Radical Discipleship Will Get You In Trouble

I love this depiction of a realistic looking Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount (image credit).

Not So Fast?

If you happen to be one of the very few who read my recent post “How Small, Exactly?”, you’ll find it’s been updated and may want to read it again, as it has bearing on what is to follow. In that post I alluded to the struggle we’ve had of late to put into practice what we’ve been learning in 2017 about getting “small,” about pursing God’s economy rather than the economies of this world, and about peacemaking. As we’ve tried to implement those lessons, we’ve encountered resistance, perhaps not surprisingly. What has been surprising is the struggle we’re now having to discern our place within the faith community in which we’ve learned so much over the past year. That struggle is real, and ongoing. Our prayer is that if we really have been following Jesus as we’ve made all the changes we’ve been making of late, we pray then that he will continue to lead us, and that we will trust him to do so. We pray for humility in what we do, as this must be an essential part of getting “small.” If we really did spend much of our adult lives trying- and failing- to serve both God and Mammon, if we’ve been trying- and failing- to be faithful citizens of both God’s peaceable kingdom and the violent, warlike USAmerican empire, but we now believe ourselves to be “woke” to this truth, then it’s likely that we’re missing the point if we mistake whatever progress we’ve made in our recent awakening over the past year for having finally “arrived.” We will always be in process. We will always be on the way. It is a “way,” after all, that we are to be people of, just like the first Jesus followers.

Again, What if Jesus Really Meant What He Said?

So much of what we’ve been learning has to do with the call to radical discipleship as outlined by Jesus in his words in the Sermon on the Mount. How many sermons, I wonder, have been preached about “building your house (of faith) on the rock,” and how many of those had anything to do with Jesus’ context for that teaching? The context was the Sermon on the Mount, and the wise builder whose house is built on the rock is like the one who hears Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount and puts them into practice. So many of the clichés of cultural Christianity- “the wide and narrow path/gate,” the Lord’s Prayer, the Golden Rule, “building your house on the rock”- literally ALL of these are found in the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus has what every day look more and more to me like two big foci: peacemaking/renouncing violence as a means for empire building and radical generosity (and therefore renouncing not just consumerism but capitalism and every other worldly economic system). In fact, near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5, Jesus explicitly links the two as the directive to “give to those who ask of us” and “not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from us” is rooted in his talk about enemy love.

So peacemaking for Jesus, as he taught it in the Sermon on the Mount, isn’t merely about conflict resolution. It’s a radical call to renounce violence. Regarding this call to nonviolence, Jesus says:

  • Blessed are the merciful

  • Blessed are the peacemakers

  • You have heard it was said, “don’t murder,” but I tell you, don’t be angry/be reconciled

  • You have heard it was said “eye for eye…” but I tell you, don’t resist an evil person/turn the other cheek

  • You have heard it was said “love your neighbor,” but I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you

Regarding the call to radical generosity and renunciation of the world’s economies in favor of God’s, Jesus teaches:

  • If anyone wants to take your shirt, give your coat too

  • If anyone (a Roman soldier, likely) forces you to go one mile, go two

  • Give to the one who asks of you, and don’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

All of these directives about generosity so far are sandwiched between teaching about enemy love, suggesting for those of who are rich that we might think of the poor as our enemy because they want what we’ve been hoarding. Likewise, in telling his listeners to love their enemies, Jesus contrasts love for enemies with what “tax collectors” do, namely loving those who love them. “Tax collectors” in Jesus’ day were complicit in the economic control exerted on the people by the occupying imperial force (Rome). Often/usually they lined their own pockets by collecting more taxes even than were required; so not only were tax collectors complicit in the control exerted by a violent occupying force, perhaps even worse, they were greedy. Repeatedly Jesus seems to link violence and Mammon. We would do well to pay attention to this.

The Next Time You Are About to Pray the Lord’s Prayer, Maybe Think Twice?

Jesus’ call to radical generosity in the Sermon on the Mount continues when he says that when you give to the “needy” (he assumes you do), do it in secret. Then comes what is perhaps one of the most shocking calls to radical generosity in the many that are to be found in the Sermon on the Mount, and it comes in a very unexpected and familiar passage- the Lord’s Prayer. In the prayer Jesus taught us, he says to pray for our daily bread. Even two millennia later, the linking of “bread” and “daily” brings to mind God’s provision of manna from heaven for the Israelites as they were wandering in the desert for forty years. Daily, God sent bread from heaven for their sustenance. They were told to gather what they needed and not to try to store it overnight, because it would spoil, and it did. Thus each day they had to depend on God for just what they needed for that day. Each morning was an invitation to trust God anew for that day’s mercies, which were indeed “new every morning.” Remarkably, though, as the people gathered each day’s manna, it was said that “the one who gathered much did not have too much,” and “the one who gathered little did not have too little.” Later, Paul instructs the church in Corinth to share with the church in Macedonia, which was experiencing “extreme poverty.” Was the Macedonian church miserly in the midst of their poverty? NO! Instead, “in the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.” The less they had, the more they gave. So in telling the Corinthian church to share, Paul says that equality is what is to be sought. At that time the Corinthian church had more and the Macedonian church less; so the Corinthian church should give to the Macedonian church. At another time, the Macedonian church might have more and the Corinthian church less, and then it would be incumbent upon the Macedonian church to give to the Corinthian one. Either way, resources were to redistributed so that all would have enough. Paul nails down his point by reminding the Corinthian church of the “bread from heaven,” and that “the one who gathered much did not have too much,” while “the one who gathered little did not have too little.” Why? Because they shared! SO, when Jesus tells us to pray for our “daily bread,” he’s reminding us to trust God each day for what we need. He’s reminding us to share what we’re given, and not keep more than what we need for today (more on that later). And to make it super clear, “give us this day our daily bread” gets linked with an “and” to “forgive us our sin.” Is the implication of this pairing that it’s sinful to keep more “bread” than you need for today?

Generous Eyes and a Firm Foundation

Jesus drives home the point with further instruction on radical sharing and generosity. He says:

  • Store up treasure in heaven, not on earth, for where your treasure is, there will your heart be

  • The “eye is the lamp of the body,” and if your eyes are “generous,” your whole body will be full of light, but if your eyes are “stingy,” the reverse is true (read the footnotes in your Bible)

  • Don’t worry about food or clothes, because if God provides for the flowers of the field and the birds of the air, he will do so for us. Therefore, we are not to worry about tomorrow. Almost always the preaching about this comes down to “don’t worry.” Rarely does it look at the implications of not worrying about food and clothes and trusting God for tomorrow’s bread. Jesus states them clearly though: seek first his kingdom. In other words, don’t be caught up in the pursuit of the “American dream” or any other dream for the world or your own life that isn’t consistent with God’s kingdom, with God’s dream for the world he made. In God’s kingdom, there is abundance, not scarcity, even now. Why? How? Because if we would but practice the radical generosity and sharing that Jesus is trying to teach us, then “he who gathers much would not gather too much,” nor “he who gathers little, too little.” Thus the rich will not be rich for long, nor the poor, poor for long, again because we share. We give to those who ask of us, not worrying if we give away the “bread” we think we need for tomorrow. We’re not to worry about tomorrow, for “each day has enough trouble of its own.”

  • In Jesus’ teaching about “asking” (“…and it will be given to you”), “seeking” (“…and you will find”), and “knocking” (“…and the door will be opened to you”), the point he seems to make is that if we imperfect folks know how to give good gifts to our children, won’t God do the same and more for us? “So in everything,” Jesus says (in other words, therefore), “do to others as we would have them do to us,” for “this is the Law and the Prophets.” In other words, this simple, golden “rule,” sums up Jesus’ whole Bible, the only one he knew, the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures. So if we were hungry today and our brother had more than enough bread for today, wouldn’t we want him to share some with us? If our sister had two coats and we had none, wouldn’t we want her to give one to us? We should do likewise. Jesus’ very next words are about the “wide” and “narrow” gates. The implication seems to be that treating others as we want to be treated (peacefully and with radical generosity, I would argue) is the “narrow gate” that few find.

The Sermon on the Mount ends with talk of “building one’s house on the rock,” a firm foundation in the midst of storms. Jesus says the person who hears his words in the Sermon on the Mount and puts them into practice is like the wise builder who builds on rock rather than sand. How is it, then, that anyone who would follow Jesus does not devote all their time and energy to building such a house? How could I and my family do any less, and, crucially, who’s ready to join us?

There’s a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, we are helping and so can you. — Circle of Hope

Ever hear of Yemen? Some of us probably haven’t because it is not a country that the U.S. political leaders have told us to pay attention to. I told our … The post There’s a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, we are helping and so can you. appeared first on Circle of Hope.

via There’s a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, we are helping and so can you. — Circle of Hope

How Small, Exactly?

Image Credit

Recently I’ve written about the call we’ve been experiencing in 2017 to get “small.” Over the past few days I’ve been experiencing the implications of that call in profoundly new ways, as I’ve been forced to consider just how “small,” exactly, we’re supposed to get. Remember, this is about getting “small” enough, first of all, to know what it’s like to need a Savior. As solidly “middle class” people of European descent in the U.S., our wealth, privilege, and power is so great that we seldom experience a moment in which the myth of independence and self-sufficiency is exposed for the lie that it is. So long as we follow the dictates of the USAmerican consumer capitalist culture we’re immersed in, we could go on being rooted in our identity as consumers and so could go on consuming (and being consumed) with little thought or fanfare for the rest of our lives. Of course, we know we must resist this so that our identity as beloved children of our father in heaven can be restored. Resist, and restore. This must be the rhythm of our life, a very different life indeed than would otherwise be in store for us, and a very different life indeed than most of our neighbors. To live such a life, alternativity is required.

Small(er) Debt

So we knew getting “small” meant beginning to give away some of our privilege and power. Since becoming convinced of this, we’ve been working to position ourselves so that we can. Initially we needed to free ourselves from the debt slavery we’ve allowed ourselves to be shackled with. The larger USAmerican consumer capitalist culture we’re immersed in would have us believe scarcity is true, but this is a lie. According to this lie, there’s never enough- resources, time, money, etc. So it doesn’t matter how much money you bring home in this culture, you always think you “need” a little more to be happy, and often it doesn’t matter how much money you actually have as you can just borrow what you “need” in order to make up the difference between the money you have and the money “necessary” to make you happy. Many years ago now the U.S. moved to a consumption based economy, and because the powers and principalities that currently shape U.S. society have convinced us that the secular economy should experience perpetual growth, therefore U.S. citizens must continue to consume more and more and more even as “real” wages stagnate or fall. So not only is this a consumption based secular economy, it’s a debt-based one. My family and I mostly went along with this for the the two decades of our adult life so far, somehow thinking we were still following Jesus as we did so. We mostly weren’t. Anyway, we’ve now been rapidly paying down debt as fast as we can, which suddenly became possible, thanks be to God, when we started consuming less. As I’ve said, we got rid of smartphones and “cut the cord” again and moved to a smaller, cheaper space and gave away a car (that we’re still paying for). We quit contributing to retirement and savings accounts (which I now call “exercises in functional atheism”), though we haven’t given up our life insurance accounts (maybe one day we’ll be trusting and faithful enough to do so). All of this made it possible for us to further reduce expenses by again paying down as much debt as we can as fast as we can.

