Saturday, July 16

Who is the Good Samaritan Today?

Consider many of the recent events around our world: five police officers shot in Dallas, Texas; 84 people killed through an act of terrorism in Nice, France; over 136 African Americans extrajudicial killings by police this year alone; continued violence in Syria and across the Middle East; 49 killed at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. There seems to be so much fear, violence, aggression and sadness everywhere we look. One photo that is being shared across the web says, "Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil."1 From a Christian perspective, I wonder how to approach these topics on social media and in my day-to-day conversations. One parable sticks out to me. Found in the tenth chapter of the gospel of St. Luke is the parable of the Good Samaritan. A parable, by definition, is "a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson."2 When Jesus narrated this parable to his original audience, he was making a strong point about compassion, about about injustices, about racial prejudice, about fear, and about mercy. This parable is, in a sense, a timeless - yet timely - parable for our day.

Before exploring some of these aforementioned issues further, it is important to take a look at the parable itself in order to have a framework with which we can work in, also keeping in mind that this parable was told in a 1st century Jewish context, likely in the Aramaic language, with a very different socio-political, economic, philosophical and theological context - yet its core message can still speak to us today. The text of Luke 10:25-37 says:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. 'Teacher,' he asked, 'what must I do to inherit eternal life?' 'What is written in the Law?' he replied. 'How do you read it?' He answered, 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' 'You have answered correctly,' Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.' But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, 'And who is my neighbor?'  
In reply Jesus said: 'A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.' 
[Jesus asked,] 'Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?' The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.' Jesus told him, 'Go and do likewise.'
Rally in Trenton, NJ (November 2015)
Who is our neighbor? This parable shows a man who was attacked on the roadside and left for dead - something similar happened again this past week in the cases of 32-year old Philando Castile and 37-year old Alton Sterling. This story is still relevant and its message is still needed today! Notice a few things, then, about this parable: the man who was attacked is not described in terms of their ethnicity, nationality, culture, sexual orientation, skin tone, or anything remotely similar. He is simply called a "man" who was on his way to Jericho. Jesus' audience (and later translations of this passage) assume the man to be a Jew, but the text simply calls him "a man."

Further, when Jesus asks the teacher of the law who the man's neighbor was, he does not say "it was the Samaritan," but instead says, "The one who had mercy on him." He does not name him, but only alludes to him - why this this? This is because tensions were particularly high in the early decades of the 1st century between Jews and Samaritans because Samaritans had desecrated the Jewish Temple at Passover. There had been tension between Jews and Samaritans for centuries, as the Jews viewed Samaritans as being illegitimate heirs of Israel. Their feud dates back to the time of the patriarchs, but after the kingdom of Israel split in two, and up until the time of Jesus there was fighting and racial and ethnic barriers arose. Consider one example from an early Jewish text that demonstrates this attitude, "He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like to one that eats the flesh of swine" (Mishna Shebiith 8:10).

In making the "neighbor" a Samaritan, let alone a "Good" Samaritan, Jesus was making a strong point about the racial prejudices the "experts in the law" were harboring. Jesus himself was much like the Samaritan man - in his ministries, he was willing to touch the unclean. willing to be present to the needy and the marginalized, and similar to the Samaritan, was seen as an outcast in the eyes of the Pharisees, Sadducees and teachers of the law. In terms of the socio-historical context of the parable, many scholars point out that the Priest and the Levite may not have touched the man for reasons of cleanliness, as they would be considered "unclean" by Temple standards. Also, the road between Jerusalem and Jericho was often riddled with thieves and robbers, so it may be that both men were afraid to go near the man on the road for fear that it may have been a trap, or, that the men who had attacked him were close by and could attack again. Both of these are, to some extent, valid reasons - but this is still an example of choosing fear and law over mercy and love.

When Jesus gave this parable to his audience, he may have had in mind another time in history where something similar actually happened. Several centuries before Jesus, following a battle, some of the Samaritan soldiers "gave up the [Jewish] prisoners and plunder in the presence of the officials and all the assembly. The men... took the prisoners, and from the plunder they clothed all who were naked. They provided them with clothes and sandals, food and drink, and healing oil. All those who were weak they put on donkeys. So they took them back to their fellow Israelites at Jericho, the City of Palms, and returned to Samaria."3 This account is an excellent example of where a marginalized people - the Samaritans - looked past the racism and violence that had been done to them by the Jewish community and chose to treat the Jews with compassion and works of mercy. This is precisely what the "Good Samaritan" did in the parable.

