Friday, February 10, 2017

Choosing a College for a Common Good (Brian E. Konkol)

This article was first published on the Huffington Post, and can be found at the following link:

Before asking “where” or even “how much will it cost”, perhaps it is most worthwhile to first consider “why” when choosing a college.

Why college? For starters, one should challenge the common assumption that campuses are mere four-year corridors to higher wages, elevated social status, and comfortable lifestyles. A reputable college degree often leads to such outcomes, yet higher education is supposed to provide something far more valuable. Since “civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe”, as H.G. Wells argued, then personal education should ultimatley lead to public transformation, thus the aim of college should be to think and act free for the sake of serving a common good.

“The common good” is why one should choose a college.

The contemporary ethicist, John Rawls, defined the common good as “certain general conditions that are...equally to everyone’s advantage”. This notion includes earning a fair income through meaningful employment, and also incorporates social systems, institutions, and settings that benefit the good of all people. Examples of the common good include an accessible health care system, effective and affordable education, safety and security, peace among nations of the world, a just legal and political organization, an unpolluted natural environment, and a flourishing and fair economic system (which includes minimal burdens surrounding student loans and longer-term debt). As such structures, institutions, and settings have a direct impact on the wellbeing of all in society, it is no surprise that virtually everyone and everything is linked to how well these structures and institutions function. There are few vocational pursuits that fall outside the realm of the common good, thus (not coincidentally) there are few employers not interested in potential employees that are equipped to think and act in such virtuous and valuable ways.

North America is filled with excellent institutions of higher education, and selecting a college is one of the most important, exciting, and difficult decisions one will face. There are numerous factors to consider surrounding available classes, extracurricular options, campus culture, housing, possible career path, and of course, total financial cost. The context of such a decision should impact its content, and in challenging times such as ours some questions can take a higher priority than others, such as: Where will I live into my full potential by learning to engage ethical issues, build peace, act for justice, explore faith and values, develop as a leader (and discover how to develop others as leaders), be empowered for service and advocacy, grow in both knowledge and wisdom, transform conflict, honor human worth, and celebrate the diversity and unity of community? Perhaps most importantly, where is a college that will provide life-long opportunities to repeatedly live into the “why” one attended college in the first place?

Why college? At a time when our local and global communities are increasingly connected yet ideologically isolated, diverse yet distant, and filled with hope and optimism yet also panic and aggression, higher education is one of the best public and personal investments possible, as colleges remind their communities (and communities teach their colleges!) that we all belong to each other, and we need each other to become ourselves. As the African proverb reminds us, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This embrace of education for a common good honors our personal opportunities and embodies our public responsibilities, which means selecting a college is less about the professional ladders one seeks to climb, and more about the public chains one wishes to break. For such reasons, when choosing a college “where” and “how much” are indeed critically important to consider, yet “why” should be at the forefront, as one should expect far more than a stepping stone to an entry-level job, but instead yearn for a launching pad to an exceptional life.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Jesus was a Refugee. Jesus is a Refugee (Brian E. Konkol)

* The following text is taken from a homily given in Christ Chapel, on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN), on February 7, 2017. Please note that the below manuscript was written with the intention to be heard, not read, thus the various grammatical choices were made with an emphasis on the ear, not the eye.


When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:33-34, NIV).

The Spring Semester has begun, this is Day Two, January is now behind us, and the twelve days of Christmas are long past.

However, while most Christmas decorations are down, the deeper meanings of Christmas remain to this moment, as the wider implications of the incarnation most sure persist.

During the Christmas Season, the 1st Chapter of John’s Gospel reminded us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The World became flesh, and dwelt among us, as a child. And during this Season of Epiphany and beyond, we are reminded that it was not just any child born in Bethlehem, but it was a particular child. It was a particular child born at a particular time and in a particular place. For when Jesus arrived, this Son of God did so as a vulnerable infant who must spend his first vulnerable days being cared for by two vulnerable parents, struggling within a vulnerable situation. Jesus begins his life not in a home or a hospital or even a discount hotel, but as the 2nd Chapter of Luke’s Gospel reminds us, God breaks into the realities of our world through the broken harsh reality of an improvised – and impoverished – makeshift shelter, for there was no room for him at the inn.

The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, as an outsider, an unknown, and as a social outcast.

