As any long-suffering reader of mine will have noticed, I haven’t blogged in a while. As we came to Church of All Nations (CAN) more than a year-and-a-half ago now, I found not long after that I lost my writing “voice.” This was related, I think, to the process of becoming part of the CAN family. CAN is a “high risk, low anxiety” church that is unlike any other that I have ever been a part of. I struggled at first, even as we quickly became members of CAN, to understand what that phrase, “high risk, low anxiety” meant. I do not pretend to have fully grasped it now. I think part of what it means, though, is that CAN is a resilient, differentiated, embodied community of grounded people who are working together to follow Jesus into renewed village life. As I look at that sentence I just wrote, I realize how little justice it does as a descriptor of what and who CAN is- and it’s that same insight that best describes why I haven’t written in a while, for just as words alone can’t do CAN justice, they are poor descriptors of the journey I’ve been on of late.
I’m part of a men’s cell group at CAN, and at our last meeting someone talked about how long it takes us to “check in” with one another, to describe, basically, how we’re doing. He said that we use a lot of words to circle around what is essentially a feeling. In other words (no pun intended), what we’re after when we check in with one another is emotional connection. We want to bond with one another (in the best way possible), and we do that through our emotions. But we men especially are so poor (literally impoverished) at connecting with our own emotions, we have little hope of bringing that to the fore in a healthy way and offering it to one another. So instead we give each other words. I should be careful to say that there was and is no judgment in this assessment; it simply is, and thus this is perhaps the essential work of our male lives, to learn to grow up emotionally and offer our whole selves to one another, to our partners, and to a world in desperate need of emotionally mature men in public and private life. For point of reference, I offer you the opposite of emotionally mature men- see: Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump, or almost any “white” male in public life:
I think that I certainly use words like this- as a way of talking “around” what I feel. I’ve said before that I write to discover what I think, and this may be true. It makes sense to me that writing could be part of a reflective process, but I also use words to try to get at my own feelings, which I struggle mightily to be aware of and connected to. This is so for many reasons. As a childhood trauma survivor, I learned from the earliest age to protect my fragile child self by dissociating. I’ve done this now for basically all of my life and this practice of protecting my self by dissociating emotionally is so entrenched that not only do I so often not know what I’m feeling; I struggle perhaps too to even know who I am. Who am I, after all, apart from all my elaborate defense mechanisms?
Answering this question is part of that “essential work” I described above, and it is part, I think, of what makes CAN a “high risk” church, for if you want to stick around this community for any length of time you will, I suspect, invariably find your pretenses stripped away. I should say that pretenses are “stripped away” not through any willful act of violation. No, it’s quite the opposite. I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’ description of heaven in The Great Divorce, and forgive me if I get any part of this wrong; it’s been a long time since I read it. If memory serves, then, in the book of course heaven and hell are not mutually exclusive locations that residents of either “place” are barred from leaving or entering. Instead, residents of hell and heaven can leave at any time and there is a regular daily bus that travels between the two locales. Now this is where my memory may be fuzzy, but as I recall heaven is described as a place that anyone is free to travel to, but entering it is literally hard. The ground of heaven beneath one’s feet is literally harder that that of hell, more substantial, more real. The lights may be brighter. Entering heaven from hell is perhaps like emerging from a fog, waking from a dream into real life. To set one foot in front of the other as you walk into heaven requires a kind of commitment to what is real, for what is false and unreal can not survive there. (Again I apologize if I have gotten The Great Divorce wrong as I’ve recollected it here.)
Now, I’m not saying that CAN is heaven, but I do see the same kind of dynamic at play if you “really” enter into this community. Doing so means, as much as you can and with the help of those around you, laying aside your false self and making an effort to be authentically and truly oneself. This means a lot of other things that we often talk about among CAN, like being differentiated and living in the front of your brain (where higher thinking resides), not the back of your brain (where your “fight or flight” mechanism resides and where trauma can get “stuck”). In any case, this then is, by definition, a “high risk” endeavor. After all in this cruel world, who would dare to risk being truly themselves? And yet it is only authentic, healed, whole, and holy selves that could ever hope to experience life together in community without endlessly re-traumatizing one another. And it is only such a community that could aspire to renewed village life in the midst of cutthroat capitalism, in the middle of a rapacious, violent empire.
