Those 7 Essays All At Once

The previous six essays form a six piece monograph. Since everything comes up in reverse order, you may see the last one first. This is just a note that you might want to go back to the introductory post that introduces the six essays. It can be found here.

Happy reading.


Prayer as Social Justice

A couple of years ago I thought I needed a change because my life had become too insular. One of the things I thought I needed to do was re-engage my social justice sensibilities that had dulled and been slowly moved to the back of the shelf since leaving the Presbyterian Church some twenty years ago. So I have spent the last many months praying and studying with mainline Christians, many of whom can be characterized as social justice warriors.

Of course this re-engagement came just before interesting days. The U.S. has not had two major party candidates running at the same time who were as polarizing as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in my lifetime. Before the election the nation was sure that Hillary would be elected and there was significant concern about how the Trump supporters would react. “We’re one nation,” my liberal friends would intone, “and we have a responsibility to unite after the election.” I have become a bystander in American politics and I don’t think I’ve been emotionally engaged with an election since Ronald Reagan. What follows may or may not align with reality, it is rather how the election affected me emotionally. It’s hard for me to imagine that the Republicans could have been sorer losers or more divisive than the Democrats were in the days following the election. I was appalled and embarrassed and particularly uncomfortable to have divine worship layered over the hatred and vitriol that I was sensing. Even to this day I run into the occasional liberal who says, “He’s not my president.” And I want to shake them and say, “Actually, he is your president, unless you’ve given up your citizenship.”

Eventually, the liberal response to the situation was to form study groups, advocacy groups, organize protests, etc. I was a part of a study group and attended one advocacy group meeting. I found the vitriol toward the conservatives to be just vile enough to make me very uncomfortable. My place of work, in contrast, is a hotbed of conservative radicalism. (Two coworkers claimed they went out and purchased bump stocks the week after the Las Vegas massacre because, “That’s the sort of protection we need, given how pissed off these crazy liberals are.” Given the emotions, I have tended to isolate myself from both sides. Those who claim to hold the middle ground, seem to me to be avoiding the hard issues, preferring to stick their head in the sand, hoping it all just goes away. That is not an option either.

It is in this context of Donald and Hillary, of alt-right and antifa, of pissed off prayers of the people, and a little bit of worry that my bump stock toting cubicle mate doesn’t get too angry this winter that I have been thinking hard about social justice and prayer. My experience with social justice efforts, both back in the 80s and 90s when I was a pastor and now as a layperson, is that while they do some good in relation to the poor and oppressed, they end up being far more divisive than constructive.

Prayer of the heart, on the other hand, is a first, halting step in a completely different direction. As I descend down from head to heart I begin to make the hatred toward President Trump my own and begin to recognize that it’s fear hiding behind a mask of hatred. As I descend down from head to heart I begin to make the bellicose threats of violence that I hear at work my own and I begin to recognize that all the bellowing grows out of the way the “liberal culture” has belittled me and dismissed my concerns for years.

As my prayer moves downward from head to heart, the most difficult step is to do like Christ did so that I may become as Christ is. In order to do this, I must “become sin” just as Christ did so that I may confess that sin, repent, and thus be right with God. So a fundamental part of my prayer is to be clothed with and fully embrace the reality of those with whom I am alienated. This is very heart of the centroversion I talked about in this essay

And once this union of my neighbor and myself begins to take hold, and once I can descend into hell with Christ and fully hear and accept his proclamation of victory over my sin (the sin and hatreds I have become), I can then … and only then … be prepared to go back and do what I need to do. I can serve the poor, I can become an advocate for the oppressed, I can seek justice alongside the immigrants who live in my community who are afraid of the cops, I can encourage the people who are afraid of the immigrants and what sort of future they portend. But I do these things from a completely different direction.

This new context also helps me understand what Erich Neumann was getting on about toward the end of The Origins and History of Consciousness. Social justice by itself is my effort to create the world after my image. Of course I will claim I’m doing it after God’s image and have a dozen Bible verses to prove my point. But because of the breakdown of the collective unconscious, or to put it another way, because I have largely lost my sense of personhood and think of myself and do things as an individual, my efforts at social justice don’t serve society as much as they serve my values. The prayer of the heart is the process by which I can begin to integrate me, as individual, with others including my enemies, even as I integrate myself with God’s energies.

One might argue that this is not really any different than what I used to do as a Presbyterian seeking social justice. I disagree. My experience with social justice efforts then and now is that they is focused on helping them, fixing them, and fixing the system. But what I need to do is help me, fix me, and recognize that I am the system. Over time (and if Neumann is correct, we’re talking decades, not months), as I reintegrate with my neighbor, whether enemy or friend, that reintegration will begin to have reciprocal effects. At that point all of us will begin to move toward the collective “me.”

