Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Anesthetics and Advocates Below the Poverty Line (Brian E. Konkol)

The following was published on the Sojourners' God's Politics blog on April 29, 2013, and can be found at http://sojo.net/blogs/2013/04/29/anesthetics-and-advocates-below-poverty-line

By definition, an anesthetic is a drug used to relieve pain (analgesia), relax (sedate), induce sleepiness (hypnosis), spark forgetfulness (amnesia), or to make one unconscious for general anesthesia. Among other things, anesthetics are generally administered by a specialist (anesthesiologist or anesthetist) upon a patient in order to induce or maintain a state of anesthesia and facilitate a procedure.  With such characterizations in mind, we recognize that anesthetic can be employed as a striking image for particular deficiencies in faith-based responses to extreme poverty. As one can cite many examples where faith is proclaimed and practiced solely as an escape from – rather than engagement with – the numerous struggles associated with impoverishment, we recognize that anesthesia is incomplete without corresponding acts of sustainable social surgery.

While the New Testament does indeed illustrate a God who seems to provide anesthetic-like relief from the various aches and pains of life (2 Corinthians 4:17-18), we also affirm God as an Advocate that accompanies humankind throughout struggles and sorrow (John 14:16). In other words, one can argue that God does – at times – function as a divine anesthesiologist, but we also recognize the countless times that God pushes us directly into the path of struggle and confrontation. And so, since God accompanies humankind as both anesthetic and advocate, our response to God’s love includes – but goes beyond – momentary pain relief alongside those in poverty, for we also seek corrective operation, healing of core injuries, and rehabilitative strengthening for the future. As the popular anti-poverty metaphor reminds us, we should not only “give away a fish”, nor should we merely “teach others to fish”, but together we are called to question who has access to the pond and critically consider whether or not people want fish at all.

One of the many practical ways one can serve within the tension of anesthetic and advocate is to experience a small portion of life below the poverty line. In specifics, as the World Bank sets extreme poverty as below $1.50 per day, one can try to eat on less than $1.50 per day over the course of five days (Monday – Friday). As roughly 1.4 billion people around the world currently attempt survival on such limited resources, those who choose to willingly budget food on such limited means for five days can move past statistics and allows for a more intimate experience alongside those who struggle with extreme poverty. In other words, such a short-term venture places one more fully into the long-term path of poverty, which in turn leads to a stronger and more sustainable response.

As my wife and I will take part in this $1.50 per day poverty awareness challenge in the coming days, the following are some basic ground rules which we plan to follow:

·         Over the course of five days (Monday – Friday), we will spend no more than $1.50 a day on food and drink, which means we each have a total of $7.50 with which to buy all ingredients for our meals. As a result, she and I combined (we plan to work as a team) have a total budget of $15.00 for the total of five days.
·         The full cost of all the items we consume will be included in our budget. This means budgeting for whole packages of food such as rice, pasta, noodles, eggs, etc.
·         For items such as salt, pepper, herbs, and spices, we must calculate the cost of each item per ounce and budget the shopping proportionally.
·         We are not allowed to consume anything purchased before this week unless it is included in the overall cost of buying the item new in our budget.
·         While we do not have a garden, if we did, we would have to account for the price of production.
·         We cannot accept “donated” food from family or friends.
·         We are allowed to drink tap water.

While this awareness-building effort is by no means perfect, such (recognizably limited) undertakings do allow those above the extreme poverty line to more fully understand the various outcomes that accompany global impoverishment. As compassionate understanding often leads to committed action, one can argue that a relatively short span of five days can have a long-term impact in our overall commitment to various efforts of relief, development, and advocacy. And so, as my wife and I take part in this (admittedly faux-poverty) process, we look forward to the lessons to be learned, the struggles to be felt, and hopefully, the inspiration that will continue to follow.

