Personal Days: Touching Up the Trinity

Four years ago I got a tattoo of Rublev's icon The Hospitality of Abraham, also called Rublev's Trinity.

In the Orthodox tradition you cannot write God directly (for the Orthodox you "write" an icon, you don't paint it). So God as the Trinity--Father, Son and Holy Spirit--is depicted indirectly by writing the scene from Genesis 18 where Abraham welcomes God as three angelic visitors.

I've loved this tattoo, all that it symbolizes and reminds me of as I look at it, but after four years the yellow ink in the sky had faded a bit. (Sunlight is the great enemy of ink.)

So I got back with Travis Eason, the original artist, to touch up the Trinity.

With the yellow in the sky back to its vibrant best I'm falling in love with the tattoo all over again.

God's Servant for Your Good: Part 6, The Greatest Source of Suffering in the World

One final post reflecting on Romans 13, where Paul describes the nation state as "God's servant for your good" because the nation state does not "bear the sword in vain" as "the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer."

Again, for a variety of reasons--some temperamental, some political, some theological--I've always struggled with Romans 13.

But for reasons I've outlined over the last few posts, I've been rethinking my reactions to this text. Stated simply, when I place myself in certain social locations, like a woman in a village in Africa or a stateless person in a refugee camp, I can see how Paul's claim that a functioning state is "God's servant for your good."

One last reflection about this.

What really has given me pause regarding my antipathy for Romans 13 is what I think is the obvious source of most of the suffering in the world.

I'm a compassionate person and I'd like for the suffering in the world to stop. And when I ask myself the question--What is the source of most of the violence and poverty in the world?--I think the answer is pretty clear.

Failed states.

Whenever you look at locations of widespread and persistent violence and destitution in the world you'll find a failed state.

Thus it stands to reason that one of the things most helpful to human flourishing, if we seek to escape violence and destitution, is a stable, functioning state. 

And if you doubt this, let me encourage you again to watch Gary Haugen's talk about the locust effect.

Now before I say anything more about this, let me add an important clarification.

When I say that failed states are the source of most of the violence and destitution in the world I am not blaming the failure on those states. Most of the failed states worldwide are due to the dark legacy of colonialism. During the colonial era the West broke and crippled many states. And the West continues to cripple these states politically and economically.

Consider also what happened in Iraq after the second Iraq war under George W. Bush. We cracked Iraq and couldn't put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

So my point here isn't to blame failed states for failing and continuing to fail. There are historical, cultural, political and economic reasons for these failures, failures often rooted in a colonial past that continues to cast a very long shadow.

Still, and this is a key point, however we sort out the blame game, what people need in these places are functioning states. Functioning law enforcement and justice systems and economies.

Because origins aside, I think it is clear that in the absence of a functioning state there is massive, widespread, persistent and catastrophic suffering.

And I think that is what Paul meant when he said that the state is "God's servant for your good." 

God's Servant for Your Good: Part 5, "One Could Do As One Pleased Only With Stateless People"

We are continuing to reflect on Romans 13, where Paul describes the nation state as "God's servant for your good" because the nation state does not "bear the sword in vain" as "the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer."

I've been discussing various things I've encountered that have made me think again about Paul's claim about how the state "wields the sword" might be experienced as "good news" in social locations different from my own.

In this post I want to bring your attention to the analysis made by Timothy Snyder in his book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.

There's a lot in Black Earth to wade through, but the core of its argument is relevant to our musings about Romans 13.

The relevant statistic is easy enough to share. Most of the Jews killed during the Holocaust were not killed in Germany. Most of the Jews were killed in stateless regions, formerly functioning states, like Poland, that were destroyed by the Nazis. These stateless regions became lawless killing zones.

By contrast, nations that were able to keep some state function alive during Nazi occupation, states like France, saw much less of the killing and genocide.

In short, an argument from Black Earth is that there is a connection between statelessness and genocide. Black Earth builds on the assessment of Hannah Arendt: "One could do as one pleased only with stateless people."

That quickly brings us back to Romans 13.

States, as was the case in France during WW II, protect their citizens. Poland, by contrast, was totally dismantled by Nazi Germany and thus lacked the capacities to protect its citizens, creating the lawless zones that became the killing fields of the Holocaust.

Beyond WW II, you can also see a connection between mass killings and statelessness when states fail or when a vacuum of state control is created. Historically, murder proliferates in these lawless areas where states don't exist or don't function properly.

We also see the extreme vulnerability of stateless persons in displaced and refugee populations. Without a state to protect them, as citizenless persons, these people are extremely vulnerable, if not to mass killing than to local violence (e.g., violence within refugee camps) and global abandonment.

Without a state no one cares about, claims or protects these displaced persons. Refugees live in a lawless vacuum and are, thus, vulnerable to violence, on either a personal or genocidal scale.

Once again, does this not cause us to rethink Romans 13 from the social location of stateless persons? Yes, states commit horrific crimes. But states also protect their citizens.

When states fail violence and destitution grow to massive, genocidal and world-historic proportions.

Then and now.

God's Servant for Your Good: Part 4, Do Black Lives Matter in Ghettoside?

Of course, not everyone gets a fair shake from law enforcement in a land of 911.

If the events in America since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson have taught us anything, it is that whites and blacks have very different encounters with the police.

As I pointed out in the last post, Romans 13 and 911 might be "good news" to a woman in Africa, but what about on the streets of Ferguson?

Last year I read the book Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy. Ghettoside was an interesting, even paradoxical, book to read during the unrest America was and is experiencing over police shootings.

Let me describe the paradox by taking us back into the issues of Romans 13, where Paul describes the nation state as "God's servant for your good" because the nation state does not "bear the sword in vain" as "the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer."

Ghettoside is the story of black-on-black murder in LA. Now, this is a difficult statistic to swallow, but in LA black males are more likely to be killed by other black males than by white police officers. And for far too many people, such statistics are often used get white law enforcement off the hook when it comes to police shootings.

Ghettoside, however, comes at the issue from a very different angle. Why is there so much black-on-black violence in places like LA? According to Leovy it's because black lives don't matter to law enforcement in LA. Specifically, black deaths aren't given the investigative attention they deserve to bring homicide charges against the murderers. When there is inner-city black-on-black violence the general feeling among many LA homicide detectives is that the killers "did our job for us," one gang-banger killing another gang-banger. The person who was shot probably deserved it.

And so there is no investigation. No charges. The killer walks. Black lives on the streets of LA are cheap.

And that's the paradox of Ghettoside. Black lives are costly, black lives matter, when there is functioning law enforcement, when killers don't walk.

