Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Confrontation with a Homeless Jesus (Brian E. Konkol)

The following was published on the Sojourner's God's Politics blog on Christmas Day, 2012, and can be found at: http://sojo.net/blogs/2012/12/25/christmas-confrontation-homeless-jesus

When asked to identify common features of the historical Christmas storyline, many speak of Mary, Joseph, shepherds, wise men, angels, King Herod, and of course, the newborn Jesus.  While this list of central figures provides a perspective of Christmas, we too often fail to recognize the social circumstances in which Jesus was born, thus our understanding of the nativity narrative is too often left incomplete.  In other words, in the midst of our various congregational and community Christmas celebrations, we are confronted with the harsh reality that Jesus was brought into the world within a condition of homelessness.  As a result, one can argue that we cannot fully commemorate Christmas without recognizing its social setting, for the context of Jesus’ birth points us toward the content and concerns of Jesus’ life. 

While the Gospel promise of Christmas provides comfort and peace through the awesome in-breaking of God’s presence among us, the nativity account is also deeply confrontational, for we are challenged to envision the Son of God born into a setting in which most would find disgusting.  While many Christmas songs, movies, Sunday school pageants, and holiday artwork depict the birth of Jesus as serene and delightful, the New Testament describes Mary and Joseph in the company of animal filth and unsanitary foulness.  And so, instead of the charm and pleasantries of modern-day birthing centers, one can safely reason that Jesus’ first smells were saturated with the odors of animal urine and fecal matter.  All together, Jesus was – according to the New Testament – born into a strenuous state of homelessness, and such circumstances should not be ignored or uncomfortably cast aside.

As people of faith it is crucial to recognize Jesus’ birth in the context of homelessness, for not only does such attention provide a more accurate portrayal of the nativity narrative, but is also points us toward that which Jesus calls us to prioritize. 

According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, the current number of homeless people in the US is estimated at 633,782.  While the majority of our homeless population sleeps in emergency shelters or utilizes transitional housing programs, the National Alliance to End Homelessness reports that nearly 40% are unsheltered, and thus live on the streets, in cars, abandoned buildings, or other places not intended (or adequate) for human habitation.  However, while the unsheltered homeless population has increased in recent years (due to unemployment, high housing costs, lack of affordable health care, etc.), the US federal government has repeatedly cut funding for public housing and shelters.  Furthermore, many state and local governments have also reduced homelessness-focused resources, in addition to passing controversial legislation (such as anti-panhandling and tent-city zoning) that some believe unjustly criminalizes homelessness. 

While statistics may reveal rates and responses of homelessness, the holy family of Christmas can demystify some of its causes.  For example, the nativity narrative shows that Mary possessed a desire for more suitable family housing (Luke 2:7), and because Mary and Joseph traveled numerous miles (Luke 2:4) and Joseph was a self-employed carpenter (Matthew 13:55), their strong work ethic is on display.  In addition, their response to Herod’s threats show a sharp intellectual capacity (Matthew 2:13-15), and their willingness to follow God’s instruction reveals a deep-rooted faith.  And so, while Mary and Joseph were hard-working, mentally capable, strong in faith, and had a yearning for something better, they were nonetheless cast aside, pushed away, and told to move on despite their desperate situation.  And so, with Mary and Joseph in mind, we should resist the simplistic and false assumption that homelessness is solely a direct result of personal laziness, incompetence, lack of faith, or absence of desire.

As many recite the New Testament Christmas narrative in the days ahead, we should indeed feel the comfort and joy of God’s presence, and we should gather with loved ones to celebrate the ways in which God accompanies humankind through the birth and life-giving company of Jesus.  However, in the midst of our celebrations, we should also feel confronted, for the fact that homelessness continues to exist reveals that our public response to God’s amazing grace remains insufficient.  As Jesus was born into the harsh conditions of homelessness, and because he later called his followers to embrace the excluded, as people of faith we should see the faces of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in all those who struggle for sustainable life, and thus collectively overcome the all too common myths about the causes and solutions of homelessness.  The time is upon us to celebrate God’s abundant grace, but also recognize the confrontation of Christmas, and in doing so, journey with Jesus to ensure that all people can receive life, love, and the dignity of having a place to call home.        

