Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What I think environmentalism's number one priority should be

We urgently need a radically sustainable alternative development pattern, characterized by low consumption, local production, and cooperative economics. And we need a mass political movement to remove obstacles to it, especially at the municipal level.

Practically speaking, this means mobilizing massive local support for allowing composting toilets, allowing raising of chickens and goats, allowing the construction of radically simple multi-family dwellings using bamboo, rammed earth, cob, and other natural building techniques in the middle of the city, and a thoroughgoing overhaul of antiquated codes and regulations that were implemented at the onset of the age of sprawl, before there was much ecological awareness. If need be, we should take to the streets, and chain ourselves to the doors of the municipal building, and shut down city traffic for days on end, provided our local support base numbers in the tens or hundreds of thousands. The planet must no longer be held hostage to codes and regulations expressing the ideals of the 1950s.

To date this has NOT been a major focus of the environmental movement. As an example, the Rhizome Collective in Austin labored for FOUR years just to get a composting toilet approved, and today this cutting edge community dedicated to demonstrating radically sustainable city living is essentially out of business BECAUSE a mass movement did NOT get behind them to change obstacles in city codes to their projects.

Forty years of environmentalism has failed because it has not focused its energies and resources on the key battles where there is the greatest leverage for positive impact. Instead, too much energy has been absorbed in advocating incremental tweaks to our existing patterns of living, or relatively cosmetic changes such as New Urbanism proposes, which, even if implemented widely, cannot credibly be shown to be sufficient to deflate the war machine, preserve Arctic ice, etc.

But If environmentalists FOCUSED their energies on OVERCOMING REGULATORY OBSTACLES TO RADICALLY SUSTAINABLE LIVING, and on making communities like the Rhizome Collective the norm rather than exception, with the FOCUSED INTENSITY of the Civil Rights movement, then all sorts of problems would be greatly reduced:

1) It would dry up the corporate economy / imperial war machine, because our communities would be locally self-sufficient.

2) GHG emissions which cause global warming would come to a halt. Coal-fired plants and coal mines could be retired, because total energy needs would be 90% less and met by community-scale production using renewable resources.

3) We would no longer need cars, because abundant economic, cultural, and other opportunities would be within walking distance or a short bike ride.

4) Our food would no longer be produced with fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and poisonous pesticides, but would be produced close to home applying sound organic and permaculture design principles.

5) Huge swaths of land would be freed for wildlife and natural habitat restoration.

6) Total human impacts would be a fraction of what they are today, because total material consumption would be reduced by some 90%, people would occupy much less space (living in more compact dwellings and not having redundant built space for living, working, educating, etc.). People would travel much less because lives and relationships would be so rich in the communities where they produce most of what they need within a few feet of their compact multi-family dwellings with shared tools, toys, books, etc., with lives full of nonmaterial satisfactions such as community theater, music, poetry, etc.

The degree of change called for is really scarcely any greater than that which occurred when they built the destructive pattern of oil/cars/sprawl/consumerism in the first place. But in order to mobilize an effective social and political movement to radically transform the physical environment around us, we must overcome a lot of psychological and cultural baggage and come to spiritual awareness within. We must re-define "wealth" to mean not material excess but the richness and resilience of symbiotic relationships in communities of people, plants, animals, etc. And we must ramp up the degree of material simplicity and cooperative lifestyle that we are willing to aim for, way beyond what "mainstream" environmentalism advocates, and way, way beyond anything our own personal experience has prepared us for. We must find the faith to venture out of our comfort zones into uncharted waters, knowing that in this journey all that we will lose was just holding us down anyway, and what we will gain is true riches, true community, and justice and well-being for all.

