For a number of years the Chinese government has been increasing its persecution of Christians by tightening enforcement of building regulations, requiring the removal of crosses, the use of political imagery, and pursuing the arrest and detention of Christian leaders from the underground house church movement.
Not all of this oppression is unique to Christianity. Readers may remember the suppression of the Falun Gong movement, for example. In China, as elsewhere, Communism is no friend to religious belief and practice.
But I do think the antagonism between Christianity and Communism is particular and intrinsic to the foundational assumptions of both as ideologies. China has vacillated between limited toleration, hoping to capitalize on the social benefits that may come with Christian belief among the citizenry, and persecution when Christianity seemed to be getting too strong.
These issues have recently been brought to the forefront of my mind by the protests in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is one area of China, because of the one nation two systems approach, that has maintained more freedom of religion. Additionally, the Hong Kong legal system has been strongly shaped by the Common Law tradition, which has been heavily influenced by Christian presuppositions (though, of course it is in the nature of the Common Law to be influenced by the presuppositions of those who adhere to it).
All of this being said, there is a specific danger as President Xi of China consolidates power and sets himself up more firmly as a modern day totalitarian leader. That danger is that religions, including Christianity, will find themselves co-opted into the service of Chinese nationalism.
Precisely because this situation is not new or unique, Christians need to be watchful and pray for our brothers and sisters in China. We need to pray for their clarity and their discernment, as well as their fortitude and courage. The tweet below demonstrates one example of the problematic nature of this sort of coopting:
Folks might rightly point out that you could see similar things at American Megachurches on Memorial Day. But while theologically that too is a marker of something disturbing, it is not a coercive or commanded obedience and nationalism. Even more concerning are efforts by the Chinese government post Tiananmen to influence the media of the Chinese diaspora, as well as their faiths, so as to be more amenable to the plans of the Chinese government.
So, if all of this is the case (and I hasten to add I am no expert, simply thinking about the issues as I understand and have read about them), then what is the hope in terms of Christian witness in China? To answer this question, I think about the words of the late Lamin Sanneh, a scholar of world Christian mission, who wrote of Christianity in China, that:
“Mao might be far from Christendom, but not far enough to avoid rousing the Christian ghost from the mountain recluses and political backwaters to which rhetoric banished it. The political mission of China seemed too evocative of the Christian mission it combated for it to succeed without the Christian alibi. And that alibi came to haunt the gatekeepers of the revolution”
As we grow further removed in history from World War II and D Day, especially as that generation dies and fewer people have even heard first-hand accounts from family members and others they know, people will need more reminders of the significance. The map below is one reminder. 50% of deaths from allied civilians. A trial everywhere, but in some cases completely staggering–a 25% death toll in Belarus for example.
And while a lot of folks may not realize it, for the reasons given above–the postwar pursuit of economic integration, free trade, and the emergence of the European Union (with the UK as an important ballast to prevent domination by Germany or France)–were integral to the peace that emerged and the fact that there hasn’t been another conflagration in Europe.
The breakdown of the postwar consensus, the likely departure of the UK from the EU, and greater moves toward nationalism and economic protectionism, especially when the advocates display very little awareness of the broader implications of those changes, when the broader implications–political and social–of the postwar policies were arguably the major point, with base level economics being secondary. This latter issue was also in play with the short-sighted rejection of the Trans-pacific Partnership trade agreement by both candidate Hillary Clinton and now-President Trump. Trump’s issues with China can be read in part as a result of the fact that the multilateral economic agreement meant to bind Pacific rim powers more closely to the United States and hem in Chinese influence, was rejected in favor of his arrogant attempts at bilateral agreements.
Hull was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945 for his instrumental work in founding the United Nations. Funny that the apocalyptic preachers of my youth who so often used the UN as a Boogieman, never mentioned that a Southerner–a Tennessean!–was integral to its founding. If they had, regional loyalties are such that it might have limited the effectiveness of their message.
As one essay about Hull and his work prior to WWII put it, “Mark Twain said, ‘you can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.’ Secretary Hull and the commercial policy planners foresaw an integrated world economy where peace would be built on trade liberalization. But most Americans could not yet picture that world” (Available here–requires registration). Now, the problem seems to be we’ve seen only that world for long enough, that we’ve forgotten how bleak the alternative of nationalistic factionalism is.
