Baptist Heritage

THE DANGLING CONVERSATION AND COUNTERFEIT DISCOURSE

 A Pastoral Message For Our Churches During These Extraordinary Days

As a Simon and Garfunkel fan, one of my all-time favorites is “The Dangling Conversation”, written by the gifted composer Paul Simon in 1966. The theme of the beautiful lyrics is about failed communication between two lovers. The first verse is descriptively powerful:

It’s a still life water color,
of a now late afternoon,
As the sun shines through the curtained lace
And shadows wash the room.
And we sit and drink our coffee
Couched in our indifference,
Like shells upon the shore
You can hear the ocean roar
In the dangling conversation
and the superficial sighs,
The borders of our lives.

The message of the song is clear - indifference leads to failed communication, and renders it as mere “superficial sighs.” Sincere civic debate and constructive conversation around the common good in our political life is hardly possible now in our day and time, and indifference is not the only cause. There is a malignant toxicity that has infected our public discourse.

We now find ourselves living in a hyper-partisan, ideologically polarized, and adversarial discursive political environment where objective facts (e.g., that the sun always rises in the east) no longer determine the validity of truth claims. It is a time when it seems that a malignant ideological tribalism has spread in our public life where differences in perspectives or opinions have constructed an ideological arena where the rules of discourse is zero-sum: which means, in Game Theory, that whatever is gained by one side is - and must be - lost by the other.

This toxic conversational environment now permeates every level of discourse in our society. As an avid student of politics and a curious social observer, I find myself in these days making intentional efforts each day when I wake up to stay centered and grounded so that I do not unwittingly allow myself to get unmoored and be forcibly drawn into the vortex of this centrifugal counterfeit discourse that steals life of its inner harmony and beautiful complexity.

As a regional pastor, that concern extends much deeper and broader than my own individual commitment to stay grounded and centered. My concern extends to the churches and pastors in our regional family who I am privileged to serve. And because we must yet live out our faith in the public sphere, I am profoundly concerned with the state of the testimony of the church in public life. I am concerned for our faith community because the infectiousness of this hyper-partisan and politically polarized environment has also permeated the discourse of the church. And herein lies the danger. The church is the embodiment of Jesus in the world, in the same way that Jesus of Nazareth was the embodiment of God on earth. It is from this theological bedrock profession that my abiding concern for the faithful voice of our churches emanates - that its voice might remain grounded and centered in the crucified Jesus and the risen Christ during these extraordinary days.

So how do we as churches remain centered in the cruciform Christ who has ushered in the reign of God’s kingdom of love?

Chapel of the Holy Cross - Sedona, AZ

Chapel of the Holy Cross - Sedona, AZ

A foundational scriptural basis for the practice and ethic of the follower of Jesus during this extraordinarily toxic season of public life is found in Matthew 22: 15-21, where the Pharisees and the Herodians (who were religious collaborators of the empire) tried to trap Jesus into revealing his loyalty to the Emperor (Caesar) by luring him to disclose his “political” affiliation. Instead, Jesus used the encounter to expose their ultimate allegiance and the fallacy of their religiosity. The rebuke to “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s; and to God the things that are God’s”, was to say that all earthly kingdoms no longer hold absolute sway in our hearts and souls, and that our ultimate allegiance is no longer adjudicated by which ideology wins the contest for power. God’s kingdom is now in our midst, embodied in the life of Jesus, and all forms of earthly power now live under the scrutiny of God’s reign of love in the world. Yes, as followers of Jesus we must have a sound and healthy Christian political theology that is grounded in the cruciform Christ, and not - even never - conflated with any other earthly ideology.

Politics always seeks to reproduce its own preferred social relations that favor its hold on power. In that pursuit, politics also cannot help but conceal its contradictions. These concealed contradictions disclose themselves in the course of a contested and partisan competition for power. For example, politicians like to advertise themselves as the most non-political candidate but, alas, are campaigning for such a political position; they compete for the most compelling argument of how they dislike politics but, alas, a position which they now covet; they claim to speak "for the people", but in actuality espouse only the interests of a their own supporters; they so readily conflate their faith with their politics to burnish their “moral” credentials, but be the first to tell religion to stay out of politics when religion becomes critical of it; a candidate seeks a moral equivalence with the wrongs of an opponent’s past in order to justify one’s wrongs being committed in the present - and the list of contradictions go on and on. Many church leaders and pastors have even gone on to lend their support of this or that candidate as a mandate of their faith, conveniently ignoring some of their own strongly held beliefs that they otherwise would have used to judge others, in order to justify the moral and ethical shortcomings of their partisan choice. But what is ultimately concealed is what lies at the core of this sociopolitical contest - the will to power.

