God of the Oppressed

Friends,

Those of us doing the online Manna and Mercy course at the moment have been reminded that the Bible was not written into an empty void, but rather to contest an already existing and prevalent theology. This existing theology endorsed a hierarchy of human worth as God’s natural order. Starting at the top with the king. The only proof needed that the king was God’s favoured one was that he was the king. (The king demands you just ignore the circular argument of the last sentence.) The king alone had God’s ear as well as a military on tap, to pour out state-sponsored and spirit-sanctioned violence (a proxy for God’s wrath) on any and all who dared question the structured hierarchy of society – after all (so the theology proclaimed) it is God’s ordained ordering of the world and must not be challenged or changed. Those in power generously supported the seminaries that promoted this theology and therefore not surprisingly it dominated the religious market … and still does … be it in different ways.

The Bible on the other hand, introduces a God who has ears for the oppressed. A God who sides with slaves in their struggle for redemption*, demanding that the king let them go. A God who chooses the so-called “least” as partners, forever whispering to them: “you were born to be free … you were born to be free”. Called and convicted by God to freedom, they begin their long walk to salvation*. Bravely and imaginatively continuing to walk despite oceans of impossibility that lay before them. And oppressed people throughout history continue to respond to the whisperings of this liberating God while singing of God’s ordained ordering of the world as one of justice and equity for all.

Salvation used to mean ‘life before death’, and for that reason the Pharaohs of the world feared it, because it meant giving up their undue privilege and power. Then they co-opted the word … literally kicking the promise of life down the road into the next life. Now that it means, ‘life after death’ the Pharaohs smile and say ‘Amen’ and then remind us to read Romans 13:1-7 before we go to sleep at night so that we can wake up obedient to them in the morning.

This week’s psalm boldly declares:
“The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed…” Psalm 9:9.

 

For this reason, James H. Cone correctly states:

It is my contention that Christianity is essentially a religion of liberation. The function of theology is that of analyzing the meaning of that liberation for the oppressed so they can know that their struggle for political, social, and economic justice is consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Any message that is not related to the liberation of the poor in a society is not Christ’s message. Any theology that is indifferent to the theme of liberation is not Christian theology.

In view of the biblical emphasis on liberation, it seems not only appropriate but necessary to define the Christian community as the community of the oppressed which joins Jesus Christ in his fight for the liberation of humankind. The task of theology, then, is to explicate the meaning of God’s liberating activity so that those who labor under enslaving powers will see that the forces of liberation are the very activity of God. Christian theology is never just a rational study of the being of God. Rather it is a study of God’s liberating activity in the world, God’s activity on behalf of the oppressed.

Theology can never be neutral or fail to take sides on issues related to the plight of the oppressed. For this reason it can never engage in conversation about the nature of God without confronting those elements of human existence which threaten anyone’s existence as a person. Whatever theology says about God and the world must arise out of its sole reason for existence as a discipline: to assist the oppressed in their liberation. Its language is always language about human liberation, proclaiming the end of bondage and interpreting the religious dimensions of revolutionary struggle.

~James Cone: A Black Theology of Liberation – Fortieth Anniversary Edition.

 

A question to guide our biblical and societal interpretations is simply: “Who benefits?” Who benefits from this interpretation? From this narrative? From this proposed action? Those in power or those oppressed by power? If it is not benefiting the oppressed, then it is not of God, for let us not forget that whatever we do to the oppressed we do to Jesus.

In grace,
Alan

*NOTE: Before the words redemption and salvation became “religious” words, they were political words for freedom.

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Tree-Rooted-Ascension

2021 05 13 Ascension Day
Alan Storey

Tree-Rooted-Ascension … The Tree Always Wins
[Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23]

Friends,

The disciples took “40 days” (a symbol for as long as it takes for new truth to be birthed from the time of conception) to come to the conviction, the knowing and the trusting that the Jesus-justice-Way of doing life reigns. The ancient language used to give expression to this conviction is of Jesus being “taken up”. This beam-me-up language metaphorically means above all other powers. Sadly, this Ascension levitating mid-sky metaphor has been taken literally, and when we take a metaphor literally, we end up with an absurdity.

Therefore, on Ascension Day I suggested another metaphor: Tree-Rooted-Ascension: The Tree always wins. Tree roots over time, crack and lift up massive concrete blocks. This is how it is with the Jesus Way of justice, mercy, equality, freedom, forgiveness…each of these may look foolish and weak in the face of the concrete injustice, inequality, vengeance and violence in the world, and yet they always push through in the end.

One way of discerning the difference between the “tree-rooted-way” and the “concrete-way” is that the tree-rooted way is grounded in love, while the concrete way is cast in fear (or love limited for a few). The difference is clearly seen when each way reaches fulfilment. When the tree-rooted-way of ascension reaches fulfilment there is life in abundance for all, while when the concrete ways reach fulfilment life is diminished, demeaned and destroyed for the majority. Furthermore, as the tree-rooted way expands it expresses itself in the form of powerful vulnerability, while the vulnerable power of concrete-way finally self-destructs.

Take one issue as an example: guns. The gun-violence-denialists would have us believe that if everyone had a gun, society would be safer for it. On the surface, this “concrete-way” of thinking may look like it offers a quick solution to personal safety but, in reality, it contributes over time to the increased insecurity and violence of society, the very problem it purports to solve. More guns = more gun violence. Striving for a gun-free society on the other hand is the slow and sure way of tree-rooted-ascension and when it reaches fulfilment, namely a gun-free society, life flourishes, not simply for a few, but for all.