Klyne Snodgrass said, "On the basis of this parable we must deal with our own racism but must also seek justice for, and offer assistance to, those in need, regardless of the group to which they belong."4 The important question that the expert of the law (not expert of love and compassion, mind you) asks of Jesus is, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus answers with a story that defies racial prejudices, goes against societal norms of the time and uplifts the marginalized community. For our purposes today, this is the central question - "Who is our neighbor?" The point that Jesus was trying to make is that everyone is our neighbor, and gets the expert of the law to admit that "such an identification opens wide the door of loving action. By leaving aside the identity of the wounded man and by portraying the Samaritan traveler as one who performs the law... Jesus has nullified the worldview that gives rise to such questions as, Who is my neighbor? The purity-holiness matrix has been capsized. And, not surprisingly in [Luke's] Gospel, neighborly love has been concretized in care for one who is, in this parable, self-evidently a social outcast."5

Most recent attacks in France - our neighbors (
So turning the question back to our modern context we ask, who is our neighbor? Who could the "Good Samaritan" be if Jesus told the parable today? What about the Muslim community? I have many good friends who are Muslim. At their core, Islam is centered around promoting peace and justice, which includes charity and acts of mercy, in order to someday reach union with God (Allah in Arabic). But when some hear of incidents such as the attack in Orlando or the 84 people killed in Nice, people hear names such as "Mohamed" or "Omar," - both foreign names to American ears - and they react against the Islamic community. Omar (the Orlando shooter) was confirmed to have had ties with ISIS, whereas Mohamed - a name often associated with Islam due to the prophet Muhammad - has at this time not been shown to have had any direct ties with ISIS or other organizations. In fact, not only was he not considered a suspected militant by French authorities prior to the incident, but his family claims that he was not religious, did not attend a mosque, and was an alcoholic (drinking is forbidden in Islam).6,7 

The point here is that simply due to their name and/or ethnicity, the media uses men such as these continue to paint Islam in a very negative light, through no fault of the Islamic community. ISIS is a radical terrorist organization fixed on creating a unified Islamic state through violent means, primarily through terrorism - which is not the way of Islam. Conflating terrorism and Islam has very real world consequences! It hurts people, it marginalizes people, it leads to further acts of violence and injustice, and it continues to propagate false understandings of their community, beliefs and culture. Now, one term often talked about regarding Islam is jihad. Although the term jihad is often associated with a holy war, it actually has a much broader understanding in Islam. It speaks of a struggle to transform the individual and society. But one cannot simply espouse a social justice teaching and not act. One must puts words into action. We need to continue to struggle for them, and in solidarity with them. If we continue to associate religious traditions such as Islam with acts of terrorism, then why would we expect anything different than marginalization and other injustices done to the Muslim community?

This is 2016 - where we have computers in our pockets, where we have humans living and traveling through outer space, where we can get aboard a plane and be in a different country in a few hours, where we can talk to friends and family who are across the world. We live in a world where we can talk about Quantum Physics, about the Big Bang and all that followed, about evolutionary processes and medical advancements, about the Higgs Boson particle and CERN's Large Hedron Collider. Why are we still having the conversation about racism, terrorism, violence and injustice? Why do we continue to contribute to the social sins and structures of sin that make up our world and continue to go against the basic dignity of the human person and their rights? A lot of social media is taken up right now with any number of commentaries on current topics as aforementioned - the Orlando shootings, the police who were killed, the African Americans who were killed, the people in Nice who were killed - you name it. This ought to show us the concerns of society. People are crying out, but are we listening, and what are we doing?

Perhaps one of the more widely controversial and talked about movements among all of these incidents is the #BlackLivesMatter movement. On their website we can find their mission and their message, which declares, "#BlackLivesMatter was created in 2012 after Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted for his crime, and dead 17-year old Trayvon was posthumously placed on trial for his own murder. Rooted in the experiences of Black people in this country who actively resist our dehumanization, #BlackLivesMatter is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society... [it] goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes... [it also] affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements... we are broadening the conversation around state violence to include all of the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state. We are talking about the ways in which Black lives are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity."8

Richmond (CA) Police Chief holding a sign
BlackLivesMatter, at its core, stands against Racism and injustices. Racism, for example, has been seen throughout human history. In the book of Esther, the adviser to the king, Haman, out of his spite for the Jewish people issues an edict in the king’s name that would result in their genocide. Fortunately, the Queen of Persia happens to secretly be a Jew, and is able to put a stop to this attempt. At another point, there is detectable contempt seen in the New Testament times between the Jews and Samaritans, so that when Jesus told his famous parable of the Good Samaritan, it may have been the equivalent of the "Good Gay Black-man" in the South in the 1850s. Further, one sees in the time of Mahatma Gandhi a disconnect between Indians and Englishmen. The Indian people were not allowed to be seen walking down the street with a white man - and it was against injustices such as this that Gandhi rebelled. He had been thrown off of a train by Englishmen for his skin color. This is racial prejudice!

