Baby Jesus Hand Grenade

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Yesterday, I preached my second sermon at St. Lydia’s, this time based on Mark 13:24-37, in which Jesus offers an apocalyptic vision:

‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
   and the moon will not give its light, 
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
   and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 
Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ 

Leon Ferrari presents us with a richly ambiguous image in his piece, “Western-Christian Civilization”.

Are we to understand this figure as one who suffers?

Do we identify this broken body with the bodies broken by death-dealing forces?

Ferrari may be holding up a sacred mirror to reveal the image of God in those we destroy.

But this is not all we can see in this piece.

Do we not also see the figure of Christ mounted on this warplane precisely as a bomb to be deployed on our enemies?

Ferrari refuses to relieve us of this painful tension in his piece.

What has any of this got to do with Advent?

Theologian John Caputo has quipped that Advent, meaning arrival or incoming, can be taken in the military sense, “Incoming! Hit the deck!”

Annie Dillard has famously observed that if we knew what power we were invoking, we “should all be wearing crash helments” in church.

But instead of donning crash helmets to prepare ourselves for our encounters with the divine,

we put on battle helmets and deploy the divine,

claiming God’s favor, as we crush our global competitors in war and commerce,

in the name of Western-Christian civilization.

Yet if the figure of Christ Crucified can be represented as a bomb,

perhaps Advent celebrates a time when God lobbed a hand grenade into the world –

and what could be more disruptive than the arrival of a human being full of demands?

If ordinary infants undo our tidy worlds,

how much more a Baby Jesus Hand Grenade?

Yet the undoing this bomb-throwing God brings is of another order

than the destruction wrought by the death-dealing forces that compete for control of the world.

This God sends a little apocalyptic bomb to undo the world itself.

This is an undoing that is more total than anything humanity has ever wrought

and yet this is what makes this disruption the condition of the possibility of new life.

As death-dealers, we have only tried to control the world, in various ways;

what Christ does is to change it.

Remember that this God annihilated the world once already with a flood, and swore to Noah never to do so again.

What Baby Jesus Hand Grenade threatens to do is to upend our world so completely that we will never see and experience it the same way again.

To undo our sense of ourselves,

to eliminate our resources for meaning, be they cultural, political, religious, or otherwise,

to undo all the ways we give meaning to our death-dealing.

All the ways we use God to justify the destruction of God’s image in the world.

In the verses preceding our text this week, Jesus describes all the earthly and human ways we destroy each other: deception, betrayal, hatred, and the idolatry of nation and of violence.

All the ways that we destroy in order to control.

And then our reading picks up where Jesus invokes an image from the apocalyptic, prophetic, book of Daniel,

“The Son of Man coming in the clouds”.

Then Jesus brings us back “down to earth”, if you will, with an image of a fig tree.

A tree whose tenderness points to the coming of summer, a time of fertility, growth, and new life. And then, just so we don’t miss how earth-bound his vision is,

Jesus tells his companions that they will witness this apocalypse,

even though the time of its unfolding is wrapped in mystery,

which is why he says, “What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Jesus’s vision here in the Gospel of Mark is apocalyptic.

An apocalypse is an unveiling.

Another word we use for this is revelation – to reveal – which means to un-veil

(although a lot of discussion of apocalypse seems to Re-veil, to make everything more obscure, rather than to un-veil!)

And where will this un-veiling take place?

Here, among us, it would seem.

Jesus starts with describing the wretched condition of the earth,

then describes the Son of Man coming to that earth,

and then brings us down to earth, where this apocalypse will unfold.

Something new is incoming, but make no mistake,

we are not being swept up to the clouds the Son of Man is riding,

he is coming to us, to bring this apocalypse into our midst,

in the context of the world we are bent on destroying.

This apocalypse will not take the form of destroying the world,

but undoing it, by undoing us.

This is the Baby Jesus Hand Grenade of Love that undoes the world.

I want you to take just a moment now and think of love.

Think of an experience you’ve had of love: love of family, love of friends, romantic love.

Recall someone who has loved you or whom you have loved.

Recall what it is like to love,

it may be a happy memory or a painful one.

