Acts, Diversity – and Macro Practice

This is the fourth post in a short series on the book of Acts, was written by a Christian colleague (JAG) who teaches in the School of Social Work. Both his professional expertise and his personal experience as a second generation immigrant shape his understanding of the book and bring insights that will help all of us read the book better. He presented the material in a well received class at our church and I am pleased to bring it here as well. RJS

One framework from Social Work that helps to differentiate the work of Philip from Paul is examining their respective levels of intervention, from the micro to the macro (Acts 8-28, especially 20).

A Personal Re-introduction: Membership has its Privileges

As the eldest son of Filipino immigrants, I am keenly aware of my educational privilege. I teach Social Work at not just any state university but at one implicated in the US colonization of the Philippines as “Our Little Brown Brother.” My cousin remarked, “You teach at a school that would not even admit me.”

Perhaps the biggest privilege is my opportunity to train tomorrow’s leaders. My proudest moment was visiting a former student on the mission field. I witnessed him implementing some of the strategies for community engagement not in a classroom but in the Southern Philippines, with the Tagakaulo, a remote mountain tribe. He showed me the phrase book his mission recently completed, a glossary of Tagakaulo terms, defining them next to their English, Tagalog, and Visayan translations. One of the older women praised the work – “Thank you for preserving our language and culture.”

Paul’s Farewell as a Social Work Pre-test?

Philip is an evangelist, Paul a church planter. Although their roles overlap, in Social Work they could be considered examples of micro practice (interpersonal counseling) and macro practice (nonprofit management, community organization, policy and evaluation). For many years I supervised graduate interns, including international students who intended to establish nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in their home countries. It occurred to me that I could assign Paul’s Farewell to Ephesian Elders (Acts 20:13-38) as a pre-test: What in the text might be helpful in your planning for an NGO?

Hopefully the intern will identify some of Paul’s starting points. He personally recruited members for his NGO (through evangelism), an activity requiring interpersonal skills (Acts 20:18-21). Once recruited, it appears Paul selected some or leadership positions which included an intensive training program, likely on-the-job, extending over two years (Acts 19:10). In the case of the Ethiopian eunuch, however, the duration of Philip’s micro-intervention was brief (Acts 8:39).

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The Whole Creation Has Been Groaning

Romans 8:18-22 (NIV)

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

The next chapter in Let Creation Rejoice: Biblical Hope and Ecological Crisis by Jonathan Moo and Robert White turns to Paul’s description of creation and especially to Romans 8 – creation groans as in the pains of childbirth. They connect this passage to Genesis 3, but even more significantly to the prophets, especially Isaiah 24-27. Moo has an article in New Testament Studies on this connection, Romans 8.19–22 and Isaiah’s Cosmic Covenant. There are also echoes of connection to Hosea, and to Jeremiah in Romans 8 although Moo and White don’t connect the passage to Jeremiah in this chapter of their book.

In Romans 8 Paul assumes that his audience is aware of the broader biblical story including the first chapters of Genesis. He refers to Adam in Romans 5 and in a number of other letters, so it isn’t unreasonable to assume that Paul is alluding to the curse of Genesis 3 in Romans 8, at least in part. Most commentators on the passage seem to stop here and ignore the other biblical contexts for Paul’s statements leaving us with a rather flat (and I think largely wrong) interpretation. Moo and White move beyond this to the far richer description of an ongoing curse depicted by the Prophets. These passages were also part of the broader biblical story Paul assumed as he wrote the letter to the Romans.

Paul, however, like the Old Testament prophets before him, goes further in describing how creation’s subjection to now-fallen humanity means that the entire creation is subjected to ongoing frustration, finding itself in “bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21), enslaved to ruin. (p. 105)

We tend to worry about using anthropomorphic language to refer to creation – for theological and/or scientific reasons.

Paul has no such qualms. He is able to draw on a rich biblical tradition of letting nonhuman creation have its own voice, a voice that is heard praising God throughout the Psalms, bearing witness to the covenant between God and his people in the Prophets and, as here in Romans 8, crying out – groaning even – when creation suffers the results of humankind’s corruption.

Paul is in fact echoing the language of Isaiah 24-27, a passage that he uses in his extended defense of the hope of resurrection in an earlier letter, in 1 Corinthians 15. He alludes to the same passage again in his description of life after death in 2 Corinthians 5:4. Just as Paul does in Romans 8, Isaiah 24-27 emphasizes both the present devastating effects of human sinfulness for a mourning earth and also the cosmic extent of the judgment and new creation to come. (p. 105)

Isaiah 24 connects the curse of the earth to ongoing human rebellion – the curse was not a one-off event at the origin of the human race. The earth continues to groan as a consequence of human activity and human failures.