And with this we have come full circle but ended up at a rather different place. Social justice should still be central in my life, but in a rather different way. I can ignore mishpat because that’s God’s problem and not mine. I can focus on mercy or alms (that is tzedakah) without getting worked up about the broken system which leads to the injustices that cause me the need to give alms. I don’t even need to worry whether the person receiving charity is “worthy of my charity” or whether I am just squandering my money. (And at this point I will stop to let us ponder that sentiment which has been thrown at me on more than one occasion when I give cash to a smelly person. As if I even dare think in terms of them being “worthy of my charity!”) Rather than get caught up in that vicious circle which will inevitably lead to judgment, anger, and possibly retribution, I will use these opportunities to expand my prayer of the heart, thus creating a virtuous circle in which a new community, and eventually, a new collective conscious will begin to arise.

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My Neighbor and Myself

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

These words from 1 John 2:1-2 are worth exploring as an introduction to the corporate character of the prayer of the heart. Two things are happening in the text: (1) Jesus Christ is our atoning sacrifice, a concept rooted in the Levitical sacrificial system. Most simply it means that Christ took our place. This makes the other thing possible. (2) Jesus Christ is our Advocate with the Father. He is especially suited to this task because by becoming human (John 1:1) he is one of us, and furthermore by his willingness to be “made sin” for us (2 Cor. 5:21 – another way of describing him as the atoning sacrifice) he understands us from within the context of our predicament.

As our prayer descends from head to heart, a similar process can occur. Authentic prayer not only unites us with God, it unites us with human nature and created nature, and through that, actually and truly (and not just metaphorically) connects us with other people. As this descent of mind to heart occurs we can also willingly become our neighbor (whether enemy or friend) and from that position of being united spirit and heart with our neighbor, confess our sins (not “their,” but “our” sins: me and neighbor united), pray for strength and wisdom, and, to use a familiar word, advocate for us (me and neighbor united).

I am not making this suggestion lightly. There are deep and hostile divides that alienate my neighbor and myself. To embark on such a descent of mind to heart will sometimes involve becoming that which I despise. Maybe my neighbor is a racist or abuses his family. Maybe my neighbor owns a business that does very bad things to the environment and takes advantage of the farm community in which I live. Maybe it’s as mundane as my neighbor being a Libertarian while I believe there should be more societal order. Whatever it is, there are a lot of reasons that I don’t identify with my neighbor and most definitely don’t want to become my neighbor.

One of Fr. Sophrony’s most famous sayings is, “Stand on the edge of the abyss of despair and when you feel that it is beyond your strength, break off and have a cup of tea.” This is our task in prayer. We embrace the other and hold them tight until we understand that they are us. We are all human, after all. We share the same nature and I really am them. As that union begins to occur their failures, hatreds, and sins (from my perspective) become my failures, hatreds, and sins. But I can only stand at the edge of this despair for so long. When I can no longer do it, I step back and have a cuppa tea (although, since I’m not a Brit, it’s more likely to be a Starbucks Americano double shot, rather than a cuppa).

Slowly, over a long period of time, as I stand at the edge of this hell which is my enemy’s life, I begin the process of being able to embrace that hell, the sins, misdeeds, and evil embodied in the other side, and recognize that this is not merely them, this is also me. As that begins to happen I can begin to understand my enemy and why this neighbor does what he or she does. Having “become sin” on their behalf, I can begin to confess those sins as my sins and my evil. I can begin to repent. And with the strength of repentance, I no longer need to stand on the edge of the abyss, or merely at the gates of hell, I can enter into hell along with Jesus Christ and hear his words of victory. And with assurance of those words of victory, I can return to the world forgiven, not needing to escape to the cuppa tea, but ready to engage with the world in joy and assurance.

But what does this accomplish, this descent from head to heart, which then becomes a descent to hell so that I can be where Jesus Christ is, announcing both forgiveness and victory? What does this have to do with social justice? Well nothing, really, and yet it has everything to do with social justice.

Next essay: Prayer as Social Justice

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A Brief Introduction to the Prayer of the Heart

When growing up I was taught that God wasn’t Santa Clause and prayer wasn’t just asking God for stuff. In order to avoid the pitfalls of just asking for stuff I was taught to pray the ACTS way: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. As my sense of prayer grew more sophisticated I realized that all prayer, no matter what sort, was consciously entering into the presence of God. It wasn’t just asking God nor was it just talking to God, it was being with God. (Just as when we get to know another person we eventually develop the ability to be with that person in silence.)

The Orthodox ascetics (literally, the spiritual athletes, that is, the Christians who explored prayer very deeply) argued that all of the above, while the necessary place to start, was simply an exercise of the mind. In Orthodox sensibility the mind (and our thoughts) are part of our physical being and need to be distinguished from our inner self or heart (Greek nous). Beyond the activities of the mind, prayer can become a movement of our awareness from the mind down to the heart. When this happens we move beyond talking with God and even just being with God and begin communing with and uniting with God being to being.

