“The Fierce Urgency of Now”: Comments to the Cal Pac Methodist Federation for Social Action, by Ched Myers

Note:  Below are edited and excerpted comments from Ched’s keynote to the annual dinner of the Cal-Pac Chapters of the Methodist Federation for Social Action and Reconciling Ministries Network, at the University of Redlands,  CA on June 17, 2017.

It’s a formidable task to come up with 15 minutes of inspiration and exhortation to a group like this, given that your vocations have long been forged around the work of inspiring and exhorting.  So I’ll leave that task to one who inspired and exhorted all of us, and does so still: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the author of tonight’s thematic meme: “The fierce urgency of now.” Continue reading ““The Fierce Urgency of Now”: Comments to the Cal Pac Methodist Federation for Social Action, by Ched Myers”

“The Feast of the Ascension, Memorial Day and Doubling Down on the Incarnation,” by Ched Myers

Note: This is an edited version of a sermon preached on the Feast of Ascension (5/28/17) at Farm Church at Casa Anna Shulz.  Above: William Blake, Ascension Day poem, 1794.

“People of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” (Acts 1:11)

The Ascension is an underappreciated aspect of the Jesus story in the life of the church, both theologically and liturgically.  This is understandable; for many it tends to conjure “Beam me Up Scotty” escapist theology and rapture allergies.  Certainly in radical circles the Ascension has been largely abandoned or ignored.  I want to contend, however, that by doing this we are conceding to the trivializers an important trope of our faith. Continue reading ““The Feast of the Ascension, Memorial Day and Doubling Down on the Incarnation,” by Ched Myers”

“The Women, the Authorities, and Jesus’ Body: An Easter Reflection (Mt 27:55-28:15)” by Ched Myers

Above: Mikhail Nesterov “The Empty Tomb,” 1889.

The Easter narrative in Matthew centers around Jesus’ body and a gender struggle.

After Jesus’ expiration on the cross, we are left pondering the meaning of his execution together with three women—a fish worker and two mothers—who are keeping vigil from afar (Mt 27:55f).  Night falls.  Jesus’ body is granted by the Roman procurator Pilate to Joseph, a rich Jew who apparently had access to the imperial court (vv. 57-61).  This back room deal has all the hallmarks of a political move aimed at prohibiting those in Jesus’ community from executing their duties to anoint and bury the body according to Purity and custom—a strategy likely designed to prevent occasion for more protest during the volatile season of Passover.  Though Matthew calls Joseph a disciple of Jesus (v. 57), as the story unfolds it becomes clear that the authorities are determined to short-circuit any attempts by Jesus’ followers to recapture his body.  How often have our church leaders cooperated with government efforts to keep law and order in the face of dissent?

We are told that the cave tomb was covered with a great stone.  Case settled, story over.  Except that the women resume their vigil in front of the tomb (v. 61).   This narrative breathes of a quiet conspiracy of refusal and resistance—not to mention of compassionate solidarity with the executed.  (Reality check: The State of Arkansas wanted to execute eight men in ten days over this first week of Eastertide, only to be frustrated by the Supreme Court.)

The next episode is included only by Matthew (27:62-66).  It describes the continuing collaboration between Roman imperial and Judean provincial authorities, and illustrates their keen mutual interest in ensuring that the fledgling, dissident messianic movement be crushed once and for all.   Because of the annoying hope circulating through the movement that Jesus would “rise on the third day,” the authorities determine it is necessary to “secure the crime scene.”  A counter-conspiracy is hatched: guards are placed at the tomb, and the stone is sealed.  Yellow tape, as Bill Wylie Kellermann once put it: “Do not cross police line.”

Notice that this drama pits women protagonists against powerful men.  Moreover, these are women without men, trying to “get around” the death-dealing machinations of the authorities.   That unaccompanied women are subjects of this story at all is, of course, extraordinary, given the patriarchal context of the Bible in general.  To be sure, the narrative paints a very credible cultural scenario.  Women indeed took on the role of tending to the dead in first century Palestinian culture.  Moreover, there were women in Jerusalem who sponsored a charitable guild that provided proper burial to victims of Roman crucifixion (see more here).  But these Galilean women’s determination to anoint and re-bury the body of their loved one as custom demanded also implies defiance of the authorities.
After properly waiting until after the Sabbath is over, they proceed again to Jesus’ burial place to perform their duties (28:1-4).  They were, no doubt, taken aback to discover the show of police force at the tomb.  But even moreso by what transpires next: a showdown between an apocalyptic angel (note the classic descriptors in 28:3) and the imperial guard.  The scene is dripping with irony: the stone is rolled back—the angel sitting triumphantly atop it (perhaps with a shit-eating grin!)—and now it is the guards who have become “like dead men” (v. 4).

