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,
“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?
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.
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:
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.9 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
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.
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:
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?
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:
6 “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.
2 “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.3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,4 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.
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.
Life in 2017 has been interesting, to say the least. Our efforts to “get small” so we can follow Jesus from “under,” not “over,” is well documented on this blog. A word I’ve been using to describe all this of late is congruent. I’m sure you know that congruent means “in agreement or harmony,” but I really like the geometric meaning: “(of figures) identical in form; coinciding exactly when superimposed.” I’m talking about integrity of course, about living a life in which one’s stated values, beliefs, goals, and desires match up with how one actually lives. In many ways, this has been lacking in our lives for far too long, and while we’re nowhere close to the way we live our life “coinciding exactly when superimposed” over the way we say we want live our life, I’m grateful that we’re probably closer to that being true than we’ve ever been. Remembering that we’re trying to “get small” so that we can better be in solidarity with those we’re called to love, serve, and learn from- those on the margins of U.S. empire- and remembering that solidarity requires proximity, this is then what we’ve been aiming for- proximity. We want to be close to those who again are “on the margins” of the dominant society. In all honesty of course we’re not there yet, but hopefully we’re on our way.
We moved from an outer ‘burb in Coon Rapids to northeast Minneapolis. It’s true that this area is gentrifying and you can see pockets where “trendy” shops, restaurants, and people with means are displacing whatever and whoever was there before. One anecdotal way to look at this is through the lens of educational attainment. For example, according to City Data, where we live now 90% of folks have a high school diploma and 43% have a bachelor’s degree vs. 94% with a high school diploma and only 28% with a bachelor’s degree in Coon Rapids. However, data for racial diversity tells another tale. Here’s a comparison of three zip codes courtesy of this very helpful site. Moving from right to left, the first column is our former zip code in Coon Rapids, the second is our current zip code in NE Mpls., and the far left is a nearby zip code in North Minneapolis:
What this tells us is that compared to our zip code in Coon Rapids, our little part of NE Mpls. is proportionally far more racially diverse, though not nearly as diverse yet as nearby north Minneapolis. Ironically, perhaps, unemployment in Coon Rapids is a little higher at 6.9% vs. 5.6% in NE Mpls., but there’s a fairly stark difference in household income:
While a few more people might qualify as “middle class” according to USAmerican standards in our part of NE Mpls. vs. Coon Rapids, a lot more people are undoubtedly poor (again according to USAmerican standards- with household income of $30,000 or less), and a lot fewer are among the very wealthy ($100,000 or more). Taken together, where we came from in Coon Rapids about 30% of households earn $50,000 or less. Where we are now, it’s 53%. I could go on. There’s a wealth of super interesting data over at the sites I linked to above, but you get the point. Where we now live in NE Mpls. is not “the ‘hood” by any means, but if we desire to be proximate to those on the margins, we’ve taken a step in the right direction, considering where we came from. Lord willing, more such steps will follow.
We chose NE Mpls. because that’s where our faith community is rooted, and it was through our faith community that we had the opportunity to move here in the first place. Taking that leap of faith proved to be a key that has opened up a lot of other doors. It meant the kids changed schools, and I took a job just 2.6 miles away- by bike- meaning I could bike to work. I’ve been doing that for over a month now, which has meant we could give away one of the cars we had, which we did. Let me again be clear, I know that in no way have we “arrived.” We aren’t yet where Jesus is probably leading us, but we hope we’re a little further down the road, and we know the key again is proximity. We have to stay close to Jesus of course, and we know we do so much better when we stay close to those on the margins.
Despite all this, there are still incongruities in my life that trouble me. Two big ones come specifically to mind- my work for my employer, and my work to raise money for clean water in Africa through Team World Vision. Let’s talk about my job first. Again, let me be clear, I love my new employer. I now work for a non-profit social service agency operated by a larger faith-based organization. That larger organization does a ton of great work in the community. They’re a leader in institutional anti-racism efforts. They say their mission is to serve those “no one else will.” They work to promote healthy habits among their employees, and they strive to make sure their employees find meaning in the work they do to serve others. I’m thrilled to be a part of the organization. My particular case management type role now, though, is a little less “hands-on” than others I’ve had, which is to say that I don’t often see the folks I hopefully am helping, and most of what I do is behind the scenes of the services the people I serve receive. I do financial work, basically, in my new role, working to ensure that funds allocated to help people experiencing a disability to live independently in the community are properly channeled to where they need to go. I actually tend to like Excel spreadsheets; so in some ways this is a good fit, but larger questions remain.