High risk though it may be, we do our best to approach this work with low anxiety. I know a lot about (living with) anxiety. It has marked my adult life, especially since my oldest son was born 4 months premature, but I’m sure it has marked my life since probably before I was born, maybe long before I was born (if epigenetic trauma is taken into account- and believe me I come from traumatized German, Jewish, Russian, and British people!). Anxiety has many causes, no doubt, including biology and brain chemistry, but part and parcel of those explanations is this one- that it is a defense mechanism born out of an instinct to protect a fragile self. I do not recall being aware of my anxiety as a child. I only know that every day felt like an intense exercise in survival. How could I make myself as invisible as possible so that my mother would not have cause to lose her temper at me and fly into a rage? How could I offer as few words as possible, or, when words were necessary, choose them so carefully that they could not later be used as ammunition against me? Harry Potter had an invisibility cloak. I’m no Drax, but I really didn’t need one. Like so many remnants of childhood trauma, however, the need for this coping mechanism has long since ended. But I still wear invisibility like a cloak.
Of course, if every day I tried to make myself invisible so that my mother would not have cause to be angry at me, every day I failed. As a result I turned to another kind of invisibility. If I could not be invisible to my mother, I would be invisible to myself. In other words, I dissociated from the “self” that received the brunt of my mother’s anger. I absented my own body so that there remained a part of me that was not actively being traumatized day after day after day after day. Consequently this coping mechanism, this remnant of childhood trauma, remains “hard-wired” into me even though the need for it too has likely run its course with me approaching my mid 40’s and my mother having been dead for nearly half my life. I’m learning, though, that dissociation and differentiation are perhaps very closely related. As I alluded to above, there’s a lot of work within CAN being done around differentiation. Differentiation, as I understand it, means knowing where I end and you begin, or perhaps more importantly, where you end and I begin. It means knowing that I’m me, not you. This may seem elementary and almost laughable on its face, but lack of awareness of this and poor differentiation likely lies at the root of many of the world’s ills, because differentiation means “owning” your own feelings and thoughts and not owning the feelings and thoughts of others, especially that of those closest to you. Scripture is rich with language of intense bonding. “Your people are my people and your god, my god,” Ruth told Naomi. And “there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” These are radical acts of self-giving love that we see represented best in Jesus himself. Yet self-giving love is impossible if you do not have a “self” to give, and you cannot fully have a self if you have not begun the work of differentiation.
This clicked for me in a powerful way today. I won’t go into details but my wife expressed via text that she was having a rough day. My initial response was one of stress/anxiety. How could I deal with her emotions when I’m just starting perhaps to reconnect with my own, the result being that yesterday, two days after the anniversary of my dad’s death 8 years ago, I sat at my desk at work doing everything I could to contain and repress an overwhelming urge to cry (this, by the way, was not a terribly therapeutic response on my part, but…capitalism). How could I deal with my wife’s emotions when I still feel that I’m in a “thin place” as I said to my therapist today? “Thin” places or spaces is a phrase that is sometimes used in theological language to describe the veil of separation between the physical and the spiritual. I’m using it here to describe the veil of separation between me and my own emotions. They seem more present to me now than they have in the past, perhaps because of some haphazard effort on my part of being “embodied.” Still, what happened today was that I had my response to my wife’s text, and crucially, I noticed it. I noticed that feeling and the thought that went along with it, and then I had another thought- I thought about differentiation. I remembered that I am not my wife. I remembered that I do not have to let her emotions inside me in a coercive way that would be indistinguishable from my own emotions. I remembered, to use language that my wife herself sometimes uses to describe how she tries to be differentiated from her patients at work, that her bad day is not my bad day. I was not trying to protect my “self” from my wife’s emotions; I was merely having a (differentiated) self. Nonetheless, the result was protective. Secure in my own self, I could risk being empathetic to her, and I was. After all, if empathy is about trying to imagine what it’s like to be in the (emotional) shoes of another, you have to have some sense of what it’s like to walk in one’s own shoes. So then empathy requires having a self too.
