Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, April 13, 2009

Reflecting on pirates and substitutes

Reading about the capture and dramatic release of Captain Richard Phillips prompted two sets of thoughts:

1) The dead pirates

My delight in the prowess of the Navy sharpshooters was a wake-up call to myself. It was truly thrilling to hear of the result: three shots, three deaths--an amazing feat, performed after sunset, with a bobbing boat as a target. I watched the animations over and over with a great sense of satisfaction.

Yet Christians, I think, should beware of rejoicing in the death of anyone (though a sober sense of thanksgiving for justice and deliverance would be suitable). From what we have heard so far, the pirates were almost children. Like child soldiers everywhere, they cannot be said to be fully formed in a moral sense.

It's true that Miriam sang her immortal song of victory: "Let us sing unto the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously: the horse and rider thrown into the sea." I have never been one to lament for the Egyptians "dead upon the seashore." But the Scripture taken as a whole calls us to a larger view of the bondage we all share, "Egyptians" and "Israelites" alike, and a developed sense of our common human predicament.

2) The substitute

It will be another week, at least, before we know all the circumstances of Captain Phillips' capture. There have been reports, however, that he volunteered to be taken so as to protect his crew--and some of the crew said they owed their lives to him. This makes me think of the way that the Crucifixion of Christ has been interpreted--a subject on which I have spent ten years (and counting) of my life.

The theme of substitution has been under ferocious attack for some decades now, and the intensity is increasing (see for instance the article in last month's Christian Century, "God Does Not Demand Blood"). I admit to being somewhat baffled by these assaults, though I am trying hard to understand. The central problem, for many, seems to be that the concept of Christ as a substitute-- or a blood sacrifice-- for the sinful human race leads to masochistic or oppressive behavior, driven by the assumption that "redemptive suffering" is an enslaving concept. There is also a misinterpretation of the meaning of "the blood," which is all too often presented as something God demands rather then something God gives. (Granted, I am not doing justice to the arguments of those who don't like the substitution motif, but I take them up in more detail in my two-thirds-finished book.) One of the most serious problems with these objections is that they tend to be based on a misunderstanding and misreading of Anselm (David Bentley Hart is among those who has mounted a defense of Anselm in this regard.)

It is not necessary to work out a complicated system of supposedly logical steps in order to tell how Jesus Christ stepped into our place. A particular problem with the "substitutionary atonement" or "penal substitution theory" that was so influential in Protestant scholasticism was its excessive rationality, carried beyond that of Anselm. But take the case of Captain Phillips as a snapshot. He stepped into the place of his crew members. He took their plight upon himself. He gave himself up for them. He said (in effect) "not them, but me." Would it be a stretch to say that he substituted himself for them?

Should this basic concept cause so much offense to so many, today? I am arguing that, whereas the complicated legalistic-rationalistic apparatus should be abandoned, the theme/motif of substitution is absolutely essential for a full understanding of our predicament and Christ's total identification with us.

And there is an additional, unique factor to consider. Jesus died not only for the victims and hostages, not only for his own crew. He died also for the pirates and their bosses and for all the people of the failed state of Somalia.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Making “the invisible man” visible

In a recent sermon posted on this site (“Imagine the Sojourner”), the importance of imagination is stressed with regard to the plight of defenseless people, in particular those suffering under torture. Another way of getting at the same point is to say with the great writer Joseph Conrad, “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel--it is, before all, to make you see.”[1] Ralph Ellison titled his immortal novel about the black struggle The Invisible Man. We don’t know what kind of president Barack Obama will be, but when the Obamas disembarked from Air Force One in London this week, the whole world could see that the African-American black man and woman are no longer invisible. For that, God be praised.

But Conrad’s task has scarcely begun. It takes work to see another person in Conrad’s sense. It requires effort to imagine oneself in strange, unfamiliar, or discomfiting circumstances. It is not our nature to do this work; it grinds against what is comforting and soothing. We who do not do it should greatly honor those who do—the writers of literary fiction, like Conrad, who make us see the “nigger,” the outcast, the alien. The filmmakers also, in recent movies like The Lives of Others, Gran Torino, Frozen River, and The Visitor, help us to see the Other. But part of the problem is that people who want to avoid seeing the Other—the sojourner, the invisible person—do not seek out such movies or books. All the more reason for preachers to search for illustrations. The good journalists are busy helping us. I found an example this morning (April 3) in The New York Times.

The front-page above-the-fold article is headlined, “Immigrant Detainee Dies, and a Life Is Buried, Too.” It tells a story that is in all probability not particularly unusual within our bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). All over this country, foreigners awaiting deportation are held in detention for months and even years while their cases languish. In this particular situation a Pakistani man named Ahmad Tanveer died from a heart attack while in custody at the Monmouth County Correctional Institute in New Jersey. He was only 43. His chest pains and pleas for medical attention were ignored by the jail officials until it was too late. This happened in 2005, and only now, four years later, has Mr. Tanveer’s existence, let alone his death, been acknowledged by the ICE.