Small(er) Space and a Small(er) Geographical Radius

So getting “small” so far has meant having less debt, fewer cars, less “stuff,” and less living space to put any “stuff” in. It’s meant, for me, biking to work and not having access to a car most of the time when Kirsten is gone with it and I’m home alone or home with the boys. Consequently, it’s meant having a smaller geographical radius in which to operate, a fact which was also true generally for me as since we moved to NE Minneapolis and I changed jobs I have been living, working, and worshipping within about a two mile radius. So as I said, when Kirsten is gone with the car and I want to go somewhere, I can’t go any further than I (and maybe the kids) can bike to. There’s a whole post someday to be written just about the theological implications of that “small” fact, but I digress.

Proximity

All of this still begs the question of why this is so important. I’ve alluded to some reasons above, but we’re not only getting “small” so that we can experience what it’s like to need a Savior from time to time. We’re also doing so in order to get closer to those we would feel called to be in solidarity with, the “least of these,” those “on the margins” of society, etc. We became convinced that “solidarity requires proximity” (hence the title of this blog), and we can’t be very close to those we can’t relate to. We can’t be very close to those that are routinely oppressed by the powers and the powerful in USAmerican society so long as we remain on the side of the oppressors, among the powerful. So we’re not just trying to “downsize.” We’re trying to keep up with Jesus as we keep finding him among the powerless. Our move to NE Minneapolis was a step in this direction, but likely only a halting first step. We’re now getting a better sense of what some of the next steps might look like, though in an admittedly painful, unexpected way.

We Followed Jesus into Mill City Church. Jesus Kept Moving.

In my 50 or so posts since about a year ago, I’ve written quite a bit about our discovery of, and involvement in, Mill City Church. At the moment that involvement is being severely tested. Without going into details here, what I will say is that the “short” of it is that as they listen to God and try to join what he’s already doing, they seem to be pulled in one direction. As we attempt to do the same, we sense that we’re being pulled in another. Does this mean that we must part ways with the faith community in which we’ve learned so much over the past year, in no small part because we’ve learned so much and want to put those lessons into practice? That remains to be seen.

A Small(er) Road and Gate on the Way That Leads to Life

Having said that, what now? As we’ve been working on getting “small” and realizing how much renouncing violence is an integral part of that, we’ve been drawn again and again to the Sermon on the Mount. It was in the Sermon on the Mount that we learned how to work on becoming “children of our Father in heaven.” It was there that we learned that the Lord’s Prayer was part of Jesus’ sermon series on generosity, that we are to pray only for today’s bread, the now obvious implication being that if we get more than today’s “bread,” it’s so that we can share with our neighbors in need. I now know that there is a reason why “give us this day our daily bread” is linked (at least in most of our English translations), with an “and,” to “forgive us our sin,” for it is sinful indeed to keep more bread than we need for today so long as our neighbor is hungry (and again, if we don’t know any hungry neighbors, it’s only because of how much proximity matters). It’s sinful to have two coats or more while our neighbors have none. To pray for God’s kingdom to come means to live as if it has, and in God’s kingdom economy, scarcity is not the norm; abundance is. God the giver made us to be givers too, and it’s high time we started living like it.

In any case, the ending of the Sermon on the Mount is just as important as the rest of it. In that ending Jesus tells us how to have a sure foundation for our faith, how to keep close to him in the midst of the many “storms” of life. He says:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” 28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

Thus it seems clear that for Jesus, if not for many of us, living out his words in the Sermon on the Mount remains the best way to have a sure foundation for one’s faith. The “rock” upon which the “house” of our faith is to be built is not saying the “sinner’s prayer” or having “devotionals.” It has nothing to do with one’s theology about hell or who gets “saved” or who can marry. Instead, according to Jesus, if you want be like a wise person who builds their house on a rock, you simply have to hears his words in the Sermon on the Mount and put them into practice. What does this look like? What do these wise people do? They give to those who ask of them, and do not resist an evil person violently, so that they can be children of their father in heaven. They do not worry about tomorrow, about what they will eat or drink or wear, because they know that he who takes care of the birds and flowers will take care of them. Therefore they know to store up treasure in heaven rather than on earth, and so they ask only for today’s bread and do not keep more than they need for today, especially while they have more than one coat and their neighbor has none. In short, they treat others like they would want to be treated, for this is the narrow gate, the narrow door that leads to life. Not only do these wise folks refrain from killing; they don’t hate. Not only do they keep from committing adultery; they don’t lust. These “rules,” of course, are for relationship. They point to that narrow path, that narrow door that leads to life.

So the answer to the question of “what now?” seems as plain as Jesus’ instruction in the Sermon on the Mount. What’s happening to us right now feels a bit like a storm, but we know how to feel secure in the midst of it. We will redouble our efforts to love our neighbor, to get as “small” and close to our small, marginalized neighbors as we can so that we can love them from a position of solidarity. We didn’t imagine that getting small as we try to keep up with Jesus would challenge our ability to keep participating in the faith community we so recently followed him into, but so be it. I didn’t imagine that getting small would mean quitting not only Facebook but also Twitter and wavering back and forth between whether or not to make this blog private, but again, so be it. I do not want to be one of the many on the wide path that are out there promoting their “Christian” brand complete with logos and related web content in various formats. If my message is my life, I don’t need to promote it. It should be enough for me for the poor to know that I love them because I am their neighbor and friend, and perhaps someday am one of them. If I do manage to get small enough to be one of them, I’ll not only know what it’s like to need a Savior; with profound new depth, I’ll know what it’s like to have one.

Get On With It

End of the World? This image is itself ironic given what can be known about me, but even more so given the site on which it was found.

The End of the World As We Know It?

“Maybe the end of the world comes one person at a time.” That was the provocative suggestion by one of my former pastors, Russell Rathbun from House of Mercy. If memory serves, this was near the end of his still memorable sermon series many years ago now in which he told an elaborate story about “the end of the world.” He was working through the common U.S. “Evangelical” understanding of the “end times” in which the “Rapture” is a prominent feature along with the belief that the primary task of a Christian is to “win souls” for heaven and save them from the eternal torture that awaits all who don’t say the “sinner’s prayer.” The idea that God would allow- if not cause- this goes hand-in-glove with the idea that the crucifixion of Jesus was an incident of “cosmic child abuse” in which Jesus had to be tortured and murdered in order to change God’s mind about we sinners (whom he would otherwise allow to be tormented eternally in order to satisfy his “justice”). I probably digress.

Anyway, what Russell was suggesting, I think all these years later, in that sermon series was 1) the idea of God and how he operates in the world as depicted above is the unbiblical baloney that I now know it to be, and 2) that there nonetheless is something to this idea of the “end of the world.” There’s actually some really great stuff in the Bible that gets at this, for those with eyes to see and ear to hear, but it takes a little work to find the treasures that are there in Scripture to be found. Here’s just one little idea that is captivating my imagination as I think about this, this morning. In the creation story as we find it in Scripture it seems to end badly. Adam and Eve were given only one rule that was meant to preserve and protect their right relationship with God their creator and friend. This rule was not meant to limit or diminish them or keep them from all the goodness God had made for them and given them. It was meant, as all good rules are, to point them in the direction of right relationship. Thus, as I keep saying, “rules are for relationship.” As we know, they broke the rule, and their relationship with God and creation itself was damaged. This part of the story ends with Adam and Eve being sent from the garden, and the text says a “flaming sword” acted as a gate barring them from ever returning. By the way, Russell once told another great story in a sermon in which he re-told the creation story and when he got to the part where Adam and Even were sent from the garden, he depicted the garden as being fenced off from them, and in his telling of the story, just as Adam and Eve leave for good, God hops the fence to join them. Astounded, they ask, “what are you doing?!” to which God replies, “I’m coming with you.” Remarkable, isn’t it?

“I’m Coming With You.”

So at the beginning of the Biblical narrative a fateful decision is made that results in us being exiled forever from the place where we were with God as we were created to be. Even then, however, there was a hint of the promise of God-With-Us (again and forever), and one day Immanuel did indeed come, never to leave us again. God was and is with us, indeed. Meanwhile, God’s good creation remains marred by sin, that condition in which we all are caught and which serves as the backdrop for our many unloving, sinful acts against God, one another, and God’s good world. And because God is a good, good father who will not coerce his children into receiving the freedom that Jesus gives us from the sinful condition in which we are caught, the long work of reconciliation goes on. As we take halting steps into the freedom we’ve been given, we move a little closer into right relationship with God, one another, and the world. One day the work of the family business of reconciliation will be complete, and on that day we won’t escape into the sky while the earth burns; rather, heaven will come to earth as both are remade into what they have always been meant to be, and we are too. How does the Biblical narrative end? Remember, at the beginning of the grand, sweeping narrative of the Bible there is a flaming sword barring our return to the place where we were with God; remember too that some Christians would have you believe that heaven is like that too, that it’s inaccessible to those who don’t say the right thing before they die. That, however, is not what we find in the text. What’s actually there, near the end of Revelation, for those with ears to hear, is the astounding statement that the heavenly city’s gates “will never be shut.” This is important because we also find in the text language that describes various categories of sinful folk being left outside the city. But it would seem that if they choose to stay there it is not because God prevents them from entering the city. Rather, it seems clear that 1) heaven’s gates are always open, and 2) there is a standing invitation to enter. Where the first humans broke the one rule to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, by the end of the Biblical narrative all people are invited to enter the heavenly city and drink, to take “the free gift of the water of life.” John the Revelator puts it this way:

He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.”

I find this language- of being children of God the Father, in heaven- super interesting, since none other than Jesus describes how to become children of the father in heaven. I’ve written about this, but it’s found in the Sermon on the Mount, and has to do with giving to those who ask of us and renouncing our violent ways.

Anyway, later John the Revelator says:

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.

Look, there is fiery language in John’s Apocalypse to be sure. I don’t deny this. What I deny is that such “fiery” language is the point. What’s notable I think is that where humanity was once barred from returning to the place where they could be with God, by the end of the Biblical text there is a standing invitation to enter the eternally open gates of that very place and drink of the water of life. This invitation seems to apply even to those who are self-exiled in the “fire” of “hell.” Sure, there’s language in the text describing those sinful categories of folks who will remain outside the city: “Outside are…those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” But the point isn’t that they must remain there; rather, it’s that they are eternally invited to choose love, forgiveness, and right relationship and so enter the city, having shed their immoral, murderous, idolatrous, and lying ways. It’s important too to remember that John’s Apocalypse is just that, an apocalyptic tale that’s probably best read not as a “magic 8 ball” telling us our future, but rather as a prophetic critique of Empire (particularly the Roman one, but that critique applies just as well to our current “American” one) and a dramatic proclamation that the rule and reign of God in Christ is here to stay.

