“Oh Lord, Bless This Thy Holy Hand Grenade, That With It Thou Mayest Blow Thine Enemies To Tiny Bits, In Thy Mercy.”

I can’t help but think that everyone’s been reading from The Book of Armaments rather than the Bible.

Yesterday I heard a Christian say, in response to the comment of a co-worker that was in some way related to the election (still!), “you lost!” Later I read about a church that is so afraid that it has asked its state legislature for (and may well get) permission to form its own police force. This morning I saw a headline about a Republican legislator using the Bible to justify withdrawing food stamps from welfare recipients, and then I saw a person online wanting to re-hash Vietnam (still!) by arguing that the U.S. bombing campaign was successful and the war was only “lost” because Democrats who were swept into power on the heels of Watergate stopped funding the shipment of arms to South Vietnam.

Is this what Jesus died for? Is this the best we can do? All of this occurred just after Jesus, just a few days ago as we follow him through Holy Week on his way to the cross, wept over Jerusalem because she “did not know the things that made for peace.” She still doesn’t. Neither, apparently, do we.

Doesn’t that vindictive Christian so ready to shout “you lost!” realize that we all lost with the election of Trump, and would have just as surely if Hillary had been elected too? (I saw something else online recently describing the surreal world we live in, in which Clinton argues for the bombing of Syria, Trump goes ahead and does it, and both blame Obama.)

Doesn’t that fearful “church” know that violence begets violence, that those who live by the sword will die by it? Doesn’t that fearful “church” know that Jesus sets us free from fear, that if God is for us no one can stand against us, no matter how many guns and bullets they have?

Doesn’t that stingy, heartless Republican know that there is enough, enough food for all, enough resources to meet everyone’s needs, if only “he who gathers much does not gather too much, and he who gathers little does not gather too little,” if only we would “give to whomever asks” and stop treating the poor as our enemies, as Jesus commands?

Doesn’t that warmonger who’s still bitter about Vietnam know that the same “successful” U.S. bombing campaign involved dropping more bombs per capita on Laos (not Vietnam) than on any other country on earth, in part simply because U.S. bomber pilots sometimes had their mission changed in-flight or didn’t drop their bombs on Vietnam for some reason, but didn’t feel safe landing their planes with bombs still onboard, and so dropped them on Laos indiscriminately on their way home, never mind the people below?

Screenshot 2017-04-12 at 4.16.48 PM
Unexploded ordnance dropped on Laos. HT to this great site for the image.

In a couple of days our violent ways will culminate in violence against God himself as the state executes Jesus on the cross, and Jesus will interrupt this and every cycle of violence by receiving it without retaliating and praying “Father, forgive them, for they know what they do.”

Father, forgive us. We still don’t know what we’re doing. Teach us to follow you, the Prince of Peace. Amen.

Trampling the Flag on Palm Sunday: A Word to the Irrelevant “Powers-” Freedom Is Coming

HT to this site for this Palm Sunday art by Bill Hemmerling

I woke up primed for Holy Week, which begins today with Palm Sunday and the remembrance of Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. The crowds were ready to anoint him king in their hope that he was the Messiah, the one who would violently overthrow Rome’s occupying power and “make Israel great again.” Of course, once they realized that his “kingdom” was simultaneously “upon us” but also “not of this world-” and that therefore he would not overthrow the Roman occupiers violently- the crowd quickly turned on Jesus and would soon join in encouraging that same foreign occupying power and the complicit religious leaders of Israel in their plan to execute Jesus. Usually we rich would-be “Christians” of European descent spiritualize all this, taking it to mean that the kingdom Jesus inaugurated, the love revolution he began, is a strictly a matter for the heart in the present age as we await the age to come “in the sweet by and by.” But as with so many things, this is more of a “both/and” than an “either/or.” We cannot take the inauguration of Jesus’ kingdom- symbolized in the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry as he announced the fulfillment of “good news to the poor,” the proclamation of “freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,” the setting free of “the oppressed,” and the proclamation of “the year of the Lord’s favor”- to mean simply that God wants to save us from personal immorality so that we can enjoy a heavenly retirement plan. Nor, on the other hand, can we take it to mean that God has nothing to say about spiritual realities and our own broken spirits.

Surely Jesus wants to save us from the “sin that so easily entangles” so that we can “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” This “salvation” is very “personal,” indeed. Likewise, it is very communal, and very, very political. This is the tension we must always keep before us, and it was with that tension in mind that I read Circle of Hope‘s daily prayer this morning, which focuses, rightly, on Jesus’ “triumphal entry” to Jerusalem that we remember on Palm Sunday. The post is good enough to join the featured poet, Malcolm Guite, in envisioning the…”final leg of the journey of Lent” and reminding us “that Holy Week is both about the Lord’s outward, visible, historical entry into Jerusalem for Passover Week and what he did there; but it is also is about his entry into the city in each of us where God claims his residence and what he will do there.” The post…

…lets the outer story of Palm Sunday present some questions to our inner lives. Will I welcome Jesus to be the King in my heart? Is my inner city occupied and governed by a foreign power? Are inoffensive rituals practiced in my temple that do not offend the rulers? Has buying and selling colonized the space where there should be prayer? Are there crowds in me who are swayed this way and that by whoever seems most compelling or powerful? Can I welcome Jesus into all of that?

