As some who know me personally and read this blog may know, I’m running the Twin Cities 10 Mile Race this weekend (tomorrow, in fact!). I actually signed up for the marathon, but “life happened,” and I had to adjust my goal race. The main goal, however, aside from learning, yet again, to be a runner, was to raise money for clean water in Africa. The stats, from World Vision, are devastating:
Every day, nearly 1,600 children under 5 die from diarrhea caused by contaminated water, poor sanitation, and improper hygiene.
About every minute, a child under 5 dies as a result of diarrhea caused by contaminated water, poor sanitation, and improper hygiene.
Globally, 1 in 9 people lack access to clean water.
Worldwide, 748 million people lack access to clean water.
Women and children in sub-Saharan Africa spend 20 million hours collecting water each day.
I’ve talked incessantly on this blog over the past year especially about the need to “get small.” Part of the drive to do so is rooted in a recognition that for others to come up, I have to come down. When so many around the world still lack the most basic necessity of life- water that won’t kill them because it’s contaminated- while I enjoy not just clean water but coffee and soda and orange juice and too much (often unhealthy) food and piles of books and a car and so much “stuff” that some of it has to be stored even after giving a lot of it away, something has to change. First, I must repent of keeping far more than my “daily bread” while some starve, for keeping far more than two coats while my neighbor freezes. Remember, though, repentance is an act. It’s a “turning around.” And so, I must act. Every day Kirsten and I are learning how to get smaller, how to be generous, how to share what God has given us to pass on to others.
I admit that I’m suspicious of “charity,” especially the professional kind. Capitalism- inherent to which is a love of Mammon- infects everything. Every day in the news there’s a new scandal about some big corporation being evil, and all too often you can find such news about some big professional charity too. So I remain dubious about many of them. Giving money to a charity can be more about “throwing money at a problem” than about anything else, especially for we rich people of European descent. Much more than money is needed, of course. We all need to repent. We all need to get a little “smaller,” I would argue. Directing resources (often, money) toward a problem must be part of a lifestyle of repentance, a lifestyle of generosity. It must be rooted, I believe, in a commitment to give to those who ask of us, as Jesus directed.
All of that is not to say, however, that money is not needed, that it will not help. There is so much to be said about economic development in impoverished areas here in the U.S. and around the globe, but I’m not looking to address that now. Elsewhere, I’ve written about my questions about the “toxic charity” crowd, for example. What I’m pretty sure of, however, is that this is not an “either/or.” It’s a “both/and.” I believe that if as a rich European American one is seeking to live a life of devolution, of “getting small” by sharing the many blessings that God has given us, by seeking to be close to those on the margins so that we can be in solidarity with them and learn from, receive from, and be loved by them even as we seek to love and give to them, then part of that effort can and should involve giving money, as strategically as possible, to address extreme global poverty, including and especially the clean water crisis in Africa. Here’s a video from World Vision about how they are helping do just that:
Remember, then, that Kirsten and I are trying really hard to be people who are ready to “give to those who ask of us.” So when we were asked to run with Team World Vision to give clean water to folks in Africa who die for lack of access to it, we pretty much had to say yes. It’s been an interesting journey as we’ve done so. As it turns out, again, we’re not running the marathon tomorrow. 10 miles will feel a bit like a marathon to us. We’re just not there yet. That said, we’re in this for the long haul. The journey of “getting small” and being in solidarity with our poor neighbors around the block and around the world is a marathon for us, not a sprint. Last night was the “team dinner” for Team World Vision, and we’ve already committed to running with them next year (our goal race will be the half, not the full, marathon). We also committed to sponsoring two children, two girls from Rwanda. Any dubiousness on my part aside, I’ve been struck by the culture among Team World Vision. Those who get up and speak at meetings and the like clearly take what they’re doing very seriously. They may not (yet, Lord willing) share our views on Empire and capitalism itself and the like, but they’re obviously committed to a lifestyle of generosity as they understand what that means in their journey at this point. Most of the speakers I’ve heard not only run for clean water, but sponsor kids too, and many of them can tell stories and show pictures from meeting their sponsor children. You know what that means? That means there’s at least some proximity in play. They’ve looked their sponsor children in the eye, seen their meager (by our standards) homes, and are being shaped by their relationship with these kids they feel called to love tangibly. That matters.
So when we were invited to sponsor a child, and told that by doing so we would not only get to love on our sponsor kid(s) but would also get a credit to our Team World Vision fundraising pages, we knew we had to say yes, and we each sponsored a child, four and five year old girls from Rwanda. Of course it’s a bit of an accounting gimmick, but the reality is that anything we give, and anything you give because we invite you to, is a win. It all goes toward changing the lives of our extremely poor neighbors around the world, and to their credit World Vision works very hard to make it as relational as possible. We’re invited into the lives of our sponsor kids, and have the opportunity to invite them into ours. Thus, as I said, there’s some proximity involved, paradoxically even with an ocean between us.
So will you join us in giving? Will you help me reach my goal of giving clean water to 40 kids? Here’s some more info about “the water effect” from World Vision:
THE WATER EFFECT
Nearly 1,600 children under 5 die every day from diarrhea caused by dirty water, poor sanitation, and improper hygiene. That’s why World Vision is providing a new person with clean water every 30 seconds as part of our full solution to poverty.
Water transforms. When you give clean water, you set off a chain reaction for good. Children are freed from deadly water-related diseases. People become healthier and more productive. Girls get to go to school rather than trek long distances to gather filthy water. Less money is spent on medicine, which means more savings and more investment in things like education. With better health and more time, parents can start small businesses—creating more jobs. Water promises a bright future, and a full life—the kind of life God intends.
The water effect is an outward spiral that positively transforms the entire community. And World Vision is there to support these solutions with programs that go well beyond water into every other aspect of human life—physical, emotional, and spiritual. That’s because we believe clean water and the love of Jesus are crucial elements in a full solution to poverty—a solution that includes food, education, healthcare, and more.
Our water projects are comprehensive, sustainable, and complex. World Vision’s projects engage the local community, local church, and local government. Staff and engineers choose from different types of water points depending on the geography and the needs of a community. Innovative projects like wells, solar-powered pumps, pipelines, dams, and rain catchments are implemented for human consumption, farm irrigation, livestock nourishment, and more.
World Vision’s water projects also focus on improved sanitation and hygiene solutions; this includes building latrines and organizing communities to implement good habits like hand-washing or repairing wells.
And here’s a bit about World Vision’s approach:
Will you give? God the giver made us to be givers too. Generosity is something God wants for us, not from us. Kirsten and I are sponsoring two girls from Rwanda. We’re running in this race tomorrow, and we’re trying to get as “small” as we can, all because we were invited to join God in giving. We were asked to be part of a literal circle of life. You’re invited too! Just $50 gives clean water to one person for life. Here’s another link to my fundraising page.
It was this heartfelt talk (click the link) in the wake of the recent events in Charlottesville that did it for me, really. I mean it. You can just stop reading now and listen to this talk. If the only thing this post accomplishes is to get you to listen to this “sermon” (he says it’s not really a sermon) by Pastor Jin S. Kim of Church of All Nations here in the Twin Cities, my work here will be done. I’ve known about Church of All Nations (CAN) for a little while. I don’t quite remember how it came across my radar. It may have been because CAN is one of the few churches here in the Twin Cities that has cell groups, and actually calls them cell groups, thus indicating, one would think, at least some familiarity with the concept. As I’ve mentioned many times, it was a cell group based church in Philly, Circle of Hope, that we were a part of in two stints from ’96-’98 and from ’03-’05 and which remains so very formative in terms of my imagination for what the church can and should be. It’s why I keep talking about it. Over the past year, though, I’ve come across CAN repeatedly.
I’ll say more about CAN in a moment, but first let’s talk about the central theme of what I and my family have been learning over the past year- “getting small.” Remember, we’re learning to give away privilege and power so that we can relate to the Empire of our day (the violent, capitalistic U.S. one) the way that Jesus and the first of his followers related to theirs (the violent, Mammon loving Roman one), from “under, not over.” We’re trying to get “small” and maybe even get into “Paul’s slavish shoes” a bit so that we can better be slaves for Jesus, just as he slaved for us. Here’s the post again that unpacks all this better than I ever could. On my break at work I often walk from the building I work in up to my alma mater, Luther Seminary. Yesterday as I was thinking on my walk back to work a word came to mind: devolution.
I’m most interested in the first part of the first definition: “the transfer or delegation of power to a lower level.” This really gets at what I mean when I talk about “getting small.” Note that I don’t mean the “formal” sense of the word, “descent to a lower or worse state” because a lower state socioeconomically in U.S. empire is not “worse” than my more privileged one. If anything, I am in the “worse” state because my power and privilege insulates me from the reality of my need for a Savior. Indeed, if “getting small” has to do with decentering “whiteness” and relinquishing at least a few of the many privileges I enjoy because of my skin tone, if it has to do with recognizing that nothing belongs to me and that private property is a concept foreign to God’s economy and his kingdom- and therefore if I have two coats while my brother or sister have none it is incumbent upon me to give him one and apologize for keeping what God clearly gave me to give to him- if all this is true, then my aim is to transfer the worldly power that has accrued to me unjustly. My responsibility is to delegate the influence I’ve been given to my brothers or sisters who exist on a “lower level” in worldly society. I have to get small, and close, to those on the margins of secular society that I want to love and serve and be loved and served by and learn from, because solidarity requires proximity. Thus, this has been a year of devolution, and it’s far from over.
