liberation for all

My current book project is looking at liberation theology for those who are in a context of domination and control, finding meaning through negating or oppressing others.

A lot (certainly not all!) of church work is oriented in a pattern of oppressing, oddly enough.  There is a hiearchy of not only function but also value, where leaders become, essentially, the Spirit for their community, telling people what to think, how to act, where they fit, where they don’t fit.  A few speak, many are silent.  A few are active, many are passive.  Even as this passivity becomes a topic itself of speaking, the passivity is enforced by the models. Rhetoric can only go so far in the face of practices.  Idealized roles become infused with theological priority of ordination, the Word goes forth from a single message or speaker.

Meanwhile, the Spirit always works from below, rising up from the gathered people, many tongues, many voices, the Word most fully an expression of all, the Body infused by the Spirit.  The body of Christ is not many-headed.  There is one head, all the parts together expressing together the movement of God in the midst of a context.  Experiencing this is the experience of liberation. Here’s how I end my first chapter:

We are liberated when we participate with each other in becoming fully who we each are made to be. We liberate when we help others become, we are liberated when we let others participate in our becoming. Thus, liberation happens for the oppressed and the oppressors together, the one taking up as the other lets go, each creating space for the other, resisting the depersonalizing tendencies of social systems as they engage in the truly personalizing movement of the Holy Spirit in their midst.

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considering liberation of the oppressor

To be liberated, the oppressors need to be themselves understood in their oppressing, and to prevent oppression from returning in another guise, a more holistic construction of human reality should be utilized, lest the formerly oppressed institute new patterns of oppressing once or where they may find advantage.

The European example is noteworthy here, in the United States, Australia, and elsewhere, where immigrants often escaped from patterns of oppression or alienation or punishment, only to impose new patterns of violence and abuse in their new setting.

One stark example may be the involvement of Irish immigrants in expressions of “manifest destiny” (or later in African colonialism).

The English subjugation of Ireland led to attempts to end the native language and culture, pushing such farther West into a restricted zone and resulted in mass starvation as workers were required to grow, and export, cash crops rather than diversify their own food sources.

The mass exodus from Ireland to the United States offered new possibilities, among them a “dream” that saw the West as land to be conquered, with the natives inhabiting them killed, isolated, and forced to adopt the culture of their conquerors in order to live.

This is not, to be sure, a pattern to be solely attributed to the Irish, blaming them (or other such immigrants) for its development. However, their participation in such a repeated pattern shows how limited liberation really seeks to be.

We tend to want freedom for ourselves, not for those who oppress us nor for those who have what we want, often framing an unending cycle of both in the guise of justice.

The immigrants who lost their land in Europe wanted land, and getting land satisfied their assumption of loss, even if the land they got was itself stolen from another.

Such is the history of human civilization and is certainly not limited to the European example, but it is story told in most every culture, and every scale of human interaction. The oppressed need to be freed from their oppression but the danger is that an insufficient form of liberation leads to the oppressed becoming part of new patterns of oppressing.   The man who was once beaten, beats.  The woman who was silenced, silences.  The abused, abuse. The once poor, despise the still poor.  The privileged find it hard to let go the mantle of their former oppression, and lay claim to being victims even as they may be new victimizers.  They are not, then, truly liberated.

Liberation must address both sides, the place of loss and the place of power, because both serve to dehumanize people, and often the same person in different ways.

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walking on time

This is something I wrote in 2003, reposted at a high moment in 2011, and as I came across it again this evening, it asked to be reposted, this a time where life once more seems fairly hazy. Promise-Faith-Fulfillment, and parts between.

We walk in a world not our own, possessing yet holding loosely, letting go all that binds, all that hinders the goal. We are the redeemers of time – what is fateful becomes fruitful, what is a fear and foe becomes a tool, a force, a power to be walked on like water.

Yet like water we sink into time, letting our faithlessness cover our heart. We sink, worried, fretful, possessive, greedy, grasping because time is drowning us in its overwhelming force. We must walk on time, above and outside, yet touching it, letting its waves be that which we place our feet upon. It is only through and by faith we become Time-Walkers – eternal beings who transcend yet are connected with this elusive dimension.

