The Church and Baseball

New 606 contributor Ben Wideman is the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State.

The other day someone remarked to me that they admired how justice-minded I was as a person. I was humbled to be thought of in that way, but admitted I have many areas I still need to be working with. These include some subtle things that could be adjusted in small ways, like the environmental impact of the food that I eat, the amount of fossil fuel I burn for various reasons, or the ways I grudgingly participate in our capitalism-driven society. Then there are other things that I know I am complicit in yet I feel trapped within a system too big to change like our country’s prison- and military-industrial complex, ongoing white supremacy, or the frustration of our political climate. But perhaps the two things that stand out to me the most are large systems that I continue to stay connected and committed to, despite my reservations.

Major League Baseball (MLB), and the American (and Canadian) Christian Church.

Both of these are organizations that I deeply love, have passion for, and have benefitted from. Both have provided me with joy I cannot easily put into words. I’ve been connected to both for most of my life – certainly all of my conscious adult life. They both contain sub-classifications that I feel even more deeply connected to (baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays and Mennonite Church USA), as well as leading individuals who I am both proud to align myself with, and inspired on a regular basis by their presence in the world. I’m energized and excited by both, despite them sharing a reputation of being boring, out of touch, irrelevant to a growing number of young people, and resistant to change.

They are also both extremely problematic, unjust, and deeply set in their ways. They both have a tendency to internally police themselves, often to their own detriment and demise. Both could be easily categorized as homophobic, oppressive, power-hungry, male-dominated, environmentally irreverent, and fiscally manipulative. They are both guilty of holding and wielding power, wealth, and social influence. My friends and family members include both the individuals who are passionately loyal to these organizations, and others who have systematically rejected one or the other. At various moments in my life, I too have wondered whether I’d be better off without being connected to either one of them.

Both also have the capacity to hold multiple truths in the same space. They have a historic precedent to lag behind progress being made in society, yet individuals from both spaces have led movements for social change. Despite Major League Baseball’s racist past, Jackie Robinson and other players like Larry Doby, Bill White, and Roberto Clemente rose to prominence as people who were not afraid to push back against racial injustice. Others have pushed for labor rights, gender inclusion, and better economic policies. Likewise, though the Church has also been a place of power abuse, there have been many courageous voices who has spoken out against racism, classism, gender bias, wealth, environmental injustice, and so much more. Many current voices within the church have worked tirelessly to create a better future, and reform a heavy past. Austen Hartke, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Austin Channing Brown, Mark Van Steenwyk, Drew Hart, as well as the late Rachel Held Evans quickly come to mind.

The Church and MLB contain their own origin stories that contain questions about their historical fact. Participants in both groups make sense of the origin stories in their own way, choosing which elements of the history to reject, which elements to hold dear, and which elements to simply hold in faith that despite layers of complexity there is something important about remembering and returning to those stories. Legend, myth, and the supernatural are found in both spaces, and generations that follow have chosen different ways to tell these stories, and which stories to hold up as “true”. The experience of participating in both a baseball game and a church service feels familiar changes little over time, however different generations would probably find the technology present in both spaces to be unfamiliar and surprising.

The Church and Major League Baseball have been a safe-haven for those in need of a space or identity to belong, yet they have also been quick to reject those who do not conform to certain standards. They have provided employment and community for many, and have also been quick to dismiss people from these spaces and roles. They have both added to the fabric and vibrancy of neighborhoods, and have crushed and wiped out others in their wake. They share a capacity to make people feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves, and also to alienate and isolate. Each contains the same wealth inequality that much of the world suffers from – those at the top are exponentially more wealthy than those at the bottom.

Being a fan of baseball, or a part of a local church, provides the participant to experience a wide range of emotions – both positive and negative. The both provide ways to experience familiarity, liturgy, and structure, and to also be surprised by the unexpected. Participants describe both as mystical or spiritual experiences, while also admitting that there are times where they do not experience that but are left drained and fatigued. Both encourage positive and negative aspects of tribalism, and those groups include people pushing and resistant to change.

I see both as microcosms for the broader human experience. Both are large enough to contain many positive and negative qualities and their collective value is determined by the the people who exist within their members. Their potential for good is not guaranteed, but instead depends on individuals choosing to make just decisions from within, and raising their voices when this does not occur.

