Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Are You Willing to be a Rebel for Resurrection Hope?

Today I attended Spring Convocation at LTSG, which made a big splash having as key speaker, journalist and author, Chris Hedges, who has written extensively across media, including books such as The Empire of Illusion and The World as It Is. Hedges’ appearance was a part of the convocation theme, “We Tell to Love the Story,” a day which included an outstanding presentation on the scripts of Scripture by Rev. Dr. Marty Stevens and on story brokering by Rev. Kathy Vitalis Hoffman. I wish that the crowd in attendance for Hedges had been present for the other two presentations, because without it I suggest the story left an incomplete picture. And while much of what Hedges gives voice to resonates with my sensibilities and with the message across the canon of Scripture in prophetic witness, Hedges himself is not big on lifting up the life and work of the church. This is not only true because this isn’t his role (though he has an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity) but also in part of his own acerbic sentiment toward the church as institution born of his lived religious experience as the son of a Presbyterian pastor whose prophetic voice met with cataclysmic opposition over issues still on the horizon today- oppression, poverty, gay rights, the military-industrial complex. From my brief conversation with him, I understand opposition to his father’s witness culminated in drumming out of his father over his voice of resistance. I’m attempting to take in Hedges’ compelling words which at times one might suspect were intended to function as an emetic administered to the listener. I note that I am neither an acolyte nor a “hater.”
“I have walked through the barren remains of Babylon,” he began. No one can doubt the profound scope of what Hedges has witnessed in his global journeying as a journalist. Anyone who has read even some of his work quickly realizes the gravamen of the accretion of events he confronted as bystander to warfare and aggression, despoiling of environment and seeming callousness of those who are the perpetrators. Amidst the din of this, Hedges began his address with words of Percy Bysshe Shelly- about the feeling of standing amidst the ruin of Egyptian pharaohs: And on the pedestal these words appear: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!' Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away.” Akin to Ezekiel, Hedges launches into a full tilt assault on the “increasingly rapacious elite” and “a world where ideals no longer correspond to reality, where the frightened retreat into isolated compounds and enclaves of wealth and priviledge. Those in power extract wealth upward with greater ferocity until the hollowed out edifice collapses.” As was the fate of Rome, the Mayans, the Babylonians, so too we see the fate of those in the Middle East, Africa, Europe and ultimately here at home. I full well expected him to say, “Thus says the Lord YHWH.” As the canary in the coal mine protesting more wars, grander monuments, and increasing debts foisted on the backs of the poor, he continued lifting up historic parallels across time of “elitists who become extremists squeezing the last drops out of humanity before they ossify and die, destroying what they claim to be about.” As Hedges offered a summation of sorts for the notion that humans seem destined to be cursed to repeating the cycles of exploitation and collapse at the hands of ignorance and hubris, I found myself writing and underscoring a single word: SIN. I wish I could even remotely approach the skill of writing and oration Hedges possesses yet the word SIN never was uttered. Which is too bad, because he is spot on and that is what it is. We should name it as such. The world we claim to be ever more adept at controlling and engineering like all of those other refined civilizations is still captive to the force of sin. Hold that thought.
Hedges then turned his sights upon illuminating the failure of those who put themselves forth as proponents and indeed proclaimers of the Christian faith are often co-opted by those who not only are OK with systems of power, oppression and death, they would prefer them to remain in place. Hedges takes the framework of religious institutions and the liberal class to task for naively placating these forces, “inviting the wolf in” as he puts it. Not only that but he frames leaders of the “liberal” end of the political spectrum as only looking like liberals while selling their souls to the corporate world, turning the American dream into a cruel hoax. “Tolerating the intolerant leads to destruction of the tolerant.” Hedges sees the end result in this country (not only elsewhere) as reconfiguring our world into “neo-feudalism.”
But back to the church – Hedges tosses more fuel on the fire alleging that the church has forgotten that heretics exist, excoriating evangelicals (and others) for re-connecting with Newt Gingrich and others who “mock the core teachings of Christ” and who “stand by mutely as others betray and exploit the gospel of Christ with bigotry, hatred and greed.” As I was again thinking of Ezekiel taking on those who claimed to speak for YHWH that “all is well when all is not well” he moved in for the kill. “What was the point of ordination is you think you never have to fight for the message of the gospel?” It really doesn’t matter whether Hedges is speaking as one with or without faith, inside or outside the church- these words matter. We serving and aspiring leaders could ask ourselves- what will we risk for the sake of the gospel? I was reminded of the scene in the “Luther” movie when Luther is being cleaned up and prepared for his meeting with officials from Rome. He’s being counseled to back off and hold his tongue. With absolute clarity of purpose he pushes back against this with “when you so boldly sent me out to change the world, did you think there wouldn’t be a cost?” While there’s a point where Hedges’ polemic and I will part company, I cannot quibble with the claim that the longer we are tricked into investing faith in power systems we will be tricked into paths that lead to death-I think I heard this a time or two in Scripture. He speaks of what many would call “kingdom urgency” though never allowing such words to pass his lips. When do we decide we are too busy critiquing our critics or the process to actually take a stand on issues of peace, ecological destruction, injustice? They are in our own backyard. When he says we must be willing to accept the discomfort of action- was it not but a short time ago we wondered if we would deny Christ?
Where I ultimately believe Hedges’ vision is incomplete is that he seems to suggest that resistance, being a rebel and standing with the oppressed as a moral commitment are an end unto themselves. He quotes Augustine, the author of the notion that “hope has two beautiful daughters- anger at the way things are and courage to see that it doesn’t remain so.” He adjures that external reality around us cannot be a yardstick by which to measure life. As he ended his presentation he noted that the words we heard are not his, but his father’s – the Presbyterian pastor who stance ended his career- and noted:“And in Christian faith we call this resurrection.” These words brought tears to my eyes- but then I had to ask- what does the word “resurrection” mean? Redemption, vindication? Is this a buzzword for the God-people at LTSG or is it something more uttered by one scarred but still living that definition of “hope?” I don’t know- but this is why everyone who missed the talk before and the talk after- the ones who came for Hedges alone-missed the “rest of the story.”

