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Public Theology: Subversive Remembering for the Sake of the World: Ecclesia in Times of Downturn
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Subversive Remembering for the Sake of the World: Ecclesia in Times of Downturn
Creative theological thinking needs to be encouraged and deepened in light of the urgent economic, political, cultural challenges today.

By Karen L. Bloomquist

The overall concern

Why are churches in the U.S. not more forthrightly speaking out and acting to transform today’s blatant realities of injustice, illusion and amnesia that fly in the face of the faith they confess? How are competing gods, faiths and hopes at stake? How might churches become places where “subversions” of reality can be articulated and alternative public visions held forth and pursued by the people of God, especially in times of pervasive and enduring decline? How might we learn from and be transformed through those in the world whose situations seem most different from “us”?

Creative theological thinking needs to be encouraged and deepened in light of the urgent economic, political, cultural challenges today. Theological insights can more persuasively bridge what typically is a gap between analyses of the current economic, political, cultural context and the historical biblical and theological texts – “exegeting” the current context as well as the biblical texts, so that “gospel” can be heard as news that is good in the public contexts in which people live today.

Further, the hope is that through this, people of faith might be inspired and encouraged to participate more fully in movements of resistance and change in our society and world today.

Some underlying convictions

Theology is that ongoing activity of the whole church that aims to clarify what gospel must mean here and now (Douglas John Hall). Therefore, what becomes crucial is ongoing discerning of the situation into which “news” that becomes “good” is preached, taught, and lived out. Confessing in contrast to professing faith involves discerning what Luther referred to as that "little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking." In that spirit, I propose that “confessing” and its correlative, “subversive remembering,” be understood as a power discourse in the midst of systemic injustices, social amnesia and illusions. It is a subversive declaration of who and whose we are in the midst of those forces that would dominate, oppress and shape us according to their power and interests. More than only words, it is a stance of defiance in the face of these realities. It is inevitably contextual and political. It emerges from beyond what is, as an effective power that activates us with new life, and gathers us together as the body of Christ, empowered to cooperate and organize with others to resist these powers reigning over our lives and world.

Preachers often have done the necessary exegetical work on biblical texts and increasingly know, e.g, of the empire realities against which NT books were written, but then stop short of applying this in their sermons to the actual forces of empire as people experience this today. I want to encourage more of this critical connecting to occur, not only in relation to US realities, but in relation to the realities facing our global neighbors: their realities wake us up, compel us to see what we would not otherwise, to question, and through the power of the Spirit, to be transformed in and with those who are most different from “us.”

This was a central purpose of the Theology in the Life of the Church program (2005-9) that I directed in the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). In the first of what became a six book series of writings by theologians from around the world, we challenged North American theologians to reflect theologically on what it means to be church in their context in the midst of empire (Being the Church in the Midst of Empire, LWF/Lutheran University Press, 2007). This difficult task is usually avoided -- for fear of saying what mayl be controversial -- but it is the kind of challenge that preachers must face every week!

In pursuit of today’s theological challenge

With the above as background, the challenge is how to enrich, encourage and develop theological thinking and community-based action in relation to key analyses in today’s context. Such analyses include, for example:
  • Empire: the “various interrelated processes of domination and their effects” or “massive concentrations of power which permeate all aspects of life and which cannot be controlled by any one actor alone”(Joerg Rieger, Christ and Empire). Resistance to empire is difficult since most people never realize what it is that shapes them, because this reaches all the way into and creates their deepest desires. Resistance begins to occur when ambivalence is acknowledged, where the pressures of injustices are greatest, and when tensions are not prematurely resolved – that is, through what I refer to as “subversive remembering.”

  • Illusions instead of truth: “We live in imaginary, virtual worlds created by corporations that profit from our deception. A public that can no longer distinguish between truth and fiction is left to interpret reality through illusion....The worse reality becomes, the more people seek refuge and comfort in illusions…lies and distortions become truth and people can believe what they want to believe…. Blind faith in illusions is our culture’s secular version of being born again” (Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion). In contrast, an epistemology of the cross critiques human pretensions to God-ness, and equips us to see reality rightly. It attends to that moment when illusions fall apart; they no longer hold. To know truly is to know from the margins…of life, sanity, dignity, power, to “live in the world as it is, without illusions.” (Mary Solberg, Compelling Knowledge).