I am Peter stepped out of the boat, “Lord, Save me! Time is swallowing me!”

“Have Faith,” is the given response, “Walk forward neither looking to the right or left but at me, in my eyes. That which is lost is gained. That which is behind is yet ahead. That which is despaired is still a hope. Walk. Stand. Move. If you do not have faith, you will not stand.

“Time flows, but I am the one both in and out of time. Do not look to those trapped for assistance but to the one who has a stable hand. I am the one who brings order to disorder, disorder to order, upsetting and twisting around all things so that all things are directed towards me.”

“Lord, I am weary – I have not faith.”

“It is what you do when weary that marks a person of faith. Have faith, even though you have none. Sing and dance. Marvel at the beauty even in the smallest thing. Delight in the senses, taking in all in a fivefold way the encompassing bounty found even in this present sin-stained world. If this is stained, imagine what is possible when it is all cleansed.”

“Lord, I do not know where to walk or what to do.”

“Then stand, and keep standing, like a soldier waiting for orders. Stand and wait. Do what is before you and wait for counsel and guidance.”

“How long must I wait?”

“As long as you must.”

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Being Freed to Liberate Others

If we compare the two ways of knowing, it is easy to see that modern men and women need at least a balance between the vita activa and the vita contemplative, the active and the contemplative life, if they are not to atrophy spiritually.

The pragmatic way of grasping things has very obvious limits, and beyond these limits the destruction of life begins. This does not apply only to our dealings with other people. It is true of our dealings with the natural environment too.

But the meditative way of understanding seems to be even more important when it is applied to our dealings with our own selves. People take flight into relationships, into social action and into political praxis, because they cannot endure what they themselves are.

They have ‘fallen out’ with themselves. So they cannot stand being alone. To be alone is torture. Silence is unendurable. Solitude is felt to be ‘social death’. Every disappointment becomes a torment which has to be avoided at all costs.

But the people who throw themselves into practical life because they cannot come to terms with themselves simply become a burden for other people. Social praxis and political involvement are not a remedy for the weakness of our own personalities.

Men and women who want to act on behalf of other people without having deepened their own understanding of themselves, without having built up their own capacity for sensitive loving, and without having found freedom towards themselves, will find nothing in themselves that they can give to anyone else.

Even presupposing good will and the lack of evil intentions, all they will be able to pass on is the infection of their own egoism, the aggression generated by their own anxieties, and the prejudices of their own ideology.

Anyone who wants to fill up his own hollowness by helping other people will simply spread the same hollowness. Why? Because people are far less influenced by what another person says and does than the activist would like to believe. They are much more influenced by what the other is, and his way of speaking and behaving.

Only the person who has found his own self can give himself. What else can he give? It is only the person who knows that he is accepted who can accept others without dominating them. The person who has become free in himself can liberate others and share their suffering.

~Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life

Posted in holiness, Moltmann, theology, Transformative Church | 2 Comments

kingdom and holiness

The expression of the kingdom that is holiness is a witness to the power of God and a
witness to the presence of the kingdom that is already among us, a transfopeople-193359_640rmative reality in which the incarnation of Christ continues through his people.

In letting go of other forms of identity, participants in this mission take on their own cross so as to discover the resurrection of Christ in their lives and contexts.

The invitation,  healing, and restoration of the kingdom are “both the pathway to the cross and the pathway Christians walk throughout their lives with the cross as those who have died to self with Christ in order that they might live in his grace and power.”

The “kingdom is present wherever Jesus is present,” and Jesus is present wherever his people are present, resonating the work of the Spirit in the pursuit of the kingdom of God.

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towards liberation

At a certain point the means toward an end lead to very different conceptions of what the end should be and it is thus vital for Christian theology not to merely add Christian terminology to non-Christian or even anti-Christian goals.

Liberation, in other words, is not all the same, and there can be forms of liberation that perpetuate rather than alleviate systemic patterns of violence and oppression.

