Note: I wrote this post a year ago on Palm Sunday. I confess that I haven’t been feeling very free of late, and any dutiful reader of this blog is well aware that my writing has been sparse lately. I’m not a musician, but I can relate to the singer whose song has been taken from him. I will find my voice again soon, I pray. Meanwhile, this is as relevant as ever.
I woke up primed for Holy Week, which begins today with Palm Sunday and the remembrance of Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. The crowds were ready to anoint him king in their hope that he was the Messiah, the one who would violently overthrow Rome’s occupying power and “make Israel great again.” Of course, once they realized that his “kingdom” was simultaneously “upon us” but also “not of this world-” and that therefore he would not overthrow the Roman occupiers violently- the crowd quickly turned on Jesus and would soon join in encouraging that same foreign occupying power and the complicit religious leaders of Israel in their plan to execute Jesus. Usually we rich would-be “Christians” of European descent spiritualize all this, taking it to mean that the kingdom Jesus inaugurated, the love revolution he began, is a strictly a matter for the heart in the present age as we await the age to come “in the sweet by and by.” But as with so many things, this is more of a “both/and” than an “either/or.” We cannot take the inauguration of Jesus’ kingdom- symbolized in the inauguration of Jesus’ ministryas he announced the fulfillment of “good news to the poor,” the proclamation of “freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,” the setting free of “the oppressed,” and the proclamation of “the year of the Lord’s favor”- to mean simply that God wants to save us from personal immorality so that we can enjoy a heavenly retirement plan. Nor, on the other hand, can we take it to mean that God has nothing to say about spiritual realities and our own broken spirits.
Surely Jesus wants to save us from the “sin that so easily entangles” so that we can “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” This “salvation” is very “personal,” indeed. Likewise, it is very communal, and very, very political. This is the tension we must always keep before us, and it was with that tension in mind that I read Circle of Hope‘s daily prayer this morning, which focuses, rightly, on Jesus’ “triumphal entry” to Jerusalem that we remember on Palm Sunday. The post is good enough to join the featured poet, Malcolm Guite, in envisioning the…”final leg of the journey of Lent” and reminding us “that Holy Week is both about the Lord’s outward, visible, historical entry into Jerusalem for Passover Week and what he did there; but it is also is about his entry into the city in each of us where God claims his residence and what he will do there.” The post…
…lets the outer story of Palm Sunday present some questions to our inner lives. Will I welcome Jesus to be the King in my heart? Is my inner city occupied and governed by a foreign power? Are inoffensive rituals practiced in my temple that do not offend the rulers? Has buying and selling colonized the space where there should be prayer? Are there crowds in me who are swayed this way and that by whoever seems most compelling or powerful? Can I welcome Jesus into all of that?
Something powerful is happening here. The tension I spoke of above is held and allowed to speak to us all the more powerfully because it is maintained. Yes, we must welcome Jesus to be “King” in our “heart,” but to do so requires us to wonder if our “inner city” is “occupied and governed by a foreign power,” if “inoffensive rituals” practiced in our temple “do not offend the rulers,” and if “buying and selling” has “colonized the space where there should be prayer.” These are terribly communal, political realities.
Then, of course, the post ended by reminding us that it’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer day over at the Transhistorical Body of Christ blog that Circle of Hope maintains. Being a Bonhoeffer “fan” and appreciating the witness of the “great cloud of witnesses” that Circle reminds us of through this blog, I clicked over to read about Bonhoeffer, again. Guess what the “Bible reading and excerpt” that most of these Circle of Hope devotional posts start with was? I can’t make this stuff up; it was:
Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
If you’ve been reading this blog for the past few months, you’ll know that I can’t turn around these days without bumping into this passage. It forms the basis of probably the most memorable part, for me, from God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel, in which Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove said:
Whatever our political persuasion, we’re always tempted to blame our political enemies for the troubles in the world and think that real change will happen when the policies we endorse are put into practice. But whatever good we might effect on a national or global scale, we can be sure that it will come with unintended negative consequences. Not so with relational generosity, however. Jesus doesn’t teach us to practice relational generosity because it will “fix” the poor. He invites us to give to whoever asks so we might be children of our Father in heaven. Yes, God’s love transforms lives. We know this from our own experience and from the testimony of others. But God doesn’t ask us to change people- God asks us to love people. When we share with one who asks, we are changed. Little by little, we grow into the love of our Father, whose love is perfect.
Here’s Jonathan talking about this, in a little video about, of all things, Lent:
Jonathan’s good to remind us that the passage from Matthew in which Jesus tells us to give to the one who asks comes in the midst of Jesus talking about enemy love. He says this is a “cue” to those of us who have money that in some way the poor are our enemies. I have felt this to be true in my own life, to my great shame. I may not want to think of the poor as enemies, but because like the rich young ruler I have so much (worldly wealth) to lose, I see the poor and am afraid, afraid that they may in some way take what I have (illicitly) gotten. Sharing with those in need invites me to have my imagination renewed and my mind transformed so that I can see that I have something to learn, to see that I am in my own way just as impoverished as those who lack the basic resources I so readily take for granted. I like the quote Jonathan speaks of in the video above as well, that “People come to Christian community because they want to help the poor; they stay in Christian community because they realize that they are the poor.” We are, indeed.
Similarly, as my Lenten journey has been about, in part, learning better to follow “that preacher of peace” so that I may be discipled in the ways of nonviolence and peacemaking, I’ve found that there is an inextricable connection between peacemaking/enemy love and the call to participate in God’s economy that so much of the Sermon on the Mount deals with. This has come up over and over again in the books I’ve been reading for Lent: A Farewell to Mars and Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace and now as I’ve started The Politics of Jesus. It came up in Circle of Hope’s Transhistorical Body of Christ post about Bonhoeffer today too. They note that we remember Bonhoeffer today because he “was executed on this day in 1945, two weeks before US soldiers liberated his prison camp. He is largely considered a martyr for the faith, for peace, and as a Nazi resister. Among two of his most influential works are Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship.” This takes a little teasing out, but bear with me. The post also says the following in speaking of Bonhoeffer’s response to the rise of the Nazi party:
Bonhoeffer was overtly critical of the regime and a resister from the beginning. While Hitler and the Nazis infiltrated and found a stronghold in the German church, Bonhoeffer was building something new in Germany through the Confessing Church. After only a few months under Nazi control, Bonhoeffer moved to London to work on international ecumenical work, highly frustrated with the state of the German church.
Two years later, rather than going to study non-violent civil disobedience under Ghandi he returned to Germany at the repeated pleading and demanding of Swiss theologian…Karl Barth. The Confessing Church was under fire by the Nazis. Barth was sent back to Switzerland. Bonhoeffer soon lost his credentials to teach because he was a “pacifist and enemy of the state.” He began underground seminaries and further resisted the state.
Bonhoeffer became more involved in direct resistance and was arrested in 1943. He was part of a group that was responsible both for attempts at liberating Jews and attempting to assassinate Hitler. His pacifism has been widely written about, especially in light of this glaring contradiction.
Bonhoeffer’s whole life was pointed in the direction of nonviolent resistance to state power, precisely because of the way in which Jesus had “saved” him. Obviously, there was a notable exception to this direction in which his life pointed, and responding to that is beyond the scope of this particular post. But I do want to highlight the link between Bonhoeffer’s life of peacemaking/enemy love, and the “life together” which is a necessary component of it. As the Transhistorical Body of Christ post from Circle of Hope noted, Bonhoeffer’s short and powerful book Life Together is one of the two that he is most known for, and I suspect that Christian community was so important to him because Bonhoeffer knew, as I keep saying, that we just can’t do this alone. Following Jesus means continuing to resist “the powers” that he has already defeated. To do so without resorting to “cheap grace” quite simply “takes a village.” As Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove reminded us in the quote he spoke of in the clip above, “we stay in Christian community” when we realize that “we are the poor.” Participating in God’s economy requires us to pass on the many good gifts God has given us, and as Miroslav Volf reminds us, this is a communal act. And it is an act that is as hard for we rich as peacemaking and enemy love are for we who have been brought up in a culture as violent as the U.S.’ Isn’t it clear that we need a Savior?
The writer(s) of the “Transhistorical” post about Bonhoeffer end it with the following “suggestions for action:”
Bonhoeffer applied himself to unmasking the lies of his culture and the ideologies that took God’s place. It was not easy, since the church was generally in line with them. In spite of state threat and lack of support from the church, he took risks to teach the truth, even moving back to Germany when it was not safe and he would have been safer elsewhere.
That kind of courage is demonstrated in the Bible repeatedly by people whose loves (lives?) are trained on God. What threat do you feel from those you know and from the great “other” of the powers that be when it comes to expressing your faith in word and deed? Pray for courage.
All these thoughts were again swimming in my head as I did a little more reading and research about Palm Sunday this morning. While doing so, I came across this amazing post, “Palm Sunday is the Most Political Sunday,” from Trip Fuller’s blog. It’s short and worth a read, in fact so short and so worth the read that I give you most of it here, in which the author, Bo Sanders, begins by discussing the “politics of Palm Sunday:”
The Jewish people were under occupation. Roman occupation was especially repressive and brutal.
