive thinking that has no basis in reality. It is a positive fatalism, believing that certain determined effects follow certain human actions. On the other side of this unhealthy optimism is a millennial pessimism. Those that purport this view believe that things will get worse and worse and then the end will come with cataclysmic destruction. What is worse is that some think that they will be raptured to heaven and saved from the pain of the world, thereby relegating God’s passion for the redemption of creation and skirting any personal responsibility for the stewardship of creation. And even worse is that these bad theologies project fatalism onto the character of God.

These are the shackles of fatalism – a chain that binds the families I serve among, the society in which I live, and my own life. But I would concede to fatalism if I stopped here. There is an alternative, transformative vision for the history and destiny of humanity. There is a reality that breaks our despair.

This reality is God. God, who is Creator, has a plan for the renewal of all creation and refuses to let us go. It isn’t so much that I need to find resources of hope for God, for the world or for our kids; rather, I find that God himself hopes. God hopes for us. In the person of Jesus, God met fatalism and all its correlates at the cross, bringing fatalism to its end. In the resurrection and ascension, Jesus is the declaration, sign and execution of all God’s promises of healing, redemption and transformation. This is the Good News that snaps the chain of fatalism. And it is here that I am invited to live and hope. Our hopes are rooted in God’s.

This does not mean that we simply believe without acting. Ultimately, it means standing in the face of addiction, dependency, death, destruction. There we must either resign ourselves to these domineering finalities, or we must find grounds for hope. And that ground is God. We see that Jesus acknowledges death, destruction and decay. He experiences the weight of this finality, for example, in the death of Lazarus. Jesus wept (John 11:35). But God brings hope, the possibility of change, and even the possibility of the impossible. Jesus said with a loud voice, “’Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’” (John 11:43-44).

This is not hope that evades and avoids fatalism; rather, it addresses it head on. It is the hope that, with Abraham and Sarah, looks at our bodies and our possibilities and still hopes in God. That is, against possibilities for hope, still they hoped (Romans 5:18).

Hope isn’t something we always have at the start – a source that motivates us in the midst of trials. Rather, it is a result. St. Paul tells us that sufferings produce endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope (Romans 5:3-4). This is hope that is formed in the fire of pain and waiting and unfulfillment.

And this is the place where we must cultivate in the lives of our kids and their families, in our church and in our society. Although hoping hurts and although the things we hope for are not seen and often contradicted, we hope against hope in the promises of our Father in the Son and through the Spirit. Apart from the discipline of hoping against hope, I would also suggest two other actions.
First, we can pray. We pray for the things we hope for. In this way, the very act of prayer cultivates hope. In prayer we affirm our own powerless to transform and our faith that God can. Here I am reminded of the prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr that is said at every Alcoholics Anonymous meeting:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Second, in our communion with God our imaginations are infused with God’s dream for humanity and for creation. As ambassadors of Christ, we are called to give articulation to God’s dream. This is part of the prophetic office of the church. One way that this gift may be manifested is by affirming God’s dream and vision for those that are given over to fatalism.

Although this isn’t necessarily an example from within the church, the move The Cider House Rules depict such words of destiny spoken over children’s futures. It is a story of an orphanage – children that are abandoned and from the very early stages of life are in positions of disadvantage and despair. But every night as the children go to bed, the director of the orphanage tells them, “Goodnight, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.” This is a prophetic vision that refuses the temptations of fatalism, opening up possibility and horizons to those who thought they had none.

We can affirm the destiny of the children and their families as being God’s creation and God’s beloved. We can affirm God’s plans of good and hope for every life. We can affirm life, wholeness, health and salvation in the face of fatalism. We can invite them to God’s dream and God’s hope for each one: Christ in you, the hope of glory!

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Roma, Romanians, Racism and Racial Differentiation

Since this image has been shared on facebook at least 9,200 times and multiplying, I thought I would respond.  Along with the image is the “hope that there is no more confusion” about these two ethnicities. And “those of the opinion that Romanians should no longer be considered Gypsies,” then they should “share this picture wherever they can.”