I said above that I thought differentiation and dissociation were closely related. The insight I recently had about this came as I reflected about traumatizing people in my life. In an undifferentiated state, their toxic thoughts and feelings felt as if they were inside me, as if I was having them too. For example, if they judge me as an unfit father, or worse, then I must be one. But how could I abide such a thought inside me as if it were my own when there was little actual justification for it? (A perfect father, I am not, of course, and no doubt the cycle of trauma and traumatization extends to my own children too, but I am working very hard to break this cycle and limit its impact. Am I unfit then? Not in the way that this toxic individual has judged me to be, at least.) In the face of this cognitive dissonance in my head, what do I do? I dissociate. Lack of differentiation has given this toxic individual prominence of place in my own head; so I again absent myself from my own body and am but a shell of the fully embodied person I could be. Tragically, it is this shell that I would then offer to my spouse and children as a “self” to attach to, and so the cycle of attachment disorder that is endemic to Western civilization continues. Thus the twin tasks of differentiation and embodiment is at the heart of the “essential work” of growing up emotionally I described above.
I may have more to say about what shape that “essential work” has taken in my own life of late- including some big news(!), but for now let me close with this. I think this, then, may finally begin to get at what is meant by saying that CAN is a “low anxiety” church. Differentiated, embodied selves are grounded, rooted and standing on their own two feet. We do not “need” each other in any existential sense. As I’ve long said, God made us in and for love, and so we are wholly for one another because love cannot exist in a vacuum. We likewise are meant to be interdependent, but we are interdependent in the way that a forest’s root system is interdependent. Individually the ground is solid beneath us, and beneath that ground, we share nutrients and resources so that together we can thrive. But these resources are given, not taken, and we do not anxiously seek our own self-protection. Living in the abundance of God’s abundant love and the more than ample resources of God’s good earth, we approach one another and build community and village life together because we like and love one another, not because we need one another to salve some deep-seated emotional wound or fill some psychological gap. I think our bulletin at CAN says that we are “a high risk, low anxiety church…so that we can be a church of all nations.” This is just so. As we brave the high risk of being our authentic, differentiated, embodied selves, anxiety dissipates on the high, hard ground of village life together. Such a life together is one in which capitalism is not really possible and violence is not necessary, and without capitalism and violence- that is, without empire- the “need” for nationalism dissipates too. Thus we can in fact be a “church of all nations.” Lord, let it be so.
Dear Person I’m Close To Who “Loves Jesus and ‘Merica Too,”
First of all, wasn’t Tom Petty great? If you missed it, my salutation alludes to his song, “Free Fallin’.” Back in my more “fundagelical” days at Gordon College, an upperclassman once told me that he believed the music of Tom Petty would save the world, as it was blaring out his window toward the field outside our dorm. Maybe he was just trying to be provocative, but who can forget Tom’s memorable turn in The Postman (image above)? Anyway, there’s some growing tension between you and I as we share life together these days but have what seem to be wildly different values and mutually exclusive ideas about what it means to follow Jesus. So this is what I would say about all this to you, if I could.