You may recall, then, that Ched Myers has been a big influence in our year of devolution in 2017. His book Sabbath Economics had a follow-up book written by Matthew Colwell, Sabbath Economics: Household Practices, which was one of the books we read in January that helped launch us down this path. It was in that book that we learned that “solidarity requires proximity,” and in regard to Jesus’ phrase “the poor will always be with you,” it was Ched who said that this saying by Jesus “…is not about the inevitability of poverty but about the social location of the church.” Anyway, Ched does great work, including his recent book Watershed Discipleship, which I’m eager to read some day. Ched is part of Bartimeus Cooperative Ministries, and they help run this little site I discovered this year called Radical Discipleship. Among the great resources that site offers, one is a list of “Communities of Discontinuity.” These are communities around the country that are in some way trying to embody resistance to Empire in order to follow Jesus instead. On that page they quote Ched in one of his seminal works, Who Will Roll Away the Stone, in which he said that “…we are attempting to live in ways incongruous with and even defective from the expectations of our gender, race, and class.” Sounds a bit like devolution, doesn’t it? So among these communities of discontinuity are Circle of Hope, of course, and also South Street Ministries in Akron that we were also a part of at one time and whose pastor, Duane Crabbs, we have great affection for. Carnivale de Resistance and Christian Peacemaker Teams are listed. The Dorothy Day Catholic Worker is as well along with the Mennonite Worker here in the Twin Cities, which is run by Mark Van Steenwyk, whom we’ve been privileged to partner with of late. Rutba House, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s intentional community, is listed, as is The Simple Way, where Shane Claiborne got his start. And then there’s the Underground Seminary, also here in the Twin Cities.
When I clicked that Underground Seminary link for the first time, I discovered that it is run by CAN, and so I encountered them again. Incidentally, I also discovered that it was amazing and I wished that I could perhaps have gone there for seminary instead of where I did. Pastor Kim says that they started the Underground Seminary because in his work with pastoral interns at CAN he found that he kept getting “exasperated by the arduous task of deprogramming seminary grads” and so “thought it’d be better to equip them to be radical disciples from the start.” That said, when I went to seminary the Underground Seminary didn’t exist and I doubt I would have been ready for it if it had.
I mentioned Mark Van Steenwyk of the Mennonite Worker above. His is a radical voice that I appreciate, and it turns out that he and Pastor Kim are good friends. They’re both local, and Pastor Kim wrote the afterword for one of Mark’s books. Mark also interviewed Pastor Kim for the amazing Iconocast podcast, which Mark used to be involved with. It’s another worthy listen. And then in this article, Mark quotes Dr. King, who spoke of a “mythical concept of time” by which “white” moderates “paternalistically believe” they “can set the timetable for another man’s freedom” by advising black folk to wait for a more “convenient” time to pursue civil rights. Regarding the myth alluded to above, Mark says:
But our myths weren’t born on the streets. They were forged in the pulpits of thousands of congregations. As my dear friend, Pastor Jin Kim of Church of All Nations, says: “The church provides the foot soldiers for the American Empire.”
If you’ve been reading this blog and know anything about me, can you see why I might like Pastor Kim? Here’s one more pearl of wisdom from him, just to drive home the point. In a two-part article for Sojourners, he wrote:
The meaning of evangelism is the proclamation of good news to the world. How can we continue to exclude and avoid those with whom we are not comfortable and live into our evangelical calling at the same time? If we do not shed this primitive tendency, and yet heed the call to be evangelical, do we not risk exporting our ecclesial tribalism far and wide? How can we say we are evangelical if the good news is not good for the whole world? If the gospel is proclaimed under the rubric of the homogeneous unit principle, I would argue that this is distorted news, even false news. The acid test of evangelism must be: Is this good news for the poor?
But the church has largely forgotten the poor, instead focusing on the perceived poverty of individual rights driven by debates over human sexuality and ordination. What about plain old poverty driven by the historic legacy of racism, a politics seemingly motivated by a preferential option for the rich, and the exploitation of the newly arrived on American shores?
◉ We are always trying to stretch across barriers: across racial/ethnic, class and cultural divides.
◉ Racial reconciliation is a matter of demanding justice, not just peace.
◉ A gospel that does not reconcile is no gospel at all.
◉ We will do what it takes to be an anti-racist, diverse community that represents the new humanity.
Such reconciliation is what CAN is all about, and about which they say: “Our central mission is to do the ministry of reconciliation.” This shows, as CAN is one of the most diverse congregations, I suspect, in the country. As Pastor Kim wrote about CAN in 2010:
Though according to this 2012 MPR story about CAN, there is a growing number of people of European descent that make up CAN, their commitment to embodying the new humanity is evident. As a Presbyterian congregation, they have deacons. There are 10 of them, and 8 of those ten are women. In most churches, it’s the other way around. There are 17 folks on staff (I don’t know how many are paid), and 9 of them are women, while 10 represent ethnic minorities. About all this diversity and the promise and potential pitfalls it represents, they say:
Many of us who began this journey assumed that we would be dealing with much more conflict as many cultures and worldviews add to the complexity of congregational dynamics. What we have discovered, to our delight, is the exact opposite. The very decision to join a church in which one chooses to be a minority seems to draw the kind of people who are willing to “lay down their sword” of power and privilege. The Korean American founders had to set the example first. Today, we all seem to be caught up in a virtuous cycle of who can lift up and value other individuals and cultures, to “consider others better than oneself.” The culture of public confession, corporate repentance, joyful celebration and vulnerable relationality that we have cultivated here is key to understanding the dynamism and eschatological hope evident in our life together.
This language of “laying down one’s sword of power and privilege” is obviously music to my ears, and as suggested above, I am indeed drawn to this church, but I’ll say more about that later. For now, just note that such language again is very much in keeping with “getting small,” with the year of devolution in 2017 that I’ve been describing.
Part of that devolution, though, indeed part of that giving up of power and privilege, has very much for us meant also quite really, if not literally, laying down one’s sword. As I’ve said, in the Sermon on the Mount, on the cross, and in our lives we’ve heard Jesus repeatedly calling us to renounce violence in all its forms, and so we’ve yearned to be part of a faith community that also understands this to be at the heart of the gospel. You can imagine, then, my delight when I discovered this bit of writing by Pastor Kim, in which, speaking of Jesus, he says:
He will not wage war to bring peace. He will not use violence to end violence. In Jesus Christ the wolf and the lamb, the lion and the ox, will break bread together. In Jesus Christ “we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” Our impulses of impatience, vengeance and violence will be changed, not by a violent inauguration of the last dispensation, but by the eschatological pull of God’s kingdom on all creation, old and new. When Jesus suffered violence on the cross without retaliating, he emptied violence of its power once and for all. Violence itself was crucified in Jesus.
Hearing the notion that violence itself was crucified on the cross with Jesus was somehow new to me in 2017. I heard it in Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove’s book The Awakening of Hope, in which a chapter is titled, “Why We Would Rather Die Than Kill.” Then, of course, I heard it in spades in both of the Brian Zahnd books I read this year, A Farewell to Mars and Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, as well as in Greg Boyd’s magnum opus which I’ve started reading and heard him speak about, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. Meanwhile, Pastor Kim has been writing and talking about this at least since 2010.
So let’s review. 2017 has been our year of devolution as we’ve worked on “getting small” so that we can follow Jesus “from under, not over.” Inherent in that effort is a recognition of history and an awareness of our standing vis-a-vis the larger culture. That is, we live in the shadow of an Empire more powerful than the Roman one that loomed large in the culture of Jesus’ day and in the imaginations of many of the Biblical writers. Our relationship to that Empire, inasmuch as it makes claims and seeks power and control that properly belongs to Jesus and his kingdom, must be one of resistance. As Jesus followers we must resist not just consumerism but capitalism itself. We must resist not just “bad guys with guns” but violence itself, including that which is so frequently engaged in around the world with impunity by the U.S. government, not to mention in local police forces around the country. We must not accommodate Mammon and Empire- the powers and principalities- but by living into God’s economy, renouncing violence, and pledging allegiance to Christ and his kingdom alone, we must therefore subvert Mammon and Empire.
Still Trying to Keep Up With Jesus
Church of All Nations (CAN) is a community that “gets” all this, and more. They’re organized, at least partially, in cell groups. They started an “underground seminary” to raise up radical disciples who don’t have to be deprogrammed of their imperial, capitalistic outlook. They have a staff person whose job, in part, is to help organize the intentional community houses that are connected to their church. In short, there is much, much to like about this faith community. I know it’s not perfect. It can’t be. But they embody a prophetic witness that is simply remarkable.
So why am I writing about all this? As I’ve alluded to in previous posts, Kirsten and I have struggled for some months now to find our place within Mill City Church. We have so appreciated that faith community over the past year that we’ve been a part of it. It was within Mill City Church, after all, that we heard the call to get small and renounce violence, to take seriously our responsibility to follow Jesus by renouncing any kingdom that is not his so that we can “give to God what is God’s” (our allegiance, our loyalty, our very lives; in short, everything). Of all the puzzle pieces God put together to lead us in our year of devolution so far, being part of Mill City Church was a crucial one.
That said, the more we’ve learned along the way, the more marginalized within Mill City Church we’ve felt. This is probably a good thing. We are, after all, trying to get closer to those “on the margins.” However, it seems the call to radical discipleship and the conclusions we’ve reached about what it means for us are not shared by, according to one of Mill City’s pastors, “anyone else” within the church. Nor, we were told, would that call be included overtly in any of the teaching of Mill City’s pastors any time soon. Thus, in a recent meeting with two of Mill City’s pastors, it was made clear to us that if we are to continue on the path we’re on and remain part of Mill City Church as we do so, it will, at the very least, be a very lonely journey. We know that the path we’re trying to walk is a “narrow one that few find.” So on the one hand this served as something of a confirmation that we were moving in the right direction, but it really put in stark relief what we would be up against as we tried to keep moving in that direction within this church. As I said in a sub-heading in another recent post, “we followed Jesus into Mill City Church. Jesus kept moving.”
So it is with mixed feelings that I write that we will be moving on too. It was made clear to us again that we would be alone within Mill City Church if we kept trying to follow Jesus the way we feel called to. We can live with that, but we don’t want to be a distraction, or worse, a divisive element within a church that may not be everything we thought or hoped it was. Thus, as I recently told someone in an email, “there are times when it has seemed that in order to follow Jesus we’d have to abandon the church altogether. We’re praying we’re wrong about that, because we know we can’t follow Jesus alone, especially if we’re trying to resist violent, capitalistic U.S. culture as we do so.”
And that just brings me back to all I said above about CAN. You can see, I hope, why it would be an attractive faith community to us. All the things we’ve been learning this year they’ve been living for more than a few. Still, none of that was sufficient to cause us to jump ship from Mill City and start over again among Church of All Nations. However, the talk I linked to at the very top of this post was sufficient, at least enough to cause us to want to give CAN a try. It’s that talk that I listened to, jaw slightly agape, and then got Kirsten and listened to again with her. This talk is remarkable, in no small part because of the fact that in it Pastor Kim tells the truth about history when he calls the U.S. a “racist” and “fascist” state, and does so right from the pulpit, fearlessly. Beyond that, though, I found as I listened to it that I had another epiphany.
