I wrote this hung over at The Order of the Black Sheep camping weekend Blackbelt for a speaking spot that didn’t happen. I’ve been meaning to share it since then as radical theology is something I’m keen to have more discussion about. Just remember I wasn’t at my best when I wrote it (and I’m just too lazy to rewite it).
For most of my Christian life I’ve either felt that I need to believe more and that I lack faith, or not wanting to believe but finding that I couldn’t quite leave it behind. Both of these modes had the power occupy my mind, keep me up at night, and were spiritually and mentally unhealthy.
I have an interest in radical theology which is rooted in the continental philosophical tradition, psychoanalysis and the Nietzschean proclamation that God is dead. This year Pete Rollin’s festival in Belfast had a much stronger focus on the latter element of his work; Barry Taylor gave a sermon based on the transfiguration which ended with “there is no God and we are his disciples.”
When I go to an event like this I surprise myself by being more radical than I expect coming away and accepting that I am a Christian non-theist, an a/theist as Pete may put it. Still finding faith, ritual and community rooted in the Christian tradition to be important and meaningful in my life but not necessarily because I’m still desperately trying to hold onto what little belief I may have had.
Then I come back and live with this, think about it, what it means and where I go from here.
A few weeks later I went to take part in the Church of England’s regional discussion on scripture, mission and sexuality where I discover that I’m much more Orthodox than I expect (ok so not *that* Orthodox I’m still queer and there to argue for the inclusion of myself and others within the church). Finding a different, more orthodox understanding from within the discussion and ritual that we took part in (the event concluded with communion).
So where do I go from here?
I’m no longer interested in belief but faith. Pete Rollins defines faith as “Living as if.” Living as if life has meaning, as if Christ rose from the dead, as if the Kingdom of heaven is coming here to earth and as if this all matters. Faith means that the Christian tradition and ritual has meaning and has importance as it draws us together in community, as we are called to love and serve one another.
One of Pete’s greatest influences Jack Caputo says that it isn’t fair for him (Jack) to be referred to as a death of god theologian – he’s a birth of God theologian. He sees that God is birthed in the moment that we answer the call to live in love for one another (wherever 2 or more are gathered, there I will be).
Sometimes I believe (and I really do on those days) in Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection. And on other days I don’t. I now live in acceptance of this, no longer allowing it to cause me further existential angst for faith – even faith the size of a mustard seed is enough and god – whatever we mean by that term, is there in the midst of it.
I no longer want to believe (or not) help my un/belief.
As seen with the horrific attacks in Paris last week tragic events often attract their own pray for hashtag, used by a wide range of people whether it is their habit to pray or not. This leads to questions by both those for who it is normal to pray but also for those who have no faith and cannot imagine why anyone would ever prayer, about why the secular world turns to prayer, or at least the public declaration of prayer if not the act, during such events. As a Christian exploring radical theology, ir/religion and a/theistic faith and the interaction of the secular and religion I have had to explore what prayer may mean if I accept that prayer does not directly affect the material world.
The first answer is that when such huge events unfold that we have no control over prayer gives us agency, there is something that we can do when there is nothing else that we can do. We like to be in control and we like taking action. It’s unnatural for us to sit by and just watch these events take place without doing something. Whenever a friend or relative goes through something difficult the first thing that most of us ask is whether there is anything that we can do to help. Even if it is not within our normal habit to pray, even if we ultimately don’t believe there is a being listening for our prayers at least it is something that we can do.
The first reason is the more likely reason that we do turn to prayer but I’d like to explore a reason why we should turn to prayer even if we accept that it doesn’t have a direct affect on the material world (though the agency of an interventionist being). Prayer doesn’t change God but does change us is a reason that people may offer when exploring the reason that prayers don’t [always] seem to get answered. If we remove this from the world of belief in an interventionist god then we are left with prayer changes us.
True prayer (whether secular or religious) should bring us to introspection – to consider ourselves, our motives and our response. At the Godly Mayhem event last year George Elerick Said “Prayer is dynamic, without physical posture. It is revolutionary discourse – ending with some form of material transformation,” If we enter prayer earnestly, truly and honestly it should lead us to a revolutionary discourse within ourselves as we examine ourselves as well as the outside world. True prayer should challenge us, call us to change and call us to act leading to material transformation – a change in the world that starts with us (what Jack Caputo may refer to as responding to the unheard call). For instance if we are praying for peace then prayer should call us to examine the violence within our own lives and how we may change going forwards, it may call us to action, to donate, to volunteer, to write or speak out etc. Prayer should call us to help make the world a better place. We may not find change easy, we will probably resist it to begin with. It may take many prayers before we soften and listen to the call asking us to respond but if we approach it with the right attitude and an open mind and we are prepared to feel uncomfortable for a while we will find ourselves listening and we will find ourselves responding.
Prayer doesn’t matter because it petitions an all powerful being to make changes in the world – it matters because it works within mere mortals until we are ready to listen and do our part to help make the world a better place.
Radical prayer is inconvenient because it does not allow us to rely on another to do the work for us but calls us to do it ourselves.
