The End of the World As We Know It?
“Maybe the end of the world comes one person at a time.” That was the provocative suggestion by one of my former pastors, Russell Rathbun from House of Mercy. If memory serves, this was near the end of his still memorable sermon series many years ago now in which he told an elaborate story about “the end of the world.” He was working through the common U.S. “Evangelical” understanding of the “end times” in which the “Rapture” is a prominent feature along with the belief that the primary task of a Christian is to “win souls” for heaven and save them from the eternal torture that awaits all who don’t say the “sinner’s prayer.” The idea that God would allow- if not cause- this goes hand-in-glove with the idea that the crucifixion of Jesus was an incident of “cosmic child abuse” in which Jesus had to be tortured and murdered in order to change God’s mind about we sinners (whom he would otherwise allow to be tormented eternally in order to satisfy his “justice”). I probably digress.
Anyway, what Russell was suggesting, I think all these years later, in that sermon series was 1) the idea of God and how he operates in the world as depicted above is the unbiblical baloney that I now know it to be, and 2) that there nonetheless is something to this idea of the “end of the world.” There’s actually some really great stuff in the Bible that gets at this, for those with eyes to see and ear to hear, but it takes a little work to find the treasures that are there in Scripture to be found. Here’s just one little idea that is captivating my imagination as I think about this, this morning. In the creation story as we find it in Scripture it seems to end badly. Adam and Eve were given only one rule that was meant to preserve and protect their right relationship with God their creator and friend. This rule was not meant to limit or diminish them or keep them from all the goodness God had made for them and given them. It was meant, as all good rules are, to point them in the direction of right relationship. Thus, as I keep saying, “rules are for relationship.” As we know, they broke the rule, and their relationship with God and creation itself was damaged. This part of the story ends with Adam and Eve being sent from the garden, and the text says a “flaming sword” acted as a gate barring them from ever returning. By the way, Russell once told another great story in a sermon in which he re-told the creation story and when he got to the part where Adam and Even were sent from the garden, he depicted the garden as being fenced off from them, and in his telling of the story, just as Adam and Eve leave for good, God hops the fence to join them. Astounded, they ask, “what are you doing?!” to which God replies, “I’m coming with you.” Remarkable, isn’t it?
“I’m Coming With You.”
So at the beginning of the Biblical narrative a fateful decision is made that results in us being exiled forever from the place where we were with God as we were created to be. Even then, however, there was a hint of the promise of God-With-Us (again and forever), and one day Immanuel did indeed come, never to leave us again. God was and is with us, indeed. Meanwhile, God’s good creation remains marred by sin, that condition in which we all are caught and which serves as the backdrop for our many unloving, sinful acts against God, one another, and God’s good world. And because God is a good, good father who will not coerce his children into receiving the freedom that Jesus gives us from the sinful condition in which we are caught, the long work of reconciliation goes on. As we take halting steps into the freedom we’ve been given, we move a little closer into right relationship with God, one another, and the world. One day the work of the family business of reconciliation will be complete, and on that day we won’t escape into the sky while the earth burns; rather, heaven will come to earth as both are remade into what they have always been meant to be, and we are too. How does the Biblical narrative end? Remember, at the beginning of the grand, sweeping narrative of the Bible there is a flaming sword barring our return to the place where we were with God; remember too that some Christians would have you believe that heaven is like that too, that it’s inaccessible to those who don’t say the right thing before they die. That, however, is not what we find in the text. What’s actually there, near the end of Revelation, for those with ears to hear, is the astounding statement that the heavenly city’s gates “will never be shut.” This is important because we also find in the text language that describes various categories of sinful folk being left outside the city. But it would seem that if they choose to stay there it is not because God prevents them from entering the city. Rather, it seems clear that 1) heaven’s gates are always open, and 2) there is a standing invitation to enter. Where the first humans broke the one rule to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, by the end of the Biblical narrative all people are invited to enter the heavenly city and drink, to take “the free gift of the water of life.” John the Revelator puts it this way:
He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. 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.
Let’s get on with it.