Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Bearing Witness: Kwok Pui-lan

By Kwok Pui-lan
June 23, 2009

Kwok Pui-lan is Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA and winner of the Excellence in Teaching Award of the American Academy of Religion in 2009. She is the author of Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology (Westminster John Knox), and editor of the major reference work Women and Christianity (forthcoming from Routledge). Posted from Religion Dispaches on

On June 8, 1989, four days after the crackdown at Tiananmen Square, I attended the Commencement at Harvard to receive my doctoral degree. Clad in my crimson academic gown, I walked pass the Graduate School of Education on my way to Harvard Yard. Outside the school, many graduates had gathered, getting reading to process toward the Yard. A few graduates handed out strips of white cloth, and asked other graduates to tie them around their arms to remember those Chinese students who died on June 4.

A number of students wore armbands with the Chinese characters minzhu (democracy) on them. Some of them clearly did not understand Chinese, for the Chinese characters on their armbands were upside down. I was deeply moved by the gestures of these graduates, who might not have thought much about China or the Chinese students before these students stunned the world with their peaceful demonstration at the world’s largest public square.

As I entered the Yard, I saw a sea of white strips tied around the arms of graduates in their black or crimson academic gowns. Instead of jubilatory, the mood of the Commencement was subdued. My fellow Harvard graduates wanted to remember those Chinese students who would never graduate and make it to their commencement. Standing in solidarity with the Chinese students, these graduates bore witness to their aspiration for democracy and freedom.

On the twentieth anniversary of June 4, Tiananmen Square was relatively quiet and heavily guarded by the police. Hong Kong, as a Special Administrative Region, was the only place in China where a public candlelight vigil could be held. Several Christian groups in Hong Kong have helped organizing these annual vigils and pushed for the vindication of the June 4 demonstrators. The Hong Kong Christian Patriotic Democratic Movement issued a twentieth anniversary prayer, which says:

Righteous and peaceful God,
We pray to you.
The tears of Tiananmen mothers have not dried.
The curse of the wrongful deaths has not been lifted.
We pray that we will have a gentle and humble heart
To hold steadfast to our belief
And not allow distorted history have the last word . . .
Even though the dark night may be long
The light of our hope will be as long. . .

Last week as the world watched the demonstration of the Iranian people, images of the Tiananmen crackdown flashed back on many people’s minds. President Barack Obama invoked the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He continued, “We are bearing witness to the Iranian peoples’ belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness.”

It is fitting to recall Dr. King’s words at a time like this. Dr. King delivered his famous “How Long? Not Long” speech at the end of the march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama on March 25, 1965. During the earlier marches that month, the peaceful demonstrators were attached by state and local police with billy clubs, tear gas, and bull whips. Toward the end of his speech, Dr. King said:

I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.”

How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.”. . .

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

As the President pondered the words of Dr. King, the U.S. Senate passed the resolution to apologize for slavery and segregationist Jim Crow laws during the same week. The Senate joined the House, which passed a similar resolution last year, which marked the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King. Although the resolution did not include reparation for African Americans, the apology was a public act of recognition and bearing witness to centuries of brutality, humiliation, and indignity suffered by millions of African Americans. Iowa senator Tom Harkin said: “A national apology by the representative body of the people is a necessary collective response to a past collective injustice.”

Remembering and bearing witness are important practices in many faith traditions. Theologian Johann Baptist Metz said, “Every rebellion against suffering is fed by the subversive power of remembered suffering.” We bear witness because we share the burden of our common humanity.

Comments: Thanks to Ana for posting this on her facepage. I too have been watching these movements with the same interest as I did Selma 44 years ago and Tianamin Square. It is important for the young to stand for equality and justice in the face of those who have used might and dishonesty to maintain their power. The idealism of the young does not dissapate as one grows old. The quest for equality is still there, a bit buffeted and a bit compromised. But it still resides under all the battle scars.

A young college student has asked to interview J and me about Selma for a history project. I am not sure I like that--I feel like a relic of something long past. But the quest for justice and equality is still as much a part of me as in my twenties. I am not sure I have the energy to march any longer. I am not sure I have the endurance to demonstrate and put my life on the line any longer. Not because I am afraid for my life, but because I just can't keep up with the crowd! But I can still email my politicians, I can still write. I can still call govenment and church to account for their resorting to power rather than goodness. Yes, I can still fight the good fight--my methods have just changed.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Constitutional Government

I have been relatively vocal on this blog about locally trained clergy. I am not opposed to locally trained clergy who can lead their congregations and preach the Gospel. I have been concerned with the lack of awareness that many of the locally trained have of canon law, church history, and Holy Scripture. One-day seminars on topics cannot replace the education of a 3 year seminary education.