Something powerful is happening here. The tension I spoke of above is held and allowed to speak to us all the more powerfully because it is maintained. Yes, we must welcome Jesus to be “King” in our “heart,” but to do so requires us to wonder if our “inner city” is “occupied and governed by a foreign power,” if “inoffensive rituals” practiced in our temple “do not offend the rulers,” and if “buying and selling” has “colonized the space where there should be prayer.” These are terribly communal, political realities.

Then, of course, the post ended by reminding us that it’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer day over at the Transhistorical Body of Christ blog that Circle of Hope maintains. Being a Bonhoeffer “fan” and appreciating the witness of the “great cloud of witnesses” that Circle reminds us of through this blog, I clicked over to read about Bonhoeffer, again. Guess what the “Bible reading and excerpt” that most of these Circle of Hope devotional posts start with was? I can’t make this stuff up; it was:

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read Matthew 5:38-42

Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

If you’ve been reading this blog for the past few months, you’ll know that I can’t turn around these days without bumping into this passage. It forms the basis of probably the most memorable part, for me, from God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel, in which Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove said:

Whatever our political persuasion, we’re always tempted to blame our political enemies for the troubles in the world and think that real change will happen when the policies we endorse are put into practice. But whatever good we might effect on a national or global scale, we can be sure that it will come with unintended negative consequences. Not so with relational generosity, however. Jesus doesn’t teach us to practice relational generosity because it will “fix” the poor. He invites us to give to whoever asks so we might be children of our Father in heaven. Yes, God’s love transforms lives. We know this from our own experience and from the testimony of others. But God doesn’t ask us to change people- God asks us to love people. When we share with one who asks, we are changed. Little by little, we grow into the love of our Father, whose love is perfect.

Here’s Jonathan talking about this, in a little video about, of all things, Lent:

Jonathan’s good to remind us that the passage from Matthew in which Jesus tells us to give to the one who asks comes in the midst of Jesus talking about enemy love. He says this is a “cue” to those of us who have money that in some way the poor are our enemies. I have felt this to be true in my own life, to my great shame. I may not want to think of the poor as enemies, but because like the rich young ruler I have so much (worldly wealth) to lose, I see the poor and am afraid, afraid that they may in some way take what I have (illicitly) gotten. Sharing with those in need invites me to have my imagination renewed and my mind transformed so that I can see that I have something to learn, to see that I am in my own way just as impoverished as those who lack the basic resources I so readily take for granted. I like the quote Jonathan speaks of in the video above as well, that “People come to Christian community because they want to help the poor; they stay in Christian community because they realize that they are the poor.” We are, indeed.

Similarly, as my Lenten journey has been about, in part, learning better to follow “that preacher of peace” so that I may be discipled in the ways of nonviolence and peacemaking, I’ve found that there is an inextricable connection between peacemaking/enemy love and the call to participate in God’s economy that so much of the Sermon on the Mount deals with. This has come up over and over again in the books I’ve been reading for Lent: A Farewell to Mars and Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace and now as I’ve started The Politics of Jesus. It came up in Circle of Hope’s Transhistorical Body of Christ post about Bonhoeffer today too. They note that we remember Bonhoeffer today because he “was executed on this day in 1945, two weeks before US soldiers liberated his prison camp.  He is largely considered a martyr for the faith, for peace, and as a Nazi resister.  Among two of his most influential works are Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship.” This takes a little teasing out, but bear with me. The post also says the following in speaking of Bonhoeffer’s response to the rise of the Nazi party:

Bonhoeffer was overtly critical of the regime and a resister from the beginning.  While Hitler and the Nazis infiltrated and found a stronghold in the German church, Bonhoeffer was building something new in Germany through the Confessing Church.  After only a few months under Nazi control, Bonhoeffer moved to London to work on international ecumenical work, highly frustrated with the state of the German church.

Two years later, rather than going to study non-violent civil disobedience under Ghandi he returned to Germany at the repeated pleading and demanding of Swiss theologian…Karl Barth.  The Confessing Church was under fire by the Nazis.  Barth was sent back to Switzerland. Bonhoeffer soon lost his credentials to teach because he was a “pacifist and enemy of the state.”   He began underground seminaries and further resisted the state.

Bonhoeffer became more involved in direct resistance and was arrested in 1943.  He was part of a group that was responsible both for attempts at liberating Jews and attempting to assassinate Hitler. His pacifism has been widely written about, especially in light of this glaring contradiction.