Toxic Asset-Based Community Development
The largest question is posed to the entire social service “industry,” and it simply is this: to what degree do all of our efforts to help actually do harm? I chose those words intentionally, because as I’ve written previously I am not a proponent of the approach taken by Robert Lupton is his book Toxic Charity or by Corbett and Fikkert in their book When Helping Hurts. I think I get what they’re trying to do/say- and I appreciate Lupton’s emphasis that helping should “do no harm.” However, I think in too many cases “do no harm” winds up becoming do no help, and I think the approach of these folks and others in the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) “movement” is only a half-step, and I fear it’s a half-step in the wrong direction. Before getting to that, however, I should simply say that I think ABCD is right to regard poor communities (by USAmerican standards) as having not just “deficits” in the form of needs that need to be met but also “assets” in the form of gifts, talent, and local associations and institutions that might be utilized to better contribute to their own development.
Even more, there is a critique of social service underneath what ABCD tries to accomplish that is spot on, and it’s one I’ve been aware of for a while. Lupton wants us to “do no harm” because there is a very real sense in which all of our efforts to address systemic racism and poverty with systemic social service only perpetuates the former and makes permanent the need for the latter. There’s a yin and a yang here. Systemic, generational poverty, driven in no small part by systemic racism, seems to require a systemic response, but the very real help that social service is able to give to very real, hurting people only serves to dull our collective awareness that profound change is needed.
Some would say that government, for example, should get out of the “business” of helping people and essentially leave them to fend for themselves, somehow believing that the causes of poverty lie in the motivations of individuals and that, if properly motivated- by starvation and deprivation presumably- they will “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” I would hope it’s obvious that this approach ignores the very real systems and institutions that actively work, violently if necessary, to keep some people poor so that others can be rich. There are reasons why people of European descent in the U.S. are far richer than people of color, and why the U.S. is the richest nation in the history of the world, and if you don’t think violence has anything to do with it, you’re not paying attention. Sure, choices that individuals make have a lot to do with their fortune, no pun intended, but people rarely make choices merely as individuals. We are connected to the systems that make our society possible, some of which we have little awareness of and littler still control over.
In any case, there is a line of thinking by some (not necessarily the ABCD folks) that would suggest that if social service was done away with, the suffering that would result would create mounting pressure underneath the fabric of our unjust society, so much so that the real change that is necessary might be forced to occur. A revolution might be born. Meanwhile, people would probably be dying (even more than they already are), and a cynical response would be to ask if even this would be enough to bring about real, lasting change. A related concern is that if violence is used to keep some people poor and others rich- and it is, even/especially here in the U.S.– would violence be the only means deemed sufficient to bring about the kind of “revolution” that might be needed? I fear it would be.
That said, I spoke above of ABCD being a half step “in the wrong direction” because I think it fails to connect the poverty of the poor with the wealth of the wealthy. I think what ABCD seeks to do is essentially to help people be better capitalists, and I believe that “capitalism is just another ‘ism Jesus wants to save us from.” I’m a proponent of God’s economy, an economy that exposes the myth of private property as a lie that keeps us from living like everything belongs to God. God’s economy, unlike capitalism and socialism or any other ‘ism, is one in which there is abundance, and all is shared. It is an economy that responds to God the Giver by allowing each of us to live into our vocation as givers. We don’t need to harness the “assets” of under-privileged communities so that they can develop to the point where their members have a “decent” middle-class USAmerican standard of living without government help; we need to recognize that absolutely everything- including the air we breathe- is a gift from God, given for the good of all. We’re all playing with “house money.” What we really need, is Jubilee. We need Jubilee on a global scale. Most of us in developed nations need to give away much of our wealth, privilege, and power. Our standard of living needs to come way, way down, so that the standard of living of the poorest of the poor and everyone in between can come way, way up. After all, what if God doesn’t want us to “help” the poor, but rather wants us to become poor (by USAmerican standards)?