Ok, now, keeping that memory in mind,

I want us to think about what it means to be undone.

When the prophet Isaiah encountered God, when God was revealed to him,

Isaiah cried out,”Woe to me! I am undone!”

Judith Butler writes about what it is to be undone.

She says, “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to, or does, but it may also be that despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel. And so when we speak about my sexuality or my gender, as we do (and as we must), we mean something complicated by it. Neither of these is precisely a possession, but both are to be understood as modes of being dispossessed, ways of being for another, or, indeed, by virtue of the other.”

Now, I asked you to recall an experience of love,

to remember someone you love or have loved,

because there is a deeply erotic sense of what it means to be undone.

Christ is talking about an intimate undoing of our world and ourselves,

of how we understand ourselves and our world,

and I recognize something deeply romantic in this apocalypse.

I want to be clear that being undone has nothing to do with being destroyed.

Violence produces destruction, but love produces undoing.

So think about how the experience of being in love,

or of falling out of love,

changes the way you experience the world.

I know that for me, my beliefs about the meaning and goodness of the world seem pale in the absence of love,

and that a hopeless situation can be redeemed by the experience of love.

In my experience, love changes the way I understand and relate to the world,

changes how I act,

disrupts my sleep.

I can remember nights made beautiful by staying awake all night with someone I love.

Keeping awake.

This is Christ’s call here, that we keep awake,

alive to the world and to what is being revealed in it through love.

What Christ is unveiling here runs counter to our hateful, selfish destruction of the world.

What Christ is unveiling here is a love that undoes the world,

that undoes us,

that doesn’t leave us the same,

a love that comes in the form of a body shared with others.

So I believe the call in this apocalypse is for us to keep awake and do the same.

Martin Luther wrote that, “As our heavenly Father has in Christ freely come to our aid, we also ought freely to help our neighbor through our body and its works, and each one should become as it were a Christ to the other that we may be Christs to one another and Christ may be the same in all, that is, that we may be truly Christians.”

Our neighbor bears the image of God,

is the face of God in the world,

and the image of God will survive the apocalypse

wrought by the weakness of sweet baby Jesus and the weakness of Christ Crucified.

Our death-dealing world will not fare as well.

So as we celebrate this incoming of God,

we had better be sure we are ready to be taken to pieces by this event,

and have our world so shattered

that we refuse to accept any longer a system in which we fight for control of a world in which Christ is dropped like a bomb on our enemies. We must keep awake and look for the incoming love of Christ.

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Villains of All (Denomi)Nations: Radical Theology as Piracy

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On May 7, 1694, in rebellion against brutal conditions and labor without pay, first mate Henry Every led a mutiny of the sailors on Charles II, declaring, “I am a man of fortune, and I will seek my fortune!” After successfully commandeering the ship, Every was elected captain, and rechristened the Charles II as The Fancy. Every and crew went on to become the most celebrated pirates of their day, capturing fortune for captain and crew, and leaving a dangerous example of successful rebellion in their wake.

In his fantastically raucous book, Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates and How They Can Save Us, English math teacher and theological pirate @KesterBrewin presents a history of piracy, emphasizing the way that piracy emerges throughout history at times when the Commons become enclosed by those in power. Piracy is a rebellion against the exclusive possession of goods by the few at the expense of the many.

Brewin presented his work recently at Subverting the Norm: Can Postmodernism Theology Live in the Churches?, a conference organized by @PhilSnider and @KSMoody. The conference was a gathering of academics and practitioners of radical theology. Participants (and they were participants: one-third of us presented at some point during the two-day conference) came from a variety of academic, denominational, and non-affiliations. All came to further the developing conversation around radical theology, and to get to know those involved in the mutiny radical theology represents.

Jack Caputo (not on twitter – for shame!) quickly substituted “radical theology” for the more bland “postmodern theology”. If flying the “postmodern” flag helped bring people into the conversation, hoisting the Jolly-Roger-esque “radical theology” flag was a sign of this theology’s new identity.