[Excursus: in case that last sentence is making you nervous I will offer a technical clarification. “Union” is a loaded term, and by saying we can unite with God, I am not saying that our nature (Greek physis) unites with God’s nature (Greek ousia). Rather, to use the langue and distinctions that are typically used in the east (from the earliest days including Cyril of Alexandria, Gregory of Cyprus, Maximus the Confessor, but most especially associated with Gregory Palamas), our heart is united with God’s energies. What’s the difference between essence and energy? Divine energies (often called “the Uncreated Light”) are God, but they are not God’s essence. That’s one of the most important distinctions in Orthodoxy and Edward Siecienski’s book, The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy, gives a nice overview in ch. 7. To be fair to those who remain uncomfortable, this whole area remains a point of contention between East and West.]

As we commune with God in the heart rather than in the head we open up the very core of our being to the Holy Spirit and we also begin to unite with God. In this way prayer and the Eucharist work together to unite us in the different aspects of our physical being (heart and body) with God. This is the true meaning of communion, not just as fellowship, but as “union with,” or joint participation. As I describe it here, the prayer of the heart sounds kind of easy. Those experienced in these matters say it is remarkably difficult. It’s not just praying in a different way nor is it praying without words. It is a spiritual movement away from the physical (the mind) and down into the true self (the heart). The ascetics say, based on centuries of experience, that it is something that typically can only be fully accomplished through the guidance of someone who already has experience in this area.

Why is it so hard? One of the consequences of original sin is the dissolution of our unity. Our connection with divine life was dissolved, leading to our immediate spiritual deaths and our eventual physical deaths. Our connection of our inner being (heart) and our physical being was dissolved, as a result of that our awareness of human nature, that is, our connection with other people faded, and for the most part, disappeared. Christian theologians most often speak of this in terms of the crisis of personhood (which, not surprisingly parallels historically Neumann’s crisis of the collective unconscious). Our personhood is not only us, it is us in proper relationship with other persons. Personhood presumes the human spirit (physis) which is shared by all of us and connects us. Because we are not aware of this collective spirit we ignore or deny it and think of ourselves as individuals. Reducing a person to an individual is a reflection of sin which blinds us to our true nature. Sin alienates us from our shared nature, but it does not annihilate it. Paul’s doctrine of the Body of Christ and John’s doctrine of the Vine and the branches assumes the reality of a shared human nature revivified in the victory of Christ and enlivening presence of the Holy Spirit.

Prayer of the head (the ACTS process being one example) is our disunited self trying to talk to God. Prayer of the heart is a step toward reuniting the disunited parts. It starts with reuniting ourselves (the movement down from head to heart) which in turn makes it possible to begin the process of reuniting with God and with others. Furthermore, this process, the prayer of the heart, makes our heart alive and pliable thus making it possible to expand the heart (an image drawn from the parable about the new wine and wine skins). The more our heart expands, the more God is able to enter in, the deeper, broader, higher, and more profound our communion – or union – with God becomes.

Because of a 700 hundred year history of individuation (according to Jung) we have lost touch with and have become profoundly alienated from our human nature. The tragic effect of this reality is that as we enter into the prayer of the heart, we’re not even aware that we are reconnecting with our nature. We get all excited about God (which is certainly a good thing!) but remain oblivious to humanity (and if the ascetics are right, with all creation) that we are being reconnected to all because of a living and expanding heart.

Ironically, even as we pray without being aware of its social implications, social justice becomes yet another tool of alienation. We pursue it because in our binary thinking it is active (and not escapist). We participate in it because we think that in this way we participate in God’s salvation of the whole world. But salvation, including the salvation of the world, only comes as the world participates in the life-giving divine energies. And those energies are available to the world, both people and creation, through our hearts that are expanded by true prayer.

But what does this sort of prayer of the heart, with our neighbor or enemy specifically in mind, look like? I will explore this further in the next essay.

Next essay: My Neighbor, Myself

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The Schism of the Systems: Culture in Crisis

In the final section of The Origins and History of Consciousness, Erich Neumann offers an explanation of one of the great concerns facing modern society: the breakdown of civil discourse and the apparent accompanying breakdown of culture itself. The original German version of the book was written in 1949, so the context of his ideas is Germany between the wars, the rise of Hitler, and the world immediately after World War II. In short, our current crisis is not new but rather a further maturing of forces that need to be understood in terms of decades and centuries, not election cycles.

Neumann’s concern has to do with what he calls “re-collectivization.” Drawing on Carl Jung’s theories of the “collective unconscious” as a trans-personal connection between individuals within a tribe or culture, and to a lesser extent, among all humanity, Neumann argues that we have lost our connection to the collective unconscious. The Renaissance is a convenient signpost marking a transition away from societies (or more accurately, tribes) with a strong collective connection toward more individuality. As people became more individuated, they slowly lost awareness of the collective unconscious and its guidance became unavailable to them.

Neumann argues (pp. 381ff) that humans are really quite bad at being individuals. Without the structure of the collective unconscious giving us foundations for our thinking and parameters for what is acceptable, we inevitably seek re-collectivization by joining “mass collectives” which provide us with “participation mystique” (p. 383). This is not participation in a true collective unconscious (thus it’s a “mystique” and not a reality, in his terminology); it is more akin to the joy or “mystique” of joining a bandwagon. But because the foundations of these mass collectives are arbitrary to anyone outside the collective (for instance, the Tea Party in 2008 or Bernie Sanders’ appeal in 2012), different collectives mass together but inevitably disagree with each other, often violently.