As one who instinctively views circumstances through theological eyes, I am especially discerning and vigilant during a season of ideological warfare, that I don’t get pulled into the vortex of the centrifugal force that fuels counterfeit discourse. Jesus spoke of “truth” many times. In John’s gospel in particular, chapter 8: 31-32 - understanding that Greek was the language in which the New Testament was written - Jesus is heard saying to those who believed in him, “...and you will know the truth, and the truth will will make you free.” (NRSV)

Open Sea

Open Sea

In the Greek, the word from whence “truth” is translated is “aletheia” - literally, the “absence of walls.” So what does Jesus mean about knowing the “truth” that sets free? What does this place - where walls are absent and “unconcealed” - look like, and where the very essence of being alive and human is not hidden? Is there such a place? Consider the antecedent to Jesus’ statement, which qualifies what "knowing the truth" entails: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples...” The truth that Jesus speaks about is not knowledge in general but redemptive, saving truth rooted in obedience to the concrete ethical demands of his teachings and instructions. In submitting ourselves to the practice and appropriation of his ethical demands through obedience, our lives are thrust into the possibility of entering the presence and reign of God on earth and, in that and through that, we are made free. And wherever God is present, truth, “aletheia” inhabits and indwells. The gospel proclaims that in Jesus “The fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”

As followers of Jesus we know to what end God uses power. We know to what end Jesus used his authority. Our tasks as citizens is to discern how earthly politics use their power. To what end? Do they use it only to perpetuate their hold on power and dominion? Do they use their power for the common good? As followers of Jesus, our path is clear, it is not ambiguous. Our path is led not by the gods of Herodians, but by the cruciform Christ. As followers of Jesus, the moral voice we hear has an unmistakable timbre. It is not garbled.

The gospel proclamation is not neutral. Its proclamation is grounded in a God whose very nature is love. And that love issues forth in an indefatigable holy desire to protect the poor, the suffering and the oppressed. And so Jesus’ social vision is unequivocally articulated in concrete political terms at the beginning of his ministry in Luke chapter 4. And while the realization of that vision is ultimately eschatological, it lays out the political agenda of Jesus and the kingdom. God is a God of liberation, who chose to disclose the divine intention in history through liberating a slave people and calling them to be a “light unto the nations”, and through an only Son who revealed God’s presence in the radical and extravagant exercise of agape. To the degree that human institutions participate in this agenda, they enter the astonishing possibility of being in the presence God’s very reign on earth and participate in the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work of love in the world.

The church’s voice cannot be indifferent; and if the way it communicates in society makes its voice disappear and become indistinguishable in the morass of our toxic political climate, then its voice has utterly failed. It is in the obedient practice of the teachings of Jesus that we are set free, and it is in that practice that God’s presence is disclosed. We need to center our discourse and our conversation in God’s reign as disclosed in the life and teachings of Jesus. When the church and the followers of Jesus discipline themselves to stay centered in God, their proclamation always lead others to enter God’s presence that is already at work in our midst. Any other voice that infuses these days with more disconnective energy, and draws our ultimate allegiances into its contradictions, is just dangling conversation and counterfeit discourse.

I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have overcome the world!
— John 16: 33 (NRSV)

Why I am an American Baptist

CPU-Church.jpg

A Testimony From a Son of Missions, in Celebration of Baptist Heritage Sunday - May 17, 2015

The first question asked of anyone in the Philippines when they are introduced for the first time to others is invariably, “Where are you from? Who is your mother, your father? Whose grandson are you?”

I am a 4th generation Filipino Baptist, a product of American Baptist missions. Christianity had already been on Philippine soil for almost 400 years before the first missionary from the American Baptist missionary arrived. Christianity and its Roman Catholic expression were brought to the Philippines by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century primarily as an instrument of imperial colonial policy. The three generations before me in my family were brought to the Baptist faith by the lives and witness of missionaries of the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society.

The very day after Pearl Harbor was attacked, the Japanese Imperial Army invaded the Philippines. They knew that the Philippines was the only Christian nation in Asia. They knew that one of its greatest strengths was its faith. Imperial oppressors share familiar ways. One of the things they all do to a people they intend to dominate and oppress is to first destroy their stories, eradicate their poetry and literature, erase their memory of who they are. And so one of the first things the Japanese Imperial Army did was they went house to house in towns and villages and confiscated every copy of the Bible that they could find. They then took these Bibles to the town plaza and burned them. But the nights that followed – dark as they were – were illuminated by the deep faith of the great women in my family. My grandmother and grandaunts would gather the children at night (my father and siblings and cousins) and recite to them scripture passages they had memorized. They required the children to memorize them as well in the belief that they were to never see nor read a copy of the Bible ever again. They thought that with the Bible burnings and the destruction of the war, a great famine of God’s word was to cover the land, and so they made sure the children’s spiritual storehouses were well-stocked! Whenever I remember them, they remind me of Ruth and Hannah who never lost their trust in God even in the midst of great tribulation.

When I remember them I am reminded of the power of story-telling in the sustenance of our spirituality, and how important it is for the vitality of our faith for today that it is nourished by the memory of our roots. This is especially crucial in our time, for we live in a materialistic and utilitarian culture that for the most part eschews stories.