The U.S. Is A Racist, Fascist State
I was reminded that one of Mill City’s pastors had a 5 minute “family meeting” before giving their regular sermon in the wake of the events in Charlottesville. I can’t remember exactly what was said, but an effort was made to call out the injustice occurring and call us as Jesus followers to renounce racism and resist it. It was good, but it was brief, and then the pastor moved on to the bulk, and arguably the substance, of their prepared remarks. Let me be clear that I’m not criticizing what happened at Mill City’s worship gathering that morning. At least the events in Charlottesville were mentioned and racism was called out, which is more than occurred after the Jeronimo Yanez verdict, for example (and the preacher on that Sunday has publicly apologized for saying nothing about it). I do, however, want to contrast what happened at Mill City’s gathering with what happened at CAN’s after the events of Charlottesville, because the difference is instructive. Pastor Kim had a “family meeting” in his talk too, but that meeting was the substance of his remarks. It’s all he talked about, and he spent not 5 minutes doing so, but 40. And he told the truth. He didn’t say something about “racism” generally as a factor that some individuals in Charlottesville allowed to motivate them to do hateful things. He said the U.S. was itself a racist, not to mention fascist, state. And he did this with authority that none of Mill City’s pastors could ever have, because they’re European American, while Pastor Kim is not, and neither are the majority of his staff. Nor is CAN itself dominated by any one ethnic group, while Mill City is far and away, from the looks of things on Sunday probably 95% or more, made up of people of European descent. In other words, save for some notable exceptions, Mill City is all “white.”
So as I listened to the urgency in Pastor Kim’s voice as he described what could happen if racist, fascist forces eventually “came for” people of color in this country and perhaps for “people of color- lovers” too- just as Nazis eventually “came for” Jews in Hitler’s Germany- it struck me that it was only in a context of proximity to people of color that the impetus to do more than just “stand in solidarity” with the oppressed in some metaphorical sense gains the traction that it needs. The pastor that gave that 5 minute talk about Charlottesville to all the “white” people who make up Mill City is to be praised for, and often speaks herself about, all her efforts over the years to cultivate relationships with people of color and build bridges, etc. That is indeed very praiseworthy. But when you’re sitting in an auditorium again full of “white” people, she could even have said everything Pastor Kim said about Charlottesville, and the words simply wouldn’t have held the power that they did when Pastor Kim said them. A “white” person preaching to “white” people about loving black folks and resisting racism is all very well and good, but I kind of doubt it will change much. On the other hand, a “white” person such as myself who hears those same words spoken by a non-“white” person who says them to a congregation that is filled with people of color from many nations around the globe is moved to act.
Our Place Is Not Between the Rescuer and Those In Need Of Rescue. Our Place Is Between the Oppressor and Those They Would Oppress.
Pastor Kim gave a great analogy in his talk about a loved one in need of rescue. If you’re separated from that loved one in grave danger by a crowd of people who may have the best intentions in the world, but who aren’t paying attention to your loved one’s cry, then they become a formidable barrier to any effort to get to and save your loved one. As Pastor Kim said, the crowd that is in the way might be very well-meaning, but if they’re not “woke,” if they’re not actively trying to save your loved one too or at least getting out of the way so that you can, they remain part of the problem. As I listened to this, I realized that my friend Jesse who’s pursuing his PhD at Temple, working largely on matters of race and the church, is right. For some time, as far as I know, he’s been convicted that he and his family as “white” folks follow Jesus best if they do so as part of a black church. Solidarity requires proximity, as I keep saying. If people of color in this country need “white” folks to not just build bridges and have good intentions, but to really be in solidarity with them, then proximity is necessary. We need to be close enough to be “in the way,” but not as a barrier between the rescuer and the oppressed. We need to stand between the oppressor and the oppressed. So long, then, as I and my family remained in the mostly “white” Mill City Church, we remained “in the way” in the worst kind of way. So we followed Jesus into Mill City Church, but Jesus kept moving.
Granted, CAN is not a mostly black church any more than it’s a mostly “white” one. But I don’t think there will be ethnic neighborhoods in the New Jerusalem. I know every congregation probably realistically can’t be as diverse as CAN, but if CAN is a microcosm of the new humanity, if it’s a “foretaste of the feast to come,” it’s a prophetic reality worth striving for. So where no truly diverse congregation like CAN is available, I think “white” folks ought to be “all in” in a local black church. Then at least the oppressed are not an abstract ideal to love metaphorically as you educate yourself and try to get “woke,” often from a distance; instead, they are your friends and neighbors, your brothers and sisters in Christ with whom you worship on Sunday and work at being the Church together, however hard that might be. That said, we are blessed to live now about 4 miles from where CAN has their building, and so for all the reasons above, we feel very called to keep following Jesus into their midst. Who knows what will happen? What I hope, though, is that instead of being “in the way” in the worst possible way as a well-intentioned “white” person standing between the rescuer and those in need of rescue, we will instead find ourselves “in the way” in the “right” way, that is, on the way with Jesus, along the way of the cross. Lord, let it be so.
On a final note, I should add that I don’t regret our time among Mill City Church in the least. I think being a part of this church was a necessary step in our journey. It turns out it was just a step, but we couldn’t make this next one without having made that one. Thus, we are very grateful for our time among them, and hope to continue our relationships with those from Mill City that want to. After all, we’re all trying to follow Jesus. Sometimes this involves moving rapidly along the way. Sometimes it seems like no progress is made at all. Sometimes we move in the wrong direction. As I’ve repeatedly said, Kirsten and I spent the better part of 20 years hardly following at all in many ways. Still, Jesus keeps calling us. Lord willing, we’ll all keep trying to answer, and follow, and keep up with him. Again, Lord, let it be so.
If you happen to be one of the very few who read my recent post “How Small, Exactly?”, you’ll find it’s been updated and may want to read it again, as it has bearing on what is to follow. In that post I alluded to the struggle we’ve had of late to put into practice what we’ve been learning in 2017 about getting “small,” about pursing God’s economy rather than the economies of this world, and about peacemaking. As we’ve tried to implement those lessons, we’ve encountered resistance, perhaps not surprisingly. What has been surprising is the struggle we’re now having to discern our place within the faith community in which we’ve learned so much over the past year. That struggle is real, and ongoing. Our prayer is that if we really have been following Jesus as we’ve made all the changes we’ve been making of late, we pray then that he will continue to lead us, and that we will trust him to do so. We pray for humility in what we do, as this must be an essential part of getting “small.” If we really did spend much of our adult lives trying- and failing- to serve both God and Mammon, if we’ve been trying- and failing- to be faithful citizens of both God’s peaceable kingdom and the violent, warlike USAmerican empire, but we now believe ourselves to be “woke” to this truth, then it’s likely that we’re missing the point if we mistake whatever progress we’ve made in our recent awakening over the past year for having finally “arrived.” We will always be in process. We will always be on the way. It is a “way,” after all, that we are to be people of, just like the first Jesus followers.
Again, What if Jesus Really Meant What He Said?
So much of what we’ve been learning has to do with the call to radical discipleship as outlined by Jesus in his words in the Sermon on the Mount. How many sermons, I wonder, have been preached about “building your house (of faith) on the rock,” and how many of those had anything to do with Jesus’ context for that teaching? The context was the Sermon on the Mount, and the wise builder whose house is built on the rock is like the one who hears Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount and puts them into practice. So many of the clichés of cultural Christianity- “the wide and narrow path/gate,” the Lord’s Prayer, the Golden Rule, “building your house on the rock”- literally ALL of these are found in the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus has what every day look more and more to me like two big foci: peacemaking/renouncing violence as a means for empire building and radical generosity (and therefore renouncing not just consumerism but capitalism and every other worldly economic system). In fact, near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5, Jesus explicitly links the two as the directive to “give to those who ask of us” and “not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from us” is rooted in his talk about enemy love.
So peacemaking for Jesus, as he taught it in the Sermon on the Mount, isn’t merely about conflict resolution. It’s a radical call to renounce violence. Regarding this call to nonviolence, Jesus says:
Blessed are the merciful
Blessed are the peacemakers
You have heard it was said, “don’t murder,” but I tell you, don’t be angry/be reconciled
You have heard it was said “eye for eye…” but I tell you, don’t resist an evil person/turn the other cheek
You have heard it was said “love your neighbor,” but I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you
Regarding the call to radical generosity and renunciation of the world’s economies in favor of God’s, Jesus teaches:
If anyone wants to take your shirt, give your coat too
If anyone (a Roman soldier, likely) forces you to go one mile, go two
Give to the one who asks of you, and don’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
All of these directives about generosity so far are sandwiched between teaching about enemy love, suggesting for those of who are rich that we might think of the poor as our enemy because they want what we’ve been hoarding. Likewise, in telling his listeners to love their enemies, Jesus contrasts love for enemies with what “tax collectors” do, namely loving those who love them. “Tax collectors” in Jesus’ day were complicit in the economic control exerted on the people by the occupying imperial force (Rome). Often/usually they lined their own pockets by collecting more taxes even than were required; so not only were tax collectors complicit in the control exerted by a violent occupying force, perhaps even worse, they were greedy. Repeatedly Jesus seems to link violence and Mammon. We would do well to pay attention to this.
The Next Time You Are About to Pray the Lord’s Prayer, Maybe Think Twice?