Considerable educating needs to be done before a massive political movement along these lines can be mobilized. The best one-stop resource I know of for understanding the specs of the new pattern of development we need is Ted Trainer's "The Simpler Way" at http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/12b-The-Alt-Sust-Soc-Lng.html. It prints out as some 25 or so pages. 25 pages, I would venture to submit, that if the environmental movement had read and made their manifesto 25 years ago, we'd be in INCALCULABLY better shape today. Another resource which defines and demonstrates what radical sustainability looks like is the book Toolbox for Sustainable City Living: A Do-It-Ourselves Guide, by Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew, co-founders of The Rhizome Collective. There is an abundance of good materials, videos, etc. explaining the planet's plight, but there is precious little like the above that explains and promotes solutions that are sufficiently thoroughgoing and radical to make a significant impact. We urgently need to develop materials and media and political platforms that do an end run past the distraction of incremental tweaks and that define an agenda for radically simple and cooperative ways without which we cannot possibly prevent the worst damage of modern industrial ways.

Let's not wait until 2050 when most of the damage will have already been done! Let's create a new mass movement NOW that is focused on this KEY LEVERAGE POINT of developing radically sustainable communities and living systems and removing legal and regulatory obstacles to them!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What About Paul and Women?

A Honduran promoter of cultural change, seeking to address the horrible oppression and abuse of women that permeates Honduran society, took aim in a recent Facebook post at Paul of Tarsus, who penned these infamous words some 2,000 years ago:

"Indeed, just as the church is submissive to the Messiah, so wives must be submissive to their husbands in everything." (Ephesians 5:24)

"The guy clearly was not married," he goes on to comment, implying, I think, that a married man would not have such boneheadedly unrealistic expectations.

Is this a correct reading of Paul, and a judicious assessment of the impact of his legacy on struggles for the rights of women today? Does it take adequate account of the situational context in which Paul wrote in the 1st C.?

And are we going to make more practical headway in advancing the rights of women by bashing Paul, and getting people to dismiss him as the chauvinist lout we may imagine he was, or by re-orienting people to the quest for justice, which, as I will argue below, Paul exemplified, however imperfectly, even in this passage in his letter to the Ephesians, in ways conditioned by his times?

Modern readers of Paul, I think, are prone to make one of two errors:

1) We may judge and condemn his words by 21st C. standards, as if they were written to 21st C. situations and social contexts, failing to see that our 21st C. standards themselves owe their origin and development, at least in part, to a trajectory that Paul himself helped set in motion. Ironically, it is partly Paul himself who has brought us into conflict with Paul.

2) We may, if we are fundamentalists, seek to apply the words rigidly today, with a similar disregard for the differences in situation and social context. In practical effect, I think this is the WORST of the two errors to make.

Far from lacking an understanding of marriage and women, I rather think that Paul (or whoever wrote Ephesians, whether Paul or someone who deeply respected him), was anything if not astute about social relations, esp. social relations in the 1st C. as bearing on the survival and well-being of a marginalized community of Jesus followers who dared to model alternative values to those of the Roman Empire. While Paul certainly never entertained pretensions of overthrowing social institutions in one fell swoop (e.g., it did not occur to him to invite annihilation of early Christian communities by inciting slave rebellions), he did plant perspectives that would begin eating away at them from the core.

First, we can see this, if not so clearly from a 21st C. vantage point, even in the very verse that is quoted, in that Paul roots the woman's "submissive" (however well that word really translates Paul's original thought) response to the husband in her relationship with Christ. This means that her life is not ABOUT the man, as in the Roman scheme of things, it is about a relationship that radically transcends and conditions all other relationships. I highly recommend carefully scrutinizing Eugene Peterson's paraphrase of this passage at http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians%205:21-6:9&version=MSG -- this is no cheap attempt to sanitize Paul for modern consumption, and don't let its casual tone fool you: it is at least one scholarly attempt to convey the original meaning to today's readers, in the light of a close reading of the 1st C. context, as best as he understands that in the light of the evidence available to us. We may want to go further than Paul did, but from a 1st C. vantage point, this is radical change.