At this point of my life I have committed to being a member of the larger Christian Church through my denomination (Mennonite) and local church here in State College at University Mennonite (as a minister this commitment is one that is somewhat deeper than a typical member). I have also chosen to remain committed to the experience of being a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays, and Major League Baseball. I have reservations with both of those commitments, but I recognize that at this moment in time I have some (perhaps more) capacity to push these organizations toward change when I am inside them than if I was on the outside looking in. I am also deeply aware that we need outsiders who are also pushing toward justice and change from outside the membership parameters. I know that this is especially true of those who have been marginalized and pushed out of these groups. As an insider I must recognize the privilege I have to belong to both, and allow that to influence my decisions as I move about these two worlds.

There may be a time of my life where I step away from one or both of these organizations. I may also spend the rest of my life holding this commitment I have at this moment. But my choice to belong helps me take stock in other aspects of my life where I am in, or outside of, an organization. I also hope that this awareness of being part of just/unjust organizations can offer me some humility that I am not perfect and empathy toward others before judging them because of unjust behaviors I may not approve of.

Major League Baseball and The Church. Both will continue to shape and influence how I interact and move about the world, whether I am inside or outside looking in.

Non-Violent Approaches to Atonement

Today, I’m following up to a question I was recently asked: If penal substitutionary atonement isn’t the only way for Christians to understand salvation, what else is there?

606 isn’t a theology blog, and I’m not a theologian or a church historian, so I approach this slowly and with a partial answer, focusing on two doctrines that better (I think) align with the peace and reconciliation work of the church (and thus ignoring ransom, satisfaction, moral government, and substitutionary theorie). The two views I share below are derived from Western theologies–I simply don’t know enough about the insights of African, African American, indigenous, Asian, and Latin American theologians on the matter. I welcome more contributions to the topic, so if you have found a soteriology (a doctrine of salvation) that you think is edifying, please share it.

What I share here is a very brief summary of two popular doctrines, simply to introduce them as concepts and remind readers that there are other ways of thinking about Jesus’ death that don’t require a valorization of violence.

Moral Influence (also called the Example Theory or the Socinian view, after a group of Polish unitarian Christians who adopted it): Jesus’ death is meant to show us God’s love and, in doing so, encourage us to love each other more. The focus isn’t on restoring a relationship between people and God but on helping us to act right in this life–“For you have been called for this purpose,” 1 Peter 2:21 states, “since Christian also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow His steps.”  This view was first articulated by the medieval theologian Peter Abelard (yes, that Abelard) and continues to be popular among Unitarians.

Christus Victor (Christ the Victor): Jesus literally defeats death by resurrecting from the grave, then ascending to heaven. Christians share in this victory–not because Jesus’ suffering was due to our sins but because Jesus’ resurrection includes us. As 1 Corinthians 15:55-57 says, quoting Isaiah 25,

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
    O death, where is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

While many evangelicals are skeptical of the Christ the Victor model, it is central to Orthodoxy.

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Above, Arthur Robins’ Jesus Christ Cross CrucifiedFor those who question violent atonement, the suffering of someone dying by state-inflicted torture isn’t a path to salvation.

Womanist and feminist theologians have tremendous insights into how we understand Jesus’ death, including calling into question the notion (so embedded in the white evangelical tradition) that Jesus’ death was required for human salvation, that it was a “happy exchange” (in Martin Luther’s words) in which Jesus took on human sin so humans could be redeemed. This evangelical vision, which requires reading Jesus into the Hebrew Scriptures, makes suffering and death inevitable and redemptive and obedience to them as noble–messages that have helped keep women and people of color locked into oppressive relationships. In a future post, I’ll get back to their contributions to new understandings of the execution of Jesus.

For me, leaving penal substitutionary atonement–the idea that Jesus has to die in order to settle a debt that I owe to God because of the sin that is inherent in my nature–behind meant I could more clearly understand Jesus’ life and ministry, because I was no longer reading it to explain justify a complicated, transactional, abuse-justifying theology. In response, I was better able to see Jesus in his own culture, social, political, and historical moment: that his ministry of reconciliation, healing, and justice was enough to get him killed. That it threatened to bring dangerous Roman attention to an already-oppressed Jewish community–which shows the ways that one oppression can lead to another. That what preceded his execution wasn’t Isaiah 53 but Matthew 21: 12-17. That Jesus died for our debts, not our sins.

For me, there were consequences in adopting this new theology, and all of them brought me closer, I think, to the heart of the gospel: reconciliation and healing, as modeled in Jesus’ life. Penal substitutionary atonement makes a lot of lazy Christians as adherents often interpret any demand on their behavior as an effort to undermine the meaning of Jesus’ death. The theology spiritualizes what is not spiritual–real human suffering, in this case, at the hands of state power–so that it can’t be acted upon. I don’t have time for it. If Christians are to be “about my Father’s business,” then I don’t think that penal substitutionary atonement can be what we’re about because it doesn’t get us acting like Jesus.