The goal, in a Christian sense, is not just victory or justice over the enemy, but justice for the oppressed that lead to new patterns of living for all in a shared community.

Love must replace hate, hope must replace despair, joy for anger, life for death.

A true pattern of liberation, in a Christian sense, offers this invitation to all: sinners and tax collectors and Democrats and Republicans, men and women, Greek and American and Palestinian and Jew, Black and Asian and Hispanic and White.

This does not dismiss or erase contexts, rather it encounters the stories, listens to the experiences, acknowledges the hurts, frustrations and shame.  Hope is not through dismissing but acknowledging the depth of hurt is so much that the only way to find peace is through the one who has gone to the depths of death itself and brought resurrection to it.  Our liberation is out of always different situations, and those situations are part of our testimony and our despair. Holding onto death, however, leads us back into oppression.

When Jesus meets us in the place of our death, we can hold onto the story of death or we can grasp onto the future that Christ brings to death.  Liberation never negates; it does offer a way forward, that involves sharing together a path towards life.

Liberation is resurrection, a hope, a dream, a life offered in resolution of shame and guilt and blame and frustration.

This is the eschatological invitation of the Kingdom, not a natural progression. It’s not always even what we want, that’s why Jesus was crucified, after all. But it is the invitation even still, a persistent invitation that defies defiance, confronts violence, resists rage and points to the way that is life.

Precisely because it is not a natural progression is what makes it a particularly Christian proposal. Such liberation is not a vestige of human idealism, over-realized anthropology, or personal ambition framed in the guise of working for gain of others so as to maximize one’s own gain.

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A beginning

The Transformative Church is out today on Amazon. From the conclusion:

This present work provides a programmatic structure for the development of transformative ecclesiology as it takes shape in the industrialized West, understanding the project in terms of a comprehensive liberation theology, one that would emphasize
transformation in the lives of those who may be oppressors.

It is not itself comprehensive but rather points to ways in which a comprehensive study could take shape. Each section in this present work could be its own substantive monograph, with each separate study providing better theological breadth, historical assessment, and practical examples, going well beyond the perspectives of our present interlocutors.

Thus, the present work serves as a proposal of sorts, a way of first bringing together conversation partners that are not only separated by geography and occupation but by divisions in theological studies itself.

These conversation partners serve as animportant example to what a broader project could entail. Indeed, these present conversation partners go well beyond simply offering an example of contributors from the separated realms of systematic and practical theology.

They also share an important holistic methodology that, I argue, provides a substantive orientation for the development of the proposed future project. More specifically, they offer an implicit framework that could provide a substantively different approach to theology in general.

Moltmann himself provided the substantive call for such a pursuit when he suggested that in addition to right beliefs, theology and the church must also pay attention to the standards of right feelings and right actions.

Orthodoxy must be joined by orthopathy and orthopraxy, with these latter two elements insisting on a fully trinitarian theology that is informed by the fruit and gifts of the Spirit.

So, by writing this book, I’ve introduced a career of writing ahead of me.  A daunting task indeed, especially in light of so many present uncertainties.  But I’m not transformative, I participate with the one who is.  That is my hope, my living, sustaining, transforming hope.

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What does it mean to be a transformative church?

What does it mean to be a transformative church?The Transformative Church

Two elements orient my overall purpose.

  1. A church is transformative when it engages in the development of people to better reflect the life of Christ in their lives

  2. and when this transformation then extends itself beyond the boundaries of a church community, as such people live their lives in new ways wherever they are.

We become in the church who we are to be in the
world.

Read more…

Posted in church, emerging church, missional, theology, Transformative Church, writing | 6 Comments

the broken state of public discourse

Anyone who is online and involved in segments of the opinionated classes–religion, politics, academia, etc.–quickly realizes the minefield that is public conversation.  The goal isn’t necessarily to contribute to the gathered understanding, but rather to establish yourself on a side, or show that you are one of the good people.

For instance, it’s pretty common for me to read something like, “If you don’t say _________  about _______, then you don’t understand or believe the Gospel.”  There’s always an interest in tying Jesus not only to a particular goal but to a particular stance.