Jesus’ call to radical generosity in the Sermon on the Mount continues when he says that when you give to the “needy” (he assumes you do), do it in secret. Then comes what is perhaps one of the most shocking calls to radical generosity in the many that are to be found in the Sermon on the Mount, and it comes in a very unexpected and familiar passage- the Lord’s Prayer. In the prayer Jesus taught us, he says to pray for our daily bread. Even two millennia later, the linking of “bread” and “daily” brings to mind God’s provision of manna from heaven for the Israelites as they were wandering in the desert for forty years. Daily, God sent bread from heaven for their sustenance. They were told to gather what they needed and not to try to store it overnight, because it would spoil, and it did. Thus each day they had to depend on God for just what they needed for that day. Each morning was an invitation to trust God anew for that day’s mercies, which were indeed “new every morning.” Remarkably, though, as the people gathered each day’s manna, it was said that “the one who gathered much did not have too much,” and “the one who gathered little did not have too little.” Later, Paul instructs the church in Corinth to share with the church in Macedonia, which was experiencing “extreme poverty.” Was the Macedonian church miserly in the midst of their poverty? NO! Instead, “in the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.” The less they had, the more they gave. So in telling the Corinthian church to share, Paul says that equality is what is to be sought. At that time the Corinthian church had more and the Macedonian church less; so the Corinthian church should give to the Macedonian church. At another time, the Macedonian church might have more and the Corinthian church less, and then it would be incumbent upon the Macedonian church to give to the Corinthian one. Either way, resources were to redistributed so that all would have enough. Paul nails down his point by reminding the Corinthian church of the “bread from heaven,” and that “the one who gathered much did not have too much,” while “the one who gathered little did not have too little.” Why? Because they shared! SO, when Jesus tells us to pray for our “daily bread,” he’s reminding us to trust God each day for what we need. He’s reminding us to share what we’re given, and not keep more than what we need for today (more on that later). And to make it super clear, “give us this day our daily bread” gets linked with an “and” to “forgive us our sin.” Is the implication of this pairing that it’s sinful to keep more “bread” than you need for today?
Generous Eyes and a Firm Foundation
Jesus drives home the point with further instruction on radical sharing and generosity. He says:
Store up treasure in heaven, not on earth, for where your treasure is, there will your heart be
The “eye is the lamp of the body,” and if your eyes are “generous,” your whole body will be full of light, but if your eyes are “stingy,” the reverse is true (read the footnotes in your Bible)
Don’t worry about food or clothes, because if God provides for the flowers of the field and the birds of the air, he will do so for us. Therefore, we are not to worry about tomorrow. Almost always the preaching about this comes down to “don’t worry.” Rarely does it look at the implications of not worrying about food and clothes and trusting God for tomorrow’s bread. Jesus states them clearly though: seek first his kingdom. In other words, don’t be caught up in the pursuit of the “American dream” or any other dream for the world or your own life that isn’t consistent with God’s kingdom, with God’s dream for the world he made. In God’s kingdom, there is abundance, not scarcity, even now. Why? How? Because if we would but practice the radical generosity and sharing that Jesus is trying to teach us, then “he who gathers much would not gather too much,” nor “he who gathers little, too little.” Thus the rich will not be rich for long, nor the poor, poor for long, again because we share. We give to those who ask of us, not worrying if we give away the “bread” we think we need for tomorrow. We’re not to worry about tomorrow, for “each day has enough trouble of its own.”
In Jesus’ teaching about “asking” (“…and it will be given to you”), “seeking” (“…and you will find”), and “knocking” (“…and the door will be opened to you”), the point he seems to make is that if we imperfect folks know how to give good gifts to our children, won’t God do the same and more for us? “So in everything,” Jesus says (in other words, therefore), “do to others as we would have them do to us,” for “this is the Law and the Prophets.” In other words, this simple, golden “rule,” sums up Jesus’ whole Bible, the only one he knew, the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures. So if we were hungry today and our brother had more than enough bread for today, wouldn’t we want him to share some with us? If our sister had two coats and we had none, wouldn’t we want her to give one to us? We should do likewise. Jesus’ very next words are about the “wide” and “narrow” gates. The implication seems to be that treating others as we want to be treated (peacefully and with radical generosity, I would argue) is the “narrow gate” that few find.
The Sermon on the Mount ends with talk of “building one’s house on the rock,” a firm foundation in the midst of storms. Jesus says the person who hears his words in the Sermon on the Mount and puts them into practice is like the wise builder who builds on rock rather than sand. How is it, then, that anyone who would follow Jesus does not devote all their time and energy to building such a house? How could I and my family do any less, and, crucially, who’s ready to join us?
Ever hear of Yemen? Some of us probably haven’t because it is not a country that the U.S. political leaders have told us to pay attention to. I told our … The post There’s a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, we are helping and so can you. appeared first on Circle of Hope.
Recently I’ve written about the call we’ve been experiencing in 2017 to get “small.” Over the past few days I’ve been experiencing the implications of that call in profoundly new ways, as I’ve been forced to consider just how “small,” exactly, we’re supposed to get. Remember, this is about getting “small” enough, first of all, to know what it’s like to need a Savior. As solidly “middle class” people of European descent in the U.S., our wealth, privilege, and power is so great that we seldom experience a moment in which the myth of independence and self-sufficiency is exposed for the lie that it is. So long as we follow the dictates of the USAmerican consumer capitalist culture we’re immersed in, we could go on being rooted in our identity as consumers and so could go on consuming (and being consumed) with little thought or fanfare for the rest of our lives. Of course, we know we must resist this so that our identity as beloved children of our father in heaven can be restored. Resist, and restore. This must be the rhythm of our life, a very different life indeed than would otherwise be in store for us, and a very different life indeed than most of our neighbors. To live such a life, alternativity is required.
So we knew getting “small” meant beginning to give away some of our privilege and power. Since becoming convinced of this, we’ve been working to position ourselves so that we can. Initially we needed to free ourselves from the debt slavery we’ve allowed ourselves to be shackled with. The larger USAmerican consumer capitalist culture we’re immersed in would have us believe scarcity is true, but this is a lie. According to this lie, there’s never enough- resources, time, money, etc. So it doesn’t matter how much money you bring home in this culture, you always think you “need” a little more to be happy, and often it doesn’t matter how much money you actually have as you can just borrow what you “need” in order to make up the difference between the money you have and the money “necessary” to make you happy. Many years ago now the U.S. moved to a consumption based economy, and because the powers and principalities that currently shape U.S. society have convinced us that the secular economy should experience perpetual growth, therefore U.S. citizens must continue to consume more and more and more even as “real” wages stagnate or fall. So not only is this a consumption based secular economy, it’s a debt-based one. My family and I mostly went along with this for the the two decades of our adult life so far, somehow thinking we were still following Jesus as we did so. We mostly weren’t. Anyway, we’ve now been rapidly paying down debt as fast as we can, which suddenly became possible, thanks be to God, when we started consuming less. As I’ve said, we got rid of smartphones and “cut the cord” again and moved to a smaller, cheaper space and gave away a car (that we’re still paying for). We quit contributing to retirement and savings accounts (which I now call “exercises in functional atheism”), though we haven’t given up our life insurance accounts (maybe one day we’ll be trusting and faithful enough to do so). All of this made it possible for us to further reduce expenses by again paying down as much debt as we can as fast as we can.
Small(er) Space and a Small(er) Geographical Radius
So getting “small” so far has meant having less debt, fewer cars, less “stuff,” and less living space to put any “stuff” in. It’s meant, for me, biking to work and not having access to a car most of the time when Kirsten is gone with it and I’m home alone or home with the boys. Consequently, it’s meant having a smaller geographical radius in which to operate, a fact which was also true generally for me as since we moved to NE Minneapolis and I changed jobs I have been living, working, and worshipping within about a two mile radius. So as I said, when Kirsten is gone with the car and I want to go somewhere, I can’t go any further than I (and maybe the kids) can bike to. There’s a whole post someday to be written just about the theological implications of that “small” fact, but I digress.
All of this still begs the question of why this is so important. I’ve alluded to some reasons above, but we’re not only getting “small” so that we can experience what it’s like to need a Savior from time to time. We’re also doing so in order to get closer to those we would feel called to be in solidarity with, the “least of these,” those “on the margins” of society, etc. We became convinced that “solidarity requires proximity” (hence the title of this blog), and we can’t be very close to those we can’t relate to. We can’t be very close to those that are routinely oppressed by the powers and the powerful in USAmerican society so long as we remain on the side of the oppressors, among the powerful. So we’re not just trying to “downsize.” We’re trying to keep up with Jesus as we keep finding him among the powerless. Our move to NE Minneapolis was a step in this direction, but likely only a halting first step. We’re now getting a better sense of what some of the next steps might look like, though in an admittedly painful, unexpected way.
We Followed Jesus into Mill City Church. Jesus Kept Moving.
In my 50 or so posts since about a year ago, I’ve written quite a bit about our discovery of, and involvement in, Mill City Church. At the moment that involvement is being severely tested. Without going into details here, what I will say is that the “short” of it is that as they listen to God and try to join what he’s already doing, they seem to be pulled in one direction. As we attempt to do the same, we sense that we’re being pulled in another. Does this mean that we must part ways with the faith community in which we’ve learned so much over the past year, in no small part because we’ve learned so much and want to put those lessons into practice? That remains to be seen.
A Small(er) Road and Gate on the Way That Leads to Life
Having said that, what now? As we’ve been working on getting “small” and realizing how much renouncing violence is an integral part of that, we’ve been drawn again and again to the Sermon on the Mount. It was in the Sermon on the Mount that we learned how to work on becoming “children of our Father in heaven.” It was there that we learned that the Lord’s Prayer was part of Jesus’ sermon series on generosity, that we are to pray only for today’s bread, the now obvious implication being that if we get more than today’s “bread,” it’s so that we can share with our neighbors in need. I now know that there is a reason why “give us this day our daily bread” is linked (at least in most of our English translations), with an “and,” to “forgive us our sin,” for it is sinful indeed to keep more bread than we need for today so long as our neighbor is hungry (and again, if we don’t know any hungry neighbors, it’s only because of how much proximity matters). It’s sinful to have two coats or more while our neighbors have none. To pray for God’s kingdom to come means to live as if it has, and in God’s kingdom economy, scarcity is not the norm; abundance is. God the giver made us to be givers too, and it’s high time we started living like it.
In any case, the ending of the Sermon on the Mount is just as important as the rest of it. In that ending Jesus tells us how to have a sure foundation for our faith, how to keep close to him in the midst of the many “storms” of life. He says:
Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” 28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.