Second, it is seen--and even 21st C. readers can see this at once--in the verses which immediately follow, where Paul introduces the radical notion that men, in their day-to-day lives, should sacrifice their own desires and interests for the well-being of their wives, using the self-surrender of Christ for the church as their model. (Read Ephesians 5:25-33 in Peterson's The Message and other versions, at www.biblegateway.com.) It is hard to imagine anything more effective than this in undercutting male oppression, whether in the 1st C. or in today's Honduras or anywhere else. And, in fact, we see very tangible positive results of this in the most vital expressions of the sort of evangelical Christianity that has swept through Latin America in recent decades. (I would imagine that we may also see it in Catholic movements that have a similar emphasis on making spiritual commitment central, vital, personal, and real.) What do we see? We see the miracle of miracles, the miracle of men no longer squandering family resources on booze, women, gambling, and other manifestations of despair, but investing both money and personal energy in the well-being of their families. It is well-documented that movements of "evangelicos" among the poor have often found it difficult to sustain leadership in the neighborhoods where they began because the economic uplift so rapidly experienced by converted families leads them to move to better neighborhoods so quickly. (Would that they would recover the New Testament emphasis on being communities of mutual aid, so that they would advance together and not separately, but that is another matter, addressed below.) I personally have met evangelical Christian men in Mexico who met regularly to encourage one another in serving their families, and all evidence was that this was WORKING in supplanting day-to-day machismo! And I have seen this at work in the U.S. as well. This is what Honduras and the rest of the world desperately needs--men being challenged, by the Bible, by priests, by indigenous elders and grandmothers, by the collective voice of every legacy of trajectories for justice in history, to live for the well-being of their families.

Wives, in turn, may be expected in some conservative church circles to affirm "male headship." To the degree that both parties, in their day-to-day lives, are working on actually loving and serving one another, and given that making unilateral decisions without the input of the wife is considered "unloving" (and surely Paul would not say otherwise!), this tends to become something symbolic and titular, almost to the point of evaporation, functionally speaking. Is it safe, then, to retain this symbolic male dominance, even in the highly conditioned and altered form it takes in Paul's letter to the Ephesians and in which it is affirmed by some conservative Christians? No, I think there is a case for saying this is all just scaffolding that must be torn down once the building that was in the making is ready to stand. Indeed, it would be dangerous, in the 21st C., to let this scaffolding stand. Even though in the 1st C. the Pauline stance proposed a radically progressive change from the then-prevailing status quo, it is not so from the standpoint of where we stand on the trajectory in the 21st C.

On the other hand, in regard to how this can play out practically, I think it bears mentioning that we cannot simply ignore the fact that in many poor communities, the men who take the momentous step of committing their lives to the service of their families, even in highly disempowered circumstances, often feel the need to retain at least this symbolic affirmation of their manhood, as they feel their self-worth assaulted by the culture of machismo around them, as their macho buddies deride them for settling down and "playing house." Elijah Anderson, in his book Code of the Street, has an enlightening discussion of this phenomenon among the "decent" (as opposed to "street") families in inner city Philadelphia, where women publicly display, even in the manner in which they walk with their husbands and families, a recognition of the man's symbolic rule. Ultimately I think this must be challenged--there should be, instead, expressions of mutual respect--but I suspect that the conditions for effectively making this shift happen will only be in place once a lot of emphasis has been placed, as indeed we find it in Paul, on learning to deny oneself and live a life of practical loving service to others. The practical experience of loving and serving hollows out and finally discards any pretension to actual or symbolic dominance, while enhancing the ineffable wonder of the masculine-feminine dance.

