Let the Church be a Thermostat, not a Thermometer

mlk-in-jail

 

Tomorrow our church’s adult Sunday school class will discuss white privilege and Martin Luther King’s compelling “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I think I’ve marked up at least 50% of the words in his moving piece of writing. Here’s one section that stood out:

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.

King continues:

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?

Reading and preaching through the Old Testament lectionary (prophets!) has been reminding me of the dual proclamation of the prophets: both God’s hope (which I prefer to think about and preach on) and God’s judgment on those who practice injustice and sin (not as easy to talk about; no less true). Rev. Dr. King was a prophet in the tradition of Joel, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and all the rest. Of course the church today is not immune from God’s judgment for too easily capitulating to a non-Christlike status quo.

Also intriguing is the idea, as Joel has it in tomorrow’s reading, that all believers have not only the Holy Spirit, but also the charge of prophesying and proclaiming the truth of the God who judges with justice, in whom we can put our hope. All of God’s people are called to the prophetic office!

This Will Almost Undoubtedly Be the Best Theology Book This Fall: The Mestizo Augustine

Mestizo Augustine

 

A forthcoming book from IVP combines one of my favorite lenses for theology (mestizaje) with one of my favorite theologians (Augustine). And the author is none other than Justo González. I believe Michael Scott calls that win-win-win.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

Few thinkers have been as influential as Augustine of Hippo. His writings, such as Confessions and City of God, have left an indelible mark on Western Christianity. He has become so synonymous with Christianity in the West that we easily forget he was a man of two cultures: African and Greco-Roman. The mixture of African Christianity and Greco-Roman rhetoric and philosophy gave his theology and ministry a unique potency in the cultural ferment of the late Roman empire.

Augustine experienced what Latino/a theology calls mestizaje, which means being of a mixed background. Cuban American historian and theologian Justo González looks at the life and legacy of Augustine from the perspective of his own Latino heritage and finds in the bishop of Hippo a remarkable resource for the church today. The mestizo Augustine can serve as a lens by which to see afresh not only the history of Christianity but also our own culturally diverse world.

Coming in November! If you go to the publisher’s page, you can see the Table of Contents. Amazon has it up for pre-order. I’ll do my best to review it here this fall.

Honing in on Your CQ (Cultural Intelligence)

CQDavid Livermore’s goal in Cultural Intelligence is to effect cross-cultural transformation, rather than just impart information (12). Across the barriers of difference and “the barrage of cultures around us” (11), we still “have so much in common” (11). As we navigate the tensions of sameness and difference, Livermore notes, “These points of difference are where we find both our greatest challenges and our greatest discoveries” (11). Yet Livermore wants more than just cultural awareness. He says, “We must actually become more multicultural people so that we might better express love cross-culturally” (12).

Undergirding all levels of cultural intelligence is Livermore’s call to love, coupled with a robust theology of the Incarnation. I appreciated this theological and practical grounding. He writes, “The language of God is Jesus. The incarnation is the ultimate form of contextualization, the fullest embodiment of cultural intelligence” (33). As a result, Livermore warns those who think the Gospel can only be expressed in “one right way” (34). Jesus himself was a culturally situated figure, and yet a liminal one. The Gospels show Jesus’ interaction with 1st Century Palestine’s institutions and structures, where sometimes he embraced and other times he protested against the cultural values and practices of his day. Even if some readers will find his theological exposition familiar territory, it is nonetheless compelling.

CQ (cultural intelligence quotient) goes beyond educating ourselves about culture—even if it must start there. CQ “measures the ability to effectively reach across the chasm of cultural difference in ways that are loving and respectful” (13). An important step toward a fuller expression of love across lines of difference is growth in self-awareness. One must not only learn about other cultural mores and traditions, but one must know one’s own cultural heritage, and how that shapes one’s identity.

Livermore divides Cultural Intelligence into four basic types, which constitute the major sections of the book. First, there is Knowledge CQ, which pertains to a basic “level of understanding about culture and culture’s role in shaping behavior and social interactions” (48). This is CQ at the level of cognitive awareness. There are several important kinds of awareness: my awareness of my culture, my awareness of your culture, and my awareness of your perception of my culture (49). Livermore provides some practical metrics to help readers measure their Knowledge CQ: fluency in other languages, awareness of how other cultures resolve conflict, knowledge of cultural differences in how Christianity is expressed, lack of projecting our values onto others’ cultures, and so on (58, 61). Especially helpful is Livermore’s division of culture into three domains: socioethnic culture, organizational culture, and generational culture (93). His description of these domains addresses what would otherwise have been a concern of mine: that “culture” is not just a racial-ethnic phenomenon. I’ve worked at churches where the socioethnic culture and even generational culture were similar, but the organizational culture (“shared personality”) between the two was vastly different. Ministry methodologies and initiatives that worked in one church simply would not fly in the other.

