Arrogance & Imagination
2016 10 22 – Mississauga Mennonite Fellowship
Arrogance & Imagination – as followers of Christ in a wealthy & powerful nation, our spiritual path often takes us towards humility and gratitude to God for the opportunities in our lives. This is all the more the case as we encounter the true impacts of Christian arrogance in the TRC report and the continuing witness of Indigenous people to the church. I want to take time to consider this arrogance and entitlement. Where does it come from? What do our scriptures say? When does following God require these behaviours?
Poll non-Christians in North America about what they think about Christians, and you will hear some uncomfortable things. People remember the worst of their encounters. One experience that recurs is arrogance. Christians are seen as being arrogant.
Most of the theology and religious practice I engage with goes in the other direction. It focuses on love, peace, humility and kindness. But I know that the faith that I grew up with was not that way. It was arrogant, authoritarian, and overbearing. And the faith I grew up with and the faith I try to practice today share many of the same texts, figures, and histories’ and the same identity: Christian.
When I read over and meditated on the scripture texts for today I saw themes of arrogance. I wanted to explore these themes, while thinking about how Indigenous people in this land have historically experienced Christians, as well as the recent Truth and Reconciliation commission. Christian arrogance has been immensely destructive, but I want to examine where that arrogance has come from. I want to suggest that some ways of repairing the damage done and even some forms of authentic humility are going to be experienced as arrogant. I want to explore the concept of imagination, especially prophetic imagination, as a necessary part of addressing our history.
People think Christians are arrogant, well, fair enough. Claims to absolute truth. Claims to be the only way. Biblical inerrancy, Claims to infallibility. These are all things people associate with Christianity, however much any individual Christian or denomination might question, disavow, or disagree with individual elements.
It’s also a reaction to where we are in history. Our social structure is informed by the marketplace. So our society imagines that all religions are equal competitors in the marketplace. Christianity claims to be something different, something unique. It has gone from being the dominant official state religion to being one among many, but continues to claim absolute truth and decry other faiths. So it is experienced as being arrogant.
One form of arrogant behaviour that is relevant here is the concept of entitlement.
In 2012 I went to the Jesus Radicals event in North Carolina. It was like a conference or festival, with many workshops on Christianity and Anarchism, alternatives to policing, creating healthcare collectives, and so on. They worked hard to make it as accessible as possible. Not just in terms of physical accessibility, with provisions for wheelchair users and visually impaired people, but in terms of economics. For example, all the meals were free, cooked by volunteers, and open to everyone.
I sat under a tree with some friends, eating our meals, and talking over what we had learned. After I was done I went up for seconds. And I asked the person doling out the lentil stew if I could have a larger scoop. I flashed my winning smile and went back to my friends.
Later on, I reflected on that experience. The meals were free, and the portions were small. I wanted more to eat. I was hungry. Yet I had the same portion size as other people, and I was not starving. But I felt the freedom to go up and ask for more. After all, i might reason, the server can always say no.
But saying no has a cost. Especially in this non-hierarchical situation where neither of us has ownership. If that person serving had said no to me, because I had already had something to eat and there was limited food, I could have been upset, annoyed. I had nothing to lose by going and asking. Yet consider, this is North Carolina. I’m a white male aged 18-45. I speak good English. I had nothing to lose by asking. But that would not be the case for everyone. For a Person of Colour, asking for something in this way carries more risk. Being labelled as greedy or lazy or ungrateful. This might not happen as much at a radical Christian gathering. But the coping mechanisms required to survive in a racist society become powerful habits, become cultures. The culture and the habits I was raised under tell me that I can ask for anything I want, and it will be called boldness and confidence. Other people my age have been taught that the same actions are risky, demanding, uncouth.
Obviously the racial politics of that situation, and of our own situation, are complex. But I wanted to tell this story to illustrate a moment when I realised that I felt entitled. I could ask for things that other people did not feel that they had a right to ask for. The consequences of overstepping a boundary for me are minimal.
I believe that the best example of Christian entitlement is the Doctrine of Discovery
Watching a film later about it. But basically, legal and social power that Christians arriving in Indigenous land could claim that land. Many layers, many historical aspects, but essentially it is still part of the legal structure because ultimately the territorial claims of US and Canada depend upon this doctrine. Some areas have treaties or land surrender documents, but others do not. Can Canada demonstrate the rights to all of the territory it claims? The UN asked some years ago and they still don’t have an answer.
My reason for talking about entitlement is to look at the Gospel reading.
It is easy to see the Pharisee in the lectionary text from Luke as arrogant. He looks down on his neighbour and tells God all about his own holiness. But he is entitled. He is keeping all the laws and doing all the stuff. Anyone in the time of Jesus would have said that he is ‘justified’. If you had called him entitled he would have agreed.
As a complaint, entitlement assumes that this person is not truly entitled. For example, I can be entitled to a salary if I have a work contract and perform appropriately. Calling me entitled for expecting my salary would be accurate
But what about the arrogance of that tax collector, that sinner? Presumption. He dares to approach the throne of God.
But because he does, Jesus describes him as being justified, for he humbled himself and will be exalted.
The prophetic lamentation in Jeremiah is the words of the entitled. He speaks to God through the strength of the existing relationship, and presumes to give God advice on how to act; to try and manipulate the Most High into helping.