The earth dries up and withers,
the world languishes and withers,
the heavens languish with the earth.
The earth is defiled by its people;
they have disobeyed the laws,
violated the statutes
and broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore a curse consumes the earth;
its people must bear their guilt.

The curse continues, but creation will be redeemed. Moo and White point out that the curse continues today and at least part of this is because we continue to fail. There is a hope for the future, but it is an already/not yet kind of hope. The Old Testament speaks extensively about the problems of idolatry. The New Testament extends idolatry by connecting it to greed and covetousness (Eph 5:5 and Col 3:5). Because of these passages and others many Christians view idolatry as including the worship of material possessions. This connects to the curse on the earth arising from human activity. Ecological devastation when it happens and the potential for ecological crisis is part of this curse because it puts something other than God and the great commandments (love God and love each other) at the focus of human purpose.

In the light of what Paul says in Romans, our consumer societies actually hinder the material creation itself from fully glorifying God because we have hijacked it for selfish (and therefore sinful, hence empty) ends. (p. 108)

And a little later Moo and White are explicit in their view:

When we read Romans 8 today, we cannot help but see – and indeed ought to see – creation’s groaning reflected in our current ecological crises …, especially now that the truly global consequences of our actions for the rest of creation have become so evident.

If the biblical picture of humankind’s role within creation once appeared naive to some for the way in which it assigns such profound responsibility for the earth to one species, it no longer appears so – not in an age when human beings are having such widespread effects on the earth that scientists have begun to call it the “Anthropocene,” or “Age of Man.” The need for us to take seriously our responsibility for the creation has never been greater, and the potential consequences of the failure to exercise our responsibility well have never been so cataclysmic. (p. 109-110)

It isn’t that we should leave the earth in a pristine form untouched by human hands or unused. Rather we need to realize that creation has a purpose and a future and that our actions can and do make a difference. Paul tells us that it matters what we do with our bodies because they were bought with a price You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies. (1 Cor 6:20) This despite that fact that Paul can later write that flesh and blood will not inherit the kingdom of God, that we hope in resurrection. Likewise Romans 8 puts to rest the idea that creation is disposable, consumable, and without a future. According to Moo and White:

What Paul tells the Corinthians about treating their physical bodies as valuable to God therefore can also be seen to apply to the entire creation. The way we treat creation matters. (p. 112)

This affirmation of the continuing value and future of creation should provide the foundation for a radical Christian environmental ethos.

Of course Romans 8 isn’t the only New Testament passage that refers to the future of creation. 2 Peter 3 has also had significant influence on the way (some) Christians view the future of creation. In next chapter Moo and White will look at cosmic catastrophe in 2 Peter. Today, however, we will stay with Romans 8.

Is creation subject to futility because of a one-off human sin (Genesis 3) or through continuing human sin and idolatry?

Does Romans 8 tell us that this creation will be redeemed and restored?

Should Romans 8 lead us to a Christian environmental ethos?

If you would like to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

You may also comment on The Whole Creation Has Been Groaning at Jesus Creed.

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Acts, Diversity – and Cultural Competence

This is the third post in a short series on the book of Acts, was written by a Christian colleague (JAG) who teaches in the School of Social Work. Both his professional expertise and his personal experience as a second generation immigrant shape his understanding of the book and bring insights that will help all of us read the book better. He presented the material in a well received class at our church and I am pleased to bring it here as well. RJS

The ministry of the Apostle Paul is essentially the Seven Deacons’ service raised to the next level. In this post we will explore some of the ways in which Paul builds on Stephen’s insight throughout his missionary journeys (Acts 8-26).

A Personal Re-introduction: An American (Citizen) in Manila?

Our family vacation in the Philippines coincided with the onset of Martial Law. My Dad was proud of his naturalized US citizenship (“I know more about this country than people who were born here”) and he often repeated my birthright – he could never be elected president, but I could. Dad even speculated that our citizenship might offer some protection should we encounter violent political unrest.

I spent much of that summer in Manila with my Favorite Aunt. She went to college in the US and had clear ties to the Marcos opposition party. Together we watched a lot of movies. She showed me a review of “The Exorcist” from a local newspaper published in English. The critic’s tone surprised me. Why are American audiences so terrified by this storyline? Here in the Philippines we have any number of faith healers who are more than up to this task.