This message, it seems obvious to me, is racist. However, some think it’s simply a correct view of reality that doesn’t conform to the trends of political correctness. But I think that is a misunderstanding of “political correctness.” To be politically correct would mean that you, at least, adopt terminology like “Roma” or “Romani” rather than “Gypsy” or “Tigani”, which the Romani have rejected because of their derogatory roots and connotations. In this case, I don’t think we succumb to secular liberal ideology by using “Roma” or “Romani”; rather, it seems to me to be an opportunity to show a basic respect, or what Romanians call “bun-simt”. But I don’t want to die on the battlefield of politically correctness. I am willing, however, to fight against racism. This caricature is not simply politically incorrect, it is racist. Let’s walk through this:

1) To caricature the Romanians with 19th and 20th Century great males on one side but the Romani by females in traditional dress is full of denigrating undertones. If it were Romanians in traditional dress on one side and Romani in traditional dress on the other or Romani greats on one side and Romania greats on the other, that would be a step in the right direction.

2) Some have heard the Roma claim that these preeminent Romanians (Eminescu, Enescu, Brancusi, Blaga and Eliade) have Roma heritage. It isn’t unusual for various ethnicities to lay claim to great people. When I was studying in Moldova, I heard Russians laying claim to Eminescu. But I don’t hear those claims much from the Romani or from other Europeans. This is a straw-man argument; it doesn’t support the argument for ethnic differentiation.

3) With over 2 million Romanians spread across Europe, the US and Israel, it begs at least to nuance the affirmation that Romanians are from Romania and Romani from everywhere. There are millions of Romani from Romania. By stating otherwise, this caricature is false. Without any nuancing, the caricature is also racist.

4) It would also be helpful to nuance national identities and ethnic identities. Romani are nationally Romanian, and Romanian Romani are different than Romani from other nations. Additionally, there are many, many who are of mixed ethnicities (i.e. Romani/Romanian) in Romania. What is worse is that many “Romanians” with Roma ancestors deny their own history because of the dominant culture’s views of this marginalized minority – an attitude that amounts not only to the hatred of the other but also the hatred of one’s self.

5) This gets to larger problem with this caricature, which presents the “Gypsies” as the problem, and Romanians as good contributors to culture. If Romanians thought Gypsies were good, I believe that they wouldn’t be so offended when ethnicity and nationality are conflated. This cartoon is a rejection or exclusion of the other.

6) While I don’t paint the whole ethnicity with the same brush, I realize that there is a significant amount of criminal behavior by the Romani in western Europe that attracts the press and portrays the whole ethnicity and even nationality in a negative light. I decry the criminal behavior of Romani. But this can also be said of ethnic Romanians. I personally know dozens of Romanians who are involved in illegal activity in western countries, some of whom are now in jail, who attract the attention of the media. Just look at the area of cyber crime: http://www.news24.com/World/News/Romania-FBI-crack-down-on-cyber-crime-20111219 and http://www.fbi.gov/news/news_blog/u.s.-and-romania-targeting-organized-romanian-criminal-groups. To place the negative image of Romanians on the shoulders of the Romani is a way of scape-goating, and it is racist.

7) Some are upset that the Roma moved to western Europe in the 1990’s, told stories of persecution in Romania, and requested asylum. They were then seen as being “from Romania.” While I realize that many claims of persecution were false, we also need to recognize the places where persecution did occur. For example, Human Rights Report from attacks on Roma villages in the early 1990’s: http://dosfan.lib.uic.edu/ERC/democracy/1993_hrp_report/93hrp_report_eur/Romania.html

8) We also need to introduce historical factors into this discussion. Many Romanians, at best, do not know or, at worst, fail to acknowledge that the first evidence of Romani in Romania was in bills of sale as slaves. I would not promote the idea that contemporary Romanians are presently guilty of slavery or that they must atone for the sins of their ancestors, but I think we would do well to recognize the benefits we reap today by not having a heritage of slavery. The social conditioning that slavery and discrimination has on a people, as we see, is passed from generation to generation. And that is where I think we must share not in guilt but in responsibility for creating equity and inclusion in society.

9) As a Christian, it seems to me the issue is how do we live together and move together toward being what God intends us to be as a human family – without diminishing or confusing identities. If we want to differentiate ethnicities, there are healthier and more constructive ways of doing it.

Bowling Alone

Clint Baldwin led us in a discussion on bowling and social capital, based on Robert Putnam’s book.