The last time that the Jewish people had been free and self-governed also meant that they had their own currency. On their big coin, a palm branch was prominently displayed.
Laying down palm branches ahead of a man riding a colt/donkey was an act of defiance and an aggressive political statement…
(like saying)… “We want to be free. This guy is going to change things and restore what was lost.”
Having children wave palm branches in the equivalent to teaching a child to stick up her middle finger in anger… only more political.
I am troubled by the lack of context regarding the palms of Palm Sunday. It reeks of both willful ignorance and religious disconnect.
In so many ways we have sanitized, sterilized and compartmentalized the teaching of scriptures. We proudly and loudly defend the Bible – all the while neglecting the actual reality talked about in that Bible.
We complain that Christmas and Easter have been commercialized and secularized all the while partaking of the consumerism and cultural complacency that those two celebrations are meant to challenge!
Palm Sunday might be the most flagrant example of this ignorance and misappropriation. Palm Sunday is call for revolution against the powers of oppression, the systems and institutions that occupy foreign lands and repress its citizens with unjust practices and economic policies.
Palm Sunday is the most political Sunday of the year – but in our more therapeutic approach that assumes empire and concedes political realities in favor of spiritual ones, the meaning is lost.
This is not just symbolic but emblematic of our watered-down, imperial, and impotent brand of christianity.
We do this with everything. Cornell West and Tavis Smiley are talking about how we will do it with the Dr. King celebrations this coming year. They are calling it the Santa-Clause-ification of MLK. He will be a man with dream but little else … and his politics will be lost in the focus on children not being judged by the color of their skin but on the content of their character.
Just think about this: what would it take for us next year, to teach our children to drop the palm-branches and lift their middle fingers? What would we have to believe about oppression and empire to reclaim the original intent of the palms on Palm Sunday?
I’m not saying that we should do that – I am trying to utilize it to get at how much we have assumed, conceded and ignored about the political realities that we find ourselves caught up in.
What conversations would we have to have with our kids about:
politics of empire
in order to explain why they were laying down palm branches or raising their middle fingers to the powers that be?
There seems to be a theme here, doesn’t there, in the all these Palm Sunday musings? Do you want to continue participating in a “watered-down, imperial, and impotent brand of christianity” that “assumes empire and concedes political realities in favor of spiritual ones?” I, for one, can’t and won’t, and so was compelled to share on Facebook (again, God help me for even being on FB again at all) that post from Trip Fuller’s blog and say about it:
Palm Sunday is the most political Sunday. If only the palms our kids will wave were understood to be middle fingers waved at the powers-that-be…Of course, it bears noting that the U.S. is an occupying force not just in countries around the world, but in North “America.” To really understand the political implications of Palm Sunday, we’d have to imagine a charismatic Indigenous leader processing into Washington, D.C. over trampled U.S. flags, or something like it. This might help us understand what was expected of Jesus, and how he defied those expectations with a revolution that was no less “real” or significant because it was non-violent.
As Kirsten and I discussed this on the way to Mill City Church‘s worship gathering, I noted that whether the power in question is Rome or “America,” Jesus has defeated them through the inauguration of his kingdom and especially through his death on the cross and resurrection which we look forward to in the coming Holy Week. Their reign is at an end. Jesus is Lord; Caesar/Obama/Clinton/Trump/Wells Fargo/Google are not. Jesus is “one like a son of God;” Caesar/the U.S. are not. Again as I said above, Jesus defied the expectations of those who hoped during the triumphal entry that he would violently overthrow Rome with a revolution that was no less “real” or significant because it was non-violent. In fact, because it is non-violent it is all the more powerful. If you live by or secure your “power” by the sword, you can die by it and lose your “power” in the same way. But if you are a citizen of God’s kingdom, a subject of the one true King and so have been “freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to you” and so are “a grateful slave to the salvation that Jesus is working into us,” then “the powers” have suffered a fate worse than military defeat. They have been made irrelevant.
Those who have been so freed will indeed have the courage of Bonhoeffer, or a MLK, Jr., etc. They will have the courage to “get small” because “solidarity requires proximity” as I and my family have been learning. They will have the courage to give to whomever asks and see the poor as their teachers and friends because those so freed have been so faithfully sharing what God gives them that they don’t have so many material goods to “lose” anyway. They will have the courage to see that capitalism is just another ‘ism Jesus wants to save us from (like socialism and all the others you might name). If the Son has set them free, they will be free indeed. It’s why I’ve been thinking a lot about this old song from the Circle of Hope community that they were good enough to put online. Give it a listen, will you? Freedom is coming. Thanks be to God.
I’m still long overdue for a post of my own. Meanwhile, I came across this piece this morning by Christopher Lebron in the Boston Review. It’s a powerful critique of the new Black Panther film. I confess that I’ve been tempted to see Black Panther, despite my ever challenging commitment to resist violence in all its forms, including and especially the way I choose to entertain myself. Violence is so utterly pervasive in our society, and the myth of redemptive violence so firmly entrenched in our culture that it is never given a first- let alone a second- thought (even/especially by would-be Jesus followers). Thus it is not surprising that a movie that purports to be at least in some way about black power would necessarily also be a movie about black violence. Unfortunately, Black Panther turns out to be a movie that reinforces tropes about black-on-black violence. Haven’t we had enough of those already?
Black Panther is, of course, a comic book/superhero movie, and thus could not exist without again reinforcing the myth of redemptive violence. As Christopher Lebron says in the Boston Review piece linked above, “After all, what else do comic-book heroes do but dispense justice with their armored fists and laser rifles?” I’ve read other reviews, such as this one in the NY Post, that inevitably compare T’Challa, the title character of Black Panther, to MLK, Jr. and Killmonger, the black villain, to Malcolm X. As the NY Post author says: “T’Challa, though, is a pacifist, the Martin Luther King Jr. to Killmonger’s Malcolm X.” Missing here is any thoughtful nuance, such as the recognition that MLK, Jr. was no mere pacifist, but a practitioner of nonviolent resistance. This is a distinction with a monumental difference. Moreover, in the very next sentence, the Post author, Sara Stewart, writes: “Killmonger and T’Challa face off in combat for the crown” (of Wakanda, the fictional African country that Black Panther calls home). If T’Challa were truly the Martin to Killmonger’s Malcolm, he would not have engaged in a brawl to get/maintain power. That’s violent resistance, not nonviolent resistance. But I digress. The Boston Review piece is really worth the read. I recommend it heartily.
If my math is right there are over 30 (nearly 40, if memory serves) posts on the Circle of Hope blog about “alternativity.” I now have a few posts as well in which I mention or allude to it. What is alternativity? Responding to the blatant racism of the current presidential administration (as opposed to the more subtle racism of some of the recent previous ones), Rod White, the Development pastor of Circle of Hope, tries to answer the question of “what do we do?” in response to the oppressive domination of “the powers” and the complicity of all too many would-be Jesus followers in that oppression. He says:
The answer comes from being the Body of Christ, not just a reaction or a resistance, but an alternative reality.
Scarcity is met with mutuality and generosity in the body of Christ. We will have to do better than to think about it. But we are trying.
Fear-mongering is met with trust in what God puts together, not in what the invisible hand creates. We’ll need to integrate our faith into the actions of our daily life more. But we are trying.
Foolishness is met with truth telling, just like Paul boldly states the new reality Jesus is making. We’ll have to listen to the Spirit directly and in one another and test it out, not just flee, resist and resent. But we are trying.
Alternativity is the word we use to sum it all up. We are trying to live in it. Deactivating Twitter is my act of defiance as much as self-preservation. Tackling the health care debacle is about perseverance as much as survival. Writing this little post, complaining about our terrible experiences, griping about Charlottesville, denouncing Trump, quoting Paul, insisting that there are better ways and that we are living them right now is how I keep myself on track. And I hope it has helped you, too. We have an alternative reality to build with Jesus, and it can’t wait for things to get better.
Circle of Hope has a habit of getting together face-to-face from time to time to “do theology.” The results of some of those conversations show up on their The Way of Jesus site (an incredible resource for Jesus followers worth plumbing the depths of). Thus, in May of last year, as primary season was winding down during the presidential election, they posted on The Way of Jesus a reflection based on their conversation about the relationship between God’s kingdom and the powers. They say:
When we do theology about elections we run into the line that has always separated Reformed Christianity from Anabaptist. The Reformed Christians can be called part of “magisterial” Protestantism, retaining the sense of “magisterium” that also marks Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox members of the Church. Alistair McGrath says that reformers like Luther and Calvin, who had a huge influence in European and American forms of the church, taught that, “The magistrate had a right to authority within the church, just as the church could rely on the authority of the magistrate to enforce discipline, suppress heresy, or maintain order.” In addition, the term magister relates to the emphasis on authoritative teachers. Often this is seen in the names of theological schools descending from magisterial reformers (i.e. Lutheran and Calvinist).
“Radical” reformers, who were later called Anabaptists, thought the church had fallen from grace and wanted to restore it. They traced the root of the fall to point of the fusion of church and society of which Constantine was the architect, Eusebius the priest, Augustine the apologete, and the Crusades and Inquisition the culmination.