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Grieving With or Gawking At: A Response to Responses of Tragedy (Brian E. Konkol)

The following was published on the Sojourners' God's Politics blog on December 17, 2012, and can be found at: http://sojo.net/blogs/2012/12/17/grieving-or-gawking-response-responses-tragedy

In the time following our latest national tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, many have wondered where God was in the midst of these horrific events.  While such questions are indeed significant and deserve extended consideration (and thankfully, many have already addressed the subject), instead of wondering where God was, perhaps the time is upon us to also consider where we are.  In other words, while it is imperative to contemplate and debate the role and presence of God during such catastrophes, it is also critical to consider our collective response as a human community.

We often learn of tragic events through the lenses of news media, and of course, the various outlets possess mixed motives and results.  While there is nothing inherently wrong with wishing to share the stories that surround such situations, there is fine line between seeking facts and invading privacy, and this boundary is too often crossed.  In the hours immediately following the recent shootings in Connecticut, countless camera crews, photographers, and reporters crowded around devastated children and traumatized families, and while some merely wished to share information and build awareness, others seemed to be more interested in ratings and profit.  And so, while the debates surrounding media ethics in the aftermath of tragedy will surely continue, most would agree that even the most sensitive of camera crews, photographers, and reporters do not always create the most ideal setting for those enduring tragedy.  For the sake of those who experience loss in the most heartbreaking of circumstances, we should demand something better.

While certain members of the news media are too often inconsiderate in their responses to disaster, we as a US society are faced with an equally harsh and soul-searching reality.  We are too often fascinated with – and even drawn to – various forms of violence.  It is widely known that many of the most popular television shows, movies, video games, and competitive sports are saturated with aggression, and while many debate the psychological and sociological impact of these entertainment options, few can argue that – on a national scale – such preferences are indeed evident.  And so, within an enormous entertainment culture that frequently blurs the borders between fiction and reality, one can argue that news coverage surrounding tragedy simply provides what the general public so deeply and dangerously desires.  The troubling result is that too many watch the news following a tragedy not merely to be informed, but simply to watch.

With the above thoughts in mind, instead of gawking at those impacted by the deep horrors of tragedy, a more faithful response is grieving with those who endure such terrible events.

Whereas gawking is defined as “to gape or stare stupidly”, to grieve is an experience of “deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement”.  And so, our response to tragedy is not simply to stare at our television or computer screens, but rather, we should be moved to grieve alongside those who experienced (and continue to suffer) the awful pains of disaster.  Instead of sitting and waiting for the latest breaking news, a more appropriate reaction is to empathize, seek healing, and most importantly, engage in sustained action to ensure future prevention.  All together, to gawk at is to watch the tragedy from a distance, but to grieve with is to compassionately participate within the aftermath of the tragedy.

A tragedy should grip tightly onto our national attention, and when it does, the choice to be made is whether to react as spectators or participators.  In other words, instead of safely watching a tragedy take place, the time is upon us to participate deeply within its after effects, and in doing so, take the risk of grieving deeply with those who mourn and passionately pushing for sensible legislation that honors the dead and promotes life in all its fullness.  As a society we recognize that tragedy is not only the violent act itself, but it is tragic when we do not fully come to the aid of those deeply hurt by such violence, and it is tragic when we fail to do all that we possibly can to ensure that such dreadful events will never happen again.  The time is upon us to step off the sidelines, share in the suffering of those who lost loved ones, and seek solidarity with all who seek a better future.  Enough is enough.  The time is now. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

SERMON: Advent, A Season of Urgent Patience (Brian E. Konkol)

The following link provides audio and a written transcript for "Advent: A Season of Urgent Patience", which was delivered at Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Madison, WI) on December 2, 2012. 


With Luke 21:25-36 as the central preaching text, this message focuses on the tension of urgency and patience in our daily lives, with a reflection on the difficult to discern boundary between God's role and ours as companions in mission. 

Advent: In Anticipation of Reconciliation (Brian E. Konkol)

The following was published on the Sojourners' God's Politics Blog on December 11, 2012, and can be found at http://sojo.net/blogs/2012/12/11/advent-anticipation-reconciliation

During the early 19th century a multitude of Afrikaners – a South African ethnic group including descendants from Dutch, French, and German settlers – left the cape region and moved hundreds of miles inland.  Among the Afrikaners was the Voortrekkers, an assembly that sought to establish independent republics on uninhabited land in protest against British colonialism.  As to be expected, the land sought by the Voortrekkers was by no means vacant, and clashes with South Africa’s indigenous people were inevitable.