Being American, I will illustrate with the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It’s a fine historical document, but today we wonder just what is so self-evident about these truths. We wonder because they are no longer so self-evident. In fact there are competing sets of self-evident truths. Alongside these truths of American civil religion, there are the self-evident truths of Islam. Many Americans have been scandalized by certain members of the Trump administration who are trying to institute the self-evident truths of a certain flavor of fundamentalist Protestantism that is utterly foreign to people living on either coast. There is also the rise of Putin’s Russia and the newly reminted China and the self-evident truths of these two cultures are as frightening as the self-evident truths of Islam or Christian fundamentalism.

This also occurred a couple of generations earlier (as Neumann observed) in Europe. Germany, France, and Italy were deeply divided with differing mass collectives that broadly broke down into Communist, Fascist, or Capitalist collectives. The result was the two World Wars. Being isolated, North America was not on the cutting edge of this process and the center held for a couple more decades. To an extent with the Korean War, and certainly by the Viet Nam war, a similar process, but with different collective sensibilities, occurred in the United States.

Europe recognized the terrible consequences of this “schism of systems” and was able to unite under a new mass collective banner represented by the European Union. But it is now clear that the values that underlie the EU while widespread, are still perceived as arbitrary, and not everyone has bought in. The result is schism, many of them violent, both on the national level (Greece and Britain chafing under th EU, for instance) and also internecine conflict, illustrated best in France where the North African French and francophone Africans have not bought into the collective assumptions of the majority of French people.

In the United States this schism of mass collectives is jumbled, the divides cutting in different and sometimes seemingly contradictory directions. There is a race divide. As the old mass collective began to break down in the 1950s and 60s racial tensions between Blacks and Whites as well as Native Americans and Whites shattered the illusion of a true collective consciousness. In my childhood memory, the Black Panthers and Wounded Knee were the exclamation marks of this deep divide.

Today, alongside the racial tensions, we have a mass collective that seeks security (build a wall) and a different mass collective that seeks openness (we are a great country because we are a country of refugees). Each collective interprets the fundamental social problems differently. Neumann describes it as follows (referring to 1940s Europe, and not contemporary America):

The disintegration of the old system of values is in full swing. God, King, Fatherland, have become problematical quantities, and so have Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, love and fair play, human progress, and the meaning of existence. This is not to say that they will not continue to influence our lives as transpersonal quantities of an archetypal nature; but their relation to one another is questionable, and their old hierarchical order has been destroyed. (p. 390)

I find Neumann’s argument completely convincing and very well documented. It is even more so because of how his predictions have played out in the sixty-five years since he wrote the book. And since this is the case, it is also clear that the manner in which the church has set its priorities (aligning itself with one mass collective against another) actually supports and furthers the “schism of systems” rather than healing it.

Extroverted means of dealing with social crises (that is, the social justice sensibility of most Protestants and many Catholics) actually pits the varying mass collectives against each other. Neumann worried about this also. “[T]he individual who lacks the support of a compensatory movement inside himself [ie, a strong identification with the predominant mass collective] drops out of the ordered fabric of civilization.” The result is “a shrinking of world horizons and the loss of all certainty and meaning in life” (p. 390). This is a near perfect description of the nihilism that underlies the random American violence from Oklahoma City (1995) to Las Vegas (2017).

But as dire as Neumann’s description is, he does not despair. This isn’t a static state in his view, it’s a necessary process we are in the midst of. This is the inevitable consequence of the rise of the individual that began with the Renaissance. But we now have to move beyond it. The knee jerk human reaction to the rise of individual consciousness is the inevitably destructive and cruel mass collective. The actual next step (redeveloping and rediscovering a true collective consciousness) is exceedingly difficult and so we had to be faced with the terrible consequences of individual consciousness in order to motivate us toward the next step.

Returning to his field of expertise, he compares our situation to adolescence (pp. 392ff). The terrible necessity of adolescence is that they have to go through a disintegration of personality (the one given to them by their family unit) in order to begin the process of reintegration of personality so that the adolescent can become a true individual. Similarly, we have experienced a disintegration of tribe and culture in the last 500 years. The key task now is not primarily to help the poor and oppressed, but rather to reintegrate disparate groups into an authentic society so that the poor and oppressed are no longer marginalized.

I will argue in the next essay that the Church is uniquely qualified to lead in this process. I will further argue that the specific gift we have to offer is not the work of social justice but rather authentic prayer centered in the Eastern Christian sensibility that the whole point of salvation is union with God.

Footnote: Jung’s and Neumann’s idea of the collective unconscious is similar, but not identical, to the Christian doctrine of shared human nature (Greek physis). The fact that the collective unconscious sounds so wacky to us is simply an indication of how deeply the alienation growing out of our emphasis on individuality, affects us, even in the church where we have a doctrine for that.