My grandfather on my mother’s side was orphaned at a young age. He was mentored by American Baptist missionaries who established early on a vocational school for orphan boys. He later on became one of the first graduates of the seminary that grew out of that vocational school that ABC missionaries established in the Philippines. After he graduated he went back to the foothills of his birth and there founded a church. He had a fierce faith, like Gideon. When the Japanese Imperial Army overran that part of the country, 11 ABC missionaries fled towards the hills where my grandfather was pastoring. He helped them find a hiding place. They found a location at the bottom of a deep ravine surrounded by lush forests. They called the place Hopevale. There they built a chapel made of stones and adorned it with a make-shift wooden cross. They called it “The Cathedral in the Glen.” A replica of that cathedral can be found today at the American Baptist Assembly grounds in Green Lake, WI. He and his family and his congregation provided the missionaries companionship, protection, food, and fellowship for almost two years until the Japanese Imperial Army found them. The Japanese Imperial Army was on retreat at that time. They had orders to take no American prisoners. The order was issued to execute the missionaries.

The plaque listing the names of the martyred ABC missionaries, located at the Centennial Memorial on the campus of CPU.

One of the 11 was Dr. James Covell. He was an ABC missionary educator to Japan during the war years but later on was moved to the Philippines with his wife and family when he became a danger to himself and our Baptist partners in Japan in the way he openly and fiercely opposed the militarization of Japan. He and his wife spoke fluent Japanese. In beautiful Japanese, he begged the platoon commander to spare the group, indicating that they were missionaries and were not part of the war. He was almost successful in persuading the platoon commander but his orders from higher command were inflexible. When it became absolutely clear that death was to come, Dr. Covell asked for a time to pray. They were given all the time they needed and after almost an hour they came back to the soldiers hand in hand singing a hymn and then Dr. Covell said on behalf of the group, “We are ready.” Then they were led, two by two, to different spots around the top of the ravine and they were executed. To this day, it is this memory of sacrificial service that inspires many pastors of the Convention of Philippine Baptist Churches to serve with passion even in the midst of daunting challenges and abject poverty!

My great grandfather on my father’s side was a carpenter. His name was Alejo Familiaran. He was an accomplished furniture maker. After he came into the Baptist faith he was commissioned to build the first Baptist church in his town. He was stricken with Glaucoma and became blind during the construction of the bamboo church but - with help of his apprentices - he finished the structure with the feel of his hands. And so whenever I hear the word, “church builder”, I think of my great grandfather Alejo. He “felt” the church, not as brick and mortar – or in his case, bamboo, timber, and coconut leaves – but a fellowship of Jesus people propelled by a fiery mission.

Baptists in general around the world share some fundamental convictions. Perhaps one of the most defining of these – and formative to its very identity - is Religious Freedom or, as it is sometimes known, Soul Liberty. Throughout history, the foundational belief that God has given every person the dignity and the gift of freedom has permitted Baptists of every persuasion to respond freely to the world around them, and appropriate their faith in light of their own understanding of Scriptures. It is this bedrock ‘Baptistic’ belief that has given rise to the variety of Baptist traditions today. The Baptist family has many “offspring” and, therefore, many expressions. And so the question, ‘Why am I an American Baptist?’ is best answered with the prior understanding that ‘Baptist’ and ‘American Baptist’ identities are not necessarily one and the same. It has been said that American Baptists have never been one thing, but many - and therein lies much of our distinctiveness. At the heart of the American Baptist self-consciousness are its powerful history, its passion for social justice and missions. Who American Baptists are today is, therefore, only the contemporary expression of a long history of particular persons who have responded to Christ’s call to missions in the world in peculiar ways.

And so my identity as an American Baptist is not rooted only in organizational structure, or confessional and propositional statements. Rather, beyond all of that, my identity as an American Baptist is grounded in the lives and ministry of particular people who have responded to God’s call in a particular way. It begins with my own family history, with three generations of Filipino Baptists before me who were brought to the Baptist faith by American Baptist missionaries. This faith produced in my family church builders and pioneers who formed my own Baptist faith. And then farther out into the vast panorama of that Baptist history I see Obadiah Holmes, Roger Williams, Benjamin Randall, Mary Webb, John Mason Peck, Lott Cary, Luther Rice, Charles Journeycake, Joanna Moore, Dong Gong, Adoniram & Ann Judson – to name a few pioneers who represent my wider American Baptist ancestry. In more modern memory more saints crystallize this identity for me - Walter Rauschenbusch, James and Charma Covell, Helen Barrett Montgomery, Martin Luther King, Jr., Orlando Costas, Jitsuo Morikawa, Delfin Dianala, Howard Thurman, Margaret Prine, George Peck, Moley Familiaran, Prathia Wynn – to name a few, but saints and all! Why am I an American Baptist? The answer lies in the mighty stories of faith embodied in these people. For me, their lives and ministries have carried forth the American Baptist ‘DNA’ through the generations, and it is their ‘genes’ that continue to stir in my soul.

To celebrate Baptist Heritage Sunday, may we seek to understand deeper who we are as American Baptists and "re-member" - reconnect, reintegrate, reclaim - into our journey the peculiar and powerful story of our Baptist heritage so that we may live with utmost clarity about the role we play in bringing to bear God's kingdom of love here on earth.

Tell your story!