Omar Comin’…. (for real, this time)

A long time ago I promised you:

Coming soon to this blog… some interaction with The Wire. Stay tuned.

I showed you the cover of this book:

 

The Wire

 

I’ve read a chunk of it, and more than half of this book, too:

 

Source: http://hub.jhu.edu/
Source: http://hub.jhu.edu/

 

(Find it at Amazon here.)

From the product page of publisher Johns Hopkins University Press:

Did Omar Little die of lead poisoning? Would a decriminalization strategy like the one in Hamsterdam end the War on Drugs? What will it take to save neglected kids like Wallace and Dukie? Tapping into ‘The Wire’ uses the acclaimed television series as a road map for exploring connections between inner-city poverty and drug-related violence. Past Baltimore City health commissioner Peter Beilenson teams up with former Baltimore Sun reporter Patrick A. McGuire to deliver a compelling, highly readable examination of urban policy and public health issues affecting cities across the nation. Each chapter recounts scenes from episodes of the HBO series, placing the characters’ challenges into the broader context of public policy.

So far the main thrust of the book is to (mostly convincingly) suggest that decriminalizing (or “medicalizing”) drug use can go a long way to advance public health. More specifically, there is a call to keep non-violent drug offenders out of jail and get them into treatment options. I’ll have more to say on the matter when I review the book–which really will happen this summer.

So, yes, patient readers, more on The Wire is coming to Words on the Word.

Remembering MLK

The prophet Isaiah spoke of the path from darkness to light:

Seek justice, encouraged the oppressed…if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, a national holiday commemorating the great preacher and one of the leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. Were he still living, Dr. King would have been 86 this weekend.

MLK bookIn a world where any black person on a bus was expected to give up his or her seat to any white person who asked, a world where peaceful civil rights protestors suffered unprovoked police brutality, and a world where blacks were often prevented from basic rights like voting simply because they were black, Martin Luther King, Jr., knew what it was to suffer injustice.

And he knew that his particular experience of injustice had universal implications. In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” he famously wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In response to his fellow clergyman who called for him to slow down, he said that when we say “wait” to righting the wrongs around us, “wait” often turns into “never.” “Justice too long delayed,” he wrote, “is justice denied.”

One thing I want to do more of in 2015 is to stop saying “wait” in my own efforts to speak up and act in response to injustice—whether it’s racial injustice, poverty, homelessness, sexism, violence, or systemic oppression. I’m spending some time prayerfully discerning what this will look like. I am challenged by Isaiah’s call to “seek justice” and “encourage the oppressed,” an essential part of every Christian’s vocation.

I and we need to hear Isaiah’s urgent call and King’s impassioned words just as much today as their first hearers did.

May we open ourselves to God and listen to how he leads us to act on the words of the prophet.

The above is adapted from a short letter I sent to my congregation.

The Wire: Lester Freamon’s Dollhouse Miniatures Matter

[SPOILER ALERT: I talk about events from Season 5 of The Wire below.]

 

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In The Wire, Lester Freamon says, “All the pieces matter,” which is the best and most succinct summary line of the whole show.

Series 5 ends with McNulty looking over Baltimore (the whole) and then pans to a closing montage of all the players (the individual pieces) before going back to city skyline (the whole) again.

Appropriate as McNulty has basically been the city’s puppeteer in Season 5.

 

The Wire Season 5Anyone who’s seen the show all the way through gets that it’s about the pieces-and-whole dialectic, and about understanding the city as a complex, unified system, linked together by interconnected sub-systems.

What two characters best understand this? It seems McNulty (who is the character privileged enough to close the show with the long, longing look at the city) and Freamon (who loves seeing how pieces fit together–his bulletin board is evidence of this).

What just hit me, though, is that Freamon’s interest in tiny dollhouse pieces that then fit together into whole unified sets is a sort of microcosm of his interest in how networks and systems (like drug rings) have individual pieces that all fit together. Even in his hobby the writers portray him (intentionally?) as someone who has an interest in “all the pieces”–in this case, miniatures. He is a “systems guy,” through and through.

Lester Freamon DollhouseAnd, his working at a “pawn shop” could be an echo of or allusion to the “pawns” on the chessboard that D’Angelo uses to describe how the pieces each play their part in the game. Different meanings of “pawn,” but still could be related.

My conclusion? McNulty, though he’s a “gaping [jerk],” maybe sees the system better than anyone else. And Freamon, just as he does with dollhouse miniatures, is able to navigate it more deftly than anyone else.