Brewin points out that sailors lived brutally short lives. Their deaths were recorded in the crew roster: a small skull and crossbones with wings next to a name indicated a death. After mutiny, pirates took the symbol (sans wings) as their flag, proclaiming that “we are the dead”: dead to the navy, dead to the demands of the empire. Much like the later Anarchist rallying cry of “No Gods, No Masters!”, or the Lacanian proclamation of the “death of the Big Other”, the pirates under the Jolly Roger established the possibility of their future on the rejection of their past.

Caputo describes radical theology as the radicalization of some context. Every radical theology has a history and tradition it engages. There is no radical theology outside the church, then. Radical theology can only live “in” the churches, as it were. But can it live there? This is the question that generated the conference, and continues to be engaged as the conversation spills over onto twitter and the various blogs run by conference participants. @TrippFuller broadcast a number of key talks and panel discussions via his @HomebrewedXnty podcast.

Caputo’s description of radical theology radicalization of a certain tradition draws a strong parallel between radical theology and piracy. In a mutiny, the ship is commandeered, not rejected. If piracy is a rebellious response to the enclosure of the commons, it rejects enclosure because of the value of the goods enclosed to all. Radical theology, like piracy, does not reject tradition and theology, but stages mutinies that liberate and redistribute the goods.

So radical theology is a deeply faithful spiritual practice (1) that responds to the event that produces the goods in question. In Caputo’s terms, it is a response to the call of the event that is harbored in the Name of God. Each tradition names the event in a way that encloses the event in some way – radical theology responds by staging mutinies against all attempts at enclosure.

Radical theology, like piracy, is also a generous form of engagement – it is “for others”. Pirates were termed “Villains of All Nations”: the rejected ones who dared rebel against the empires that had enclosed the commons. As outsiders, pirates were free to welcome all to their ranks. They were much like the Christians who Paul described as the “trash of the world”. The fortune recaptured from enclosure was distributed among the pirates. Power was likewise organized along democratic lines.

So far, so good, but how does this play out in contemporary practice? The STN conference staged some successful mutinies against enclosure. Costs for participation were kept low, conference attendees were often presenters, and the “names” that presented attended other sessions, and circulated as “part of the crew” as it were. Q and A sessions translated easily into local pubs, where conversations continued long into the night.

@ikonNYC presented a panel discussion where ikon participants shared their experiences in organizing a radical collective in New York. Key to the conversation was a demystification of the experience in order to encourage others to start their own groups according to the needs of their communities. Radical collectives, like radical theology, radicalize their context, and so need to focus on what is to come rather than what has gone before.

@laserpony, @keegzzz, and @perrodin and @adamdmoore of VOID collective presented a radical liturgy experience which radicalized the STN space. They offered a liturgy that concluded with Eucharist. As each participant received the bread and wine, the words of ministration were simply, “There is no secret”, a blessing, indeed, for a group of people encountering loads of new schools of thought, complete with new vocabularies and library-length book lists.

And yet the STN conference had major failings. Despite the variety of perspectives presented by the “headliners” (who engaged gender, colonialism, abilism, racism, and other sites of enclosure), attendees were largely conventionally educated, straight, white males. Attendees @michaelcarlbudd and @XochitlAlvizo staged a mini-mutiny in calling out organizers for setting a key panel on diversity in a breakout session, rather than highlighting it at a plenary. Organizers responded quickly, moving the panel to the fore, and setting two panels in dialogue with each other to tackle head-on the ways in which STN had yet to subvert the norm in question. This final plenary stood as the clearest evidence of the potential for radical theology to succeed in its attempt to break enclosure, and set clear expectations for the next STN conference.

Mutiny is an event, a response to event, an ongoing engagement. Mutiny does not establish a new, fixed, and perfect order. Henry Every became one of the most successful pirates of all time, and committed atrocities as he did so, atrocities against women and slaves that perpetuated the very kind of enclosures mutiny rebels against. No Gods, No Masters? No Big Others, and No Heroes, then, but Mutiny, mutatis mutandis.

(1) See the work of Katherine Sarah Moody (@KSMoody) on radical theology as spiritual practice, and on the measurable impact on the lives of those engaged in the project.