A further condition for successfully promoting gender equity and harmony, I believe, is organizing people into societies of practical mutual aid, and nurturing the cooperative values that enable such groups to succeed in promoting the survival and sense of human dignity of each of its members. Not surprisingly, this is precisely what we see Jesus and Paul doing, as opposed to the kind of marketing of superficial disconnected private religious experience that most often characterizes Christianity today. Only this kind of radical re-definition of one's relationship to the community and re-writing of the rules of the community itself can address the despair that feeds the machismo of men who, lacking education and status and capital base to compete in the global economy, find no way to derive a meaningful sense of self-worth from their economic performance and service to their families, and instead seek that in a macho lifestyle, gangs, etc.

In sum, I think we will do well to welcome how far Paul got us along a trajectory toward equity and harmony, given the obstacles and limitations he faced, and to keep pressing on from the point where we find ourselves. In some respects this may mean recovering elements of Paul's program which even many "enlightened progressives" have not gotten nearly seriously enough about, such as building tight communities of mutual aid. In other respects this may mean going beyond the letter of Paul's words so as to affirm more robust expressions of gender equality than the exigencies of his particular moment led him to affirm, at least in Ephesians 5. We should seek to do this in faithfulness to the Spirit which animated Paul himself to reach toward the ideal of equality, as expressed in Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The ancient conversation that could cure the Catholic Church...and maybe the rest of us too!

Nicholas Kristof, in his New York Times op-ed piece A Church Mary Can Love, hits crucial nails on the head. The Vatican establishment is completely out of touch, and Christians need to put vital community service at the center of their faith.

But I think some tweaking of his understanding of the history involved could strengthen his case. Further to my last post, I think appeal to 2nd and 3rd Century "lost books of the Bible," while these texts may properly be cited as at least plausible secondary evidence of proto feminist ideals in earliest Christianity, distracts from the power of the canonical and more indisputably primary sources of early Christianity to address the problems of churches today. Not that I pretend to offer anything more original or authoritative than a second-hand regurge of scholars I've read, but I think the school of thought I will seek to summarize, which has eluded most journalists, is at least worth considering.

To be sure, I think the transition from house churches to larger public gatherings that Kristof notes was an early contributing factor to making churches what they are today. But there is so much more to the story, and therefore so much more to be consciously recognized and confronted, if we are to find our way again.

Kristof nails the oppressive and bungling tendencies of "good ole boy clubs" like the Vatican. But how many other "good ole boy clubs" do you know of get all excited about...celibacy?!?! There is surely a more bizarre and convoluted story that begs to be told in this regard. Not to be ignored is the influence of the anti-material Greek philosophies, e.g. Neoplatonism, that saturated Greco-Roman culture in the 3rd and 4th centuries. Many expressions of this kind of thinking were deeply anti-woman, saying that the allure of matter (and therefore sex and women) are "the problem." Kristof does not even mention this, even though it is arguably one of the most dominant factors leading to the anti-sexual features of the church he critiques. Concerns over property and inheritance in the medieval period further solidified the drive for a celibate priesthood.

As to the "lost books," as mentioned in my last post, I think there is a strong case that many of these were not accepted simply because they came decades to centuries after the New Testament was written, and were thus far removed from Jesus and his earliest followers. Really, the clincher for me is this: If the folks who at various points in church history compiled lists of "accepted" books were willing to consider texts that late, would they not have included late texts that affirmed their anti-feminist views? They would have had plenty to choose from.

To be sure, many scholars believe 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, traditionally attributed to Paul, are pretty much that--later pseudonymous texts expressing a more patriarchal and hierarchical view of the church. (And this was the consensus of scholars long before feminist issues really came to the fore.) But even those books don't come nearly as late or as far removed from the original Jesus communities as many of the "lost books" people have in mind. Don't get me wrong. By all means, I'd say, read the "lost books." For that matter, read the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Quran. Definitely read Rumi. Include them in the conversation. But due regard should be given to the time and historical circumstance of each. And it's just quite a quite a stretch IMHO to consider the voice of a 1st Century Jesus to be represented equally well by 3rd Century texts.