In 1837, the Voortrekker leadership engaged in land negotiations with the Zulu king.  While historians argue over the exact details of the bargaining process, most agree that both sides attempted to display their force as an instrument of influence.  All together, the Voortrekkers and Zulus eventually agreed upon terms for land distribution, and together they signed a treaty in February of 1838.  However, during a truce ceremony the Voortrekker entourage was killed by the Zulus (for reasons that continue to be debated), an ensuing battle lasted months, and numerous lives on both sides of the conflict were lost.   

As the warfare persisted, about ten-thousand Zulu warriors attacked the Voortrekkers on December 16, 1838, but the severely outnumbered Voortrekkers – with the advantage of gun powder – warded off the Zulu army.  According to some historical accounts, while only three Voortrekkers were wounded, more than three-thousand Zulus were killed.  As a result of the Voortrekker victory, and because of promises they reportedly made to God before the battle, December 16th was later instituted by the South African Apartheid-era government as a national public holiday, known as the “Day of the Vow”. 

On the other side of the South African political and racial spectrum, and in more recent times, December 16th is also remembered as the historical anniversary of the 1961 founding of Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”), the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC).  Umkhonto we Sizwe, often known as “MK”, was co-founded by Nelson Mandela and other members of the ANC, and they carried out the bombings of civilian, industrial, and infrastructural sites as a form of civil disobedience against the Afrikaner-controlled apartheid-era government.  While the tactics of MK were initially geared toward sabotage, they gradually expanded as ANC members engaged in urban guerilla warfare.  All together, MK was classified as a banned terrorist organization by the South African government (and United States) until August of 1990. 

With the above historical details in mind, December 16th could be remembered as a date of extreme violence and deep racial division within South Africa.  Whether it was the Day of the Vow in 1838 or the start of Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1961, both occasions could symbolize deep cruelty and harsh brutality.  However, with the advent of democracy in 1994, while December 16th retained is status as a national public holiday, it did so with a redefined purpose.  In specifics, instead of celebrating a victory in war or recognizing the founding of an armed unit, South Africa renamed December 16th as “The Day of Reconciliation” for the purpose of transformation, empowerment, and multi-racial national unity.  In what can now be described as a dramatic conversion of symbolism, the newly redefined public holiday was celebrated for the first time on December 16, 1995.

The December 16th Day of Reconciliation is appropriately placed within the Christian liturgical season of Advent, for this period of expectation and longing for Jesus’ birth is a reminder of the ways that God’s presence heals wounds and redefines relationships.  As the people of South Africa renovated their national holiday to embrace a transformed national identity, the Season of Advent prepares us to be made new through the birth of Jesus, and thus moves us to promote restored local and global communities through the practice of radical hospitality, as is written in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, and entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation”. 

While the Season of Advent is viewed in various ways, one method is to perceive it in anticipation of reconciliation, for such personal and public reconciliation is dearly needed in our present day and age.  For example, while we live in the most connected era of human history in regards to technology, media, economics, ecology, etc., we also dwell in arguably the most divided period our planet has ever witnessed, as we observe income disparity, unequal access to health care and suitable education, as well as dangerous levels of racism, sexism, religious extremism, environmental injustice, political polarization, xenophobia, and discrimination based upon sexual orientation.  In the midst of our various and dangerous divisions, we seek the coming of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who soothes our ongoing anticipation with a full dosage of divine reconciliation.

The awesome reality of Jesus’ birth allows us to perceive past mistakes in new ways, and in doing so, sets us on a path of personal healing and public civility.  Through the arrival of Jesus in the world, God accompanies each and every member of humankind, thus our acts of violence and estrangement are replaced with peace, divisions removed in favor of unity, and exploitation is altered by a sustained pursuit of fairness and justice around the world.  And so, as we anticipate the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day, may our Season of Advent be practiced in anticipation of reconciliation, so that our relationships may be redefined, our identities affirmed, and our communities more fully restored. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Christmas Wisdom: Follow the Star for Foreign Policy (Brian E. Konkol)

The following was published on the Sojourners' God's Politics Blog on December 6, 2012, and can be found at http://sojo.net/blogs/2012/12/06/christmas-wisdom-follow-star-foreign-policy 