We’d watched a video about the Stonewall riot and our reading was Matthew 21:12-17.
The Stonewall Inn existed in a time where homosexuality was still criminalised. It had no running water, no toilets and no alcohol licence. It was run by the mafia who paid the police to keep their raids tame. It was the one place where the LGBTQ+ community could meet one another. And whilst it was a place that allowed a certain freedom for people to be themselves it was also a symbol of the oppression of LGBTQ+ people at the time.
The outer (gentile) court of the temple had been taken over by the temple market. It was the only court in the temple that non-Jewish converts to Judaism were able to worship and so this blocked them from worshiping in the temple. In addition to this the money changers charged a premium for converting the secular coinage of the roman empire into “pure” jewish coins that could be offered in the temple and sold animals permitted for sacrifice, again at a premium. If you were to turn up with your own animal the temple authorities were likely to find a reason for it to not to be pure enough to be offered in sacrifice. This excluded or at the very least was highly unfair to the poor jews who came to worship in the temple.
Then we have the Stonewall Riot which broke out after a brutal raid by the police and Jesus turning over the market tables in the temple. I believe that of these can both be seen as prophetic acts against systems of oppression.
I mainly consider myself to be a pacifist and both of these acts could be seen as violent. John’s gospel says that Jesus “made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.” However as an Anarchist I have to point out that all oppression is an act of violence. Excluding people from the temple is violence, stopping people from being themselves and raiding the one place that they can be is violence, the high rate of mental heath issues in LGBTQ+ people is violence, teenagers committing suicide because they don’t feel that they can tell their Christian parents that they are gay is violence, physical attacks on people for being different – for holding their partner’s hand in the streets is violence, the murder rate of trans* people – highest for trans* women from ethnic minorities is violence.
Words alone aren’t enough to overcome oppression. Jesus knew this, the stonewall rioters knew this many others involved in prophetic acts against oppression know this. Pride started as a prophetic act at Stonewall, we have won many victories but we would be wrong to think that now we have equal marriage we are done. We need many more prophetic acts. Actions speak louder than words. This doesn’t just apply to the LGBTQ+ community, especially in our current economic and political situation. We need to march, we need to disrupt and we need to make sure that our voices are heard.
As we go out today to celebrate pride – the commemoration of the riots that started to bring so many new freedoms and to celebrate the fights that have already been won I encourage you to consider what prophetic actions you can take against the oppression that still exists.
Im going to end with a quote from Laverne Cox. A great tragedy, to my mind, of the story of the stonewall riots is the way that many LGB people ignore and neglect the fight for trans* rights and at worst act oppressively towards trans* people when the fight for our rights at Stonewall was lead by Sylvia Rivera – a trans* woman.
“Each and every one of us has the capacity to be an oppressor. I want to encourage each and every one of us to interrogate how we might be an oppressor, and how we might be able to become liberators for ourselves and each other.” Laverne Cox
I’d like to give us a few moments to consider how we may be oppressors in our own lives and how we can make sure that we are liberators for ourselves and for others.
A couple of weekends ago I went to the Progressive Christian Network’s conference Godly Mayhem with Pete Rollins, Ketherine Moody and George Elerick. During the Q&A after one of Pete’s talks someone asked where’s the ressurection?
I think the answer is that the ressurection is everywhere. We are surrounded by the hope and promise of fufilment from the sermons preached in church to the adverts that we see on TV. We want and expect constant ressurection without having to experience death. I see this in Good Friday – a day set aside for the observance of Christ’s death. A day in which to sit with this loss and experience it. However so many Christians can’t help but add to their sermons or announce on Facebook that “Sunday’s coming”. We can’t allow ourselves to experience death we just want to hear about the promise of ressurection. So I think that the important thing is that, what Pete calls, deserts in the oasis exist and I think that was part of the point in the conference. The conference wasn’t about ressurection it was about us being in touch with doubt, suffering and death. In order to bring about a balance within the engulfing fixation on ressurection spaces without talk or promise of resurrection need to exist. If they were trying to hold the balance of death and ressurection within themselves they wouldn’t be being effective in trying to bring about an overall balance.
The other answer to the question, I think, is that ressurection is an experience and it isn’t dependent on talk about or promise of itself. In bringing up to the surface our doubts, pain and experiencing our ghosts we are able to be freed from them. Perhaps, at least sometimes, in order to give the experience of ressurection the very least thing that you should do is talk about it.
I wrote this over a year ago but, for some reason, never published it. I’ve just found it in my drafts and thought I would share it now.