Bonhoeffer’s whole life was pointed in the direction of nonviolent resistance to state power, precisely because of the way in which Jesus had “saved” him. Obviously, there was a notable exception to this direction in which his life pointed, and responding to that is beyond the scope of this particular post. But I do want to highlight the link between Bonhoeffer’s life of peacemaking/enemy love, and the “life together” which is a necessary component of it. As the Transhistorical Body of Christ post from Circle of Hope noted, Bonhoeffer’s short and powerful book Life Together is one of the two that he is most known for, and I suspect that Christian community was so important to him because Bonhoeffer knew, as I keep saying, that we just can’t do this alone. Following Jesus means continuing to resist “the powers” that he has already defeated. To do so without resorting to “cheap grace” quite simply “takes a village.” As Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove reminded us in the quote he spoke of in the clip above, “we stay in Christian community” when we realize that “we are the poor.” Participating in God’s economy requires us to pass on the many good gifts God has given us, and as Miroslav Volf reminds us, this is a communal act. And it is an act that is as hard for we rich as peacemaking and enemy love are for we who have been brought up in a culture as violent as the U.S.’ Isn’t it clear that we need a Savior?

The writer(s) of the “Transhistorical” post about Bonhoeffer end it with the following “suggestions for action:”

Bonhoeffer applied himself to unmasking the lies of his culture and the ideologies that took God’s place. It was not easy, since the church was generally in line with them. In spite of state threat and lack of support from the church, he took risks to teach the truth, even moving back to Germany when it was not safe and he would have been safer elsewhere.

That kind of courage is demonstrated in the Bible repeatedly by people whose loves (lives?) are trained on God. What threat do you feel from those you know and from the great “other” of the powers that be when it comes to expressing your faith in word and deed? Pray for courage.

All these thoughts were again swimming in my head as I did a little more reading and research about Palm Sunday this morning. While doing so, I came across this amazing post, “Palm Sunday is the Most Political Sunday,” from Trip Fuller’s blog. It’s short and worth a read, in fact so short and so worth the read that I give you most of it here, in which the author, Bo Sanders, begins by discussing the “politics of Palm Sunday:”

The Jewish people were under occupation. Roman occupation was especially repressive and brutal.IMG_0332.JPG (2)

The last time that the Jewish people had been free and self-governed also meant that they had their own currency. On their big coin, a palm branch was prominently displayed.

Laying down palm branches ahead of a man riding a colt/donkey was an act of defiance and an aggressive political statement…

(like saying)… “We want to be free. This guy is going to change things and restore what was lost.”

 

Having children wave palm branches in the equivalent to teaching a child to stick up her middle finger in anger… only more political. kid_soccer_fan

 

I am troubled by the lack of context regarding the palms of Palm Sunday. It reeks of both willful ignorance and religious disconnect.

In so many ways we have sanitized, sterilized and compartmentalized the teaching of scriptures. We proudly and loudly defend the Bible – all the while neglecting the actual reality talked about in that Bible.

We complain that Christmas and Easter have been commercialized and secularized all the while partaking of the consumerism and cultural complacency that those two celebrations are meant to challenge!

Palm Sunday might be the most flagrant example of this ignorance and misappropriation. Palm Sunday is call for revolution against the powers of oppression, the systems and institutions that occupy foreign lands and repress its citizens with unjust practices and economic policies.

 

Palm Sunday is the most political Sunday of the year – but in our more therapeutic approach that assumes empire and concedes political realities in favor of spiritual ones, the meaning is lost.

This is not just symbolic but emblematic of our watered-down, imperial, and impotent brand of christianity.

We do this with everything. Cornell West and Tavis Smiley are talking about how we will do it with the Dr. King celebrations this coming year. They are calling it the Santa-Clause-ification of MLK. He will be a man with dream but little else … and his politics will be lost in the focus on children not being judged by the color of their skin but on the content of their character.

Just think about this: what would it take for us next year, to teach our children to drop the palm-branches and lift their middle fingers? What would we have to believe about oppression and empire to reclaim the original intent of the palms on Palm Sunday?

I’m not saying that we should do that – I am trying to utilize it to get at how much we have assumed, conceded and ignored about the political realities that we find ourselves caught up in.

What conversations would we have to have with our kids about:

  • foreign occupation
  • injustice
  • politics of empire
  • economic policies

in order to explain why they were laying down palm branches or raising their middle fingers to the powers that be?

There seems to be a theme here, doesn’t there, in the all these Palm Sunday musings? Do you want to continue participating in a “watered-down, imperial, and impotent brand of christianity” that “assumes empire and concedes political realities in favor of spiritual ones?” I, for one, can’t and won’t, and so was compelled to share on Facebook (again, God help me for even being on FB again at all) that post from Trip Fuller’s blog and say about it:

Palm Sunday is the most political Sunday. If only the palms our kids will wave were understood to be middle fingers waved at the powers-that-be…Of course, it bears noting that the U.S. is an occupying force not just in countries around the world, but in North “America.” To really understand the political implications of Palm Sunday, we’d have to imagine a charismatic Indigenous leader processing into Washington, D.C. over trampled U.S. flags, or something like it. This might help us understand what was expected of Jesus, and how he defied those expectations with a revolution that was no less “real” or significant because it was non-violent.

