Month: June 2010

A Localist Moment in Emmaus, reprise

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The Emmaus Moravian Church, founded in 1747

I wrote last week regarding the proposed opening of a swingers’ club (to be named “The Vault”) on Main Street in Emmaus, at the very heart of the borough. Last night, to consider the matter, the borough’s zoning hearing board met at the Emmaus Community Park (an aptly named venue for this event), rather than their usual borough hall location. Suffice it to say that the proposal was rejected again on its appeal by the board.

I attended as much of the meeting as I could (from its beginning at 7:30pm to about 10pm), not so much to speak (which I wouldn’t have gotten a chance to do anyway, since they started hearing residents from the opposite end of the amphitheatre from where I was sitting), but rather simply to be involved and to provide as much pastoral presence as was possible. There were hundreds of people there, probably around 400, of all ages. The residents who spoke out against the proposed club were lawyers, a pastor, a retired FBI agent, mothers, fathers, local business owners, leaders of community organizations.

It was striking and truly moving to hear all these people speak, sometimes with anger, always with drive and passion, but most often with love. The people of Emmaus love their town, and with that love comes a sense of responsibility. No matter what the precise letter of the law said (which was the grounds on which the appeal was rejected), the strong sense of a dedication to the common good was immediately palpable for all those who spoke out against this club.

The club owner, whom I had hoped would see the borough lined up against him and realize he’d made a mistake, attempted to co-opt the moral authority of both the love of the original Moravians of Emmaus for the Native Americans, as well as using the language of the civil rights movement, to promote the notion of “tolerance” and lack of “prejudice” for a club for swingers which we are asked to believe wasn’t for the purpose of swinging. The club’s website was nothing short of pornographic in many of its elements (and those elements were put on verbal display last night), yet of course we are assured that those things had nothing to do with the actual workings of the club.

This duplicitous sort of thinking of course dominates our current cultural discourse, but it is deeply flawed. One cannot call upon the moral authority of a movement begun and nurtured by a solid moral, religious tradition and then violate that tradition’s most basic moral sensibilities. Neither the Moravians nor the civil rights leaders of the 1960s (all Christians of traditional morality) would have “tolerated” any such thing in the heart of their community. These are not rarefied philosophical ideas that can be separated from their tradition. It’s not about tolerance, but rather love, especially for one’s home. One does not have to be on a witch hunt for swingers to be disapproving of a club explicitly for them on bold display in the very middle of Emmaus.

Those opposed (who were pretty much everyone other than the potential proprietor) expressed themselves with candor, clarity, eloquence, and most of all, love. No one freaked out. No one screamed at the man. They just made it clear that Emmaus’s most beloved and defining district is not the place for what he wanted to do.

I came away from that meeting extremely proud to belong to Emmaus. This is a good, good town.

Deepwater Horizon: Why Evangelical theology is helpless in the face of a catastrophic oil spill

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The Baptism of Christ in the Jordan

Every so often, I think it’s okay to indulge in an inflammatory headline.

I recently read the lament “Ecological Catastrophe and the Uneasy Evangelical Conscience” by Russell D. Moore. It seems to have gotten a decent amount of circulation online, if only because it is written by an Evangelical Protestant talking about how ashamed he is that “environmentalism” has been the near exclusive realm of secularists and religious liberals, weeping over the “uneasy ecological conscience” of Evangelicals.

He goes on to explain why it is that Evangelicals should start taking notice of ecological issues: “When the natural environment is used up, unsustainable for future generations, cultures die. When Gulfs are dead, when mountaintops are removed, when forests are razed with nothing left in their place, when deer populations disappear, cultures die too.” He puts forward a highly anthropocentric theological view of the natural world, that it exists for the sake of human culture. Although this article appears new to many readers, at least in the sense that here is an Evangelical trying to talk seriously about ecological issues, the theology in it is really quite standard for Evangelicalism. It is the “stewardship” model, in which the Earth exists for man and pretty much not for any other reason. We should be nice to the Earth mainly because if we’re not, it’s not going to be a nice place to live.