Sermon Notes for Proper 25 XXIII Sunday after Pentecost Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:7-9 • Hebrews 7:23-28 • Mark 10:46-52
The following sermon was preached at the 10:30 service at St. Joseph of Arimathea on Sunday, October 28, 2018. It varies from the notes below, and slightly from the version preached at the 8 AM service. The recording includes the sequence hymn and Gospel proclamation. The sermon itself begins at 3:38.
It was difficult to know where to begin this sermon. I suppose I’ll just begin with what made me throw out what I’d written earlier in the week and start over. Yesterday a tragedy occurred in Pittsburgh at Tree of Life Synagogue. At least, many of us instinctively call it a tragedy. But that may not be the best or most accurate word. Hurricanes are tragedies. Floods and other natural disasters are tragedies. A sudden death from a heart attack is a tragedy. These are forces of nature out of our control, or even if influenced by our actions, several steps removed from them.
The event at Tree of Life (and I’m using a circumlocution for the benefit of the younger ears among us), the earlier events in Louisville, in Los Vegas, In Charleston, in New Town, in Antioch just down the road–these were not tragedies, if by that we mean something that just happens. These events did not happen on their own. As Dorsey McConnell, the Bishop of Pittsburgh wrote yesterday, in response,
“The newscasts, sickeningly, are referring again and again to this horror as a “tragedy.” It is no such thing. A tragedy is inevitable. This was not. It was murder, murder of a particularly vile and poisonous kind. Human beings have moral agency. Someone chose to hate, and chose to kill. And now we are faced with a choice as well— to do nothing, or to reject this hatred in the strongest possible words and actions, and to refute in every way, in every forum, the philosophical foundations of anti-Semitism wherever they have gained a foothold in our churches and our society.
I agree with Bishop McConnell, but I think there’s a major step that we have to take in order to properly reject this particular hatred, and so many others: we have to see them, recognize them for what they are, and refuse to accept easy explanations or soothing platitudes that remove any hint of our own culpability–as individuals or as a society–in allowing or even fomenting hate and evil.
If this is what we need to do, then we could have no better example than the prophet Jeremiah, and as usual, no greater Lord than Jesus. Jeremiah teaches us what it is to look at what is, Jesus shows us how to live once we’ve seen it. In saving us by grace, Jesus frees us from the repetitive cycle justified by the logic of a world turned inward that fuels hatred and discord, and makes us citizens of the kingdom of God, meant for all people, which is always turned outward (you should know from the biblical descriptions, the gates of heaven are always open, it is the gates of hell that are closed, which cannot withstand the assaults of the church).
After the I read the news reports yesterday, these words came to mind:
“Thus says the Lord: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more” (Jeremiah 21:15).
This passage illustrates a facet of Jeremiah’s work that is essential. As Professor Ellen Davis puts it: “The prophet speaks for God in language that is literally visceral: ‘My guts, my guts; I writhe!’ (Jer. 4:19); ‘My guts yearn for [Ephraim/Israel]” (31:20). Although the visceral character of Jeremiah’s words is (regrettably) obscured by most translations, this feature of his poetry is an important indicator of his distinctive place within the prophetic canon. For Jeremiah is a witness to horror who never looks away, and thus he may teach us something of what it is to speak and act on God’s behalf in the most grievous situations” (Davis, 144).
It is that last bit that is so significant for us. It is so easy to look away. To turn the channel, literally or figuratively (caveat lector: ok, if your little kids are watching the news and see something come on that they shouldn’t watch, turn the channel or turn it off, “shield the joyous” as the prayer says). The point is not to do what is comfortable at the expense of facing the truth or doing what is right.
Jeremiah could shoulder this burden because he was faithful and followed God, delivering the word of God to the people in a time of military defeat and literal and figurative captivity, receiving God’s words of faithfulness and love, even as he railed against the evils and injustice he observed. The Prophet did not hesitate to challenge God or to lament his situation, or that of his people, but he did so in the midst of proclaiming hope based on God’s fidelity. Jeremiah was able to unflinchingly look at what was happening to his people, and to record the word of their trials and even their destruction, because he did so in the context of God’s ultimate faithfulness. So it is that the lament of Rachel losing her children–a poetic way to talk about actual death and destruction–takes place within the context of the earlier passage we heard this morning:
Thus says the Lord: Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, “Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel.” See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn (Jeremiah 31:7-9).
Because God is faithful to us, we can be freed from the anxieties and fears that prevent us from looking at ourselves and our society with clear eyes, and from responding to our neighbors with love. When set them aside and look at ourselves, we might be surprised what we see.