Here is a summary:

Declining Social Capital – Trends over the last 25 years:

  • Attending Club Meetings-58% drop
  • Family dinners-43% drop
  • Having friends over-35% drop

  • Joining and participating in one group cuts in half your odds of dying next year.
  • Every ten minutes of commuting reduces all forms of social capital by 10%
  • Watching commercial entertainment TV is the only leisure activity where doing more of it is associated with lower social capital.

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000)

by Robert D. Putnam

In a groundbreaking book based on vast data, Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures– and how we may reconnect.

Putnam warns that our stock of social capital – the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities.

Putnam draws on evidence including nearly 500,000 interviews over the last quarter century to show that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We’re even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues. Putnam shows how changes in work, family structure, age, suburban life, television, computers, women’s roles and other factors have contributed to this decline.

America has civicly reinvented itself before — approximately 100 years ago at the turn of the last century. And America can civicly reinvent itself again – find out how and help make it happen at our companion site, BetterTogether.org, an initiative of the Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Here’s how to:

Creative Protests in the City (part 2)

A few weeks back, we were led through a series of reflections on Creative Protests in the City by our friend David Clark, the pastor of the Steeple Church in Dundee, Scotland.

A CRITIQUE THROUGH ART

Robert Montgomerie

READING: Psalm 115:8

Those who make them (idols) will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.

 READING: John 2:13-20

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body.

“Dislocated” Rafael Barrios

TIME TO REFLECT

What do you discern as the impact of consumerist idolatry on people’s lives in Galati?

Are there ‘dislocated sections of society’ within Galati’s city community? Who are they? What characterises their lives?

Can you identify any obstacles that prevent you (as a community) being more effective in responding to Jeremiah’s command – “seek the peace and prosperity of the city”? (Jeremiah 29:7)

Creative Protest in the City (part 1)

A few weeks back, we were led through a series of reflections on Creative Protests in the City by our friend David Clark, the pastor of the Steeple Church in Dundee, Scotland.

He began by talking about the Occupy Movement and how it touched his city of Dundee. Rather than ignoring or bad-talking the movement – which sadly has been the response of many Christians – David Clark went out and spoke with them and asked them about their concerns. This wasn’t very difficult as they were camping next to the church property. He was able to identify the concerns that they shared and discussed ways in which they could respond together.

This really challenged our community to start to think about our participation in the city and the church’s task of prophetic engagement.

READING: ISAIAH 65:19-25

I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
will be heard in it no more.

“Never again will there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not live out his years;
the one who dies at a hundred
will be thought a mere child;
the one who fails to reach a hundred
will be considered accursed.
They will build houses and dwell in them;
They will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy
the work of their hands.
They will not labour in vain,
nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the LORD,
they and their descendants with them.

Before they call I will answer;
while they are still speaking I will hear.

The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
and dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,”
says the LORD.

“The three big problems in Dundee are homelessness, disaffected youth, and economic instability.”  Alessandro (Leader of Occupy Dundee).

TIME TO REFLECT

What would the citizens of Galati say are the top three problems in their city?

What do we mean by ‘presence of God’? How should Christian communities (churches +) make more visible the ‘presence of God’ in the city?

What do you observe are the consequences of the present recession in Galati?

Pilgrimage: Following Itineraries or Maps?

A couple of weeks back, Lenutsa and I, along with Sarah Lance, Walter Forcatto and Chris and Phileena Heuertz, had the opportunity to take a pilgrimage to Assisi, Italy. This little medieval city is the place where two of the church’s great saints, Francis and Claire, lived out their vocation of prayer, poverty and love for God. Although these two remarkable Christians lived 800 years ago, their calling, lifestyles and faithfulness have been inspirational and challenging to the Word Made Flesh community. One of my hopes in making this pilgrimage to Assisi was to connect more with this movement of God, this radical spirituality, and its revitalizing effects in the church and for the world.

As I was preparing for my first steps on this pilgrimage, I came across a fundamental distinction in how we have conceived “space” in history: itineraries and mapping.

Mapping is a relatively recent development in human history. It is a modern idea that followed the rise of the nation-state (see Michel de Certeu’s The Practice of Everyday Life). In pre-modern times principalities did not have clearly defined borders and often had landholdings within other principalities. Nation-states, however, needed to identify their borders and employed the technology of mapping to serve its cause. Maps are static, two-dimensional abstractions of space. Mapping means homogenization and delineation, often arbitrarily, for the sake of identity and control. Mapping is a form of will to power, particularly power over space. Yet, mapping cannot account for the temporality of space. The only thing “temporal” in mapping is its claims to permanence.