Next essay: A Brief Introduction to Prayer of the Heart

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Utopia, Dystopia, the Social Gospel, and the Return of Christ

Just as our concept of mishpat and tzedakah is flawed (see the previous essay), so our concept of social justice has been twisted by historical trends, and as a result, our confidence in its efficacy is flawed. This twisting of perceptions can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution which not only led to change but also to a change in the pace of change. Things happened so quickly that negative unintended consequences overwhelmed societal structures and norms. These unintended consequences were addressed under the name of social reform and life got better for most people. We now think of social reform (and later, the Social Gospel, and after that, Social Justice) driven by ordinary citizens as normative. But historically this conclusion is hard to defend.

The 19th and early 20th centuries were a time of previously unimaginable change. The pace of change and the creation of wealth (both results of the Industrial Revolution) so far exceeded anything that had come before that people’s experience were outpacing their imagination. On the one hand the level of human horror that was created in places like industrialized London was beyond anything we thought possible prior to the Industrial Revolution. At the same time the achievements that were occurring which led to wealth creation and human comfort were also beyond anything we thought possible. So it is that a single reality that was beyond reasonable explanation was understood as simultaneously dystopian and utopian.

The Industrial Revolution also interconnected society and societies across Europe and North America in a manner not seen before. Change in London and Manchester led to change in rural England. Change in Europe resulted in change in the Americas. Increasingly nothing was viewed in isolation. Grand systems (either utopian or dystopian) were created to explain what was happening.

These utopian sensibilities shaped the politico-economic philosophies of the day (both Adam Smith’s invisible hand on the right and Karl Marx’s Communism on the left are typical of this tendency). The same forces led to millenarian religious movements (Adventism, Dispensationalism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormonism). The millenarian movements all tended to be escapist. As the whole world became intertwined there was an increasing despair that the world could not be fixed. (This is the dystopian side of the new cultural sensibility, more Marx and less Adam Smith.) The only “solution” was to await Jesus Christ’s return and his rescue of Christians from the terrible conditions and terrible world in which they found themselves.

On the utopian side of the coin, this new world also brought about aid societies the sort of which had never been seen before. Some simply sought to provide relief to the destitute, but for the most part, these new movements also tried to understand their role in terms of the intertwined world. This was the era of the Social Gospel (Walter Rauschenbusch being its most famous proponent). It was also the era of utopian communities such as Brook Farm, New Harmony, Oneida, and the Amana Communities which began popping up seemingly everywhere. The early days of reform were remarkably successful. Even the powerful industrialists recognized that the system could not continue in its present state and so it took little urging from the reformers to bring about massive change. The reform was so successful that it became the model of Christian activism. Thus contemporary social justice is a continuation of the Social Gospel and the sensibility that we must address problems systemically rather than individually.

Whether the early success of these reform movements continued is a matter of significant debate. Industrial society outpaced our political system by many decades, but eventually governments caught up and established laws, rules, and guidelines to protect their citizens. Labor unions were created. A new relationship between business, government, and labor evolved that reflected the new reality of an industrialized world. In the United States this new relationship was consummated with the Great Society legislation of the 1960s. Efforts for reform have continued since then, but the necessity of reform is not as obvious and so there is an ebb and flow of regulations.

What is clear in the last half century is that while there is a minimum standard of decency which society demands beyond which there is outrage, the fundamental reality of poverty and oppression has not changed. Those inclined to take advantage of others (whether in the camp of business, labor, or government) will, given the chance, continue to take advantage. Unless things pass beyond that ill-defined minimum standard of decency, most people are inclined to look the other way. New legislation is always accompanied by new loopholes. New protections always result in new ways to take advantage of the disadvantaged. It’s the same chess board, the pieces merely get rearranged.

This leaves us with some hard questions. Was the success of efforts toward systemic change in the previous century a fluke? Were those changes largely inevitable as the industrial revolution matured into a newly ordered society with far more powerful central governments and brand new labor unions to balance out the power of industry? Or, was this new societal order not at all inevitable and instead the result of reform movements that focused on systemic change? The history of social movements (from initial success tied rather specifically to fast-paced societal change to more recent stagnation) indicates that such systemic reform movements are not normative. Rather they are as much a product of the Industrial Revolution as the squalid conditions and terrible injustice that brought about the reform movements in the first place.

One of the results of this history is that we now see social justice through a binary of escapism or activism. Either we get involved in social justice efforts or settle for a private morality where one walks in the garden alone with Jesus, not letting the cares of the world intrude. The second effect of this binary thinking is that we tend to assume that the only way the world can change is through (binary 1) a world ending climax (the return of Jesus Christ or a nuclear war, for instance) or (binary 2) social reform and social justice movements that will improve the plight of the oppressed and bring the oppressors to justice.

Like all binaries, this one blinds us to both the challenges we face and the opportunities that we have. I will come to the opportunities in a later essay, but the next essay will take a close look at the challenges that face us and why the social justice model is ill equipped to face those challenges.