The angel then turns toward the women and invites them to transcend their traditional role by becoming witnesses to the crucified-but-now-risen-and-gone Jesus (vv. 5-7).  “You’ll have to take my word for it,” the angel concludes (v. 7e)—instructive, since everyone else in the narrative will have to take their word for it.  The story—and the future of the gospel—now becomes tethered to the power of witness.

About that: Women were not even qualified to testify in a court of law in the first century!  Why then would the gospel tradition rely on women to be the sole witnesses of these amazing things (other than the soldiers, about who more in a moment).  Unless, of course, this was how it actually went down.  After all, placing the burden of testimony on women-without-men would hardly have served a young movement trying to establish credibility; this scene is not likely something they would have made up!

Filled with both joy and fear (note the dialectic refrain between the two in vv. 5-10), these intrepid women set off to announce the good news to the male disciples, who are in hiding, hoping they would not share the fate of their leader.  En route, they meet Jesus (vv. 9-10), and their response is poignant: they embrace his three-days’-decomposed-body!  That is solidarity.  Jesus then reiterates the commission of the angel, inviting them to transcend their fear in order to call “their brothers” back to discipleship.  (Might part of their trepidation have been anticipating being dismissed by those same male colleagues—as Luke reports in 24:11?).

Matthew relates one more sordid episode in the male counter-conspiracy (vv. 11-15).  Unable to control the body of Jesus, the authorities set about trying to control the narrative.  They bribe the soldiers, lie, cut political deals, and manipulate the press.  We are not unfamiliar with the deception of such “false news” and spin from the current White House—which bombed two nations during Holy Week.

The story does not show the women trying to persuade the male disciples about the Risen Jesus.  We are only told that the dudes do show up in Galilee (vv. 16-19).  Which means they actually followed the women’s instructions, who were following Jesus’ instructions, who was not following the authorities’ rule of law.  On a wild mountaintop, far away from presidential Twittering, these resurrected disciples receive further instructions: to go “make disciples of all nations.”  Which includes imperial nations, then and now.  And in that mission to the Powers, Jesus promises accompaniment, forever (v. 20).  Which includes today.

The very first transformation that occurs as a result of Jesus’ Resurrection is an overturning of gender expectations.  The narrative laid the groundwork for this shocking conclusion in its description of the women holding vigil together at the execution of Jesus at the start of this sequence (27:55f).  There they are described with two loaded verbs: they had “followed” and “served” Jesus throughout the gospel story.  Each articulates a key aspect of Jesus’ call.  In other words, these women are presented at the close of Matthew’s tale as true disciples.  The androcentric narrative has completely collapsed, but women have stepped in to keep the discipleship story alive.  Resurrection indeed.
Many of us are pondering these days what it means to transcend gender binaries.  But the gender politics of the Easter story could not be thicker, or more remarkable—or more suppressed by androcentric churches.  But the gospel is clear: it is the testimony of women—in defiance of patriarchal codes of veracity—upon which our faith tradition utterly relies.

Why then do women still have such a hard time being fully equal and fully themselves in our Christian churches?

“Whosoever would follow me must…” Ched Myers

On this Good Friday, as we commemorate Jesus’ cross amidst imperial resurgence and war, I offer this excerpt from Who Will Roll Away the Stone: Discipleship Queries for First World Christians (Orbis, 1994), pp 251f, 267.

Mark’s invitation to “take up the cross” (Mk 8:34) is the central characteristic of discontinuity with the Domination system.

“Whosever would”–this is one of Jesus’ few universal prerequisites for discipleship.

We must deny the self that is protected by the gun and its myths, and experiement with satyagraha.  Some Christians in the locus imperii understand this in terms of a “vow” of nonviolence resistance as a way of life.