Thus it seems clear that for Jesus, if not for many of us, living out his words in the Sermon on the Mount remains the best way to have a sure foundation for one’s faith. The “rock” upon which the “house” of our faith is to be built is not saying the “sinner’s prayer” or having “devotionals.” It has nothing to do with one’s theology about hell or who gets “saved” or who can marry. Instead, according to Jesus, if you want be like a wise person who builds their house on a rock, you simply have to hears his words in the Sermon on the Mount and put them into practice. What does this look like? What do these wise people do? They give to those who ask of them, and do not resist an evil person violently, so that they can be children of their father in heaven. They do not worry about tomorrow, about what they will eat or drink or wear, because they know that he who takes care of the birds and flowers will take care of them. Therefore they know to store up treasure in heaven rather than on earth, and so they ask only for today’s bread and do not keep more than they need for today, especially while they have more than one coat and their neighbor has none. In short, they treat others like they would want to be treated, for this is the narrow gate, the narrow door that leads to life. Not only do these wise folks refrain from killing; they don’t hate. Not only do they keep from committing adultery; they don’t lust. These “rules,” of course, are for relationship. They point to that narrow path, that narrow door that leads to life.
So the answer to the question of “what now?” seems as plain as Jesus’ instruction in the Sermon on the Mount. What’s happening to us right now feels a bit like a storm, but we know how to feel secure in the midst of it. We will redouble our efforts to love our neighbor, to get as “small” and close to our small, marginalized neighbors as we can so that we can love them from a position of solidarity. We didn’t imagine that getting small as we try to keep up with Jesus would challenge our ability to keep participating in the faith community we so recently followed him into, but so be it. I didn’t imagine that getting small would mean quitting not only Facebook but also Twitter and wavering back and forth between whether or not to make this blog private, but again, so be it. I do not want to be one of the many on the wide path that are out there promoting their “Christian” brand complete with logos and related web content in various formats. If my message is my life, I don’t need to promote it. It should be enough for me for the poor to know that I love them because I am their neighbor and friend, and perhaps someday am one of them. If I do manage to get small enough to be one of them, I’ll not only know what it’s like to need a Savior; with profound new depth, I’ll know what it’s like to have one.
“Maybe the end of the world comes one person at a time.” That was the provocative suggestion by one of my former pastors, Russell Rathbun from House of Mercy. If memory serves, this was near the end of his still memorable sermon series many years ago now in which he told an elaborate story about “the end of the world.” He was working through the common U.S. “Evangelical” understanding of the “end times” in which the “Rapture” is a prominent feature along with the belief that the primary task of a Christian is to “win souls” for heaven and save them from the eternal torture that awaits all who don’t say the “sinner’s prayer.” The idea that God would allow- if not cause- this goes hand-in-glove with the idea that the crucifixion of Jesus was an incident of “cosmic child abuse” in which Jesus had to be tortured and murdered in order to change God’s mind about we sinners (whom he would otherwise allow to be tormented eternally in order to satisfy his “justice”). I probably digress.
Anyway, what Russell was suggesting, I think all these years later, in that sermon series was 1) the idea of God and how he operates in the world as depicted above is the unbiblical baloney that I now know it to be, and 2) that there nonetheless is something to this idea of the “end of the world.” There’s actually some really great stuff in the Bible that gets at this, for those with eyes to see and ear to hear, but it takes a little work to find the treasures that are there in Scripture to be found. Here’s just one little idea that is captivating my imagination as I think about this, this morning. In the creation story as we find it in Scripture it seems to end badly. Adam and Eve were given only one rule that was meant to preserve and protect their right relationship with God their creator and friend. This rule was not meant to limit or diminish them or keep them from all the goodness God had made for them and given them. It was meant, as all good rules are, to point them in the direction of right relationship. Thus, as I keep saying, “rules are for relationship.” As we know, they broke the rule, and their relationship with God and creation itself was damaged. This part of the story ends with Adam and Eve being sent from the garden, and the text says a “flaming sword” acted as a gate barring them from ever returning. By the way, Russell once told another great story in a sermon in which he re-told the creation story and when he got to the part where Adam and Even were sent from the garden, he depicted the garden as being fenced off from them, and in his telling of the story, just as Adam and Eve leave for good, God hops the fence to join them. Astounded, they ask, “what are you doing?!” to which God replies, “I’m coming with you.” Remarkable, isn’t it?
“I’m Coming With You.”
So at the beginning of the Biblical narrative a fateful decision is made that results in us being exiled forever from the place where we were with God as we were created to be. Even then, however, there was a hint of the promise of God-With-Us (again and forever), and one day Immanuel did indeed come, never to leave us again. God was and is with us, indeed. Meanwhile, God’s good creation remains marred by sin, that condition in which we all are caught and which serves as the backdrop for our many unloving, sinful acts against God, one another, and God’s good world. And because God is a good, good father who will not coerce his children into receiving the freedom that Jesus gives us from the sinful condition in which we are caught, the long work of reconciliation goes on. As we take halting steps into the freedom we’ve been given, we move a little closer into right relationship with God, one another, and the world. One day the work of the family business of reconciliation will be complete, and on that day we won’t escape into the sky while the earth burns; rather, heaven will come to earth as both are remade into what they have always been meant to be, and we are too. How does the Biblical narrative end? Remember, at the beginning of the grand, sweeping narrative of the Bible there is a flaming sword barring our return to the place where we were with God; remember too that some Christians would have you believe that heaven is like that too, that it’s inaccessible to those who don’t say the right thing before they die. That, however, is not what we find in the text. What’s actually there, near the end of Revelation, for those with ears to hear, is the astounding statement that the heavenly city’s gates “will never be shut.” This is important because we also find in the text language that describes various categories of sinful folk being left outside the city. But it would seem that if they choose to stay there it is not because God prevents them from entering the city. Rather, it seems clear that 1) heaven’s gates are always open, and 2) there is a standing invitation to enter. Where the first humans broke the one rule to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, by the end of the Biblical narrative all people are invited to enter the heavenly city and drink, to take “the free gift of the water of life.” John the Revelator puts it this way:
He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. 7 Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.”
I find this language- of being children of God the Father, in heaven- super interesting, since none other than Jesus describes how to become children of the father in heaven. I’ve written about this, but it’s found in the Sermon on the Mount, and has to do with giving to those who ask of us and renouncing our violent ways.
Anyway, later John the Revelator says:
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.
Look, there is fiery language in John’s Apocalypse to be sure. I don’t deny this. What I deny is that such “fiery” language is the point. What’s notable I think is that where humanity was once barred from returning to the place where they could be with God, by the end of the Biblical text there is a standing invitation to enter the eternally open gates of that very place and drink of the water of life. This invitation seems to apply even to those who are self-exiled in the “fire” of “hell.” Sure, there’s language in the text describing those sinful categories of folks who will remain outside the city: “Outside are…those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” But the point isn’t that they must remain there; rather, it’s that they are eternally invited to choose love, forgiveness, and right relationship and so enter the city, having shed their immoral, murderous, idolatrous, and lying ways. It’s important too to remember that John’s Apocalypse is just that, an apocalyptic tale that’s probably best read not as a “magic 8 ball” telling us our future, but rather as a prophetic critique of Empire (particularly the Roman one, but that critique applies just as well to our current “American” one) and a dramatic proclamation that the rule and reign of God in Christ is here to stay.
One of These Is Not Like the Others
So, then, what if the “end of the world comes one person at a time?” I think part of what Russell may have been getting at is that if we are to follow Jesus into the freedom and new life he makes possible, we really must leave one world and enter another. We must put an end to our fidelity to all the “isms” of this world, and by “world” of course I don’t mean the created order; rather I mean the world of Empire- all that is set up in opposition to the rule and reign of God in Christ- our history, language, culture, customs, economies and secular politics. I’m talking about the “stream” that we’re swimming in, our worldview. What we need, as always, is alternativity. Growing up in Texas as young person I thought Republicans were good God-fearing folk doing their best to follow Jesus in the world of secular politics. Maybe there are some folks who self-identify as “Republican” who would also call themselves “Christians” and think they are doing just that. However, for a good long while I thought being a “Republican” was essentially the same thing as being a “Christian” in the same way that I thought being an “American” was essentially the same thing as being a “Christian” (I guess in this view “Democrats” are neither “Christian” nor “American”). Later, of course, I learned how far that was from the truth and predictably I swung to the other side. If Republicans gave lip service to “life” (in the womb only) but were otherwise bloodthirsty in their support for capital punishment, war, and deadly lack of healthcare and living wages, then Democrats surely had a better approach as they at least gave lip service to aligning themselves with the folks Jesus seemed most interested in spending time with- the poor, the sick, the marginalized, etc. It’s taken me a long time to realize that neither approach gets it right, that both are inevitably mired in Empire- the principalities and powers that are set up in opposition to the rule and reign of God in Christ.
This doesn’t mean we need not vote or do what we can to get what justice we can within those now defunct systems; what it does mean, however, is that this is not our primary task; it doesn’t deserve the bulk of our attention and energy. I don’t think Jesus died at the hands of Empire so that we could then spend our days working to bring about a better, more humane and loving Empire! No, as N.T. Wright says in the title of his recent book, the crucifixion of Jesus is “the day the revolution began.” As one reviewer of Wright’s book put it, summarizing Wright’s argument:
The early Christians turned things upside down with a seemingly ridiculous announcement of a revolution through the crucifixion of a Jewish teacher, such that “by 6 p.m. on that dark Friday the world was a different place.” But the church has tamed this radical message, domesticating it to the powers he came to subvert.
The reviewer goes on:
The traditional presentation of the gospel—e.g., the “Romans Road”—has little contact with the story the apostle is telling in that famous epistle, Wright argues. Abstracted from the story of Israel, the gospel becomes reduced to “Jesus bore God’s wrath in your place so you could go to heaven when you die.” That old-time religion had some legitimate pieces of the puzzle, but it didn’t put them together properly. Consequently, evangelicals have moralized the problem (sin merely as violations of a code), paganized the solution (an angry Father punishing his Son), and platonized the goal (going to heaven when we die).