Rebecca

PA-IPL Bike Trip Day 6

New 606 contributor Ben Wideman reflections on a recent bike ride to promote climate action.

Something is shifting in Washington DC.

Four years ago I rode in my first PA-IPL Bike Trip from State College to DC. At that time our Hill visits were almost guaranteed to go one of two ways. If it was a Democrat they would thank us for our time but admit that anything having to do with climate change was challenging due to partisan divide. Republicans would admire our efforts to ride our bikes so far, but almost always deny that the climate was changing.

Despite the ongoing (and on many issues increasing) polarization of the two parties, there is increasing awareness among elected officials of both parties that climate change is real and engaged.

There is still major division on the path forward. There are still trigger words that some elected officials refuse to use. There is still a difference in the urgency of this problem, but few people are left who outright deny that the planet is warming.

Our ride included 7 riders who had journeyed from Philadelphia to DC, and 8 riders who had traveled from State College to DC. Together (with the assistance of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light’s incredible staff team of Cricket Hunter and Alison Cornish) we were able to visit the offices of all 18 Representatives and 2 Senators.

Several times during our hill visits we heard staffers share that Republicans are coming around and admitting that they made a mistake denying that humans have been a cause of the changing climate. There were times when younger staff members would admit that they were personally concerned about climate change, even if it wasn’t something that was as urgent for their boss. It feels like we’re watching a generational shift happen in a short moment in time.

On our ride we heard more community members from Pennsylvania’s “red” districts talk about the way they are experiencing a different climate – either from the difficulty farmers are having this spring to get the crops into the ground, or the increasing change in the animals, plants, or tree pollen. We rode our bikes beside fields flooded with too much water, and heard that a local fly fishing shop was shifting the flies they sold because insects are emerging at different times than they used to. People who live in rural America are more intimately tuned in to how the climate is shifting.

One of my fellow cyclists shared that it feels as though the people fighting against climate change have been slowly walking toward solutions for many years – still moving forward, but painfully slowly at times. Now it feels like we’re on roller skates… still not moving as quickly as we should, but much faster than before.

There are still so many challenges in politics. Many people are still marginalized, underrepresented, or underserved. Progress on climate change does not equate to progress in all areas, nor does a decrease in political division on one topic have a trickle down effect to others.

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Still, there were some small signs of hope for me. Two years ago Pennsylvania had zero women among their 18 Congresspeople and 2 Senators. This year there are four. Two years ago there was so much gridlock that no one we visited felt any optimism at all that any policies could be implemented. There are still many challenges, but generally speaking optimism seemed higher than before. A Democratic majority in the House means that they have been able to keep a stronger hold on some environmental policy that the White House is trying to undermine.

Wednesday’s experience in Washington DC gives me more hope than I’ve had during the past few years of being present with my state’s elected officials. I know that change will come only when our communities raise their voices even louder, but it is exciting to see that some of those voices are shifting the culture of our national politics.

I will continue to ride my bicycle – for the planet, for future generations, for the moral imperative that we are facing. I hope you ride with me.

Can we make maternal death, infant mortality, and domestic violence pro-life causes?

Texas is considering legislation that would allow the death penalty for women who undergo abortions. Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, Missouri, Mississippi, Lousiana, Florida, West Virginia, Illinois, Minnesota, Maryland, and Kentucky h ave all passed or are considering severe restrictions on the procedure.

What do they have in common?

Overwhelmingly, states with greater restrictions on abortion also have worse rates of infant mortality. 

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Above, a map from the CDC showing data on infant mortality in 2016. The darker blue the state, the higher the infant mortality rate. 

And maternal death.

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Oh, and they also have higher teen pregnancy rates.

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Above, a map from the CDC showing teen pregnancy rates by state. The darker red the state, the higher the teen pregnancy rate. 

And higher STD rates.

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Above, a map showing STD rates by state. 

And higher rates of unwed motherhood.

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And higher divorce rates.

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And rates of domestic violence.

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On all kinds of measures, progressive states produce better outcomes for people. With very few exceptions (Utah), states, with more liberal politics achieve the ends that social conservatives say they want: fewer teen pregnancies, less teen sex, better marriages.

If we know what produces better outcomes for people–including lowered abortion rates–then why don’t conservative state lawmakers choose those policies?

I think it’s fair to trust that when people choose actions with predictable outcomes, they are  making those choices because they want those outcomes. When conservative lawmakers choose policies that result in harm to women and children, they are doing this because they want to harm women and children.