Resistance is how the community of discontinuity remains “sober” and how it “intervenes” in the dysfunctional and addictive system.

It is how we “defend” the political body against pathology and “offend” the pathological body politic.

These represent the two basic trajectories of nonviolence: the struggle to remain “disarmed” on one hand, and “militatn” on the other.  Both are equally necessary for a “peace church.”

…We First World Christians need far more character and courage if we are to practice the somatic politics to which Jesus calls us, and for which history waits.

“A Tale of Two Meals” by Ched Myers

This is an edited and updated version of a sermon delivered at an outdoor liturgy on Sunday, August 29th, 2004 at the Greenbelt Christian Arts Festival in Cheltenham, England.  I offer it here again because this year Passover and Maunday Thursday coincide in the same week.  

This week, Jews and Christians celebrate and re-enact their two foundational meals: Pesach (begun Monday) and The Lord’s Supper (Maundy Thursday).  Each meal gave birth to a people:

Continue reading ““A Tale of Two Meals” by Ched Myers”

Apocalypse Again: End or New Beginning? by Ched Myers

Today marks a month since the Election Day shocker in the presidential race.  I’ve been talking to younger colleagues who, in its wake, were paralyzed by incredulity and disorientation.  I certainly understand that a Trump presidency feels apocalyptic to them; I was as stunned and depressed as anyone. 
But if there is a silver lining here, it’s that we have seen this awful movie before. 
It’s sobering to realize that folk under 40 were either not born, or too young, to have experienced the advent of the Reagan presidency in 1980.  To many of us, that moment also seemed apocalyptic.  It rhymed in so many ways with our present shitstorm:
Celebrity buffoon doing the bidding of the corporate class confounds political conventional wisdom by mobilizing right wing “populism,” and then populates Washington with the worse sort of (putatively anti-government) far right ideological plutocrats. 
Trump—but also Reagan.  (This piece from last summer notes at least 15 parallels between the two political phenomena, though written sympathetically to them both.  It’s the source of the above photograph of the future and reigning Republican upstarts).
To be clear, the Reagan era was disastrous on so many fronts, and hell on the poor at home and abroad (Central Americans in particular).  Moreover, it seeded the political, economic and cultural forces that have come to fruition in Trumpism (including the Project for a New American Century, Fox News, and the politicized Christian Right). 
At the same time, let us not forget that that the Reagan years animated many significant social movements of opposition and imagination, such as Witness for Peace, Sanctuary, immigrant rights, radical environmentalism and ecojustice, multicultural insurrections—even Jesse Jackson’s insurgent 1988 presidential campaign. 
The thing is, I came of political age during that era.  I was 25 in 1980, having been an activist for only 5 years.  My point: it is possible (and imperative) to build stronger movements in a chilling season, because we have before. 
Trump’s “election” is indeed an apocalyptic moment, in the true sense of that word: his administration will unmask the face of the corporate oligarchs we are truly up against.  (I commend the succinct summary in Frank Bruni’s recent New York Times piece entitled “The Pretend Populism of Donald Trump”). But as Jesus reminds us, such disastrous political developments do not portend the end of our work; rather, they invite us into the beginning of our real discipleship (Mk 13:7-8; on this, see here).
I have often wondered if my writing from the 1980s and 90s is too dated for my younger colleagues, especially the book that most passionately outlines my understanding of faith and practice: Who Will Roll Away the Stone: Discipleship Queries for First World Christians (Orbis, 1994).  But I don’t think so—especially not now.  Because those efforts to reflect theologically on faith-rooted struggles for justice–with their hermeneutical lens of nonviolent resistance to the Powers—were incubated precisely in the dark Reagan/Bush years.  So I believe the gospel’s call to radical discipleship resonates more than ever in this new moment.
One things is for sure: we’ll need much deeper theological and spiritual grounding to weather this storm.  A thin faith will not do, nor will it inspire powerful social movements of resistance and renewal. 
To that end, we warmly invite you to our upcoming annual Bartimaeus Kinsler Institute in February, which we’ll convene her in Oak View, CA, exactly one month after Donald Trump’s inauguration!  We will draw on the historic vision of Martin Luther King’s “A Time to Break the Silence” sermon, 50 years old next year.  And we will deliberate together about how to recontextualize its intersectional analysis and organizing in this cold new political moment.
At this gathering, King’s wisdom will provide a welcome antidote to Trump’s foolishness—appropriately, on the President’s Day holiday.  And community solidarity and re-committing ourselves to radical discipleship will remind us, as this week’s Third Advent prophetic reading intones, to
Strengthen the weak hands,and make firm the feeble knees.Say to those who are of a fearful heart,”Be strong, do not fear!  Here is your God.”   (Isaiah 35:3-4)
 