The day before he launched his attack on Tree of Life Synagogue, the perpetrator wrote on social media “HIAS (The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) likes to bring invaders that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Earlier he had written, while posting a screen cap of their web site, “Why hello there HIAS! You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us? We appreciate the list of friends you have provided…” ominously thanking the organization for sharing a list of their supporters.
But here’s the thing. Some folks will want to say about him, as with the recent bomb maker, that they’re crazy, and shouldn’t be taken as indicative of any greater trend. But let’s be honest: how many of you have heard family, neighbors, friends, say similar things about the work of World Vision or Catholic Charities around Middle Tennessee? How many of you can point out similar phrases used to describe the Islamic center in Murfreesboro? I know I can. And if I’ve heard it given the way people often hold back around clergy, I know some of you have heard it.
Some people who perpetrate attacks are clinically mentally ill. Most aren’t. Paranoia and conspiracy theories are popular because they have explanatory power that is attractive to rational people given certain prior convictions and commitment to fear-laden worldviews, fostering different sorts of confirmation bias. Was every Nazi clinically insane? Every Soviet citizen who transported former comrades to the Gulag? As philosopher Hannah Arendt convincingly argues, evil is much simpler and more frightening than that. It’s most frightening because it is banal, ordinary to the point of being boring. It’s not a magical text that takes a special tool to decode. It’s a random off-color email forward from an eccentric relative taken a step too far.
If people can shoot folks in a gas station parking lot for their music being loud, or for texting in a movie theater before a movie starts, or pull guns on each other on the interstate, is it really that surprising that there are folks on the fringes–we hope they’re fringes–who only need the slightest permission to act on hate founded on fear and often willful ignorance?
In 2011 Anders Breivik, as self-styled Christian Nationalist from Norway carried out an attack in that country. Initially, prosecutors treated him as insane. But eventually he was found fit to stand trial and the time limit on his incarceration was lifted as a result. A Norwegian author writing in the UK’s Guardian newspaper in 2012 shared these incisive thoughts:
This verdict is also the end of a long trial process far too focused on Breivik’s persona, and to little on the social and political climate that created him. By prosecuting on insanity, the state asked “Who is Anders Behring Breivik”, and to answer that question every little piece of his personal history became important. But in a political and social context, this is an indifferent question. People such as Breivik have always existed.. But the actions they take and the way they are formed differs from society to society.
The author goes on to say that the is not who Breivik is, but why he became who he became that is important:
If Breivik had been from Afghanistan, Iraq or Nigeria, we would have asked what it was within these countries and cultures that made him a terrorist.
I have written before about the lengths we will go to to distance ourselves from the perpetrators of these attacks, but the reality is, for the most part, they aren’t that removed. Growing up I used to go to Gun and knife shows a few times every year. I heard the pitch of folks selling AR-15s by talking to buyers about how easily you could convert one to full-auto. I saw the pamphlets that were inevitably at at least one literature rack where the same author seemingly published the same booklet over and over, only swapping out the word Jewish/Catholic/Masonic/Illuminati banking conspiracy. I recognize the similarity of those well-worn bits of rhetoric to claims that church-based refugee resettlement agencies are just in it for the money and are doing it all–willingly or as dupes–at the behest of the UN or the Vatican in order to weaken the United States.
Which brings me back to 2012. Some of you who had children in school that year, or who worked in Sumner County Schools that year. If you were around and remember, we had some difficulty starting school that year. There was a conflict between the School Board and the County Commission over funding. Eventually schools were started and there was a political shift in the county so that we haven’t had another issue like that.
About a year after that, a representative from World Vision asked if they could present to the Hendersonville Pastors Association. It turned out that they were looking for new communities in which to resettle refugees, and they thought Hendersonville met the criteria: good local economy, available housing, lots of churches. You never heard anything about this initiative from me, because the pastors collectively decided it wasn’t a good idea given the politics in the county at the time. You see, the rhetoric had gotten so heated about the cost of education, and how the children of people “moving in here” were driving up costs and possibly property taxes, that, as we put it to World Vision: we wouldn’t want refugee families to come into a situation where they’d immediately have a target on their back.
Another way in which this cuts close to home. As you know, there’s another Hendersonville. Hendersonville, North Carolina. In the summer of 2016 we were visiting my mom who lives there, and heard some rumblings in local politics.
What do we do once we’ve faced up to the wickedness abroad in the world, and the wickedness within? When we’ve looked squarely at the suffering and injustice in the world, and the wounds inside ourselves? That’s where Bartimaeus comes in. Mark includes his story in our gospel text as an exemplar–and a more direct exemplar would be difficult to find.