One of the most fresh and challenging interpretations surrounding the Christmas narrative was produced by South Africa’s renowned theologian, the late Steve de Gruchy.  In regards to the Magi and their visit with Joseph, Mary, and the newly born Jesus in Matthew 2: 1-12, de Gruchy offers a striking proposal surrounding the biblical text and its direct relationship with cooperative efforts between those in the so-called global north and south.  He wrote:

One of the ways of reading [Matthew 2:1-12] is to see how the Magi, from the east symbolize – in today’s global configuration – people from the ‘north’ who posses wealth and wisdom, and who seek to contribute to those who are poorer than themselves.

Herod symbolizes the local elites that so often control the political economy of the ‘south’.  And the holy family symbolizes the millions of vulnerable people who live in poverty throughout the globe, predominantly in the ‘south’, but also in the ‘north’ (and ‘east’ and ‘west’!). 

In the story, the Magi from the ‘north’ first make contact with those in the ‘south’ whom they have an affinity, namely a representative of the political and economic elite, Herod (v.1).  This elite has no interest in the vulnerable poor in their own country, and they seek, as always, to use those from the ‘north’ to serve their own ends (v.3).

However, the story turns on the fact that the Scriptures point the Magi to Bethlehem (v.5-6), where they learn that the one whom they must respect in God’s scheme of things is not to be found in a palace, but in a humble shack.  Their journey, guided by the words of the prophet (v.5) and God’s star (v.6) lead them to meet the poor of the south in Mary, Joseph and Jesus.

Among other things, a key insight into this portion of the Christmas narrative is that God is revealed through the vulnerability of poverty and marginalization.  The main characters of the Christmas plot are not wealthy and prosperous high-rollers, but the downtrodden and vulnerable poor who stand as deliberate reminders of how God is in solidarity with those who are too often forgotten and oppressed.  If Mary and Joseph were people of wealth and privilege, they surely would have received room at the inn, yet God shows an alternative to the common hierarchies of status in our world, and such pushed-aside people are given highest priority as the bearers of Christ. 

The Magi within Matthew’s Christmas narrative inspire us to reflect on our place – and reform our priorities – in an ever-changing and increasingly-connected globalized world.  For citizens of the US, the account of Jesus’ birth pushes us to reconsider our federal government’s global relationships and prods us to revolutionize our less than perfect methods of diplomacy and development.  In addition to policy and procedures, Matthew’s Gospel also reveals how personal beliefs, actions, and alliances have an impact on various communities thousands of miles away.  As de Gruchy states:

Somehow, in their journey to the south, [the Magi] were touched by God’s presence, became suspicious of the agenda of the local elite, and found joy in forging a relationship with the poor.  They bow before the manger, and offer their gifts, symbolizing the self-emptying of power and the willingness to have their agenda shaped by the concerns of the ‘south’. 

These gifts are offered, moreover, not to bribe officials, create dependency, or leverage influence, but simply as a sign of homage and respect.

In striking fashion, the Magi within Matthews’s Christmas narrative point us toward new and wise concepts of foreign policy and developmental efforts, as we are pressed into global companionships that affirm people in the southern hemisphere as subjects of history and not merely the objects.  In other words, rather than people from the global north setting the agenda, we learn to allow all members of our global village to name and implement their own priorities.  As members of one human family, we journey alongside one another as companions regardless of nationality, and by God’s grace, seek fruitful cooperation to the best of our collective abilities for the benefit of our collective common good. 

As the Magi related to others in new ways as a result of God’s presence, the time is upon us to allow God to redefine our relationships and convert our various connections within the global village.  Instead of a foreign policy too often shaped by privilege and power, and in place of international development schemes repeatedly saturated with labels of “giver” and “receiver”, we are moved to embody mutuality, companionship, and recognize the godly wisdom and assets of foreign communities.  In other words, instead of viewing Christmas as a period of increased momentary and monetary charity, the Magi reveal that God is more fully found in the long-term transformation of relationships and connections, thus we too are inspired to accompany, serve, and advocate alongside others for the sake of a global common good.  

As the presence of God moved the Magi to follow the star and have their place in the world redefined, may the same be true for us, and may the awesome reality of Jesus’ birth send us forth to bring God’s joy to all the world.