As Kirsten and I discussed this on the way to Mill City Church‘s worship gathering, I noted that whether the power in question is Rome or “America,” Jesus has defeated them through the inauguration of his kingdom and especially through his death on the cross and resurrection which we look forward to in the coming Holy Week. Their reign is at an end. Jesus is Lord; Caesar/Obama/Clinton/Trump/Wells Fargo/Google are not. Jesus is “one like a son of God;” Caesar/the U.S. are not.  Again as I said above, Jesus defied the expectations of those who hoped during the triumphal entry that he would violently overthrow Rome with a revolution that was no less “real” or significant because it was non-violent. In fact, because it is non-violent it is all the more powerful. If you live by or secure your “power” by the sword, you can die by it and lose your “power” in the same way. But if you are a citizen of God’s kingdom, a subject of the one true King and so have been “freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to you” and so are “a grateful slave to the salvation that Jesus is working into us,” then “the powers” have suffered a fate worse than military defeat. They have been made irrelevant.

Those who have been so freed will indeed have the courage of Bonhoeffer, or a MLK, Jr., etc. They will have the courage to “get small” because “solidarity requires proximity” as I and my family have been learning. They will have the courage to give to whomever asks and see the poor as their teachers and friends because those so freed have been so faithfully sharing what God gives them that they don’t have so many material goods to “lose” anyway. They will have the courage to see that capitalism is just another ‘ism Jesus wants to save us from (like socialism and all the others you might name). If the Son has set them free, they will be free indeed. It’s why I’ve been thinking a lot about this old song from the Circle of Hope community that they were good enough to put online. Give it a listen, will you? Freedom is coming. Thanks be to God.

 

Capitalism Has Me Feeling Sad and Depressed Because of My Illicit Taking and Greedy Cheating

Do me a favor and give a watch to the short video of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove above. As anyone who’s been reading this blog of late knows, I’ve been profoundly influenced by his book God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel, and my family and I have been struggling with how to live in light of the truth it revealed. I’ve recounted that journey so far here, here, and here. As I said recently on Facebook (God help me, we’re back- sort of- on Facebook): “This book changed my life and that of my family in ways that are just beginning to unfold. I probably became a ‘Christian’ when I was 5 years old. I don’t think I really started following Jesus, however, until a few months ago, and that was after 20 years as an adult of really, really trying to do so.” Part of that “really, really trying” before involved forays and flirtations into alternativity. I’ve been marginally “woke” to the world’s injustice, pain, and suffering at least since the summer of 1995, when loyal readers know I did Kingdomworks, that then summer program that had me on a team of other college students in inner-city Philly where we partnered with a local congregation to reach out to its neighborhood youth. Along the way, I became somewhat aware that I was swimming in a capitalist stream or perhaps better said living in a capitalist ocean that atomized relationships and reduced us all to consumers motivated by our own self-interest. Having this marginal awareness, Kirsten and I over the years have experimented with community living and a few halting shared economic relationships. These attempts were good in their own place and time, but never amounted to much. ←Look at that sentence I just wrote; do you notice the language, as I do, of quantification? Economics are everywhere, and God’s economy matters.

So last night, courtesy of Facebook (again, God help me), I came across a recent piece, provocatively entitled “It’s Basically Just Immoral to be Rich.” The author, A.Q. Smith, is careful to argue that he’s not addressing how one acquires wealth, which quickly sidetracks most such conversations. Instead, he’s speaking to what happens once you get it. He says:

I therefore think there is a sort of deflection that goes on with defenses of wealth. If we find it appalling that there are so many rich people in a time of need, we are asked to consider questions of acquisition rather than questions of retention. The retention question, after all, is much harder for a wealthy person to answer. It’s one thing to argue that you got rich legitimately. It’s another to explain why you feel justified in spending your wealth upon houses and sculptures rather than helping some struggling people pay their rent or paying off a bunch of student loans or saving thousands of people from dying of malaria.

 It’s a salient point, one the author makes perhaps most cogently, and more controversially, here:

To take a U.S. example: white families in America have 16 times as much wealth on average as black families. This is indisputably because of slavery, which was very recent (there are people alive today who met people who were once slaves). Larry Ellison of Oracle could put his $55 billion in a fund that could be used to just give houses to black families, not quite as direct “reparations” but simply as a means of addressing the fact that the average white family has a house while the average black family does not. But instead of doing this, Larry Ellison bought the island of Lanai. (It’s kind of extraordinary that a single human being can just own the sixth-largest Hawaiian island, but that’s what concentrated wealth leads to.) Because every dollar you have is a dollar you’re not giving to somebody else, the decision to retain wealth is a decision to deprive others.