I think I’ve been reacting to this for a long while.  And honestly, at my core I’m a fair bit rebellious. I’m resistant to being told what I must say or write.

I’m a rather opinionated person, to be honest, so it’s not that I don’t have a response to issues that are happening in this world. More, my recent silence to events or issues has more to do with really what is a postmodern critique. I’m suspicious with how public discourse is being used to perpetuate cycles of dysfunction.

There are sources of power that depend on such dysfunction in order to maintain their own authority.  Politics and Media are chief among them, as they must fuel disorder to maximize the psychological and social distress which they then can exploit. Religious leaders often have the same goal.

These systems establish authority and meaning for a class of people who then seek advantage within those systems or find themselves alienated or demonized. A fair amount of people who say things aren’t actually grounded in substantive understanding or belief.  They say what they say to establish themselves as faithful players in the system.  The winds change, they do too.

This is why much (most) public discourse is not really as much as a conversation as a antagonizing pattern of establishing the good people and the evil people. People rush to vocalize their stances so as to maintain or build their status in the particular system they aspire to find meaning in.

Religion, politics, academics, etc. it’s all the same as with pop culture: people tend to be less concerned about truth, beauty, or real consideration of the moral or aesthetic issues and more concerned with aligning themselves with those who can provide favor and advantage.

Tenure is supposed to secure freedom of thought in academia, but it misses the social pressures in seeking intellectual validation and approval by peers. Salvation by grace is supposed to secure freedom of thought in theology, but grace has long been coupled with proofs of one’s status as graced–toe the line of theological and ecclesial conformity or you will be rejected as having never received grace.

I’m working on a new book project this year, on the topic of liberation, and I’m currently reading through some books by Jean Marc-Ela, an African theologian.

When people must be on the lookout, like tracked animals, the development of a literature of paean and laud to the established regime translates into a form of prostitution  to which intellectuals are condemned for the sake of their families–in order to spare their elderly parents or their sisters and brothers the unpleasantness sure to ensue if a writer or speaker does not toe the party line.

Silence is as suspect as speaking or writing–paradox of paradoxes–since it can be interpreted as a form of disapproval of the prevailing regime.

Voluntary marginalization is a dangerous and precarious option where the multitudes are made to kneel before the idols of the day, ready to convulse in a hail of knee-jerk reactions at a moment’s notice.

It is not difficult to imagine the conscience drama in certain intellectual circles where writers and speakers are constrained on every occasion to utter the oracle pronounced to be the thinking of all citizens. Here, to speak in public means to repeat a discourse already heard.

The obligation to submit to official conformism fosters a parrot mentality, in which any critical reflection is a threat of dissidence and schism. The mind is locked up in a repetitious liturgy of the world of myth.

Without free thought there can be no progress in any area, and the triumph of unanimity that checks that free thought demands a whole ritual, currently manifested in the bowing and scraping to established regimes… The unity established through a one-party system is galvanized by the banishment of any form of dissidence labeled as threatening to public security.

Does this mean avoiding any public discourse? No.  For me, however, my sensitivity to the structures of power and how discourse is co-opted by the powerful for their own gain has led me to step back as I deal with my own temptations and, honestly, dependency.

I need approval and acceptance, not for a social sense of self, but because as of summer I need employment and income.  I see what I am told I need to say and think in order to gain status, who I must reject and who I must align with in order to get books sold, contracts, employment. I realize this and can’t get away from a verse that has afflicted me since seminary.

Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the Lord. (Isaiah 31:1)

I say afflicted because as this passage stands out to me, I’ve stepped away from doing the things I should be doing in order to find the status I want or need.

I see this need, this interest in looking for those who may satisfy my very real concerns, and then seek to hold onto my integrity by not playing the game as it is being played.

Where is real freedom to be found?  It is very freeing to be on the outside, where dependency on approval for status and livelihood is not an issue.  But it is also a place of isolation and need.  The outside doesn’t pay that well, nor feed or house my family.

My security is bought at a price.  So, find a system to cling to–Right, Left, Populist, Academia–and commit to it, overlooking the faults of one’s “own” while demonizing those others.  That’s the temptation.