In that sense, though they both end up very much outside the system (i.e., no longer police), the pro-systems thinking show casts them as its ultimate heroes.

Got a Theology of Justice?

Justice ScaleI had a seminary professor who rightly noted the lack of ministers and churchgoers with a fully developed theology of justice.

“What’s your theology of justice?” he asked at the beginning of the class, which was met with blank but curious stares.

Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace and Healing, more than any other book besides the Bible, has shaped my theological understanding of justice. Authors Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice develop a Christ-centered, Scripture-shaped, journey-oriented theology of justice reconciliation.

The authors urge that we slow down and take the time that is needed for true reconciliation—as a journey—to take hold. A question that permeates the book is, “Reconciliation toward what?” Katongole and Rice are aware that “reconciliation” calls to mind various “prevailing visions,” many of which lack theological rootedness in the Biblical story of God saving his people.

Reconciliation is, they suggest, a God-given gift to the world and the ultimate goal of the “journey with God from old toward new.” They write,

The journey of reconciliation hangs or falls on seeing Jesus. …For Christians, the compass for the journey of reconciliation is always pointing toward Jesus Christ.

Katongole and Rice make heavy use of Paul’s words to the Corinthians:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.  (II Corinthians 5:18-20, TNIV)

Seen as a gift, then, reconciliation becomes something that is “not for experts only,” but something that God calls all his children to. To equip us for the journey God gives us gifts: a cloud of witnesses, communion, peace and harmony, Sabbath, and the gift of Scripture, which is to shape us as God’s story in the world.

Midway through the book the authors arrive at a biblically understood definition of justice:

Justice is an aspect of God’s shalom, a notion that carries with it the idea of completeness, soundness, well-being and prosperity, and includes every aspect of life—personal, relational and national.

Justice, they say, is to include the interpersonal, relational aspect; yet it must also attend to structural considerations. To speak about justice so holistically, against dichotomies that might otherwise render our work ineffective, is wise and instructive for our journey toward reconciliation.

Reconciling All ThingsAlthough written by a black, Catholic, African academician and a white, Protestant, American practitioner, the book does not specify what issues in reconciliation may occur between any two specific groups and how those groups (or individuals) might think about moving forward. The authors do give helpful anecdotal evidence of reconciliation that bridges and heals divides of race, class, and ethnicity. But the reader wanting, for example, to mend and redress the brokenness in black-white relations in the United States may have to look to supplemental reading for more practical hints.

However, in its development of a fairly robust theology of reconciliation and justice, Reconciling All Things lays the important groundwork on top of which such future work can be built. Its chapters on lament (“The Discipline of Lament”) and leadership (“The Heart, Spirit, and Life of Leadership”) are profound in their call for Christians to slow down, locate themselves (emotionally and physically) among the broken places of the world, and to mourn and lament in those places, together with those who mourn and lament.

The one who would lead, then, is less concerned with specific techniques, tools, and strategies, and more concerned with seeing a gap, being deeply moved in response, and belonging to the gap, long before she or he would make proposals to initiate change and issue directives. In laying this groundwork, Katongole and Rice actually leave the work of developing techniques and specific reconciliation “skills” to the reader.

In the end, “You find that God has surprised you and your companions over and over with all that you needed to go on….” The assurance of this ongoing gift of God’s provision gives the Christian who would practice reconciliation all she needs to begin discerning her role in practicing reconciliation in everyday life.

I bought this book. You should, too, or check it out from your local library. Here at Amazon; here at IVP.

An Interculturally Aware Read of Psalm 46 (Location, Location, Location)

Psalms of Summer

As I have read and preached on some Psalms this summer, I’ve appreciated the importance of trying to practice intercultural sensitivity in reading the Bible (and in all of life).

I am working on a course on intercultural counseling this summer, one purpose of which has been to help build intercultural competence and sensitivity.

The readings, lectures, and class discussions have reminded me of the important truth that reading and interpreting the Bible is an exercise–whether we realize it or not–in intercultural relations.

Intercultural Sensitivity=Better Bible Reading

The culture, values, and practices, for instance, of ancient Israel differ from those of 21st century North America in a number of ways. If I read a passage with only an awareness of the cultural values I carry with me, I very well may miss an important truth or robust reading of a text. Or I may map a “truth” or value judgment onto the text that the author didn’t necessarily intend to be there. (I’m not discounting the potential value of so-called reader-response criticism, but I am suggesting we seek to avoid a monocultural or culturally hegemonic interpretation of a text, if possible.)