Consider the value of two lives. One life is that of a white woman shot in Hollywood. How much law enforcement would be devoted to catching and bringing her killer to justice? A lot. That law enforcement effort makes the life of that white woman costly. Her life matters.

By contrast, consider a young black male shot dead in a drive by in South LA? How much attention is his death going to get from law enforcement? Especially if that young man had some gang affiliation?

In the eyes of law enforcement, the lives of black men in South LA are cheap. They don't matter. Especially compared to a white woman shot in Hollywood.

Here's how the argument of Ghettoside is summarized in a NYT review of the book:
As Leovy sees it, the problem in a place like Watts is not only the high homicide rate, but the fact that so many people who commit murder are never punished. In the 13 years before the homicide that opens her book, she writes, “a suspect was arrested in 38 percent of the 2,677 killings involving black male victims in the city of Los Angeles.” This lack of accountability is the primary cause, she argues, of the high homicide rate in some African-­American neighborhoods: “Where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death,” she writes, “homicide becomes endemic.”

There are more than 2.2 million people now confined in American prisons and jails, and yet, in her view, the criminal justice system is not only“oppressive” but also “inadequate.” “Forty years after the civil rights movement, impunity for the murder of black men remained America’s great, though mostly invisible, race problem,” she writes. “The institutions of criminal justice, so remorseless in other ways in an era of get-tough sentencing and ‘preventive’ policing” — like stop-and-frisk — “remained feeble when it came to answering for the lives of black murder victims.”
This assessment--“Where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.”--brings us back to Romans 13.

The paradox of Ghettoside is that it argues that the black community needs more rather than less law enforcement, and by more we mean more adequate and appropriate. From a law enforcement perspective, many of America's inner cities are functionally equivalent to the failed states in Africa. In many neighborhoods there is a vacuum of law enforcement. And where there is a vacuum of law enforcement the locust effect reigns. Lives become cheap. And where lives are cheap murder become endemic.

And in America the places that have been abandoned by law enforcement have largely been black neighborhoods. Black lives don't matter in Ghettoside.

Again, all this is a paradoxical assessment in the wake of Ferguson, leading one to think that the last thing black communities need is more police driving around. But I'd argue that these police shootings are, in fact, the direct product of police officers not driving around black communities.

When black communities are abandoned by law enforcement when the police drive to certain zip codes on a 911 call they are, functionally, driving into what they implicitly take to be a war zone, full of danger and hostile intent. And perhaps it is. Regardless, the police are driving to the call on alert and wary, their bodies pumped full of stress hormones and adrenaline. And that stress reaction affects cognition, making the police hypervigilant and prone to overestimate risk. It's not surprising that triggers get pulled in these situations with tragic outcomes.

But isn't the message of Ghettoside relevant here? Aren't these shootings at least partly caused by law enforcement functionally abandoning black neighborhoods, bringing white officers into contact with black bodies only under highly stressful and emergency situations?

Might these police shootings be due to a chronic lack of appropriate law enforcement in black communities? A lack of regular contact and engagement that breeds distrust between both parties? A distrust that goes tragically wrong when two paranoid groups come into contact in stressed and emergency situations?

All that to say, similar to my reaction to the locust effect, Ghettoside gave me pause in how I think about Romans 13.

Might a problem regarding US law enforcement be that some zip codes in the US are, like in South LA,  functionally operating as failed states? Similar to the failed states worldwide that are prone to the locust effect? Don't we describe these zip codes as being "abandoned" by empire? And isn't a part of that abandonment a lack of functional law enforcement leading to endemic crime and violence?

Might a appropriate and functional law enforcement in places like South LA make black lives matter, even in Ghettoside?

God's Servant for Your Good: Part 3, Political Theology in a Land of 911

To get where I'm coming from in this post it is essential that you watch Gary Haugen's TED Talk about the Locust Effect that I posted yesterday. Please wait to weigh in if you haven't taken the time to watch that video.

Again, in this series I'm struggling with my feelings about Romans 13, where Paul describes the nation state as "God's servant for your good" because the nation state does not "bear the sword in vain" as "the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer."

As an anarchist-Anabaptist leaning pacifist that text from Romans 13 gives me a lot of heartburn. In my political theology I've tended to see the principalities and powers, the nation state chief among them, as a force of wickedness in the world rather than as God's servant for our good.

But Gary Haugen's TED Talk about the locust effect, about the plague of everyday violence the poor face in the world, especially women, sent me into a deep, deep think about Romans 13.

What really struck me in Gary Haugen's talk was the 911 call, the terror and vulnerability we'd face if 911 suddenly was unavailable, as it is in much of the world, especially for women.

Worldwide, what happens when there is a vacuum of law enforcement? Thugs take over. The strong take advantage of the weak. Without 911 you have the locust effect, the plague of everyday violence that ruins all our charitable attempts to help the poor throughout the world, especially women.

What interrupted me about Gary Haugen's TED Talk is that I do my political theology in a land of 911. I rant and rage about "empire" in a land where it is taken for granted that a woman, if faced with a violent intruder, can call 911.

So what I'm struggling with is the social location of my political theology.

In a land of 911, am I missing how Romans 13 would sound to a woman in a failed state in Africa, vulnerable to the violent thugs in her remote village?

Would that woman, if she lived in a land of 911, endorse Paul's claim that the sword of the state is God's servant for our good?

And if she would, if she would experience Romans 13 and a land of 911 as "good news," then does not the preferential option for the poor tell me that I must adopt her reading of Romans 13 rather than my own?

Personal Days: Walden Pond

This last weekend I found myself in the Boston area. And like I do whenever I can, I stopped by Walden Pond in Concord to take a walk.

I only had an hour but Walden Pond isn't very big.

I kicked off my sandals and walked barefoot. Sometimes walking on the water's edge, but mostly walking along the pine needle strewn path around the pond.

I lingered at the Thoreau cabin site. Sat on a rock to read a few pages of Walden. Dipped my feet in the water.

Why do I visit Walden Pond? Outside of Jesus, the biggest influence upon my personality is Henry David Thoreau. I've read Walden more than any other book outside of the Bible.

I read Walden in college, and its call to non-conformity ("If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."), simplicity ("I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.") and intentionality ("I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.") had a profound, decisive and lasting impact upon me.

Before reading Walden I used to care about what people thought. After Walden, I stopped.

Today I'm known to colleagues and friends as a bit of a non-conformist. And I don't own a suit or pants other than jeans. I live each day with great deliberation, preferring to walk barefoot in the rain than send the next email in the office.

That is why I visit Walden Pond.

