Monday, April 04, 2005

Some reflections

I am in a reflective mood today. Largely I think due to the weather. The bright sun the slight chill in the air, something about it reminds me of early spring in California's Central valley where I spent much of my childhood on my grandparents farm. Though early spring is early March not early April there. By now the groves of fruit trees are beginning to sprout leaves. But anyway todays weather has made me reflective of my childhood.
Since, I grew up in a Christian family and was baptized as an infant, remembering my childhood is remembering the Christian faith. They are linked inextricably. The Church and Christianity are for me primordial reality. On beautiful (and for my taste perfect temperature) days like today very fond memories of farm, small town life and small town church flood my mind.
This experience creates a certain dissonance within me, because my relationship to Christianity and church have not always been good, or even life affirming. Though, thankfully those negative experiences mostly happened once I was in my late teens and early adult years.
On a day like today that reminds me of my childhood, also reminds me of a Christian faith that was dynamic and sure. certainly the faith of the adults who raised me in the faith had their blind spots, but on the whole they were in truth seeking God, seeking to live according to the Gospel, and to love their fellow human beings. It is like the weather today, inviting, bright clear, and with a bit of a chill.
What I came to discover in my time at the university and then at seminary was the subtle ways prejudice and racism infected those whom had raised me in the faith. When I was in the university, I saw this as more a failure of individuals than the failure of the Church or Christian faith. After all, it was clear to me that had I not been taught that God loved everyone without prejudice and had I not been taught that Jesus came to save everyone, and heard the prophets of the Bible read on Sunday mornings, without which I would not have been prepared to apply the concepts of justice. When university history classes and anthropology classes began to show the way in which white Europeans had oppressed others enslaved Africans etc., I felt the Biblical prophetic urge to condemn those things and to reject the ways racism and prejudice had simply been accepted by those who raised me in the faith. This entails a key distinction, but then too the prejudice was subtle, and was in relation to the Mexican migrant workers that worked the farms of the members of the church. Outspokenly we deplored the poverty in which they lived and even attempted to aid when we could. There was only one hispanic family in this predominantly Swedish church, but the reasons for this were obvious the migrant workers were Catholic. The large Catholic church in town was proof of this. And by the time I was a child the old Lutheran animosity toward Catholics had dissipated and we weren't supposed to evangelize the Catholics, A catholic could be a Christian. So, the ethnic division was a religious one and thus hid the class and justice issues. And also, the foreman of my Grandparents farm was Mexican and often he and his wife were over in my Grandmothers Kitchen talking, there was no animosity it was friendship. On holidays my Grandmother would give them a Swedish dish and we would get tamales.
What was never spoken was the role these good Christian farmers had in the poverty we at church were so appalled about, that is that if the farmer paid the farm workers a reasonable pay (a living wage as we now say) either they could not make enough money to live on themselves or the fruit would cost more than people would be willing to pay. Again, the failure of my grandparents and their generation and my parents generation was that they saw poverty but did not follow through and think there was something wrong with the system, nor did they see that although there was white poverty poverty was statistically higher among hispanic. Needless to say Ceasar Chaves was not a name spoken at church. I discovered him in classes at the University.
However, what I came to as a college student was that these blindspots were not the result of Scripture, or Christian faith or the Church, but of Christians who bought into a non-Christian system called capitalism. It seemed obvious to me, I had been reading the Scriptures since I first could read, and I had been hearing sermons on those same texts even longer (in my child hood it was believed that a child of four could worship with adults. There were no programs for children during worship), and it was quite clear to me that the God of Christianity and the teachings of the Church did not support the exploitation of other human beings for monetary gain, nor did it teach prejudice and racism. I still find it unfortunate that the Church and Christianity are seen by many as the source of prejudice, racism and exploitation. While I had to admit that these failings were failings of many good Christians I knew, I also knew that the faith they espoused did not support these failings. I could not explain, and still can't explain why the teaching and proclamation of the faith so often fails to be practiced by Christians.