In a 2008 article for Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care (“Relational Spirituality and Transformation: Risking Intimacy and Alterity”), Steven J. Sandage, Mary L. Jensen, and Daniel Jass write:

Since hermeneutical understanding is always intercultural and contextual, cultural self-awareness is a prerequisite to responsibly interpreting Scripture and spiritual experience.

I mentioned here how the idea of intercultural sensitivity helped me read Psalm 23 in a fuller way. The same thing happened as I prepared to preach on Psalm 46 this week. I got a little extra help this time from a Bible atlas I’ve been reading.

Psalm 46: God Is Our Refuge

Psalm 46 begins:

 1 God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
3 though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.

How should we understand the scenario the Sons of Korah (writers of this Psalm) describe?

Mountain and WaterThe sons of Korah don’t just paint a picture of tragic events befalling God’s people—it’s the complete disintegration of all of life that is the dominant metaphor in these verses. A number of commentators point out here that the effective merging of the land (mountains) and waters (sea) harken back to the pre-creation state of chaos that existed before God separated the land from the waters, bringing order to life. The sons of Korah, then, describe a sort of uncreation.

But even in the midst of an envisioned chaos and uncreation of the world (!), “God is our refuge and strength.”

Verse 2 says, “though the earth give way,” or, though the land give way. Here is where an interculturally aware read of the Psalm helps it to come alive even more profoundly. (The below was inspired, in part, by Paul H. Wright’s Rose Then And Now Bible Map Atlas® With Biblical Background And Culture.)

Life for Israel: Location, Location, Location

Before there was such a thing as real estate, life for Israel already was location, location, location.

The topography or shape of the land had a lot to do with whether a given area would be suitable for habitation. Mountains, in particular, provided a sort of natural buffer of protection against enemies… a hiding place to run to, if need be. Water, of course, was necessary for life and the production of crops.

Mountains in Edom (photo: Garo Nalbandian, from Carta's Sacred Bridge atlas)
Mountains in Edom (photo: Garo Nalbandian, from Carta’s Sacred Bridge atlas)

The congregation of Israelites who would sing this Psalm understood their identity as intricately tied to the land. The land—which God had given them—was part and parcel of his covenant relationship with them. It was part of his blessing, a sign of his love. If we don’t have this land, how can we really call ourselves God’s people? This is still a live question for many.

Yet even if we were to lose this fundamental aspect of our identity, the Psalm declares, even if the world were to be uncreated and fall back into chaos, “we will not fear.”

The congregation can still say—can still sing, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.”

Given how important land was to the people of Israel and the construction of their collectivistic identity, this is an amazing affirmation of trust in God.

Intercultural Insight from a Bible Atlas

Paul Wright AtlasPaul H. Wright’s cultural awareness and sensitivity is present from the very first chapter (“The Landed Context of the Biblical Story”) of his biographically-arranged atlas:

To start, it is perhaps appropriate to define a few aspects of location that have impacted living conditions in the lands of the Bible over time. The building blocks of biblical geography include the following….

He lists topography, climate, and available resources. He goes on:

The particular mix of elements such as these plays a significant role in determining whether any given plot of ground can support permanent settlements and how large and well-established these might have become, or if the land is better suited for herding or desert lifestyles.

Here’s the intercultural piece, which I so appreciated:

Specific geographical realities have also helped to shape cultural values and norms that defined individual societies. For instance, protocols of cooperation, hospitality and defense that functioned well in arid, shepherding societies in biblical times developed differently than did those that attained to urban centers located in fertile areas, or to sailors who frequented foreign ports-of-call. And aspects of geography gave rise to specific images that biblical writers used to describe God and the people of ancient Israel.

Understanding the value of land to the people singing Psalm 46–it was an essential component of their identity and experience of God’s love for them!–makes the affirmation of trust in this Psalm even more remarkable.

Though the sons of Korah envision a scenario in which their land is gone–having slipped into the ocean–they call on the congregation to praise God still.

The above is adapted from a portion of a sermon I preached yesterday. Rose Publishing has sent me the Wright atlas for review purposes. A full review is forthcoming. You can find the atlas in the following places: Rose Publishing, Amazon (affiliate link), Carta (as Greatness, Grace, and Glory: Carta’s Atlas of Biblical Biography), and Eisenbrauns (same title as Carta).

A Peaceable Psychology: Christian Therapy in a World of Many Cultures

Peaceable PsychologyThis summer I’ve been taking a course on multicultural counseling. Here I offer some interaction with and reflection on A Peaceable Psychology, pictured at left.