Historically, many of the explorers known in the history books during the period of "great discovery and exploration" as well as their traders and soldiers allowed racial prejudices to rule their decisions. In fact, “they killed in order to take possession of the land, and reduced first the ‘Indians’ and then the blacks to slavery in order to exploit their work... It was at the end of the eighteenth century that the word "race" was used for the first time to classify human beings biologically... as a contest between strong races and weak ones, with the latter being genetically inferior to the former.”9 In the United States, the Emancipation Proclamation issued by Abraham Lincoln around the time of the Civil War helped to free the African American slaves, and the work of Martin Luther King Jr. as well as figures such as Rosa Parks helped to largely free us from segregation. But issues of slavery still exist with human trafficking. Issues of segregation still exist in many parts of the world. Discrimination, even if outlawed, is a moral problem, not one that the legal system can necessarily speak to save by force - and if these last few years have shown us anything, it is that racism, discrimination and prejudice are still very prominent today.

One important example of this radical hatred and discrimination is against the LGBTQI community (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, and Intersex). The recent shooting of 49 people (50, including the perpetrator) at Pulse, a gay bar in Orlando, Florida (and injuring of 53 more) was a hate crime fueled by racism, discrimination and radical hatred. The bar was hosting a Latino Night so most of the victims were Hispanic. For me, a lot of the work I have been involved in over the last year in the greater Philadelphia area has largely been with the Hispanic community - which itself suffers from discrimination, radical injustices and fear over immigration reform - but also with many individuals in the LGBTQI community, and the fear, sadness and outcry over what happened in Orlando was very much tangibly felt in our communities. The Pulse gay bar was a refuge for those suffering discrimination and oppression due to their sexual orientation, but it has become the scene of violence and hatred. If the "Good Samaritan" in the parable was actually the "Good Homosexual" or the "Good Queer," a "Good Immigrant" or a "Good Refugee," how would that change our perception of "The Other"? What if it was the "Good Gay Muslim Syrian Refugee"? If everyone is our neighbor, then let us learn to treat them as such.

A few years ago, over 4,600 religious leaders from 50 different religious traditions came together to endorse the Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing. In the document they declared, "Sexuality is God’s life-giving and life-fulfilling gift... Our culture needs a sexual ethic focused on personal relationships and social justice rather than particular sexual acts. All persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent and pleasure... It accepts no double standards and applies to all persons, without regard to sex, gender, color, age, bodily condition, marital status or sexual orientation... God hears the cries of those who suffer from the failure of religious communities to address sexuality. We are called today to see, hear and respond to the suffering caused by sexual abuse and violence against women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) persons, the HIV pandemic, unsustainable population growth and over-consumption, and the commercial exploitation of sexuality... We call for: Religious leadership in movements to end sexual and social injustice...”.10 (You can read their full statement here).

Memorial for the Orlando victims in New York City
Statements such as these are incredibly important, as are movements such as the #BlackLivesMatter movement, because despite controversy surrounding each even within the religious community and the Black community, respectively, at their core the message and mission is to respect basic human dignity, human rights and human flourishing. Speaking as a Christian, I know that I am called to uphold and promote love, mercy and compassion - something not found in the recent attacks and acts of radical hatred and injustice. So I would call on each of us to continue to think about these things in a different mindset. Who is our neighbor? The question is deeply theological and can become abstract and nonsensical - if we chose not to  act. It is easy for me to sit behind my laptop and type these words defending human dignity and promoting social justice, but it is another thing entirely to go out, live out and act out these words and these ideas. Prayer is not enough, we must also act, because we are our brother and sister's keeper.

So may this parable and the sadness of these events call us to social action. Do what you can, where you can and how you can. Let us work together to discover unity in diversity, love among so much radical hatred and injustice, and work for justice so that one day, together, we may reach a peace that surpasses all understanding. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."11 We have to figure out how to stop this systemic violence and the structures of social sin that are currently in place and work to promote healing and understanding.

Do we see the Good Samaritan today? Do we stand with them? Do we stand with our neighbors? Just as the Samaritan was marginalized and oppressed, so are too many others today. Therefore, I chose to stand in solidarity with the victims of violence and aggression in Orlando, Nice, in Dallas, in Falcon Heights, in Baton Rouge, in Syria - everywhere; we stand with those in the LGBTQI community who are victimized and oppressed, we stand in solidarity with the communities oppressed by racism and prejudices, and we stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters facing oppression. As a Christian, specifically, a white, male, American, Catholic-Franciscan Christian born and raised in the United States - recognizing how little marginalization I have dealt with due to all of the privileges that I have been given growing up in such a life - I choose to stand in solidarity with my brothers and sisters of every religious tradition, sexual orientation, cultural background and skin tone. I choose to add my voices to the many voices of this outcry against injustice.