When Constantine claimed Christianity, he turned the church right-side up, so to speak, from its former upside-down reputation. He consciously thought he was baptizing the empire. Perhaps his motives were good. Many Christians in his day, like the historian of the Church, Eusebius, thought he was the gift of God to end persecution and to honor the faithfulness of the church as it triumphed over the evils of Rome. Christians in Constantine’s empire extolled him as their champion. Bishops personally escorted him into battle against rival nations. The church quickly adapted to this new opportunity and used empire means to achieve Kingdom ends. The adaptation meant the end of God-ordained, missional non-alignment with imperial powers.
The Anabaptist’s disgust with Constantinianism is not about the sincerity with which Constantinian Christians use top-down, coercive, worldly power or about the goodness of the ends toward which they wield such power. The shift labeled “Constantinian” is the willingness of God’s people to deform their specific God-given identity by merging with worldly power structures and using top-down, coercive, worldly power to accomplish what God has given his people to do without such power.
How do they know that the Constantinian way can and must not be equated with “the way of Jesus?” Well, they look to Scripture, for starters:
Jesus demonstrably did not take the same route as Constantine, although he received the title king.
When the Messiah came, he distanced himself from the Jerusalem establishment (John 2:13–21).
Jesus did not reconstitute Israel land-based empire based in Palestine but prepared his people to be scattered across the world by his Spirit (John 4: 21– 24; Acts 1: 8).
Jesus unmasked the powers’ claims to be benefactors and self-consciously adopted the suffering servant posture (Luke 22:25– 27).
Jesus proclaimed a kingdom whose citizens are committed to peacemaking, enemy love, and transnational disciple-making (Matt 5: 38– 48, 28: 19).
Previously scattered Jews from as far back as Jeremiah’s time formed synagogues throughout the world that became central to the church’s missionary expansion (Acts 9:19-22, 14:1, 17:1– 3).
The earliest Christians viewed themselves as aliens, exiles, strangers, and dispersed ones (Jas 1: 1; 1 Pet 1: 1, 2: 11-12) whose citizenship is in heaven as opposed to Rome or Jerusalem (Phil 3: 17-21).
Finally, then, they conclude that “We are pretty much descendants of Anabaptists and the pre-Constantine church.” Then, while offering some ever helpful reminders such as “The Bible can’t really be seen if it is read from an empire perspective,” they offer this nugget, which brings us back to alternativity:
The main way we respond to the ways of the world is to build the alternative: the Kingdom of God being lived out as the people of God, the church. We go to the system from the church and return to the church. We hope the grace we bring transforms and changes the world, but when we are not assured of that, we know who we are and where we come from and we preserve the possibilities of a better world by existing.
That’s it, right there. To the extent that we as the church and the Bride of Christ embody an alternative reality to the powers, principalities, and systems of this age, then we live into our prophetic calling to declare with our very lives, as Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove wrote and I discuss elsewhere, that “the end of our story has interrupted us in the middle” (italics added).” Though we live yet “between the times,” we are to be an outpost of God’s kingdom come. Thus,
In the midst of violence, we bring peace.
In the midst of (perceived) scarcity, we bring abundance and generosity.
In the midst of fear-mongering, we bring fearlessness.
In the midst of so much foolishness, we bring wisdom.
In the midst of domination by the powers and principalities of this age, we bring alternativity.
Consequently, as Rod White writes in the title of another post that has been a touchstone for us in our season of “devolution” and “getting small,” “for the slaves of Christ, existence is resistance.”
Thus, I suppose it should come as no surprise that the Bruderhof has been on my mind of late. As our year of devolution and learning to be peacemakers winds on, and most recently as we’ve felt called to move on from Mill City Church and explore becoming part of Church of All Nations, I’ve found myself returning for inspiration again and again not only to Circle of Hope but also to the Bruderhof. They, of course, are the community of 2,000+ Jesus followers on several continents that not only resist capitalism in order to follow Jesus- as we feel called to do- but almost reject it altogether (collectively, they own some businesses, all the proceeds from which go back into supporting the life of the community). They were founded by Eberhard Arnold in Germany just as Hitler was coming to power, and today, nearly a century later, they live together in rural villages around the country and around the world, and even have some community houses in urban areas like the Bronx. Everything they do, they do together. They literally sell all their possessions and give any proceeds to the church, which is a requirement for any person or family that seeks to join the Bruderhof. Thus they live into God’s economy in a more real and tangible way than scarcely anyone else I’m aware of or could imagine. Since those who join the Bruderhof don’t engage in capitalism, they hold everything in common and do not earn wages. The necessary work for their life together is divvied up among the members, and each does his part. No man or woman is richer or poorer than any other. All belongs to all and is received from God as a gift for all. They practice communal discernment and decision-making, and hold one another accountable to Jesus and one another as they practice their way of life together. As they say of themselves here:
We are an intentional Christian community of more than 2,900 people living in twenty-three settlements on four continents. We are a fellowship of families and singles, practicing radical discipleship in the spirit of the first church in Jerusalem. We gladly renounce private property and share everything in common. Our vocation is a life of service to God, each other, and you.
The Bruderhof was founded in 1920 by Eberhard Arnold in Germany. None of us owns anything personally, and our communal property belongs not to us as a group but to the cause of Christ. Anyone who has decided to become a member freely gives all property, earnings, and inheritances to the church community. In turn, all necessities such as food, housing, and health care are provided for. Members generally work for and in the community, but none of us receives a paycheck, stipend, or allowance. In our homes and daily lives, we try to live frugally and give generously, to avoid excess, and to remain unfettered by materialism. In these practical ways we seek to witness that under the stewardship of the church, everything we have is available to anybody in need.
I’ve probably known of them, at least dimly, for a while, but their faithful witness lo this past century as a distinct community of Christ that stands in contradistinction to that of empire- whether that of Nazi Germany as they were being founded or the U.S. today- is striking and admirable. They are themselves an embodied word of truth spoken to power. So my dim awareness of them has come alive of late as I’ve been reacquainted with Eberhard Arnold, whom I wrote about here. On Circle of Hope’s Celebrating the Transhistorical Body blog, they remembered Arnold on Nov. 22 of last year. I was surprised when reading their post about him to be reminded that it was Arnold who said that “Truth without love kills, but love without truth lies.” This quote can be found in the header for Rod White’s blog and is one of Circle of Hope’s proverbs. I was also surprised, though in hindsight I shouldn’t have been, to learn that it was MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) that helped the Bruderhof escape Nazi Germany. For those who don’t know, “MCC is a global, nonprofit organization that strives to share God’s love and compassion for all through relief, development and peace.” Thus, they are the relief, development, and peacemaking arm of those from the Mennonite and other Anabaptist traditions, and Circle of Hope contributes a significant percentage of their tithes and offerings to MCC.
Anyway, there is much affinity between Arnold/the Bruderhof and Circle of Hope. Both have Anabaptist roots. Both strive for alternativity, though in very different settings. Thus, on MLK, Jr. Day of this year, Rod White re-posted on his blog a piece from the Plough (the publishing arm of the Bruderhof) titled “Alien Citizens: Karl Barth, Eberhard Arnold, and Why the Church Is Political.” I urge you to go read it. Above I spoke of the Circle of Hope writer who wrestled with the implications of a Trump presidency not by saying that this administration is “bad” while some others were better and the alternative potential Clinton presidency might at least have been better than this Trump one; rather, they said that any secular administration can only ever be the latest attempt by the powers to secure their rule. Meanwhile, what we really need and are to strive for is the alternativity of the kingdom of God, a truth which would be no less true if Hilary were president. Similarly, in the piece from the Plough by Will Willimon, he writes about the questions surrounding how to respond to the Trump presidency. He says:
For Christians, these questions, while interesting, are not the most pressing. Jesus’ people participate uneasily in American democratic politics not because we are torn between the politics of the left and of the right, but because of the singular truth uttered by Eberhard Arnold in his 1934 sermon on the Incarnation: “Our politics is that of the kingdom of God”.
Because Arnold was a man of such deep humility, peacefulness, and nonviolence, in reading his sermons it’s easy to miss his radicality. How well Arnold knew and lived the oddness of being a Christian, a resident alien in a world where politics had become the functional equivalent of God. How challenging is Arnold’s preaching in our world, where the political programs of Washington or Moscow can seem to be the only show in town, our last, best hope for maintaining our sense of security and illusions of control.
Christians carry two passports: one for the country in which we find ourselves, and another for that baptismal nation being made by God from all the nations. This nation is a realm not made by us but by God; Arnold calls it a “completely new order” where Christ at last “truly rules over all things.”
As storm clouds gathered in Nazified Germany, and millions pinned their hopes on a political savior who would make Germany great again through messianic politics, Arnold defiantly asserted that the most important political task of the church was to join Paul in “the expectation, the assurance of a completely new order.” How quaint, the world must have thought; how irrelevant Christian preachers can be.
Rather than offering alternative policies or programs to counter those of the Nazis, Arnold made the sweeping claim that “all political, all social, all educational, all human problems are solved in a concrete way by the rulership of Christ. This is what glory is.”
