Sunday, February 27, 2005

The View from Below

Both Bonhoeffer and Cone talk about seeing the world from below, a Christology from below. They argue in their own ways that the Jesus we follow (or worship) is the one who was pushed out of society and onto the cross, who was despised and marginalized, who ended his life in powerlessness.

We, of the Christian west, are not used to thinking in powerless terms. We live daily with certain expectations. If the electricity fails, we expect that it will come back on. If we run out of food, we know that there will be more food on the shelves of the local supermarket. We can even run out of money and find more—loans, friends, family. We believe that justice will be done if we are wrongly accused. We trust our government to work properly, to defend our rights, to protect us from harm.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder what on earth religious faith is for in America! Certainly we all have personal pain and needs. Prayer and spiritual practices do help us to cope with those parts of ourselves. And perhaps that is its chief function—it offers a touchstone for the anxiety of postmodern life, in spite of the fact that our physical well-being is assured.

But if we think about Jesus as being identified with the politically and socially marginalized, it is now like a thunder clap of insight for me to think, "Who are the marginalized in my midst?" If I am not one of them, then shouldn't I be looking for who they are? I suppose evangelicalism would have classified the marginalized as those without Christ. Everyone (rich or poor) qualify as "poor in spirit."

Yet in reading Cone, I'm challenged to ask if there isn't some insidious misuse of religious faith at work that actually smothers the impulse for advocacy for the ones who suffer at the hands of all the institutions we take for granted as righteous, good and supportive. Is it possible that by focusing on the eternal condition of souls, we give people a way to ignore the troubling conditions of life as it is lived, here, on earth if you don't happen to be in the privileged set?

I read an article last semester by Sister Diana Ortiz. She was a victim of torture that was supervised by the CIA in Guatemala in November of 1989. She found it impossible to understand why Americans weren't outraged by the discovery of what she had gone through. I'm at a loss to understand it myself. Yet the truth is that she suffered in a way unthinkable for many of us and we are not moved to action or critique.

The most common responses to my comments about possible social injustices on the places I post are: defending the conditions of that era, the minimizing of the participation of the groups we come from, the suggestion that the future success of that group depends on their initiative.

Is Cone on track or is he over-reaching? Have the twisted "Christian" values that enabled western Christians to practice centuries of racism (against blacks and Jews and Muslims) left us a legacy of faith that is detached from suffering because it has been in the habit of dominance?

I wonder now if the evangelical emphasis on heaven and personal morality (rather than social justice) is a direct descendant of a deeply damaged and sinful faith, the kind that could be married to oppressive power without batting an eye. Today's Christians are so used to not seeing the hypocrisy of power-laden Christianity that they defend the current version of the faith as the orthodox and true version. Cone says, "No, this can't be." He demands that white Christians look again at the ways in which they have twisted the Gospel to suit their advantages.

That's why he can say that those who owned slaves could not possibly be Christians.

What do you think?

9 comments:

my15minutes said...

>>>> Is it possible that by focusing on the eternal condition of souls, we give people a way to ignore the troubling conditions of life as it is lived, here, on earth if you don't happen to be in the privileged set?<<<

I think you're right here. I have never felt much 'urge' to alleviate troubling social conditions, even though I'm sure I'm as well equipped as anyone to do so. It isn't part of spirituality in my upbringing. If it going to be part of it in the future, it will have to be a learned thing. Thankfully -- now that I am celebrating the liturgical calendar-- Lent rolls around and I am taught that I should spend time in prayer, fasting, and works of mercy. The prayer is old hat. The fasting is newer, but still at least part of the ideal of my past experience of spirituality. But the works of mercy part is new.

>>>Have the twisted "Christian" values that enabled western Christians to practice centuries of racism (against blacks and Jews and Muslims) left us a legacy of faith that is detached from suffering because it has been in the habit of dominance?<<<

I do think that the achievement of political power of the Church (in Rome, in America, in England) is a double-edged sword. I see that it has effected positive moral change. And yet, perhaps it has detached the Church from her humble roots. However, having read absolutely nothing of Cone so far, I wonder if he might be overstating it a little. From what I've seen and heard in the RCC, there is an emphasis on identification with the suffering that I never had in my protestant experience. I don't know...just going on my personal experience, which is limited.

julieunplugged said...