My story re-visits several aspects in our discussion of Acts to date: language, place of residence, generations, and politics. It adds citizenship, acknowledging some of its privileges, and depicts a difference in religious tradition – not in-group (recalling how the Jewish community the Jerusalem church drew from included both Sadducees and Pharisees) but in this case, across cultures.

Cultural Competence: Paul Builds on Stephen’s Insight

Our first glimpse of Paul is as Saul at Stephen’s martyrdom. As he recounts it in Acts 22:20,

“And when the blood of your witness Stephen was shed, I myself was standing nearby, approving, and guarding the cloaks of those who were killing him.” Continue reading

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Through the Lens of the Gospel

Jonathan Moo and Robert White in Let Creation Rejoice: Biblical Hope and Ecological Crisis turn from the evidence for environmental crisis and global warming to a Christian response. There are plenty of secular people who think that the Christian response (at least the evangelical response) is to put our heads in the sand assuming that God will prevent any real damage of his good creation. As Moo and White point out, there is plenty evidence that some views of creation and the future taught by Christians fall into this categories.

A well known pastor, respected by many, has a sermon readily available on the internet (YouTube and other places – 10 years old now, over a hundred thousand views) that gives the view that the earth is 6000 years old and everything here is for our use as we subdue the earth, that the future is entirely in God’s hands. This pastor is consistent in his view, but the “science” he uses to dismiss global warming and ecological crisis is appalling – it isn’t fair to the science at all, but is simply a collection of rhetorical tricks. We have a black-eye in the view of many because of valid dismay at some of the things that Christians have, in the name of Christ and his church, said. (I don’t care nearly as much what they say in their own name and understanding.)

Start with the Gospel. The place to start, according to Moo and White, is with the gospel of Jesus Christ, with a robust view of God’s work in his creation throughout scripture culminating in incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection.

The presentation of the gospel begins with Luke 4 citing Isaiah 61.

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read,and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

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Acts, Diversity – and Service?

This is the second post in a short series on the book of Acts, was written by a Christian colleague (JAG) who teaches in the School of Social Work. Both his professional expertise and his personal experience as a second generation immigrant shape his understanding of the book and bring insights that will help all of us read the book better. He presented the material in a well received class at our church and I am pleased to bring it here as well. RJS

The Seven Deacons develop their skills for communicating with diverse constituencies within the church, then extend the church’s outreach beyond Jerusalem (Acts 6-15).

A Personal Re-introduction: Triple Consciousness and Conflict?

Acts 6:1 identifies a conflict: “There arose a dispute between the Greek-speaking Jews and the Hebrew-speaking Jews.” In my previous post, diversity within the church originates with the Jewish Diaspora. In this post, triple consciousness is activated in the membership, and benefits both the body and its outreach.

I am no stranger to disputes regarding language and residence. In the US, “Fresh Off the Boat” (sometimes shortened to FOB or modified to FOP for “Fresh Off the Plane”) is not just a television show about a Chinese American family. It is also a term used to ridicule recent immigrants’ blundering attempts to adjust to a new culture, a slur I confess to have used more than once.

As a teenager, I visited my Grandfather’s house on Manila Bay. He introduced me to his friends. Their conversation was in Taglish, a mix of English and Tagalog, and slow enough for me to follow along.

“Balikbayan?”

Usually this referred to a first-generation immigrant returning home. The Balikbayan box industry has flourished, enabling homecoming children of the archipelago to ship their expected gifts to welcoming family and friends.

“No. I was born in America.”

The conversation sped up and shifted entirely to Tagalog. I asked them to please slow down and use more English.

“Balikbayan? Bah! You are an American tourist!”

Returning to the text, the Seven Deacons needed to move back and forth between Hebrew and Greek, switching languages and cultural frames of references – not a simple task. The church at Pentecost numbered 3000 (Acts 2:41) but is now over 5000 (Acts 4:4). Is there a common word for bread? Luke lists multiple languages spoken and places of residence in Acts 2:9-11. Is there a recipe for bread that will satisfy everyone’s tastes? Who eats first and in what order? What is the process for making and enforcing even that simple decision? Which language does the congregation pray in before the meal? And as Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 14:16, without an interpreter, how will the congregation even know when to say Amen?

The apostles are devoted to teaching the word. Perhaps it is also true they are ill-suited to this task. Witnesses at Pentecost ask, “Are not these men all Galileans?” – a comment on that location’s reputation for somewhat limited linguistic capabilities. Remember, too, when Peter denied Jesus:

“Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away.” (Matthew 26:73b)

What Activates the Seven Deacons’ Triple Consciousness?