One of These Is Not Like the Others

So, then, what if the “end of the world comes one person at a time?” I think part of what Russell may have been getting at is that if we are to follow Jesus into the freedom and new life he makes possible, we really must leave one world and enter another. We must put an end to our fidelity to all the “isms” of this world, and by “world” of course I don’t mean the created order; rather I mean the world of Empire- all that is set up in opposition to the rule and reign of God in Christ- our history, language, culture, customs, economies and secular politics. I’m talking about the “stream” that we’re swimming in, our worldview. What we need, as always, is alternativity. Growing up in Texas as young person I thought Republicans were good God-fearing folk doing their best to follow Jesus in the world of secular politics. Maybe there are some folks who self-identify as “Republican” who would also call themselves “Christians” and think they are doing just that. However, for a good long while I thought being a “Republican” was essentially the same thing as being a “Christian” in the same way that I thought being an “American” was essentially the same thing as being a “Christian” (I guess in this view “Democrats” are neither “Christian” nor “American”). Later, of course, I learned how far that was from the truth and predictably I swung to the other side. If Republicans gave lip service to “life” (in the womb only) but were otherwise bloodthirsty in their support for capital punishment, war, and deadly lack of healthcare and living wages, then Democrats surely had a better approach as they at least gave lip service to aligning themselves with the folks Jesus seemed most interested in spending time with- the poor, the sick, the marginalized, etc. It’s taken me a long time to realize that neither approach gets it right, that both are inevitably mired in Empire- the principalities and powers that are set up in opposition to the rule and reign of God in Christ.

This doesn’t mean we need not vote or do what we can to get what justice we can within those now defunct systems; what it does mean, however, is that this is not our primary task; it doesn’t deserve the bulk of our attention and energy. I don’t think Jesus died at the hands of Empire so that we could then spend our days working to bring about a better, more humane and loving Empire! No, as N.T. Wright says in the title of his recent book, the crucifixion of Jesus is “the day the revolution began.” As one reviewer of Wright’s book put it, summarizing Wright’s argument:

The early Christians turned things upside down with a seemingly ridiculous announcement of a revolution through the crucifixion of a Jewish teacher, such that “by 6 p.m. on that dark Friday the world was a different place.” But the church has tamed this radical message, domesticating it to the powers he came to subvert.

The reviewer goes on:

The traditional presentation of the gospel—e.g., the “Romans Road”—has little contact with the story the apostle is telling in that famous epistle, Wright argues. Abstracted from the story of Israel, the gospel becomes reduced to “Jesus bore God’s wrath in your place so you could go to heaven when you die.” That old-time religion had some legitimate pieces of the puzzle, but it didn’t put them together properly. Consequently, evangelicals have moralized the problem (sin merely as violations of a code), paganized the solution (an angry Father punishing his Son), and platonized the goal (going to heaven when we die).

Our Lives Must Be Our Message

The gospel story is so much bigger and more compelling than what it’s been reduced to as described above, and if we are to follow Jesus in subverting the powers, we can no longer go on domesticating our message- or our lives- to them. Indeed, our lives must be our message. So again, we need alternativity. It’s interesting, isn’t it? As good “Americans,” so many of us are so individualistic and selfish that we think salvation is all about us, individually. And because we don’t want to have to feel too guilty about getting our “fire insurance,” we sometimes try to sell our (fire) insurance policy to as many of our friends and neighbors as we can. To their credit, lately many in the “Evangelical” world seem to have discovered justice, or at least are newly focused on it, and this has become a welcome emphasis as there is talk of a “whole Gospel” (that includes both corporate dimensions of institutional sin and salvation including work for justice, and more individualistic responses to the call to follow Jesus that include emphases on holiness and personal morality). But again, it remains my contention that all of this is still very much rooted in and is accommodating to those very powers that we are instead supposed to subvert. It is with a heavy heart that I repeat that so much of our justice work is likely just the application of “band-aids on capitalism,” including my 9-5 daily job in the social service field and much of what many churches do to serve the poor.

Band-Aids on Capitalism

The people who make up Circle of Hope in Philly have a “proverb” about this, which goes:

Generating justice and hope in our neighborhood must be at the heart of us.
Wealth and power reduce sympathy for the poor and powerless. A marriage between unfettered capitalism and piety makes the Lord’s words inconvenient at best and heretical at worst.

They’ve been praying about all this too as they react to Amos 8:4-7. They say:

Many people say American Christians have generally reduced their faith to “moral therapeutic deism,” where the shapes and colors of religion are imported into mass-market self-help schemes. Meanwhile, the “Christian right” persevere in old political battles (sexuality, marriage, education, etc.) for which they sold their souls to the “economy.” But the strength of their efforts appears to be waning; the once coherent evangelical voting bloc is splintering. The titans of industry intent on fostering a pro-capitalist politics can no longer rely on them to bolster their project. The most ardent pro-capitalists, don’t generally speak in terms of Christ and country any more; they are more likely to talk about self-improvement and actualization.

Why pray about this? Why give ourselves proverb to remember? We are all in the grip of capitalism and tend to believe its narrative about life more than the Lord’s. Whether with or in spite of Oprah or Franklin Graham, we’re moving with or resisting the flow.

Free-market economics and Christianity were not always the twin pillars of a uniquely American gospel. Yet the last election was kicked off by Ted Cruz spinning a free-market yarn to the student body of the world’s largest Christian college. He wanted to get the born-again Christians into the voting booth giving him dominion over the economy. At this point, thanks to the tireless efforts of the pastors and politicians, the disparity between the Christian ethos and the spirit of capitalism is now little more than a periodic gurgle of protest from believers who lean “left.” Most pastors preach some variation on self-help and self-reliance.

Capitalism needs a story to make its excesses and failures palatable to the masses. Regular people need to be convinced that the system that benefits the rich actually benefits them too. Lately there have been stories about the prophets of capital like Bill Gates and Sheryl Sandberg. The stories about the rich and successful have different plots, but the same goal: to patch up leaks in capitalism and advance its shuddering bulk for one more day. In the 1950’s it was Christianity that was deployed to offer this endorsement, now it is more likely the Koch brothers or Mark Zuckerberg.

Each of the stories keeps a glimmer of the past pro-capitalist Christian crusades burning — they are all sermons about the economy with moral imperatives, altar calls and an application that will not only save your finances but save the country, if not humanity.  As religiosity drops off in the United States and is replaced either by faithlessness or individual spirituality, capitalism is reformating its defenses to match those changes. That could be the best possible thing for true Christianity in the United States. If the Christian story is the latest to be shucked aside by capitalism, then Christianity might find itself slipping the grip of a rather oppressive relationship.

Out of the grip of capitalism, American Christians would be free to offer up a genuinely revolutionary Christian politics: one that neither seeks to bolster capitalism blatantly nor offer meager patches for its systemic problems. Having an historical perspective on the ways in which Christianity was co-opted in service of the capitalist cause could help new Christian activists avoid the pitfalls of the recent past.  Our proverb names the problem and calls us to enact the transformation that makes us truly free, not just free to pay the system for the privilege of consuming.

Suggestions for action

Pray: Make me a heretic in the religion of capitalism and a prophet among those who follow Jesus.

It takes some study to see beyond the ocean of capitalism in which we swim. We have all bought the story to some degree, as follows: Holiness and profit go together. The special capacity of capitalism to help the poor is assumed. The respect due to those who “make it” is something to which children are taught to aspire. We elect millionaires to lead the country. It goes on, often unexamined.

Take some time to ponder our proverb and Amos’ prophecy again. What does your participation in the “economy” do to your ability to follow Jesus? Don’t immediately figure out how you will fit more of Jesus into your busy schedule. First consider just what it costs your faith to have it married to capitalism, if it is. How does Jesus speak into you life in the U.S. and direct you?

This gets at the heart of the alternativity we so desperately need. I think most Christians and most churches who sincerely want to follow Jesus direct most of their efforts to trying to figure out how to fit more of Jesus into their busy schedules. Rarely do they consider what it costs to have their faith married to capitalism as much as to Jesus, and thus can’t hear Jesus speaking into their lives in the U.S. and directing them. Jesus doesn’t want us to fit as much of him as we can into our busy capitalistic schedules. He doesn’t want us to knowingly or unknowingly allow ourselves to be reduced to mere consumers, whether of the goods and services the “invisible hand” of the market is constantly shilling, or, worse, of the “religious goods and services” too much of the Church spends most of its time peddling.

Want to Have a “Sure Foundation” for your Faith? You Can If you Live the Sermon on the Mount, According to Jesus

Eberhard Arnold (image credit)

Such questions are troubling, of course, and may get one into all kinds of trouble. It’s hard for one’s “world” to end, and to enter a new one, just as it’s hard to die and be born again. Even so, this is the experience I and my family are in some small way having. Eberhard Arnold, one of the saints in the “great cloud of witnesses” I have immense respect for and any reader would do well to learn about, wrote about this. As he became convinced that he must follow Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, which Jesus described as the “narrow road/gate” that “leads to life” and about which Jesus said was the way to build one’s house (of faith) on rock rather than sand, he wrote:

Shortly before the outbreak of the war (WWI), I wrote to a friend saying that I could not go on like this. I had interested myself in individuals, preached the gospel, and endeavored in this way to follow Jesus. But I had to find a way actually to serve humankind; I wanted a dedication that would establish a tangible reality by which men could recognize the cause for which Jesus died.

He also said, describing the situation in Berlin during and after the war:

 Then hunger came to Berlin. People ate turnips morning, noon, and night. When the people turned to the officials for money or food, they were told, “If you are hungry, eat turnips!” On the other hand, even in the middle of Berlin there were still well-to-do “Christian” families who had a cow and had milk when no one else did. Carts went through the streets bearing the bodies of children who had died. The bodies were wrapped in newspaper, for there was neither time nor money for a coffin. In 1917 I saw a horse collapse in the street: the driver was knocked aside by the starving people, who rushed to cut chunks from the warm body to bring home to their families.

He continues: “After such experiences…I realized the whole situation was unbearable,” and then he goes on to say:

…it soon became clear that Jesus’ way is a practical one: he has shown us a way of life that is more than a way of concern for the soul. It is a way that simply says, “If you have two coats, give one to him who has none; give food to the hungry, and do not turn away your neighbor when he needs to borrow from you. When you are asked for an hour’s work, give two. You must strive for his justice. If you want to found a family, see that all others who want to found a family are able to do so, too. If you wish for education, work, and satisfying activity, make these possible for other people as well. If you say it is your duty to care for your health, then accept this duty for the health of others too. Treat people in the same way that you would be treated by them. This is the law and the prophets. Enter through this narrow gate, for it is the way that leads to the kingdom of God.

