Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Artisans and Industrial Capitalism

Here is Antigua, you can go down to the market, or to one of the local shops and purchase a high quality, handmade item, perhaps even directly from the maker.  Clothes, nice fabric, sculptures, carvings, really amazing furniture, handmade shoes, food, pots, etc.  At the market, there are rows and rows of vendors like this.  In the rest of the town, almost all of the shops are individually or family owed.  You don't see big chain stores here.  You do see lots of little hole-in-the-wall groceries, book and paper stores, cafés, travel agencies, restaurants, pharmacies, dance academies, and art shops.  Or, as an example of the non-corporate nature of business here, right now I'm sitting in an internet café that's basically two guys and 5 computers in the front room of someone's house.

Now there are some signs of industrial capitalism here.  McDonald's and Burger King are here.  Many of the stores sell prepackaged snack foods or industrially made clothes and shoes.

But I have definitely noticed that they have things here you can't get in the US.  In the states, you can't just go down to the market and buy a hand-woven tablecloth directly from the weaver.  You can't buy fruit from the grower.  You can't choose from four different independent bookstores in the same block.  In the US, you almost have to go to some huge chain store in order to buy some brand-name, mass produced item.  It is almost impossible to buy directly from an artisan.

I guess my point is that even though the "Capitalist" system is supposedly all about the free market, there is actually a more solvent, thriving free market right here in the 3rd world.  As corporations work harder and harder to alienate individual workers from the means of independent production, we end up with more and more Walmarty, cheap crap.  We end with more people doing more menial work for less money so that a few owners (and stockholders -- let's not forget our culpability) can be more wealthy.  And we lose our artisans.  We lose people who can make beautiful things because they're going to make them by hand anyway, so they might as well make them gorgeous.  It's a shame that we don't learn.  It's a shame that if the capitalists have their way, all of this -- the shops, the artisans, the quality, the beauty, the private ownership -- will be gone and replaced by factories and big-box stores.


So, we've been living out of a suitcase for the last month and a half or two.  We spent the first month wandering the Northwest in a little Dodge Neon, visiting friends and family, and camping for a week.  The rest of the time we've been in Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala, carrying with us only what can fit in one backpacking pack and one normal school backpack.  Basically, that means 2 pairs of pants , 3 shirts, 3 pairs of underwear each, a small toiletry kit (no make-up or hair products, of course),  and a journal/notebook and Spanish dictionary each.

We've noticed rather quickly that we haven't really missed much.  Out of our houseful of possessions, we haven't really needed anything that we don't have with us.  We've been married for five years now, and have collected quite a few things.  Lots of clothes, tons of kitchen supplies, computers, DVD's, CD's other various electronic equipment, what is now becoming a library of books, outdoor gear, bicycles, etc., etc. , etc.  How much of it is needed?  Not much.  How many of the possessions that I lust after do I really need?  Not many.

Since we've been in Guatemala, I've been bombarded with the scripture (from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, I think, but I don't have a Bible here so I can't check) about: "Look at the birds of the air.  They neither sow nor reap, but God provides for them." ... or something to that effect.  The point is that we really don't need as much as we think we do.  Especially those of us who are Americans and are consuming at a rate unprecedented in history.  Greed is indeed the American sin.  I'm not saying that I'm good at giving up possessions.  I'm not.  I hold on to them even far beyond their usefulness to me.  What I am saying is that I've found liberation in the time that I've had to get by with less.  Consider it for yourself.  Consider giving up some of the mammon that shackles your heart and weighs down your life.  I'll try too.  I have a feeling that we'll be happy we did.  And I think that most likely, what we really need will still be provided.

Having said that, I'm still looking forward to getting home to a hot shower and a few of my favorite books.

Friday, July 23, 2004

Me and Jesus

Since we've been in Antigua, we've only been able to find two main brands of Christianity: Catholic and Christian they call them here, both of which are quite a bit different than the sometimes tired old Methodism with which I'm most familiar.