Next essay: The Schism of Systems: Culture in Crisis

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Judgment and Mercy

I have talked about the problem of translating “justice” (Hebrew is mishpat) previously in essays such as My Sojourn with the Social Justice Warriors, The Really Hard Part, and Oppressed-a-non. I want to revisit this topic in more depth as a starting place for this series of essays because we tend to turn the meaning of mishpat on its head. The familiar words of Amos 5:24 offer an example. The translation of record of mainstream Protestantism, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) reads, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” This translation makes it sound like Amos is offering a hopeful vision of the future, a glimpse of the Kingdom.

But this is not what Amos has in mind. The King James Version (KJV, translated long before our modern sensibilities of social justice) says that “judgment” (not “justice”) will roll down. In case we are confused by the meaning of judgment and who will be judged, Amos continues by describing its nature: “Therefore I will cause you to go into captivity beyond Damascus” (v. 27).

Another word found frequently alongside mishpat is tzedakah, translated “righteousness” above in v. 24. When mishpat is rendered as “justice” rather than “judgment,” righteousness can also be misleading. The word is similar to mishpat, but again our contemporary usage of “justice” will too easily get in the way of understanding what’s going on. Rabbi Joseph Teluskin says,

From Judaism’s perspective, therefore, one who gives tzedaka is acting justly; one who doesn’t, unjustly. And Jewish law views this lack of justice as not only mean-spirited but also illegal. Thus, throughout history, whenever Jewish communities were self-governing, Jews were assessed tzedaka just as everyone today is assessed taxes.

Teluskin goes on to quote Maimonides,

There are eight degrees of tzedaka, each one superior to the other. The highest degree … is one who upholds the hand of a Jew reduced to poverty by handing him a gift or a loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding work for him, in order to strengthen his hand, so that he will have no need to beg from other people.

What Teluskin describes is something quite different than what comes to mind when we say righteousness will flow down. The English word that comes far closer to this sensibility is “mercy.” In fact the same word tzedakah is one of those multi-purpose Hebrew words that is so rich in variation that there is no good single English equivalent. It certainly means righteousness, but not in the Calvinistic sense of something that only God has the ability to give, rather it is a description of the moral life. When your children ask you in times to come, “What is the meaning of [the Torah]? … Then you say … If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right (tzedek)” (Deut. 6:20, 25). The Talmud (Bava Bathra 9b) says: “Tzedakah [and the Bava Bathra seems to have mercy or charity in mind] is equal to all the other commandments combined.”

What is striking is that neither Hebrew word actually includes the idea that we should fix the root problem of poverty (the current conception of social justice). Alms-giving and the righteousness that grows out of that lies at the heart of both the Old Testament and Talmudic system. This is not surprising when we put the words mishpat and tzedakah into a political context. The nearly universal form of government in the ancient near east was monarchy. This is also the context of the New Testament which was written within the borders of the Roman Empire. There were exceptions (and Teluskin describes “self-governing Jewish communities” as an example), but for most of history, fixing the system was not an option; you either helped the poor by giving them food or money (tzedakah) or you got involved in a plot to overthrow the King or Queen (mishpat).

The equation seems rather different today. Most of us in the Western world live in a country with some variant of a representative democracy. Switzerland is the only country I’m aware of that is close to a true democracy, but most of the rest of us have at least some say indirectly through our representatives. This new political environment was not envisioned by the writers of scripture. Political theology today recognizes there is a third way beyond the traditional meanings of mishpat and tzedakah; we can work to change the system to be more friendly to the poor and oppressed. Our newer understanding of “justice” reflects this, and I suspect that this is why the word mishpat is now almost universally translated into English as “justice” rather than “judgment” and tzedakah as “righteousness” rather than “mercy” (although the latter remains a bit curious).

Unfortunately, this hope that we can fix the system, while a nice theory, has not worked very well. While the poor and oppressed are incomparably better off today than they were in the first century, the systemic problems of poverty and oppression persist. Sadly, three centuries or more of enlightened governance has changed few of these realities. For those in power there is always a loophole. Furthermore, the rich and powerful continue to appear to be ignorant and unresponsive to the fundamental needs of society. Here in the United States tzedakah as “righteousness” is not, nor has it ever been the righteous system that supports everyone, rhetoric of the City shining on a hill notwithstanding, rather tzedakah as “mercy” or “alms” remains the only practical way forward as we seek to become a righteous people of God.

Although the Talmud does not speak to this issue to my knowledge, I have one more observation about social righteousness: It is tempting to try to fix others or fix the system in place of fixing myself. There are at least two reasons for this. First, fixing others is a necessarily public action and we receive praise and increase our stature for such public actions. Fixing myself is (or should be) a private affair that should remain between God, me, and my confessor. It’s harder to get excited about something for which we don’t receive praise. Second, fixing myself is an extremely difficult task. Even though actual progress can be made on fixing myself and even though there is little historical evidence that fixing others is or ever has been an effective strategy, we tend to follow the path that leads to little resistance and lots of praise, while ignoring the historical evidence.

