“If death had a Facebook profile its interests would not be only putting people in the
grave but killing their dreams, their loves, their peace, their dignity”
One of my favorite former professors has just released a brilliant little book called “The Promise of Despair: The Way of the Cross as the Way of the Church“. Dr. Andrew Root is a practical theologian and professor of Youth & Family at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. Though Root is primarily an academic he draws extensively from his experience in L.A. working with an as urban youthworker and as a gang prevention counselor, in his insightful writing.
Allow me to begin by being upfront: this book is not an urban ministry book. If fact, if there is one critique I would hold up about this book is that it seems woefully unaware of much that is beyond white, suburban, middleclass concern. What this book does espouse however, is a way of being church together which takes seriously context – the context of people within the community and served by the community – in an entirely different facet that neither race, nor locale, nor class can claim exclusively.
Root’s book supposes that, for the typical American church, the context most easily/often ignored is that of despair. How many churches have you been involved with which seemed to have a holy presence in our lives until misfortune reared its head and then suddenly, as if someone had hung a quarantine sign around our neck, the church was wholly distant? There is a natural temptation in life (and churches are not exempt from this) to actively avoid pain – to go to great lengths to outrun the despair that stalks us like a predatorial beast.
In church language, one might call this orientation towards a non-existent deathless reality a “theology of glory”. What Andrew Root does so brilliantly with this book is remind us that Christianity is a faith based around a crucified God: a savior hanging from a tree after being publicly executed. Root’s book stares directly into the cold, beady eyes of death and makes the bold proclamation that: death blinks first. To be true to this core of Christianity it to be involved in a “theology of the cross”. Luther’s classic phrase reminds us that just as Systems and Empires constantly destroy our hopes, in an attempt to relegate us to permanent despair, God is the one who meets us in our despair. In the midst of our suffering, the resurrection takes its hold.
We live in a culture which is involved in the endless task of creating despair within each of us. The finest example of this despair creation can be found in advertising (which I would argue has become the cultural engine and religion of late-capitalism). Advertising works by creating a rift between what you have and what you want, between who you are and who you want to be. The more you can be convinced that your face is too wrinkly, your belly too bulgy, and your wardrobe too square the more likely you are to spend money on a facial, a weight-loss system, and Calvin Klein jeans. The brilliance of the constant bombardment of images, telling us to “despair” of ourselves, is that it creates an environment in which you are doomed to never be satisfied with yourself the way you are – the way you were, dare we say, created.
The connection here then is that talking about “the despairing church” and “the urban church” are both ways for the church to become church more fully. They are both paths to becoming church in a way that authentically and urgently responds to the reality of the community. We encounter God in the midst of God’s people, not on some holy ground but in the unaltered, unadulterated context of their authentic reality. And you can bet your bottom dollar that if you are truly encountering people where they are at you are encountering a heavy helping of despair.
Other books by Andrew Root:
+ Root’s BlogTalkRadio site.