cjbanning: (Symposium)
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Baruch 5:1-9
Canticle 16
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

Today, St. Luke's Gospel introduces us to the very first Christian evangelist: John the Baptist. Our lectionary readings today are a good example of how we as Christians read John "back into" the Hebrew scriptures, as the fulfillment of messianic promises found in Baruch, in Malachi, and in Isaiah (among other places). And when John went out to be a voice in the wilderness, we can be sure it was with an understanding that he did so with this tradition at his back.

But what does it mean to be a voice in the wilderness?

The way St. Luke begins this passage might give us a clue: preaching in the wilderness means preaching independently from, and in opposition to, the established nexuses of power. John lived in a world where power ruled, and St. Luke tells us who specifically wielded this power: Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, and Caiaphas. And the list isn't restricted to one type of power, either: it includes the Roman emperor and his governor, local kings, and Jewish religious officials. Plenty of opportunities for John to ally himself with someone powerful who could offer him protection.

But instead, he went out into the wilderness, where he was free to speak truth to power.

That phrase, "speak truth to power," is one deeply rooted in the living out of the Christian vision, coming to us from the Quakers, who used it in 1955 as the title for a pamphlet advocating a new approach to the Cold War. It has since been taken up as a rallying cry by many of those who would tear down the hegemonic superstructures which prevail in our world: by Marxists and anarchists, by feminists and anti-racists. It is a call to be genuinely subversive in our approach to the kyriarchy, to the predominant cultural forces of--among other evils--plutocracy, patriarchy, and imperialism. The mountains and hills of our world must be made low, and the valleys filled. Liberation of a profound sort needs to happen.

Part of that means recognizing the immense cultural hegemony that Christianity enjoys in the United States and across the globe. Even as many Christians decry the commercialization of the Christmas holiday, for example, it nonetheless works to fashion the narratives of many non-Christians' lives into a form which is deeply rooted in Christian practices and forms in a way it is simply not possible for them to escape. Reflect for a moment on the following series of questions, adapted from a list by Lewis Z. Schlosser:
Can you be sure to hear music on the radio and watch specials on television that celebrate the holidays of your religion?
Can you be sure that your holy day is taken into account when states pass laws and when retail stores decide their hours?
Can you be sure that when told about the history of civilization, you are shown people of your religion who made it what it is?
Can you easily find academic courses and institutions that give attention only to people of your religion?
Can you be sure that when your children make holiday crafts, they will bring home artistic symbols of the Christian religion (e.g., Easter bunny, Christmas tree)?
Can you, if you wish, arrange to be in the company of people of your religion most of the time?
Can you be sure that your children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence and importance of the Christian religion?
Can you be fairly sure when you hear someone in the media talking about "God" that they are talking about your god?
Can you be sure that people are knowledgeable about the holidays in your religion and will greet you with the appropriate holiday greeting (e.g., Merry Christmas)?
Can you remain oblivious to the language and customs of other religious groups without feeling any penalty for such a lack of interest and/or knowledge?
Can you display a Christmas tree and/or hang holly leaves in your home without worrying about your home being vandalized because of your religious identification?
How many of these questions are we Christians able to answer "yes" to? How often do we take being able to answer "yes" completely for granted?

How often in our evangelizing do we attempt to preach from a position of power, to ally ourselves with the Tiberiuses and Pilates, the Herods, Philips, and Lysaniases, the Annases and Caiaphases, of our time? How often do we use our control of culture as a weapon against those who are already powerless in our attempts to save souls and gain converts?

In some cases, even a small reduction of Christian privilege and supremacy can even get disingenuously painted by some as persecution--note the so-called "War on Christmas."

Reflect upon the words of the canticle prayed by John's father, Zechariah:
To set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship God without fear,
holy and righteous in God's sight
all the days of our life.
This is what messianic expectation meant to people in the time of John. Baruch contains a similar sentiment: "so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God." Safely--not comfortably, not easily, not without sacrifice. Just safely. These were women and men frequently in fear for their lives.

How foreign to our experience as Christians today! Although there are of course still Christians on this planet who are genuinely persecuted (and let us continue to pray, with Baruch and Zechariah, for their deliverance), there are few of us here today who can say that we have ever known what it is like to be afraid at all, yet alone afraid for our lives, to worship our God in our way--because our way is dominant, unmarked, theway.

But what can we do about this situation? What can speaking truth to power look like today? I don't have a simple answer to this question, but I do have some thoughts.

Living out John's version of evangelizing in the twenty-first century requires giving up our privilege as best we can in our own trips "to the wilderness." It requires forming bonds of community with the disenfranchised, helping those who have been silenced speak for themselves. It requires fighting, always, for social justice.

Note well: John didn't turn his back onto the world. He went out to the wilderness, yes, but he used his position in the wilderness to preach, to teach others that there was an alternative to the world of the rule of power in which they lived. Speaking truth to power is an engagement with culture, with society, with the world, not a withdrawal. It requires a genuine, full encounter with the world in all its broken fallen-ness. And when we do this, we find there may be allies in places we at first might find it strange to find them. American--or any other--culture is not a monolith. Even as it indoctrinates us in hegemonic discourses of power so to is it the scene for opposition, resistances, and subversions. Often these are the parts of our culture we are taught to fear: the sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll, so to speak. As the writer Salman Rushdie once noted, "the music of freedom frightens people and unleashes all manner of conservative defense mechanisms."

On that note, let me quote the rock and roll theologian Sid Vicious: "Undermine their pompous authority, reject their moral standards, make anarchy and disorder your trademarks. Cause as much chaos and disruption as possible but don’t let them take you alive.”

In some--and let me stress nonviolent--sense, John the Baptist didn't let them take him alive, either; we know that his practice of speaking truth to power ultimately would cost him his head. But it won him, and us, so much more.

Of course separating genuine subversion and change from cooptation is a process that requires serious discernment and thought. Chaos and disruption merely for the sake of chaos and disruption are no more creative than is the order they seek to disrupt. We need to be rebels with causes, to channel our anger and frustration into social justice reforms capable of empowering others and building genuine, loving communities across the borders of race, gender, and class. We need to engage the world critically, always looking for allies, for points where genuine connection and subversion can happen, but also ever cautious of the forces which seek to control us in ever so subtle ways. We need to pray the prayer of St. Paul in today's passage from the letter to the Philippians: "that our love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help us to determine what is best."

It'd be so much easier if we could accept simple binaries: either live in the world or reject it. But, alas, my siblings in Christ, we cannot.

But today's lectionary readings remind us that that act, John's speaking of truth to power, was and will always be a necessary prerequisite for the Christmas experience, for messianic fulfillment of any kind. By speaking truth to power, we prepare the way for Christ.

Rock on.

Date: 2009-12-08 01:53 am (UTC)
cadenzamuse: Cross-legged girl literally drawing the world around her into being (Default)
From: [personal profile] cadenzamuse
Uh, hi. I have no idea who you are--I found you through [livejournal.com profile] hermionesviolin and when you mentioned a sermon, I thought I'd come check it out. This is really, really awesome. It's pretty much what I was trying to say with my rant on that same post in Elizabeth's journal, plus it gives me a focus on where to go, not just where not to go. *draws hearts around and recs it to lots of people*

If you don't mind me asking, what is the context behind your writing unpreached sermons? And do you mind if I follow this journal?
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"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

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