So anyway, we've been to a few of these evangelical-style (for lack of a better description) Christian services, both in English and Spanish (and even one that had simultaneous translations into English via a short-range FM broadcaster, for us gringos).  I've noticed a few things.  First off, I'm very impressed by the spirit and energy that these people seem to have in worship.  They really seem to be having a religious experience, something that's sometimes lacking in the "mainline" denominations.  They really seem to be fired up and committed about their faith.  And they're not afraid to celebrate the faith that God has given them.  I can even get into some of the songs, though they are little bit repetitive for my taste.

However, from a theological perspective, I'm really having trouble.  Of course there are the trademark surface differences, like exclusive use of father language, a generally sexist outlook, and focus on personal holiness issues like drinking (and by the way, if you have an alcoholic in your family, it's because you personally don't have enough faith, in case you hadn't heard this yet (ughh!)).  But there's some other stuff that's even more difficult to take.

First is the singular nature of the whole thing.  I mean, here we are all coming to church in a group, and the pastor prays every prayer using "I".  It makes no sense.  We're all here.  Can't we pray too?  What is the point of even coming together if we're not going to acknowledge that we are re-membering (the opposite of dismembering) the Body of Christ?

Second is the whole issue of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.  As is expected, there is huge emphasis here on one-time, personal conversion.  You've got to get saved.  But what then?  What does accepting Jesus into your life do to you?  They actually do have an answer to this, I was surprised to find.  What do you do in response to God's awesome, overpowering, all-sufficient love that we keep hearing about???  That's right: convert other people.  It's all about the one-time acceptance.  Just pray the sinners prayer with them and you're done.  No need to help them grow in the faith.  No need to help them discern what Jesus call to them.  And no need to help anyone with the struggles in their lives.  If you see someone by the side of the road sick, just pray for them.  Don't help them, don't give them one of the oranges you have in your basket, don't help them to get home, just pray and forget.

I can't handle this.  Jesus would want us to do all we can to help the suffering.  The Parable of the Good Samaritan is but one of many examples.  We are called to be God's healing hands for the world, to be instruments of God's love, not just to get more notches in our Bibles.  God help us to reach out to the poor, oppressed, needy, broken, despised, and hurting for whom Jesus most cared.

Indigenous Religion

My wife and I have been in Antigua, Guatemala for the last two weeks studying Spanish.  Today we got the chance to go up into the hills to the Temple of San Simon.  The rites there are a mixture of Mayan and Catholic practices.  People pray to the local saint for healing and favors.  They can receive blessing with holy water from the priest.  They also light devotional candles for various purposes.  Our Spanish teachers who came along (and happen to be Pentecostal Christians) told us that the different colors of candles represent different types of requests: red for love, green for prosperity, white for protection, black for curses, etc.  I'm not entirely sure that they had the full story on this, though.  They are a bit biased, as you might imagine, and consider the whole thing pretty satanic.

The local rites also include some animal sacrifice, mostly chickens, though we didn't see this happen in the hour or so that we were there.  The main type of sacrifice, though, seemed to be burnt offerings outside in the church grounds.  We sat and watched one of these.

The man began by using incendiary sand to create a design on the ground.  I couldn't really make out the design this man made, but other people seemed to be making an even sided cross with a circle around it.  On top of the design, he put what seemed to amount to chunky sawdust.  Then he started to place the candles.  He started with off-white.  He took about 12 clusters of 20 candles each and spread them around in circle.  Then he started to set out the colored candles, beginning with white, black, red, and yellow.  If I were to believe my Pentecostal guides, I would think he was praying for protection, love, curses, and whatever yellow stands for, in equal amounts.  However, I remembered that these colors are the colors of the cardinal directions, north, south, east, and west, in Native American tradition, and that is how he had them laid out.  He then spread out some blue and red candles around the circle.  He prayed over the pile of what now must have been at least 1000 candles.  He prayed over it from all four cardinal directions, making the sign of the cross over it and himself several times.  After a few finishing touches and some alcohol sprinkled over everything, he lit his prayer pyre.  He continued praying and offered four eggs in the fire.

Our guides were a little offended by the whole thing, but I couldn't help but feel in the presence of God and prayer.  Sure, these traditions were very different than the Americanized Protestant brand of Christianity that is so present even here, but when you think about it, it's really not that different than much of the Biblical traditions.  The Hebrew Bible is filled with directions and examples of animal and incense sacrifice.  Mary was purified in the temple after the birth of Jesus with the sacrifice of two doves.  Jesus participated multiple times in the animal sacrifice rites of the Passover.  These Mayan traditions are different than my own, but I could not help but feel that God was being reached.