[1] Brown, Adrienne Maree. (adriennemareebrown). “things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. we must hold each other tight & continue to pull back the veil. #blacklivesmatter”. 10 July 2016. Instagram.
[2] "parable". Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 16 Jul. 2016.
[3] From 2nd Chronicles 28:14-15.
[4] Snodgrass, Klyne. Stories with Intent: A comprehensive guide to the parables of Jesus. Eerdmans: 2008, 361. Print.
[5] Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Eerdmans: 1997. 432. Print.
[6] Payton, Matt. "Nice terror attack: Police arrest killer Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel's wife". The Independent. Web.
[7] Griffiths, Elle. "Nice Terror Attacker 'wasn't Muslim, He Was a S**t Who Drank Alcohol and Avoided Mosque,' Says His Cousin." Mirror. MGN Limited, 15 July 2016. Web.
[8] "About the Black Lives Matter Network." Black Lives Matter, 2012. Web.
[9] The Church and Racism: Toward a More Fraternal Society. 1988. Print.
[10] Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing.
[11] King Jr., Martin Luther. "A Time to Break the Silence," quoted in Douglas A. Hicks and Mark R. Valeri, Global Neighbors: Christian Faith and Moral Obligation in Today's Economy. Eerdmans Publishing: 2008, 31. Print.

Thursday, June 23

Origins and Lessons: Amish, Mennonites and Quakers

During the early to mid-1500s, besides the Magisterial Reformation between Martin Luther, John Calvin and Uldrych Zwingli, another movement began known today as the "Radical Reformation." It is out of the Radical Reformation that the Amish, Mennonites, and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) which we have today were formed. I grew up near a large Amish community in New York, and more often than not my mother and my grandmother would go to a Farmer's Market or visit the Amish herself and pick up vegetables, fruits, honey, baked goods, decorations and a hundred other wonderful such things. I remember being very young when I turned and asked my mother, "why do they dress different than we do? Why do they ride around in a horse and buggy and not in a car? What do you mean they do not use electricity, Mom? How do they live?" In my naivete, what I was essentially asking is - where did these humble groups come from? What is their story? Further, what life lessons can we learn from the Amish or the Quakers?

At the time of the Reformation, the Church was also dealing with the Turks - the Ottman Empire. But a group known as the Anabaptists arose. They believed that Catholics were “Turks in Spirit,” and that they were not true Christians. So they re-baptized people, because they also held that infant baptism - the standard form of baptism at that time - was not a valid form of baptism. In the early 1520s, there was enough animosity toward the Roman Church that anticlerical views, attacks on ecclesiastical practices and regulations, and attacks on clerics became quite common. For the Anabaptists, the call to preach the freedom of the Gospel and to preach the Word of God to the common person - were very important. Preaching was their primary emphasis. Anabaptist congregations also practiced "community of goods" - as seen in the early church (Acts 2:44; 4:32), something which various religious communities continue at varying levels today.

The origins and implications of Anabaptism challenged not only the lack of individual moral improvement, false doctrines, and antichristian ecclesiastical institutions, but the un-Christian social structures of sixteenth-century Europe. For an Anabaptist, only a commitment to Christ could be the basis of salvation. The movement is called “Anabaptist” (“repeated dippers”) because as aforementioned, they denied infant baptism, and upheld believer’s baptism. As a result, they held that Catholic baptism was not valid, and as the majority of Christians at that time were Catholic or Orthodox, you had to be re-baptized. This is very similar to the stance of the Donatists during the time of St. Augustine. They were also anti-clergy, held a Collectivist view, and held a literal interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. They also attempted Theocracy - a government ruled by religion. After a rebellion, the Catholics and other Protestants suppressed them, and the movement became more pacifist, leading to the modern Amish, Mennonites, Brethren, Quakers and others.

Amish in Pennsylvania
The Swiss Brethren emerged in Zurich in 1523-1525 out of disputes with three individuals: Conrad Grebel, Felix Mantz and Zwingli. This concerned the tithe, images in churches, and the nature of baptism and its relationship to faith. The earliest Anabaptist argued by justification from faith alone (sola fide). They believed that there was no mandate in Scripture for infant baptism. They felt that the city council should dictate the pace of the Reform. The government began to be the voice of leadership in the church, as opposed to the clergy. The Zurich City Council - with Zwingli - performed an adult baptism, and repudiated infant baptism. They were critical of Luther, Zwingli and others for emphasizing faith alone at the expense of social behavior. How would one deal with social behavior? Luther claimed that a true born-again Christian would act well. "But what if they did not?" - the Anabaptists disagreed with Luther.

Recent scholarship has shown elements in common between Anabaptists and peasant rebellions. Many Anabaptists were sympathetic to the common person trying to overthrow social order, so as Anabaptism spread, it overlapped with the Peasant’s Revolt and beyond. Prior to the Reformation, society had its great chain of being. God was at the top and peasants were at the bottom. The ideas being put forth during the Reformation, however, were very, very radical. They were rooted in the concept that the Gospel was a leveling power which has a social consequence. Numerous people who became Anabaptists became participants in the Peasant’s War. If we look at Anabaptism today - the Amish, Mennonites, Quakers - we would call them the “peace churches.” This came after the early movement, which included some radically violent Anabaptists, but it would not last, as Anabaptist leaders reflected on their views of war. When the Peasant’s War ended in failure, they felt that if the world rejected truth, then truth must reject the world - so they became separatists, and broke up into small groups. The most important early Anabaptist groups were known as the Swiss Brethren, and a group known as the Hutterites - all of whom were severely persecuted, and viewed with suffering and martyrdom in years to come. They felt they would follow in their master’s faith and be persecuted.