This, again, is alternativity in a nutshell. And what a bold claim it is! Could it be that “all human problems are solved in a concrete way by the rulership of Christ?” Is it possible that to whatever extent humanity’s problems have not been solved is the exact extent to which we do not truly or fully subject ourselves to Christ’s rule instead of that of Washington, D.C.? Notice that Arnold says such problems are solved “in a concrete way.” This is no abstract theologizing in a blog post, as I may be accused of doing here. In yesterday’s worship gathering among the people of Church of All Nations (more about Church of All Nations later), the worship leader alluded to the recent trip by some 17 folks from Church of All Nations to the Bruderhof to learn from and fellowship with them. He said that their theology is a “lived theology.” In other words, they spend much less time talking about it than they do simply doing it. As they say in response to the question “Are Bruderhof members religious?”:
We are religious in the sense that our Christian faith is of utmost importance to us. That said, most Bruderhof members are not religious in the sense of highly developed or frequently displayed personal piety. We are extremely ordinary, and tend to speak less about our faith than some other branches of Christianity.
To live in a Bruderhof community you have to want to follow Jesus. Whether you call that being a Christian is not so important – but you have to want to follow Jesus and live the way he showed people how to live.
Much of the world thinks (so-called) “Christianity” is about believing certain things (giving intellectual assent to a set of propositions) and being sure to utter a single prayer at least one time to make sure you get your “fire insurance” and thereafter is about imposing your beliefs and morals on others through the power of the state (how very Constantinian!). What if we were instead known by our love for one another and those around us? What if our efforts were directed at living the kind of life Jesus embodied and taught us? What if we rejected not just empire and the politics of the powers but also the economics of the powers? In the face of the oppression of the powers that divides us into “haves” and “have-nots” be it via capitalism or any other worldly economic system, what if we shared everything and thereby made not only such oppression irrelevant, but also made irrelevant whatever worldly economic solutions the powers allow, again because we renounce the world’s economic systems and share everything? It is just such questions that the Bruderhof attempts to answer not primarily with their theology, but with their lives.
Willimon touches on this in the Plough piece when he says, “As Hauerwas famously puts it, the church doesn’t have a social policy; the church is God’s social policy.” Indeed. I alluded above and have written elsewhere about our recent entrance into Church of All Nations. There are many reasons for this. I’d like for now to note that, as we’ve participated in a couple of worship gatherings and the simple community meals that follow and as we’ve listened to sermons and read articles written by Pastor Kim online, I’ve been struck by the lack of publicity at the very least regarding any sort of social outreach or justice related initiatives. I don’t mean to needlessly be critical of any other church we’ve been a part of or other churches like them, but the study in contrasts is, literally, remarkable. Whole swaths of “Christianity” out there adopt “missional communities,” for example, to marry the mission to somehow “be the church” through service and outreach to others, with community. It seems to me, though, that this is a marriage of convenience that is nonetheless necessary if you’re still trying to “do”‘ (or even “be”) “church” within the convenient folds of Christendom. If you don’t even realize the extent to which you’ve been compromised and perhaps literally “owned” by empire, then it’s hard to see how all your outreach programs and justice initiatives, as well-intentioned as they may be, merely perpetuate the rule of the powers, principalities, and powers over/against that of Christ and his kingdom. Meanwhile, instead of “having a social policy,” we’re supposed to be one. To the extent that we embrace alternativity by renouncing perpetual temporal power grabs in seeking to influence society through elections, to the extent that we embrace alternativity by renouncing violence in all its forms and, to the extent possible (ha, hear my compromising fearfulness?), resist capitalism and participate in God’s economy by sharing possessions and giving to those who ask of us- to whatever extent we do all this no “social policy” or program is necessary. From what I can tell so far, this alternativity is something that Church of All Nations is going for too. I’ll have a bit more to say about this below.
Returning for now to Eberhard Arnold, the Bruderhof, and Willimon’s Plough piece, I’ll say again that Arnold founded the Bruderhof about a hundred years ago. Like I and my family, Arnold became convinced that the Sermon on the Mount was to be lived, not just “loved” as some idyllic dream to aspire to. He likewise learned that living the Sermon on the Mount could not be done alone. Community was required. As I’ve said, you can’t follow Jesus alone, especially not if you’re trying to follow him down the narrow path of radical discipleship, through the narrow door of enemy love and participation in God’s economy. Thus, the Bruderhof was born.
Willimon’s Resident Aliens piece in the Plough has much to contribute to this discussion, and bears further quoting at some length. He writes:
Asked by The Christian Century to respond to the twenty-fifth anniversary of my book with Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, a dozen reviewers dismissed the book as politically irrelevant, sectarian escapism from the great issues of the day. None noticed that the book was meant to address the church, not the US Senate. Resident Aliens was a work of ecclesiology that assumed that when Christians are pressed to “say something political,” our most faithful response is church. As Hauerwas famously puts it, the church doesn’t have a social policy; the church is God’s social policy.
Many of our critics showed that they still live under the Constantinian illusion that the United States is roughly synonymous with the kingdom of God. Even though the state alleges that it practices freedom of religion, the secular state tolerates no alternatives to its sovereignty. Christians are free in American democracy to be as religious as we please as long as we keep our religion personal and private.
Contemporary secular politics decrees that people of faith must first jettison the church’s peculiar speech and practices before we can be allowed to go public and do politics. Many mainline Protestants, and an embarrassing number of American evangelicals, cling to the hope that by engagement with secular politics within the limits set by the modern democratic state, we can wrest some shred of social significance for the Christian faith. That’s how my own United Methodist Church became the Democratic Party on its knees.
Saying it better than we put it in Resident Aliens, Arnold not only sees Christ as “embodied in the church” but calls the church to go beyond words and engage in radical, urgent action that forms the church as irrefutable, concrete proof that Jesus Christ really is Lord and we are not: “Only very few people in our time are able to grasp the this-worldly realism of the early Christians.… Mere words about the future coming of God fade away in people’s ears today. That is why embodied, corporeal action is needed. Something must be set up, something must be created and formed, which no one will be able to pass by,” on the basis of our knowledge of who God is and where God is bringing the world. Our hope is not in some fuzzy, ethereal spirituality. “It takes place now, through Christ in the church. The future kingdom receives form in the church.”
In his sermon, Arnold eschews commentary on current events, as well as condemnation or commendation of this or that political leader, and instead speaks about the peculiar way Christ takes up room in the world and makes his will known through the ragtag group of losers we dare to call, with Paul, the very body of Christ. “It is not the task of this body of Christ to attain prominence in the political power structure of this world.… Our politics is that of the kingdom of God.”
Because of who God is and how God works, the congregation where I preach, for all its failures (and I can tell you, they are many) is, according to Arnold, nothing less than “an embassy of God’s kingdom”: “When the British ambassador is in the British embassy in Berlin, he is not subject to the laws of the German Reich.… In the residence of the ambassador, only the laws of the country he represents are valid.”
Arnold’s sermon is a continually fresh, relevant rebuke to those who think we can do politics without doing church. Among many pastors and church leaders, there is a rather docetic view of ministry and the church. We denigrate many of the tasks that consume pastoral ministry – administration, sermon preparation, and congregational leadership – because we long to be done with this mundane, corporeal stuff so we can soar upward to higher, more spiritual tasks. Arnold wisely asserts Incarnation and unashamedly calls upon his congregants to get their hands dirty by engaging in corporate work: to set up, create, form, and learn all those organizational skills that are appropriate for an incarnational faith where we are saved by the Eternal Word condescending to become our flesh.
There’s so much to unpack here, but I trust I’ve already done some of that work and could do no better than Willimon, to be sure. I do want to highlight some things, though. Willimon notes that Arnold describes the church as being “an embassy of God’s kingdom” and reminds his readers that in an embassy the only “laws” that apply are that of the kingdom/state that the embassy is from. Thus, we are to live as if the authority of Christ and his kingdom “trumps” that of any secular power. Where the state tells us to keep the economy (and all its related wars) going by consuming ever more, Jesus calls us to sell our possessions, share God’s gifts which were given to all for all, and give to those who ask of us. Where the state devalues black and brown lives through its racially biased education, housing, employment, and criminal “justice” systems; and through the mass incarceration of people of color via the school to prison pipeline (in order to keep profits flowing to the prison industrial complex), we are to assert and live as if black lives matter.
I could go on, but I also want to echo Arnold in saying that “Mere words about the future coming of God fade away in people’s ears today. That is why embodied, corporeal action is needed. Something must be set up, something must be created and formed, which no one will be able to pass by.” Likewise, he said, “The future kingdom receives form in the church.” Doesn’t this sound a lot like “the end of our story has interrupted us in the middle?” Indeed.
Willimon goes on to allude to the Charleston church massacre and its aftermath. He says:
I know a pastor who began his sermon after the Charleston massacre by asking, “How come our Bible studies in this church have not been truthful enough, intense enough, for anybody to want to kill us? Church, we need to figure out how to be so faithful in our life together that the world can look at us and see something that it is not. Our little congregation is called to be a showcase of what a living God can do!”