Our Lives Must Be Our Message
The gospel story is so much bigger and more compelling than what it’s been reduced to as described above, and if we are to follow Jesus in subverting the powers, we can no longer go on domesticating our message- or our lives- to them. Indeed, our lives must be our message. So again, we need alternativity. It’s interesting, isn’t it? As good “Americans,” so many of us are so individualistic and selfish that we think salvation is all about us, individually. And because we don’t want to have to feel too guilty about getting our “fire insurance,” we sometimes try to sell our (fire) insurance policy to as many of our friends and neighbors as we can. To their credit, lately many in the “Evangelical” world seem to have discovered justice, or at least are newly focused on it, and this has become a welcome emphasis as there is talk of a “whole Gospel” (that includes both corporate dimensions of institutional sin and salvation including work for justice, and more individualistic responses to the call to follow Jesus that include emphases on holiness and personal morality). But again, it remains my contention that all of this is still very much rooted in and is accommodating to those very powers that we are instead supposed to subvert. It is with a heavy heart that I repeat that so much of our justice work is likely just the application of “band-aids on capitalism,” including my 9-5 daily job in the social service field and much of what many churches do to serve the poor.
Band-Aids on Capitalism
The people who make up Circle of Hope in Philly have a “proverb” about this, which goes:
Generating justice and hope in our neighborhood must be at the heart of us. Wealth and power reduce sympathy for the poor and powerless. A marriage between unfettered capitalism and piety makes the Lord’s words inconvenient at best and heretical at worst.
Many people say American Christians have generally reduced their faith to “moral therapeutic deism,” where the shapes and colors of religion are imported into mass-market self-help schemes. Meanwhile, the “Christian right” persevere in old political battles (sexuality, marriage, education, etc.) for which they sold their souls to the “economy.” But the strength of their efforts appears to be waning; the once coherent evangelical voting bloc is splintering. The titans of industry intent on fostering a pro-capitalist politics can no longer rely on them to bolster their project. The most ardent pro-capitalists, don’t generally speak in terms of Christ and country any more; they are more likely to talk about self-improvement and actualization.
Why pray about this? Why give ourselves proverb to remember? We are all in the grip of capitalism and tend to believe its narrative about life more than the Lord’s. Whether with or in spite of Oprah or Franklin Graham, we’re moving with or resisting the flow.
Free-market economics and Christianity were not always the twin pillars of a uniquely American gospel. Yet the last election was kicked off by Ted Cruz spinning a free-market yarn to the student body of the world’s largest Christian college. He wanted to get the born-again Christians into the voting booth giving him dominion over the economy. At this point, thanks to the tireless efforts of the pastors and politicians, the disparity between the Christian ethos and the spirit of capitalism is now little more than a periodic gurgle of protest from believers who lean “left.” Most pastors preach some variation on self-help and self-reliance.
Capitalism needs a story to make its excesses and failures palatable to the masses. Regular people need to be convinced that the system that benefits the rich actually benefits them too. Lately there have been stories about the prophets of capital like Bill Gates and Sheryl Sandberg. The stories about the rich and successful have different plots, but the same goal: to patch up leaks in capitalism and advance its shuddering bulk for one more day. In the 1950’s it was Christianity that was deployed to offer this endorsement, now it is more likely the Koch brothers or Mark Zuckerberg.
Each of the stories keeps a glimmer of the past pro-capitalist Christian crusades burning — they are all sermons about the economy with moral imperatives, altar calls and an application that will not only save your finances but save the country, if not humanity. As religiosity drops off in the United States and is replaced either by faithlessness or individual spirituality, capitalism is reformating its defenses to match those changes. That could be the best possible thing for true Christianity in the United States. If the Christian story is the latest to be shucked aside by capitalism, then Christianity might find itself slipping the grip of a rather oppressive relationship.
Out of the grip of capitalism, American Christians would be free to offer up a genuinely revolutionary Christian politics: one that neither seeks to bolster capitalism blatantly nor offer meager patches for its systemic problems. Having an historical perspective on the ways in which Christianity was co-opted in service of the capitalist cause could help new Christian activists avoid the pitfalls of the recent past. Our proverb names the problem and calls us to enact the transformation that makes us truly free, not just free to pay the system for the privilege of consuming.
Suggestions for action
Pray: Make me a heretic in the religion of capitalism and a prophet among those who follow Jesus.
It takes some study to see beyond the ocean of capitalism in which we swim. We have all bought the story to some degree, as follows: Holiness and profit go together. The special capacity of capitalism to help the poor is assumed. The respect due to those who “make it” is something to which children are taught to aspire. We elect millionaires to lead the country. It goes on, often unexamined.
Take some time to ponder our proverb and Amos’ prophecy again. What does your participation in the “economy” do to your ability to follow Jesus? Don’t immediately figure out how you will fit more of Jesus into your busy schedule. First consider just what it costs your faith to have it married to capitalism, if it is. How does Jesus speak into you life in the U.S. and direct you?
This gets at the heart of the alternativity we so desperately need. I think most Christians and most churches who sincerely want to follow Jesus direct most of their efforts to trying to figure out how to fit more of Jesus into their busy schedules. Rarely do they consider what it costs to have their faith married to capitalism as much as to Jesus, and thus can’t hear Jesus speaking into their lives in the U.S. and directing them. Jesus doesn’t want us to fit as much of him as we can into our busy capitalistic schedules. He doesn’t want us to knowingly or unknowingly allow ourselves to be reduced to mere consumers, whether of the goods and services the “invisible hand” of the market is constantly shilling, or, worse, of the “religious goods and services” too much of the Church spends most of its time peddling.
Want to Have a “Sure Foundation” for your Faith? You Can If you Live the Sermon on the Mount, According to Jesus
Such questions are troubling, of course, and may get one into all kinds of trouble. It’s hard for one’s “world” to end, and to enter a new one, just as it’s hard to die and be born again. Even so, this is the experience I and my family are in some small way having. Eberhard Arnold, one of the saints in the “great cloud of witnesses” I have immense respect for and any reader would do well to learn about, wrote about this. As he became convinced that he must follow Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, which Jesus described as the “narrow road/gate” that “leads to life” and about which Jesus said was the way to build one’s house (of faith) on rock rather than sand, he wrote:
Shortly before the outbreak of the war (WWI), I wrote to a friend saying that I could not go on like this. I had interested myself in individuals, preached the gospel, and endeavored in this way to follow Jesus. But I had to find a way actually to serve humankind; I wanted a dedication that would establish a tangible reality by which men could recognize the cause for which Jesus died.
He also said, describing the situation in Berlin during and after the war:
Then hunger came to Berlin. People ate turnips morning, noon, and night. When the people turned to the officials for money or food, they were told, “If you are hungry, eat turnips!” On the other hand, even in the middle of Berlin there were still well-to-do “Christian” families who had a cow and had milk when no one else did. Carts went through the streets bearing the bodies of children who had died. The bodies were wrapped in newspaper, for there was neither time nor money for a coffin. In 1917 I saw a horse collapse in the street: the driver was knocked aside by the starving people, who rushed to cut chunks from the warm body to bring home to their families.
He continues: “After such experiences…I realized the whole situation was unbearable,” and then he goes on to say:
…it soon became clear that Jesus’ way is a practical one: he has shown us a way of life that is more than a way of concern for the soul. It is a way that simply says, “If you have two coats, give one to him who has none; give food to the hungry, and do not turn away your neighbor when he needs to borrow from you. When you are asked for an hour’s work, give two. You must strive for his justice. If you want to found a family, see that all others who want to found a family are able to do so, too. If you wish for education, work, and satisfying activity, make these possible for other people as well. If you say it is your duty to care for your health, then accept this duty for the health of others too. Treat people in the same way that you would be treated by them. This is the law and the prophets. Enter through this narrow gate, for it is the way that leads to the kingdom of God.
I and my family can not go on like this either. This whole situation of ongoing accommodation to violent, capitalistic Empire in “American civil religion” is “unbearable.” I do not mean to judge, and I know that if I am judging I will be judged by the very same measure that I am using. What I’m saying is that I want to be judged, and I have heard the judgment rendered! I have participated in and accommodated the violent, capitalistic Empire I was born into for far too long. But now, since I have been born again, it’s high time to live like it! If it is the “whole gospel” we are to be after, then let’s get on with it! Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew something about resisting Empire, even if he found himself at one point famously accommodating violence to do it (an act inconsistent with the rest of the direction in which his life of faith was moving). About Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, which Eberhard Arnold came to have a burning desire to obey wholeheartedly, Bonhoeffer wrote:
We have listened to the Sermon on the Mount and perhaps have understood it. But who has heard it aright? Jesus gives the answer at the end (Matthew 7:24-29). He does not allow his hearers to go away and make of his saying what they will, picking and choosing from them whatever they find helpful and testing them to see if they work. He does not give them free rein to misuse his word with their mercenary hands, but gives it to them on condition that it retains exclusive power over them. Humanly speaking, we could understand and interpret the Sermon on the Mount in a thousand different ways. Jesus knows only one possibility: simple surrender and obedience, not interpreting it or applying it, but doing and obeying it. That is the only way to hear his word. He does not mean that it is to be discussed as an ideal; he really means us to get on with it.
To the extent that we do get on with it, we will “establish a tangible reality by which (people) could recognize the cause for which Jesus died.” Thus, the end of one world will come, and a new one- the kingdom of God- which even now is upon us, will further break in.
In the player above, skip ahead to track 3, “Buzzing of a Bee,” and give it a listen. Below is an early version of the lyrics of this song, courtesy of Circle of Hope in Philly and their partners, including the spoken word artist, Blew Kind. Here’s what they say about it:
We are being honest about our mistakes, limits, and the brokenness of our world. Blew Kind wrote this spoken word piece preparing for the event in Fall of 2014 called “Peacemaking in an Era of Drone Warfare” put on by the Philadelphia Interfaith Network Against Drone Warfare, of which we are a contributing member along with The Brandywine Peace Community, Mennonite Central Committee (East Coast), Red Letter Christians, The Alternative Seminary, and American Friends Service Committee. The military plans on building and opening a US Drone War Command Center in Horsham, PA, just outside of Philadelphia. We first performed this piece at the coalition event with Medea Benjamin of Code Pink and a viewing of the short documentary “Wounds of Waziristan” and then at a monthly peace vigil outside the Air Guard Station, the future home of the command center. Try to listen as she connects violence and white supremacy to drone warfare and calls into question its morality and our need to root ourselves in Jesus to fight against their propagation.
Here are most of the lyrics, in a slightly earlier form
In search of men. Ages 18-48
That may resemble a “militant”
Why are you here?