I do believe that we have a common commitment to following Jesus, but what that life of discipleship looks like and where I think Jesus is heading is very different for me from what seems to be the case for you. For example, I don’t believe that the Christian life is primarily about escaping hell for a better life in heaven after we die. I believe following Jesus is about joining in the family business of reconciliation and renewal. Heaven isn’t someplace we fly away to when we die; heaven is the reality in which God’s rule is unquestioned, and at the end of time we don’t escape to heaven; heaven comes to earth. Jesus said the kingdom of God is upon you; it’s right here, even now. For those who would fully follow Jesus, heaven (the reality in which God’s rule is unquestioned) has already begun.
This has dramatic consequences for how we live right now. My family and I are not trying to hunker down in a Christian bubble and wait for everything to burn. We’re trying to live as if the God of the universe has already saved us, and nothing can separate us from his love. Therefore, we have nothing to fear. We will not be afraid of immigrants and refugees, for example. Everyone with white skin like ours are immigrants to this land, and there’s a sense in which all citizens of heaven are immigrants to that land too. As Jesus followers we are called to welcome strangers and to love neighbors and enemies alike. We will do so.
As Jesus followers and citizens of heaven, we know that we cannot serve two masters, and we know that we must look with clear, unflinching eyes at the truth of our history. An honest look at U.S. history, for example, cannot end with the conclusion that the U.S. has been mostly good for the world, with a few faults along the way. The U.S. is an empire very much like Rome in Jesus’ day, and an honest, unflinching look at the witness of Scripture reveals empire as a primary force that the people of God are called to resist.
In the U.S., and- because of U.S. colonialism and domination- therefore throughout the world, capitalism and violence go hand-in-hand as the tools of empire, used for the purpose of ordering the world in opposition to the will and reign of God.
Capitalism forms people as consumers who endlessly envy what some neighbors have and fear what other neighbors lack and might take from us, thereby making the poor especially our enemies. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove says this best, and this is one of my favorite passages from his book God’s Economy:
Meanwhile, the worldwide U.S. driven economy is consumer based and has been for some time. It would collapse if we stopped buying stuff. Therefore desire is manufactured in us along with the stuff that we’re constantly being taught to desire. We window shop at the altar of our screens, and will click “buy” the moment there’s enough funds in the bank or in our credit line. This makes us good consumers, and bad Christians.
Capitalism would not be possible without violence. It is a system that was constructed violently on the backs of slaves and through land theft from and the genocide of indigenous peoples, and it is maintained violently as wars are fought over oil (and someday, no doubt, water) and through the everyday violence that keeps some people rich and many more people very, very poor. This everyday violence can be seen in the militarization of local police forces and in a culture that fetishizes gun ownership and thereby makes every protest and horn honk a situation rife with deadly potential. Everyday violence is seen in the availability of good jobs and pay for some, but not others. Everyday violence is seen in the imposition of contrived scarcity. Capitalism assumes a world with scarce economic resources rather than the abundance of God’s economy and provision. When resources are scarce, self-(ish) interest is incentivized because if I don’t get what I need and want, somebody else will and it may no longer be there for me. So in such a world there is only so much good land and only so many good neighborhoods and jobs. In a scarce world, if I share what I have, I have less and what I’m left with may not be enough. So I must take and keep what’s “mine,” by force if necessary. In a scarce world, it’s easy to value things over people. In a scarce world, the poor become an enemy because they might want what I have, and might take it.
Jesus lived, ministered, died, was resurrected, and lives on today to save us from all of this.
We must do everything within our power to live according to this truth and to teach it to our children. The house I live in, therefore, must be one of frequent shared meals with others, especially those with fewer resources. My house must be a house of hospitality, with a bed ready to share with the one who may not have one. God’s kingdom is upon us, after all, if only we’ll live like Jesus really is Lord here and now, not Trump, not Putin, not Hillary or Obama or anyone else. Jesus is our President. Jesus is the head of our International Monetary Fund. Ceasar’s face and inscription may be on the coin of the land, but Jesus made the metal the coin was printed on. As God has given out of God’s abundance more than enough for all of us, let’s give back to God what belongs to God, which is everything, but especially our lives and allegiance. With Jesus as Lord, the poor will indeed always be with us because we are the ones who share God’s bounty so that the poor do not remain poor long, and we rich do not remain rich long. Let’s resist capitalism and the violence that created and maintains it, and so let us live like God’s kingdom really is here. Amen.