Second, there is Interpretive CQ, which is metacognitive, since it relates to thinking about how one thinks. Interpretive CQ is essentially applied Knowledge CQ. If Knowledge CQ is basic exegesis, Interpretive CQ is hermeneutics. A key virtue here is that of empathy: “noticing what’s apparent about another person and trying to tune into her or his thoughts, emotions, and feelings” (158). Livermore connects Knowledge CQ and Interpretive CQ together into “cultural strategic thinking.”

Third, Livermore outlines Perseverance CQ, which is “our level of interest, drive, and motivation to adapt cross-culturally” (213). Anyone who has sought to form deliberate partnerships (or even just close friendships) across cultural lines is aware of the potential for discomfort, miscommunication, misunderstanding, and frustration, especially as intimacy builds. Perseverance CQ is the desire to push through these feelings for the sake of expressing love across the cultural gaps the author describes. Livermore offers an important set of questions and considerations:

What fuels our motivation? Why are we reaching into a new cultural context in the first place? We have to honestly face the motives behind our service, travel, and work. And we have to bear in mind that we are the Other to billions of other people. (225)

To push back, one may find oneself in cross-cultural relationships without deliberately engaging in service, travel, and work. They may exist “at home,” so to speak. Even so, the questions are worth asking. And the emphasis of othering the self that pops up throughout Cultural Intelligence is a needed (if difficult) perspective.

Finally, there is Behavioral CQ. This is the on-the-ground evidence that we love the Other. Livermore describes it as “the extent to which we appropriately change our verbal and nonverbal actions when we interact cross-culturally” (233). True CQ leads to action. We will not be able to “accomplish flawless cross-cultural behavior” (240), but we can become more faithful in “reflect[ing] Jesus to the Other through culturally intelligent communication” (241).

Cultural Intelligence concludes with a practical “What now?” chapter with “Twenty-four Ways to Advance Your CQ” (242). Then follows a CQ self-assessment, which is a brilliant inclusion. I first took the CQ self-assessment six years ago. I was surprised then to have tested so high (“excellent”) in the last two modes of CQ: Perseverance and Behavioral. Re-taking the test in 2016 I oddly dipped in Perseverance and Behavioral CQ, but went up in my “Cultural Strategic Thinking” (Knowledge and Interpretive CQ).

I wonder whether this is because my cross-cultural awareness has grown over the years, while my comfort with my own culture (and my being content with that comfort, to some degree) has led me to make cross-cultural stretching less of a priority. It’s not that I don’t interact with people from different cultures on a regular basis (whether socioethnic, organizational, or generational cultures); it’s just that given the choice I might default to monocultural settings, since they are “easier” (in some senses) to navigate. This is especially true when it comes to workplace and organizational culture. This may be sin I need to repent of—or just a reflection of my plate being over-full already, and the fact that my focus is strained until I graduate from seminary! I found the assessment to be somewhat limited, with its forced choices.

Readers will likely note at the beginning of Livermore’s book that the tasks the author sets out could be more difficult for “white” people who think of themselves as people who “have no ethnicity.” The outdated (but still present!) “Ethnic Foods” aisle is instructive here. “Ethnic” is understood all too often in opposition to “non-ethnic,” or “regular,” which then becomes culturally normative. The insidious danger is when this move happens subconsciously. Everyone has ethnicity, and all foods (and churches) are “ethnic.” The question is rather, “Of which ethnicity?” Livermore’s book reads, in some senses, as being geared toward such a person. However, even those who have done more extensive reflection on their own ethnic and cultural identity can benefit from his work.

Cultural Intelligence is an excellent primer for anyone seeking to enhance their cross-cultural fluency. Livermore is patient with the reader, but not overly so—he’s not afraid to challenge where needed. His truth-telling and practical step-by-step explanations combine to have a powerful impact. Anyone who gets lost in the various interdisciplinary concerns of the book will have a handy Glossary to refer to. Church leaders, Christians, and concerned citizens alike should carve out the time to not just read but also work through the concepts of the book—maybe even with someone with whom they have cultural differences.

You can find the book here at Amazon or here at the publisher’s page. Go here to read a .pdf sample.

“No Hay Mal Que Por Bien No Venga”

Galilean JourneyThere is a compelling book about Jesus that I’ve been working my way through again recently: Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American Promise, by Virgilio Elizondo. Elizondo’s context is that of one who, as an ethnic minority in the United States, has experienced oppression and racism, which he connects to Jesus’ own experience of being ostracized as a Galilean with a non-mainstream identity.

He says:

Jesus can have compassion on the weak and erring because he himself has lived through the same situation. Without ceasing to be God, he entered the world of the voiceless, the sick, the hungry, the oppressed, the public sinners, the emarginated, the suffering. He did not come just to do certain things for them: he came to become one of them, so as to enable them to find new life in him and thus be able to do things for themselves.

I could go on about how rich the book is (and it’s barely 130 pages). But I especially wanted to share these lines, where he describes what he calls the resurrection principle:

Only love can triumph over evil, and no human power can prevail against the power of unlimited love. The more that the sinful world tries to crush and destroy the ways of unstinted love, the greater will be love’s triumph. A Spanish dicho can be applied here: no hay mal que por bien no venga (“there is no evil from which good cannot come”).

Good words for us to cling to!

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.