The locally trained clergy used to be called Canon 10 clergy. There were limitations on what those clergy could do. Canon 10’s could not change dioceses; they were ordained for service in a specific diocese. Then Canon 10 was changed to Canon 9 and then the whole thing was dropped and locally or non-seminary educated clergy were grandfathered into the college of clergy—some were forced to get a seminary education to maintain their ministry. Today, we have a much abbreviated course for locally trained clergy. And from what I have experienced at clergy conferences and diocesan conventions is that their grasp of important tenants of Canon Law, basic legislative process, Robert’s Rules is none to poor. They often do not know the basics of Biblical scholarship and Church tradition. And I am unaware of any continuing education requirement for those who are in charge of parishes. (A continuing education requirement was passed for all clergy at the last General Convention; however, I do not believe that this has been enacted in our diocese.)

Often these locally trained clergy are good pastors. They are usually raised up from the congregations that they are going to serve. They are well respected by their parishes. And that is an important piece of what it means to be a priest of the Church. But priests serve a wider Church than just their parish. Like bishops, the priest is also ordained for the whole of the Church. It is why seminary has been the norm for those to be ordained in the Church.

I am concerned that these locally trained clergy are now delegates for General Convention—the policy making organization of our denomination. Those who have little or no training in the Constitution and Canons of the Church are now the voice to General Convention for our diocese. And with the revision of Title IV on the docket for consideration, I am more than a bit nervous about those who have been elected to represent me.

I subscribe to the HOB/D list serve, the list-serve of the Houses of Deputies and Bishops. I follow the lively discussions in preparation for General Convention next month. I have yet to see a comment from a CNY delegate or alternate. The CNY delegation either is unaware of the list-serve or chooses to remain silent on major issues of the Church. Those of us in this diocese have no idea the stances that our delegation or even the individuals might address the momentous issues that face the Church. How are they going to approach the Anglican Covenant? B033? Title IV? To my knowledge the delegates have not attended any district meetings—if there have even been any in preparation for GC. So how do they know of the gravity of such issues? Or is their only source of information what the bishop tells them?

In times past, there were always meetings in the districts which the delegates came to hear the conversations in the different areas of the diocese so that they could represent the people better. Now it is almost a rotten borough experience. No one is listening to the clergy and laity in preparation for Convention.

This is a major breakdown of our democratic system in the Church—one of the basic principles upon which our Church was founded. If this diocese is ever going to be a diocese that is functional again, the clergy and laity are going to have to demand for better education of our clergy, and careful custody of our Constitution and Canons. The present ignorance will not do.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Episcobloggers: Ministry or menace?

Last night I spent the evening with a group of about 17 or so bloggers whose blogs center on the Episcopal Church or ministry in general. It was good fun, good conversation, good food and most of all an incarnation of friendships and colleagues that have developed in the Epsicoblogosphere over the past few years.
The conversations did not really include much of what is going on in the church. It was more of a filling out of the partial knowledge we have of one another on line. I walked into the restaurant not knowing anyone there and yet before I could even introduce myself—someone said “You’re Muthah+” I didn’t have to tell them my name. They recognized me and welcomed me into their band of brothers and sisters, some of whom have met before.
On HOB/D, the Bishops/Delegate list serve were several complaints from those from N. Michigan complaining that it was the internet that ‘did in’ their bishop-elect who did not get the required approbations from the dioceses and bishops of the church. Yes, there was much discussion on blogs and list-serves about how the bishop had been chosen and about his qualifications for bishop in the Church. And as one commentator suggested, this is what happens in a world in which information is instantaneously available.

Whether the bishop-elect is right for his diocese or not is not the point of this post. Nor is the way that he was elected. What is important is that blogging, facebook, twittering, youtube, etc. are here whether we like it or not. It is the way that human beings connect in our world today. It is an easy way to communicate. It is an important way to discuss issues that face us. It is an awesome tool of evangelism.