Rule of the Gun by Ched Myers

Almost 55 years ago President John F. Kennedy famously said “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Speaking on the first anniversary of the “Alliance for Progress” program, he was referring to revolutionary turmoil throughout the Third World as a result of socioeconomic disparities. But the sentiment was echoed by Martin Luther King, Jr regarding the home front, and this week’s events underline its truth.
The deeper truth is that the shootings this week–all of them–reflect perfectly the twin pillars of the American nightmare: White Supremacy and the Rule of the Gun.  “Rule” indeed: hegemony, measure, and law.  We must resist all three.
This is why we look to the blind Bartimaeus, who summons us from Denial to Discipleship. It is why we and our movement do the work we do, friends, and why we cannot and must not let up.

“All the words of the scroll…” A Eulogy for Daniel Berrigan by Ched Myers

Note:  Yesterday, April 3o, 2016, Daniel Berrigan passed into the Cloud of Witnesses, just shy of his 95th birthday.   I am grateful he’s been liberated from the physical pain and restrictions he’s suffered these last years, but I also feel a profound lonliness at the loss of the last of a generation of my male mentors.

The “eulogy” below was published thirteen years ago in The Catholic Agitator (October, 2003)–it is appropriate to share them again now, unedited.  These comments were offered to Dan during an evening worship at the Catholic Worker west coast sister house retreat, which I prefaced with these words:

“I have never understood why we traditionally wait until our loved ones have died before we offer eulogies Continue reading ““All the words of the scroll…” A Eulogy for Daniel Berrigan by Ched Myers”

“Transfiguration or Disfiguration? Remembering Hiroshima,” by Ched Myers

Above: “Mushroom-Shaped Cloud,” by Susumu Horikoshi, age 6, August 1945.
Today is the 70th anniversary of the inauguration of the nuclear age, when the U.S. dropped an atom bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, instantly killing more than 100,000 people.  We remain today under the shadow of nuclear annihilation; this is thus a solemn day to commemorate Disfiguration. 
August 6th is also, however, the day that the church celebrates the Feast of Transfiguration.  On this day we recall Jesus ascending a high mountain  at a crucial turning point in his ministry,  to commune with the spirits of Moses and Elijah (Mk 9:2-10).  Ancient tradition identifies the site with Mt. Tabor, a free-standing, almost hemispherical peak about five miles south-east of Nazareth (see Ps. 88:13; Jer 46:18), where an important Old Testament battle took place (Judges 4:6-7:19).  In the gospel narrative, Jesus is about to commence a march to Jerusalem that will culminate with a nonviolent confrontation with the Powers; so he climbs the mountain in order to draw strength from his ancestors.  
Moses and Elijah represent of course the biblical archetypes of Law and Prophecy.  But they were also visionaries who communed with God on mountaintops (Ex 19:16-20; I Kg 19:8f), encountering the radically undomesticated God in remote wildlands.  Evan Eisenberg, in his brilliant The Ecology of Eden (1998), discusses how the mountain represented the cosmic “world-pole” to the ancient people of the Levant.   They recognized peaks as the origins of all natural fertility that brought blessing on their people; the “Mountain is mythic shorthand for an ecological fact… playing a central role in the flow of energy and the cycling of water and nutrients, as well as in the maintenance of genetic diversity and its spread by means of gene flow.”  The “holiness” of such places was grounded, therefore, in a primal consciousness that these wild highlands represented cradles of life.  
So it is to the mountain that prophets go—to receive instruction on how the people should live (Moses) and assurance of divine accompaniment (Elijah).  And Jesus follows in their footsteps:
Ex 24:15-18:  Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud.  Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain.Mark 9:2-4,7:  Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.  And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus…. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice…
On the mountaintop Jesus is “transfigured” in the presence of his ancestors, gaining strength for the difficult journey ahead.  Like Elijah on the mountain, he is being called back to the Metropolis to face the Powers. 
“And Jesus was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun…” (Mt 17:2).  Matthew’s account alludes to Moses’ third mountain encounter, in which the prophet comes down with his face “shining, because he had been talking with God” (Ex 34:30, 34f; the Hebrew root krn, which is the basis of the verb “to shine,” also means “horn”—which is why medieval artists often depicted Moses with horns).  This, too, is part of the meaning of Transfiguration.  The wilderness experience of transcendence fuels the struggle for true justice in the world.   
The question today is how the spirituality of Transfiguration can empower us to resist the forces of Disfiguration, which continue to gallop across our landscape like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, from mountaintop removal mining to the deaths of young African Americans at the hands of police, and from the ongoing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to climate catastrophe.   
On this Day of Remembering we are instructed to “listen” (Mark 9:7b), and to choose Transfiguration over Disfiguration.