How do we do this? Of course I have no idea how to bring about global Jubilee, Biblical instructions to ancient Israel notwithstanding. However, I do have some clues about how to spread God’s economy. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove suggests that God’s Economy will grow like kudzu, a plant that only needs a small start to overtake a garden. Or maybe it grows like a mustard seed, another plant that begins humbly before reaching a strength and stature that wouldn’t have been thought possible. The point is, it starts small, and Jesus says it starts by giving to those who ask of you:
38 “You have 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.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. 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.
It’s worth noting again that the command to give to those who ask of you is nestled in the imperative to love one’s enemies. The poor become our enemies when we become rich by hoarding what God has given to all, for the benefit of all. It is Jesus here who makes a connection between giving to those who ask of us (presumably the poor or those who lack what we have) and violence. I’ll have to explore that in another post. Meanwhile, the critics of a government response to poverty and injustice are right to say that government can’t supply the answers we need. A big government initiative or program, even arguably good ones like the New Deal or the War on Poverty, can’t finally eliminate injustice. However, those same critics are wrong inasmuch as they think the answer lies in utilizing the assets of underprivileged communities to help develop said communities through capitalism, as if the world’s economy could ever be anything other than self-serving. Meanwhile, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove suggests another way:
We need to end the poverty of the poor, to be sure, but also need to end the wealth of the rich. Jonathan reminds us that Jesus says it’s hard for the rich to enter God’s kingdom, and he says this is because “if a rich person gets in he won’t be rich anymore” and likewise “if a poor person gets in he won’t be poor anymore.” Why? Because “we’ll share with whoever has need,” like Jesus taught us. We simply have to give to those who ask of us. When we do, more and more we become children of our Father in heaven.
But I digress.
All of this is why I struggle with my current professional role, one which has me firmly entrenched in the social service “industry.” My challenge is to keep reminding myself that just like our move to NE Mpls. and relatedly our enrollment of the kids in new schools, moving to the job I’m at now is but a step in the right direction as I keep seeking proximity to Jesus and to those on the margins. I’m not “there” yet, and I know I never will be. Still, being at this job, so close to our new home, again meant after all that I could bike to work and we could therefore give away one of the cars we had to someone who asked, to a family that had need of it.
It’s a very similar struggle that has me wondering about my commitment to run for Team World Vision and raise money for clean water in Africa. Surely the need is real, and profound, and every time I succumb to temptation and drink anything but the abundant clean water I have access to I flaunt my great wealth and privilege. I would like to believe, too, that World Vision does what they say they do, that every $50 I raise does indeed provide clean water for life to a person that didn’t have it. I can’t help but wonder, though, along the lines of the above, if the “help” World Vision provides fosters dependency so long as the domination systems that have created the unjust world we live in continue unfettered. After all, I of course have clean water that flows from my tap in multiple places in my home, but I’m so rich I ignore it and instead spend hundreds of dollars per year on sugar-filled carbonated water that will eventually kill me if I let it. If we think there’s no connection between my conspicuous “water” consumption and the lack of clean water at all for too many around the world, we’re fooling ourselves. Let’s say I’ve embarked on a long fundracing career with World Vision and over the course of the rest of my life I help raise thousands of dollars for clean water in Africa so that some kids stop dying of thirst or diarrhea, that would be good, to be sure. But would I have done more good than harm if I otherwise lived in such a way that the domination systems that again created this unjust world were allowed to go on? So again the rub has to do with congruence. Yes, there is a very real, immediate, life-or-death need that I can help address, and I have been asked to do so, but this is only the beginning. This is only a step. What I do with Team World Vision must be part-and-parcel of a life spent working to bring about God’s economy, however, whenever, and wherever I can.
It’s true too that the problems I’m wrestling with are big (“global Jubilee,” anyone?), while if I am to live the most congruent, faithful life I can, if I am to live in proximity to Jesus and those on the margins, then I must become small. There’s nothing smaller than a step, even a step of faith. Lord willing, these steps I and my family have taken of late are steps taken in the right direction on a lifelong journey. Undoubtedly other such steps will come. Right now, though, I’m glad for the ones we’ve taken, and I’ll sure be keeping my eyes and ears open as we try to keep close to Jesus, ready for whatever step might be next. Until then, I’ve got some kudzu to water.