Do you find this as challenging as I do? Notice something, though. The author speaks of “buying houses and sculptures” instead of helping those struggling to pay rent, or in the case of Larry Ellison, of buying a whole island rather than answering the legacy of white privilege, slavery, and racism with an effort to provide housing to people of color who have encountered institutional barriers to acquiring good housing all their lives- and all the lives of their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and on back through the generations. Clearly it seems to me he’s speaking of the excesses, of the conspicuous consumption of the “1%,” while so many of us, even privileged males of European descent like myself, think of ourselves as the “99%.” Truth be told, however, nothing could be further from said truth. People like Larry Ellison are the ultra or “super-” rich who truly could be counted among the very few whose wealth puts them orders of magnitude above people like you and I, if you’re anything like me. However, there’s a little more to be said there. Wikipedia says of Ellison: “As of February 2017, he was listed by Forbes magazine as the fifth-wealthiest person in America and as the seventh-wealthiest in the world, with a fortune of $55 billion.” Plug those numbers into the ever helpful Global Rich List, and it looks like this:

Clearly you and I aren’t Larry Ellisons, right? Are we really “the 99%,” though? I put in the combined income of Kirsten and I into that same ever helpful Global Rich List tool, and this is what came out:

The “99%” we are not. We may not be the “0.0001%,” but we most certainly are the “1%.” A.Q. Smith above wants to blame the Larry Ellisons of the world for holding onto their wealth instead of distributing it to the poor, and he may be right to do so, the efforts of the Bill Gates and J.K. Rowling‘s of the world notwithstanding (seriously, click on the Bill Gates link; he literally can’t give his money away fast enough, or can he?). But A.Q. Smith, like the rest of us, is swimming in the sea of capitalism. He’s immersed in our shared consumer culture, and does not seem to yet be self-aware enough to realize that to whatever extent he has two coats or pants or pairs of shoes while there are people in the world, his would-be neighbors, who lack such things, they do so because he holds on to too many. Of course, no doubt part of his lack of awareness of this has everything to do with the fact that our atomizing individualistic capitalist consumer culture does everything within its power to prevent those on the margins from actually being our neighbors.

So it seems obvious to me, now anyway, that the modest accumulation of wealth and “stuff” (modest in comparison to that of the “0.0001%-ers”) that I and my family have been engaged in for so long is just as reprehensible as the wealthy behavior of people like Larry Ellison. However, I am reminded that this is nothing new. Some would-be Jesus followers have known this for a very, very long time, and have been calling us to do better. The great (ha!) 4th century Greek Bishop Basil the Great is reported to have once preached:

Naked did you not drop from the womb? Shall you not return again naked to the earth? Where have the things you now possess come from? If you say they just spontaneously appeared, then you are an atheist, not acknowledging the Creator, nor showing any gratitude towards the one who gave them. But if you say that they are from God, declare to us the reason why you received them. Is God unjust, who divided to us the things of this life unequally? Why are you wealthy while that other man is poor? Is it, perhaps, in order that you may receive wages for kindheartedness and faithful stewardship, and in order that he may be honored with great prizes for his endurance? But, as for you, when you hoard all these things in the insatiable bosom of greed, do you suppose you do no wrong in cheating so many people? Who is a man of greed? Someone who does not rest content with what is sufficient. Who is a cheater? Someone who takes away what belongs to others. And are you not a man of greed? are you not a cheater? taking those things which you received for the sake of stewardship, and making them your very own? Now, someone who takes a man who is clothed and renders him naked would be termed a robber; but when someone fails to clothe the naked, while he is able to do this, is such a man deserving of any other appellation? The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear mouldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes. The silver that you keep hidden in a safe place belongs to the one in need. Thus, however many are those whom you could have provided for, so many are those whom you wrong.

 This is the essential challenge that God’s economy poses to we rich (yes, WE rich)- to remember that everything belongs to God and that we who both gather and keep much are therefore greedy cheaters. This language of gathering and keeping comes, of course, from Scripture, and I was reminded of it as I recently finished Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace by Miroslav Volf. As the loyal reader knows, I read Economy of Love and then God’s Economy and then Sabbath Economics: Household Practices in January, and my life was changed. As Lent began further change came as I felt the call to not only begin participating in God’s economy but also to remember that I follow the Prince of Peace. Thus I read Farewell to Mars and then Free of Charge, while next up is The Politics of Jesus. I chose, as I’ve previously mentioned, Free of Charge because I knew that radical forgiveness would be crucial to life as a peacemaker. What I did not anticipate was just how much Free of Charge would also have to say about participating in God’s economy.