If you are an abortion rights advocate, that probably feels like an obvious statement, as you see evidence of a “war on women” in a new state legislature every day.

But I want to turn the conversation away from abortion for a moment, because these issues–domestic violence, divorce, maternal death, etc.–, while they intersect with abortion, aren’t only about abortion. And I’m hopeful that if people who consider themselves pro-life consider the patterns in states with anti-abortion policies, they will shift their energy away from curtailing abortion rights and toward doing the work that will actually end abortion. That work is also work that reduces unwanted pregnancies, STI and STD rates, divorce rates, and family violence rates. If pro-lifers can be convinced to buy into these causes as pro-life causes, there may be actual improvement in lives of people living in conservative states.

Rebecca

 

 

PA-IPL Bike Trip Day 5

New 606 contributor Ben Wideman shares reflections from his recent bike trip with Interfaith Power & Faith to promote climate action.

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Machloket – a Hebrew word meaning sacred argument or debate. It’s at the core of a sentiment in Judaism that sees conversation between differing opinions as being foundational to any system of belief.

We were taught about this wonderful word during a stop at Adat Shalom, a synagogue in the Reconstructionist branch of Judaism, during today’s bike ride into Washington DC. Rabbi Fred shared with us from their 200 year old Torah, pointing out that differing opinions are how we form our perspectives on what we believe. He referenced Jewish texts that intentionally include two contrasting opinions, holding both as sacred, side by side.

All of this is important as we approach Capitol Hill, knowing that this is also a place with many different opinions, ideas, and contrasting perspectives.

We arrived here in DC, enjoying our final day on the trail, with our heads filled with our experiences and the many stories we carry with us. Our hope is that we can be heard, and that the words we share will help shape how our representatives lead this country. We know we are not all of the exact same faith, mind, or heart, but we also know we share a desire that people of faith speak up and speak out for a better future for our planet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PA-IPL Bike Trip Day 4

New 606 contributor Ben Wideman is sharing his insights this week from his Interfaith Power & Light bike trip, an opportunity to people of faith to travel PA on bike and address climate change on their way. 
Water. We can’t live without it, and too much is problematic.
Two days of rain makes a cyclist feel many different things. When rain begins it can be refreshing on a warm ride. A light mist can be cooling on a sunny day, and a pasting shower can be a minor inconvenience. But two days starts to feel downright frustrating. Water in our shoes, water in our clothes, soaking wet clothes, and water trickling down our backs. Rain so soaking it that it pushes its way through raincoats and rain pants. Rain that makes us shiver when we are standing still and makes any descent both treacherous and also stinging in the way it pounds exposed skin.

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Long days of riding in the rain also makes us grateful for the way it greens our lives. It makes us grateful for warmth at lunch stops and our final destination. It makes us appreciate the small things like wringing our socks and gloves, and the feeling of climbing off the bike at the end of the day.

I am always grateful for hospitality on a long trip like this, but the past two days have increased that ten-fold. Today’s lunch was an incredible meal at a local Middle Eastern restaurant in Brunswick, MD. Our hosts at Am Kolel Retreat Center, and Joyce and other local friends from the Poolesville area have provided us with incredible warmth and welcome (including a vegetarian meal provided from a local farm-to-table restaurant. Water has been present in these spaces too – from the food prep, to the warm showers, to the green and growing spaces, water has been involved.

All that to say we have experienced water… the best parts and the hardest parts. We are ready for less water, and we are grateful for water.

Ben

There is more to soteriology than substitutionary atonement.

If you grew up as a conservative Christian, you grew up with penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). If you were like me, you didn’t realize it, because you only knew it as salvation, and it didn’t occur to you that there could be more than one way of understanding it, because a core feature of conservative Christianity is that there is only one way of understanding most things. Or, at least that is what conservative Christianity says about itself, even as it makes room for all kinds of questionable theology in pursuit of greater political power.

Above, Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (15th century). As in many depictions of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb that God requires to atone for human sin, the lamb is shown bleeding into a chalice such as the one used in communion services. 

For me, unlearning penal substitutionary atonement was a multi-step process. In college, I first encountered the feminist and womanist description of penal substitutionary atonement as divine child abuse, a criticism that has been around in some form since at least the time Anselm laid out the satisfaction theory of atonement in Cur Deus Homos in the late 11th century. But even when I found voices who articulated my life-long unease with a soteriology–a doctrine of salvation–based on metaphors of domestic violence, I didn’t see any options. If Christianity demanded a belief in Christ’s death in order to satisfy God’s offended honor (Anselm’s theory) or to bear a punishment that was due to humans (the theology of Calvin and many others, including all the evangelicals I knew)–well, what if I didn’t? Was that the end of Christianity for me?