I’m probably a bit late in seeking to chime in on Trump’s latest immigration atrocity (including, now, his administration’s efforts to discharge immigrant members of the armed forces and to mobilize a “denaturalization” task force), and I don’t think I have anything substantive to add to the conversation, especially as a middle-class (by USAmerican standards) “white” male. Still, I’m reminded of something that A.J. Muste (pictured above) is reported to have said. According to Wikipedia, Muste “was a Dutch-born American clergyman and political activist…best remembered for his work in the labor movement, pacifist movement, antiwar movement, and the Civil Rights Movement.” In other words, he’s my kind of guy. I heard it reported that Muste, while demonstrating during the Civil Rights movement, was asked if he thought his demonstrating would change the country. He said that’s not why he was doing it. Instead, he said, he was “demonstrating so that his country wouldn’t change him.” I think the same logic applies here too. I’ve said before that I often write to discover what I think. Perhaps I also do it to remind myself, if no one else, of who I am. I do it, on the rare occasion I do these days, not because I think my writing will change the country or even a single other person’s mind, but instead so that in these perilous times “my” country doesn’t change me. I started this post two weeks ago, and said then that I don’t know how you can observe the pictures and stories in the news of late and not be moved by them. I certainly am. Kirsten had asked me then how I was doing, likely referring to the pain and swelling from my torn left meniscus (I had surgery on a torn right meniscus a couple of years ago; now I need it on the left), which was recently exacerbated dramatically by all the heavy lifting and physical labor I’ve been doing to get ourselves moved into our new home and then to get Kirsten’s mom moved in too. She might also have been referring to the stress and fatigue of all those transitions just mentioned, especially related to integrating Kirsten’s mom into our new home and figuring out all of the “new normals” that go along with that; she could have meant any number of things. What I told her was that I was feeling alternately sad, angry, and determined. Interestingly, that range of emotion is probably appropriate for all of the circumstances outlined above, not the least of which is Trump’s family separation (and now, indefinite family detention on military bases) policy.
The cold calculation of Trump’s policy is, indeed, infuriating. This land is not my land, or your land, or anyone else’s. The indigenous people of North America regard it, unless I’ve misunderstood, as sacred unto itself. Christian Scripture speaks of it as “groaning” in anticipation of its own redemption. There is an obviously alive quality to it that gives one pause when thinking of it as, indeed, an “it” rather than an “other.” Regardless, for (some of) my ancestors to claim this land by force, commit genocide against its native inhabitants, cultivate and develop it with slave labor in order to turn it into the wealthiest country the world has ever known, and then for their descendants to have the gall to hold it by force and draw lines and erect boundaries in order to decide who can come here, and when, and under what circumstances is an affront altogether worthy of my anger, sadness, and determination. Whey they enforce these arbitrary “laws” with a “zero tolerance” policy that rips babies from their mother’s breast and separates children from families with no plans or infrastructure for ever reuniting them, it is all the more galling still, especially because there is a causal link between our relative affluence and safety here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. and the poverty and violence in other countries that would cause some to undergo the dangerous trek to get here in order to seek asylum. (See, for example, this now 4 year old story that only begins to explore the U.S.’ destabilizing and impoverishing effect on its southern neighbors.)