I’ve had a brilliant summer with my (The Order of the) Black Sheep family spending time with them at a wedding, providing the welfare provision at Bloodstock and going to Greenbelt together this last weekend. I feel so amazingly blessed to be part of that community and spending this time with them over the summer has lead me to thinking about what community is and ways in which it may be possible to identify when a real community has been formed. The first mark I’ve noticed is people self-identifying themselves as being part of the community. A sign of this may be people saying “I am a…”* depending on whether the name of the community lends itself to this. Community affects our identity as we start to think of the whole rather than just ourselves and so we identify ourselves as being part of the whole. Secondly people aren’t required to attend x, y or z to be considered (and to be able to feel) that they are part of the community. They may only occasionally, or never, make it to your main worship gathering but are able to feel that they are and are treated as a fully included member of the community in whatever they do to engage with it, be that social gatherings, events etc. Thirdly there is no confessional condition to membership. The group may have a confessional statement such as a creed or a statement of belief that guides it as an organisation and many members may subscribe to this but this isn’t used to exclude people who don’t subscribe to it. The community meets people where they are, rather than expecting them to fast track to where the community is. There may be members who never subscribe to the confessional statement. I think that these are good signs that a true community is forming.
Wow… it’s been a while. Anyway here’s a confession and something that I thought was worth sharing.
I’m an Anglican (that isn’t the confession, by the way) and I really like the way in which the lectionary leads us through the year and the different seasons. In fact it winds me up when churches claim not to be liturgical and reject the idea of following such a pattern – I assume they all still celebrate christmas, easter etc at the same time that the appear in the liturgical calendar.
I, therefore, have a thing about Christmas starting and ending at the right times. I.e.a 12 day festival starting after Midnight mass on Christmas eve/going into Christmas morning. And it really irritates me that Christmas starts earlier and earlier. I have my own little protests about this, i.e when I’ll set up my own decorations and when I take them back down again. Working in retail until earlier this year really didn’t help me either with Christmas songs starting in October and the store loosing anything remotely Christmasy before we went home Christmas eve (before Christmas has even begun!).
I had a colleague in my old job who used to like to start the countdown to Christmas in the summer months, it would “mysteriously” appear on the briefing boards to keep us all informed. Every time it happened I’d give out a little groan and would moan at her (in a friendly, wind up kind of way). I think she quite liked that it got to me to be honest. She loved Christmas and was able to get excited about it that early.
One day when this had happened I went to give my usual reaction but another thought overcame me. It was of Jesus looking into the situation and what he would say. I somehow don’t imagine that it would be “Well done James, you kept the rules and made others aware of them by moaning consistently” It was something more along the lines of “Don’t you see, she loves the celebration of my birth – now I know she’s not a Christian and she probably isn’t really thinking of me and it is a little early but she is celebrating – she loves it. This is the kind of heart I am after. Why would you want to put a dampener on it?” Damn, that stopped me in my tracks.
So this year I pledge to be less of a pharisee over Christmas, and take joy in seeing others getting excited about the celebration of Christ’s birth – even if they are getting it all wrong. I’m still going to do my best to observe advent first and save Christmas to the official 12 day period as much as I can (my desk decoration will be going up Christmas eve at work). I find the period of waiting and preparation in advent spiritual and it is very much part of the journey to Christmas for me. But I’m going to think twice before I tell others that they are wrong.
As reported in the news this week Justin Welby (the Archbishop of Canterbury) has said that he wants to compete Wonga out of existence through the use of credit unions. This, in itself, is great: the interest rates charged by the likes of Wonga and other “pay day lenders” is extortionate and shouldn’t be allowed. However, it was later revealed that the Church of England had, inadvertently and indirectly, invested in Wonga even though this is against the ethical investment policy of the church. It seems that they used a “pooled investment vehicle” to invest and this had funded Wonga. Of course this is unfortunate and the church would not have deliberately or directly invested in Wonga. However these investment companies allow people not to really know (unless they were to ask) where the money is being invested and, therefore, allows them to claim innocence once it emerges that the money had been used in a way deemed unethical. Of course, though, it is likely that people know that investment companies often don’t stick to ethical codes but pretend no to know this so that they don’t have to deal with their actions in sending the funds that way and this may have been what happened. But this is something that we all do, for instance when we buy a chocolate bar that hasn’t come from an ethical source (most chocolate available on the shelves in the supermarket etc). In order to buy that chocolate bar we pretend that we don’t know of the shit, underpaid conditions that the chocolate has been produced through although we all, of course, do understand that this is what happens thanks to documentaries, news pieces etc. By pretending not to know, what we really know, we can convince ourselves on a superficial level that the chocolate “probably” hasn’t been produced unethically and therefore can cope with the decision that we have made to buy it and still believe ourselves to be moral beings. We all suffer from cognitive dissonance, a difference in what we believe (that people shouldn’t have to work in such crappy conditions to produce our chocolate) and our actions (buying chocolate bars that have been produced in crappy conditions), in some way and the pretence helps us to avoid dealing with this dissonance.
Our cognitive dissonance causes us to seek out the immorality and inconsistency within others. By pointing this out, even if only to ourselves, we are able to distract ourselves from our own dissonance by concentrating on someone else’s. Many people this week were keen to jump on the church’s “inconsistency” for this purpose. It is the perfect institution for this as it holds itself to be concerned with ethical issues and so we are able to point and go “look at what those supposedly ethical people have done, they are really bad”. Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t point out where things have been gotten wrong, or gloss over it (and it certainly needs to be sorted out so that it doesn’t happen again) but perhaps we need to start by recognising our own cognitive dissonance before making lots of noise about someone else’s – we may just find it humbling.