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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Friday, July 08, 2011

An Ironic Reading of Psalm 8: Is Humanity All That Much?

Psalm 8

To the leader: according to The Gittith. A Psalm of David.

O Lord, our Sovereign,
  how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
  you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
  the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
  mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
  and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
  you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
  and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
  whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
O Lord, our Sovereign,
  how majestic is your name in all the earth!


I recently attended Emmaus Way community's Sunday worship gathering.  The preaching at Emmaus Way usually takes the form of a conversation, or at least a dialogical sermon.  Pastor Tim Conder led the conversation on Psalm 8, calling on persons in the congregation to read the Psalm aloud, then launching some open-ended questions for the gathered community to ponder and discuss.  If you are not familiar with Emmaus Way and Conder, then you may be interested to check out a book written by Conder and fellow pastor Dan Rhodes, Free for All:  Rediscovering the Bible in Community.  Dan and Tim and their congregation have developed a way of reading in community that seeks to embody what numerous theologians and church trendspotters have been describing in theory.  Now that I've given Emmaus Way and Free for All a plug, I'm going to shift away from that event and do some of my own reflections.


I have been thinking about the reading and misreading of this Psalm for many years.  At the heart of it is the phrase that the Authorized Version (KJV) translates "a little lower than the angels."  "Angels" translates the Hebrew plural of the generic term for God:  Elohim.  Thus most recent translations have changed the sense of the text to say that humans are a little less than God.

Perhaps it is in part the reference to the angels that leads to the problem I have with common readings of the text.  I am not a person who rejects the notion of hierarchy in all of its possibilities, although I do reject the idea that systems of domination are a necessary part of human existence.  So theories of hierarchy always evoke a sharper scrutiny when I find them imposed upon or derived from biblical texts.  In conversations about this text, I usually hear the construction of a vast hierarchy of being.  This assumption rightly understands that God is that than which no greater can be conceived.  Then the ranks get assigned from higher to lower:  angels, humans, various land, air, and sea animals.  The heritage of dominion theology finds its way into Christian theology, to a great extent, from this passage linked to other biblical texts.

But is this Psalm an effort to assert the rank of humanity within the great chain of being?  Certainly we know that has been a common reading of it through many different eras and in many different places.  Perhaps that ought to be enough to convince me to just "leave it alone."  I can't do that.  The concept of dominion as domination has too great a corrupting influence for me to leave it alone.  

Churches teaching dominion as domination, combined with Americanized pre-millenialism, is what led former U.S. Secretary of the Interior James Watt to claim that industries should be allowed to rapidly use up the earth's resources without regard to pollution or damage to ecological systems.  For Watt and his fellow-travelers, God gave humans the earth to use, and since the world would end soon humans must get to work and use it up fast.  Dominion as domination is what led European Christian leaders, theologians, bishops, popes, kings, and speculators to theorize an Imperial World Order under domination of the white races, in which all other peoples of the world find their value and meaning in serving the good of the superior white Europeans.

If dominion as domination corrupts Christian theology and practice so horribly, then it seems incumbent on readers to think again about constructing an extensive hierarchical metaphysics behind, around, and in front of this Psalm.  There are other possibilities here.  Issues of empire, of environmental degradation, and of the potential for human damage to one another all may help the reader raise questions about received interpretations of this text.

One thing a reader has to remember about reading the Psalms is that they are the outcries of God's people in lament, praise, thanksgiving, fear, and longing.  They are not necessarily statements of divine ordering, even if they often do give insight into the divine order.  They are written as the words of Israel to God, not as divine decrees.  This characteristic of the Psalms helps to explain statements such as the one in Psalm 137 which proclaims a blessing upon those who "take your little ones and dash them against the rocks."  Infanticide, although it may serve to display an exaggerated or distorted anger toward enemies, will not bring a blessing from God.  The prayer of Psalm 137 expresses the vengeful orientation of some of the Jewish exiles.  It is not any kind of divine decree.  Elsewhere, the Psalms call on God to destroy enemies and other self-centered acts.  Just because someone, even someone as prestigious as King David, prayed such a prayer does not mean that the prayer expresses the will of God.