The circumstances of the fresh publicity about this case are very important. The key factors are the Freedom of Information Act, The ACLU, the New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee, several months of investigation by The New York Times, and not least the efforts of a 73-year-old Polish Jew named Jean Blum who has been corresponding for years with detainees in the Monmouth County jail even though she could scarcely afford the postage. Ms. Blum’s parents escaped with her from Poland just ahead of the Nazis. Here’s what this representative of Judaism at its extraordinary best said to the Times reporter: “I am very, very aware of the issues that involve displaced persons. I could not turn my back, because that is my history.”

But the most poignant aspect of this story involves a letter from a Nigerian detainee who was in the jail with Ahmed Tanveer. In broken English, laboriously writing by hand, he wrote to a correspondent from the New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee. “The jail is trying to cover about Mr. Ahmed death,” he writes. “He die today about 6 pm…Mr. Ahmed before he die was saying this [ICE] officer he lay [lie] too much he all the time lay about what is going on with us here…Death need to be investigated, we care very much because that can happen to anyone of us.”

“Yet like a message in a bottle tossed from a distant shore,” the reporter (Nina Bernstein) writes, “even the fact of [Ahmed Tanveer’s] death was soon swept away…The case underscores the secrecy and lack of legal accountability that continues to shield the system from independent oversight…”

Many columns of newspaper type detailing the missteps, neglect, cover-ups, and bureaucratic indifference follow before the final bit of information ferreted out by this hard-working, inadequately paid, underappreciated reporter. This paragraph is the one that drove me to my computer to write this blog-post:

“The Nigerian detainee who wrote the urgent [painstakingly handwritten] letter, an ailing diabetic, was later released pending a deportation hearing. According to social workers at the Queens-based charity that was his last known contact, he is now a homeless fugitive, lost in the streets of New York.”

Thus Ms. Bernstein has remarkably succeeded in Conrad’s enterprise: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel--it is, before all, to make you see."

[1] Preface to “The Nigger of the Narcissus.” Italics and punctuation original.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Thoughts for Maundy Thursday

The Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama, who taught at my seminary (Union in New York), entered into glory last Wednesday. His way of being Christian while engaging with other religions was more faithful to the essence of the gospel than that of most other interfaith enthusiasts.

The New York Times obituary gave this account of his conversion:

Dr. Koyama was born on Dec. 10, 1929, in Tokyo. In 1945, as American bombs rained down on Tokyo, he was baptized as a Christian at the age of 15. He was struck by the courageous words of the presiding pastor, who told him that God called on him to love everybody, “even the Americans.”

This coming Holy Week is a time for reflection on the love of Jesus not only for victims but also for perpetrators, and his prayer for his enemies (us).

Another welcome passage in the obituary is one that reminds me of Prof. Koyama's "water buffalo theology":

Dr. Koyama [used] poetic, not academic, language. As a missionary in northern Thailand, he said, he was inspired to write it as he listened to the “fugue of the bullfrogs” while watching farmers working with buffaloes in the rice fields.
“The water buffaloes tell me that I must preach to these farmers in the simplest sentence structure,” he wrote. “They remind me to discard all the abstract ideas and to use exclusively objects that are immediately tangible. ‘Sticky rice,’ ‘banana,’ ‘pepper,’ ‘dog,’ ‘cat,’ ‘bicycle,’ ‘rainy season,’ ‘leaking house,’ ‘fishing,’ ‘cockfighting,’ ‘lottery,’ ‘stomachache’ — these are meaningful words for them.”

But most meaningful of all from my point of view was the last paragraph in the obituary. Maundy Thursday is not far away, with its now-obligatory footwashing. I am among those not-so-few who dislike the ceremony of footwashing. It takes a lot of time that would be better used in preaching a careful expository sermon about the Christological meaning of the footwashing. Many interpreters have stressed that the primary meaning of Christ's action at the Last Supper is Christological, that is to say, it reveals who he is. The instruction to go and do likewise is the secondary meaning. Since the Gospel of John is so conspicuously Christological, with its primary motive clearly stated (in 20:31) "that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God," it is always a good idea to look for the epiphany in each passage. The chief message is not "You should wash each other's feet" (it is difficult--not impossible, but difficult--to transpose this meaningfully into a culture unfamiliar with footwashing). The chief message is, "Look what I and the Father are doing for you on the night before my death."

Dr. Koyama, in his simple, gentle way, interprets the story from this angle. He does not interpret it as an exhortation to go and do likewise (which is definitely present in the story but is secondary to the revelatory aspect). He is thinking of how it will be when we meet the Lord:

Once, in discussing death, Dr. Koyama recalled the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. He said Jesus would be with others the same way:
“Looking into our eyes and heart, Jesus will say: ‘You’ve had a difficult journey. You must be tired, and dirty. Let me wash your feet. The banquet’s ready.’ ”