God's Servant for Your Good: Part 2, The Locust Effect

My heartburn over my heartburn regarding Romans 13 began when I watched this TED Talk by Gary Haugen about what he calls "the Locust Effect." See also his book The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence.

Watch the video, even if you've seen it before, and then re-read Romans 13 below.

Ponder what Paul is saying in light of what Gary Haugen is describing.

See, if you have heartburn about Romans 13, if the reality of "the locust effect" affects your perspective on Paul's claim that a nation is a "servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer," and what happens in the world when a nation fails to do this job.

Romans 13.1-6
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.

Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing.

God's Servant for Your Good: Part 1, Heartburn

As regular readers know, I have an anti-authority, anti-institutional streak in both my personality and in my theology.

My sympathies tend toward the anarchical, the kingdom of God as that place where there is no "lording over" others, where the only "power" is the washing of feet.

My sympathies run so strongly in this direction that I devote a whole chapter in Reviving Old Scratch linking the use of power to the demonic. I frequently equate "the principalities and powers" with satanic activity in the world, viewing all organizations, institutions and nation states with the greatest of suspicion.

Beyond my anarchical ("no rule") impulses, my theological inclinations are also very Anabaptist, seeing the church as a polis separate and apart from the wickedness of Babylon--the Empires of our age, America chief among them.

Thus it is no great surprise that a Christian like me struggles mightily with this famous text from Romans 13:
Romans 13.1-6
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.

Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 
My problems are easy to see. If the nation state is the principality and power of Babylon, the satanic hand working oppression and injustice in the world, then why am I supposed to be in submission to it? If this principality and power is wicked how can I think of this power as being appointed and ordained by God?

And differently but relatedly, if I'm committed to non-violence and pacifism how am I supposed to approve of the state using the sword in the execution of judgment?  Even worse, how am I to understand that the state's use of the sword is approved of by God?

For Christians like me--anarchical, Anabaptist, pacifist--Romans 13 is one of those heartburn texts. Texts that you'd rather ignore and/or qualify.

To be clear, no matter what you believe as a Christian you have your own suite of texts that give you heartburn. Romans 13 happens to be one of mine.

And yet, over the last year I've been rethinking my heartburn over Romans 13. I've encountered a few different things have have helped create a window into what I think Paul is getting at in Romans 13. Not that I have any final or conclusive answers or have had a change of heart--the text still gives me heartburn--but my qualms about Paul's claim that the nation state is "God's servant for your good" have been interrupted a bit.

So I'd like to share a few posts about about how I've been interrupted by Romans 13, about my heartburn over my heartburn.

The Killing

That was the day they killed the Son of God
On a squat hill-top by Jerusalem.
Zion was bare, her children from their maze
Sucked by the dream of curiosity
Clean through the gates. The very halt and blind
Had somehow got themselves up to the hill.
After the ceremonial preparation,
The scourging, nailing, nailing against the wood,
Erection of the main-trees with their burden,
While from the hill rose an orchestral wailing,
They were there at last, high up in the soft spring day.
We watched the writhings, heard the moanings, saw
The three heads turning on their separate axles
Like broken wheels left spinning. Round his head
Was loosely bound a crown of plaited thorn
That hurt at random, stinging temple and brow
As the pain swung into its envious circle.
In front the wreath was gathered in a knot
That as he gazed looked like the last stump left
Of a death-wounded deer's great antlers. Some
Who came to stare grew silent as they looked,
Indignant or sorry. But the hardened old
And the hard-hearted young, although at odds
From the first morning, cursed him with one curse,
Having prayed for a Rabbi or an armed Messiah
And found the Son of God. What use to them
Was a God or a Son of God? Of what avail
For purposes such as theirs? Beside the cross-foot,
Alone, four women stood and did not move
All day. The sun revolved, the shadows wheeled,
The evening fell. His head lay on his breast,
But in his breast they watched his heart move on
By itself alone, accomplishing its journey.
Their taunts grew louder, sharpened by the knowledge
That he was walking in the park of death,
Far from their rage. Yet all grew stale at last,
Spite, curiosity, envy, hate itself.
They waited only for death and death was slow
And came so quietly they scarce could mark it.
They were angry then with death and death's deceit.

I was a stranger, could not read these people
Or this outlandish deity. Did a God
Indeed in dying cross my life that day
By chance, he on his road and I on mine?

--"The Killing" by Edwin Muir

Memento Mori

I have a skull in my office. And people occasionally ask me why. It strikes some people as an odd sort of thing to have around.

As I've written about this before, I keep a skull in my office as a memento mori.

Memento mori is Latin for "Remember you are mortal" or "Remember you will die." Memento mori refers to an art form where reminders of death were painted or included in a painting. The classic example is a still life of a skull:

Sometimes a hourglass is added to symbolize the sands of time:

Occasionally, more subtle details are added, like bubbles:

The bubbles remind me of these biblical passages:

James 4.14b
What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

Psalm 78.39
[Yahweh] remembered that they were but flesh,
a passing breeze that does not return.

Psalm 39.4-6
“Show me, LORD, my life’s end
and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Everyone is but a breath,
even those who seem secure.

“Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom;
in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth
without knowing whose it will finally be."
I keep a skull around to remind me of texts like these. The skull is a memento mori.

In the middle of a work day I look at the skull and think: Remember the truth about all this stuff around you, all this stuff that is stressing you and everyone else out--all this striving, pushing, competing, assessing, goal-setting, excelling, climbing, and performing.

It's all just mist, a breath. Chasing the wind. Vanity of vanities.

Personal Days: Pink iPhone

Years ago someone gave me a gift certificate at our campus store for an Otterbox for my iPhone.

I was looking over the selections with the student worker in the store.

"I like the pink one," I said.

"But it's pink," she replied.

"But I like pink," I said.

So a got a pink Otterbox for my iPhone. Since then my pink iPhone has become a part of my legend on campus. "I heard you had a pink iPhone," new students will say.

I wrote about my pink iPhone back in 2012.

Anyway, I finally upgraded my old phone this last week. After getting the phone the guy helping us at the store asked, "Do you want to get a protective case for this?"

"Yes I do," I replied. I drop my phone all the time and with the Otterbox it's never broken or shattered. The box is cheaper than buying insurance for the phone.

"What color do you want?" he asked.

"Pink," Jana said, "he always gets pink."

He looked at me, I smiled back.

"It's sort of my trademark."

Father Daniel Berrigan: Poet, Priest, Prophet

On April 30 this year we lost Daniel Berrigan.

I missed the chance to blog about Fr. Berrigan's passing. In 2013 I wrote about Fr. Berrigan and the Catonsville Nine. I recommend Shawn Peters' book on the Nine. Also read the play The Trial of Catonsville Nine that Fr. Berrigan wrote using the transcripts of the trial.