With that caveat in mind, Psalm 8 offers a vision of humanity's place in the grand scheme of things without necessarily revealing a divinely decreed ranking of species.  It says that humanity has been made a little less than divine, made to be the dominant force among species on earth.  It need not be interpreted to say that God made everything to be under humans, or made humans to dominate everything else.  Any of us could observe, without the need of a theory of hierarchical status, that in the grand scheme of this planet's existence, human beings are capable of great and fearful acts.  Our species, just short of the divine power of God, can burn down a forest, pollute a lake, wear out fertile land, poison waters, and more. 

I have heard some people say this Psalm can't be about environmental degradation because that is a modern concept that ancient peoples would not understand.  I disagree.  Archaeologists tell a history of the Greek islands which hosted prosperous communities only to have their soil eroded by deforestation, overpopulation, and overcultivation, leaving only bare rocky crags jutting out of the sea.  The ancient cities of Babylon were eventually abandoned and buried in sand, in part from the deforestation and overcultivation of land which became barren and underwent desertification.  In the wealthy city-states of the Maya, in fertile and productive regions, silting of rivers from deforestation and overpopulation led to the decline of highly civilized communities.  Ancient farmers of China, India, and Peru developed sophisticated methods of combating soil erosion, recognizing how it occurs and what its results would be.  So environmental degradation caused by human activity is not anew idea.  People of ancient times, before and after the Israel of the Psalmists, knew of this human possibility.  Human beings are capable of building up and destroying great life on vast tracts of land, across great empires.  Why else would we find existing in ancient Israelite law a plan for letting land lie fallow?  They knew that human activity can destroy productive farmland.

It is not uncommon in biblical interpretation to identify a statement as ironic, as representative of a view to be upheld for ridicule.  With that in mind, it is worth considering whether some of the latter portion of Psalm 8 might be rhetorically ironic.  Are there any textual clues that might make us alert to potential ironic language?  I think there may be more than one.

Clearly the Psalm displays a primary theme of the majesty and sovereignty of God over all creation.  The opening and closing lines bracket all else with this affirmation.  After the initial affirmations of God's greatness, the Psalm takes a surprising turn (in a text that scholars say is very difficult to translate) by saying that the cries of infants and babes protect the people from the enemies of God.  Hmmm... That is not an image of human might.  It is not elevating human cleverness to near divinity.  As we move beyond this difficult verse, the next part reverts to the majesty of God as the context to offer an inquiry of perplexity.  God's works are so great, who are we scrawny human beings?  Why would God even notice us?  Here we find an acknowledgment of the incapacity of humanity to approach the greatness of God's works.

Then comes the passage that many use to justify a divinely sanctioned hierarchy of beings.  "You have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor."  It is not hard to imagine such words coming from the mouth of the emperor, or from the official mouthpiece charged with praising the emperor.  We know that this sort of praise of imperial power was widespread in the era of biblical writings, lasting even into the era of Eusebius's praise of Constantine in the post-canonical era.  Could it be that the Psalmist, who has been belittling human capacity in order to evoke humility before the majesty of God has now put these ironic words into the mouths of arrogant humanity?  We are just a little less than divine (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).  We can run this world (into the ground).  King Soandso is the head man in charge of this world and day by day everything is getting better and better (oh, yeah, right!).

To say that all creation is "under their feet" is to acknowledge that it is far too easy to crush and stomp God's good creation to death.  It is to acknowledge that walking softly, leaving a light footprint, is necessary in this world.  Other species can disappear and be destroyed because of the power of humanity.  It is not to say that ever living thing and every non-living thing is our underling.  It is to say that we are capable of sustaining the good of all, or of destroying all of it, including ourselves.  The cattle and sheep, the wild creatures, birds, fish and sea creatures, are all also God's good creation.  An overestimate of human importance is another attempt to do what the first humans in the Garden did--an attempt to become like God.  Thus, the final line returns to the first.  It is God, not arrogant humanity, who is great.