I and my family can not go on like this either. This whole situation of ongoing accommodation to violent, capitalistic Empire in “American civil religion” is “unbearable.” I do not mean to judge, and I know that if I am judging I will be judged by the very same measure that I am using. What I’m saying is that I want to be judged, and I have heard the judgment rendered! I have participated in and accommodated the violent, capitalistic Empire I was born into for far too long. But now, since I have been born again, it’s high time to live like it! If it is the “whole gospel” we are to be after, then let’s get on with it! Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew something about resisting Empire, even if he found himself at one point famously accommodating violence to do it (an act inconsistent with the rest of the direction in which his life of faith was moving). About Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, which Eberhard Arnold came to have a burning desire to obey wholeheartedly, Bonhoeffer wrote:

We have listened to the Sermon on the Mount and perhaps have understood it. But who has heard it aright? Jesus gives the answer at the end (Matthew 7:24-29). He does not allow his hearers to go away and make of his saying what they will, picking and choosing from them whatever they find helpful and testing them to see if they work. He does not give them free rein to misuse his word with their mercenary hands, but gives it to them on condition that it retains exclusive power over them. Humanly speaking, we could understand and interpret the Sermon on the Mount in a thousand different ways. Jesus knows only one possibility: simple surrender and obedience, not interpreting it or applying it, but doing and obeying it. That is the only way to hear his word. He does not mean that it is to be discussed as an ideal; he really means us to get on with it.

To the extent that we do get on with it, we will “establish a tangible reality by which (people) could recognize the cause for which Jesus died.” Thus, the end of one world will come, and a new one- the kingdom of God- which even now is upon us, will further break in.

Let’s get on with it.

Please.

If You Can’t See the Ocean You’re Swimming In, Open Your Eyes.

In the player above, skip ahead to track 3, “Buzzing of a Bee,” and give it a listen. Below is an early version of the lyrics of this song, courtesy of Circle of Hope in Philly and their partners, including the spoken word artist, Blew Kind. Here’s what they say about it:

CONFESSION
We are being honest about our mistakes, limits, and the brokenness of our world. Blew Kind wrote this spoken word piece preparing for the event in Fall of 2014 called “Peacemaking in an Era of Drone Warfare” put on by the Philadelphia Interfaith Network Against Drone Warfare, of which we are a contributing member along with The Brandywine Peace Community, Mennonite Central Committee (East Coast), Red Letter Christians, The Alternative Seminary, and American Friends Service Committee. The military plans on building and opening a US Drone War Command Center in Horsham, PA, just outside of Philadelphia. We first performed this piece at the coalition event with Medea Benjamin of Code Pink and a viewing of the short documentary “Wounds of Waziristan” and then at a monthly peace vigil outside the Air Guard Station, the future home of the command center. Try to listen as she connects violence and white supremacy to drone warfare and calls into question its morality and our need to root ourselves in Jesus to fight against their propagation.

lyrics

Here are most of the lyrics, in a slightly earlier form

In search of men. Ages 18-48
That may resemble a “militant”
Why are you here?
I thought it was to help
Join the fight against ISIS, against terrorism
Whom are pushing people into exile for refusal to be
Their faith.

The creativity to be a refuge & fighter of the “free world”
As you say,
Is lacking and only gravitates towards
Maintaining the status of Violence.
There are 40,000 people hiding
in the mountains for their lives.

How dare you impose your system of violence
When our leaders insist you to stop, stating
“The use of drones is not only a
continual violation of our territorial integrity
but also detrimental to our resolve & efforts
at eliminating terrorism in our country”
Another states,
“These drones are illegal, in humane
violate the UN Charter of Human Rights
And constitutes as a War Crime. “
And all you can do is
“disagree”
from the mouths of pride & disillusioned power
contending “that the attacks
do not violate international law

(people in the audience start Buzzing..)
We call them “Bangadan”..buzzing of a bee
The hover
All day. Louder at night.
No war declared but you bomb my people…
I hold my babies tight
And hope we will see tomorrow together..
I hear the wailing of a monther, my neighbor
Lost their baby before their eyes.
All dust. No warning.
Wailing all day. Louder at night.
Tears find their home on my cheek.
Praying for my children, these precious souls
That birthed from my womb..
(stop buzzing..)

Will there ever be peace?
Will this madness never end?
The anxiety, the fear, the nightmares

Bzzzz…

“No identities needed, Vaguries around strike targets”
common English reports state.
2500 of my people
have been blown to die
from these buzzing drones
that have no face.
To stand on a mountain
Pointing guns & lazers
Bizzz Bzz..
Grinning, “you…weak one will fear me”
You.. hide when you hear me”
Because Fear to this
American militarized self seeking puppet
Is the fuel that
Cycles poverty
Cycles barbarism against those
Of the brown skin.
Old news, are you familiar?
Oh right, the American educational system and media neglect to educate
The truth of this madness, disgust, thick,
Stains of this lands forefathers, big business owners…
Or as Ida B Wells states in the 19th century,
“They belong to the race which holds Negro life cheap, which owns the telegraph wires, newspapers, and all other communication with the outside world. They write the reports which justify lynching by painting the Negro as black as possible, and those reports are accepted by the press associations and the world without question or investigation. The sheriffs, police, and state officials stand by and see the work done well in the broad day light.”
Oh! Ida B Wells. You had somethin goin on..
After 9/11 Fear has pushed the people
To accept ridiculous laws of control
Power in the hands of the government
Dictating Who is suspicious
Whose rights get torn away,
Private prisons of torture,
Radicalization of violence
All for the “Fight of Terror”

precise and affective.”
First:
Who are you to be a judge of international law/ethics/morals?
Rooted in a history of barbarism, greed, debt enslaving countries
Of families
Lynching stilling alive on your “God given blood stained soil”
Second:
If you are as affective as stated.
Why for every 1 “suspected” militant
10 innocent mothers, daughters, fathers, sons are killed
Deciding morality and viability of these
Destructive tactics using statistics is empty and corrupt
When human lives are your quantitative data
Or, lets use a more detached phrase of
“causalities”

These cycles of violence.
A “necessary evil”
Sewed into the deepest muck of
Racism this land of laws has ever known.
System based on fear.
Fear of the unknown
Un-colonized
Un-English
Un-White
So How ‘bout we adjust our view of what profit could actually mean.
What if maintaining the status of profit is actually
Maintaining the braid of families, children, culture, and hope.
Profit driven by a chain of hands
Linking in the presence of injustice.
Rooted in Jesus.

If you ask what the people want of Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia
They sing that of the same note.
“No more killing of our people
No more funerals of our mothers, daughters, fathers, sons..”
Hear our wail
All day. Louder at night.
May our voice be heard
And the bows of the wicked broken.
Her our wail
Mother Justice of the great deep
Father Refuge in the shadow of your wings..
Hear our wail..
And hope
we will see tomorrow together..

Bzzzz…. Bzzz…
We call them Bangadan
Buzzing of a bee

All for the “Fight of Terror”
“If everything is Terrorism,
nothing is terrorism,”
states former FBI Special Agent
“[the watchlist system] is revving out of control”

Now is the time to rid ourselves of this old foundation,
The leaders of this country
As the “Defenders of the Free World”
As the leaders of Greed, Racism, Profit, and Civilization.
Now is the time to
Adapt a new foundation
Rooted in those of the Resistors, the Martyrs
Who voice forgiveness, compassion, peace
Who voice the cry of the needy
The cry of the oppressed
How can we be a part of the solution before
Tension escalates to wildness and blood?
Yes, Peace isn’t profitable
…especially in a country governed
by the big business of weaponry.
However, an old saying goes
“There is future for the men & women of peace
& their children will be blessed
But the future of the wicked will be cut off”

credits

from Finding Home, released December 4, 2015

Chariots and Horses

Image HT

Hit play above and give this song, another gift to the church from the folks that make up Circle of Hope in Philly, a listen as you read. It’s based on Psalm 20, in which David says:

Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
    but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

I discovered the song when I came across this post by Jonny Rashid, one of Circle of Hope’s pastors. If you don’t get anything from what I write below, hit the link in the line above and just read Jonny’s post. Maybe God’s Spirit will speak to you through him. It was written over a year ago, but remains timely, especially in light of the recently released “Nashville Statement,” because, as Jonny says, “Christians in this fight (the fight for the culture, or ‘culture wars’) are discerning what hills to die on. Excluding gay people seems to be an important hill for them.” In Jonny’s post he links to the song above, and includes these lyrics from it:

I won’t put my trust in chariots or horses
I won’t put my trust in them.
I won’t put my trust in that empty promise
I won’t put my trust in them.

My trust and my pride is in the name of Jesus Christ
Who takes the old and broke and makes it new
I’ll put my hope in the One who frees us all from sin,
And to love is what He shows us to do.

This song is an anthem for our time. Not putting our trust in chariots or horses- or guns or bombs or violence of any kind- is one of the primary challenges of our time, and every time. Likewise, if my ears serve me, verse 2 of the song goes:

I won’t put my trust in gold or earthly riches
I won’t put my trust in them.
I won’t put my trust in that empty promise
I won’t put my trust in them.

My trust and my pride is in the name of Jesus Christ
Who takes the old and broke and makes it new
I’ll put my hope in the One who frees us all from sin,
And to love is what He shows us to do.

Again, not putting our trust in treasure that we can store up here on earth in our checking and savings accounts, in our money market accounts and 401k’s, is (along with the call to renounce violence) probably the biggest barrier to following Jesus we “rich young rulers” in the U.S. face. So….what a song.

I bring up the song because it so obviously touches on the two big things we’ve been learning this year, both of which have to do with how very counter-cultural following Jesus really is because:

  1. Much of what Jesus seems to have to say to us has to do with recognizing that everything belongs to God the giver who made us to be givers too and calls us to participate in his economy rather than the economies of the world. In God’s economy, there is abundance, not scarcity. In God’s economy, we share; we don’t hoard and accumulate for ourselves. In God’s economy, we’re not mere consumers; we’re stewards. In God’s economy, we are blessed to be a blessing such that if our neighbor has no coat while we have two, we are to give him one, with our apology for hoarding what God gave us clearly for the express purpose of passing on to him. Thus, capitalism is just another ‘ism Jesus wants to save us from. I could go on, and already have.
  2. We have been charged with being heralds of the gospel of peace. We are to be peacemakers and agents of shalom. Just as God calls us to reject Mammon in order to serve him, he calls us to reject violence in all its forms because the One we follow is the Prince of Peace. Thus, not only do we reject capitalism and all the economies of this world, we also are to reject war and capital punishment and violent entertainment and every other way that the principalities, powers, and empires of this world seek to ensnare us in the culture of violence, usually in service of the economy or so that we can protect our (rich) “way of life,” etc.

Rejecting capitalism/Mammon and giving up violence obviously puts one at odds with empire, and thus “narrow is the road that leads to life,” indeed, and indeed “only a few find it.” Though again few seem to find this narrow road, it seems to me that there is a preponderance of Scripture that makes it clear that we are to participate in God’s abundant economy by sharing the many good gifts God has given us. We read a lot in Scripture about peacemaking too, especially in the New Testament, but there’s also plenty that seems to paint God as a violent god that endorses violence and tells his followers to participate in it. Some of the most “troubling texts” in Scripture fall into this category. Thankfully, modern-day prophets like Brian Zahnd and Greg Boyd and many others are doing some great work these days to show us that God is not, after all, violent. I’ve read Zahnd’s A Farewell to Mars and Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, and I would highly recommend both. I’ve started reading Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God and was blessed to be able to hear him speak about it to Third Way Church (a local faith community I have immense respect for). I even had the chance to talk to Greg personally at Third Way’s worship gathering, and so am confident that even without having yet finished the very lengthy, scholarly Crucifixion of the Warrior God (thankfully there’s a shorter, more accessible version, called Cross Vision), I know I will be able to highly recommend it too.