14:8 O hope of Israel, its savior in time of trouble, why should you be like a stranger in the land, like a traveler turning aside for the night?
14:9 Why should you be like someone confused, like a mighty warrior who cannot give help? Yet you, O LORD, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name; do not forsake us!
The prophet speaks to God as if God is powerful yet confused, rootless like a stranger. That is a pretty bold thing to say to the Creator of the Universe. The prophet goes on
14:21 Do not spurn us, for your name’s sake; do not dishonor your glorious throne; remember and do not break your covenant with us.
This whole passage, he is pleading for God’s help – but he does it by implying that God’s own name and throne will be dishonoured if God does not answer.
This may be desperation, or cunning, but it is certainly a bold and arrogant move. At the same time. Jeremiah is honest, clear about the sin of the people, past and present:
14:20 We acknowledge our wickedness, O LORD, the iniquity of our ancestors, for we have sinned against you.
His bold engagement with God is in the spirit of the patriarchs – he bargains with God like Abraham, wrestles like Jacob, pleads like Moses.
He is entitled. God has established a relationship that allows for this back-and-forth, even direct challenge. God is somehow accountable or answerable. Certainly relatable.
By contrast, the Old Testament story of Esther has the scene where Esther goes to plead before the king, and there’s dramatic tension in whether he will receive her or not. Commentary explains that she is risking her position and her life by going to the King for the sake of her people.
Before Roosevelt, people could show up at the White House and have an interview with the President in the Oval office. Nowadays that seems like fantasy. You can’t just go and see the leaders.
But God seems to set things up otherwise. Certainly before Jesus came, God was present to the people in a way no ruler can. No idol can. And the occasional prophetic, bold or desperate person who accepts that invitation is going to look arrogant, entitled.
NOTE – never check Facebook the morning of your sermon. You might find yourself having to add something. Having already decided to talk about arrogance and entitlement, I saw this account of an apology to Indigenous Peoples from the Canadian Baptist Ministries. It references ‘Attitudes and acts of arrogance, entitlement and greed’. I also read of a Baptist, Silas Rand, who lived and worked among the Mi’kmaq from 1843 – 1889, challenged the colonial status quo, and was silenced by the church. Let us keep that example in mind.
The final thing that I wanted to talk about is imagination. I believe that lack of imagination is a significant issue in current problems.
Partly this is a numbers issue. We have solved all the easy, uncontroversial issues. All the big intractable issues that need the most attention to detail, the most imagination, the most passion to resolve, instead become boiled-down-to-the-bare-bones simplified yes-or-no answer issues. Are you for Trump or for Hillary? Are you for Employment or Welfare? ProChoice or ProLife? In Europe or Out of Europe?
We get used to these extreme binaries. So when we look at the Doctrine of Discovery, or the Church’s role in Colonialism, it is hard to imagine any other way.
Or looking back, it is hard to imagine our ancestors imagining any other way.
And it feels like arrogance to say to earlier generations ‘you should have done differently’
When it comes to Indigenous-Settler relations in Canada the majority of Canadians leave solutions up to the governments, and government has very limited solutions. Assign more money, cut services, issue statements, commission studies.
Government cannot be imaginative. Even if the person at the top has a great idea, there is an entire hierarchy that will have to carry it out. Real change is a slow, hard process. When you start to question established reality, you evoke fear and resistance from all those with something to lose.
We hit these walls with the Doctrine of Discovery. People like us may not like it, may understand it as being racist and imperialist, but the system of land ownership, law and power is foundational to our experience of reality.
It is hard to imagine other ways of living that would not be not catastrophic to our current reality. If it was easy, we would have done it already.
My solution is not a solution, but it is a starting point. We must consult and believe experts. Who are these experts? Indigenous people. Legal scholars. Our children. Jesus instructed us to become like a child to enter the Kingdom – I don’t think that this means immaturity, but a lack of constraint by the weight of experience, an absence of pre-set judgement (prejudice) towards a particular conclusion.
Need to be open to imagination, challenge, Willing to consider other ways.
We need to discover our own prophetic imagination. It has always been there. The church has always had people who have tried other ways. Often we have suppressed them, or ignored them, or worse of all, employed them.
That is sometimes going to look like arrogance. Does not feel like it but it looks like it. Knowing better, or disrupting the ordinary or wanting more or distrusting authority.
We will have the appearance of arrogance as we question the structures around us. The decisions of our ancestors. But we need imagination to adjust our course and question our preconceptions.
If the Doctrine of Discovery is to be removed from our legal and governmental systems we also have to learn where it comes from In our intellectual and ethical traditions. What in the Bible gave Christians the entitlement to claim Indigenous land? Do we understand it differently or are we just acting differently without deeper change?
What are we entitled to?
What is our role in God’s mission?
Conquerors entitled to land? To enslave bodies and mould souls? No. But we are bold to approach the throne of Grace and speak with prophetic imagination, appearing to be arrogance.
We have the arrogance to speak God’s words. To imagine a different world. To approach God and say like Jeremiah and the tax collector “We are sinners. We have inherited an oppressive mess. Help us to imagine something better”
After the service we watched Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery and had a discussion.