I recognize that I am swimming upstream with this proposed interpretation.  Many doctrinal questions arise concerning the imago Dei, human uniqueness, visions of creation, and probably more.  Of course, this literary interpretation faces many possible objections from other literary readings, along with other types of textual analysis.  But I've chewed on it long enough and lived with it long enough to think that it at least deserves some conversational scrutiny.  I have, as always, plenty more to say.   But for now, have at it.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Attorneys General Must Get Tough on Foreclosure Fraud

NAAG is the National Association of Attorneys General.  AGs from the fifty states and the various other jurisdictions such as territories, districts, etc., gather periodically to cooperate in how to manage common issues and work together on multi-state problems.  Some of the cooperative work they have done includes the Tobacco Settlement and the current Foreclosure Fraud Investigation.

Through North Carolina United Power, I have been participating with a working group of national organizations who are in conversation with the AGs about the Foreclosure Fraud Investigation.  Recently, we took a group to Chicago to meet with some of them about their work to protect homeowners and keep families in their homes.  I was interviewed by the local CBS radio affiliate in the hours before our meeting.

Among the key items of our agenda are:
  • broad availability of principal reductions to reset the housing market and remove the risk of more foreclosures;
  • remedies for all who have been harmed by fraud other criminal acts, whether they have already suffered foreclosure, are in process, or are facing impending foreclosure;
  • the end of dual tracking, with simultaneous loan modification discussions and foreclosure procedures;
  • all possible efforts for loan modifications and other non-foreclosure procedures should precede the initiation of foreclosure procedures;
  • criminal prosecutions for criminal acts; and
  • regulatory regimes to keep this kind of mortgage fraud from being repeated.
We were able to meet with four of the state Attorneys General:  Lisa Madigan of Illinois, Tom Miller of Iowa (the leader of the task force working on the foreclosure fraud investigation), Roy Cooper of North Carolina (President of NAAG who pushed the foreclosure fraud investigation forward), and George Jepsen of Connecticut (newly elected).  Our conversation was formal, perhaps overly so.  We discussed our agenda, they discussed their records, and then we exchanged questions and vague answers.  The time was short:  only 30 minutes.  There was very little new that came out of the meeting, but do not assume that I am saying it was not worthwhile.  Let me clarify why this was such an important meeting.

In organizing, we plan an action to get a reaction.  When we get our reaction, then we evaluate what we have learned and begin to plan future research and actions in light of it.  Our action in Chicago revealed a number of important things about our work on to change the conditions faced by so many families being hit by foreclosures.

This action showed something to our organizing groups, to the four AGs present in our meeting, to the many other AGs at the hotel but not at our meeting, and to the press and their readers.  To us, it showed that we have the power to bring the key law enforcement figures in the foreclosure negotiations to the table, even if we and they know they cannot negotiate publicly with us about potential criminal proceedings against banks.  Not only do they meet with bankers.  They also meet with us.

To the AGs present, we were able to deliver a multiracial, multiethnic, knowledgable, prepared, faith-based and non-faith-based, nationwide constituency to speak intelligently and passionately about this critical work they are doing.  They found us to be what we said, representatives of hundreds of thousands of citizens, thousands of churches and synagogues and mosques, and from states all across the nation.

To the AGs not present, we made it publicly clear that their colleagues who are leading in this foreclosure investigation are willing to meet with us.  Miller, Cooper, Madigan, and Jepsen will meet with us not only in their private chambers back home but in a public forum where they can express, even with the press in the room, their strong agreement with our agenda.  They were very adamant that they would not settle for an agreement that did not fundamentally change the practices of mortgage lending and foreclosure.  They believe the result must benefit homeowners and borrowers, not primarily get lenders off the hook.

To the press and their readers (including bankers) we were able to show that the case for principle reduction remains strong, with a powerful constituency.  Among the key items reported was the commitment to take banks to court if the negotiations do not bring fundamental change.  These AG negotiators  have not given up on a strong settlement and will not accept a weak settlement.  Our action got broad coverage in newspapers and in banking industry news sources.

The investigation and negotiation of a settlement could come very soon.  Or it could drag on through the summer.  Sooner is better, and we are expecting to see a court decree with tools to provide real help to homeowners.