Some scholars also think there are later insertions into parts of the earliest New Testament texts. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, the passage where women are urged to be silent in the church, though appearing in a letter that virtually everybody agrees was written by Paul, may have been inserted later by others as a kind of "damage control" to offset Paul's acknowledgment of female prophets elsewhere in the same letter. (And lest it be thought that these scholars are simply trying to sanitize Paul for modern consumption, let it be noted that they appeal not only to the apparent incongruity of the message of these verses with other parts of 1 Corinthians, but also to the fact that the verses are placed in a different location in some manuscripts.) Or it may have been Paul's own "damage control," reflecting a kind of two steps forward and one step back, to put the brakes on applying his more radical teachings in ways that would have offended social mores to no immediately constructive end. Or, more likely as I see it, there may be a specific context to the forbidden "speaking" that was understood by the original audience but not by us.

In any case, just how jarring this whole matter is, and what one feels to be at stake, will depend on how one understands the nature of the Bible and its intended role in the life of faith. This is one area where I think we've gotten de-railed, and I'd like to say just a little about that....

There's no doubt, there are isolated Bible texts that people can use to put down women, exclude gays, justify slavery, insist on not mixing certain kinds of cloth, defend the divine right of kings, and what have you. But all this misses the grander narrative. Biblical authors were motivated by a desire to escape and transcend the oppressive traditions, social structures, and powers that were causing misery in their societies. The fact that their thinking, in part, was also inevitably conditioned by the same should not blind us to where the conversation, as a whole, is headed. There is plenty of dialogue in the process, yet the overall direction is not only discernible, but IMO inescapable: "The Bible bends toward inclusion," as Walter Brueggemann puts it.

Fundamentalists treat the Bible as a repository of absolute truth claims, out of which they seize upon a few things, usually out of context, in order to define themselves apart from other people. Many skeptics unwittingly accept this same flawed understanding of the nature and purpose of the biblical conversation, and spend most of their time refuting such claims, motivated by the admirable goal of preventing fundamentalists from imposing their will. But I think both miss the sense in which the Bible is truly a divine word, a divinely animated conversation leading flawed and wounded people on a path to redemption.

This conversation, as I read it, finds its climax in a Palestinian prophet who preached radical love for all people, who at one point had the opportunity to lead an armed revolt against the Romans but chose not to, leading to his abandonment and death, and in the story of his disciples who, convinced of his divine vindication in the resurrection, found strength to fight evil and oppression in a much more powerful way--specifically, by organizing communities of shared goods whose definition of "family" transcended blood lines and tore down barriers of language, ethnicity, ritual "cleanness," etc. There's more than enough power in that story to cure what ails the Catholic Church in its current crisis, and much else besides, if only we re-connect with the main drift of it, and stop being absorbed by tangents and accretions, not least those which some old white goons dressed in funny suits have built a whole institution around.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Bible: Friend or Foe?

On another forum someone wrote: "What I cannot comprehend is how this collection of fables and myths [the Bible] has evolved into the infallible word of a creator" and cited Nahum 1 (among others) as an ethically deficient text.

What happened, I would submit, is that the biblical documents and the oral traditions and social movements for justice that lay behind them were so powerful, and constituted such a threat to the powers that be, that the powers HAD to reckon with them somehow. So they did all they could do to hijack and subvert the interpretation and application of these texts. From Constantine to Karl Rove this is essentially what we see. This hijacking has been very successful and has become easier to maintain the more temporal and cultural distance separates readers from the original context, and as interpretations alien to the original contexts have been repeated so often for so long that readers no longer follow the original drift of the conversation. Imagine a Victorian era literary critic who has never lived in, say, late 20th C. Detroit, trying to understand rap music. "Oh my, what crazy nonsense...and EVIL!" would likely be the all too hasty and dismissive conclusion. The result is that neither today's fundamentalists nor those dedicated to combatting them--both carrying out an Enlightenment agenda of arriving at true and provable propositions that is alien to the original purposes of most biblical texts--are reading with much sensitivity.