By definition, an advocate is one that supports a particular cause, or from a biblical perspective (John 14:16), one that pleads the case of another (The Greek word used in John’s Gospel for “Advocate” is Paraclete, which can also be translated as “Helper” or “Comforter”). And so, as an advocate accompanies others in solidarity and mutuality for the sake of a common good, as people of faith we are called to have deep concern for life after death and life after birth in all its fullness. In other words, we recognize the countless ways that God functions as Advocate in our lives, which means we respond in ways that help and comfort the livelihood of others, especially those who try to survive on less than $1.50 per day. All together, whether it is through awareness campaigns or other opportunities that come to our attention, may we continue to step up, reach out, and jump into the aches and pains of poverty, so that we may not only reduce the hurts of the present, but also seek healing, restoration, and strength – far into the future – for the sake of the world.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Boston, Bombs, and the Scandal of God’s Criminal Justice (Brian E. Konkol)

The following was published on the Patheos Faith Forward Blog and Sojourners' God's Politics Blog on April 17, 2013, as well as Living Lutheran on April 18, 2013.

I am tormented by what took place at the Boston Marathon. An iconic event that is supposed to be a celebration of achievement and companionship will be scarred with memories of injury and death for years to come. However, the source of my distress is not only the horrific sights and sounds of violence and terror, but in such dreadful disasters I also struggle with our common conceptions of God. In other words, as many wonder where God was in the midst of such tragedy, and while others question why God did not (or could not) prevent such terror from taking place, I am personally tormented with my belief of where God will be in its aftermath.

On the one hand, we are told “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5: 4), and in receiving the Gospel in such ways, we take comfort in the belief that God is with those who suffer and directly at the side of those who struggle. This conception of a compassionate God offers relief for the victims in Boston and all those on the receiving end of transgression. However, while we proclaim a God in solidarity alongside those in pain, we are also often told that God is present with those who cause the pain, for the love and forgiveness found in Jesus is inclusive, it has no boundaries, and nothing is able to “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). And so, just as Jesus was sent to soothe those who suffer, he also absolves those responsible for the suffering. As a result, we are left with a God who seems to love both saints and sinners, which means we are both comforted and confronted in the aftermath of tragedy in Boston.

As we consider the identities of those responsible for what took place at the Boston Marathon, and as we take a deeper look at our own thoughts and behaviors, we are shown the core nature of who God is and what God does in and through our world. For example, while those to blame for the Boston tragedy deserve to be punished for their crime, and while we believe that God is infuriated with such cowardly acts, we also recognize that the guilty are not any less human than the rest of us, and we cannot label such people as monsters to somehow separate our human identity from theirs. While our personal actions have various levels of public consequences, at our core each and every one of us possesses countless faults. As a result, we all require forgiveness due to the diverse degrees of harm we impose upon others, which means we all require humility and restraint when tempted to judge others on behalf of God.

While we often celebrate the inclusive love of God, in many ways we recognize how shocking – and even scandalous – such love actually is. As Jesus himself died on the cross in the company of criminals, we affirm that in God’s eyes we are not defined by our worst acts, and even those responsible for evil deeds are offered the gift of grace, love, and forgiveness. We believe that God is disgusted by acts of aggression and terrorism, and we believe such actions should have correctional consequences. However, just as we believe God is in solidarity with those in pain, we also believe that God does not give up on us, any of us, no matter how much pain we might inflict upon others. While we support the institutions that hold us accountable for our offenses, and we affirm the desire to punish those found guilty of crime, we also recognize that each and every person falls short of God’s divine law, thus not only are all people guilty in some shape or form, but by God’s grace we never get the punishment that we actually deserve. All together, regardless of who we are or what we have done or left undone, we receive the life-giving promise of the Gospel and blessed assurance that God will never leave us or forsake us. This is the scandalous nature of God’s criminal justice.

And so, can God actually love those responsible for the recent bombings in Boston? As shocking and troubling as it may sound, and as tormented as it might make us feel, we affirm in Jesus’ name that God can (and does). While God is disgusted with their actions, and while we believe God is with all those impacted by this horrific event, we also recognize God’s love as being so profound and utterly inconceivable that God does not given up on anyone, not even those responsible for acts of terrorism. And so, as we journey forward in the aftermath of this terrible tragedy, may we be confronted and comforted by the reality of God’s abundant grace. While we cannot passively accept the massive pain and suffering that is taking place in Boston and other areas around the world, one of the ways we can reconcile, transform, and empower is through an outpouring of love and compassion for both victims and victimizers. As the God made known to us in Jesus embodied the way of restoration over retaliation, may we learn to follow this difficult and necessary path, in Boston and in all places, so that we may realize God’s criminal justice throughout the world.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

SERMON: The Route of Doubt (Brian E. Konkol)

The following link provides audio for "The Route of Doubt" which was delivered at Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Madison, WI) on April 7, 2013.