Ticks and Chiggers, and a Wild Goose Errand

Last year, a local boy, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, was a speaker at a conference in England called Greenbelt.  In conversations, I learned a bit more about the conference, and I looked up the lineup.  I was pretty impressed with the mix of artists, activists, preachers, and intellectuals.  So a few months later when I heard there would be an attempt to hold a similar event in North Carolina, I thought it would be worth a try.

I sent information to my daughter, Lydia, who would be living with me in Durham while I stayed there to teach summer school, and she said it looked like something she would like.  Thus, the two of us got tickets to the Wild Goose Festival at Shakori Hills, not far from Carrboro or Pittsboro, NC.  There were lots of big names on the program, and quite a few not so famous people who I also knew about. 

The first session we attended dealt with the question, "Why can't the church be a place where people can find healing for their darkest struggles?"  That may not be the exact wording, but it gets the point across.  I was not so sure how it would go, but some very good insights came up along the way.  When one of the discussion participants offered a testimony, he ended his comments with a question he wants his church to be able to answer affirmatively, "Can I trust you with me?"  (I burst with pride later when I spoke with him to find out he is a Shaw University Divinity School graduate, from before I was at teaching in divinity school.  But I digress.)  Not long after that, floods of memories washed over me about regrets in certain relationships, and I could not hold back tears.  It was an unexpected grace to begin thinking and planning about how to respond to those thoughts and emotions.  Afterward, I told Lydia some of what had touched me, and I commented that if the first informal discussion would hit me that hard, the rest of the conference looked promising.  We were not disappointed.

I admit to being an old fogey in the realm of popular music.  I've become a news junkie when it comes to radio.  Consequently, I do not really keep up with pop music.  A couple dozen musicians played on the main stage or in other side venues.  I had never heard of any of them, except Psalter.  Still, the music was great.  We had a couple of nights out under the stars listening to the last band.  I enjoyed what I heard from several:  Derek Webb, Over the Rhine, Tom Prasado-Rao, Ashley Cleveland, Agents of Future, Psalter, and David Bazan.  With every band or soloist I heard, I thought, "I could listen to a CD of this music."  On a blanket, watching the clouds go by,  or tracing the Drinking Gourd constellation, even mediocre music would have sounded better.  As it was, we heard some great performances.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Rev. William Barber shared a stage one morning.  Their story of a friendship is interesting to hear on its own, but Barber did not disappoint with incisive analysis of race relations and contemporary politics, especially the politics of health care and education.  Shane Claiborne told stories to a crowd that burst out of the tent shelter and into the adjoining woods.   I got a brief portion of Richard Rohr speaking about two halves of our lives, and it was just enough to make me want to hear more.  Friends like Nancy Sehested, Jane Childress, Linda Weaver-Williams, Joyce Hollyday, Diana Butler-Bass, Nick Liao, Jesse Deconto, and Amey Adkins also made the time worthwhile.

One theme of the conference that still intrigues me was a collection of speakers who come from exquisite Evangelical pedigrees, only to undergo faith crises and end up far away from their previous theological and ecclesiological homes:  Bart Campolo, Jay Bakker, Frank Schaeffer.  I heard Campolo and Bakker, and I read some remarks by Schaeffer.  I sometimes wonder why we don't hear more stories like these.  I suspect that for many who undergo a crisis of faith, coming anywhere near the church is not something in which they have any interest.  But stories like these represent one of the authentic paths of faithfulness in an era when so many churches are thoroughly co-opted by empire.

When my Dad used to take us kids to the State Fair, I remember asking in the parking lot, "What ride is your favorite?"  His response puzzled me, with my concrete and physical reasoning about rides and having fun.  He said, "I just enjoy seeing you all have fun."  I remember thinking that was strange, when the real fun would be on the Ferris Wheel or the Sky Ride.  But at 53 I know just what he meant.  Even if I had not enjoyed the festival at all, spending it with Lydia and seeing her enjoy it was the best result I could have hoped for.

Oh, yeah.  I picked up a couple of ticks and a large clan of chiggers while out in the country.  It was nothing to get upset about, although the chigger bites kept me itching for a week or so.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Halloween, Masquerades, Bandits, and Burqas

I wrote this guest post for Stan Dotson's blog "Daily Passages."  Check out his blogs and other great work at his website In Our Elements.