The first challenges to the new Protestant orthodoxy came from Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt (1480–1541) and Thomas M¨untzer (before 1491–1525). A colleague of Luther at Wittenberg, Karlstadt, during Luther’s absence at the Wartburg, increased the pace of reform by putting Luther’s teachings into practice. He also moved beyond Luther theologically. During the Wittenberg Movement (December 1521–February 1522) Karlstadt celebrated the first evangelical Mass, moved the city council to reorganize Wittenberg as a "Christian City", and had images removed from churches. He was critical, however, of the dreams and visions claimed by three "prophets" who appeared in the city at that time. Karlstadt agreed that the Spirit was needed to embrace true faith, but the content of that faith was to be found in scriptures. Despite elements of Spiritualism in Karlstadt, biblicism more accurately defines him. Karlstadt abandoned all academic and clerical titles and had himself called ‘Brother Andrew’. He even sought for a time to support himself by farming - a practice later taken up by the Amish and Mennonite communities.

In Orlamunde, all images were removed, infant baptism suspended, and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was rejected as theologically sound. In 1524, Karlstadt went to take refuge with Luther, and actually wrote works on the Eucharist that led to the controversy between Luther and Zwingli. But he did not believe in violence - which made him differ from Muntzer. Munzter agreed on the Eucharist and baptism, but they were less important for him - he was focused more on the Spirit, and is by some considered more Spiritualist than Anabaptist. In response to the Spirit-filled radicalism of Thomas Müntzer, who claimed to receive revelation directly from the Holy Spirit apart from scripture, Luther replied that he would not listen to Müntzer even if "he had swallowed the Holy Ghost, feathers and all". Luther’s reaction against the radicals only became more adamant after (as he saw things) Anabaptism ignited social violence.

Initially sympathetic with the demands of the peasants, he turned against them once their political protest grew into the Peasants’ War in 1524–25. The long-term consequences of Luther’s vigorous rejection of the Radical Reformation were profound and lasting, giving later Protestantism an aversion to any hint of what he called Schwärmerei (English "enthusiasm"). The root of Schwärmerei, according to Luther and later Protestants, was the belief in any unmediated experience of the Holy Spirit. To protect against this seemingly ever-present danger, they insisted that the only valid vehicles of inspiration were the Bible and the sacraments authorized by it. Apocalyptism was also prominent among many Anabaptists, and some at that time placed a date on the Second Coming of Christ at 1533.

Another branch of Anabaptism - the Mennonites - was founded in the 1550s by Menno Simon, an educated Roman Catholic priest. His followers came from Switzerland, Germany, and Holland. He started a new order of worship and set forth a series of rules for the conduct of those who joined in the movement. The Hutterites were led by Jacob Hutter, a pastor who was martyred by the Holy Roman Empire in 1536. They were founded in 1528. They practice communal living and hold firm to adult baptism. They and Mennonites share similar roots. The Amish came later. The Amish began from a late 1600s schism in the Anabaptist church by followers of Jakob Amman, a Swiss minister who believed that adherents should “conform to the teaching of Christ and His apostles” and “forsake the world” in their daily lives. The word “Amish” derives from his name.

Now, there are many interesting and wonderful things about the Amish. For example, the Amish follow a partially written yet mostly unwritten code of The Amish have an unwritten code of conduct called the Ordnung, which emphasizes virtues such as simplicity, humility, and obedience. Unlike early Anabaptists, they are also very strict pacifists and oppose violence of any kind. Also, similar to how early Christians met in house churches, the Amish follow suit and meet in each other's house week-to-week, not an intentional worship space or religious building. There are also interesting customs such as making faceless dolls - faceless so they do not make images out of pride and vanity - they do not generally let their picture be taken for the same reason (and that of not making any "graven images"), they are in school up until 8th grade, and they do not play musical instruments as they feel it would create feelings of pride and superiority.

The Amish can also teach us several life lessons. As blog writer Tricia Goyer pointed out, the Amish teach us that "Life isn't trouble free... when a barn burns down, they don’t dwell on why it burned, they gather together to rebuild. And then they praise God: for the lumber, the nails, the caring community that skillfully puts it together, the animals that will inhabit it, and for a chance to start again." They also believe that we should have "just enough for today and not a penny more. The Amish believe in hard work and frugality, but they strive to prevent affluent living, keeping up with the Joneses, and social status. In fact, they don’t even value the indicators of success that we prize: income, education, luxuries, and symbols of prosperity." This lesson of living simply so that others may simply live (to paraphrase St. Elizabeth Ann Seton) is an invaluable one, especially in a culture that places so much into consumerism, materialism and individualism, this kind of simple-living mentality can help keep the common good in our perspective.