Volf has a lot to say that I found again truly challenging and transformative, but I’ll try very imperfectly to sum up some of what I learned below. Volf argues God exists primarily as love, of course, and so exists essentially as a giver. Many years ago I came to the understanding that God is love in God’s self because God exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that it was this love that overflowed to creation and in the very act of creation, and so we were made, I’ve been saying, “in and for love.” Volf says something like this too, and I wouldn’t dare say that he stands on my shoulders in doing so, but I don’t mind standing on his and I’m comforted to know that we came to the same conclusion. Of course, Volf does much more with this than I ever have. Volf says that just as love flows among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and from God to us, so does giving. Volf goes on to argue that just therefore as God is “God the giver” (and later he argues that God is also God the for-giver), so too were we made to be givers too. Volf says that God gives to us for our benefit, and so should we. Thus giving is as essential to our nature as love (and flows from it), and we stifle who we were made to be when we keep what was given to us for ourselves only instead of passing it on as was intended. He also reminds us that everything belongs to God, even our very breath. Thus we can’t argue that we’ve really earned anything (and therefore shouldn’t have to give it) since whatever we’ve acquired through our efforts to get a salary, for example, only came to us because of the gifts we were given that enabled us to acquire that salary. If life itself is a gift and with it our minds and arms and ability to do anything at all, we misunderstand ourselves and our place in the world if we think we deserve anything we have or somehow “pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps.” For those with ears to hear there are clear implications for how we think about “charity” and the social safety net, but I digress.

Volf is careful to argue that while some may have some special calling to give all, even their very lives, for the sake of others so that there is little left even for their own sustenance and well-being (think Mother Teresa, for example), in most cases we do well to remember that God gives for our benefit and so he wants us to be have enough to sustain ourselves and even flourish, but such “flourishing” may look very different from how most good consumer capitalists might think of it, however. This brings me back to the language of “gathering” and “keeping” in Scripture that I alluded to above. This can be found in several places. In Exodus 16 the Israelites wandered in the desert and grumbled about the lack of food, and God responded:

11 The Lord said to Moses, 12 “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.’”

13 That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was.

Moses said to them, “It is the bread the Lord has given you to eat.16 This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Everyone is to gather as much as they need. Take an omer[a] for each person you have in your tent.’”

17 The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little.18 And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed.

19 Then Moses said to them, “No one is to keep any of it until morning.”

God himself provided the food they needed each day, and though some gathered (acquired) much and some little, once they “measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.” Indeed, “everyone had gathered just as much as they needed.” Why? Because they shared. Moreover, it was clear that they were not to keep getting for getting’s sake, as if they did try to keep any of this bread from heaven, this manna, until morning, it rotted. They were required to trust God for what they needed each and every day. We would do well to do likewise.

Paul touches on this in one of his letters to the Corinthians:

And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able,and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us. So we urged Titus, just as he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you[a]—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

10 And here is my judgment about what is best for you in this matter. Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. 11 Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means.12 For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.

13 Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 14 At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, 15 as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.”[b]

Notice what’s happening in this passage. The Macedonian churches, despite “their extreme poverty,” found that said poverty “welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability.” Think of the widow’s mite. Paul is urging the church in Corinth to do likewise, to give what they’ve been given so that all may share in the abundance God gives to all. Volf discusses this passage of Scripture in Free of Charge. In my last post I quoted Volf from Free of Charge in which he discussed why it would make little sense for God to give us more so that we could in turn give to the needy, thereby ending their neediness. Volf argues this makes little sense because it’s clear that God has already given us more than enough and we have thus far been negligent in sharing what we’ve already been given. Volf goes on in that same part of the book to say this:

We want God to multiply the loaves and fish to feed the multitudes, as Jesus did in the Gospels. But the Apostle suggested that we’ll be able to feed the multitudes if we’d let God change how we think about the loaves and fish we already have. Consider the extraordinary claim he made about Macedonian believers: Their “extreme poverty…overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” (2 Corinthinas 8:2). The Apostle knew, of course, that you can’t give what you don’t have. They gave “according to their means, and even beyond their means” (v. 3), no more than that. But he also believed that we don’t have to have an excess of goods in order to give.

Here’s the coup de grace from Volf:

We can be poor and afflicted- indeed, we can be extremely poor and severely afflicted- and still give. We can be affluent and secure- indeed, we can be opulent and bursting with power- and still not give. Wealth doesn’t make us givers; poverty can’t prevent us from being givers. The poor can give a kind word, a sympathetic ear, or a helping hand. But they can also share food, clothing, shelter, and money- and they generally do it in greater proportion to their means than the wealthy do.

 And here I thought I was reading a book that would help me forgive better so that I could better live into the way of peace Jesus calls us to. (By the way, it does that too.)

As I’ve become convicted of the extent to which I and my family have been “illicit takers” to use Volf’s language, or “greedy cheaters” to use Basil the Great’s, we’ve felt called to get as “small” as we can. We’ve been giving stuff away or otherwise purging quite a bit of our possessions and, thanks be to God, look forward to moving into a fair bit smaller (and somewhat cheaper) place in NE Minneapolis in the next month where we can be more closely integrated into the life that Mill City Church is trying to have together there. Still, I wonder if what we’re doing is enough. How can it be, really, when I remain among the “1%,” living on something like $300/day (together among Kirsten, the boys, and I) while much of the world lives on less than $1/day? Volf speaks to this too, and I alluded to it above. He says:

The world’s needs are larger than any one person’s capacities, though they are not larger than our collective capacities! Our resources are limited, and needs cry to us from all sides. And they all need to be met. But is meeting all needs a responsibility of each person?…God is the primoridal and infinite giver, and it is God’s responsibility, not mine, to give to everyone. Each of us is only a single channel, one of many through which God’s gifts flow. Our responsibility is to meet needs as we encounter them, as they come to us in the course of our lives, whether they are close at hand, as in the case of the Good Samaritan, or far away, as when the Corinthians helped the Jerusalem poor.