The gifts that both Zahnd and Boyd (and again, others) have to offer not just the church, but the world, include their work to show that many of those “troubling texts” are not in the end what they might seem to be at first reading with our modern, Western eyes. There’s a lot under the surface and behind the scenes of written Scripture that when illuminated help us to see that, as Zahnd says: “God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. We haven’t always known this, but now we do.” This, then, brings me to the matter at hand. I was honored a few weeks ago to have been asked to teach some of the elementary age kids who gather as part of Mill City Church. I was supposed to talk about the “armor of God.” You might imagine that this presented a bit of a conundrum for me, given what I’ve said above and have been saying all year. I was glad for the opportunity, though, because it forced me to wrestle with the question of whether or not the warrior language of the “armor of God” passage is another example of those texts that (seem to) tell us how to be violent rather than shalom-makers. Let’s take a look at the passage from Ephesians:

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. 19 Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

Now, you probably know as well as I that you can’t start reading something that starts with “Finally.” The obvious question is: “Finally, what?” What is being summed up here? Before I go any further I should mention that in this, as in so many other things, I am indebted to the good people of Circle of Hope and the heavy theological lifting they’ve done in thinking of Paul “doing theology” in “two tiers.” As they put it:

Paul has a very useful approach to taking action on behalf of Jesus and in service to the poor and oppressed. He even has a great approach to advocating for rights, which seems way before its time. What I mean is that there is a general, universal, eternal tier in his thinking, and then a practical, flexible, temporal application of it. In the Enlightenment period, theologians put the entire Bible into one big text and applied their systems of thinking to it in order to make sense of it. Protestants have been having Bible studies ever since trying to fit the Bible into some rational system. Paul, in particular, looks like he is a very unsystematic thinker at points. For instance, he will tell the Galatians that there is no male and female in Christ, we are all children of God in Christ. Then he tells the Corinthian women some very specific ways to behave in no uncertain terms that make them look completely unequal. Which one is it? I think it is both. His prophetic first tier is “There is no male or female hierarchy,” his practical tier is “Act in a way that makes the mission work and relationships of love flourish, and don’t get us in trouble with our persecutors.”

Later, they offer this very helpful hermeneutic for reading Paul which is related to the two tiers described above:

Head coverings, long hair for women, not men (although Jesus probably had long hair), women not speaking (elsewhere they are forbidden to teach men) although he encouraged them to keep their head covered while prophesying in the meeting – these are all inconsistent and specific applications. Paul was not trying to write the Bible as the modernists saw it. Surely he did not expect his writings to be collected. He is not a professor writing a book about a topic. He is working things out as the body of Christ, led by the Spirit, “in Christ.” You can make your own discernment in Christ, but it looks like we should apply a principle of Bible interpretation that says the closer a teaching in the Bible is to the culture of the day, the more likely it is to be culturally bound, and the more counter-cultural it is the more likely it is to be universal in application. It’s not an ironclad principle, but a useful guide.

This guide is useful indeed. The closer a teaching in the Bible is to the culture of the day- the more in line it is with how things were for the folks who originally wrote and read the Bible- “the more likely it is to be culturally bound.” In other words, if Paul, inspired by God’s Spirit, were writing to us today, the teaching in such passages might be written very differently. Remember, it was Jesus who so often did this very thing with his Bible- the Old Testament- when he repeatedly said, “You have heard it said….but I tell you…” Likewise, if something that runs truly counter to the culture of the folks who originally wrote and read the Bible made it into that very Bible, it’s very likely to have a universal application, to be a timeless truth that is just as “true” for us as it was for its original hearers, and in much the same way.

So, going back to the “finally” that the “armor of God” passage above begins with, let’s see what’s being summarized. Paul begins in Ephesians 1 by giving thanks for those to whom he was writing and describing how Christ has been given authority “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.” This is quite a claim in the midst of the Roman Empire of his day. As I’ve so often repeated, to say that “Jesus is Lord” is to say that Caesar is not. Shane Claiborne, I think, gets close to getting it right when he says that this is like saying “Jesus is President,” and Trump (or Obama or any other) is not. Paul’s assertion here is one that Christians in the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the world- richer and more powerful even than Rome in its heyday- should likewise be making today. The “leader of the free world,” and all the world indeed, is not the President of the U.S., and any power the President or Congress or Supreme Court or any other earthly ruler thinks he has pales in comparison to that of Jesus, but I digress.

In these first few chapters of Ephesians, Paul addresses himself to Jews first, and then turns his attention to the Gentiles, to whom he has a mission to preach the gospel. In chapter 2 he describes how those who have been “saved” have received this salvation as gift, through grace and faith, “so that no one can boast.” He’s making a case here. He declares that Jews and Gentiles are united in Christ, who has preached peace (shalom) to those who were thought to be far from God (Gentiles), and peace to those who were thought to be near to God (Jews). Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) at the time did not “naturally” associate with one another, and up to this point it would have been unthinkable to imagine that the Jewish Messiah, the would-be political liberator of his people, was not only not going to violently overthrow Rome, but to make matters far worse in the eyes of Jews at the time, was going to offer his salvation (whatever that meant) not only to Jews but to their Gentile oppressors too! This was a scandal of the worst kind. It’s no wonder Jesus was executed with approval from the Roman state and the Jewish religious leaders. So then, Paul in Ephesians is writing to persuade his Jewish hearers and readers who have begun to follow Jesus that (again, quite scandalously) they are no more worthy of salvation than Gentiles are, for God’s free gift is indeed free, and is available to all. Paul makes this explicit in Ephesians 3. This is good news, but of a subversively revolutionary kind. Jews of the time had been hoping for a revolution, after all, but this is not the revolution they thought they were signing up for.

Paul spills a lot of ink in Ephesians 4 continuing to describe this gospel of peace and the unity that all who would follow Jesus are to share. He goes on to describe the new life that we who are united in and by Christ are to share. Paul tells us to live according to this new life we have been given, and to stop living like those who do not follow Jesus, who “are so greedy that they do all kinds of indecent things.” Isn’t it interesting how often in Scripture, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, we find instruction (not rules) for how we are to relate to one another economically? “The love of money is the root of all evil,” indeed. Paul in Ephesians 4 even gives examples of what the new life in Christ he’s been describing looks like by way of contrast with the old. Notable among them, and again related to God’s economy, is this gem: “If you are a thief, quit stealing. Be honest and work hard, so you will have something to give to people in need” (italics added). Sharing with those who ask of us is baked right in to the description of why we should work (and not steal) at all.

This theme runs into Ephesians 5, where Paul says:

Do as God does. After all, you are his dear children. Let love be your guide. Christ loved us[a] and offered his life for us as a sacrifice that pleases God. You are God’s people, so don’t let it be said that any of you are immoral or indecent or greedy (italics added).

Paul talks about living in the light of God’s love and “making every minute count” as we do so because “these are evil times,” and then begins to move into more instruction about how to relate to one another “in light” of all of the above. The “two tiers” of Paul’s theology again becomes helpful here. At the end of chapter 5 Paul discusses how to get along in marriage, and much damage over centuries has occurred because of Paul’s accommodation to patriarchy as he describes male “headship” in these verses. The two tiers are quite evident here, though. Paul goes along with (accommodates) the culture of his day in describing husbands as “the head of his wife,” (tier 2) but then he goes against the grain of his culture and maybe gets timeless as he moves to tier 1 and says that if men are going to be “head” of their wives they are to do so like Christ does for his church: they are to love their wives and lay their lives down for them, just as Jesus has done for all of us. In a world where men could give their wives a “certificate of divorce” on a whim, Jesus in the gospels tells men that this can no longer be the case, that only adultery is sufficient cause to even consider such a move. Now, Paul goes further and describes what marriage should look like, using the dressing (language) of his culture not to enshrine it for all time but to render it near meaningless. The point is NOT that male “headship” is God ordained. This should be more clear in the NIV version of chapter 5, in which before Paul says that wives should “submit” to their husbands, he says to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Again, the point is not that male “headship” is God ordained. The point is that suffering love is. This is subversive and radical, but again only for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

At last, then, we get to chapter 6. The two tiers of Paul’s theology have been evident in his description of how we are to live in light of God’s love, including/especially in marriage. Remember, Paul begins Ephesians by describing Jesus’ power and saying that all rule and authority and power and dominion belongs to Christ, the executed outcast, the poor wanderer of an occupied people who “had no place to lay his head.” This same Jesus is now the ultimate authority in the universe. To one powerless group in the society of Paul’s day, women, Paul describes how the powerful- men/their husbands- are to lay down their lives for them. Paul now in chapter 6 moves to another powerless group in the society of his day, children. Look for the two tiers again, and remember that of all the powerless groups in Paul’s day, including women, children, and slaves (all of whom are addressed here in what is surely not a coincidence), children were the least powerful of all in the household economy. I’ve written about this. To children, sure, Paul says they are to obey their parents (tier 2), but then he goes back to the Ten Commandments and reminds his readers that of all the commandments, “The commandment Honor your father and mother is the first one with a promise attached: so that things will go well for you, and you will live for a long time in the land.” This is tier 1 (the eternal, timeless tier that most fully reveals God’s intent for us) in spades, and Paul doubles down on it next when parents get a command too: “As for parents, don’t provoke your children to anger…”

Paul talks to slaves next, with the two tiers again very evident. You see Paul accommodating the culture of his day in his practical, tier 2 instructions as he tells slaves to “obey their human masters” and “serve their owners enthusiastically, as though they were serving the Lord and not human beings.” But then Paul moves to tier 1 as he reminds slaves and masters both that “…the Lord will reward every person who does what is right, whether that person is a slave or a free person.” And so, like husbands and parents, masters get instructions too: “As for masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Stop threatening them, because you know that both you and your slaves have a master in heaven. He doesn’t distinguish between people on the basis of status.” Revolutionary! Paul tells “masters” that they have a master too. All authority has been given to Jesus. These instructions render status differences between slaves and earthly masters (and parents and children, and husbands and wives) moot. All power is given to Jesus, who wields it by dying for those he loves.