But with that awesome tool comes a need for responsibility among those of us who blog. The most important piece of responsibility is the demand for accuracy and truth in what we say. Otherwise, what we say can be rolled into what is nothing more than the back fence. What I learned in meeting my fellow bloggers is how they too understand the ethics and responsibility in ministry online

Most bloggers are well aware that what they say is their own opinion. They are the ones who take on various ecclesial, theological, scriptural, historical issues of our church and discuss them. Some of us older clergy find in blogging memories of those discussions over suds at the closest bar to the seminary. But today the conversations are “out there”, available to anyone who wishes to sign in. They are not confined to the clergy. No longer are discussions regional. They are global. They include lay and clergy alike. In many ways this is more like the era when the reformers took their issues to the printed page in the 16th century.

What I found in meeting those online friends was how clearly we care about the church and how much we appreciate the community of the church online. The community of online church does gravitate to the real presence. It is clear that just online conversation is not enough. We long to know the incarnational Christ that resides in each one of us.

There are those, and I am guessing it is those in the church who are older, who find the openness of internet disturbing. They are those who wish to either maintain the Church as it was, or they want to control the conversations about the church. I was part of the Roman Catholic Church back in the bad ole' days when controling the message of the Church was paramount in their concept of their vocation. Truth was only what they said it was even when the evidence proved otherwise.

Today's Church is calling for transparency and openness. They are calling the leaders of the church to be trustworthy and welcoming. Whether we gather incarnationally or whether we gather technologically, the fact is that we gather and share what it means to be Christ's own together. The Gospel is proclaimed and shared. We are about ministry in Christ's name. Get on board.

Monday, June 1, 2009

I have spent an inordinate amount of time the past month dealing with LGBT issues in the Lutheran Church. Partly because I don’t quite understand how position statements work in Lutheran polity, I have been somewhat concerned about how the Statement on Human Sexuality is going to fly at the Church Wide Assembly.
At Synod Assembly (Diocesan Convention to you Episcopalians who read this blog) this weekend we crafted a memorial to the Church Wide Assembly that called for not only the ordination of LGBT folk but the recognition of same-sex unions.
The Statement (SHS) is a flawed document but it has made some statements about such sticky theological issues that I find it to be exceptional and praiseworthy. For a church that puts so much energy into the concept that “all are sinners,” the insistence that SHS has placed upon the gift of our human sexuality is an important statement. This moves the sex act out of the realm of the ‘necessary for creation’ into the realm of God’s creation for mutual joy. But of course, the SHS came under fire from those who find it too soft on LGBT, especially those in the ordained ministry.
I spoke to the issue as the only lesbian pastor who is out and for a congregation that has been accepting and reconciling. I must admit I found it difficult to do so, not because I was afraid, but because of the responsibility I had to all the silent LGBT people I know I represent. Throughout the rest of the 3 day event, people came to me and thanked me for speaking up, for putting ‘a face on the issue’. The gay and lesbians in the clergy of the ELCA are under wraps. They either keep it quiet or are unwilling to face their own sexuality, choosing, as I did for many years, to ignore what God had gifted me with. It is a terrible waste of human resources.
The ordination of LGBT persons will come about in the ELCA and it will not take very long to get there. But it was to my amazement then when I read Sunday morning that the Synod of Stockholm of the Lutheran Church of Sweden elected a lesbian in a partnered relationship to be Bishop of Stockholm. Woo Hoo! Bishop-elect Eva Brunne and her partner, another pastor, have a 3 year old son. I mentioned this to a member of the congregation and he said “Well, those Swedes have been sexually liberal for a long time!”
I don’t generally take on this issue on this blog but I guess it is time to. It is time to help folks to understand that being gay is a blessing from God, not something to hide from. It is a God-given aspect that makes us different from other folks and helps us understand what all Christians are called to—being different from other folk.
For 1700 years Christians in most countries have had the protection of the state to be Christian. They have not had to separate themselves from the majority of society to live out their Christianity. Now, in a post-Christian world we will have to differentiate ourselves from the majority society in order to live out our Christian calling. If anyone can teach what it means to live on the edge of the majority society, it is gay folk.
I rejoice with the Synod of Stockholm. I rejoice with The Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson of the Episcopal Church who has endured such awful reception in the Anglican Communion that he now has a companion in the struggle to confirm LGBT persons in their call to live as Christ’s own. I pray that Bishop-elect Brunne will be able to lead her synod with the calm resolve that +Gene has done.