As the 2nd Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel reveals to us, Jesus arrives into the world as part of a family who must quickly flee their familiar land. They must flee because they are threatened by a crusade of terror ordered by the sinister King Herod. And because of this vile and imperial tyrant, Jesus is left transported into a foreign land, through the desperate and difficult migration into Egypt.

The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, as a refugee.

As one who was forced to leave his familiar surroundings in order to escape extreme persecution at the hands of a disturbing demagogue, Jesus was – by definition – a refugee. Jesus was both divine and undocumented, and such status should capture our collective attention, especially in times such as ours.

As we review the overarching narrative of the Bible, we recognize that Jesus’ refugee status was no minor detail, and thus no inconsequential side-note in our pursuit of theological understanding. On the contrary, Jesus’ immigrant identity is the opening note in the existential song that would become his life and his ministry. And at the same time, Jesus’ migratory character is a clear echo of the larger scriptural symphony that begins in the Book of Genesis. For that young refugee named Jesus grows into a respected teacher, well acquainted with the Hebrew scriptures, with its often-repeated refrain to welcome the foreigner, such as today’s preaching text from Leviticus:

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:33-34, NIV).

As a Jewish Rabbi, Jesus would have known such a text, as well as countless other migration stories. Jesus would have known about Adam and Eve, who were expelled from Eden, their homeland. He would have read about Noah and family, who were adrift without a destination. He would have heard about Sarah and Abraham, who were mandated to migrate. And of course, he would have known about the ways in which God’s people wandered for years through their collective exodus out of slavery and through their journey to the promised land. In total, Jesus himself was immersed in a sacred Hebrew text that repeatedly told migration stories and consistently called upon the people of God to promote hospitality and concern for the strangers in their land.

And so, because he was immersed in stories about migration, and because his own story was one of migration, it should be no surprise that Jesus spoke over and over and over again about hospitality to foreigners. Furthermore, it should be no surprise whatsoever, that according to the Gospel of Matthew, in Chapter 25, following three years of walking, talking, teaching, and healing, when Jesus concludes his ministry with one final lesson, he uses such precious moments to offer a message that puts the premium on whether or not we serve the so-called “the least of these” by “feeding the hungry,” “clothing the naked,” and welcoming the stranger in our midst.

As he journeyed toward the cross, it is as if Jesus wanted to share once more, “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, as a refugee. So if you’re looking to dwell along God, you’ll find God among the most vulnerable, you’ll find God among the most marginalized, and you’ll find God among the most exploited and the most ignored.” Or, in other words, “If you’re looking for the face of God in our world, you’ll most likely find it on the OTHER side of the border walls we so often seek to build.”

And so, for people who identity as followers of Jesus in the here and now, we recognize that not only was he a refugee 2,000 years ago — but, Jesus is a refugee, today. 

Jesus was, and is, a refugee, because we see the face of God most clearly in the faces of those whose lives most resemble the life of Christ in our day and age. We see Jesus is the undocumented divine. The holy families of our time. Those seeking safety. Those seeking shelter. Those seeking care. The Word of God made flesh is present in each and every person who begins that long trek away from the economic, political, and social unrest of their homes. Jesus is present alongside each and every pregnant mother who defies the odds of physical and emotional dehydration. Jesus is present alongside each and every child that is more than ready to delight in a better future. And Jesus is most fully present alongside each and every tireless officer, case manager, and beloved volunteer who greets the stranger with open arms and compassionate hearts, as if they were meeting the Risen Christ himself.

So what does this mean? So how do we, today, here and now at Gustavus Adolphus College, as members of a college community founded by immigrants, go and do that which Christ calls us? How do we practice the radical hospitality so often cited in Scripture? How do we restore communities by resisting exclusion to name and claim diversity, equity, and embrace? How do we follow the path of Jesus by accompanying those whom Jesus would walk with today?

Perhaps the best insight to which we could do in the here and now, comes to us by returning to where we began, with the Christmas story itself.

In the 2nd Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, when King Herod learns that a threat to his power was born in Bethlehem, he subsequently orders all male infants under the age of two in and around the area to be killed. This is, of course, a segment of the Christmas story that we so often seek to suppress while cozy and content with our gifts around the Christmas tree. Yet, what we should not suppress, is the lesson we learn from the so-called “Wise Men” of the story, those whose wisdom is made most known by defying the power-obsessed earthly authority of their day, an authority that has completely lost his mind.