I think it is important for us to rethink our view of indigenous and other religions.  The typical view is to see all indigenous practices as pagan and demonic and to attempt to replace them completely with the Christianity of the missionary's own country and culture.  Why can we not see that these people already know God in some way?  How can we think that we worship a God who created the entire universe, with billions and billions of stars and God only knows how many worlds, but that God only revealed Godself to a few Christians on this small planet?  How can we think that the prayers of others are not heard by God?  Why can we not be in dialogue with those who understand God differently instead of trying to destroy everything they have and know?  How can we, the ones who have come in and destroyed cultures and economies around the world in the name of higher profits at home claim that we have a monopoly on the truth of God?

Thursday, July 08, 2004


My wife, Melissa, and I are headed out of the country tomorrow. We fly to Cancun, Mexico. Then we make our way by bus over a few days to Antigua, Guatemala where we'll study Spanish for three weeks. Then back to Cancun to meet up with family for a few days of vacation. I'm excited about the learning possibilities and about getting out of the country. Don't really know what to expect, but I'm glad to be going.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

What's up with the name?

When you have a name for your blog that doesn't contain any real words, I suppose that it's important to explain it. This name actually came to me in a dream. My good friend, Brian, had suggest that I start a blog (because there needs to be more liberal theological views out there), and I told him that I'd need to come up with a really cool name before I could have a blog. It's kind of like starting a band... the name is everything. Anyway, this name came to me that night.

So, when you read "conXian," it's supposed to sound like the English word "connection." This is really a key word for me. I happen to be a seminary student studying for hopeful ordination in The United Methodist Church. "Connection" is the way I describe my call to ordained ministry: I am called to help people connect with God, with each other, and with the rest of Creation. So, there you go... that's why connection is important.

Now, the X. Well, first of all, it's a little reminiscent of the 18th century English spelling "connexion," which is the spelling that John and Charles Wesley (the founders of Methodism) used. The X is also important because I am a member of Generation X. On the other hand, I am a little disturbed by the overuse of X, such as Xtreme sports or Pibb Xtra. But, in this case I'm willing to give in to make my greater point. So, now we've got connexion and gen x.

On to Xian. Although, this looks like it's probably a Chinese word, that's not how I'm using it. Xian is my shorthand for Christian. You know, like Xmas. I used to get really upset about the whole Xmas thing. X also gets used in Xing, for crossing, so I figured the X was a criss-cross, so was used for CROSSing or CRISSmas, which would take the Christ right out of Christmas. However, this is not the case. It's all about the Greek. Christ is the Greek word for "anointed" or "Messiah" (which is Hebrew). In the Greek alphabet, it looks more like XPISTOS: Chi Rho Iota Sigma Tau (then the ending) Omicron Sigma. X is actually the first letter of Christ. And if you use Christ as if it were Jesus' last name, then it would be his initial. So Xian and Xmas actually make total sense and have good linguistic and theological backing. Oh, and that's all to say that I consider myself a Christian, and this column will probably deal a lot with Christianity, so that's why it's got Xian in the title.

And finally, con. Con is the Spanish word for "with." (think chile con carne) Now, I have this little pet peeve about people talking about ministry TO someone or some group of people. It drives me nuts. It assumes that the "minister" has everything to give and nothing to gain from the "object of ministry." That just doesn't make sense, and I think it's wrong. Christian ministers need to open their eyes and realize that they don't have all the answers and that they (and other Christians) have a lot to learn about God from people who aren't Christians, or are poor, or come from another culture. Just because there are some things that we can help others with, it doesn't mean that we're the masters of the universe and have nothing to learn. Anyway, that's to say that I like to talk about ministry WITH someone, because it's a cooperative effort and we all grow from it.

So, there you go.... I'm all about connection, and I'm Methodist because I use connexion, I'm a gen Xer, and a Xian, and I think that working CON other people is important. Bet you never thought anyone could make seven letters so obnoxiously complicated. Well, I do my best... making everything obnoxiously complicated is what I'm all about.