Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Midwinter day 1

I had begun a post on my time at the Midwinter Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church yesterday but it was getting late and it turned out I was too tired to give a coherent reflection on the day I think the last Midwinter I attended was two years ago. So, I ended up seeing some people I hadn't seen in awhile, some of whom I saw almost immediately upon arriving yesterday morning. The conference is designed as a time to meet together as pastors in the Covenant around worship and continuing education so a bulk of the days are spent in workshops, with a worship service in the evening and Bible study after breakfast. The conference is here in Chicago at the Hyatt O'hare, which is a bit of a commute from where I live via the CTA so I have skipped the morninb Bible Studies and come for the workshops and evening worship.

After getting a ridiculously expensive coffee and chatting with a couple of people I hadn't seen in a few years I headed to my workshop "Global Slavery in Our Day" by professor Boaz Johnson. I had decided to register for this workshop largely to Hear Dr. Boaz Johnson's presentation on this as I feelt already fairly well informed about the extent and problems of slavery (in part through Anti-Slavery and Not For Sale). Dr. Johnson did not disappoint he began his presentation saying basically that his thesis is that human rights is not the solution to slavery (since it is a modernist concept) rather he sees the way forward on the issue of slavery is virtue ethics. Human rights and laws he said are short term strategies while he sees virtue ethics as involving long term strategies. Then Dr. Rajkumar Boaz Johnson began to tell stories of slavery and liberation from slavery. Both through a video and also through recounting his own encounter with slavery and with friends who were enslaved as a child in a slum in India. He also shared stories about how a church he had pastored had helped rescue slaves here in the US.

As he finished up his series of stories of slavery he invited comment and for us to relate any stories we might have in relation to modern day slavery. As he opened up the floor there were several questions about how people could get trained and what the denomination was doing. Someone even commented on how his presentation was good consciousness raising but what could we be doing and could. At the end of our time someone remembered that he had said something about virtue ethics as an alternative to Human rights and asked him to explain it. At the moment I am not entirely clear on his entire answer and explanation. However, the gist of it was that human rights emerges out of the legal system of Western Nations States who were also the colonial powers that trained the people who are now the ruling and educated classes in many if not all of the nation states who are former colonies. This is one side of the limit of Human rights is that it is a cultural should that is being forced upon others by Western powers. The other limit is that it is a modernistic view of the human that sees the human defined in terms of rationality and a culturally bound definition of freedom. virtue ethics is less concerned about narrow universal definitions and is more concerned with story and recovering cultural understandings of a web of interconnectedness with each other and the divine. There was more there and he went into a rapid explanation of stages that cultures go through, but I don't think I grasped his full argument well enough to reconstruct it here. Latter on in the day it occurred to me that Johnson was in essence doing virtue ethics in the form of his presentation, in telling stories and attempting to elicit stories from us, though he let us go into a very pragmatic and activist mode of tell us what we can do now enough with these stories we wanted to know how to do something now.

I went from the workshop and took lunch alone and worked on my sermon for Sunday on some very white and retro-modern seating in the center of the hotel, just a little surreal to be working on my sermon sitting in a very fancy hotel having just been to a workshop in which we heard very personal stories of slavery in our contemporary global society. This feeling of not quite being able to make things all fit together nicely continued as the afternoon workshop was on communications technology, much of it about electronic and INTERNET communications. It was a very good seminar and I am saying this not just because my good friend Steve Luce was one of the presenters. But it was very slick and of the moment as it also showed us how the new tools and technologies were similar and connected with old tools and technologies of communication. As well as an informative piece on how to deal with the media and to go about getting publicity and coverage. I think important things that pastors and churches need to be thinking about and attempting to do as well as they can and yet, somehow shallow and a bit translucent in the light of my morning session.

The evening was spent hanging out and discussing life, theology and the Covenant with my friend Steve. It had been a long while since we had seen each other and the last few times we had seen each other we had not engaged in such depth of conversation. Then we went to the evening worship in which Phyllis Tickle spoke to us about the place of the authority of the word of God in this time of "emergence." I think I will save any in depth engagement with Tickles speach to another post as I think she says some important things and I find my questioning a good bit of it as well.
find my account of day two here