Although Moore says “We’ve had an inadequate view of human sin,” he really does not break any new theological ground, except perhaps to allow for a slightly more communitarian understanding of human life. Culture and history are worth something here, and that is good. But Moore does not make the connection between human sin and the material creation. With this theology, one could theoretically justify wrecking almost any part of creation so long as doing so will not affect human culture. What is lacking here is any cosmology. The closest Moore gets to such a thing is in this passage: “Pollution kills people. Pollution dislocates families. Pollution defiles the icon of God’s Trinitarian joy, the creation of his theater.” But even with this image of creation being God’s “theater,” there is still a certain distance between the Creator and the creation.

Evangelical theology really does stand helpless in the face of ecological disasters like the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, because it has no cosmic vision, and it has no cosmic vision because it has no sacramental vision. In Orthodox Christian theology, the goodness of God’s creation is not simply as a nice backdrop and useful set of natural resources for human beings to use in getting on with their lives. God’s creation certainly does have man at its center, but the creation does not exist for essentially utilitarian reasons. Rather, creation’s true purpose is to convey divine sanctification, to manifest the divine energies of God. And man’s proper relation to creation is as its priest. But there are no priests in Evangelical theology, except the “priesthood of all believers,” which certainly has believers, but not really any priests.

Every speck in creation is fundamentally the temple of the living God. As such, the most perfect expression of creation is the Eucharist, bread and wine which have become the Body and Blood of Christ, the Body and Blood of God.

When created matter has such possibilities, not just in the Eucharist as an “object” (which is why isolating it from communion for the sake of “adoration” as is done in the Latin church is a distortion), but in the sense that earthy, solid stuff can be the vehicle for God’s actual presence, His actual touch, then the view one takes toward the natural world is going to be decidedly different. The Earth is not just natural resources that need to be managed wisely. Rather, it is holy, and holiness is not to be “managed”:

We still build houses of prayer; we still consecrate certain material objects specifically for the worship of God. But the relationship between the “holy place” and the rest of the earth has changed fundamentally. The place of worship, and whatever belongs to it, is no longer an embattled enclave. It is now a revelation of the earth as it truly is, transparent to its Creator. Since Christ came into the world, his creation has become “secretly sacramental.” When we consecrate a place or an object, when we dedicate it to sacred use, we are showing our readiness to lift the veil of secrecy. (Elizabeth Theokritoff, Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology, p. 177)

Without any sense of any thing or any place at all being holy, then how can one see the whole earth as holy? With the absence of the particular, the universal is even more elusive. As such, Evangelical theology can only retreat into its limited anthropocentricism with its emphasis on disincarnate, legal arrangements. Salvation in most Evangelical theology is in terms of a “status,” and so the theological language of “justification” (what gets you your ticket to Heaven) is precisely in those terms. One is either saved or not, and one gets saved by fulfilling certain requirements.

It is not a terribly big leap from there to our dominant political culture, whose ecological focus is precisely on procedures, regulations, and legislation. Surely, there must be some kind of legal arrangement which could have prevented this disaster! Surely, there must be some kind of legal arrangement which will make up for it! The various fiascos with locals and internationals being ready to do some earthy work to get on with the cleanup being prevented from doing so because of lack of legal permission is yet another symptom of the anti-sacramental theology which dominates our culture, both religiously and politically. (In the end, of course, everything is religion, even politics.) What’s most important here is the System, not the Stuff.

It’s easy to sit back and make pronouncements about how all this could have been prevented, and most of them are now being worded in precisely these legal sorts of terms. Some are also saying that we somehow need to back off on our thirst for energy in general or for this kind of energy in particular. Some go more deeply and realize that the culture of perpetual economic growth is itself at the root of the problem. But I haven’t yet seen too many questions being asked about the kind of culture we might have if people saw the Earth as holy, as “secretly sacramental,” conveying through physical presence the divine energies.

Theology has consequences.

Update: One can see some slight hints of cosmological theology in this June 16, 2010, resolution from the Southern Baptist Convention (scroll to the second section), but there’s still no sense here that creation is actually holy. It really only has value because of man’s use of it and because it is loved by God and displays His glory and wisdom. There is still no theology here of material creation actually being the vehicle of divine sanctification.