I googled around a bit and I came across a company advertising a product that “can seal your driveway to treat cracks and prevent further intrusion from plant materials. Our special process and top-tier materials can extend the life of your driveway or other concrete surface and help shut out plant and tree roots. Contact us today for a quote!”

Note that their promise is not to eradicate the issue completely – because they know that they cannot accomplish that. At best they can “extend the life” of the concrete.

On the same website this is what they have to say:

“Which came first: the crack in the concrete or the plant? Many landowners with plants sprouting through sidewalks and driveways are curious about whether the plant took advantage of an existing crack or physically caused the fissure in the slab. The answer falls somewhere in the middle. The more you know about the cause of this costly concrete problem, the sooner you can find a resolution.”

Small Plants = Big Concrete Problems
“Your concrete contains microscopic cracks invisible to the naked eye. Plants have new cell growth at the tips of their roots. As the plant grows, so does the root system. The sensitive tips of the roots have the power to seek the path of least resistance for growth. Microscopic concrete cracks present this path for plants growing beneath your sidewalk.”

“Once a plant’s roots discover a microscopic crack in the concrete, they force their way into the slab. Even small weeds and seedlings have the power to displace concrete using potential energy from root growth. Over time, the plant’s continued growth can crack, break, or buckle the surrounding concrete – at which point you may see the plant break through the surface.”

Tree Roots and Concrete
“Tree roots present an even bigger potential problem for concrete surfaces. They move through cement in the same way as smaller plants, but with much greater potential energy. Trees near your concrete areas could push roots beneath and through the surface, causing expensive damage and dangerous cracks in the slab. You may have to cut the roots or even remove the tree to permanently resolve this problem.”

They may be a cement sealing company, but I must say that their theology is spot on. To say that “the answer falls somewhere in the middle” is 100% correct. The cement-way self-destructs while the Jesus-justice-way brings life. I love it that they admit that solid concrete is actually not so completely solid after all: “Your concrete contains microscopic cracks invisible to the naked eye”. This is so important for us to remember: When injustice and oppression look solidly almighty, they are not really. They are actually full of cracks! Cracks that we may not be able to see with our naked eye, but that which exist due to the self-destructing nature of every concrete mix.

This truth: injustices innate cracks together with justice’s new cell life at its root tips are what give us hope. Real reality bends towards justice and for this reason the Jesus-justice-way of the Tree always wins. Our work is to learn the humble subversive radically rooted ways of Jesus and to creatively incarnate them through our living.

In the Spirit of Tree-Rooted Ascension,
Alan

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Words worth savouring

Friends,

Last week I read a few paragraphs from Alice Walker’s amazing novel, The Color Purple. Some of you have asked for the quotes. Here they are, plus an extra one or two. Her journey “trying to chase that old white man [god] out of my head” is as profound as it is liberating. Walker’s words invite savouring.

“I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ask. And that in wondering bout the big things and asking bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big things than you start out with. The more I wonder, the more I love.” 

“I am an expression of the divine, just like a peach is, just like a fish is. I have a right to be this way…I can’t apologize for that, nor can I change it, nor do I want to… We will never have to be other than who we are in order to be successful…We realize that we are as ourselves unlimited and our experiences valid. It is for the rest of the world to recognize this, if they choose.”

“…have you ever found God in church? I never did. I just found a bunch of folks hoping for him to show. Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me. And I think all the other folks did too. They come to church to share God, not find God.” 

“Here’s the thing, say Shug. The thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don’t know what you looking for. Trouble do it for most folks, I think. Sorrow, lord. Feeling like shit.

It? I ast.

Yeah, It. God ain’t a he or a she, but a It.

But what do it look like? I ast.

Don’t look like nothing, she say. It ain’t a picture show. It ain’t something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found It.

Shug a beautiful something, let me tell you. She frown a little, look out cross the yard, lean back in her chair, look like a big rose. She say, My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate
at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and I cried and I run all around the house. I knew just what it was. In fact, when it happen, you can’t miss it. It sort of like you know what, she say, grinning and rubbing high up on my thigh.

Shug! I say.

Oh, she say. God love all them feelings. That’s some of the best stuff God did. And when you know God loves ’em you enjoys ’em a lot more. You can just relax, go with everything that’s going, and praise God by liking what you like.

God don’t think it dirty? I ast.

Naw, she say. God made it. Listen, God love everything you love? and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration.

You saying God vain? I ast.

Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.

What it do when it pissed off? I ast.

Oh, it make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.

Yeah? I say.

Yeah, she say. It always making little surprises and springing them on us when us least expect.

You mean it want to be loved, just like the bible say.

Yes, Celie, she say. Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance, make faces and give flower bouquets, trying to be loved. You ever notice that trees do everything to git attention we do, except walk?

Well, us talk and talk bout God, but I’m still adrift. Trying to chase that old white man out of my head. I been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that?) not the color purple (where it come from?). Not the little wildflowers. Nothing. Now that my eyes opening, I feels like a fool. Next to any little scrub of a bush in my yard, Mr. ____s evil sort of shrink. But not altogether. Still, it is like Shug say, You have to git man off your eyeball, before you can see anything a’tall.

Man corrupt everything, say Shug. He on your box of grits, in your head, and all over the radio. He try to make you think he everywhere.

Soon as you think he everywhere, you think he God. But he ain’t. Whenever you trying to pray, and man plop himself on the other end of it, tell him to git lost, say Shug. Conjure up flowers, wind,water, a big rock.

But this hard work, let me tell you. He been there so long, he don’t want to budge. He threaten lightening, floods and earthquakes. Us fight. I hardly pray at all. Every time I conjure up a rock, I throw it.

Amen” 

Alice Walker, The Color Purple

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