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At long last, finally indeed, we move to the armor of God. How are we to be strong? “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.” To his readers who were all too familiar with the violent military garb of the Roman soldiers who patrolled the streets they walked daily, keeping “law and order,” he says:

Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Remember, Paul has already declared that these same “rulers” and “authorities” and “power” are already subject to Jesus, the same Jesus who did not violently struggle against the “flesh and blood” of the Roman soldiers that crucified him at the behest of the empire- the Roman one and the Jewish religious one of his day. Jesus did not need to employ violence against the flesh and blood acting on behalf of the rulers and authorities because the freedom he offers is much deeper than any they could take away. As Rod White of Circle of Hope put it, as “slaves of Christ,” we are “being freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to you.” So in our struggle against the schemes of the devil, the Accuser who would blind us to the truth that his power is at an end, Paul reminds us of all the tools- not weapons- that God has given us. In place of a Roman soldier’s belt, we are to wear Truth. Where a Roman soldier’s breastplate would be, we put on Righteousness, the reality that all the wrong things are being made right, that justice is and will be done. Where the fittings for a Roman soldier’s feet would be, we are fitted with the “readiness that comes from the gospel of peace” (which surely has nothing to do with flesh-and-blood war!). Where a Roman soldier would take up a shield, we are protected with faith, and in place of a helmet and sword, we are given God’s Spirit. We are given Jesus, the living word of God. And beyond all that, Paul says, we are to pray.

Upon further review, this text is indeed troubling, but not because a violent God is calling us to think and act violently. It’s troubling because it subversively reveals how no violence can stand against the Prince of Peace and those with feet ready to follow him in preaching with their lives the gospel of peace. This is what I would have said to the kids of Mill City, if I could have. May we all live like children of our Father in heaven, who calls us to just such a generous, peaceful life. May we put our trust in the name of Jesus Christ, not in chariots or horses, or gold or earthly riches. Amen.

P.S. I should note that in this post Circle of Hope recently wrestled with this text too, in their daily prayer blog for folks just starting to follow Jesus. It’s worth a read, and also has a link to the song above.

Capitalism Rocks!

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I can’t stop thinking about this since reading it this morning. The good folks who make up Circle of Hope, our former faith community in Philly, put out not one, but two, daily prayer blogs. One is for folks a little further down the road with Jesus; the other is for those taking the “first steps on the journey of faith and community.” Remarkably, what I’ve re-posted below, in its entirety, is from that latter daily prayer blog, for those maybe just starting to follow Jesus (or perhaps, if you’re like me, just starting to follow Jesus in a new way and hopefully with new depth). I’ve written recently about my growing awareness that “capitalism is just another ‘ism Jesus wants to save us from.” This post is a reminder of that, and in spades. Here it is:

Generating justice and hope in our neighborhood must be at the heart of us.
Wealth and power reduce sympathy for the poor and powerless. A marriage between unfettered capitalism and piety makes the Lord’s words inconvenient at best and heretical at worst.

Today’s Bible reading

Hear this, you who trample the needy
    and do away with the poor of the land,

saying,

“When will the New Moon be over
    that we may sell grain,
and the Sabbath be ended
    that we may market wheat?”—
skimping on the measure,
    boosting the price
    and cheating with dishonest scales,
buying the poor with silver
    and the needy for a pair of sandals,
    selling even the sweepings with the wheat.

The Lord has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done. — Amos 8:4-7

More thoughts for meditation

Many people say American Christians have generally reduced their faith to “moral therapeutic deism,” where the shapes and colors of religion are imported into mass-market self-help schemes. Meanwhile, the “Christian right” persevere in old political battles (sexuality, marriage, education, etc.) for which they sold their souls to the “economy.” But the strength of their efforts appears to be waning; the once coherent evangelical voting bloc is splintering. The titans of industry intent on fostering a pro-capitalist politics can no longer rely on them to bolster their project. The most ardent pro-capitalists, don’t generally speak in terms of Christ and country any more; they are more likely to talk about self-improvement and actualization.

Why pray about this? Why give ourselves proverb to remember? We are all in the grip of capitalism and tend to believe its narrative about life more than the Lord’s. Whether with or in spite of Oprah or Franklin Graham, we’re moving with or resisting the flow.

Free-market economics and Christianity were not always the twin pillars of a uniquely American gospel. Yet the last election was kicked off by Ted Cruz spinning a free-market yarn to the student body of the world’s largest Christian college. He wanted to get the born-again Christians into the voting booth giving him dominion over the economy. At this point, thanks to the tireless efforts of the pastors and politicians, the disparity between the Christian ethos and the spirit of capitalism is now little more than a periodic gurgle of protest from believers who lean “left.” Most pastors preach some variation on self-help and self-reliance.

Capitalism needs a story to make its excesses and failures palatable to the masses. Regular people need to be convinced that the system that benefits the rich actually benefits them too. Lately there have been stories about the prophets of capital like Bill Gates and Sheryl Sandberg. The stories about the rich and successful have different plots, but the same goal: to patch up leaks in capitalism and advance its shuddering bulk for one more day. In the 1950’s it was Christianity that was deployed to offer this endorsement, now it is more likely the Koch brothers or Mark Zuckerberg.

Each of the stories keeps a glimmer of the past pro-capitalist Christian crusades burning — they are all sermons about the economy with moral imperatives, altar calls and an application that will not only save your finances but save the country, if not humanity.  As religiosity drops off in the United States and is replaced either by faithlessness or individual spirituality, capitalism is reformating its defenses to match those changes. That could be the best possible thing for true Christianity in the United States. If the Christian story is the latest to be shucked aside by capitalism, then Christianity might find itself slipping the grip of a rather oppressive relationship.

Out of the grip of capitalism, American Christians would be free to offer up a genuinely revolutionary Christian politics: one that neither seeks to bolster capitalism blatantly nor offer meager patches for its systemic problems. Having an historical perspective on the ways in which Christianity was co-opted in service of the capitalist cause could help new Christian activists avoid the pitfalls of the recent past.  Our proverb names the problem and calls us to enact the transformation that makes us truly free, not just free to pay the system for the privilege of consuming.

Suggestions for action

Pray: Make me a heretic in the religion of capitalism and a prophet among those who follow Jesus.

It takes some study to see beyond the ocean of capitalism in which we swim. We have all bought the story to some degree, as follows: Holiness and profit go together. The special capacity of capitalism to help the poor is assumed. The respect due to those who “make it” is something to which children are taught to aspire. We elect millionaires to lead the country. It goes on, often unexamined.

Take some time to ponder our proverb and Amos’ prophecy again. What does your participation in the “economy” do to your ability to follow Jesus? Don’t immediately figure out how you will fit more of Jesus into your busy schedule. First consider just what it costs your faith to have it married to capitalism, if it is. How does Jesus speak into you life in the U.S. and direct you?

If You Want to Have Confidence on the Day of Judgment, Maybe Skip the Sinner’s Prayer?

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The “Right” Way to Follow Jesus

I will confess that I think most of us get following Jesus wrong. Obviously, to have such a thought presupposes that I have some idea of what it would look like to get following Jesus “right.” I intentionally said “us” in my first sentence, because like Paul, I am the worst of sinners. As I’ve said of late, after abandoning Facebook because it seemed on balance to be more of a negative than a positive in our lives, we came back on in order to better connect with our local faith community, relatives far away, etc. Being back on, as I’ve also said, has been something of a mixed bag. I’m finding that even without a smartphone, Facebook retains its power to suck you in. It’s so, so easy to get locked into the “bubble.” It’s literally rewarding; endorphins are released in your brain when you receive and respond to notifications (even if not on a smartphone). It’s easy to “like” all the news sites, public figures, and causes you believe in, and all the while behind the scenes Facebook’s not so magic algorithm works in self-referencing fashion to reinforce what you already thought was true, to magnify your outrage at all the things you already thought were wrong, until one day you find yourself plowing your car into the people who are surely trying to steal your country right out from under you. I should be explicit here in stating that I am in no way justifying the actions of the home-grown terrorist who murdered and harmed peaceful counter-protestors in Charlottesville, and I can’t begin to think I know what his motivations were when he committed his vile, murderous act of aggression. What I am saying is that I believed before, and believe still, that Facebook (can be? is?) dangerous.

Silencing Those I Disagree With

When we were on before I got in lots of online arguments with the people- usually from the conservative “Christian” upbringing of my youth- that I disagree with. Even if in my heart of hearts I didn’t really believe that my arguing with them would change their minds, I still felt compelled to do so. Usually those arguments ended badly, and a quick click of the “unfriend” or even “block” button followed. Naturally, as I silenced those I disagreed with, I locked myself ever more into my own self-referencing and self-reinforcing bubble. As I write this I’m struck by the last sentence I just wrote. Even if only on Facebook, “I silenced those I disagreed with.” Would I do this in person? Would I refuse to hear those I don’t agree with, even/especially when I find their rhetoric vile, their arguments baseless, and their opinions ignorant or ill-informed? My own rhetoric about myself would say “no,” even if in practice my web of face-to-face relationships and those I choose to spend time with might suggest otherwise.

“Issues” Don’t Deserve Our “Stances;” People Do

Of course I know that people will, and often do, “like,” “friend,” and “follow” pages, people, and groups they don’t agree with for the sole purpose of “trolling” and/or getting into such arguments as I allude to above. I suspect that this is no more virtuous than cementing yourself in your own little like-minded bubble on Facebook. If part of what I think might be the “right” way to follow Jesus involves breaking down barriers and overcoming (often self-constructed) walls of division, I have to think that I have some responsibility to pursue relationship with those who look, think, and act differently than I do, and at the very least to remain in those (online) relationships I’m already a part of with those who think like maybe I used to, but do no longer. Better still, I would do well when possible to invite such folks to dinner. You see, to the extent that I’ve changed in my thinking about the world and especially about how to follow Jesus, much of that change has been driven by my in-person contact with people and ideas that are different than I am. As I’ve said for a little while now, I’ve learned that some of the most divisive “issues” of our time usually involve real people’s lives, and it’s easy to take a stand for or against an “issue,” but when you get to know the real people who the “issue” impacts, you find yourself no longer talking and thinking about the “issue.” Instead, you must decide whether to advocate for or against the well-being and maybe the very life of that person you know, who hopefully has become your friend. The gay “lifestyle” and/or “agenda” used to be an “issue” for me. Now, when people argue about it, I have to think about David, and April, and Ty, and others. I have to ask whether or not I really love them and want the best for them. There’s a lot more to be said about that, but I digress.

Exposure Therapy

My point now I suppose is that “exposure therapy” works. Maybe that’s a good way to think of this. Especially to the extent that we remain afraid of those who are different from us and those we can’t understand, we all need a little therapy, and simple exposure to those friends we haven’t met yet would be a good start. What I’m saying is that I probably swung from one extreme to the other. I lived in a conservative bubble for a long time (pre-social media days), and it did not serve me well as a Jesus-follower. A “liberal” bubble will no doubt serve me no better. It’s probably fair to say that as a mobile-home dwelling male of European descent growing up in Texas, I was a conservative, America-loving, homophobic racist. And because as a child I was an abused conservative, America-loving, homophobic racist who grew up in the church, I really, really loved Jesus in my own small, ill-informed, immature way. I always say I grew up knowing that I could “depend on God in the absence of dependable parents.” Hear me now, the labels I’ve given myself above are labels I’m applying to myself, not to anyone else. Maybe others who grew up in the conditions I did might now look back and think of themselves then in the same way. Most probably wouldn’t, but I’m not saying that about anyone else. I’m saying that about myself.