In pre-modern times space was not conceived through maps; rather, it was understood through itineraries. Itineraries depict a storied-space (see William Cavanaugh’s Theopolitical Imagination). They tell of sites, steps and experiences that one takes as they travel and as they make pilgrimage. They prescribe actions, prayers and places to sleep for different points along the journey. Where mapping imposes onto space the dominant story, the story of and for the nation-state, itineraries are purely local and particular. They are stories that emerge from the earth by its different smells and tastes, its rocks and its fruits. These stories are not merely told; they are performed.

(It was interesting to see no billboards in Assisi, which evidently are not allowed so as to keep its medieval appearance. It was even difficult to find an internet connection! The only way that the dominant stories, like McDonald’s, could smuggle their message in was on the sides of taxis that moved in and out of the city – that itself was a sad commentary on the contrast and aloofness of the dominant culture from the Franciscan story. I found the absence of the dominant narratives to be fitting to a place that celebrates Franciscan spirituality. And it is an example of how the soft prophetic voice of Franciscan spirituality continues to speak to our contemporary world.)

Itineraries are stories anchored in steps. Where mapping excludes the temporal, itineraries incorporate it. Space is not measured with metrics but rather with hours or days. Itineraries are written for boots, not jet-engines. At each step we are invited to follow in the footsteps of former fellow travelers, tracing a narrative through space and time. To see the same hills and valleys, to hear the same songs of the birds, and to experience the same gift of place. Itineraries tell of brooks and wells, of hotels and hospitality.  Maps identify place, itineraries experience place.

Whereas mapping excludes the strangers and forcibly “settle” the pilgrims in order to define, protect and extend its borders (see Phyllis Tickle’s “Forward” to Phileena Heuertz’s Pilgrimage of a Soul), itineraries are invitations to strangers and to pilgrims to experience the generosity of locals.

Refusing borders and dominating narratives of space, the pilgrim follows the itineraries of pilgrims forgone. But the experience of each pilgrim takes its own shape. The itinerary is prescriptive but not coercive. The itinerary is an invitation. Taking the journey means crossing and even subverting borders and a dominant narrative about space. In this way, the practice of pilgrimage is a practice of resistance. It cultivates a life that resists the illusion of control, the exclusion of the stranger and the domination of people and places. Itineraries mean transforming the places on the map into alternative spaces filled with alternative lives and alternative lifestyles marked and orientated by our pilgrimage to the City of God.

As I made pilgrimage through Assisi, I reflected on the trajectory that Claire and Francis charted. They created a new storied-space, and they invited the likes of me to journey through it. But although their story was new, it too was not original. In the homes, barns and businesses that Francis’ and Claire’s lives transformed into “alternative spaces,” they all link the stories of the saints to the story of Christ. They were misunderstood, rejected, persecuted and poor and yet joyful, loving and generous. Claire and Francis were “saints” inasmuch as they imitated Christ. Their stories were original in that only they could live out their own stories as only I can live out mine. But they draw from the church’s tradition and are told against its background. They chart the itinerary and further enrich the tradition, which now comprises the background for my pilgrimage. O, to follow Claire and Francis, to walk faithfully and to fill each place with stories about our radical love for God!

Vaisamar

O dezbatere care m-a făcut să ciulesc urechile.

Vi-l imaginați pe patriarhul Teoctist (sau Daniel, sau Alexei sau mai știu eu care) la o dezbatere cu public în formula propusă de Oxford? 🙂

O analiză a momentului, în Huffington Post.

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Embezzlement in the Church

This is an excellent article on tithing in the Church by my pastor, Ray Mayhew. He compares contemporary Christian giving to the generosity of the Church in history. Embezzlement: The Corporate Sin of Contemporary Christianity?

Challenging Politically Engaged Christians

A challenge to left-leaning Christians: in what areas are your views distinctly different from the Democratic party-line?

A challenge to right-wingish Christians: in what areas do you disagree with the Republican party-line?

Ideation Talk by Chris Heuertz

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