Service. Specifically, they oversee meals for the church, especially the widows: “This proposal pleased the whole group” (Acts 6:5a). In Social Work, there is much discussion about praxis – what is the relationship of practice to theory? Here, could the Deacon’s practice inform the later writings (or theory) of New Testament authors?

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Acts, Diversity – and Triple Consciousness?

The following post, the first in a short series on the book of Acts, was written by a Christian colleague (JAG) who teaches in the School of Social Work. Both his professional expertise and his personal experience as a second generation immigrant shape his understanding of the book and bring insights that will help all of us read the book better. He presented the material in a well received class at our church and I am pleased to bring it here as well. RJS

The church at Jerusalem (Acts 1-5) drew from a community that was intergenerational but ethnically Jewish, with diverse experiences varying with respect to language, place of residence, politics, and even religious tradition.

A Personal Introduction: What is Triple Consciousness?

As the eldest son of immigrants from the Philippines teaching Social Work at a state university, the concept of triple consciousness is intertwined with many aspects of my personal and professional lives. In The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (2009), Soon-Chan Rah first summarizes “double consciousness” from W.E.B Dubois’ The Souls of Black Folks. The American Negro must deal with “having to behave in a certain manner in society at large while behaving in another manner (maybe a more “natural” manner) in their own cultural setting.” (p 182). Rah then references the work of Hispanic American theologian Eldin Viillafane. Triple consciousness is the ability of “Second generation Latinos to live and work in majority culture…Second generation Latinos are also able to move among their parents’ generation (the immigrant generation).” (p 182). A third consciousness emerges in the ability these Latinos have in relating to their second generation peers. A second generation Korean American himself, Rah concludes, “The concept of triple consciousness applies to not only English-speaking second-generation Latinos but also to other second-generation immigrant communities.” (p 183).

Growing up I vividly remember asking my parents about going camping – and being taken aback by their response.

Camp? What is wrong with this house? Sleep outside on the hard ground with no running water or air con? Why did we move here from the Philippines?

This prompted an ongoing series of three distinct discussion streams. Through extended conversations with my parents I gradually sketched a picture of their experiences during World War II. My Mom, in particular, was a young girl who spent her formative years hiding in the jungle, fleeing from the invading Japanese army – no wonder “roughing it” had so little appeal. A second stream was with my second generation peers. Did you have a similar experience talking about the American notion of camping with your immigrant parents? If so, what terms did you use? What cultural frames of reference were helpful? Is there a similar experience of camping in the Philippines? Would it be useful to mention “glamping”?

A third stream was with my peers whose parents were not Filipino. I grew up in a suburb of metropolitan Detroit, an area historians have described as segregated by race. Members of my family were often the only people of color in our neighborhood, our community, our church. So what portion of my Mom’s war stories do I choose to share with my white peers, if any? This continues as an issue, even today in higher education. Why is the burden so often on people of color to explain their experiences to the white majority? Or as one of my colleagues put it, administrators often argue that a diverse body of students and faculty is good because now we can educate white people about racism. Sometimes this thinking also seeps into church planning.

How Does this Discussion about Triple Consciousness Relate to Acts?

Often the word “diaspora” is used to describe the migration patterns of Latinos, Koreans, Filipinos and other groups. It can also be applied to the “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” in Acts 2:9-11.

“Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”

These verses describe devout Jews returning to Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost, a religious holiday. Since they do not reside in Jerusalem but in other places within the Roman Empire, as with children of immigrants today, their first language or tongue is what is spoken in the places where they reside – places where Rah would say they need to “behave in a certain manner in society at large” because they exist so clearly on the margins and in the minority.

This marginalized existence, however, requires the development of triple consciousness as a coping mechanism for the realities of everyday life. I hasten to add that this consciousness, and the related abilities to switch back and forth between linguistic and cultural frames of references, is essential in moving forward Jesus’ charge in Acts 1:8.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

In subsequent sections my thesis is these “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” demonstrate triple consciousness. This will be clearer as we examine the ministries of the Seven Deacons, especially Stephen and Philip, and Paul. My emphasis on this second generation, however, should not be read as a slight of the first generation, identified as “Galileans” (Acts 2:8) and mainly represented in the first five chapters by Peter and John. Their contributions are the very foundations of the church today, a blueprint for all generations.

Is this Reading of Acts Meant Only for Children of Immigrants?

No. One theme of Acts is diversity, very much in the news today, especially in higher education. If diversity is defined, at least for now, as differences within as well as between social groups, then the church in Jerusalem as described in Acts 1-5 is diverse and while triple consciousness helps bridge both sets of differences, the related skills and competences can be developed with practice. The Questions for Reflection at the end of each post are prompts for readers to consider in the development of these skills and competencies.