“Stand against the Storm” by Ched Myers

Yesterday was both an exhilarating and excruciating day for faith communities around the world.  On one hand, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the ecological crisis was released, and Muslims observed the beginning of Ramadan at the new moon.  On the other hand, news spread about two historic Christian sanctuaries that were violated on Wednesday, in Charleston, SC and Tabgha, Israel/Palestine.  A few days ago I commented on the extraordinary pontifical call to discipleship under the shadow of the climate Endgame.  Today my heart is centered on the murder of nine members of Emanuel A.M.E. by a young white supremacist.  
Today is Juneteenth—indeed, its 150th anniversary—on which we are supposed to celebrate the long march to freedom of African Americans.  Instead we are preoccupied by yet another brutal shooting of unarmed black folk by a white predator.  As Obama said yesterday: “I’ve had to make statements like this too many times.  Communities like this have had to endure tragedies like this too many times.”  Look in the mirror, white America.
Pictured above is Denmark Vesey, a former slave who was executed in 1822 for attempting to organize a massive slave revolt in antebellum South Carolina.  Vesey was one of the founders of Emanuel A.M.E., the oldest black church south of Baltimore.  This was, and is, a congregation with a long history of struggle for justice, right up to slain pastor Rev. Clementa Pinckney.
There is a long, bitter history of white terrorism toward black churches in America, most infamously symbolized (until now) by the bombing of 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963.   Whites tend to be both ignorant and suspicious of black church as a relatively safe, insular space for African Americans, as well as a center of black social and political power.  As Laurie Maffly-Kipp, a professor of religion and American history at the University of Washington in St. Louis put it: “It’s the one safe space they have for decades that is out of the surveillance of white communities. It has a sacredness just by virtue of being a separate space.”  In light of this, the specter of a young white man posing as a seeker, and being warmly welcomed into this space for a mid-week Bible study, only to open fire in cold blood, is bone-chilling.  It represents a new level of violation, and testifies to the persistent and deadly virus of white supremacy that continues to circulate in the bloodstream of European American culture. 
I feel the same dread and rage at the news of young Israelis setting the Church of the Loaves and Fishes aflame in Tabgha by the Sea of Galilee.  Scrawled on a wall was red Hebrew graffiti warning that “idol worshippers” would be killed.  Like Charleston, this is not an isolated incident; Mazin Qumsiyeh points out that many other churches and mosques have been destroyed since the founding of the Jewish state.  Elaine and I visited at Tabgha church a few years ago, grateful for the modesty of this ancient sanctuary in a land of religious spectacle.  We were taken with the spring that runs by the church and into the lake, and captured by the famous loaves and fishes mosaic on the floor underneath the altar, so iconic for our work in Sabbath Economics. 
These acts are not “extremist”—an epithet hauled out at moments like this by the dominant media to justify the status quo—but rather the inevitable result of our continuing tolerance for racial and religious absolutism.  Two historic sacred spaces have thus become lightning rods for the storm that is gathering. 
It happens that the gospel reading for this coming Sunday, the Solstice, is the story of Jesus and the disciples on the sea in such an archetypal storm—a scene depicted not far, we should note, from Tabgha (Mk 4:35-41).  May we have ears to hear this Word, and to find the faith and courage of Vesey and Pinckney to stand against this storm.