It’s a profound question Willimon’s pastor colleague asked. Why don’t more people want to kill us? The “politics of Jesus” were sufficient to get him executed by the state, and he promised that we would be persecuted too. May I suggest that if we (European American) U.S. residents who want to follow Jesus are not being severely persecuted, it’s not because of the “freedoms” that U.S. soldiers are said to die for. Rather, I would argue that it’s because we spend most of our days pledging allegiance with our lives to the ideals, dreams, and aspirations that are symbolized in the U.S. flag, rather than to Christ and his kingdom.
So then, as I’ve been re-acquainting myself with the Bruderhof of late, I’ve been surprised to see what a vital presence they have. Despite the pastoral setting of most of their communities, they have not retreated from the world (because the Sermon on the Mount cannot be put into practice in isolation from one’s actual and metaphorical neighbors). They operate the Plough magazine and publishing house, which I’ve quoted at length above and am glad to subscribe to. They have a vibrant presence on social media, especially Youtube, where one can find a plethora of explainer videos and vignettes from their life together. Take this one, which explains who and what they are in their own words:
I also want to show you this one, titled “Living in Community is Not the Answer:”
This several minute long video by Melinda, a young woman from the Bruderhof, is a profound meditation on life in community and what it’s for, and on our relationship to the powers as we seek to embody alternativity, though of course she doesn’t quite put it that way. In the video Melinda is answering the question posed by a commenter, Christian, which he describes as a “haunting question.” Christian asks: “Is community an end in itself, the cause for dedicating your life, or is it preparation for the mission?” Melinda answers by saying that we are called to life together, but such life is not an end in itself. She says that “community is the vehicle by which we can help and uphold ourselves in our dedication to the cause” (of following Jesus, together). She concludes by stating essentially that the life of alternativity that we are called to must be a life together because we can not do it alone. She says that Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves means that we can not be richer than our neighbor and can not turn a blind eye when our neighbor struggles or falls into sin. She says, “Show me a way of doing all that without full Christian community, and I’ll consider it.” Then comes the coup de grace, as she repeats what I think another Bruderhof member must have said in responding to Christian’s “haunting question.” She says:
“I’m not sure why this is a haunting question. My haunting question for Christian is why he feels like owning his own stuff and living for one’s self is preparation for mission.”
It’s an incisive rejoinder which I, putting myself in Christian’s place, do not have a good answer for. So, as the Bruderhof was on my mind, and given my knowledge that some folks from Church of All Nations were at the Bruderhof over the past week, I looked for a Church of All Nations (CAN) sermon to listen to last Sunday when we couldn’t make it to their worship gathering because one of us was sick. I chose this sermon, titled “Saved from What?” I already knew enough of CAN and Pastor Kim to know that this would likely touch in some way on radical discipleship as an alternative to the “traditional” USAmerican presentation of the gospel that I’ve described at length on this blog, including above. I wanted to hear it and expected to view it as something of an answer to another recent sermon I heard about what following Jesus means. That is, I had a pretty good idea that this sermon would be about alternativity. Gratefully, I was not disappointed.
I was surprised, however, as the sermon, from May of this year, was in Pastor Kim’s words, “essentially all about the Bruderhof.” Pastor Kim speaks at length about the call to community and alternativity as embodied and practiced by the Bruderhof, and holds it up as something to be strived for by CAN. As Kirsten and I sat listening to this, when we heard him mention that the sermon was largely about the Bruderhof we looked at each other, a bit stunned. We had spent much of that day reacquainting ourselves with them. Arnold had already risen up as a guide to our next steps in our journey of “getting small” that we keep talking about, and again I’ve written about that. I had likewise been pleased to find all the resonance between how the Bruderhof embodies alternativity and the way Circle of Hope strives to do so in a very different, urban context. And I knew that Church of All Nations currently (at the time, a week ago) had a delegation visiting the Bruderhof, but I did not expect this sermon from May to be largely about them too.
We’ve had several moments in our journey over the past year in which we felt like it was very hard NOT to say that God was somehow speaking to us. Several times we heard the same piece of scripture, for example, from several different, diverse sources, all coming to us at the same time, a time in which we had ears to hear that bit of Scripture anew. This moment as we listened to Pastor Kim preach online about the Bruderhof felt at the very least like another one of those bread crumbs along the trail we are to follow. It was confirmation that we were paying attention to the “right” voice(s) at the “right” time. Imagine my delight, then, when I came across this article online, written for the Plough by Pastor Kim, no less, for the upcoming issue. Bear with me as I give you the whole thing below, because it’s worth it. It’s not really that long, and if you’ve read this far, I appreciate it, for starters, and you’ve shown yourself to be committed to seeing this through to the end. I’ll have just a few words to add of my own below. Pastor Kim writes:
In October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther ignited a movement in the Western church that would lead to the Protestant Reformation. It was a bold response that captured the people’s yearning for comprehensive reform of a church that seemed to have lost its moorings. In modern times it has become apparent to more and more Christians that the church seems to be obsessed with its own institutional survival, which is akin to a dog chasing its own tail. What kind of reformation do we need today for the church to remember its identity and pursue its mission?
Every few months at Church of All Nations (CAN), we offer a class for visitors who want to become members of our congregation, and by extension, of the church catholic. In the class we discuss discipleship, membership, and the theological concepts at the core of our community. But the majority of class time is devoted to a two-thousand-year overview of the Christian story. Why do we spend so much time discussing history? We see no other way to know who we are as a church, and where we are going, apart from knowing how we got here.
It doesn’t take long for our new member candidates to see that our congregation, though part of the mainline Presbyterian family, draws its inspiration from the radical reformers persecuted as “Anabaptists” by Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists. The Anabaptists’ clear identification of church–state collusion as idolatry made them a threat to both the Catholic Church and the fledgling Protestant movement. At CAN, our commitment to costly discipleship doesn’t come from Reformed catechisms and creeds, but from the way that the Confessing Church emerged to challenge Nazi rule in Germany, and the daring witness of Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer – their courage, “real world” theology, and pastoral insights.
Today, we are seeing growing impatience with the institutional church’s accommodation to temporal power. Younger generations, no longer willing to give the church the benefit of the doubt, are driving the mass exodus out of the Western church, which they see as a primary source of pain and abuse in the world. But for those who have not given up on the church as a vessel of God’s grace and transformation, the contours of a new reformation are beginning to surface.
Our congregation, for instance, is trying to root itself in the anti-imperial gospel community that Jesus inaugurated in Galilee. We hope to be heirs of an unbroken tradition of radical faithfulness to the God of Israel. Though the church has given in to the temptations of empire throughout her history, we are encouraged by the long and continuous witness of uncompromising faithfulness to Jesus as well.
The Early Church
What can we learn about reformation today from the early church? The Gospel of Mark opens with John the Baptist proclaiming “repentance and the forgiveness of sins.” John was consciously harking back to the traditions of Moses and Elijah, legendary leaders of Israel who practiced the dual roles of prophet and pastor. They boldly entered the courts of Pharaoh and King Ahab and demanded justice. They re-taught the people how to live as family, how to practice hospitality, and how to rely on God for their daily bread. John the Baptist had a simple message: The kingdom of God is just around the corner, so you better get your act together. At the core of his teaching was an ancient biblical ethic of mutual aid and restorative justice: Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; whoever has food must do the same.
Jesus opted to be baptized into the radical wilderness movement that John had faithfully stewarded for years. The Gospels give us a portrait of a scandalously loving and spirit-filled messiah who healed those plagued with evil spirits. He dared feed the hungry whose common lands had been gobbled up by massive estates. He taught the Galileans how to live with one another like Moses had originally taught them. God’s law was to love one’s neighbors as family, to not scheme about tomorrow, to not give in to the strife and petty jealousies that fracture communities and make them easy to divide and conquer.
When Jesus died, his followers experienced his presence among them. The brutal execution of their Lord could have ended the movement. Instead, they saw that Jesus refused to counter violence with violence. When the women reported an empty tomb, they took it as a sign of Christ’s vindication. The story of the resurrection and ascension of the Lord to “the right hand of the Father” became a rallying cry for those who knew Jesus in his life. Jesus had stayed faithful to the Father, the God of his ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, even on pain of death. Rome had done its worst, its most terroristic act, and Jesus turned the whole spectacle on its head with the words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” For the disciples, death had truly lost its sting.
Paul, the “strict constructionist” rabbi who sought to protect the integrity of Pharisaic Judaism by any means necessary, was also a privileged Roman citizen. He was interrupted on his way to Damascus by the stark presence of the resurrected Messiah. Blinded by the Lord’s presence, Paul went from being the chief enforcer of temple law to “least of the apostles.” As an alternative to Caesar’s patronage in the imperial familia, Paul could now offer a place in the loving family of God, the body of Christ.
For most of its history the institutional church has been both the master and servant of Western empires.The church has been a force for good in countless ways, and it is right for Christians to celebrate that heritage. But an honest accounting also requires us to admit that for most of its history the institutional church has in alternating ways been both the master and servant of Western empires. Is there another way? Can modern disciples truly follow the Way of Jesus over the American Way?