Goyer also points out that Amish are also willing to "draw a land in the sand. The Amish want to be good stewards of God’s resources—time, money, material goods. They know that convenience comes with a cost. They don’t want to be dependent on outside sources (such as electricity or gas!). Convenience means loss of something valuable. For example, fast food means less nutrition. More stuff means more maintenance. They’re willing to say no." This ability to be good stewards of their resources is one that Pope Francis continues to remind us, as in his encyclical Laudato Si' released last year. The Amish also teach us that "Nothing replaces face-to-face visits. Back in the day when telephones emerged on the scene, the Amish bishops made a deliberate decision to keep the telephone out of the house. They didn’t want to interrupt family life. But they drop everything for a face-to-face visit." Developing a ministry of presence or re-emphasizing the importance of face-to-face encounters with other people is extremely valuable and necessary in order to foster meaningful and healthy relationships.

Another movement of interest is Quakerism, which began in the 1650s in England under George Fox as a late part of the Radical Reformation. Recently, I visited the Arch Street Meeting House for the Religious Society of Friends (commonly known as Quakers) in Philadelphia. It is a historic site built in the early 1800s, designed with simplicity and plainness in mind. The Quakers' form of worship is through silence - and thus it is considered a form of contemplative Christianity - yet their worship also centers on the movement of the Spirit. There are technically no appointed ministers, no podiums, no altars, no religious imagery, and what have you. When attending an individual will speak as he or she feels led by the Spirit, so that they open the way for "The Light that lighteth every man." The picture to the right was taken at the wall leading to the Meeting House, and it reflects the Quaker belief that the light of God is in everyone, which missions Quakers to each individual with respect, dignity and compassion. It also demonstrates the belief that we are called to action - to improve our world and our society. Quakers are also known for their pacifism just as with the Amish - a hallmark not seen in the early Radical Reformation.

One Quaker, Samuel Nicholas, is buried somewhere on the grounds of the Arch Street Meeting House. Nicholas was a Quaker who left the movement because he did not agree with pacifism in the face of the Revolutionary War. So he became what is considered the first Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps. Each year the Marines come and place a wreath on his memorial stone in his honor - and by the end of his life, Nicholas had mended his relationship with his community at the Arch Street Meeting House. Each person has the potential for healing, reconciliation and justice. On another note, consider the simplicity of Quakers. As one sign in the museum at the House says, "Simplicity and plainness is a cultural and spiritual practice of the Religious Society of Friends. Quakers are expected to think deeply about their actions. This includes how they dress, talk, and behave as well as how they build and decorate their homes." As a Franciscan, this strikes me because one of the vows that friars take is a vow of poverty, or put a different way, a vow to live as simply as possible.

There is much that we can learn from our past, as well as our present. The way in which the Amish and the Mennonites are often lauded for their good quality clothes, their excellent carpentry, their dedication to their way of life, their simplicity, their close communal bonds and their desire to be faithful are very inspiring. The way in which the Quakers leave behind various trappings in order to remain open to the fruitful potentiality of the Divine is moving. Each of our denominations, movements, theologies, philosophies and traditions has a past - the question today is, how will we continue what has begun? Keeping in mind what transpired during the Radical Reformation, what we do today and how we treat each other is also of the utmost importance - yet it is always helpful to know our roots so that we can learn to grow.

“The Radical Reformation” by R. Emmet McLaughlin.

Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day. New York: HarperCollins, 2010. Volume II. 7-161. Print.

Ed. by Jim Fodor and Mike Higton. The Routledge Companion to the Practice of Christian Theology. "Experience in Theology" by Garret Green. 2015. Print.

"Amish: Out of Order". National Geographic Channel: April 10, 2012. Web.

Goyer, Tricia. "10 Things I've Learned from the Amish". NotQuiteAmish: 2012. Web.

Friday, June 3

Sacred Spaces: The Desert Experience

One of the most common sacred spaces found in all of the Abrahamic traditions is that of the desert or the wilderness. This is largely due to the majority of Biblical stories taking place in very arid geographical locations, but it has to come to take on a more spiritual significance. Many significant figures have often gone out to meet the Divine or to find themselves in the wilderness. Consider that Siddhartha Gautama discovered his inner self when meditating under the Bodhi Tree, the Muslim prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was seeking for the Divine in the caves near his home. In the Christian tradition, after being baptized in the Jordan River by his cousin John the Baptist, Jesus is driven by the Spirit out into the Judean wilderness for forty days, and it is only after this period that he embarks on his itinerant ministry. What is it about the desert or the wilderness that creates for such spiritually charged encounters with ourselves and with the Divine? What is it about the desert that pushes us to become our most authentic selves, our True Self?