But there was so much more to Daniel Berrigan than Catonsville.

So if you're new to Daniel Berrigan, let me point you to this piece of graphic art over at The Paris Review:

Father Daniel Berrigan: Poet, Priest, Prophet.

Welcome to Crescimento Limpo

This summer it was my honor to spend time, break bread and share life with Mark and Ali Kaiser and the community at Crescimento Limpo in Itu, Brazil.

Crescimento Limpo began around Mark and Ali's kitchen table as they stepped out into a life of radical hospitality, opening their home to homeless friends on the streets of Brazil.

Shouldn't every ministry begin that way, inviting people off the streets to share a meal around your kitchen table?

Over time, as Mark and Ali moved from a "doing for" to a "being with" mode of ministry, the meals became a shared and mutual experience as Mark and Ali's friends started bringing the food and taking the lead in cooking the meal.

And from those shared meals came Crescimento Limpo.

As Mark and Ali shared life with their neighbors, many of whom were homeless due to substance use, they noted that their friends struggled to stabilize their lives for want of housing and community support.

Meals around their table weren't enough.

So Mark and Ali secured some apartments and began to provide housing. Crescimento Limpo, Portuguese for "Clean Growth," soon outgrew that space and they moved to their current location, a facility that houses 25 people, providing round the clock supervision and a staff psychologist.   

Close to the Crescimento Limpo house is the CL Horta (garden). The Horta was scheduled to become a parking lot, but Mark persuaded the owner to let CL transform the lot into an urban garden.

Boasting conventional raised beds and an aquaponics garden, the CL Horta is a witness to sustainable living as well as providing a laboratory of work for those at the CL house working to stabilize their lives and reenter the workforce. The Horta is a place where dignity is recovered as CL residents sell their produce to the local community, a community whose prejudices are dissolved as they form relationships with men and women they passed by on the street only weeks before. 

In all my travels visiting with and teaching about communities of radical hospitality I've rarely encountered a community as impressive as Crescimento Limpo, a community that exists because a couple took Jesus seriously and welcomed people on the streets into their home.

Just breaking bread, over and over, and the kingdom arrived on the streets of Brazil. Just as Jesus said it would.

Crescimento Limpo continues to grow and they are always looking for financial partners, one time gifts or an ongoing relationship. If you or your church are looking to support missionary and social justice work outside of the US consider reaching out to Mark and Ali.

Importantly, in partnering with Crescimento Limpo your church would also be reversing the colonialistic tendencies of so many US missions efforts. If your church is interested in hospitality, housing, addiction, urban renewal, food and sustainability Mark and Ali would be amazing coaches and mentors for a faith community wanting to move in these directions. Given the compelling story of radical hospitality that started Crescimento Limpo and their experience and expertise, Mark and Ali are the sort of missionary partners who are poised to come to US churches to evangelize, convert and train us in living lives of radical hospitality.

Seriously, if you are interested in moving your faith community into a lifestyle of hospitality partner with Mark and Ali and have them walk alongside your church.

If you're interested in learning more about Crescimento Limpo below is a conversation and video tour I took with Mark of the CL House and Horta.

To donate to Crescimento Limpo you can visit their PayPal page.

And if your church would like to explore an ongoing partnership with Crescimento Limpo contact Mark and Ali (email: mark[at]itucl[dot]org[dot]br).

Idolatry, Oppression and the Development of Demons: Part 10, The Spiritual Roots of Liberation Theology

So why in these nine posts have I been walking through the development of demons in the bible? Why draw attention to how the oppressive gods of the nations become associated with demons?

Because, as we've seen in these posts, this development shows how in the biblical imagination the demonic has both a spiritual and political aspect.

At its heart, the biblical notion of the demonic rests on this central idea: Spiritual idolatry is the root cause of oppression.

That insight is one of the main reason I wrote Reviving Old Scratch, to draw attention to the spiritual roots of liberation theology.

In the bible justice flows out of the worship of God. Spiritual revival is the prerequisite of political change.

Political and economic systems orbit spiritual values and priorities. And until those spiritual values and priorities are brought into alignment with the kingdom of God political and economic systems will be stubbornly resistant to change. People with good intentions might agree that our political and economic systems are unfair and unjust, but until we begin to live with new values nothing much will change, politically and economically speaking. As the gospels tell us, the kingdom of God begins with repentance, a spiritual change that results in a new pattern of life. And change is what no one wants to do. It's too costly and inconvenient. And so the political and economic systems of the nations roll on unchanged. Even as we name them as unjust and oppressive.

This is why calls for social justice are often so impotent. These calls frequently ignore the deep spiritual rot that is at the root of oppression. As the bible teaches us, the root cause of oppression is idolatry, worshiping the "god of the nation," the animating spirituality guiding our political and economic arrangements. The bible discerns the diabolical aspect of these reigning spiritualities, a religious perspective many social justice warriors lack.

As I recount in Reviving Old Scratch, we must take our cue from Exodus. When we think of Moses confronting Pharaoh, we think of the primordial cry of liberation theology: "Let my people go!"

We assume that this cry was a demand for political emancipation. It was, but the cry was, originally, a cry for spiritual renewal and revival. Moses' demand "Let my people go!" was first a request to worship. Here is the very first exchange between Pharaoh and Moses:
Exodus 5.1
Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the wilderness.’”
Let my people go, so that they can worship. The cry for spiritual renewal and revival precedes the cry for political emancipation.

These are the spiritual roots of liberation theology.

Idolatry, Oppression and the Development of Demons: Part 9, The Prince of This World

If you've followed these posts you know where demons come from.

The gods of the nations, the regional deities that governed the spiritual and political affairs of a people, became the demons, the spiritual and political entities tempting the People of God into spiritual idolatry and oppressive practices.

That these gods/demons are the root source of oppression is seen in a text we looked at early in this series. In Psalm 82 God convenes a Heavenly Counsel with the gods of the nations. In that boardroom meeting with the gods--who eventually become identified as demons--God judges their oppressive ways:
Psalm 82.1-4
God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:

“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?

Give justice to the weak and the fatherless;
maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.

Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
So what happens when all the political powers in the world are gradually associated with demons?

Eventually you come to see them as a unified block, as a single group uniformly antagonistic to the Kingdom of God. Symbolically, that coalescence is described in the Bible as the idolatrous, oppressive, demon-haunted kingdom of Babylon, the "great city that rules over the kings of the earth" (Rev. 17.19).

This coalescence goes a far way in explaining how Satan eventually becomes identified as the one who controls all the political kingdoms of the world, making Satan the prince and god of the entire world.
Luke 4.5-7
And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”

John 12.31
Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.