A New Generation
The church continues only as the next generation accepts the call to be Christ’s body, and his hands and feet to the world. As a pastor in a mainline church for twenty-five years, I have noted the dwindling numbers of young people in the local church. The children of boomers see the church today as complicit in, and co-opted by, the ways of the world. They have little interest in perpetuating the Constantinian arrangement in which churches produce loyal foot soldiers for the empire du jour.
The Protestant Reformation and the Radical Reformation were supposed to inaugurate a new era of integrity and faithfulness for the church. But today we see that, whether a congregation is Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Quaker, Mennonite, or Presbyterian, they are overwhelmingly white, old, and declining. Such is the fruit of the Reformation after five hundred years.
The church I currently serve was founded in 2004 with a demographic of mostly Korean- American immigrants raised in this country, roughly twenty-five to thirty-five years old. In recent years, CAN has become a slightly majority-white church, although our members still hail from over twenty-five nations and cultures. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that two-thirds of our congregation is made up of twenty- to forty-year-olds. Ministering to a mostly millennial congregation has given us some insights about the future of the church in a postmodern context.
What is it that our young people don’t buy anymore?
Uncritical patriotism and American exceptionalism (“my country, right or wrong”).
Unexamined white supremacy, both the nativism of the Right and the paternalism toward people of color by the Left.
Unfettered consumerism at the expense of global fairness and environmental sustainability, and endless consumption as a personal coping mechanism.
Rugged individualism and the subtext of the American dream – the accumulation of enough skills and wealth so as to be completely independent.
Christian denominational sectarianism, parochialism, and triumphalism in the face of religious pluralism.
Young people today are desperate for what only the church can offer:
Our young people are searching for their vocation. Many are educated enough for a job or career in the present order, but are desperately searching for a calling.
Our young people hunger for healthy relationships, to meaningfully and deeply relate to another human being (half grew up in divorced or single-parent homes, and others in dysfunctional households).
Plagued with loneliness, isolation, and alienation, our young people are seeking enduring Christian community that functions like a diverse yet intimate family.
Our young people are looking for stability in a highly mobile world, and concreteness in an increasingly virtual and socially networked existence.
Our young people desire authentic faith. They are prone to agnosticism or even raw atheism, as they see little evidence of a God that makes a difference in the religious institutions of the day, namely the local church. If local churches would respond evangelically to these needs, they would open the possibility of spiritual renewal for this searching but confused generation.
A New Reformation
Many professional religious leaders are working tirelessly for the church’s “renewal,” hoping that a new reformation might save the institutional church from demise. But people today are not interested in institutional score-keeping like membership, attendance, budgets, and square feet. If the only motivation for reformation is preserving a middle-class lifestyle for the clergy and preventing the sanctuary from turning into a condo, then people are saying, Let the temple be torn down, for Jesus can raise it up in three days. Amen, so be it.
We firmly believe that, after five hundred years, the Protestant Reformation is giving way to another tectonic shift in what it means to be church. A new reformation is coming indeed.
One element of that reformation will be learning to live together in intentional Christian community. Our congregation has been forming households of unrelated people almost from our beginning, and now we have multiple community houses that are structured, ordered, and thriving. We were making steady progress, or so we thought, until we began to learn about the Bruderhof way.
We were blown away by this community that goes back almost a hundred years – the lifelong commitment to the community, the common purse, working for businesses that are owned and operated by the overall community, the care of its members from cradle to grave (if they choose to stay). CAN is in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, a highly urbanized area, and cannot as yet match these characteristics. But we have been inspired by an actual community that has done it and is living out the Acts 2 way of being church – of sharing all things in common in an age of individualism, greed, loneliness, and despair.
For us, a radical reformation in our time demands that the church live into its vocation as ecclesia, meaning the “called-out ones.” Christians are to be called out of a sick society built on the evils of racism, sexism, militarism, exploitation, and destructive competition. We are to create a new community of love. This does not mean withdrawal from society or indulging sectarian impulses. Church of All Nations is in the middle of an urban and suburban landscape, and hopes to witness to God’s love for the world, right here where we are.
With this goal, we seek to pool our people’s resources, talents, ideas, and labor for the common good. We want our members to feel that their work is rewarding, that the fruit of their labor is being shared justly, that they work together, live together, play together, and worship together because it is very good and pleasant when kindred live together in unity. We will have to participate in the broader economic system, but we will not allow capitalist dogma to influence our internal economics. We will draw people from our immediate context of great brokenness, but our mission will include the casting out of imperial demons and the healing of bodies and souls so that we can relate rightly to our God, our neighbors (human and non-human), and God’s good green earth. We aspire to create an urban village founded on the love and teachings of Jesus Christ our Lord, a type of Bruderhof in the city, and to share God’s abundance with an impoverished world.
Is this part of the next reformation, or just a pipe dream? We’re not sure, but we are grateful for the witness of the Bruderhof, and pray that Christians can live together in harmony as a counter-witness to a world falling apart.
Pastor Kim offers a compelling vision, does he not, of a kind of Bruderhof in the city? Is it any wonder that we feel drawn to CAN just now? We can’t escape the haunting questions asked above by the pastor colleague of Willimon and by the member of the Bruderhof. Why, exactly, is it that that the way we not only study but live out Jesus’ teaching in the Bible has not “been truthful enough, intense enough, for anybody to want to kill us?” Why haven’t we more fully figured out “how to be so faithful in our life together that the world can look at us and see something that it is not?” Or, as the Bruderhof commenter challenged, why do we “feel like owning (our) own stuff and living for (ourselves) is preparation for mission?” Quite simply, it’s not.
Thankfully, we do have the witness of the Bruderhof, whatever unavoidable shortcomings their life together may entail. I can’t help, though, but wonder if Pastor Kim is aware of Circle of Hope. Their life together has shortcomings too, but they’re the only urban church I know of that is really going for alternativity in the way that Pastor Kim seems to want to be a part of, and I and my family do as well. From the very intentional way they go about being the church together through cell groups and a network of congregations that form one church, to their frequent witness and action against the powers in solidarity with marginalized groups, to their willingness to boldly renounce capitalism and violence and share the resources they develop freely (see here, for example, or read about how they share resources here and the power that unleashes here), to their Bruderhof-like subversive use of the world’s economic system to generate resources for their life together (go here and here, for example)- all of this seems to me to be an embodiment of what a “Bruderhof in the city” might look like. Like CAN, Circle has folks that live together in community, so much so that Rod wrote a resource for them as they do so way back in 2004. CAN was a “sponsor” of the Carnivale de Resistance that we attended last year, which I wrote about here and for which our former Circle of Hope pastor Joshua was a member of the Carnivale team. Naturally, Circle of Hope has a Carnivale de Resistance support team, and the organizers of Carnivale spoke at a CAN conference a few years ago. Circe also has a Watershed Discipleship team and as a community has been profoundly influenced by Ched Myers. Meanwhile Ched, of course, also came to speak at that same recent CAN conference. I could go on, but for now suffice it to say that there’s much resonance among Circle of Hope, the Bruderhof, and CAN. Therefore, with Circle of Hope and the Bruderhof as inspiration, I and my family are glad to enter into the life that CAN is having together. We pray that we will ever more fully embody, together, the alternativity that we are called to. Lord, let it be so.
Enjoy the clip above from the film Gladiator, if you can. I pray, literally for Christ’s sake, that you can’t. In our year of “devolution” and “getting small” so far in 2017, we’ve been repeatedly confronted by the link between Mammon (which wears late capitalist clothes these days) and violence, and somehow we’ve been consistently surprised by the extent to which both are embedded not only in the culture of U.S. empire, but also in the church. I’ve written a lot this year about our efforts to resist Mammon, however halting they may be, and I’ve written a little about our efforts to resist violence. It’s actually pretty interesting. Both efforts- to resist Mammon, and to resist violence- are apparently offensive. What’s interesting about it is the fact that it seems that they’re most offensive to “church people,” to otherwise well-meaning would-be Jesus followers. It seems that if we say, as we now do, that we think it’s utterly essential to following Jesus that we recognize that the U.S. is a violent, Mammon-serving empire more powerful than violent, Mammon-serving Rome of Jesus’ day and that therefore our relationship to U.S. empire must be similar to that of Jesus and his first followers in regard to their relationship to Rome, then such a stance is received as implicit judgment. We do not mean for our actions to imply such judgment, but the fact of it is revelatory. That said, this is not the focus of this post.
What I do want to focus on is violence, and specifically violent entertainment. It has become clear to us this year that, as Brian Zahnd says, “God is like Jesus; God has always been like Jesus. We haven’t always known this, but now we do.” At the core of this truth is the fact that Jesus is the Prince of Peace and therefore among the many meanings of his death on the cross is this one- that on the cross Jesus absorbed the world’s violence without retaliating and so violence was put to death along with Jesus. Thus we knew that in a multitude of new ways we had to re-double our focus on peacemaking and nonviolence. It only followed then that if we were to be transformed in this way, our minds needed to be renewed, as they have begun to be. For this to fully take effect, though, we knew we needed to stop filling our minds with violent entertainment. If violence is something we are to renounce and resist so that we can better join God in restoring his image in us and in all whom we meet, then it cannot be a source of entertainment. It’s no coincidence that our violent culture is filled with so much violent entertainment. The two go hand-in-hand. Violent images and words normalize violence. They re-wire our brains to accept it as a fact of life.
