And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn open and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. Mark 1:10
I want to talk about just one aspect of having lived in Madagascar as a missionary, one aspect out of many. That aspect dwells in the deeper parts of the mind and the realm of the Spirit, and to access it we will have to go back some in my own life.
I began ordained ministry in North Dakota in January 1988. My first full-time call was at Pekin Lutheran Parish, consisting of one town church (in a town of 101 people) and two country churches. A few months before beginning that call, however, I reluctantly attended a workshop on Christian nonviolence organized by the local Catholic peacenik in Devils Lake. To my complete surprise I had a fullblown conversion experience at that workshop, an experience which led me eventually to get a Ph.D. to try to figure out how to understand the gospel as something which people can actually do, rather than just think it or feel it. That Ph.D. led me to teach NT at the Graduate School of the Malagasy Lutheran Church. But that trail began ten years earlier in late 1987 with that nonviolence workshop.
So I began ordained ministry preaching the gospel of life in North Dakota. That’s significant because North Dakota was at the time home to a large part of the vast nuclear arsenal of the most powerful military the planet has ever seen. In order to preach the gospel of life every Sunday as I made the rounds of my three churches I would literally drive right past about four or five nuclear silos holding the gods of death. Each one of those missiles, with its three nuclear bombs, was capable of annihilating over a million people. And that was just out of my little corner of Nelson County.
The huge nuclear arsenal within North Dakota was one of the primary supports of the American Sacred Canopy. (I’m borrowing the term from Peter Berger but using it ironically, in a Girardian sense). It was indeed commonly referred to at the time as “the nuclear umbrella.” It was supposed to be protecting us from the chaos of Soviet and Chinese Communism. The nuclear arsenal was only part of that Canopy; the rest of the military and large parts of American capitalism were the rest. But the nuclear arsenal was in several ways the most visible and salient support of that canopy.
In moving to Madagascar my family physically left the American Sacred Canopy. We left not only the military part of it, but the cultural and economic parts of it too – the consumer-culture. Moving to a poor country one does not then enter into another Sacred Canopy. Folks there just do without a Sacred Canopy, unless they were politically/economically connected with the local elites. Although we were a white family in a black country – and so had many more resources at our disposal, even if we were only missionaries – we were nonetheless living without a Canopy. I have to tell you that while life can sometimes be hard and scary outside the Canopy, it is nonetheless genuinely good. This was one of the key learnings of life in Madagascar.
What’s more, you don’t feel the ideological pressure to have to throw the pinch of incense to the Canopy’s emperor. The US invaded Iraq while we were living in Madagascar. The Malagasy, like people all around the world, were almost universally scandalized by the US’ behavior, and my wife and I felt no obligation to try to defend the indefensible. We could readily agree with our Malagasy sisters and brothers without offending the Canopy’s loyalists. Those folks really don’t live in poor black countries anyway.
More than that, though, is that you no longer have that stinking Canopy getting between you and God! In reality I had left the Canopy once I was converted, but to actually live daily and practically outside it is both refreshing and instructive. You learn that it is actually possible. We don’t practically need that damn thing! And whenever and wherever the living God meets us, it is always outside the Canopy anyway. For the Canopy, while pretending to protect us, to protect civilization, to protect life, is only about controlling life to the benefit of the Canopy’s elites, even to the point of destroying civilization, even to the point of destroying life itself. And all that, of course, separates us from the living God.
Along with that you are also freer to meet and join with those who never got to have a Canopy, whether they live outside or inside the US. In Canopy-think, those folks aren’t really fully human. Those poor unfortunates are just not really one of us merely because they’re not with us under the Sacred Canopy. This is why, in order to minister to such people Jesus had to begin ministry out from under the Sacred Canopy, with nothing more to protect him than the Holy Spirit which immediately cast him out into the wilderness, among Satan and the wild beasts and the angels. Some protection, right? Yet even there he had food and companionship. Only in this way could he join with those already living outside of – and victimized by – the Canopy builders.
So here I am now, living in suburban Johnson County, a generally well-off set of suburbs of Kansas City, Missouri. I know exactly where are the Hy-Vee and the Home Depot and the Whole Foods stores and the mall and the medical centers. I’m as hooked up into the American Matrix as I can be (a fact which our 17-year-old son Paul has not failed to notice and criticize me for). And yet here I am also throwing dirt and peeing on its ideology, the false belief that it alone is the place of truth and life. I’ve had the privilege of living outside it, and I know that life and truth are doing just fine out there – sometimes better than inside it, especially when it comes to the truth.
Meanwhile, Madagascar itself is slouching slowly toward Gehenna (see here and here), with no new birth in sight save that of the Christ-child. Sisters and brothers, please inform yourselves about the Malagasy and pray for them!
Mark Rich is a Lutheran pastor and a confirmed member of the large corps of semi-employed adjunct faculty. He fertilizes the soil of suburban Overland Park, Kansas – and you can take that any way you like! His three children are employed as students, and he gets to post on ecclesio from time to time because he has an in with the editor-in-chief.