2 Corinthians 4.4
Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. 
Notice how in Luke 4 all the kingdoms of the world have become identified with Satan, who is now described as the "prince of this world" and the "god of this world."

But note again the conflation with the spiritual and the political.

Satan controls the political kingdoms of the world, and his offer to Jesus is political power. But the price is spiritual allegiance. Idolatry.

"Worship me," Satan says. 

Personal Days: Game Night!

For the past four years, when Brenden was in High School, Friday nights here in Texas were "Friday Night Lights," going to Brenden's football games. But with Brenden now in college and Aidan not playing football our Friday nights are suddenly wide open.

So this year we are starting up a new family tradition. Friday night is family game night!

We like lots of games, but our favorite games are cooperative games.

If you're unfamiliar with cooperative games they are games where the players work together rather than against each other. Two cooperative games we've played a lot are Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert. I actually used these two games to make a point in Reviving Old Scratch.

We've also enjoyed the cooperative game Mysterium, where players are psychics trying to interpret visions from a ghost so everyone--psychics and ghost--can solve a murder.

And tonight we debut a highly reviewed cooperative game we've never played before: Pandemic, a game where the players work together to stop four infectious diseases from spreading across the world.

Any favorite games ya'll would like to recommend?

Idolatry, Oppression and the Development of Demons: Part 8, The Demon Haunted City

Let consider another example of how the demonic in the Bible mixes both the spiritual and political, both idolatry and oppression.

This illustration comes from the image of Babylon in Revelation.

That the image Babylon is used in Revelation connects us back to earlier posts. Remember how in the book of Daniel Michael the Archangel does combat with the angelic Prince of Babylon. Also recall how Lucifer was originally the name of the Babylonian king.

All that to say, the image of Babylon as a demonic power mixing both the spiritual and the political runs deep in the Bible. And it's the exact same mixture we encounter in the book of Revelation. A demonic brew that mixes both idolatry and oppression.

Consider the vision of the fall of Babylon in Revelation 18:
With a mighty voice he shouted:

“‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!’
She has become a dwelling for demons
and a haunt for every impure spirit,
a haunt for every unclean bird,
a haunt for every unclean and detestable animal.

For all the nations have drunk
the maddening wine of her adulteries.
The kings of the earth committed adultery with her,
and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.”
The mixture we've been talking about is all right here.

The demonic: "a dwelling for demons and a haunt for every impure spirit."

The idolatry: "For all the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries."

The political: "The kings of the earth committed adultery with her."

The oppression: "The merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries."

All that to say, you just can't talk about demons without bringing in all this political and economic stuff. And you can't talk about all this political and economic stuff without bringing in idolatry.

Idolatry, Oppression and the Development of Demons: Part 7, The Gods of the Nations Became the Demons

All of the preceding posts have been tracing out a simple development. It started with "sons of God" ruling over the nations as national, regional deities. These national gods--like the Canaanite god Moloch--tempt the Israelites into idolatry, worship that was accompanied by oppressive practices such as child sacrifice. The spectacle of that wickedness darkened the aspect of these national deities.

So the shift occurred, the gods of the nations became the demons.
Deuteronomy 32.17
They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known, to new gods that had come recently, whom your fathers had never dreaded.

Psalm 106.36-38
They served their idols,
which became a snare to them.

They sacrificed their sons
and their daughters to the demons;

they poured out innocent blood,
the blood of their sons and daughters,

whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan,
and the land was polluted with blood.

Galatians 4.8
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.

1 Corinthians 10.20
No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. 
Over the last few posts we've been slowly working toward these texts. And now the main points can be stated concisely.

The gods of the nations became the demons.

The demonic is rooted in idolatry.

Idolatry brings oppression in its wake.

Idolatry, Oppression and the Development of Demons: Part 6, The Origins of Hell

Over the last three posts I've been making the point that in the Bible demons are primordially associated with nations, their gods (see: Beelzebub) or rulers (see: Lucifer). Demons, thus, are rooted in spiritual/political idolatry, giving "god and country" allegiance to nation states rather than to Yahweh and the kingdom of God.

Let me keep making this point, and to start making the link between idolatry and oppression. To do this let's consider Moloch, child sacrifice and the origins of hell.

Moloch was a Canaanite god who haunted the ancient Israelites. The horror of Moloch worship was that it involved child sacrifice, and it appears that many of the Israelites were drawn to the practice. So much so that Moloch worship was explicitly named and prohibited in the Torah:
Leviticus 18.21
Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.

Leviticus 20.1-5
The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any Israelite or any foreigner residing in Israel who sacrifices any of his children to Molek is to be put to death. The members of the community are to stone him. I myself will set my face against him and will cut him off from his people; for by sacrificing his children to Molek, he has defiled my sanctuary and profaned my holy name. If the members of the community close their eyes when that man sacrifices one of his children to Molek and if they fail to put him to death, I myself will set my face against him and his family and will cut them off from their people together with all who follow him in prostituting themselves to Molek.
The point to be made here is that when the Bible speaks of idolatry it is thinking of child sacrifice. No wonder idolatry became associated with the demonic. In the Biblical imagination demons, idolatry and oppression go hand in hand.

Things go from bad to worse in 1 Kings 11.7 where Solomon builds a religious shrine to Moloch outside of Jerusalem, on the edge of the Valley of Hinnom. There in the Valley of Hinnom, just outside the gates of Zion, the Israelites would sacrifice their children to Moloch and other gods.
2 Chronicles 28.3
[Ahaz, King of Judah] burned sacrifices in the Valley of Ben Hinnom and sacrificed his children in the fire, engaging in the detestable practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites.
Jeremiah 7.30-31
"The people of Judah have done evil in my eyes, declares the Lord. They have set up their detestable idols in the house that bears my Name and have defiled it. They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire..."
When Josiah enacts his religious reforms, turning Judah back to the worship of Yahweh, he takes pains to desecrate Topheth in the Valley of Hinnom so that no more child sacrifices will take place there:
2 Kings 23.10
[Josiah] desecrated Topheth, which was in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, so no one could use it to sacrifice their son or daughter in the fire to Molek.
Again, the thing to note here is how Josiah's battle against idolatry was also involved in stopping oppression, the killing of children in particular. Idolatry wasn't merely a spiritual issue, worshiping a different god in a different temple. Idolatry was intimately associated with shedding the blood of the innocent and defenseless.

And we continue to note how idolatry and oppression are intimately associated with Satan and the demonic. Because as you likely know, the Valley of Hinnom--the location of Moloch worship--is called Gehenna in the New Testament, translated in many Bibles as Hades or Hell. Topheth itself became a Christian name for hell.