Although the initial focus has been on diversity in terms of language and place of residence, the church at Jerusalem drew its membership from a Jewish community that was also divided by religious tradition and politics. Peter and John are brought before the Sanhedrin in Acts 3:1-9. This ruling council is comprised to two distinct groups – Acts 23:8 describes their varying religious traditions succinctly:

For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.

Additionally, the Jewish community is also split along political lines. In Jesus and the Disinheritied (1949) Howard Thurman poses “The urgent question was what must be the attitude toward Rome…in essence, Rome was the enemy…“…one may take the position of imitation. The aim of such an attitude is to assimilate the culture and social behavior pattern of the dominant group. It is profound capitulation to the powerful…Herod was an excellent example…(pp 12-13). “Armed resistance is apt to be a tragic last resort in the life of the disinherited…This was the attitude of the Zealots in Jesus’ day.” (pp 15-16)

To conclude, first, the early church drew from across the political spectrum in the Jewish community. Matthew, for example, was a hated because he worked as a tax collector, a job embodying a most “profound capitulation to the powerful.” Contrast this with lists of the Apostles that repeatedly identify one of Jesus’ closest associates as “Simon the Zealot” (Acts 1:13).

Second, with regard to the Sanhedrin, the outreach is across differences in religious tradition, to both Sadducees and Pharisees. All are invited to follow Jesus, even if the Pharisees prove to be more open.

Third, implicit in both my description of triple consciousness and Rah’s is an ability to bridge the so-called Generation Gap. In my Social Work classes I emphasize the importance of knowing family stories – how do the experiences of your parents and grandparents fit with whatever the topic is in a given class? I have been struck by how often students tell me they had never previously known the details of their parents’ or grandparents’ lives. I was particularly touched by this email from a former student, a full ten years after our last class.

I wanted to thank you for the final assignment, dialogue with an elder. I interviewed my Grandfather, who passed away a few months ago. I felt fortunate to have learned more about his life through my interview with him, and to be able to reflect on his life through the final paper. I still use some of the lessons learned from the class and appreciate you teaching us.

Questions for Reflection

When did you last have a meaningful conversation with someone:

  • Whose first language was not English?
  • From different faith tradition?
  • Who disagrees with your politics?
  • From your parents’ or grandparents’ generation?
  • Who has lived in another state or country?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

You may also comment on Acts, Diversity – and Triple Consciousness? at Jesus Creed.

Posted in Bible, Christianity

Climate Change?

When I started this series on creation care I received an e-mail questioning the wisdom of diving into the topic. For many creation care is synonymous with climate change or global warming. This is a political hot potato. Unlike evolution, where we evaluate evidence in existence and consider physical models to interpret the data, the concern with climate change rests substantially on extrapolation into the future. Our models are improving, but far from perfect. This makes extrapolation somewhat risky. Of course, this doesn’t mean we should ignore the issue or regard it as an illusion. Frankly, the potential consequences are far too great. It does mean that a modicum of intellectual humility is appropriate. It isn’t all extrapolation, however. There is very real evidence for our concern.

Jonathan Moo and Robert White in Let Creation Rejoice: Biblical Hope and Ecological Crisis. are unequivocal about this: human activity is changing the global climate, period. They find the evidence to be undeniable and inescapable. They are also quite clear that they view this to be a serious problem that will harm humans, especially the weak and the poor. They are less certain about other aspects – whether we have or have not crossed a tipping point, how big the effects will be, and what specific measures should be taken. They present a number of lines of evidence for their view – one of which is the declining arctic sea ice extent in September when it is at a minimum each year. The overall decrease between 1979 and 2017 is approximately 30%. There is a decline for every month of the year, but the effect is largest in the heat of summer. There was a rebound after a record low in 2013, but it doesn’t appear that the general downward trend has changed. The image here is from globalchange.gov.

Moo and White also include a plot of three different global average temperature records created independently. The NASA average (one of their three but updated through this year) is plotted to the right – image from wikipedia. The other two follow the same trend.

It is important, of course, to ask if these changes are “natural” or the result of human activity. There are, after all, natural fluctuations in the earth’s temperature resulting in periodic ice ages and periods of warming. In fact, it has been warmer at times in the past than it is today. The recent changes, however, are far too persistent and the turn-on was too sharp to be accounted for by known natural mechanisms unrelated to human activity. “But when the greenhouse gases produced by humans are added, the agreement between the models and the observed temperature record is much closer. … This is a potent indication that humans are responsible for the rapid temperature increase since preindustrial times.” (p. 66-67) Continue reading

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