Consider the many other examples in the Bible where we find the desert experience: Abraham, known at the time as the nomad Abram, goes out to commune with the Divine and while in the wilderness, God makes a covenant with him. In the book of Exodus, we find Moses in the wilderness for forty years before hearing the voice of God, which subsequently leads him to bring his people out of Egypt and wander the wilderness for another forty years. In 1st Kings, we find Elijah in the wilderness for forty days on his way to Mt. Horeb. Also, as aforementioned, in the gospel narratives we read of Jesus' forty-day period of testing in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2; Mark 1:13; Luke 4:2). Further, according to the New Testament, when Jesus is resurrected, he appears to his followers for forty days (Acts 1:3). The pattern here may already be evident: the number forty. There are several other uses of the number in the Biblical corpus - the initial rainfall from the Flood described in Genesis, the number of days God and Moses met for the giving of The Law (Exodus 24:18; Deuteronomy 9:9, 11), the amount of time the spies searched the land of Canaan (Numbers 13:25; 14:34), the number of days that soldier Goliath challenged Israel (1st Samuel 17:16), the prophet Jonah’s time in Nineveh (Jonah 3:4), as well as all of the aforementioned incidents. 

In most of these forty day periods of time, we find that turmoil, challenges and tests were involved - only the final set of forty days, that of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, are days filled with blessing and transformation. The number forty is significant in Biblical numerology because it signifies a long period of time. It does not always literally mean forty days or forty years, but it is a number meant to invoke a sense that great lengths of time are passing. When considering a desert spirituality this is important, because we can often get too caught up in the planning, the fulfillment of our plans, and the timing of our plans. When we are seeking to find our desert experience and foster a desert mentality or desert spirituality, we must begin to develop a sense of detachment and begin to let go of our desire for order, to be "on-time" and "on-schedule" in order to fully engage and fully immerse in our own desert experiences.

Many people are familiar with the idea of hermits living out in the wilderness or in caves praying and seeking solitude. The word hermit comes from the Latin word ĕrēmīta, which means "of the desert" or  a "desert dweller." The first known hermit in the Christian tradition is St. Paul of the Desert, a man from Thebes, Egypt in the mid-AD 200s. His follower, St. Anthony of Egypt (or Anthony the Great), is perhaps the most well-known and possibly most influential of the early Desert 
Fathers. Prior to his conversion, the renowned theologian St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) actually read about the life of St. Anthony the Great and was inspired by his example. Now, the lifestyle of these hermits was very strict and difficult; the hermits mostly lived in caves, cells or hermitages in the deserts or forests. Also, as can be found in the collected sayings of these early hermits, these early men - and women! - would weave baskets which they would sell in town in order to buy food, so their life was filled with prayer and work.[1] A number of early Christian hermits did this very thing - Anthony, Pambo, Gregory, Evagrius, Macarius, Zacahrius, and many others.

Many people would often seek out the Desert Fathers and the Desert Mothers for their received wisdom, spiritual counsel or spiritual advice. There was also a group known as the Stylites who lived on top of pillars in the desert for years on end and preached to people from atop the pillars. All of these various pieces in the Christian tradition continued to develop a kind of desert theology or desert spirituality. It began with the nomadic Hebrews early on and continued up until the present day with the monks and hermits of the desert. But this kind of theology and spirituality is not meant only for monks or hermits. In the Biblical writings, God would send his people into the wilderness so that they may be tested and have a change of heart - a transformative inner experience that would then flow into their outer actions toward themselves and others. This is why Jesus went through a desert experience prior to beginning his itinerant ministries. We are also called to have our own desert experiences, though this does not necessarily mean we must leave our cities, our homes or our workplaces to do so.

Photo credit to Luca Galuzzi
Consider the further example of St. Paul. In Paul's letter to the Galatians we read, "But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus" (vs. 15-17). What is relevant for our purposes here is the interesting comment that Paul went into Arabia, even before he went to verify his teachings and his theology with the early Christian followers and apostles. Before truly beginning his ministry, he did not seek the highest ecclesiastical authorities, so to speak - he went into Arabia! But what could be in Arabia? There are some who speculate that Paul, following the tradition of the early Jewish patriarchs, went into the Arabian desert and had an experience of deep prayer and meditation, just as Jesus did. Experiences such as these do ask us to consider how or why this desert spirituality was so effective for these early followers.