In sum, the origins of hell--the domain of Satan and his demons--is found in the mixture of idolatry and oppression.

In the biblical imagination hell was a concrete location of idolatry (the worship of a foreign god) and oppression (the killing of children).

Idolatry, Oppression and the Development of Demons: Part 5, The Lord of the Flies

As we continue to reflect upon how the treatment of the demonic in the Bible mixes the political and the spiritual, I want to revisit another post from last month to keep making the point.

In the previous post we revisited how the name Lucifer referred to a political reality--a Babylonian king--imagery that was used by the New Testament authors to describe a spiritual reality, Satan as a star falling from heaven.

In this post we revisit another name for Satan to make a similar point: Beelzebul or Beelzebub.

As I shared last month, in the Synoptic Gospels Beelzebub is described as the "Prince of Demons," a prince Jesus associates with Satan:
Mark 3.22-23
And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”

So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan?"
Similar to what we observed with the name Lucifer, the name Beelzebul (Latin: Beelzebub) mixes the political and the spiritual.

We believe the roots of the name Beelzebul come from 2 Kings. Ahaziah, king of Israel, is injured in a fall. Rather than turning to YHWH, Ahaziah sends his messengers to secure the favor of a different god:
2 Kings 1.2b
So he sent messengers, saying to them, “Go and consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron, to see if I will recover from this injury.” 
2 Kings (1.2-3, 6, 16) is the only time the Philistine deity of Baal-Zebub is mentioned in the Old Testament, and the character of this god is a source of speculation. On the surface, the name Baal-Zebub means "Baal of the flies" or "Lord of the flies."

As I've shared before, it's possible that Baal-Zebub was the actual name of the Philistine deity, a god who "masters" or "lords over" the flies and plagues. The other possibility is that the name Baal-Zebub was an insult inserted into the text, changing the real name of the god--Baal-Zebul, "Baal the prince"--to Baal-Zebub, a change in a single letter turning a "prince" into "flies" as an insult to the Philistine god.

Regardless, the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament often used by the New Testament writers, renders Baal-Zebub as Baalzebub. And many scholars believe that Baalzebub, the Lord of the Flies, is the source for the New Testament Beelzebul--the Lord of the Flies becoming associated with the Prince of Demons.

For the purposes of this series, we note again how a demonic entity is associated with a political entity, in this instance the Philistine city of Ekron.

The sin of Ahaziah was idolatry, both political and spiritual in nature, turning to the god of another nation. 

Personal Days: 25th

This August Jana and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary.

To celebrate the day we went to Hickory Street Cafe, a place loaded with memories. Jana and I used to go to Hickory Street when we were young and married during my years in graduate school and when Jana was the Children's Theater Director at Abilene Community Theatre. A very nostalgic lunch.

Pictured here are the cards we exchanged. I actually don't give Jana cards, I've always written her poems. She has 25 years' worth of these. Jana gave me a 3D card: a card that said "You are the key to my heart" along with an antique lock, antique keys, and two metal numbers from an old cash register. 2 & 5.

Our real celebration, though, happened the weekend before when we went to Dallas to spend a night and to go to the Dixie Chicks concert. We're huge Dixie Chicks fans. Have been since their album Wide Open Spaces.

We loved the concert, though I have to admit "Goodbye Earl" isn't the best anniversary song. But great fun to hear live with a crowd.

Idolatry, Oppression and the Development of Demons: Part 4, Lucifer is the King of Babylon

We're following a demonic trail through the Bible, noting how demons connect the spiritual and the political, idolatry and oppression.

In the last post we noted how in Daniel 10 Michael the Archangel comes into conflict with the national deity of Babylon, a territorial spirit described as the "prince of the kingdom of Persia." Here we see how a demonic spirit is associated with a political entity.

We see this exact same connection when we consider one of the most famous names for Satan.


I wrote about these associations last month, but let me review the details that help illustrate the associations I've been drawing our attention to in this series.

As I shared last month, Satan is never actually named Lucifer in the Bible. The name "Lucifer" comes from the King James Version translation of Isaiah 14.12:
How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!
Modern translations translate the Hebrew word helel here as "day star" or "morning star." The meaning can also be "bringer of light" as the "morning star" (Venus) was considered to be a bringer or herald of the dawn.

The Latin for "bringer of light" is "lucifer," so that's what we find in Isaiah 14.12 in the Latin Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible from the late 4th century:
quomodo cecidisti de caelo lucifer [bringer of light, morning star] qui mane oriebaris corruisti in terram qui vulnerabas gentes. 
The KJV translators in 1611 didn't translate the Latin word "lucifer" as "morning star." Rather, they transliterated the word, keeping it "Lucifer" in the English.

Now getting to the point of this series, we can ask: Who was the original Lucifer in Isaiah 14.12?

Well, surprise, surprise, the original Lucifer in Isaiah 14 was the Babylonian king being decried by the prophet of God.

Here we have, once again, demons showing up at the intersection of the spiritual and the political.

Grabbing ahold of this connection, the diabolical association with Babylon, the New Testament writers use the image from Isaiah 14.12--a wicked star falling from heaven--for the Devil. At multiple locations in the New Testament Satan is described as a star or light falling from heaven:
Luke 10.18
Jesus replied, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven."

2 Corinthians 11.14
And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.

Revelation 12.3-4a, 7-9
Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth...Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
The imagery here is so close to that of Isaiah 14.12--"How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer!"--that the proper name Lucifer, originally given to a Babylonian king, also became associated with the Devil.

Once again, our following the demonic trail through the Bible brings up the connections between the spiritual and the political, between idolatry and oppression.

Idolatry, Oppression and the Development of Demons: Part 3, Territorial Spirits and Angelic Warfare

When people talk about spiritual warfare they often think of battles between angels and demons and how things like prayer can affect that conflict. But as I mentioned in the last post, an overly spiritualized view of this conflict misses how demons have, throughout the Bible, been intimately connected to nation states.

Consider the case of Michael the Archangel. Yes, in Revelation 12 we read of Michael leading armies of angels against the minions of Satan, a great "war in heaven":
Revelation 12.7-9
Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
But an overly spiritualized reading of this text misses the origins of this story. This isn't the first time in the Bible we see Michael battling with demonic forces associated with Babylon. As I've described before on the blog and in Reviving Old Scratch, we see Michael tangling with demons in a story from the book of Daniel.