Even if we try to take what amounts to the moral high ground in this culture by asserting that violence is to be avoided when possible but is nonetheless acceptable as a last resort when confronted with violence, we still wind up condoning some measure of limited, hopefully proportional violence. This is the myth of redemptive violence, and it is a fallacy. Violence begets violence, after all, because the means are the ends in the process of becoming. Some folks misread Scripture and think it tells us to spank our children. It does not. However, for the sake of argument let’s say it does. Remembering that spanking can only ever be punishment, not discipline- for the only thing it can possibly “teach” is how to avoid getting hit by your parents in the future- would you then hit (spank) your child for hitting another child on the playground? Of course not. It makes no sense to do the thing you’re trying to get your kid to stop doing in order to get them to stop doing it.
The myth of redemptive violence is pervasive, however. From “The War to End All Wars” (it didn’t) to the NRA promulgated argument that “good guys with guns” can stop “bad guys with guns,” we see it everywhere. The crowd’s endorsement of this “logic,” however, does not actually make it logical, and I give you Star Trek of all things to make this point:
As the alien said, “your good and your evil use the same methods (violence), and achieve the same results.” What are the results? Well, for starters:
“He pulls a knife; you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital; you send one of his to the morgue!” So again, violence begets violence, but though one might hope that the violence that violence begets would be proportional and limited, it seems to me that it usually does not work out this way, as the “Untouchables” clip and quote above reveals. The only way that violent force can overcome an opposing violent force is if one side escalates the force. This “win” by one violent side can only ever be temporary, however, and at the very least the threat of overwhelming violent force must be maintained by the victor perpetually. It’s why nation-states maintain standing armies, and the U.S. empire seeks to maintain the biggest, most violent military of all. Gandhi knew this, of course, when he said: “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary. The evil it does is permanent.” This pernicious myth of redemptive violence must be rejected outright. One of Dr. King’s most famous quotes is that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Often missing, though, is the context:
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
So the quote isn’t just about darkness being ineffective in driving out darkness or hate in driving out hate; it’s about violence being ineffective as a means of stopping violence. But I digress.
So then, if following the Prince of Peace must mean resisting violence in all its forms, especially the form that lays neural pathways in our brain without us even being aware of it (visual entertainment), how can we do so, when the culture of U.S. empire is saturated with so very much violent entertainment? Until I find something better, I propose a violent entertainment decision-making framework that involves asking three questions:
Is the violence gratuitous and unnecessary? Can the same story be told without it?
Related to #1, what do I most look forward to about the entertainment? Is it the violence? (Think light-saber duels or space battles.)
Does the entertainment promote the myth of redemptive violence?
If the answer to any of the above is yes, I shouldn’t be entertained by it. Let’s unpack these questions, though, and try applying them.
Question #1: Is the Violence Gratuitous?
Answering this question seems fairly straightforward. A proxy question might be: “Was the movie directed by Michael Bay?” If so, being entertained by it can’t be a faithful choice, it seems to me. Bay is famous for making needlessly violent movies full of “big explosions.” The violence in his films, of which I’ve seen probably more than a few, in my experience almost never moves the story very well. It may heighten the tension, but only artificially, and it makes the storytelling disjointed at best. You don’t learn much you didn’t already know about the characters, and I suspect many viewers would have to admit that what they’re most invested in is not a positive outcome for the “good guys with guns” in the story. Rather, what’s most interesting is how big the explosions are, how many things get blown up, how amazing the violent special effects are, etc. This brings us to question #2.
Question #2: Is the Violence What I Most Look Forward To About the Entertainment?
This question is very much related to question #1 above, but I think it must be addressed as well. (As I write, I’m aware of the violence in language. In writing the sentence just above, I wanted initially to say, “but I think it must be tackled as well.” When I realized that didn’t work, the next phrase that came to mind was “wrestled with.” It was only on my third try that I came up with “addressed.”) Let’s continue using Michael Bay as an example. You would have a hard time convincing me that most people who are most excited about his films aren’t most excited about the “big explosions” in them. The man likes blowing things up on film, and he has legions of fans who are ready to pay top dollar (ah…there’s that ever-present link between violence and capitalism) at the multiplex to see him do so. I used to be one of them. I’ll talk more about Star Wars later, but I think this is at the heart of why I’ve had to give up my life-long love of Star Wars, and try to quell my sons’ growing love of it. When I think about a Star Wars movie, I have to admit that what most excited me about seeing one is a “good ol’ fashioned” light-saber duel, or a “force fight,” or an epic space battle. I have to, therefore, conclude that being entertained in this way is not a choice that is faithful to the Prince of Peace.
Question #3: Does the Entertainment Promote the Myth of Redemptive Violence?
I spoke at some length about redemptive violence above. It’s the idea that essentially “good guys with guns” can stop “bad guys with guns-” that violence, while regrettable, is sometimes necessary as the only possible way to stop violence. The logic of this argument is flawed, short-sighted, and betrayed by experience. The “war on terror” is an Orwellian perpetual war for lots of reasons, but one of them is because for every alleged terrorist blown up by a drone strike, many more are made. This is true not least because of the “collateral damage” such strikes inflict, and perhaps most because of the horrifically evil practice by the forces of U.S. empire of blowing up an alleged terrorist first and then when not just his associates but family and children and neighbors and friends gather for a funeral, your secular government (if you’re a U.S. citizen) then will often blow up the people at that gathering too. This practice is so evil that one wonders if it isn’t intentional. It surely insures that the “terrorists” (and let’s be clear, the violent forces of U.S. empire are no less terroristic than any violent jihadi) will keep coming, and therefore insures that the ever hungry military-industrial complex will continue to have a steady market for its products. And there, yet again, is the link between violence and capitalism.
Making Decisions With This Proposed Framework
I’ve already said above that I concluded that I couldn’t be entertained by Star Wars any more, because I had to admit (question #2) that what I most looked forward to about a Star Wars movie was the violence. Whatever else I would say here, I won’t say it as well as Roy Scranton did in his seminal New York Times essay, “Star Wars and the Fantasy of American Violence.” Scranton, an Iraq War vet, writes:
“Star Wars” managed a remarkable trick. Two years after the fall of Saigon and America’s withdrawal in defeat from a dishonorable war, Mr. Lucas’s Wagnerian space opera recast for Americans the mythic story so central to our sense of ourselves as a nation.
In this story, war is a terrible thing we do only because we have to. In this story, the violence of war has a power that unifies and enlightens. In this story, war is how we show ourselves that we’re heroes. Whom we’re fighting against or why doesn’t matter as much as the violence itself, our stoic willingness to shed blood, the promise that it might renew the body politic.
The literary historian Richard Slotkin called this story “the myth of regeneration through violence,” and he traces it from the earliest Indian captivity narratives through the golden age of the western, and it’s the same story we often tell ourselves today. It’s a story about how violence makes us American. It’s a story about how violence makes us good.
Looking out over Baghdad on the Fourth of July, I saw the truth that story obscured and inverted: I was the faceless storm trooper, and the scrappy rebels were the Iraqis.
Indeed. What Star Wars may get right is that there is an evil empire that should be resisted. What most Americans get wrong is that we are that evil empire. Moreover, as Chris Hedges makes clear in the title of his book by the same name, “War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning.” Ask any U.S. President with a flagging domestic policy agenda; what better way to boost your poll numbers is there than getting involved in a war somewhere? Scranton’s essay is worth the read and I urge you to do so. I think it’s clear, though, that Scranton is talking about the myth of redemptive violence and how it sits at the heart not only of Star Wars, but the collective consciousness of U.S. empire. Thus, my family has given it up.
I grew up in the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex. Therefore, loving the Dallas Cowboys was as central to the identity I was nurtured into as viewing Texas as better than other states but otherwise being a patriotic, flag waving, apple pie loving “American.” So, for the first time in conscious memory now 2 years into my fifth decade, I am not following the Cowboys this season. (Again, I’m aware of my own language. Why would I have “followed” them in the first place? Aren’t I supposed to be following Jesus?) I do not know what their record is. Sundays are not spent hoping the Cowboys are on national TV or wishing I had NFL Sunday Ticket instead. No longer do I even put on a game I might be less interested in simply so that I can stretch out on the couch on a Sunday afternoon and fall asleep to it. Why? Because “American football” is needlessly violent (question #1), and again if most fans were honest, I think they’d have to admit that the violence is among what they most look forward to about football (question #2). It’s needlessly violent because the sport can be played without violence. Pudgy middle-aged guys like myself (well, almost middle-aged) play touch football in parks across the country nearly every day, and especially on Thanksgiving. Kids and adults play flag football frequently too. Tackling and hitting need not be part of the sport, though the NFL would not be the billion dollar industry it is without the violence, and there again is the link between violence and capitalism (do you see a connection here, as I do?). What’s more, the evidence is daily mounting that there is also a link between the violence in “American football” and devastating health effects on those who participate in it, including violence on the part of those afflicted by CTE towards others and themselves. Finally, while I may not follow the Cowboys any more, I do follow the news; so I know that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones recently, though unsurprisingly, picked sides in the debate surrounding activism and free speech as it has surfaced in sports especially since Colin Kaepernick began protesting violence, discrimination, and the devaluation of black lives during the national anthem when it is played during football games. Jones recently said that team unity was not nearly as important as “respecting the flag” and so any player who he thought was disrespecting it would be benched. This patriotism toward the symbols of U.S. empire over/against any symbolic resistance to the evil that empire has subjected its citizens of color to is abhorrent, and it makes it that much easier to not be a Cowboys fan any more.