Next essay: Utopia, Dystopia, the Social Gospel, and the Return of Christ

Return to “Prayer as Social Justice” index.



Introduction to Prayer as Social Justice

In a previous essay I made the claim, in the context of Carl Jung’s Hero model of transforming the world, that liberal Protestantism is extroverted in sensibility while Orthodoxy is centroverted. In trying to sort out the implications of this, I keep circling back to the role of prayer in our efforts toward a just world.

The heart of Orthodox sensibility is that we are called, not to change the world, but to change ourselves. This goes against the current of contemporary thinking. One might even think this leads to naval gazing or a self-centered morality that has little or nothing to do with social justice. But as we come to understand the various components of this conundrum, a way forward will hopefully become more clear. I will explore this in several essays that together form a monograph, critiquing social justice as I practiced it when I was a pastor in a mainline Protestant denomination.

  1. Judgment and Mercy, will evaluate the meaning of two Hebrew terms typically translated as “justice and righteousness”
  2. Utopia, Dystopia, the Social Gospel, and the Return of Christ. This essay will examine recent history and how that has caused us to think in a binary manner and how this binary thinking has both shaped our view of the world and blinded us to possible options.
  3. The Schism of Systems: Culture in Crisis is an essay that will consider Erich Neumann’s analysis of the same crisis in Europe sixty years ago. Neumann’s analysis is helpful because he uses psychological and anthropological frames of refernce. These frameworks provide clarity to some theological ideas that are at the center of both social justice and an Orthodox understanding of prayer.
  4. A Brief Introduction to Prayer of the Heart. Neumann makes some crazy sounding claims and proposes some even crazier ideas based on those claims. In this essay we’ll discover that Neumann may not be crazy at all, and in fact sounds a lot more like a Church Father talking about prayer than he does a modern psychologist talking about cultural maturity.
  5. My Neighbor, Myself is a brief application of the theory of prayer of the heart using the last couple years of my life to illustrate the application.
  6. Prayer as Social Justice tries to answer the question, “Is this really social justice or am I just kidding myself?” In order to answer that question I revisit “justice and righteousness” or “judgment and mercy”, depending on the era (maybe I should stick with “mishpat and tzedakah”) as a way of bringing these essays full circle.



Flu Vaccines and Critical Theory

I went back and looked and am surprised that I have not written about Critical Theory here on the blog. It is the child of Marxist theory. After Marxism was finally thoroughly discredited, the Marxists on campus changed a few words here and there but kept the centerpiece idea that truth has no practical reality, all ideas that seem true are rather rooted in power. For those who espouse Critical Theory, it is incumbent on them to either condemn or desconstruct all ideas that are rooted in power. That would include white male professors and their acolytes (this is primarily a university phenomena, after all), government officials (although in practice we should be more specific and here in the U.S. say Republican government officials – I never did see a take-down of either Bill Clinton or Barak Obama using Critical Theory, although they might exists), corporations, etc.

Critical Theory, with its Marxist roots and rejection of truth in favor of power, has primarily been the playground of liberals and radicals. More recently it has become more mainstream and C.T. analyses can be found in the Black Lives Matter movement, Antifa writings, and more surprisingly, in various alt-right writings. It is the latter that was a wake-up call for me. Given the pervasiveness of what might be called sloppy Critical Theory (that is, using C.T. principles in an amateur or armchair manner, without understanding the theory in and of itself), it turns out all of us fall victim to using it without understanding precisely what we are doing.

My work environment is often quite uncomfortable – I might even say hostile, if I wanted to make it a political issue. This is not surprising because it is located in Northwest Iowa where Congressman Steve King reigns supreme. I have always considered myself a conservative, but I find that sort of bile reprehensible, but it is the pervasive attitude of the region. So by the standards of the office I’m a raging liberal.

A month or so ago the anti-vaxers were on the war path. Our insurance company provides flu shots for free and strongly encourages all of us to get one. (For the sake of my survival in the office, I will neither confirm nor deny the presence of vaccine in my blood system.) Turns out that flu shots are an epidemic, the dangers of which, to be understood, should be compared to Zika and Ebola. (At least that’s what I’ve heard with great authority on the other side of the cubicle.)

I will grant that there are potential side effects to flu shots and if I had read the disclaimer that a person receiving a flu shot had to sign, I would have seen that in a very tiny percentage of people receiving the shot, side effects, some of them serious, possibly even requiring hospitalization and long term health issues, might occur. Historical studies show that the side effects affect far fewer people than the 5,000 to 49,000 people (on average) a year that die of influenza related issues (according to the CDC).

The anti-vaxer sensibility is rooted in a profound distrust of corporate America. Anything that Monsanto, or AstraZeneca, or Wal-Mart (corporations possessing power) do is highly suspect. Any research or science that they have a hand in is automatically rejected as false, rooted in a naked grab for money or power. There is a grain of truth in this sensibility. (I admit that I have a deep distrust and dislike for Monsanto, for instance, because they have record of abuse that rivals the likes of Enron, Wells Fargo and Robert Mugabe.)