>>However, having read absolutely nothing of Cone so far, I wonder if he might be overstating it a little.<<<

That is certainly possible. I also think I may be intentional. Or he may just believe his viewpoint that passionately. Whatever the case, his thinking has certainly provoked much deeper reflection on my part than had he simply made room for an alternative point of view.

>>>From what I've seen and heard in the RCC, there is an emphasis on identification with the suffering that I never had in my protestant experience. I don't know...just going on my personal experience, which is limited.<<<

Yes, I can see that and agree with it. The fact that Catholics see themselves as having to contribute to the well-being of the poor as part of their Christian commitment and that those acts of charity have bearing on their eternal destination is very different than what I understood in my pre-Vineyard Christianity.

The Vineyard had an emphasis on the poor that i hadn't experienced before that. It was a start. But it didn't really infuse the whole church. There were people who "worked in benevolence" and the rest gave money. We worked in benevolence for several years which meant bagging and distributing groceries to Hispanics.

All of that is a start. I am now wondering about the role of faith in the system itself. I'm trying to wrap my mind around what "systemic injustice" is and means and if it is just beyond my responsibility or not.

my15minutes said...

>>>The fact that Catholics see themselves as having to contribute to the well-being of the poor as part of their Christian commitment and that those acts of charity have bearing on their eternal destination is very different than what I understood in my pre-Vineyard Christianity.<<<

Yeah, it's kinda hard to get around that sheep vs. goat thing.

>>>I am now wondering about the role of faith in the system itself. I'm trying to wrap my mind around what "systemic injustice" is and means and if it is just beyond my responsibility or not.<<<

Don't you think it is an issue of individual vs. community? The system can only change in response to the community of individuals. So while I don't see myself responsible for changing the system, bearing my individual responsibility for doing justice will, in concert with others in my community assuming THEIR responsibility, bring about systemic change.

julieunplugged said...

I like how you put this. I do think it is a community project. I was talking last nght with my friend who is the one who originally introduced me to these concepts. She's Catholic and runs the outreach arm of the local parish at the Univeristy. She said that the biggest step most of us have to make is to be intentional. White suburbanites aren't going to stumble across service projects. We have to seek out ways to participate.

Additionally, we do best to join the projects that the communities deem important (not bring our ideas of what should be done to them). It's this "decentering of privilege" that is new to me. It really means we are not in control of how we serve, give or not. All we can do is particpate when we find out what that can mean in our communities.

I like the Catholics around here because that seems to be the group that I have seen most engaged with our cities issues. But I am sure there are others too. I tend to be a bit saturated in the Catholic thang right now. :)

Btw, I just noticed you've been updating your blog! I will get to it today. :)

sojourness said...

I think that Christianity definitely has been misconstrued in order to perpetuate racism. During slavery days, the Bible was frequently used to support the institution. I also agree that the Church has focused more on winning souls than on feeding mouths. I think the Bible has a hand in that, and just Christian doctrine in general. If you truly believe someone will burn in hell for all eternity, that will be more important for you to address than anything else. So does the problem lie with the church, or with Christianity?

carrie said...

That's why he can say that those who owned slaves could not possibly be Christians.


I don't think Cone can single out this as a litmus test for Christianity. Or is the label Christianity even meaningful? I get a little confused, because first we are talking about how to make a religionless Christianity, one which doesn't draw lines for who is "in" and who isn't. Now we are back to making certain beliefs or behaviors mandatory (or forbidden) in order to call yourself a Christian.

Once you start drawing these lines, then you are back to a religion with a creed and rules to follow. Then people with different areas of passion (the poor, the orphans, victims of abortion, abuse, etc.) will start drawing their lines, too. If you have an abortion, you can't be a Christian, if you don't give everything to the poor and follow Jesus, you're not a Christian...and so on.

The more I study the more I think there is no one sin that will keep us away from God.

carrie said...

Is it possible that by focusing on the eternal condition of souls, we give people a way to ignore the troubling conditions of life as it is lived, here, on earth if you don't happen to be in the privileged set?

Yes, it is very possible that happens. But the fact that it happens doesn't mean the focus on eternal souls is wrong, only wrongly used by some.

Just because an idea (or even a real object) can be misused, doesn't mean it is bad or wrong in and of itself.

carrie said...

Wanted to add...

I am trying to say I believe both should happen. The look at eternity and self-scarificial service to others (along with honest assessment of our own complicity with evil).

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