Friday, July 1st, 2011

Fellow Travelers:  This week’s Pastoral Passage (2 Corinthians 3:12-18) transports us to childhood play and childhood fear.  Children hide their faces on Halloween to play a game that promises lots of free candy.  Part of the game is shouting a mostly empty threat, “Trick or treat!”  Dressed in costumes with masks, the little ones see others who are also wearing masks, and sometimes the fear overwhelms the fun.  Adults laugh when children turn around running to Mom or Dad or Big Sister to escape a masked figure too scary to pass by.

Many, if not most familiar occasions for wearing a mask circle back around to conjuring up fear. A masquerade party aims at fun, but part of the fun is the uncertainty and fear that come from not knowing who one might end up talking or dancing with.  In a less playful vein, bank robbers and bandits use a ski mask or bandana to hide their faces, knowing that their anonymity arouses the fear that they will act more violently since their faces can’t be identified.  Part of the fear of Islam in the 21st century often gets focused on the burqa or niqāb, sartorial interpretations of the Qur’an which encourage women to cover their faces.  French legislators outlawed this sort of Islamic dress in public, in part for fear of what the “foreigner” may be hiding, and in part for fear of the loss of hegemonic French cultural identity.

The Apostle Paul retold a story about Moses and a mask in this letter to the Corinthians.  Actually, it was a veil that Moses wore after he came down from Mount Sinai with the two stone tablets (Exodus 34:33).  The people saw him coming, and his face was shining like a light.  They were afraid and would have run away, but Moses called out to them so they would know who he was.  Aaron and some of the leaders got the courage to go meet him.  After he talked with them for a while about what God had to say, he put on a veil.  So in this case, the mask was a way to calm down the fear rather than stir it up.  Don’t ask me to explain how Moses’ face got shiny.  I’ll just let the story stand as it is.

Paul isn’t particularly concerned with the details of Moses’ veil and its purpose according to Exodus.  He’s out to make another point.  He says that Moses put on a veil so that the people would not keep staring at him while the shiny face faded away.  Paul seems concerned that people might have stared at Moses and become mystified.  Instead of recognizing the unrestrainable, indomitable, effusive glory of God as having left a residue on the prophet who talked with God, Paul says that back in the day people missed the whole point.  They might have fixated on Shiny Moses himself, as if he were the source of all this glory, the Divine Lawgiver in the flesh.

Then Paul says something else completely about the veil.  He says the thickheaded and offbase thinking of the ones who were afraid of Shiny Moses is a kind of thickheadedness that endures down the ages in all humans who can’t see the signs of the glory of God when they show up.  Barry Harvey, in Can These Bones Live?, writes about the persistent inability of humanity to understand the presence and work of God when we try to “read the book of the world.”  Paul sketches a picture for us of people who are not interested in having God lead the way, going around like we have a veil on our faces.  The veil makes everything blurry and fuzzy, and we end up stumbling over things that should have been in plain sight.

The shocker of this story comes when Paul explains why things don’t have to be that way.  He says that God in Jesus Christ has come to set us straight on how to recognize God's leading, prodding, nudging, and dragging us toward our purpose in this world.  When we turn to look at the Lord Jesus, the veil gets lifted.  He’s the Rosetta Stone, the Rand McNally Road Atlas, the corrective lens that makes it possible for us to see what God is up to.  But I said there was a shocker, didn’t I.  Here it comes.

When the veil gets lifted, when we turn to look at Jesus, we find out that this man born of woman, this humble servant who is God incarnate, is the true image of the race of humans.  He’s the pattern, and we find ourselves and our lives when we look at him.  So with unveiled faces, the glory of God shows up in the mirror.  As brothers and sisters of Jesus, we come to see the truth about us is that we “sort of favor” Jesus.  We may not be his spitting image, but the image is there, growing, becoming visible in our faces because the Holy Spirit is transforming us.  The glory of God is visible when humanity lives in the mutual giving and loving goodness of the Triune God who loves immeasurably in eternity.  Look in the mirror, brothers and sisters.  Don’t you see it?  It’s right there as plain as your face.

Don’t be afraid to lose that veil.

How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.
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