This messages centers on John 20:19-31, and has a specific focus on Jesus' disciple often known as "Doubting Thomas". Among other things, the sermon considers whether or not fear (rather than doubt) is actually the opposite of faith, and how the "freeway of faith" offers freedom and life in its fullness.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Gender, Sex, and a Trans-Inclusive Common Good (Brian E. Konkol)

The following was published on the Sojourners' God's Politics blog on April 9, 2013, and can be found at http://sojo.net/blogs/2013/04/09/gender-sex-and-trans-inclusive-common-good

I am privileged to have a body that fits my gender, and for the majority of my life I was unaware of this ingrained and assumed personal and public privilege. As is the case with many in our world, during my adolescent years I never realized that “gender” and “sex” were two different aspects of my male identity, or in the words of Virginia Prince, I was unaware that “…gender is what’s above the neck and sex is what’s below the neck”. In light of these often ignored differences between gender and sex, I have come to recognize that many in our world do not experience full harmony between the two, and the result is a significantly misunderstood and strikingly marginalized transsexual and transgendered community.

While the differences between gender and sex are complicated, and the various distinctions between cultural and biological identity constructs are ongoing, The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that 1% of all U.S. citizens are “trans”. However, as gender variance is rarely discussed in mainstream society, it would appear that far too many continue to make false generalizations based upon sensationalized media accounts of cross-dressing and transsexuality. As stated by Deborah Rudacille in The Riddle of Gender: Science, Activism, and Transgender Rights:

Gender variance still seems to be considered a more suitable topic for late-night talk show jokes than for journals of public health and public policy, even though a recent needs assessment survey in Washington, D.C., estimated that the median life expectancy of a transgendered person in the nation’s capitol is only thirty-seven years… Though many are far better off materially that the subjects of the Washington, D.C., study, transgendered and transsexual people of every social class and at every income level share many of the same vulnerabilities. Public prejudices make it difficult for visibly transgendered or transsexual people to gain an education, employment, housing, or health care, and acute gender dysphoria leaves people at high risk for drug abuse, depression, and suicide.   

In light of the startling statistics and misunderstandings surrounding those in the trans community (and due in part to my own disturbing levels of ignorance), during the past months I have tried to learn more about adult sex reassignment, gender confirmation, and on a larger scale, consider that which is often called “transition”. In specifics, I met repeatedly with some trans women, read several books and articles, and also engaged in many long conversations about stigma and social norms. A report by The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality, “Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey”, was an invaluable and (heart-breaking) resource. In addition, I learned about surgical procedures, counseling, and I even attended (and experienced a small part of) a painful electrolysis session. All together, by trying to learn more about the transition process as a whole, not only did I learn about the extreme persecution that our trans companions face, but I was also shown the massive commitment they exhibit in order to bring their gender and sex more fully into synch.

I will be the first to admit that I had – and will surely continue to have – numerous misjudgments about the trans community, and for such past, present, and future ignorance I ask our trans companions for absolution. In addition, I recognize that a few conversations and experiences by no means makes me an expert, nor does it give me the right to speak with any level of authority on this important matter. Nevertheless, I do believe these (yet to be fully developed) thoughts are worth sharing, for my recent interactions have been deeply moving, and I believe the same would be the case for others who wish to step out and learn more about a segment of our community that continues to be deeply misunderstood and marginalized. As we tend to fear that which we do not know and/or understand, and because fear too often leads to hate and suffering, a much-needed step may be simple conversations, humility, and a willingness to be formed and informed by those in the trans community that wish to reach out. While the U.S. trans community is relatively small, it is by no means insignificant, thus to achieve a genuine collective good we need a full awareness of what the collective actually entails. And so, may we learn to accompany those whose gender and sex are not fully aligned, and in doing so, may we remove generations of undeserved social barriers and embody a more faithful and comprehensive trans-inclusive common good.