Key Points of Learning: Agreements and Concerns

Before reading A Peaceable Psychology, I hadn’t really thought about counseling and therapy as “political” acts. And yet Alvin Dueck and Kevin Reimer warn well against the illusion that the therapist can somehow counsel apolitically, aculturally, amorally, and areligiously. One of the key, unifying ideas of the book is: “Civility includes learning and validating the language of the ethno-religious client. It is polite to defer to the meaning framework of a client.”

I found this to be a helpful way of framing the quest for diversity competence among therapists and pastors. Dueck and Reimer do go even farther than saying this kind of psychotherapy is polite; they suggest that to counsel in this way is to be like Jesus, especially when therapist and client can inhabit the same place of suffering together.

Although Dueck and Reimer have a healthy (and hearty!) reluctance toward philosophical foundationalism as such, they see the work and life and love of Jesus as foundational to a peaceable psychology. This is especially evident in their view of the importance of the atonement.

I found myself in agreement with Dueck and Reimer when they wrote:

The reconciling atonement of Christ is not spiritual alone but contains physical, psychological, and social dimensions of human brokenness. The suffering God is a beckoning God, who in Christ offers the potential of a new beginning. Consequently, a peaceable psychology is an incarnational event whereupon the invisible spiritual reality of God’s grace is attached to and bound up in the visible life of both the victim and the offender.

They go on, “Atonement is God’s welcoming of the enemy, of the other. It is an invitation to new life, to freedom from sin. This is the basis of a peaceable psychology.”

When considering various theological theories of the atonement, I find myself convinced by an all-of-the-above approach. (How could we limit the efficacy of the atonement by proffering just one theory as to what it was and how it happened?) The work and suffering of Jesus, they suggest, is to transform the therapist-client relationship. “If Juanita were our client,” they ask, “would her suffering fully impact us?”

This, however, also was a potential point of disagreement I had with the authors. Or at least I had questions and wanted to add qualifications. To be sure, the idea of the “kenotic therapist” makes sense to me—especially as a pastor. But the following expression of kenotic therapy was too much, at least for me: “Indeed, I am held hostage by my clients’ suffering. Their face places an ethical claim on me because as a fellow human I am systemically responsible for their suffering.”

While I can agree about “an ethical claim,” I’m not sure being “held hostage” is the most useful metaphor. How many clients will—or can—a therapist allow to hold him hostage before he feels imprisoned in an unhealthy and stultifying way? I wish the authors had spoken more to the point with some practical suggestions and caveats.

Implications for Pastoral Care

Dueck and Reimer say, “We fear that the American psychologist who assumes a level playing field for the linguistic comprehension of ‘self’ has already begun a subtle process of imposition upon the client.”

This is a valuable reminder to me as a minister. I simply cannot make assumptions about the cultural backgrounds of congregants. Further, there is value in this approach (of not assuming “a level playing field for the linguistic comprehension of ‘self’”) that has already—just this last week—had practical import and payoff in my biblical hermeneutics for preaching.

Yesterday I preached on Psalm 23. Due in large part to the idea Dueck and Reimer articulate above, namely, that constructions of self are culturally conditioned and informed, I was able to observe the following about Psalm 23.

David uses the first person singular pronoun throughout the Psalm. God is the shepherd of each individual who would follow him.

This may seem slightly unremarkable to us. We live in a North American society that already tends toward individualism. Our cultural construction of the self tends to be individually-focused.

The culture in which David found himself was much more communally-oriented. …A person’s sense of self was constructed and informed and shaped in a communal context.

So it’s at least a little remarkable, in the larger context of Hebrew worshiping society, that David begins–the Lord is MY shepherd.

This really drove home the point in another article we read in class: “Since hermeneutical understanding is always intercultural and contextual, cultural self-awareness is a prerequisite to responsibly interpreting Scripture and spiritual experience” (Sandage, Jensen, and Jass).

I also do and will find it useful for my own pastoring to consider that “a peaceable therapist recognizes that healing is best conducted ethnically, in the client’s mother tongue and in his or her local culture.”

Of course no therapist can be already conversant in the mother tongue of every cultural or religious tradition. But Dueck and Reimer realize that, and are suggesting more of an “ad hoc” approach anyway: “A peaceable therapist is a linguist; he or she recognizes differences between languages and honors them by learning them.”

May God help us–therapists and ministers alike–so to do!

Find A Peaceable Pscyhology at Amazon here. Baker/Brazos has its product page here, with an excerpt (including Table of Contents) here. No review copy–I bought this one!