Real issues are used by people in power to secure their own power, they not only do not seek to alleviate the core problem such resolution is against their self-interest. They utilize the true believers and idealists to further establish their own gain.

Politics (on both sides), social causes, religious zeal; full of abusers and the abused, the latter often taking on a Stockholm Syndrome pattern of devotion to those whose self-interest drives the dysfunction. Public discourse is often more a game of social maneuvering than a pursuit of the fullness of truth.

I am silent because I don’t want to play into that system, even as I am absolutely obligated to speak up about issues that occur in my immediate context.  We are called to be good neighbors not loyal partisans.

I am often silent now because I’m trying to navigate how to speak outside the system within the systems, holding onto the fullness of hope and identity in Christ rather than clinging to a meaning derived from ultimately false patterns of meaning. I want to be a prophet not parrot the false-prophets that abound on every direction.

“We must conclude,” Ela writes, “that an acceptance of conflicts of opinion and a divergence of options, without the reduction of the opposition to silence, is not really incompatible with the pursuit of national unity and the progress of the masses.” Nor is is incompatible with the pursuit of good theology, unity of the church, or progress in social questions.

And so I wait on the Lord to give me wisdom and words. The pressure of not waiting is backed by the threat of judgment and dismissal and rejection: say “this” or you are rejected. Silence is indeed suspect.

That makes the goal of waiting on the Lord a difficult, brutally difficult, task.  Because those who are not waiting insist others join them in their chorus.

Posted in academia, personal, professional, religion, theology | 20 Comments

Endorsements

The Transformative Church comes out February 1!  Here’s what some key folks said about it:

“Patrick Oden’s way of weaving Moltmann’s creative theological program into the tapestry of some of the most recent ecclesiological developments is transformative! It points into a new way of doing constructive theology. What a theological feast this book is.”
—Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen
Fuller Theological Seminary and University of Helsinki

The Transformative Church“Transformation takes not only a new way of thinking but a new way of living. For that reason, a transformative congregation needs not only the right theological vision but also the right practices to be conformed to the kingdom of God. Patrick Oden beautifully and thoughtfully brings together theology and practice in ways that should be read by every church leader. The church can’t just think like a people of hope but must also learn to live as a community of hope in the world. The Transformative Church is a great place to start.”
T. Scott Daniels
Azusa Pacific University
Pastor, First Church of the Nazarene of Pasadena 

“Not unlike my journey and many other Evangelical theologians sojourning in a post-Christian world, Oden’s yearning to find and feast on the ‘words of life’ eventually became a quest to abide in Christ’s vision and mission for the church. My pursuit led me to focus on Dallas Willard. Oden’s path led him to Jürgen Moltmann. Both seek to understand, reimagine, and articulate the means and ends of Jesus’ gospel in and through holistic covenantal communities. Patrick has given us a wonderful gift. He helps us to develop eyes to see more clearly and ears to hear more distinctly how our lives, and our churches, can better manifest the transformative power of God’s love, hope, freedom, and grace in our world, without falling prey to the systems of our world.”
Gary Black Jr.
Azusa Pacific University

“This is the book that we have needed. The explosion of emergent and missional churches is a global phenomenon, and it is exhilarating to watch. But too often these efforts lack serious theological and biblical foundation. This is just what Oden provides. In a dialogue with the thought of Jürgen Moltmann and many of the emergent leaders, he offers a Trinitarian framework for understanding these emerging forms as transformative sites where God’s kingdom purposes are exhibited and extended. Highly recommended.”
William A. Dyrness
Fuller Theological Seminary

“Emergence comes of age! Here Moltmann’s theological depth (‘Who are we to be?’) meets the fresh expressions of faith in emerging Christian communities across America (‘How are we to become?’). Missional, emergent, and neo-monastic movements are the cutting edge of ecclesial innovation. It’s high time to see what they can learn from theology . . . and what they have to teach it.”
Philip Clayton
Claremont School of Theology

And just as fun, Ben “the Moltmanniac” provides the first review.

I’ll be posting more about it during the release time.

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