But being wary of things a drug company or chemical company says and does is different than allowing that wariness to devolve into an outright rejection of science. (And granted, science is far from perfect. Pasta, butter, meat, wine, coffee, aerobics: the list of scientific flip flops could go on for a long time.)

But back to the anti-vaxers. The ones I know (and there are, frighteningly, a lot of them), have reduced the whole difficult and muddled problem of scientific discovery down to analyzing the whole scientific endeavor with Critical Theory (even though they may never have heard of CT – it seems to been the air these days). Drug Companies make a profit on flu vaccines. Drug Companies are huge, powerful, and spend a lot of money lobbying congress. The inescapable conclusion is that the flu vaccine is an epidemic every bit as bad as Zika and Ebola.

Karl Marx and the 5,000 to 49,000 or so people who died of influenza must be rolling over in their graves.


Is Evangelicalism Introverted?

So the inevitable question from the previous essay has come up. I proposed, using Neumann’s categories, that mainline Protestantism espouses an extroverted version of the Gospel while Orthodoxy espouses a centroverted version. This week someone said, “Well then, that must mean that Evangelicalism is an introverted version of the Gospel.”

I didn’t even have to think about it. “Nope.” (I need to note that I have been out of touch with Evangelicalism for a couple of decades and now only look in from the outside, so my perceptions are possibly out of date.) Evangelicalism is not structured to interact with world (which is what extroversion, introversion, and centroversion explore). It is implicitly (and often explicitly) anti-world. Within that tradition one engages the world primarily through evangelism which is a mode of getting those in the world to move from the world to the church.

That could be read to say I look down on evangelism. I don’t. The issue (and there is an issue) is not the practice of evangelism, but rather its motive. In my (admittedly out of date) experience the energy for Evangelical evangelism grows out of an assumption that the world is a bad place and that we need to get people out of the world as soon as possible. The line between that and believing creation is also to be distrusted is a fine line indeed. My bias in this direction comes from a book that had a profound influence on me. In Against the Protestant Gnostics, Philip J. Lee argues quite persuasively that Evangelicalism is Gnostic of the Manichean variety and much of the effort during the conciliar age (3rd and 4th century) was aimed precisely against this sort of thing.

While standing against the world, Evangelicalism at the same time appropriates, or borrows from the world. Take music and architecture as an example. There are a half dozen or more Orthodox musical traditions. There is also a few Roman Catholic traditions and arguably also a Continental European Protestant musical tradition. Roman Catholics and Orthodox, as well as Swedish and Finnish Lutherans all have their architectural styles that are an application of their belief system. Evangelicalism does not have that. The music style is borrowed from Nashville and the architecture comes straight from the theater. This is a very specific outgrowth of the Evangelical distrust of creation. There is no true habitation of the faith inside the created order because the focus is on heaven on not on earth.

Frank Schaeffer, artist, film maker, and one time Evangelical, was exceedingly shrill on this point. As an evangelical he both intellectually understood and experienced the reality that there is no room for true art within Evangelicalism. He had no home there beyond the a small space granted him in the memory of his father.

Circling back to Neumann, there can be no Jungian hero whatsoever without serious and authentic interaction with society. The introverted hero (to return to the original comment) does not reject the world, he or she studies it, embodies it, and ultimately understands it and then imbues it with new meaning and a new telos, and in the process overthrows the old order. This is nothing like the Evangelicalism I grew up in and have interacted with in the last couple of decades.

What are the implications of this? Neumann explores that in some detail (although not in relation to Evangelicalism, which wasn’t really a thing in 1940s and 1950s Germany). If a social or religious movement fails to emerge with hero sensibilities (whether extroverted, introverted, or centroverted), it historically almost always settles into the pattern of the ancient mystery religions, according to Malinowski (who wrote in the 1930s and, to be clear, I haven’t read – I’m taking Neumann’s word for it). Gnosticism is one flavor of mystery religion, and so, not surprisingly, even though Neumann in the 1950s and Lee in the 1970s comes at the question from completely different angles and different intellectual sensibilities, their conclusion is the same as Malinowski’s. Evangelicalism is inoculated from developing any hero sensibility at all because the only hero allowed is an “outsider” and rescuer, the heavenly Christ who will return (and in the particular sect I grew up in, won’t even return all the way to earth but only to the sky) and snatch up those who are faithful to him to take them up to heaven. The world and created order is so beyond repair there is no room for a hero, only an escape.

I want to finish by stating unequivocally that Evangelicalism is not a form of Gnosticism. Just as Orthodoxy was heavily influenced by Greek dualism, so Evangelicalism has been heavily influenced by Augustine’s Manicheism (that he was never able to completely free himself from). Even though Orthodoxy is not dualistic, it has certain characteristics of Greek dualism and Orthodoxy needs to always be aware of that danger. Similarly, Evangelicalism has several characteristics that look like Manicheism (a very close cousin of Gnosticism) and Evangelicals need to be vigilant of the Gnostic danger.