And I can’t help but see a causal link between all that and what’s happening in my own home. As I alluded to above, we have a new home. After spending the past year working so hard to “get small” by giving up as much power, privilege, and possessions as we could so that we could get closer to experiencing life from “under” the oppression of the dominators (of whom we are a part) rather than “over” it, which is our default stance given our inherited “white” privilege and economic power; after coming to learn that solidarity with those under the oppression of the dominators requires proximity to them; after realizing how selfishly we had been living for so very long and making all the changes necessary to get out of debt and move into position to be radically generous and hospitable once we had done so; after all that, here we are as home”owners” again with a house in the ‘burbs, smartphones, two cars, etc. Granted, our second car before was a very expensive one with a very bad loan that we would have spent years repaying, but with the help of our faith community we paid it off and sold it, and our second car now is 11 years old with over 140,000 miles on it which we paid for all at once in cash. Still, we have all the trappings of a very privileged life.
And traps they most certainly are. We cut short our plans to be fully debt free (except for student loan debt, which we may die with) by the end of this year when Kirsten’s younger sister moved away, leaving us as the only viable family nearby both able and willing to give care to Kirsten’s mom. Then, the owner of the house Kirsten’s mom has been living in said she needed to sell it, and suddenly we found ourselves springing into action. Kirsten’s mom has declining health and mobility, and it just seemed to be obvious that we should try to get into a house that she could move into with us. She has lived with us before; so we knew there would be challenges, but it seemed to be the right thing to do. One of the commands of Jesus that we’ve come back to time and again over the past year in our journey of “getting small” is his directive to give to those who ask of us. We felt ourselves being asked, even if implicitly. So we got ourselves in a position to give. When we found a small house with a finished basement and attic that had been divided into 6(!) bedrooms with three small ones in the basement that our little family of four could live in; one main floor bedroom with a bathroom and the kitchen and living room nearby that Kirsten’s mom could live in; and two more upstairs bedrooms that could serve as a guest room and maybe an office, we believed we had found a house that aligned with our values of radical generosity and hospitality, even if it was in the ‘burbs and would make us more proximate to the dominators than those dominated. The house is still very close to our faith community, and by all accounts it’s a modest home (by “white” USAmerican standards). Its footprint is small (though there is a big back yard); there’s nothing “fancy” about it. In fact, it needs some work, but our hope is that it will serve us well as Kirsten’s mom lives with us for now by allowing us to still be hospitable and generous, and in the future, it could give lots of options for communal living.
So by the grace of God and in recognition of our “white” privilege, we secured a loan, bought the house, and moved in. Since then we’ve worked tirelessly to get it ready for Kirsten’s mom: painting her room with multiple coats; ripping up carpet and refinishing her wood floor; replacing a door I had broken while ripping up carpet; replacing the main floor bathroom vanity, sink, and faucet to make the bathroom more accessible to her and then dealing with the resulting plumbing issues; replacing some non-functioning kitchen appliances; and the list goes on. Kirsten’s mom moved in now a few weekends ago. She’s coming from a three bedroom house that was entirely full of just her stuff, and moving from that whole house with all those rooms into basically just a bedroom in our house, and a smaller one at that. She’s made a genuine effort to pare down and give away some of that stuff she had, but our now shared home has still been awash in the sea of all the stuff she brought, and daily it’s been a struggle to bail out. Part of the “paring down” process she’s engaged in has involved offering random things to our kids, including a jar full of sea shells, some framed nondescript scenic background pictures, etc. This all led to a situation recently in which our Xbox owning, expensive YMCA summer program attending boys were arguing over who was getting which of grandma’s framed random scenic pictures; meanwhile, migrant 4-year-olds from Central America are sleeping in cages courtesy of the U.S. government and “my” taxpayer dollars, while their parents are on the fast track to deportation, all so that coal miners in W. Virginia can be distracted from learning the real reason for their declining job prospects, and my heart is ready to burst.