It is important to note, however, that this desert experience is not simply found in antiquity, but still alive and present today. We still have hermits - consider Fr. Lazarus al Antony who lives in the Egyptian desert. Around the age of forty, Fr. Lazarus was actually an atheist college professor who taught philosophy in Australia. One day, he came upon the book Seven Storey Mountain by Catholic author and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. The book is Merton's autobiography written a few years after entering the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky, and it was enough to convince the atheist professor. He eventually joined a community of monks, and after believing the Virgin Mary had appeared to him through a painting in his monastery, he left the monks and became a hermit, currently residing in the cave of St. Anthony the Great.[2]

All of this raises the question, then - why have all of these men and women chosen to go out into the desert or wilderness in order to encounter the Divine? Firstly, the intention was to seek God, who was easier to find, encounter and focus on outside of the business of the major cities. Around the advent of the hermit communities, Emperor Constantine had legalized Christianity (AD 311) and a few decades later, Emperor Theodosius made it the official religion of the Roman Empire (AD 380). This meant that there was a vast influx of new converts from all across the known world at the time - which also forced more men and women who were living genuine, authentic spiritual lives to go outside of these major areas to seek God where there were less distractions and more of a personalized spirituality rather than an imperial-mandated Christianity.

One might also suggest that the other major reason for this kind of spirituality is the self. Perhaps these early Desert Mothers and Fathers sought God in the wilderness by also finding themselves, and saw the desert as a place of purification, of vulnerability and of nakedness. In other words, the desert has no preference about who or what you are, it will treat you just the same as anything or anyone else. By going into the wilderness, you are confronted by your true self and your false self. These men and women, in other words, were coming to the desert to deal with their demons. Now, the mythic association between deserts and demons can be found throughout the tradition - i
n Tobit 8:3, for example, we read that the "smell from the fish held the demon off, and he took flight into Upper Egypt; and Raphael instantly followed him there and bound him hand and foot." Egypt was known for witchcraft (cf. Exodus 7:11), and there was an ancient belief that demons were at home in deserted or far-away places (see Matthew 12:43; Luke 11:24; Revelation 10:2, for example). The stories of the early hermits are also riddled with hordes of demons roaming the barren desert landscape. The wilderness was believed be the dwelling place of the forsaken.

But on a more psychological, level, these men and women were going out not to face some personification of evil, but their inner demons, or as noted, their false self. When you are in the desert, you are tempted in the most difficult of ways - hunger, thirst, lack of power, cravings, desires, frustrations, anxieties. All of these things and more come to the forefront of one's mind. The hermits saw these inner demons as spiritual aids in their journey, because among all of the challenges and need for growth and change, they found the Divine. Developing a desert spirituality or a desert theology does not mean that you must go out and become a hermit in an actual cave or desert. We can find both literal places and inner sacred spaces where we encounter the Divine. For some people, this manifests itself in the form of centering prayer or a Welcoming prayer. For other people, they find their desert experience by going on a spiritual retreat, a pilgrimage, and what have you. Some delve into contemplative prayer.

Sometimes we choose not to spend time in quietude or silence because we are simply uncomfortable with being by ourselves. When we take time to be alone in silence and not confronted with so many distractions, we become so unsettled because we grow increasingly aware of our baggage, our stressors, anxieties, fears and insecurities. During the forty-day Christian season of Lent, many are encouraged to have their own "desert experience," modeled after that of Jesus. Jesus also had to undergo this period of trial and testing before he was ready to start his work. The desert may be brutal and unforgiving, but in the desert we can face our False Self in order to find and become our True Self.

Again, facing our False Self or our inner demons does not require a trip to the arid places of the world. Each person can develop a desert spirituality in a different way - sometimes our desert experiences are lived out as periods of spiritual dryness or aridity, of every kind of challenge - financial, social, emotional, mental, physical, spiritual, etc. Sometimes we face difficulties that are so numbing, so painful and create so much suffering for us that we go through a negative desert experience and cannot seem to find a way out. Sometimes, our addictions lead us into the desert. In the desert we confront our fears, our loneliness, our own identity needs. Most times, we go out to the desert - to our own inner wilderness, perhaps - to rediscover ourselves. But even in the midst of chaos, their is still hope.

Consider the ancient words of Isaiah 35:1–2: “The desert shall rejoice and blossom... the glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.” Each of these places was known to its audience for being places of beauty and abundance. The desert, most known for being a barren wasteland, can still blossom, grow and teem with abundant life. The time we spend away from ourselves, when we detach and allow God to work within us and through us, can help us to blossom and grow and help us to enable others to do the same. Sometimes the best way for us to accomplish this is to simplify our lives - whether by ridding ourselves of "stuff" we do not need, or simply un-cluttering our heart and mind and making room for everything else. The desert can be the harshest teacher of all... but if you pay attention and you listen carefully, you may just find your True Self, move past your inner demons and encounter the Divine.

[1] In the Middle Ages, hermits often lived near major cities in order to work as ferry-men or gate keepers to earn wages, so that they could continue their lifestyle when and where possible.
[2] Magdy, Kero. "Fr. Lazarus Al-Anthony." YouTube. YouTube, 07 Apr. 2013. Web. 03 June 2016. .