In Chapter 2, verse 7, the “Wise Men” are confronted by King Herod, whom scripture characterizes as a narcissistic, insecure, lying, power-hungry, socio-path. And when this plutocratic manipulator learned that a threat to his power was born, he seeks to protect his power at all costs. But of course, when Herod tries to enlist the cooperation of the Wise Men in trying to detain and destroy Jesus, the wise men resist. And because of such prophetic resistance infused with holy wisdom, Jesus is allowed to live.

Scripture tells us that these “Wise Men” visited Jesus after his birth and bore gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Yet their greatest gifts were offered when they exercised wisdom and bore their own faith at the feet of Christ. For instead of uncritically obeying the horrific order bestowed upon them by the insecure and insidious King, the wise men wisely followed the light of God. And in following the light, they resisted the darkness, and Jesus lived.

The Word became flesh and continues to dwell among us.

May we follow the light and resist the darkness.

So Jesus might continue to live.
So we might continue to live.



NOTE: This sermon utilizes thoughts expressed by the leaders of Christian Theological Seminary (Indianapolis, IN), “Statement Condemning the Immigration Ban”

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Protest of Protestants is Justified (Brian E. Konkol)

This article was first published on the Huffington Post on February 2, 2017, and can be found at the following link:

Nearly five-hundred years after Martin Luther awakened Protestantism with ninety-five theses, once again some are seeking to justify an influential truth: to be Protestant is to protest.

The resistance of injustice as a response to God’s “justification by grace through faith” sparked the Protestant movement in 1517, and such a commitment to protest continued to function as a foundational and prominent organizational tactic. For example, at the Diet of Speyer in 1526 - essentially an imperial parliament - the established order sought to reduce conflict by suspending the 1521 Edict of Worms, which had declared Luther as a heretic and banned his writings. Many Lutherans interpreted the 1526 decree as a victory, but after the Emperor annulled the Diet’s decision of 1526, in 1529 a group of princes and representatives refused to accept the imperial revocation. Those allied with the new resistance movement, refusing to be bound by worldly authorities, became known as “Protestants”.

When the Protestants collectively protested in the 16th century, not only did the newly born expression of faith flourish, but society as a whole received numerous benefits, and in doing so offered a religious and political roadmap for future generations of dissenters and conscientious objectors. For example, some argue that resistance theory, which considers the basis by which authority can be opposed, came to prominence in the period that followed the awakening of Protestantism. More specifically, underpinnings of resistance theory dwell in several groundbreaking legal opinions, constructed by those serving with the Electorate of Saxony and the Landgraviate of Hesse, following the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. Additional Protestant-infused concepts surrounding resistance were included in the 1550 Magdeburg Confession, which argued that citizens of a society, when faced with a “supreme power” that is destroying “true religion”, may engage in (what could now be described as) community organizing for the sake of civil disobedience. Altogether, while also filled with its own errors and abuses, Protestantism has served an important and positive social function for hundreds of years, both religiously and politically, by advocating for systems and structures that resist various manifestations of tyranny and promote diverse expressions of freedom.

There are currently about 150 million Protestants in the United States. These children of the Reformation possess the capacity to spark massive and life-giving social change if properly united and organized. While there are clear (and oftentimes conflicting) variations in theological and political belief (as was proven in our recent general election), that which does bind Protestants together is a common heritage of responding to God’s grace with mass protest against injustice. This commitment to personal and public renewal is meant to benefit all people of good will, regardless of religious and political identity. So the question becomes: When existing authorities seek to reduce ethical constraints, misappropriate funds for personal gain, legitimize lies, and establish forms of hierarchical rule that exploit and conquer through dishonorable policies, will Protestants honor their heritage and serve their prophetic vocation in society? Five-hundred years after Luther bravely protested as an expression of faith, will the caretakers of his legacy now allow a world order that is defined by division and manipulation? Will Protestants be seduced by the most deceitful and dominant of our day and age, or instead resolve to “bring good news to the poor...proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free”?

In religion, politics, education, economics, and countless other facets of life, the mass protests of 1517 had a dramatic impact upon the past 500 years. This is most certainly true. Whether or not Protestants accept the responsibility of resistance in 2017 may come to define the next 500 years. For those of us who still dare to identify as Protestant, we take comfort in the belief that God will love and forgive us regardless of what we do. However, for those of us Protestants who also still dare to call ourselves citizens, we are challenged to know that history may not be so gracious.