As you'll recall, in Daniel 10 an angelic messenger is delayed in answering Daniel's prayer because of angelic interference from a territorial spirit, named as the "prince of the Persian kingdom." The angel escapes when Michael, one of the chief princes among the angelic hosts, comes to his aid:
Daniel 10. 12-13
Then he continued, “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia.
As we follow the demonic trail through the Bible we see a development here. Specifically, the national "sons of God" we observed in the last post are shifting away, here in Daniel 10, from being national gods to demonic spirits.

But these demonic spirits, I want to point out, are still connected with nation states. In Daniel 10 it's the kingdom of Babylon. And when it comes to Michael's war in heaven in the book of Revelation, Babylon is also featured as the political manifestation of dark spiritual powers, the Dragon and the Beast.

All that to keep bringing us back to the point. There is more to "spiritual warfare" than disembodied spirits--angels and demons--fighting in some unseen supernatural realm. There is a concrete political aspect to this struggle as well.

And yet, to swing to the other side, the struggle isn't merely political, it's spiritual as well. Behind Babylon in Daniel 10 is a spiritual "prince." And in Revelation it's the Dragon.

And to think that you can effect political change in Babylon without wrestling with the Dragon seems both quaint and naive.

This is the connection--how the demonic is a fusing of the spiritual and the political, the biblical association between idolatry and oppression--that we are tracing through the Bible.

Idolatry, Oppression and the Development of Demons: Part 2, The King as Guardian Angel

To give a lesser known illustration of the point I made in the last post, about how the political leaders of the nations were considered to be "sons of god" and angelic guardians of the nations, consider the judgment upon the king of Tyre in the book of Ezekiel.

In Ezekiel 26-28 we find a prophecy about the judgment to come upon the pagan nation of Tyre, one of a bunch of pagan nations that Ezekiel proclaims judgment upon. 

In proclaiming judgment upon the nation of Tyre the king gets singled out for special rebuke. And in the midst of this rebuke the king of Tyre is described in a particular way:
Ezekiel 28.14
You were anointed as a guardian cherub, for so I ordained you.
Other translations render "guardian cherub" as "guardian angel" as cherubs were angelic beings.

Again, this is an illustration of the point made in my last post, that the rulers of the nations were considered to be angelic beings who were ordained stewards and protectors of the nations. The king of Tyre was anointed by God to be the guardian angel of the nation of Tyre.

In the biblical imagination, guardian angels are the kings and rulers of the nations.

And yet, unlike how we tend to think about guardian angels, this isn't a warm, fuzzy situation. Because as we noted in the last post, these "guardian angels," the kings of the pagan nations, are the source of political oppression. That's why the guardian angel of Tyre comes under judgment:
Ezekiel 28.16
Through your widespread trade
you were filled with violence,
and you sinned.
So I drove you in disgrace from the mount of God,
and I expelled you, guardian cherub...
Notice, and this is the key point I'm making in this series of posts, how the angelic aspect of a pagan nation is conflated with political oppression.

The guardian angel of Tyre is judged as being "violent" through "widespread trade."

And that sin, the angelic spirit of Tyre descending into the demonic, brings about the judgment of God.

Idolatry, Oppression and the Development of Demons: Part 1, The Angels of the Nations

In my book Reviving Old Scratch I make the claim that spirituality and politics have to be looked at together.

It seems hard for us to do that. When it comes to evil conservatives tend to spiritualize the issue, looking for demons behind every door and under every rock. Liberals, by contrast, tend to politicize evil, reducing spiritual warfare to the political fight for social justice.

And yet, throughout the Bible the spiritual and the political are interconnected and woven together. The political and the spiritual form a gestalt, a bigger picture greater than the sum of the individual parts. And as I argue in Reviving Old Scratch, when we miss the bigger picture we compromise our ability to become agents of light in a dark world.

One way to see the interconnection between the spiritual and the political is to examine the way demons develop in the Bible. In Chapter 11 of Reviving Old Scratch I tell a bit of this story, but I wanted to devote a series to this topic to bring in other material that I didn't include in the book.

Specifically, I want to show how idolatry and oppression are woven together in how we see demons develop across the pages of the Old and New Testaments.

In this post we start with an observation I've made before on this blog as well as in the book. Specifically, in various parts of the Old Testament we get the notion that when God created the world and set up the nations God assigned a "son of God" to rule over and watch over each nation. In some ancient texts these regional deities are described as the "angels of the nations."

Here is a text where this notion shows up:
Deuteronomy 32.8-9
When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance,
when he divided all mankind,
he set up boundaries for the peoples
according to the number of the sons of God.

For the LORD's portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted inheritance.
In establishing the nations God assigns a "son of God" to rule over each nation with God, importantly, taking Israel as His own.

These angelic rulers form the Heavenly Court over which God presides. We see this court show up in a few places, like in the early scenes of Job:
Job 1.6
Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. 
In this scene the national deities are making an appearance in the Court of Heaven and, suggestively, Satan is found among this group. We also see this Divine Council convened, in a text we'll return to in a later post, in Psalm 82:
Psalm 82.1
God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.
If you are a regular reader of this blog I've walked you through these texts before, but if we want to follow the demonic trail through the Bible, noting how idolatry and oppression are interconnected, this is the place where we have to begin, with the angels of the nations, the regional "sons of God," the national deities.

Why? Because as the demonic story develops in the Bible these national deities become objects of idolatrous worship, the gods, angels, or spirits luring Israel away from the worship of God. If the word "demon" names anything, it names idolatry, the worship of a deity, generally a national deity, over the worship of God.

And so, right here at the beginning, we see the connection between spirituality and politics, between worship and justice, between idolatry and oppression.

Personal Days: Home Goes With You

Well, school started this week at ACU.

Not classes, but the week before classes where we welcome freshmen and transfer students to ACU. Yesterday our department welcomed our new majors. We played "social bingo" where you collect signatures from people who can answer "Yes" to the question in a particular cell of the bingo grid.

One of the social bingo questions was, "A faculty member who has been arrested."

Hmmm. Wonder who that could be?

But by far the most poignant part of this week was getting Brenden moved to ACU and getting his dorm room set up. It's an exciting time, but sad for Jana and I. The night Brenden moved into his dorm I went and stood in his room, looking at mostly an empty room but also all the things that were left behind. An award from Middle School. His rock collection. A hat from when I coached this tee ball team.

So many memories collected in the corners and on the walls of that empty room. I stood there a cried a bit.

But here's a picture of Brenden's desk in his dorm room. Notice Rublev's icon of the trinity there on top of the books? That's my son.

And at the end of the row of books is the Bible we gave Brenden at his baptism, signed by Jana and I and his four grandparents. And Brenden wears around his neck the cross we gave him that day.