Can you tell I’m a sci-fi fan? I’ve loved Star Wars from a young age, but that love was nurtured by my older siblings, who probably love it more. I came by my love of Star Trek, though, all on my own. My mother liked it, if memory serves; so I suppose that’s a characteristic that I’m willing to admit I share with her (my long dead mother was the abuser in my dysfunctional, though “Christian,” childhood home). Still, I appreciated Star Trek for lots of reasons that were all my own. For starters, there was simply literally more to love. With now 6 live action television series, 1 animated one, and I think 13 movies, I’ve been exposed to a lot of Star Trek in my life. Gene Roddenberry’s (Star Trek’s creator) progressive vision of a multi-racial future in which everyone (at least on Earth or in the United Federation of Planets) largely gets along or at least tries to and (by the second television series) in which war and famine and poverty have been eliminated on earth even had a fledgling critique of capitalism, as again by the second television series it was stated that most Earth citizens lived enlightened lives in which they were free to pursue their most meaningful life. As Captain Picard said in the episode “The Neutral Zone:”
A lot has changed in the past three hundred years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy.
It’s quite debatable whether this ideal is carried through throughout the series, but it’s at least posited as an ideal that humanity achieved to some degree. Still, there’s plenty of conflict in Star Trek, even war (apparently not all species and cultures are as enlightened as futuristic humanity), and though I like Star Trek just a little more than Star Wars, I must be consistent and ask of it my three questions above.
Regarding question #1, I think some Star Trek is certainly needlessly violent. I will confess that I like the revival of the movies that J.J. Abrams started before moving on to Star Wars, but they’re violent, and probably gratuitously so. Thus, I won’t be watching them again. Likewise, I was excited about the latest iteration of Star Trek on TV, the capitalistic snare it represented (you have to sign up for CBS’ streaming service to watch it) notwithstanding. So I watched the first couple of episodes. It quickly became clear that the new series would be set in a time of war. That doesn’t automatically mean that it fails my violent entertainment decision-making framework, but it doesn’t make for a good start. By the second episode, though, a full on special effects laden space battle had occurred with many casualties. Lots of money was no doubt spent on those scenes, and they were no doubt very entertaining. For some viewers, those “big explosions” may be what they most liked about that episode, and thus question #2 is failed. Really, though, I only needed to get as far as this scene in the first episode, in which the central character said:
240 years ago, near H’Atoria, a Vulcan ship crossed into Klingon space. The Klingons attacked immediately. They destroyed the vessel. Vulcans don’t make the same mistake twice. From then on, until formal relations were established, whenever the Vulcans crossed paths with Klingons, the Vulcans fired first. They said “hello” in a language the Klingons understood. Violence brought respect. Respect brought peace. Captain, we have to give the Klingons a Vulcan “hello”.
This is the myth of redemptive violence in a nutshell, literally. In the quote above there are only four words between “violence” and “peace,” and they’re packaged in a nice little chiasm:
Thus, I won’t be watching the new series. There’s still some question, though, of re-watching some of the older series, particularly Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). My boys and I have been re-watching this show together. They look forward to it immensely. My stance since our conversion to rejecting violence in all its forms, including violent entertainment, has been to withhold judgment regarding TNG. There is certainly some violence in it. What may be redeeming about at least some Star Trek, though, is that this is not the focus of the show. Many episodes are spent on character development with little violence thrown in, even for “good” (not really) measure. And when violence does come up in TNG, so far at least as we’ve re-watched most of the first three seasons, there’s some actual thoughtfulness involved, and even some questioning of the myth of redemptive violence. Take, for example, the third season episode, “The Enemy.” Wikipedia describes the episode:
So on the planet two enemies must work together to survive, challenging their stereotypes about the other along the way. Meanwhile, Worf must decide whether to help save a Romulan’s life, a decision made all the more difficult by the fact that Romulans killed his family. Finally, Picard must work to avert a violent confrontation with a Romulan ship. In this exchange Commander Riker and Worf (indirectly) discuss the myth of redemptive violence:
Lieutenant Worf: I am asked to give up the very lifeblood of my mother and my father to those who murdered them!
Commander William T. Riker: That’s what your people said a few years ago, about Humans. Think how many died on both sides in that war. Would you and I be here now like this, if we hadn’t been able to let go of the anger and the blame? Where does it end, Worf? If that Romulan dies… does his family carry the bitterness on another generation?
And then, in this exchange Captain Picard interrupts a potential cycle of violence before it begins by choosing to extend trust to a would-be enemy threatening violence:
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Commander, both our ships are ready to fight. We have two extremely powerful and destructive arsenals at our command. Our next actions will have serious repercussions. We have good reason to mistrust one another; but we have even better reason to set those differences aside. Now, of course, the question is… who will take the initiative? Who will make the first gesture of trust? – The answer is, I will. I must lower our shields to beam those men up from the planet’s surface. Once the shields are down, you will, of course, have the opportunity to fire on us. If you do, you will destroy not only the Enterprise and its crew, but the ceasefire that the Romulans and the Federation now enjoy.
I was very grateful when the boys and I watched this episode. Though clothed in futuristic storytelling, this is at least to some degree not only a serious show wrestling with serious issues, but is one that is at least in part willing to question the myth of redemptive violence. For that reason, we will warily watch on.
Not a Rule, a Guidepost
As Captain Picard himself said, “There can be no justice so long as laws are absolute. Even life itself is an exercise in exceptions.” Or, as I like to say, “rules are for relationship.” So is every war movie out for me? No. It’s possible, I suppose, to tell a war story that is not needlessly violent because the violence is an essential part of the story and the story could not be told without it. Questions 2 and 3 above then would still apply. If I find myself being entertained or most looking forward to the violence in our proverbial war movie, then I probably shouldn’t watch it. If not, I look toward question 3 for guidance. Does the movie promote the myth of redemptive violence? If not, if it ultimately tells a tale that shows how violence does not achieve its stated ends, that it only perpetuates itself, then this proverbial war movie may be one I can still watch and think myself faithful to the Prince of Peace as I do so.
Nonetheless, these are hard questions to ask, let alone answer. It takes work to resist violence in all its forms, but it’s necessary work that I’m glad to do. I follow the Prince of Peace, and I want to be transformed by him, to have my mind renewed. Lord, I ask that you would “make it so.”
P.S. Let’s Not Forget The Doctor
In all my geekiness, I came to enjoy Doctor Who as I binge-watched it during a particularly cold Christmas break some years ago in NE Ohio. The show can be scary and is known for featuring monsters, and yet is quintessentially British, which maybe is part of its appeal for me. Notably, The Doctor does not usually employ violence. He does not have superheroic powers (except the ability to “regenerate”), and does not carry a weapon. His tool of choice is a “sonic screwdriver,” which is good for making sounds, unlocking things, and scanning things, but often is not very good even at that. The Doctor’s most powerful “weapon” is his tongue, and his monologues are epic. Anyway, while researching for this post I did a search for “Dr. Who Nonviolence.” That search led me to this post, at what is now one of my favorite blogs, “Experimental Theology” by Richard Beck. His site is worth checking out. I especially appreciate the header at his site, a quote by Thomas Merton:
You are not big enough to accuse the whole age effectively, but let us say you are in dissent. You are in no position to issue commands, but you can speak words of hope. Shall this be the substance of your message? Be human in this most inhuman of ages; guard the image of man for it is the image of God.
Perhaps you might imagine why this quote would be meaningful. “You are not big enough to accuse the whole age effectively” is a good word to one who is trying to “get small,” and the encouragement to speak words of hope in “this most inhuman of ages” is a helpful reminder. Anyway, in the short post I referenced above, Richard tells a story about an interaction with his son regarding Dr. Who and nonviolence. He thought it worth sharing, and so do I:
Let me quickly apologize to Doctor Who fans for the title of this post as it might have excited them. I’m sorry that this post isn’t a theological analysis of Doctor Who and non-violence. But please link to good work in this area in the comments.
This post is simply a funny exchange I had with my son Aidan on this subject.
Aidan loves Doctor Who. I’ve only watched one episode. So the other day I was asking Aidan lots of questions about Doctor Who and what he liked about the show.
As Aidan shared I quickly discerned that in most episodes the good Doctor has to deal with a variety of creatures, aliens and monsters.
And then Aidan says, “But Doctor Who doesn’t use violence.”
I’m intrigued, “He doesn’t use violence?”
“Well,” I ask, “then how does he fight all these creatures if he’s non-violent?”
Aidan pauses and then says, “Well, he runs away a lot. There’s a lot of running away.”
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?
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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.