God, help us. Forgive us for all the times our actions make clear that we value things more than people. Forgive us for all the ways we continue to benefit from privilege afforded to us unjustly. Forgive us for how easily we fall back under the spell of Mammon, for how readily we accept a wealthy lifestyle afforded by capitalism and created and maintained by violence. Many, many times over the past year I spoke of capitalism/Mammon and violence as the two forces I saw most powerfully at work these days (and probably in all days) doing all they can to thwart and resist the ever coming kingdom of God. It’s actually kind of ironic. We who would resist the “new world order” are seen as just that, resisters working over and against the dominant forces in the world today. Confoundingly, in truth it is those who seek to maintain this brutal world order founded on that which is not God’s rule, that which is not God’s economy of Jubilee- it is they who are the resisters; they are the ones fighting an inevitably lost cause. It may not seem that way most days, but I don’t doubt for a second that it’s true. God’s kingdom of love and justice will come. God’s will, will be done on earth just as it is in heaven because heaven will come to earth and is doing so even now. We who would really follow Jesus then must be constantly reminded, and must remind ourselves as I hope I am doing now- that we are people from the future; we are a foretaste of the feast to come. We are to embody the new reality that God is birthing by being an alternative to what the sin-sick world has to offer.
Wake us up, Lord, and give us boldness to live with radical generosity and hospitality, with radical love and acceptance, in S. Texas, in the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem, in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., and in my own little home in the ‘burbs. Amen.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Hit play above and give this song, another gift to the church from the folks that make up Circle of Hope in Philly, a listen as you read. It’s based on Psalm 20, in which David says:
Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
I discovered the song when I came across this post by Jonny Rashid, one of Circle of Hope’s pastors. If you don’t get anything from what I write below, hit the link in the line above and just read Jonny’s post. Maybe God’s Spirit will speak to you through him. It was written over a year ago, but remains timely, especially in light of the recently released “Nashville Statement,” because, as Jonny says, “Christians in this fight (the fight for the culture, or ‘culture wars’) are discerning what hills to die on. Excluding gay people seems to be an important hill for them.” In Jonny’s post he links to the song above, and includes these lyrics from it:
I won’t put my trust in chariots or horses I won’t put my trust in them. I won’t put my trust in that empty promise I won’t put my trust in them.
My trust and my pride is in the name of Jesus Christ Who takes the old and broke and makes it new I’ll put my hope in the One who frees us all from sin, And to love is what He shows us to do.
This song is an anthem for our time. Not putting our trust in chariots or horses- or guns or bombs or violence of any kind- is one of the primary challenges of our time, and every time. Likewise, if my ears serve me, verse 2 of the song goes:
I won’t put my trust in gold or earthly riches I won’t put my trust in them. I won’t put my trust in that empty promise I won’t put my trust in them.
My trust and my pride is in the name of Jesus Christ Who takes the old and broke and makes it new I’ll put my hope in the One who frees us all from sin, And to love is what He shows us to do.
Again, not putting our trust in treasure that we can store up here on earth in our checking and savings accounts, in our money market accounts and 401k’s, is (along with the call to renounce violence) probably the biggest barrier to following Jesus we “rich young rulers” in the U.S. face. So….what a song.
I bring up the song because it so obviously touches on the two big things we’ve been learning this year, both of which have to do with how very counter-cultural following Jesus really is because:
Much of what Jesus seems to have to say to us has to do with recognizing that everything belongs to God the giver who made us to be givers too and calls us to participate in his economy rather than the economies of the world. In God’s economy, there is abundance, not scarcity. In God’s economy, we share; we don’t hoard and accumulate for ourselves. In God’s economy, we’re not mere consumers; we’re stewards. In God’s economy, we are blessed to be a blessing such that if our neighbor has no coat while we have two, we are to give him one, with our apology for hoarding what God gave us clearly for the express purpose of passing on to him. Thus, capitalism is just another ‘ism Jesus wants to save us from. I could go on, and already have.
We have been charged with being heralds of the gospel of peace. We are to be peacemakers and agents of shalom. Just as God calls us to reject Mammon in order to serve him, he calls us to reject violence in all its forms because the One we follow is the Prince of Peace. Thus, not only do we reject capitalism and all the economies of this world, we also are to reject war and capital punishment and violent entertainment and every other way that the principalities, powers, and empires of this world seek to ensnare us in the culture of violence, usually in service of the economy or so that we can protect our (rich) “way of life,” etc.