Brenden's moved out, yes, but home goes with him.

Brazil Reflections: The Wealth of the Favela

During our time in Rio we took a tour through the Santa Marta favela. These are a few of the pictures I took.

Favelas are the slums in urban areas throughout Brazil. In Rio the favelas grow and spread upward on the mountainsides, and locals told us the slums are named "favelas" after the favela plant that grows on mountainsides.

The Santa Marta tour is run by the favela by tour guides that live in the favela. So your tour money goes to help the community. Many of Rio's favelas are dangerous to tourists. Drug trafficking being a huge problem. But the Santa Marta favela is very small, about 5,000 souls, allowing it to be the first favela in Rio to have a consistent police presence. (Some favelas are enormous, the largest one in Rio around 250,000, too big and sprawling for the police to effectively monitor and control.) And with the police the tours started up.

The tour begins by taking a tram to the top of the favela. Remember, the favela is on a mountainside! So it's easier to start at the top and walk your way down through the town.

And town is the right word. Favelas are little towns. Tiny storefronts meeting the needs of the community are everywhere. And the favela has its own political structure. We saw candidate posters for their upcoming election.

Although Brazil is probably the most Catholic country in the world evangelicalism is growing in Brazil and in the favelas. Our tour guide pointed out that there are more evangelical churches in the Santa Marta favela than Catholic churches. At one point we passed an evangelical church during a service, the familiar sound of praise music thumping through the walls.

The favela was alive with energy during our tour, everyone getting ready for a Festas Juninas and Julinas celebration. June and July are big festival months in Brazil. As the adults readied for the party children played soccer on rooftops.

Colorful graffiti art was everywhere, and many of the houses painted brightly.

The life and color within the poverty of Santa Marta--from the political organization, the storefronts, the faith, the festival--communicate an essential truth.

The favelas exist because Brazil has one of the world's most unequal distributions of wealth. That's a huge problem that needs to be worked. And the drug problem in many favelas remains a scourge.

The favelas exist on mountains and that's an apt metaphor for the steep systemic and structural obstacles they have to face and climb.

But the people within the favelas? Although they face systemic injustices they are a vibrant and competent people. They are merchants, politicians, artists and pastors. And the community ties they have created--the neighbor to neighbor bonds of affection--are so strong many in Santa Marta prefer living in the favela to living in the city.

As my friend Larry James describes it, this is the "wealth of the poor."

Brazil Reflections: The Dead Christ in Church

I don't know how widespread this is, but in the churches we visited in Brazil we saw statues of the Dead Christ.
It's quite startling and very morbid to American spiritual sensibilities. I'm reminded again of Leah Libresco's analysis of Christian pop music, The Sun Is Always Shining In Modern Christian Pop at ESPN's 538 blog.

As Leah points out, American Christian spirituality is persistently positive and optimistic. A statue of the Dead Christ in an American mega-church would be wildly out of place. Could you even imagine that?

But isn't something lost without the Dead Christ? Something integral to the gospel and the Christian experience?

Christ died and was dead. There is a spirituality and truth to Holy Saturday, the season between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. But rarely in American Christianity do we pause and hold ourselves still in that season of Holy Saturday.

And so, in one Brazilian church I knelt before the Dead Christ and held myself there.

And you have to hold yourself there before the Dead Christ, for it is disorienting, hard, awkward and strange.

But I knelt there and prayed and grieved.

Brazil Reflections: St. Francis and the Fiery Seraph Wings

When we were in Rio we visited Igreja da Ordem Terceira de São Francisco da Penitência (The Church of the Tertiary Order of Saint Francis Penitent). Along with the St. Benedict Monastery in Rio Igreja da Ordem Terceira de São Francisco da Penitência is a grand display of the full-on baroque style.

What struck me and the boys was the altarpiece, which showed the vision of St. Francis when he received the stigmata on Mount La Verna.

I thought I knew this story well. But when we looked at the altarpiece in the church we saw the crucified Jesus surrounded by six angel wings.

As we looked at the altar Brenden asked me, "What's the story with the six angel wings?"

 I didn't know.

My recollection was that Francis saw a vision of the crucified Jesus on the mountain, after which he received the stigmata, the wounds of Jesus upon his own body. But I didn't recall any angel wings.

So we did a little research.

Two years before Francis' death he went to Mount La Verna for a forty-day fast. On the mountain as he prayed Francis saw a vision of a seraph with six fiery wings. The seraph approached Francis and opened its wings, revealing between the wings the image of a man crucified.

The story I had recalled was Francis seeing the crucified Jesus, but the actual vision was of a six-winged seraph who opens its wings to reveal a crucified figure, presumably Jesus, but perhaps the seraph itself, or perhaps an image of Francis who upon seeing the vision received the stigmata.

So that's the story of the six angel wings.

All that to say, it was a stunning altarpiece.

Brazil Reflections: Our Lady of Aparecida and Black Madonnas

During our time in Rio we took a walking tour through the Santa Marta favela. During the tour we came across a shrine to Our Lady of Aparecida, our first introduction to the patron saint of Brazil.

In 1717 three Brazilian fishermen from the city of Guaratinguetá--Domingos Garcia, João Alves, and Filipe Pedroso--went down to the Paraíba river to catch some fish for a celebration being held for a visiting dignitary. The fishermen prayed to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception for a good catch. After struggling to catch anything the fishermen eventually dragged up a headless statue of the Virgin Mary. They soon found the head and afterward they hauled up a big load of fish.

After cleaning the statue the fishermen discovered it was a Black Madonna, specifically a black version of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. The three fishermen named the statue Nossa Senhora da Conceição Aparecida (Our Lady of the Appeared Conception). Veneration of the statue grew, especially among Afro-Brazilians due to the statue being a Black Madonna. Our Lady of Aparecida is considered to be the principal patroness of Brazilian Catholics.

I find the Black Madonna phenomenon to be fascinating. There are hundreds of Black Madonnas worldwide, one of which is Our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil and another is Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico. Interestingly, hundreds of Black Madonnas, and some of the oldest, are from Europe. Check out Wikipedia's list of Black Madonnas.

The origins of the Black Madonna are varied and debated. Some Madonnas may have been darkened due to physical or environmental factors that affected pigmentation. For example, the statue of Our Lady of Aparecida was found in a river. But many Black Madonnas are intentional creations, often taking on the skin color and features of the indigenous population. Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico is an example of this. In these cases the Black Madonna, often depicted with the black Christ child, reflects the trans-racial nature of divinity and the church.

Finally, many think Black Madonna iconography was influenced by the text from Song of Solomon 1:5: "I am black but beautiful."