Now I must also admit that the conservative evangelical church I was a member of at the time and even my parents didn't quite comprehend my turn on capitalism and my penetrating questions about racism and prejudice. (but by now my family had moved to LA, and I was some distance from my grandparents farm, which now a housing development.) It was this conservative church in LA that suggested that being anti-capitalist was anti-Christian. This puzzled me because I had never been taught that Christianity had a particular economic ideology to it. The preachers of my childhood didn't preach America nor did the preach against communism. Growing up communism was bad because it persecuted Christians and was militantly atheistic, not because of its economic ideology. That is at least what I remember. The weakness of my childhood faith can perhaps be directly related to the distorted "Two Kingdom theory" of Lutheranism: We Christians were called into the Kingdom of God yet we also lived in the Kingdom of this world, the reason things are the way they are is due to the kingom of the World which doesn't function as God intends it to, Christians couldn't do anything about this fallen kingdom, Christianity wasn't about politics and economics. That is I discovered until you began to criticize capitalism and America. In any case though it seemed fairly clear to me that one did not have to be a capitalist to be a Christian. I never fully became a Marxist though, the whole atheism thing kind of left a slight barrier between me and Marxism.
Where this reflection is going is that what I discovered at the university caused me to question the faith but it didn't ever seem to touch the essence of the Christian faith. (actually more disturbing to my faith were issues raised about God and Jesus Christ from positivist philosophy). However, eventually the claims of a certain feminism did touch more deeply the core of the faith, for I could not ignore that God is called "father" by the faith, and not "mother". We worship the Father Son and Holy Spirit, not the Mother Daughter and Holy Spirit. Yet, despite these names and that Jesus Christ is male, I could never accept that Christianity or the Church was essentially patriarchal. Perhaps it was because by the time I was old enough to be aware of such things the Evangelical Covenant Church had already begun to ordain women to the pastoral ministry. But it was also I think because those who I looked up to and who had instructed me in the faith were both men and women. The teaching of women was not suspect nor had I been taught to see women as lesser than men. Even those who I knew who opposed women in the pastoral ministry did not hold that position out of a belief of the inferiority of women but because of a belief in Scripture, and what they believed Scripture taught. My mother was not one of them, she was a very big proponent for women in pastoral ministry. The other reason I failed to see the connection between patriarchy and the Christian faith was that my faither was very unauthoritarian, and he and mom often held openly divergent views on things not the least of which was women in pastoral ministry. My father had rejected my grandfather's German patriarchal authoritarianism. And tried to live as father and husband in a more Christ like way than his father had managed to do. What that taught me was that whatever patriarchy resided in my Grandfather did not come from Christian faith, but from a cultural interpretation of the faith that failed to be wholly converted to Christ.
I guess that is where this reflection is going. Christianity and the Church are places of continued conversion, perhaps over generations and centuries. It is not instantaneous, nor are Christians and thus the church always what Christianity is and the Church is in truth. What I have been reminded of on this beautiful spring day is that what I was taught as a child about Christianity was that it is a faith that can transform and of a God who can make all things new, yet that does not mean that we always clearly understand the implications of that transformation or what it means for God to make all things new.
The truth of the Christian faith and of the Church is that there is neither bond nor free, male nor female, Jew nor Greek, in Christ Jesus. Living into that truth is not as easy as it seems, but true Christian faith will always teach that, I have heard that taught all my life. Living into it is less clear, and ideologies foreign to the faith of the Church will exploit the failings of Christians but the truth of the Gospel remains. After all it isn't about what we do but God's act in Jesus Christ raised from the dead, though we should seek to live into that truth, and abandon all other ideologies. I at least have found that even with the failings of those who raised me in the faith that in the end I must say with the disciples when Jesus asked them if they were going to leave as well, that in Christ Jesus are the words of life, there is nowhere else to go. And I say this as one who has studied and who respects other religions and philosophies. In the end none of them have the clarity and beauty of such a spring day, none of them offer true life. What good they have is merely a dim reflection of the light of Christ. My journey of faith has been to recognize that the Church and Christian faith isn't about Christians but about Christ, and God, Father Son and Holy Spirit who ever and continually and with extravagance gives God's self to the world and us in a love that is without end. This I have always known, and have been reminded of it on this spring day in the feast of Easter.