A Localist Moment in Emmaus

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The 1803 House, the home of Jacob Ehrenhardt, Jr., the son of one of the founders of Emmaus. He was briefly expelled from the Moravian Church for joining the Pennsylvania militia during the Revolutionary War, but then welcomed back when the war was over. (Moravians are traditionally pacifists.) It remained occupied until 1975.

It seems that “quaint” Emmaus (the word the newspapers all use to describe our borough) has been targeted as a potential home for a swingers’ club, to be situated right on downtown Main Street. The fellow behind the club claims that it’s not going to be a “sex club,” that they’re going to be more innocuous than the Freemasons (will they also have funny hats and sashes?), but anyone with just an ounce of worldliness to them knows exactly what the advertising for it means. As you may imagine, the borough is not only abuzz with this news, but a lot of folks are—you guessed it—”up in arms.” (I’d be fascinated to see a bunch of folks actually getting armed, maybe with pitchforks or somesuch.) The clichés abound, it seems.

Your humble servant is, quite naturally, not interested in seeing a swingers’ club in Emmaus. (I was about to write disinterested, but of course that means something else. Perhaps we could coin misinterested. I considered the fanciful antirested, but that’s just silly.) Such a thing is certainly immoral, but morality is not the only question in play here. You might ask how someone dedicated to liberty on theological grounds plans to attend the borough zoning hearing next week that will hear an appeal on the initially denied request for putting the club in, especially with an intent to let the zoning board know he’s in favor of their upholding their previous decision.

This moment is one of those where the localist parts ways with the libertarian (I am usually the former and often the latter). The strict, ideological libertarian would depend on market forces to drive this sort of trashiness out of our borough. (He’s also probably interested in eliminating all our borough zoning ordinances entirely.) If needed, it may well work, mind you. I can see picketers and perhaps even local church clergy and congregations lining up on the sidewalk outside the club and letting folks coming in that what they’re doing is a bad idea. But I’d much prefer the zoning board would nip this in the bud.

Emmaus borough ordinances are such that new uses for public property that are not already explicitly regulated by the borough are automatically prohibited, unless an exception is made. It was on this basis that the request was initially denied. Such an ordinance sounds rather draconian on its surface, i.e., that you’re essentially not allowed to do anything new in the borough in public spaces. But if one considers how this actually works out, it’s quite different. What it comes down to is that the borough, through its locally elected representatives, would like to have a say-so on anything too out of the ordinary before it gets introduced into borough life.

Such a law, if passed on a Federal or State level, would be utterly repugnant. Why? It’s because those governments have no real expertise in such matters and would be downright awful at making the right decisions. But Emmaus, with its population of roughly 11,000, is a place where people actually can know one another, know what’s going on in town, and what would constitute a nuisance and not just novelty.

Yes, I suppose if the zoning board were to deny this appeal, it would constitute something of an imposition of morality, at least in some sense. But consider that the question is not whether swingers should swing, but whether that’s the sort of thing we as a borough want in the most public, most frequented, most beloved part of Emmaus. That’s another matter entirely. As a community, we have a say-so as to what kind of public life takes place in our borough. Individuals dedicated to the common good should not have recourse only to market forces, most particularly on the local level.

This is exactly the sort of question that local governments are qualified to handle. Do we need a one-size-fits-all policy to make such determinations throughout our whole country? Certainly not. Why? Because people in the District of Columbia are unqualified to make such decisions, and—this is critical—they wouldn’t have to live with them, anyway.

Theologically, local government makes so much more sense than centralized, universal policy-making. It is much more commensurate to the nature of human persons, who tend to behave better when forced to live with the consequences of their decisions, rather than examining such questions in the rarefied theoretical world of virtual governance that dominates large-scale politics. This anthropological truth is why I am planning to go to the zoning board meeting (assuming I can get in the door!), because it is part of my pastoral responsibility to this borough, even for the people who may never step through my church’s doors. I have a duty to work for an atmosphere where they can meet God in peace, repent of their sins, and be united to the divine energies. Putting a blight on Main Street will hinder that.

The Mystery of Christ

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Ancient Faith Radio now has both parts of my talk “The Mystery of Christ” available for download here and here as part of the Roads From Emmaus podcast.

This talk is the first installment in the four-part Foundations of the Orthodox Faith series and was originally delivered on May 16, 2010.