Moving from One Secular Political Extreme to the Other When I’m Supposed to be an Extremist for Love

If before I was conservative, America-loving, homophobic, and racist, am I now liberal, America-hating, gay-loving, and anti-racist? Some would probably say so, at least in regard to some of those labels. I’d like to be anti-racist. It’s a necessary corrective to a foundational truth about the U.S. which it will likely take just as many centuries to undo as it did to “do” in the first place. I’d like to be thought of as someone who loves my LGBTQ brothers and sisters and who is passionate about (nonviolently) fighting for their good. Admittedly, this is probably still a growth point for me, but it’s something I aspire to. My “conservative” friends, to whatever extent I still have any, would likely think of me as very “liberal.” Truth be told, however, more and more I’m able to see the extent to which “liberalism” inasmuch as it’s thought of as a counter to “conservatism” in this country is a poor vehicle if our destination is the beloved community that MLK, Jr. spoke of and Scripture describes so beautifully. I think “liberal” secular politics in this country often offer the promise of more loving and humane answers to the problems that plague our society, but just as often fail to deliver on that promise. I’ll take the rhetoric of an Obama over that of a Trump any day, but sadly much of Obama’s rhetoric proved to be just- and only- that, rhetoric.

What I ought to know by now is that if what I really hope for is God’s kingdom of love and justice to come, then I have to live like Jesus is Lord, and Caesar/Trump/Obama is not. If the beloved community is what I’m called to be a part of, then I have to do the hard work that the family business of reconciliation requires. That means I must work to be reconciled with my neighbors of color, my LGBTQ neighbors, my poor neighbors, and my rich neighbors and conservative neighbors. If I believe that everything belongs to God, then I must stop hoarding all the material wealth I’ve been blessed with and to whatever extent I have two coats while my neighbor has none, I must give at least one away. If I believe that Jesus is the Prince of Peace and he really meant that we should not violently resist an evil person, I must do the hard work of peacemaking, even/especially as I consider the violent impulses of all the institutions I benefit from and participate in every day.

Too Many Causes, Too Little Time

When I go on Facebook these days, especially after the events in Charlottesville, I find myself overwhelmed with all the things I should be angry about. Some such anger, I hope, is right and righteous, and hopefully to the extent that this is true it will serve its purpose. The purpose of anger, after all, is to give the adrenaline necessary to act, and surely there are many actions that are necessary in these perilous times. Still, the simple volume of anger-inducing information is paralyzing. When there are so many things to do, it’s hard to know where to start. Adding to the vitriol in the comments on a Facebook post or Twitter thread probably isn’t the most helpful place to start, to be sure. I also think it’s a bit of a distraction. Online discussion can be helpful, and I participate in probably more than my fair share, but the real work of healing and restoration that this world so desperately needs happens most often as we break bread together, face-to-face, not as we break faith with one another while hurling insults online.

Without Worship, We Shrink

I read yesterday (online, of course) about how a pastor I respect was moved to pray as he faced all the troubles in the world as represented on Facebook and in his own, real life. When I went on Facebook today and was faced with the same troubles in the world and my own troubles in my own real life, I was moved…to praise. Among the faith community that same pastor I spoke of above is a part of, they have a proverb that goes: “without worship, we shrink.” I continue to believe that this is fundamentally, spiritually, and existentially true. When I allow myself to be moved by an effective worship song, I really am…moved. I’m transported from wherever my burdens feel too heavy to bear to the foot of the cross, where Jesus confronts me with his unflinching love not just for me and my tribe but for each and every person who has ever or will ever live, for the whole world, for the entire created order that groans with us in anticipation of its own redemption. In those moments I am overwhelmed not with anger or despair at all the troubles in the world, or at least on Facebook, but instead with love.

Being Overwhelmed is a Virtue

You see, we were meant to be overwhelmed. We were built and wired to be overwhelmed. We’re finite after all. We’re not in-finite. We can hold so much, and no more. God made us this way because he is infinite. He is not contained. God is love, and that love flows from God to his good creation and to every one of us each and every day for as long as the world has existed and on into eternity, and yet his love is never, ever diminished. He is not the less for it. His love is not a “zero-sum” endeavor. It is not subject to the “laws” of economics, and certainly not to the laws of capitalism. It is not the case that the more God gives, the less he has. And you know what? That’s true for us too. We were made to be overwhelmed because we were made to be vessels of this “never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love.” We were meant to be utterly filled up with it, and then it was meant to flow from us out to everyone around us. I John puts it best:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in that passage that a lot could be said about, and I’ve said some of it before. What I’m most interested in now is how the passage above ends:

This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

How to Have Confidence on the Day of Judgment

Do you think God’s a worse parent than you are? Would you torture your children forever? Image HT

Many would-be Jesus followers spend their whole lives focusing on what came before the last part I just quoted again above. They focus on this part:  “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God.” Many Christians think this “acknowledgment” that Jesus is the Son of God has to do with reciting a formulaic prayer, or worse, making sure the Ten Commandments are in front of courthouses and hymns can be played by high school bands during football halftime shows. Maybe saying the “sinner’s prayer” suffices as the kind of acknowledgment the verse above alludes to, but I suspect not. What I’m struck by, though, is this. Why do some Christians insist everybody say that formulaic prayer or let them practice their USAmerican civil religion in public spaces? Undoubtedly it’s so that they can “have confidence on the day of judgment” because they think that God’s a worse parent than they hope to be and is therefore willing to torment people in hell forever if they don’t say such a prayer. Thus, it is very, very based in fear. Isn’t it ironic, then, that the very passage above speaks to this very issue? There are very specific instructions about just how to “have confidence on the day of judgment,” and this bit of scripture has a lot to say about fear. According to this passage, we will have confidence on the day of judgment not by saying a formulaic prayer and not by fighting the culture wars; rather, that confidence comes when, “in this world, we are like Jesus.” Immediately afterward, we read, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” The passage speaks of God’s love being made “complete” among us, and it seems really, really clear that this happens as we love another, because God has first loved us. Oh, that we would all be so overwhelmed with this love that we did love one another in this way, so that God’s love would be made complete and the world would know we were really, truly, finally Christians! What better way could there be to acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God?

Of course, all that is the opposite of love can seem overwhelming too. Thankfully, as finite creatures we were not built to contain all the hate and evil in the world, and to whatever extent we don’t act lovingly toward one another, there’s plenty of hate and evil to go around. When we focus on the hate and evil, even if we do so in the hope of countering it, it again feels overwhelming. Just spend a little time on Facebook, and you’ll know this to be true. The problem when this happens isn’t that we feel overwhelmed because again that’s how we’re built. The problem is what we’re letting ourselves be overwhelmed by. Let’s work to worship and pray and do whatever we need to keep close to Jesus, so that we can be overwhelmed by his love, letting it spill out of us to everyone who crosses our path. There’s plenty of hate-speech online and hateful actions in real life that require our loving response, but after all “darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Not surprisingly, those words came as Dr. King spoke about violence. He said:

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

Jesus says that we who would follow him are meant to be the “light of the world.” Let’s be light. It’s the only thing that can drive out darkness. Let’s be love. It’s the only thing that can drive out hate. Let’s be peace. It’s the only thing that can drive out violence.

Let’s Be Friends?

I hope to be light, love, and peace in real life, and on Facebook. That presupposes that I again work hard at the family business of reconciliation, and that requires that I be in relationship- in real life and on Facebook- with those who are different than I am. Hopefully in the coming days our Facebook friend list will grow as I reach out to the folks I unfriended when I grew out of the conservative outlook of my youth. I may not like everything they say; in fact, I’m sure I won’t, but I don’t have the right to silence them, and who knows, maybe I’ll learn something from them. Nor, of course, will they like all the online stances Kirsten and I might take. Be that as it may, if Jesus unrelentingly loves the entire world and each and every one of us whether we want or deserve it or not, and I purport to follow him, then I have to grow into that kind of love too. Lord, let it be so.

But I Tell You…

Fear of the (often poor) “other” makes them our enemy, whom we hate and act violently toward. Image HT

The Two Big Questions of our Time

Every day- and especially on this day- I’m more and more convinced that the two big questions of our time as Jesus-followers are:

  1. How do we more fully participate in God’s economy; that is, how do we really and truly order our actual everyday lives as if everything really does belong to God?
  2. How do we more fully follow the Prince of Peace; that is, how do we really and truly order our actual everyday lives as if violence in any and every form is antithetical to the way of Jesus?

I suspect that I and my family will spend the rest of our lives working out the answers to these questions. I also suspect that the world would know that we were Christians- that we were children of our father in heaven- if the rest of those who would follow Jesus would dedicate themselves to struggling with these questions too. Anybody who has read this blog at all this year will know that the call to live as participants in God’s economy was a call we heard as if for the first time in 2017, despite having the heard the call no doubt as long as two decades ago, though it fell on deaf ears all the long many years since. It’s only been over the past year or so that we’ve made any serious attempt to really consider what it means that nothing really belongs to us, that we are called to ask for and gratefully receive only enough bread for today- and if more than enough bread for today comes our way- it is no doubt because we are “blessed to be a blessing,” because we are meant to be conduits of God’s blessing and goodness for others.

Retirement and Savings Accounts are Exercises in Functional Atheism

Of course that means we are asked to have great faith. We are asked to trust God for each day’s bread each and every day. While manna does not generally rain down from heaven each day to sustain us, as educated people of European descent in these waning days of USAmerican empire and global capitalism, we are incredibly privileged, and have access to more “bread” than most people in the world today and certainly in the history of the world could ever know what to do with. The actual, everyday implications for how we are to order our lives in light of this means, for starters, that we can stop storing up treasure on earth. Our retirement and savings accounts are exercises in functional atheism. They develop the muscles that would be necessary in a world in which God did not exist, in a world in which we were not the beloved children of our father in heaven. Jesus seems pretty clear about this in Matthew 6:25-32:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[e]?

28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

That little “therefore” that what I’ve quoted above begins with is a hinge on which everything hangs; so let’s back up. Matthew 6 begins like this:

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Jesus Gave a Sermon Once

All of this comes in the famous, but not nearly famous enough, Sermon on the Mount. In it Jesus radically reinterprets everything his Jewish audience thought they knew about God and how to follow him. It starts in Matthew 5, just before the passages from Matthew 6 quoted above. Repeatedly in chapter 5 he says, “You have heard that it was said…..but I tell you….” Each time he takes something heretofore known as “gospel truth” and then alters, adds to, or flips on its head whatever they had heard before so that it was nearly unrecognizable. Remember, he’s doing this with their Bible. Usually whatever followed the “you have heard that it was said” was a quote right out of the Hebrew Bible, and usually whatever Jesus said after “but I tell you” required a radical reorientation of everything they had known to be true. Before they were subject to judgment if they murdered. Now they were subject to judgment if they get angry with a brother or sister. Before they were not to commit adultery. Now they are not to look lustfully at one another. Before men could divorce their wife on a whim. Now they are to let their “yes” really mean “yes,” especially in marriage, and to make this point Jesus follows up his words on adultery by enjoining the people to not only fulfill the vows they’ve made but to refrain from otherwise resorting to oaths at all, because their word should be their bond. In a culture in which women had little power, this is a radical shift, but that is a discussion for another day.