“For Mark, giving sight to the blind is the beginning and the end of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem” (Bryan, 104) but the stories are not exact echos of one another–for one thing, Bartimaeus addresses Jesus two times by the clearly Messianic title “Son of David” and is not corrected for it. Nor does Jesus tell him to remain silent. Jesus knows where he’s headed and there’s no point in encouraging silence now–the time approaches. And in the midst of this, Bartimaeus has his blindness–often a metaphor for idolatry–lifted, receiving his sight, a metaphor for faith, and not incidentally having left everything behind when he threw his cloak aside, begins to follow Jesus on the way, that is, the path of discipleship.
When we have faced the truth about the world in its specific sins, in which we and our society are implicated, will we turn away? When we have discovered that we have been blind.
At the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church we have considered over 500 resolutions, most of them in the last two days, as the discussions of possible prayer book revision and what provision would be made for bishops who disagree with the allowance for same-sex marriage rites throughout the church, as well as the budget, took up the bulk of the time of the House of Deputies. That means that a great many resolutions must be passed on what is known as “the consent calendar.” This provides a means for resolutions to be considered en masse and for convention to concur with the recommendation of the particular committee that has been working with the resolution. In effect it prevents things that are thought to be boiler plate, necessary, or uncontroversial, from being considered by 800+ people at once (and you thought vestry meetings were difficult).
I wanted to highlight some of the resolutions that find significant that have been passed through the consent calendar at convention.
These are not the only significant resolutions that were passed on those days. I have focussed on resolutions wherein the church has taken some action, or committed itself to take some action, as opposed to resolutions, however good, that encouraged other bodies (governments, agencies etc.) to take action.
Day 1: None
A034 Supporting General Convention Children’s Program
Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That the General Convention commends and supports the General Convention Children’s Program, and continues to direct funding to include the youngest of God’s children in our work together.
A030 Small Evangelism Grants
Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That the General Convention directs the Executive Council to implement small grants program to encourage local parish worshiping community and diocesan evangelism efforts; and be it further
Resolved, That the sum of $100,000 shall be allocated for this grant program.
A196 Fund a Full-time Evangelism Staff Officer
Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That the 79th General Convention affirm the initiative of the Presiding Bishop and Executive Council in the creation of and funding for a full-time Evangelism Officer to serve on the Presiding Bishop’s staff; and be it further
Resolved, That the 79th General Convention encourage Program, Budget, and Finance to maintain the sum of $380,000, as currently allocated in the draft budget proposed by the Executive Council for this position.
A109 Create Task Force on Sexual Harassment
Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church declares that sexual harassment of adults by clergy, church employees and church members are abuses of trust, a violation of the Baptismal Covenant, contrary to Christian Character, and are therefore wrong; and be it further
Resolved, That the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church establish a Task Force on Sexual Harassment to be appointed by the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies to prepare a Model Policy for Sexual Harassment of Adults for Dioceses, including parishes, missions, schools, camps, conference centers and other diocesan institutions. It shall be the duty of the Task Force to study, educate, develop curriculum, and propose and promulgate model policy and standards of conduct on different forms of harassment, and to advise the Church as resource persons. The membership of the Task Force is to be representative as to gender, race and ethnic diversity and should include lawyers whose practice covers this area of law or who serve or have served as chancellors for a diocese or church, human resource professionals, educators for adults, and those experienced in the prevention of sexual harassment. Approximately one-third of the members of the Task Force shall be clergy. The Committee Task Force will report to the 80th General Convention and include as part of its report a Model Policy for Sexual Harassment of Adults for Dioceses and be it further
Resolved, That the 79th General Convention request the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance to consider a budget allocation of $50,000 for the work of the Task Force.
D031 Recognizing and Ending Domestic Violence in our Congregations
Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That the 79th General Convention of The Episcopal Church continue to speak out clearly against all forms of domestic violence as it has done in the past; and be it further
Resolved, That the 79th General Convention encourages Episcopal clergy and congregations to educate themselves on the widespread problem that domestic violence is in their churches, neighborhoods and beyond; and be it further
Resolved, That the 79th General Convention urge all Episcopal Bishops and other clergy and lay leadership to familiarize themselves with the international and multi-lingual resources provided by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, White Ribbon, and other local resources, as well as existing trainings developed for domestic violence prevention, and create procedures for supporting domestic violence survivors in their dioceses and congregations; and be it further
Resolved, That the 79th General Convention urge the Church at every level to examine its response to domestic violence, especially its response to survivors of domestic violence.