  • Social amnesia: “History consciousness and truth are now sacrificed to the spectacles of consumerism, celebrity culture, hyped-up violence and a market-driven obsession with the self, but the very formative culture that makes compassion, justice and an engaged citizenry foundational to democracy has been erased from the language of mainstream politics and the diverse cultural apparatuses that support it….Public values and the public good have now been reduced to nostalgic reminders of another era” (Henry Giroux). In contrast, memory is the fundamental way of expressing Christian faith (e.g, the Eucharistic words, “Do this in memory of me”). “The church’s public witness is as bearer of the tradition of the dangerous memory of suffering and yearning for freedom in the systems of society” (Metz, Faith in History and Society). Such remembering is itself subversive of any totalizing systems and the illusions they create.
The point is that people today, far more acutely than just a few years ago, are feeling and recognizing what analyses such as these identify. But are we as theologians and pastors really engaging this? Are we unpacking and further developing and articulating the faith we confess in relation to this, in and through faith communities (ecclesia), but also for the sake of the whole endangered world (polis and cosmos)?

How might some theological connections stir and motivate this? Central theological themes, such as cross and resurrection and eschatological hope are key, but how might these become more radically incarnate today? Truth-telling -- through subversive remembering (a) of who/whose we are in relation to God, (b) of what has come before us, and (c) of the realities of our neighbors globally as well as locally -- has the potential, empowered through the Holy Spirit, to transform what is occurring in light of God’s in-breaking new reality.

“Subversive remembering” refers to a theologically-empowered social practice of expressing “when/who/what” has been forgotten or overlooked. It exposes our illusions, false gods and the domination (empire) and injustices they perpetuate, and impels truth-telling and organized action (resistance) for the sake of God’s world.

“Ecclesia” here is a place of remembering, putting together what is fragmentary, pointing to what is true, enabling us to see and act. It implies the long-term challenge of nurturing and organizing communities of resistance against the dominant scripts and the injustices they entail --- as was much of the New Testament church in its struggle in the midst of empire -- communities today that are intentionally collaborative across boundaries of religion, geography and self-interests. Much of this can be nurtured through a re-envisioning of the usual congregational practices of teaching (Bible study), worship (especially the Sacraments), preaching, social ministry, etc.

An especially urgent calling of churches and religious folk is to open the space, point to the evidence and pose the critical questions. People are acutely feeling betrayed by the promises they have bought into, often with blind faith that economic decision-making will take care of these complicated matters, only to discover that they are mostly beholden to large corporate interests determined to keep the market as “free” as possible. Matters of basic meaning, hope and values are at stake, which should be the forte of the church. And yet, in recent years, it has typically been journalists and pundits who have boldly named these realities, e.g., greed as the central matter at stake, while the church’s public voice has been less audible. It is language such as “greed” that connects viscerally with what people are feeling, experiencing. With that intention, I conceived and drafted what became the public statement of the 2010 Lutheran World Federation assembly on “Daily Bread Instead of Greed.”

Only by declaring ourselves atheists in relation to the god of the market can we confess faith in the God become incarnate in Jesus Christ (Rieger, No Rising Tide). The point is that this idolatry needs to be effectively exposed, not primarily through top-down pronouncements, but from out of the actual contradictions as people are experiencing them. The urgent pastoral task is to stand aside and open up ways for people to name, lament and rage about the contradictions between what they have been promised by this distinctly American “faith” and what they are actually experiencing. I attempted to do this in my theological dissertation and book (The Dream Betrayed, Fortress 1990) in relation to the realities that were then facing working-class folks. Since then, the contradictions have become far more blatant, between what the dominant economic logic promises and what it actually delivers (a worse rather than better life for most). This feels like an increasingly betrayed promise to more and more people – not just the poor and working class, but increasingly those who have been middle class --- those “losers” who are overlooked, forgotten, not remembered, and continue to be sacrificed to the gods of the prevailing economic belief system. When the US’s global domination finally ends and along with it, the belief in American exceptionalism, there will be painful daily reminders of what such a loss of power means for Americans in every walk of life. The question is, how will we deal with this, pastorally as well as theologically?

“The incarnation is a logic of downturn” (Rieger). The incarnate Jesus Christ transcends a form of “immanence” determined by the status quo, in order to embrace a different form of immanence that emerges on the margins. Thus a central theological task is to shift where our faith, desire and hope are lodged – from looking “upward” (to God on high identified with those who have succeeded) to looking “downward” – to those marginalized, left out, impoverished and despairing --- around us, and around the world; from illusionary pseudo-truths to the reality-exposing truth of what actually is occurring; from being US-centric to the rest of the world; from complicity with ways of empire to allegiance to God’s in-breaking reign.

Karen L. Bloomquist taught social ethics at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, led the Department of Studies for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and later for the Lutheran World Federation. She now lives with her husband in Bellingham, Washington. This is a condensed version of what was presented at the Holden Village Theological Symposium in September.

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Date Added: 11/7/2011 Date Revised: 11/7/2011 4:02:02 PM

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