But over the last 40 or so years biblical scholarship has made great strides, through historical investigation and the application of social science insights, in shedding light on the social circumstances in which biblical texts were written, edited, and reflected upon. Unfortunately, you won't hear much about this from the journalists, op-ed writers, pastors, priests, etc.--the folks on whom most people depend for their understanding of the Bible--who have yet to catch on. But some of the scholars who have sensitized me to these developments include Walter Brueggemann, N.T. Wright, Dominic Crossan, Richard Horsley, Warren Carter, Reta Halteman Finger, and others.

The above-named scholars disagree, of course, on many particulars, but they would all affirm the following observation that I think is crucial for reading and applying the Bible responsibly today:

The Bible was written in the shadow of empire, as the title of an excellent book on this topic suggests. Most of the Hebrew Bible was redacted in final form at a time when the Jews were living as exiles in Babylon, or not long after. Many of the stories and traditions are the preservation of a culture's distant memory of living under the thumb of Egypt and the oppressive system of tribute it imposed. Norman Gottwald argues that ancient stories of the Exodus and Conquest, for example, are a distillation of centuries of resistance by Hebrews who sought refuge in the highlands of Palestine against the rule of Canaanite and Philistine client states of the Egyptian tributary system. These stories are applied by later redactors and their exilic and postexilic readers to their situations of living under Babylonian, Persian and Greek domination, and they are applied yet again by people of Jesus's generation to the context of Roman imperial oppression.

So what do we do with a text like Nahum, in which the prophet pronounces violent divine retribution against Ninevah, home to the throne of the Assyrian Empire? The background is that the prophet and his readers live under the thumb of Assyria, whose leaders boast that its empire and oppressive system are invincible and inevitable. But, as Walter Brueggemann writes:

"The prophetic imagination knows that the real world is the one that has its beginning and dynamic in the promising speech of God and that this is true even in a world where kings have tried to banish all speech but their own. The task of prophetic imagination and ministry is to bring to public expression those very hopes and yearnings that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we no longer know they are there."

Read in this light, this passage speaks hope to the oppressed. It affirms that the Assyrian Empire, contra the claims it is continually making about itself, is NOT the only or final reality. There is a LARGER REALITY that will bring it to an end. To be sure, the passage expresses a people's inevitable rage. And is there really no place for affirming such feelings in the large scheme of things, in the light of the biggest picture analysis?

But we must not read a text like this in isolation from the larger ongoing biblical conversation. Balancing the rage of Nahum 1 is the scandalous generosity of the Book of Jonah (one wonders how this book that preaches love toward the oppressor could ever have been written and gained acceptance--maybe there ARE divine miracles!) and the vision of "win-win" universal peace and justice throughout the prophets. Moreover, by the time we get to the New Testament, all the violent imagery is taken over and transformed via poetic irony as a metaphor for the power of faithful nonviolent love and service to overcome the corruption and brute force of oppressive systems like that of the Romans. For example, in the Apocalypse (the word means to reveal the true nature of something), Jesus, understood to be the prophesied "lion of the tribe of Judah" who would come and save God's people from their enemies, is revealed to be a gentle sacrificial lamb. The twelve tribes counted and loved by God are revealed to be an innumerable ethnically diverse multitude. Faithful nonviolent and just living is called "victory" (a word with violent military connotations in the Roman context). And the peaceful Jesus who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and preached peace is portrayed metaphorically as having more power than a Roman emperor, filling a valley with the blood of horses and soldiers. (I wish to thank Brian McLaren for solidifying this insight into the meaning of violent imagery in the Apocalypse.) The overall message is that there is a place for rage but that energy has to be transformed into gentle, persevering loving service that will change the world in the way that quiet yet forceful yeast transforms a lump of dough.