Day 5 (no consent calendar)
A223 Family Leave Policies
Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That the 79th General Convention acknowledges the need for a well-defined, comprehensive family leave policy, paid and/or unpaid; and be it further
Resolved, That the appropriate joint standing committee of the Executive Council be directed to study and distribute model policies for paid and unpaid family leave for dioceses and their congregations and institutions to consider, with such models to be distributed to the dioceses by June 30, 2019; and be it further
Resolved, That General Convention urge every diocese to review such model policies and to implement comprehensive policies on family leave that fit their respective needs; and be it further
Resolved, That in view of the time required for study and actions by diocesan conventions, dioceses report their specific policies to the Office of General Convention no later than December 31, 2020.
D061 Develop an Episcopal Gap Year Program
Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, That the 79th General Convention of The Episcopal Church direct the staff of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, especially the Office of Global Partnership and the Office of Young Adult and Campus Ministries, to conduct a pilot development of an Episcopal Gap Year Program in international mission for young adults, ages 18-23, who are between high school and other educational or vocational pursuits; and be it further
Resolved, That the program be guided by innovative models of such programs, including but not limited to the Young Adult Service Corps, and that it ensure accessibility to racial and ethnic minorities, to persons from non-U.S.-domestic dioceses, and to persons of limited financial means; and be it further
Resolved, That the General Convention encourage dioceses and congregations to recruit young adults to participate in the Gap Year Program and to support them with fund-raising assistance; and be it further
Resolved, That the General Convention request the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance consider a budget allocation of $90,000 for the 2019-2021 triennium in order to develop the Episcopal Gap Year Program.
A032 Congregational Redevelopment
Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, That the 79th General Convention requests that the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies in consultation with the Church Center staff create a church-wide Community of Practice that works with up to one hundred (100) congregations and their bishops to help them redevelop to better engage the cultural realities of their communities for the sake of launching new ministries and multi-cultural missional initiatives; and be it further
Resolved, That the Communications Office be directed to make a priority of reporting on the stories of redeveloped congregations on an ongoing basis through news media, video, and other means and through developing a website online resources that provides detailed information about the redevelopment efforts happening throughout the church; and be it further
Resolved, That the cost of this initiative will be equally shared by the church-wide budget, participating dioceses and redeveloping congregations; and be it further
Resolved, That the presiding officers appoint a task force to coordinate this initiative in collaboration with Church Center staff. That task force may be combined with a task force on Church Planting and Missional Initiatives at the discretion of the presiding officers; and be it further
Resolved, That the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance consider a budget allocation of $725,000 during the triennium for the implementation of this resolution.
Some friends and colleagues of mine joined together to work on a memorial to the 79th General Convention. A memorial is like a petition or an important statement. It is not voted on at Convention, but is referred to the appropriate committee of Convention to guide their deliberations. I’m told a few bishops appreciated our work, so it may be referenced in their deliberations or conversations somehow.
General Convention can become overwhelming and confusing even to the most seasoned participant after few days. Even if bishops and deputies who have come many times are better able to find their way to the right committee, or to follow the flow of business in legislative sessions, after a while, new participants and old begin to show the same sort of stunned demeanor. One learns to treat convention as a sort of river that carries you along, while at the same time watching for those moments when you need to break out of the current in order to address something of significance to you or for which you have specific responsibility.
The progress of technology has in some ways lessened the complications of legislation, while simultaneously making it possible to take more actions on a piece of legislation in the time allotted. Another consequence of the advancement of technology is that General Convention has become less closed to the observations of those Episcopalians and other Christians who are not deputies, but who nonetheless wish to remain informed. Live streaming brings the deliberations of both the Houses of Convention to them, and Twitter and Facebook allow them to converse with one another and with deputies on the floor about what is happening. I believe this evolution is, when taken on the whole, a good thing, and it sometimes yields tangible results.
A recent result of such electronic collaboration is A Memorial to the 79th General Convention regarding liturgical language. This memorial began life as a proposed resolution written primarily by Father J. Wesley Evans, with significant input from the Rev. Dr. Kara Slade. Wesley, Kara, and I are involved in online forums together, and as they worked on their resolution, they sought out those of us who were deputies to determine what we thought of their proposal, and whether any would submit it.
In our discussions we determined that a resolution, given the timing and the other obligations those of us who are deputies had, would be a difficult sell to the House of Deputies. We were also aware that many of the premises in the memorial are considered so basic, and that any revisions to our liturgies, or crafting of new liturgies, would necessarily presuppose them.