I thought it was to help
Join the fight against ISIS, against terrorism
Whom are pushing people into exile for refusal to be
The creativity to be a refuge & fighter of the “free world”
As you say,
Is lacking and only gravitates towards
Maintaining the status of Violence.
There are 40,000 people hiding
in the mountains for their lives.
How dare you impose your system of violence
When our leaders insist you to stop, stating
“The use of drones is not only a
continual violation of our territorial integrity
but also detrimental to our resolve & efforts
at eliminating terrorism in our country”
“These drones are illegal, in humane
violate the UN Charter of Human Rights
And constitutes as a War Crime. “
And all you can do is
from the mouths of pride & disillusioned power
contending “that the attacks
do not violate international law
(people in the audience start Buzzing..)
We call them “Bangadan”..buzzing of a bee
All day. Louder at night.
No war declared but you bomb my people…
I hold my babies tight
And hope we will see tomorrow together..
I hear the wailing of a monther, my neighbor
Lost their baby before their eyes.
All dust. No warning.
Wailing all day. Louder at night.
Tears find their home on my cheek.
Praying for my children, these precious souls
That birthed from my womb..
Will there ever be peace?
Will this madness never end?
The anxiety, the fear, the nightmares
“No identities needed, Vaguries around strike targets”
common English reports state.
2500 of my people
have been blown to die
from these buzzing drones
that have no face.
To stand on a mountain
Pointing guns & lazers
Grinning, “you…weak one will fear me”
You.. hide when you hear me”
Because Fear to this
American militarized self seeking puppet
Is the fuel that
Cycles barbarism against those
Of the brown skin.
Old news, are you familiar?
Oh right, the American educational system and media neglect to educate
The truth of this madness, disgust, thick,
Stains of this lands forefathers, big business owners…
Or as Ida B Wells states in the 19th century,
“They belong to the race which holds Negro life cheap, which owns the telegraph wires, newspapers, and all other communication with the outside world. They write the reports which justify lynching by painting the Negro as black as possible, and those reports are accepted by the press associations and the world without question or investigation. The sheriffs, police, and state officials stand by and see the work done well in the broad day light.”
Oh! Ida B Wells. You had somethin goin on..
After 9/11 Fear has pushed the people
To accept ridiculous laws of control
Power in the hands of the government
Dictating Who is suspicious
Whose rights get torn away,
Private prisons of torture,
Radicalization of violence
All for the “Fight of Terror”
precise and affective.”
Who are you to be a judge of international law/ethics/morals?
Rooted in a history of barbarism, greed, debt enslaving countries
Lynching stilling alive on your “God given blood stained soil”
If you are as affective as stated.
Why for every 1 “suspected” militant
10 innocent mothers, daughters, fathers, sons are killed
Deciding morality and viability of these
Destructive tactics using statistics is empty and corrupt
When human lives are your quantitative data
Or, lets use a more detached phrase of
These cycles of violence.
A “necessary evil”
Sewed into the deepest muck of
Racism this land of laws has ever known.
System based on fear.
Fear of the unknown
So How ‘bout we adjust our view of what profit could actually mean.
What if maintaining the status of profit is actually
Maintaining the braid of families, children, culture, and hope.
Profit driven by a chain of hands
Linking in the presence of injustice.
Rooted in Jesus.
If you ask what the people want of Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia
They sing that of the same note.
“No more killing of our people
No more funerals of our mothers, daughters, fathers, sons..”
Hear our wail
All day. Louder at night.
May our voice be heard
And the bows of the wicked broken.
Her our wail
Mother Justice of the great deep
Father Refuge in the shadow of your wings..
Hear our wail..
we will see tomorrow together..
We call them Bangadan
Buzzing of a bee
All for the “Fight of Terror”
“If everything is Terrorism,
nothing is terrorism,”
states former FBI Special Agent
“[the watchlist system] is revving out of control”
Now is the time to rid ourselves of this old foundation,
The leaders of this country
As the “Defenders of the Free World”
As the leaders of Greed, Racism, Profit, and Civilization.
Now is the time to
Adapt a new foundation
Rooted in those of the Resistors, the Martyrs
Who voice forgiveness, compassion, peace
Who voice the cry of the needy
The cry of the oppressed
How can we be a part of the solution before
Tension escalates to wildness and blood?
Yes, Peace isn’t profitable
…especially in a country governed
by the big business of weaponry.
However, an old saying goes
“There is future for the men & women of peace
& their children will be blessed
But the future of the wicked will be cut off”
Hit play above and give this song, another gift to the church from the folks that make up Circle of Hope in Philly, a listen as you read. It’s based on Psalm 20, in which David says:
Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
I discovered the song when I came across this post by Jonny Rashid, one of Circle of Hope’s pastors. If you don’t get anything from what I write below, hit the link in the line above and just read Jonny’s post. Maybe God’s Spirit will speak to you through him. It was written over a year ago, but remains timely, especially in light of the recently released “Nashville Statement,” because, as Jonny says, “Christians in this fight (the fight for the culture, or ‘culture wars’) are discerning what hills to die on. Excluding gay people seems to be an important hill for them.” In Jonny’s post he links to the song above, and includes these lyrics from it:
I won’t put my trust in chariots or horses I won’t put my trust in them. I won’t put my trust in that empty promise I won’t put my trust in them.
My trust and my pride is in the name of Jesus Christ Who takes the old and broke and makes it new I’ll put my hope in the One who frees us all from sin, And to love is what He shows us to do.
This song is an anthem for our time. Not putting our trust in chariots or horses- or guns or bombs or violence of any kind- is one of the primary challenges of our time, and every time. Likewise, if my ears serve me, verse 2 of the song goes:
I won’t put my trust in gold or earthly riches I won’t put my trust in them. I won’t put my trust in that empty promise I won’t put my trust in them.
My trust and my pride is in the name of Jesus Christ Who takes the old and broke and makes it new I’ll put my hope in the One who frees us all from sin, And to love is what He shows us to do.
Again, not putting our trust in treasure that we can store up here on earth in our checking and savings accounts, in our money market accounts and 401k’s, is (along with the call to renounce violence) probably the biggest barrier to following Jesus we “rich young rulers” in the U.S. face. So….what a song.
I bring up the song because it so obviously touches on the two big things we’ve been learning this year, both of which have to do with how very counter-cultural following Jesus really is because:
Much of what Jesus seems to have to say to us has to do with recognizing that everything belongs to God the giver who made us to be givers too and calls us to participate in his economy rather than the economies of the world. In God’s economy, there is abundance, not scarcity. In God’s economy, we share; we don’t hoard and accumulate for ourselves. In God’s economy, we’re not mere consumers; we’re stewards. In God’s economy, we are blessed to be a blessing such that if our neighbor has no coat while we have two, we are to give him one, with our apology for hoarding what God gave us clearly for the express purpose of passing on to him. Thus, capitalism is just another ‘ism Jesus wants to save us from. I could go on, and already have.
We have been charged with being heralds of the gospel of peace. We are to be peacemakers and agents of shalom. Just as God calls us to reject Mammon in order to serve him, he calls us to reject violence in all its forms because the One we follow is the Prince of Peace. Thus, not only do we reject capitalism and all the economies of this world, we also are to reject war and capital punishment and violent entertainment and every other way that the principalities, powers, and empires of this world seek to ensnare us in the culture of violence, usually in service of the economy or so that we can protect our (rich) “way of life,” etc.
Rejecting capitalism/Mammon and giving up violence obviously puts one at odds with empire, and thus “narrow is the road that leads to life,” indeed, and indeed “only a few find it.” Though again few seem to find this narrow road, it seems to me that there is a preponderance of Scripture that makes it clear that we are to participate in God’s abundant economy by sharing the many good gifts God has given us. We read a lot in Scripture about peacemaking too, especially in the New Testament, but there’s also plenty that seems to paint God as a violent god that endorses violence and tells his followers to participate in it. Some of the most “troubling texts” in Scripture fall into this category. Thankfully, modern-day prophets like Brian Zahnd and Greg Boyd and many others are doing some great work these days to show us that God is not, after all, violent. I’ve read Zahnd’s A Farewell to Mars and Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, and I would highly recommend both. I’ve started reading Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God and was blessed to be able to hear him speak about it to Third Way Church (a local faith community I have immense respect for). I even had the chance to talk to Greg personally at Third Way’s worship gathering, and so am confident that even without having yet finished the very lengthy, scholarly Crucifixion of the Warrior God (thankfully there’s a shorter, more accessible version, called Cross Vision), I know I will be able to highly recommend it too.
The gifts that both Zahnd and Boyd (and again, others) have to offer not just the church, but the world, include their work to show that many of those “troubling texts” are not in the end what they might seem to be at first reading with our modern, Western eyes. There’s a lot under the surface and behind the scenes of written Scripture that when illuminated help us to see that, as Zahnd says: “God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. We haven’t always known this, but now we do.” This, then, brings me to the matter at hand. I was honored a few weeks ago to have been asked to teach some of the elementary age kids who gather as part of Mill City Church. I was supposed to talk about the “armor of God.” You might imagine that this presented a bit of a conundrum for me, given what I’ve said above and have been saying all year. I was glad for the opportunity, though, because it forced me to wrestle with the question of whether or not the warrior language of the “armor of God” passage is another example of those texts that (seem to) tell us how to be violent rather than shalom-makers. Let’s take a look at the passage from Ephesians:
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place,15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.19 Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel,20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.
Now, you probably know as well as I that you can’t start reading something that starts with “Finally.” The obvious question is: “Finally, what?” What is being summed up here? Before I go any further I should mention that in this, as in so many other things, I am indebted to the good people of Circle of Hope and the heavy theological lifting they’ve done in thinking of Paul “doing theology” in “two tiers.” As they put it:
Paul has a very useful approach to taking action on behalf of Jesus and in service to the poor and oppressed. He even has a great approach to advocating for rights, which seems way before its time. What I mean is that there is a general, universal, eternal tier in his thinking, and then a practical, flexible, temporal application of it. In the Enlightenment period, theologians put the entire Bible into one big text and applied their systems of thinking to it in order to make sense of it. Protestants have been having Bible studies ever since trying to fit the Bible into some rational system. Paul, in particular, looks like he is a very unsystematic thinker at points. For instance, he will tell the Galatians that there is no male and female in Christ, we are all children of God in Christ. Then he tells the Corinthian women some very specific ways to behave in no uncertain terms that make them look completely unequal. Which one is it? I think it is both. His prophetic first tier is “There is no male or female hierarchy,” his practical tier is “Act in a way that makes the mission work and relationships of love flourish, and don’t get us in trouble with our persecutors.”