So back to Nahum's scorched earth rhetoric against Ninevah.... The Assyrians, like all ancient empires, justified their oppression via religion, with its army of priests and thought police. (Sound familiar?) The oppressed Hebrews fought back, saying Yahweh, the transcendent "I am" who is beyond subordination to any nation's interests or agenda, will not let oppression ultimately prevail. In Nahum, this is expressed as "Yahweh's gonna torch ya!" Beneath all the mythical and poetic dressing, the original bottom-line significance is really, "Hey, this business of establishing equity for all instead of this hierarchical pecking order society that the Assyrians are imposing is important--damned important!" Thousands of years later, some child-abusing leaders in the Catholic church come along, and they may want to give "red-hot" texts like that a different spin: "Don't f*** with us, or God will do this to YOU!" But I hope what I have said shows the perverse absurdity of that. So long as we listen attentively to the original contexts, and keep in touch with the broader biblical conversation, we should stay out of trouble.

And we will turn that "troublesome" collection of ancient texts back into the powerful resource for justice that it was originally meant to be. So when we come up against all the evil of corrupt religion, which is a more authentic and effective response? To debunk the biblical texts that corrupt powers have hijacked and ripped out of context to serve their own interests? Or to expose the hijack, and bring the full original anti-imperial force of the biblical conversation to bear? To fail to do the latter, IMO, is to squander an incredibly powerful resource. As we face practical and moral crises greater than any humanity has ever faced--nuclear weapons, corporate domination and global oppression, climate destabilization, etc.--we cannot afford that. We need all hands--atheists, agnostics, Catholics, evangelicals, Buddhists, Muslims, etc.--on deck. My experience is that once you see the anti-imperial thrust of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, and a number of pieces start falling into place, you cannot live long with it without caring very deeply about these matters.

One more thing. Which "Bible" am I saying needs to be reclaimed and applied to the great struggles of our day? The tendency of many today who want to overthrow corrupt religion is to debunk the biblical texts that church establishments have accepted and used in their own interest, and to play up other "lost books" that were "suppressed." But many scholars believe the latter to be mostly later gnostic texts about Jesus that were farther removed from Jesus and his closest friends. Moreover, some have argued that they lack the anti-imperial narrative of the traditionally accepted texts. But, if that is so, why would an empire-imitating church accept and affirm such texts as the Pauline epistles and the canonical gospels if, properly understood, they indeed undermine the interests of the corrupt religious establishment?[1] I would submit that corrupt religion, like any shrewd mafioso, knows the importance of keeping your most dangerous enemies close. So you gotta accept these books that most people associated with the original Jesus, and then take their claims about the supreme importance of justice and subvert and harness them to support your own claims to absolute authority. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright argues that the later gnostic texts just weren't in that playing field:

"We should note, as of some importance in the early history of the Bible-reading church, that those who were being burned alive, thrown to the lions, or otherwise persecuted, tortured and killed were normally those who were reading Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul and the rest. The kind of spirituality generated by 'Thomas' and similar books would not have worried the Roman imperial authorities, for reasons not unconnected with the fact that 'Thomas' and the similar collections of sayings are non-narratival, deliberately avoiding the option of placing the sayings within the overarching framework of the story of Israel. It is sometimes said or implied that the canonical books, unlike those found in other collections, were written as a way of making early Christianity more socially and culturally respectable. Irenaeus, who returned to Lyons as bishop after his predecessor had been martyred along with several other Christians in 177, and who remained an implacable opponent of the kind of theology found in 'Thomas' and similar writings and an enthusiastic supporter and expositor of scripture, would have found such a proposal grimly amusing. As his writings make abundantly clear, it was the canonical scriptures that sustained the early church in its energetic mission and its commitment, startling to the watching pagan world, to a radical holiness."

(N.T. Wright, The Last Word (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), pp. 63-64.)

Hope this is food for thought, at least, in support of a point of view that is not getting as much airplay in the usual popular channels as I think it deserves. Your comments will be most welcome.