He adds, again as I alluded to above: “God doesn’t give only for us to pass it on; God gives so that we ourselves can exist and indeed flourish- and so that we can be flourishing rather than languishing givers.” Still, if “generosity is something God wants for,” not from, me, just how to live such a life in light of what I’ve learned about my heretofore illicit taking and greedy cheating remains elusive, and hard. I hear Volf’s admonition to meet needs as I encounter them, but what if capitalist consumer culture has so shaped my life that I can go all day, if I want to, without ever encountering a person in need, without ever having to think about my privilege as a historically wealthy person, let alone a “white” person?

I’ve been struggling with these questions a lot recently. I have some vague sense of how shaped I am, how compelled I am to be a good capitalist consumer who will do his part to keep feeding the consumption based machine. So we gave up our smartphones and got rid of one of our big TV’s. I still spend a lot of time in front of a screen being programmed to want more and more and keep doing my part for the world’s (not God’s) economy, but amazingly I do so less now than I did before. Yet I still spend some of that screen time feeding my consumptive habit. As a loyal Amazon customer, my “cart” is ever filled. It used to be filled with gadgets and thingamajigs, but I’m a much better person now (that’s sarcasm). Now it’s filled with books by Ched Myers and Walter Wink (I’m eager to read the “powers” series which I know will help me better live in opposition to those powers that Jesus has already defeated, including all the ‘isms, of which capitalism is just one of many). This makes me a better person as I’ve said, right? Doesn’t it?

Providentially, it was on one of those screens this morning that I read Rod White’s latest post. I sat there reading it, simply stunned. As I’ve said, the call to follow Jesus instead of Mammon, to participate in God’s economy of abundance rather than the world’s economy of scarcity and hoarding, is one that rings with crystal clarity for me right now, but as I’ve also said, it feels so very hard. It feels like swimming upstream, like trying to extricate oneself from the ocean one usually isn’t even aware of. Then Rod said this, which I give to you in its entirety:

What does it mean to love in an era when people have been reduced to “human resources?” I wish it seemed obvious to state that the culture of capitalism dramatically affects how people understand themselves and one another. But I don’t think it is obvious; thus, this blog post.

Is Capitalism the best system?

Not long ago I was watching one of the news channels and tuned in to an interview of a 90-year-old billionaire. He interrupted his young interviewer at one point so he could make sure to say what he wanted to teach. He said, “There is one thing everyone needs to understand. Capitalism is the best system. We tried communism, or at least some did, and it failed. We tried socialism and that does not work.”

The interviewer did not say, “What do you mean by ‘working?’ Are you talking about ‘achieving the most profit with as little expenditure as possible for the shareholders or owners of an enterprise?’” Instead, she just moved on, either swallowing what everyone has been taught or being afraid to contradict it.

I think 90% of the people who enter a Sunday meeting  react about the same way as the interviewer every day. They spend the week moving along with capitalism and the billionaires who run it — and preparing their children to do the same. But are the goals of capitalism and the 1% the goals of Jesus? You can already tell that I am going to say “No.” But do I have a leg to stand on?

The secret philosophy that runs us all

Last April George Monbiot summarized his book for the Guardian. He identified the secret philosophy that drives what most of us do all week and infects what we do on Sunday, too. He says, Today’s capitalism

  • sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations.
  • redefines citizens as “consumers“ whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling.
  • teaches that buying and selling has its own morality that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency.
  • maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

People are fighting about how to apply this philosophy in Congress right now. Will a generous version of today’s capitalism (like Obamacare) rule our healthcare or will a radical version rule (like in Trump/Ryan care)?

Monbiot says today’s capitalism fights any attempts to limit competition and labels any question of limits an assault on freedom. It teaches:

  • Taxes and regulations should be minimized, public services should be privatized.
  • The organization oflabor and collective bargaining by trade unions are are market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers.
  • Inequality is virtuous: a reward for being effective and a generating wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone.
  • Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.

You may have heard those last four bullet points preached from a pulpit somewhere (other than Circle of Hope). Or maybe you just know the viewpoint is assumed, a moot point, in your evangelical church. I have experienced both the preaching and the assumption. For instance, if a variant viewpoint is raised on the BIC-List (our denomination’s listserve), men will come out of the woodwork to reinforce those bullets, as if they were a 90-year-old billionaire interrupting some foolish youngster. They will even marshal the Bible to help make their point, even though everyone knows neoliberalism was not invented by Christians.