Later, they offer this very helpful hermeneutic for reading Paul which is related to the two tiers described above:
Head coverings, long hair for women, not men (although Jesus probably had long hair), women not speaking (elsewhere they are forbidden to teach men) although he encouraged them to keep their head covered while prophesying in the meeting – these are all inconsistent and specific applications. Paul was not trying to write the Bible as the modernists saw it. Surely he did not expect his writings to be collected. He is not a professor writing a book about a topic. He is working things out as the body of Christ, led by the Spirit, “in Christ.” You can make your own discernment in Christ, but it looks like we should apply a principle of Bible interpretation that says the closer a teaching in the Bible is to the culture of the day, the more likely it is to be culturally bound, and the more counter-cultural it is the more likely it is to be universal in application. It’s not an ironclad principle, but a useful guide.
This guide is useful indeed. The closer a teaching in the Bible is to the culture of the day- the more in line it is with how things were for the folks who originally wrote and read the Bible- “the more likely it is to be culturally bound.” In other words, if Paul, inspired by God’s Spirit, were writing to us today, the teaching in such passages might be written very differently. Remember, it was Jesus who so often did this very thing with his Bible- the Old Testament- when he repeatedly said, “You have heard it said….but I tell you…” Likewise, if something that runs truly counter to the culture of the folks who originally wrote and read the Bible made it into that very Bible, it’s very likely to have a universal application, to be a timeless truth that is just as “true” for us as it was for its original hearers, and in much the same way.
So, going back to the “finally” that the “armor of God” passage above begins with, let’s see what’s being summarized. Paul begins in Ephesians 1 by giving thanks for those to whom he was writing and describing how Christ has been given authority “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.” This is quite a claim in the midst of the Roman Empire of his day. As I’ve so often repeated, to say that “Jesus is Lord” is to say that Caesar is not. Shane Claiborne, I think, gets close to getting it right when he says that this is like saying “Jesus is President,” and Trump (or Obama or any other) is not. Paul’s assertion here is one that Christians in the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the world- richer and more powerful even than Rome in its heyday- should likewise be making today. The “leader of the free world,” and all the world indeed, is not the President of the U.S., and any power the President or Congress or Supreme Court or any other earthly ruler thinks he has pales in comparison to that of Jesus, but I digress.
In these first few chapters of Ephesians, Paul addresses himself to Jews first, and then turns his attention to the Gentiles, to whom he has a mission to preach the gospel. In chapter 2 he describes how those who have been “saved” have received this salvation as gift, through grace and faith, “so that no one can boast.” He’s making a case here. He declares that Jews and Gentiles are united in Christ, who has preached peace (shalom) to those who were thought to be far from God (Gentiles), and peace to those who were thought to be near to God (Jews). Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) at the time did not “naturally” associate with one another, and up to this point it would have been unthinkable to imagine that the Jewish Messiah, the would-be political liberator of his people, was not only not going to violently overthrow Rome, but to make matters far worse in the eyes of Jews at the time, was going to offer his salvation (whatever that meant) not only to Jews but to their Gentile oppressors too! This was a scandal of the worst kind. It’s no wonder Jesus was executed with approval from the Roman state and the Jewish religious leaders. So then, Paul in Ephesians is writing to persuade his Jewish hearers and readers who have begun to follow Jesus that (again, quite scandalously) they are no more worthy of salvation than Gentiles are, for God’s free gift is indeed free, and is available to all. Paul makes this explicit in Ephesians 3. This is good news, but of a subversively revolutionary kind. Jews of the time had been hoping for a revolution, after all, but this is not the revolution they thought they were signing up for.
Paul spills a lot of ink in Ephesians 4 continuing to describe this gospel of peace and the unity that all who would follow Jesus are to share. He goes on to describe the new life that we who are united in and by Christ are to share. Paul tells us to live according to this new life we have been given, and to stop living like those who do not follow Jesus, who “are so greedy that they do all kinds of indecent things.” Isn’t it interesting how often in Scripture, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, we find instruction (not rules) for how we are to relate to one another economically? “The love of money is the root of all evil,” indeed. Paul in Ephesians 4 even gives examples of what the new life in Christ he’s been describing looks like by way of contrast with the old. Notable among them, and again related to God’s economy, is this gem: “If you are a thief, quit stealing. Be honest and work hard, so you will have something to give to people in need” (italics added). Sharing with those who ask of us is baked right in to the description of why we should work (and not steal) at all.
Do as God does. After all, you are his dear children. 2 Let love be your guide. Christ loved us[a] and offered his life for us as a sacrifice that pleases God. 3 You are God’s people, so don’t let it be said that any of you are immoral or indecent or greedy (italics added).
Paul talks about living in the light of God’s love and “making every minute count” as we do so because “these are evil times,” and then begins to move into more instruction about how to relate to one another “in light” of all of the above. The “two tiers” of Paul’s theology again becomes helpful here. At the end of chapter 5 Paul discusses how to get along in marriage, and much damage over centuries has occurred because of Paul’s accommodation to patriarchy as he describes male “headship” in these verses. The two tiers are quite evident here, though. Paul goes along with (accommodates) the culture of his day in describing husbands as “the head of his wife,” (tier 2) but then he goes against the grain of his culture and maybe gets timeless as he moves to tier 1 and says that if men are going to be “head” of their wives they are to do so like Christ does for his church: they are to love their wives and lay their lives down for them, just as Jesus has done for all of us. In a world where men could give their wives a “certificate of divorce” on a whim, Jesus in the gospels tells men that this can no longer be the case, that only adultery is sufficient cause to even consider such a move. Now, Paul goes further and describes what marriage should look like, using the dressing (language) of his culture not to enshrine it for all time but to render it near meaningless. The point is NOT that male “headship” is God ordained. This should be more clear in the NIV version of chapter 5, in which before Paul says that wives should “submit” to their husbands, he says to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Again, the point is not that male “headship” is God ordained. The point is that suffering love is. This is subversive and radical, but again only for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
At last, then, we get to chapter 6. The two tiers of Paul’s theology have been evident in his description of how we are to live in light of God’s love, including/especially in marriage. Remember, Paul begins Ephesians by describing Jesus’ power and saying that all rule and authority and power and dominion belongs to Christ, the executed outcast, the poor wanderer of an occupied people who “had no place to lay his head.” This same Jesus is now the ultimate authority in the universe. To one powerless group in the society of Paul’s day, women, Paul describes how the powerful- men/their husbands- are to lay down their lives for them. Paul now in chapter 6 moves to another powerless group in the society of his day, children. Look for the two tiers again, and remember that of all the powerless groups in Paul’s day, including women, children, and slaves (all of whom are addressed here in what is surely not a coincidence), children were the least powerful of all in the household economy. I’ve written about this. To children, sure, Paul says they are to obey their parents (tier 2), but then he goes back to the Ten Commandments and reminds his readers that of all the commandments, “The commandment Honor your father and mother is the first one with a promise attached:so that things will go well for you, and you will live for a long time in the land.” This is tier 1 (the eternal, timeless tier that most fully reveals God’s intent for us) in spades, and Paul doubles down on it next when parents get a command too: “As for parents, don’t provoke your children to anger…”
Paul talks to slaves next, with the two tiers again very evident. You see Paul accommodating the culture of his day in his practical, tier 2 instructions as he tells slaves to “obey their human masters” and “serve their owners enthusiastically, as though they were serving the Lord and not human beings.” But then Paul moves to tier 1 as he reminds slaves and masters both that “…the Lord will reward every person who does what is right, whether that person is a slave or a free person.” And so, like husbands and parents, masters get instructions too: “As for masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Stop threatening them, because you know that both you and your slaves have a master in heaven. He doesn’t distinguish between people on the basis of status.” Revolutionary! Paul tells “masters” that they have a master too. All authority has been given to Jesus. These instructions render status differences between slaves and earthly masters (and parents and children, and husbands and wives) moot. All power is given to Jesus, who wields it by dying for those he loves.
At long last, finally indeed, we move to the armor of God. How are we to be strong? “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.” To his readers who were all too familiar with the violent military garb of the Roman soldiers who patrolled the streets they walked daily, keeping “law and order,” he says:
Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Remember, Paul has already declared that these same “rulers” and “authorities” and “power” are already subject to Jesus, the same Jesus who did not violently struggle against the “flesh and blood” of the Roman soldiers that crucified him at the behest of the empire- the Roman one and the Jewish religious one of his day. Jesus did not need to employ violence against the flesh and blood acting on behalf of the rulers and authorities because the freedom he offers is much deeper than any they could take away. As Rod White of Circle of Hope put it, as “slaves of Christ,” we are “being freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to you.” So in our struggle against the schemes of the devil, the Accuser who would blind us to the truth that his power is at an end, Paul reminds us of all the tools- not weapons- that God has given us. In place of a Roman soldier’s belt, we are to wear Truth. Where a Roman soldier’s breastplate would be, we put on Righteousness, the reality that all the wrong things are being made right, that justice is and will be done. Where the fittings for a Roman soldier’s feet would be, we are fitted with the “readiness that comes from the gospel of peace” (which surely has nothing to do with flesh-and-blood war!). Where a Roman soldier would take up a shield, we are protected with faith, and in place of a helmet and sword, we are given God’s Spirit. We are given Jesus, the living word of God. And beyond all that, Paul says, we are to pray.
Upon further review, this text is indeed troubling, but not because a violent God is calling us to think and act violently. It’s troubling because it subversively reveals how no violence can stand against the Prince of Peace and those with feet ready to follow him in preaching with their lives the gospel of peace. This is what I would have said to the kids of Mill City, if I could have. May we all live like children of our Father in heaven, who calls us to just such a generous, peaceful life. May we put our trust in the name of Jesus Christ, not in chariots or horses, or gold or earthly riches. Amen.
P.S. I should note that in this post Circle of Hope recently wrestled with this text too, in their daily prayer blog for folks just starting to follow Jesus. It’s worth a read, and also has a link to the song above.