The Other Great Commandment: Give to the One who Asks

Before they had “…heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” According to what they used to think the Bible said, retributive violence was just fine. Now Jesus tells them not only to refrain from such violence, but to refrain from resisting an evil person at all. Here, though, a critical shift occurs in this discussion of enemy love, for the very next words out of Jesus’ mouth are: “40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (italics added). The command to give to the one who asks of us is italicized because it has been such a theme in what we’ve been learning. It’s become so important to us because it’s so very counter-cultural; it’s anathema to the USAmerican way of life and the pursuit of the “American dream.” Confronted with constant messaging about scarcity, about the need to acquire more and more and more (if for no other reason than to keep the consumption-based late capitalist economy going for as long as it possibly can so that the rich can get just a little bit richer), we seldom know not only how to simply say “enough!”, but even more so, we’ve forgotten how to share. We no longer know how to give, expecting nothing in return. We outsource our generosity to the government, and then attach so many strings that it hardly qualifies as generosity. Sure, we may support a charity or two, but when we do, we think we’ve done our part and otherwise order our lives in such a way that we continue to accumulate far more than we need while others lack even the most very basic of necessities.

Giving to those who ask of us is a profound exercise, then, not in functional atheism, but in functional faith, in the belief that we are children of our father in heaven, the one who feeds the birds and clothes the flowers, and therefore will surely do so much more for us. Notice, then, what Jesus is doing here. Jesus puts his command to give to those who ask of us right in the middle of instructions about how to love our enemies, and he doubles down in the part that follows the command to give to those who ask of us. He says:

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Let Jesus Be Your Bible

The progression here is remarkable.  Jesus has already said early in chapter 5 that the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake will be blessed. He then tells them that they are to be salt and light, that they are there for a purpose. Indeed, Jesus says, they are the very “light of the world,” and that light was meant to “shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Before moving into his list of all the ways that what they thought was true wasn’t true after all, or more accurately, wasn’t nearly true enough, Jesus responds to those who might say that his words are so radical, so very re-orienting indeed, that he must have come to “abolish the Law and the Prophets,” and therefore everything that the faith of Israel had stood for up to that point. Jesus says this is not the case. He says: “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” Do you see what he did there? He doesn’t say, “you must continue to observe the Law down to the smallest letter and the least stroke of a pen” if you are to have any hope of entering the kingdom of heaven. In fact, he says: “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (italics added). No, what Jesus says is that he has not come to the abolish the Law and the Prophets; rather he has come to fulfill them. In Jesus, the work of the Law and the Prophets is complete. They are not abolished; they are fulfilled. Their purpose has been served. Their job was to point, eventually, to Jesus. They were signposts along the way, and sometimes not very good ones at that. Be that as it may, in Christ all the fullness of …(God) lives in bodily form.” So it’s not that the Law and the Prophets were all for naught; they were important again because they point to Jesus. It is Jesus, though, and Jesus alone, that is the “living word.” It is Jesus, and Jesus alone, who reveals the Father perfectly; so as the Father said at least twice in the gospels, we would do well to “listen to him.”

Only then does Jesus begin reinterpreting their sacred text, showing them that it could and had only taken them so far, but there was much farther to go still. Nowhere is this more true than in the injunction to love one’s enemies and give to those who ask of us. First he says that to those who would take our shirt, we should give our coat too. Then he says that for those who would force us to go a mile, we should go two. It’s important to know that usually such demands in occupied Palestine were made by the occupying Roman soldiers, who would force locals to carry their heavy soldier’s pack for a pace. Thus the oppressed Palestinians were made to carry the tools of war, the very instruments that could be used to oppress and even kill them. Usually a soldier would demand that a local do this for a mile. Jesus says not to resist this, and then to give them another mile too. Doesn’t it cast his later instruction to his disciples to “take up their cross and follow him” in a new light?

Your Poor Enemies

After saying all this, he then tells them to give to those who ask of them, and not to turn away from those who want to borrow from them, and without missing a beat moves on to another “you have heard it was said…but I tell you…” In this case, he tells them that while before they were encouraged to love their neighbor (and by implication, they were therefore permitted to hate their enemy), now they are to love even their enemies, and they are to pray for those who persecute them, so that they might be children of their father in heaven (italics added). Throughout this bit on loving enemies, there is an implicit, and sometimes explicit, assumption that the needy will be among their enemies. Those who are poor, those who might ask of or borrow from us, are in at least one case no different from brutal, oppressive, occupying soldiers. In both cases, we are to love them and give them what they ask, and more. We are not to resist them. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove again makes this point better than I ever could in his seminal work, God’s Economy. He says:

In both Matthew and Luke’s gospels, Jesus presents the tactic of relational generosity as part of his teaching on loving our enemies. Our problem with beggars, Jesus seems to say, is that we imagine them to be our enemies. Most of us would rather not think too deeply about people who are poor that way. We want to think that we pity them or perhaps we’d like to help them. But the last thing we want to do is consider that their poverty has anything to do with us (italics added). Those of us who have access to resources don’t like to name the poor as our enemies. But our fear of beggars and our efforts to control people who happen to be poor reveal the dividing lines that the poor already see so clearly. Through nonresistance, Jesus’ tactic of relational generosity exposes our fear of the poor. By giving to the one who asks, we don’t deny our fear. Instead, we act in faith that love can drive out fear. When it does, friendship becomes possible where there was only division before. And friendship across the dividing lines of our world may be just what we really need to really know the abundance of the life that we were made for.

Thus it is Jesus himself who makes the connection between living as part of God’s economy- in which there is abundance, not scarcity, and we are to give to those who ask of us- and renouncing violence because we follow the Prince of Peace. It is Jesus himself who makes the connection between giving up our selfish ways and giving up our violent ways. It is a message that the U.S. would do well to hear. This country was built on violent oppression and genocide no less than its economy was. The privileges that those of European descent in the U.S. continue to benefit from to this day were only made possible by decimating the lives and way of life of the “real Americans” who have made this land their home for millennia and by likewise enslaving our African brothers and sisters in this stolen land so that we could build our capitalist empire. It may ultimately be a blessing to the world that the U.S. empire is now on decline in nearly every way.

The Lord’s Prayer was Part of Jesus’ Sermon Series on Generosity

Meanwhile, Jesus offers us participation in a kingdom that is decidedly not of this world. As I’ve been learning all of the above I keep saying how shocking it was to discover what was likely there all along, this notion that Jesus calls us to give up all the ways of the world in order to follow his way. All along, Jesus has been telling me to give to those who ask, to love my enemies and not resist them, especially when my enemy is poor. For as long as I can remember, I’ve participated in so-called “Christian” culture. I grew up in the church, saying the Lord’s prayer. From a young age I’ve asked God to “give us this day our daily bread.” I wrote recently how shocking it was to discover just what I had really been asking for all this time. I was simply astounded to realize that right there in the prayer Jesus taught us is the invitation to trust God simply for today, no more, no less, “for each day has enough trouble of its own.” And notice it’s not “Give ME this day MY daily bread.” It’s US. Community- and sharing- is assumed, though that truth fell on deaf ears for the first four decades of my life. When God blesses this rich male of European descent in the 21st century “American” empire with enough “bread” to last for today and many of the days to come, then it is incumbent upon me to remember that I am blessed to be a blessing, that I am a conduit of God’s blessing and provision for others. I am to be a vessel in the river of God’s goodness, not a dam. I may not always remember this, though, unless I’m close to the poor, proximate to those whom I might otherwise think of as my enemies, because I fear they would want to take what I’ve been hoarding.

Today as I worked my way again through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 and 6 I experienced another one of those shocking revelations. Over, and over, and over again in these passages Jesus keeps telling us, essentially, to share. He tells us not to worry about tomorrow or about our material needs because God clothes the flowers and feeds the birds. He tells us not to store up treasure on earth, but to store it up in heaven instead. He warns us implicitly that our wealth might cause us to see the poor as our enemies, and so he commands us to love our enemies and give to those who ask of us. Perhaps when we’ve given enough away, not only will we no longer be so rich, but our neighbor will no longer be so poor, and enemies can become friends because both are children of the same good, generous father in heaven. Tellingly, though, the Lord’s prayer comes immediately after instruction on how to give to the needy (in secret, lest we give so that others will praise us), and it is shortly after teaching us how to pray (in part by asking for only enough bread for today) that Jesus tells us again to store up treasure in heaven rather than on earth and not to worry about what we will eat or wear tomorrow.

This is a radical teaching, indeed. Again as Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove says, “If truly following God’s call to abundant life makes Christians into well-adjusted middle-class citizens, it makes you wonder how Jesus ever got himself executed:”

Pie-in-the-sky sentimentality, this is not. Salvation as “fire insurance,” this is not. Let’s give up the stuff we have. It isn’t really ours anyway. Let’s get small so that we can experience what it’s like to really need a little saving now and then. Let’s give up our violent ways. Whatever treasure we have on earth isn’t worth defending anyway. Let’s stop violently resisting those who practice evil among us, returning evil with evil in an eye for an eye world. Let’s return evil with good. Let’s be willing to love even when we’re confronted with enemies, for in loving them they cannot long remain an enemy, and such love may very well be the instrument by which we and our enemy both are saved.

Are you listening, Charlottesville?

Your Tweets Are A Stench To Me

Image HT

I did it. After vowing off of Facebook because on balance its effect was more negative than positive, and then staying off it for 3 years or so, Kirsten and I came back on- together on one account- for the sake of interaction with our local community of faith and relatives who aren’t nearby. I promised myself I wouldn’t get drawn in to the mostly pointless debates Facebook is so infamous for, but I failed to keep that promise today. I participated in a thread dealing with justice for the poor, among other things, and having done so I feel…almost dirty, somehow tainted. The primary antagonist to the majority of voices on this thread, including my own, was unsurprisingly unswayed by anything we had to say; nor were we convinced by his “arguments.” I hate that I did this, but I’m almost grateful for the experience, as it solidified my belief that such debates are mostly pointless at best and toxic and damaging at worst. I suspect if Amos 5:21-24 were written today, it might go something like this:

I hate, I despise your Facebook posts;
    your tweets are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me good intentions and halting steps,
    I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice charity donations,
    I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your voicemails to your congressperson!
    I will not listen to the music of your protest songs.
But let justice roll on like a river,
    righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Of course I would never say that every Facebook post or tweet is necessarily useless. I think such tools can be useful for staying connected with loved ones, for providing information and organization within an affinity group, for fundraising perhaps, and in places where speech is otherwise suppressed. That said, social media is ill-suited as a vehicle for “real” news or as a platform for serious debate. Worse, I think it’s a tremendous distraction from the real work of loving the neighbors right in front of our faces and making sure that our faces are positioned in proximity to those on the margins of society.

Now I just need to post this to social media in a craven attempt at clicks, likes, and follows, but I do so knowingly and with a hint of irony; so that’s okay.

Right?