I never really actually wrestled with that question. For me, it was easy enough to trust that bad theology didn’t have the power to end my faith–even though it did do real harm to me and people I love (but that is a story for another day!).

Above, Matthias Grünewald’s John the Baptist (1510-1515) shows John pointing forward, at his feet a lamb (representing Jesus) carrying a small cross and with a cup (for the wine at the Last Supper, where Jesus explicitly predicts his death and indicates to his friends that he will be betrayed). This detail is from a larger altarpiece that once adorned a monastary of the Order of St. Anthony at Isenheim. 

But I know many others for whom lousy theology–and the theology of penal substitutionary atonement in particular–became giant obstacles to faith. Some of them wrote to me around Good Friday in response to a story I shared on social media:

My eleven-year-old daughter is relatively well-churched, so it didn’t occur to me that Holy Week would throw her for a theological loop. (I’m not sure why, since I’m the primary caretaker of her spiritual development, so I should have been more aware.) We’d gone to Maundy Thursday services and then to a Good Friday service, both at churches were we don’t typically attend and, it turns out, are a lot more theologically conservative (which is to say, they are pretty typical of American Protestantism) than where we do usually go. Unsurprisingly, the sermon was about Jesus’ death, and the message was so familiar to me that it didn’t even register as troubling: Jesus was both God and man, fully perfect and fully human and thus able to bridge the gap between God and us. Since people are innately depraved, we are both undeserving and unable to bridge the gap of sin that divides us, because of our original sin, from a holy God. God, in his absolute holiness, cannot tolerate that sin. Graciously, God provides a sacrifice that, because he is both human and God, can create a bridge between our sinfulness and his holiness: Jesus. In accepting this in our hearts, we enter into a transaction in which Jesus’ death is a substitution for the punishment that each of us individually deserves. Pretty basic stuff, if you grew up in a PSA-preaching church. As part of the Good Friday service, we were invited to write our individual sins on a square of red paper, then bring them forward to nail them to a wooden cross at the front of the church –a theologically troubling idea, even for a PSA-church, given that it’s not just our individual mistakes (sometimes called sins with a lower-case “s”) but our very nature (sin with an upper-case S) that divides us from God, but since I don’t adhere to PSA theology anyway, I’m not too bothered by seeing it done poorly.

On the other hand, this entire episode wrenched my daughter’s heart. She was first, horrified at the theology, which I realized in the midst of this scene that I’d never even introduced her to.  Then she was saddened by the thought of so many people believing it, then even sadder since she knew this meant that they didn’t understand something kinder. For me growing up, salvation WAS penal substitutionary atonement; I didn’t know it could be otherwise; for her, she didn’t even know that PSA existed–and then wondered how salvation could be that at all.

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When I shared this story on social media, several people asked me what in the world I meant that PSA wasn’t the only option for understanding salvation or Jesus’ death. Some asked with relief, hoping that they would discover an understanding of Jesus’ death that didn’t rely on the violence of PSA. Others asked with worry–wondering just how far away from traditional Christianity I had wandered. (Good news! It’s totally within the Christian tradition to hold other views on Jesus’ death and resurrection.)

Because the answer is long–there are many, many ways of understanding that are part of the Christian tradition–I will lay out some of the most significant ones in Christian history in a post devoted to just that topic.

For me, though, it was the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective that pointed the way. Though the progressives in the Mennonite tradition have a somewhat contentious relationship with this document, which has been used, rather than as the guiding tool as which it was created, as a cudgel, I have a lot of love for it. Mostly because of Footnote 1 to Article 8 (“Salvation”). The footnote begins: “In the history of Christian thought, there have been three major views of the atonement.”

Well, there are a lot more than three, as I’ll share next time, but, for me, what was so important was that a document that declared itself to be guidance to my faith allowed space for multiple ways in and forward. That recognition broke open my faith, and it’s one of my favorite parts about being Mennonite–that, at our best, we respect others’ consciences and encourage each other to think deeply about our theological choices rather than to just assume them. Of course, not all of us do, and none of us do it perfectly, but that this would be valued enough to be written into the Confession made me feel welcome in the Mennonite faith in a way that a church that demanded loyalty to PSA couldn’t do; I would always have been a liar in such a church, and it’s far nicer to be in a place where I’m not.

Rebecca