Last summer the pope explained this while on a flight from Krakow to Vatican City. He surprised journalists when he told them Muslim attacks on a priest in France were basically caused by neoliberalism. He said, “Terrorism grows when there is no other option, and as long as the world economy has at its center the god of money and not the person…This is fundamental terrorism, against all humanity.” At the time, Americans were in the middle of an election campaign, so they probably did not hear the Pope over all the hubbub about Trump’s tweets. Evangelical Christians were about to overwhelmingly vote for Donald Trump, the epitome of what neoliberal capitalism created since Ronald Reagan.

Are we actually pawns in the philosophy’s system?

What if we Christians, we who are bound and determined to follow Jesus in his suffering and transform humanity, become the unwitting pawns of capitalist deformation of humanity in the image of neoliberal capitalism? Our lives teach. The content of our dialogue sets the contours of the culture are always building!

Can a Christian merely exist in the pluralistic, postmodern capitalist landscape? Does capitalism offer a home for Christians? No. Without Christians creating an alternative, capitalism subjects everyone to its will. We still fundamentally believe, don’t we, that one cannot serve two masters? We might normally think about not serving Mammon within the framework of capitalism and consider how to allow Jesus to be the Lord of how we do capitalism. But what if capitalism is, in effect, the alternative god?

Capitalism makes desire an end in itself and diverts our desire from communion with God. That sin causes us to stray from God’s will and design for us. God’s design for us is to desire God and our true selves. Unfortunately, the economic modalities around us pervert that desire. We cannot serve both our capitalism-perverted desire and God’s desire. We must go back to God, which means rejecting the capitalist way. The two are incompatible.

We need to talk about this, because everyone who comes to our Sunday meeting is feeling desire. Assuming that their desires, dominated by capitalism, are healthy and not a cause of their general illness is wrong. If a person is constantly making a deal and can’t make a covenant with God’s people, if they are trained for desiring what they don’t yet have, if they protect their autonomy and freedom at the expense of their faith, should they not learn that comes from neoliberalism and not God, not even from themselves?

Image result for homo economicus

Capitalism creates homo economicus in its image. That being, by its nature, is:

  • Not in community, not collective.
  • Free to choose. Amidst millions of consumer options, we are free to choose what to do (of course, within the confines of capitalism)
  • Self-interested
  • Driven by Insatiable Desire.
  • Competitive.
  • Reduced to thinking Justice is only about fair exchange regulated by contracts and laws. In capitalism, social justice doesn’t exist because the market is beyond justice.

I think most people who read this far are probably trying to figure out how to be the alternative to what is killing humanity. When people come to the Sunday meeting they come as people condemned to being homo economicus. Is there a way out? If we force them to perform within that bondage, aren’t we preparing them to be consumed consumers? Couldn’t we condemn our children in the name of helping them?

Somehow, we need to risk acting according to the Lord’s economy that is

  • Spirit formed
  • Communal
  • Self-giving
  • Generous out of eternal abundance

After all this theoretical sounding writing, it may seem difficult to think about how to apply it. So will we just go back to being led around by the invisible hand and letting our faith be invisibilized by living under its shelter? Obviously, I hope not. Let’s keep exposing the powers for who they are in the spirit of today’s image of the atonement: Christus Victor. Jesus is our leader in that, present with us, every day.

Did you read that? For some, this may feel like a punch in the gut, so challenging as it is to how most of us live our lives every day without ever thinking, let alone talking, about it. For me, it came as an “aha!” moment as Rod so clearly articulated exactly what I have been struggling with since reading God’s Economy. “We need to talk about this,” indeed, and some of it bears repeating:

Can a Christian merely exist in the pluralistic, postmodern capitalist landscape? Does capitalism offer a home for Christians? No. Without Christians creating an alternative, capitalism subjects everyone to its will. We still fundamentally believe, don’t we, that one cannot serve two masters? We might normally think about not serving Mammon within the framework of capitalism and consider how to allow Jesus to be the Lord of how we do capitalism. But what if capitalism is, in effect, the alternative god?

Capitalism makes desire an end in itself and diverts our desire from communion with God. That sin causes us to stray from God’s will and design for us. God’s design for us is to desire God and our true selves. Unfortunately, the economic modalities around us pervert that desire. We cannot serve both our capitalism-perverted desire and God’s desire. We must go back to God, which means rejecting the capitalist way. The two are incompatible.

How can I stop serving my capitalism-perverted, Amazon-enabled desire and start serving God’s desire instead? How can I stop trying to follow Jesus within the world’s (capitalist) system and instead step out of it and into the kingdom, the economy, that he intends for us? As with so many things, I know that I can’t do this alone. I need people. Kirsten and I need partners who will be willing to share budgets and checking account registers, let alone money itself. We need folks who will be brave enough to see the abundance that God has given us, who will remember that we are children of he who owns the “cattle on a thousand hills.”  We need folks who will help us listen to God in all this and who will then help us join in with what he’s already up to. We pray we might find some such folks among the people of Mill City Church. Maybe we will. Maybe we won’t.

Maybe you’re one of them. Are you?