[1] I am not suggesting that any particular statement of a church father or council affirming books of what is now considered the "canonical" Bible embodied this hypocrisy. On the contrary, the spirituality of people like Athanasius was on the whole exemplary. I am suggesting that the trajectory of corruption present at all times in the history of the church and coming to flower over the centuries could neither officially expunge the accepted Scriptures nor tolerate their original and authentic force. So long as the people were kept in the darkness of illiteracy, corruption could flourish unchecked by any appeal to Scripture. I think the Reformation, the Enlightenment, aspects of the more moderate expressions of postmodernism, and the relatively recent flowering of historically and anthropologically informed critical scholarship mentioned above, have all contributed in their own ways to unleashing the original power of the Bible in opposing unjust powers.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Suppressed hopes rising

"The prophetic imagination knows that the real world is the one that has its beginning and dynamic in the promising speech of God and that this is true even in a world where kings have tried to banish all speech but their own. The task of prophetic imagination and ministry is to bring to public expression those very hopes and yearnings that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we no longer know they are there."
--Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, quoted in Luke Gascho, Creation Care: Keepers of the Earth.

"It's a race to stay alive, baby, it's lawyers tax and steel
'Til the life that you are living is the thing you never feel"
--Mark Heard, "Long Way Down," Satellite Sky.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Change Cities, Change the World

They say you can't beat City Hall and the vested interests that control it. But a growing number of environmental thinkers are saying we had better start winning at the municipal level if we are to stop the current ecological apocalypse in progress and prevent social collapse.

How can we transform cities from being the huffing, puffing ecological monstrosity they are into ecologically wholesome havens of human thriving? The question cannot be answered casually, but requires rigorous thinking and debate. And it requires many more people entering that debate and organizing to overcome entrenched powers invested in the status quo.

Fortunately we do not have to start this conversation from scratch. New Society Publishers has published several excellent books dedicated to systematically re-thinking how we build cities and organize communities. Among these is Ecocities, by Richard Register, who urges us to seek more thoroughgoing change than we have thus far:

It's no mystery to me [why environmentalists are winning many small battles but losing on the big issues of species extinctions, climate change, soil loss, harm to oceans, etc.]. We've never engaged the big battles. We try to make cars better rather than greatly reduce their numbers. We try to slow sprawl development rather than reverse its growth and shrink its footprint. We keep making highways wider and longer, dreaming of "intelligent highways" rather than removing lanes and replacing them with rails, small country roads, and bicycle paths. We continue to provide virtually every subsidy and support policy the oil companies want. It's no wonder we're not winning the war. The objective of this book is to lay out an evolving strategy that faces the big problems head on and gives us at least a chance of winning.[1]

Another worthy title, with practical blueprints for action, is Toward Sustainable Communities: Resources for Citizens and Their Governments, by Mark Roseland et al.

Lots of serious thinking about ecological city development is on the table. But will enough of us engage with it, and mobilize to make building sustainable cities politically feasible? What's needed, I think, is to form local groups in every city, bringing people together from diverse walks of life to study these issues and take constructive action to influence their city governments.


[1] Richard Register, Ecocities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature (Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2006), pp. 1-2.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Veteran city manager challenges ideas of the "good life"

"We need courage, another spiritual gift. We need courage to stand up to the sacred cows of Western society--to challenge the idea that everyone has a right to a big car with an internal combustion engine so they can drive whenever or wherever they want, regardless of the environmental consequences. We need to challenge the idea that the best way to live is in a large, isolated home built on one-half an acre of good agricultural soil that we proceed to fill with grass that in turn is maintained with heavy applications of pesticides, herbicides, and a lawnmower with a two-stroke engine that puts more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in an afternoon than a car does in a month."

Gwendolyn Hallsmith, The Key to Sustainable Cities: Meeting Human Needs, Transforming Community Systems (Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2003), pp. 246-247.