Being a rebel means living and telling a story whose narrative is over against all of the other voices. Your strand might look different than mine but in the end the refrain is one that says for Christians that the voice we listen to (or endeavor to listen to) is the voice of a risen Christ. And it’s the voice of God who across time is not bound by the limited narratives of those who seek to co-opt. It’s still a story worth sharing in all the hurting places. It’s a story we cannot share but for a faith that takes more than we have to give. It’s a story we build with others-not as rebels alone. And it’s a story we tell to love because God’s word and not ours is the last and triumphant one that gives us strength to try again. I would never dream to suggest that everything that leads people to hurting places should be just smoothed over. Instead I would love to tell them about a God who offers and calls us to more because of the true and ultimate meaning of resurrection. To Hedges I would say that though nothing erases pain, the other word missing is GRACE- what we need, what we get, what we are called to tell and to live. Each of us.
As I got up to leave the chapel I noticed that off to the side was the large wooden cross that had featured writ large in Holy Week, now looking a little left behind- perhaps waiting to be put away. Maybe that’s the point-would we really tire if we looked at the rough hewn cross in the midst of the beautiful chapel, or would we prefer to not be reminded of the cost? Maybe even when we don’t intend to, this subtle actions of ours remind us we have much to contemplate even when it comes from voices beyond our place of sanctuary. Think of how much richer the story we share will be when we do. How Christ's narrative might speak louder than cacaphony of doom. It's risky- Are you willing to be a rebel for resurrection hope in our world?


Diane said...

I like what you say at the end about that risky faith in a different story....resurrection.

Anonymous said...

I have mixed feelings about Hedges presentation. As I was listening to what he was saying I was thinking; "yes, you are right, capitalism is the death of the world, and yes, it makes a few people rich at the cost of the labor of the poor and exploitation of the resources God has entrusted to us." But when he went in the direction of the only solution is to rebell and to re-create a new society, in fact claiming that it is the only morally responsible thing to do, he kind of lost some of my support. His agenda seemed to be very one sided, and a bit narrow minded. I believe the world we live in is a bit more complex than that, and the "this is the only solution" may not reflect a true level of complexity. Social justice is important. Very important, but in my life flows out of a faith perspective. Yes, he did touch on faith briefly. And yes I did hear his ending comment about resurrection. For me the starting point is the cross, the empty tomb, the resurrection. This is where God's grace is manifest once and for all. This is the starting point for righteousness and social justice. And based on faith at work, communal and humanitarian resurrection will become reality.