Rejecting capitalism/Mammon and giving up violence obviously puts one at odds with empire, and thus “narrow is the road that leads to life,” indeed, and indeed “only a few find it.” Though again few seem to find this narrow road, it seems to me that there is a preponderance of Scripture that makes it clear that we are to participate in God’s abundant economy by sharing the many good gifts God has given us. We read a lot in Scripture about peacemaking too, especially in the New Testament, but there’s also plenty that seems to paint God as a violent god that endorses violence and tells his followers to participate in it. Some of the most “troubling texts” in Scripture fall into this category. Thankfully, modern-day prophets like Brian Zahnd and Greg Boyd and many others are doing some great work these days to show us that God is not, after all, violent. I’ve read Zahnd’s A Farewell to Mars and Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, and I would highly recommend both. I’ve started reading Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God and was blessed to be able to hear him speak about it to Third Way Church (a local faith community I have immense respect for). I even had the chance to talk to Greg personally at Third Way’s worship gathering, and so am confident that even without having yet finished the very lengthy, scholarly Crucifixion of the Warrior God (thankfully there’s a shorter, more accessible version, called Cross Vision), I know I will be able to highly recommend it too.
The gifts that both Zahnd and Boyd (and again, others) have to offer not just the church, but the world, include their work to show that many of those “troubling texts” are not in the end what they might seem to be at first reading with our modern, Western eyes. There’s a lot under the surface and behind the scenes of written Scripture that when illuminated help us to see that, as Zahnd says: “God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. We haven’t always known this, but now we do.” This, then, brings me to the matter at hand. I was honored a few weeks ago to have been asked to teach some of the elementary age kids who gather as part of Mill City Church. I was supposed to talk about the “armor of God.” You might imagine that this presented a bit of a conundrum for me, given what I’ve said above and have been saying all year. I was glad for the opportunity, though, because it forced me to wrestle with the question of whether or not the warrior language of the “armor of God” passage is another example of those texts that (seem to) tell us how to be violent rather than shalom-makers. Let’s take a look at the passage from Ephesians:
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place,15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.19 Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel,20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.
Now, you probably know as well as I that you can’t start reading something that starts with “Finally.” The obvious question is: “Finally, what?” What is being summed up here? Before I go any further I should mention that in this, as in so many other things, I am indebted to the good people of Circle of Hope and the heavy theological lifting they’ve done in thinking of Paul “doing theology” in “two tiers.” As they put it:
Paul has a very useful approach to taking action on behalf of Jesus and in service to the poor and oppressed. He even has a great approach to advocating for rights, which seems way before its time. What I mean is that there is a general, universal, eternal tier in his thinking, and then a practical, flexible, temporal application of it. In the Enlightenment period, theologians put the entire Bible into one big text and applied their systems of thinking to it in order to make sense of it. Protestants have been having Bible studies ever since trying to fit the Bible into some rational system. Paul, in particular, looks like he is a very unsystematic thinker at points. For instance, he will tell the Galatians that there is no male and female in Christ, we are all children of God in Christ. Then he tells the Corinthian women some very specific ways to behave in no uncertain terms that make them look completely unequal. Which one is it? I think it is both. His prophetic first tier is “There is no male or female hierarchy,” his practical tier is “Act in a way that makes the mission work and relationships of love flourish, and don’t get us in trouble with our persecutors.”
Later, they offer this very helpful hermeneutic for reading Paul which is related to the two tiers described above:
Head coverings, long hair for women, not men (although Jesus probably had long hair), women not speaking (elsewhere they are forbidden to teach men) although he encouraged them to keep their head covered while prophesying in the meeting – these are all inconsistent and specific applications. Paul was not trying to write the Bible as the modernists saw it. Surely he did not expect his writings to be collected. He is not a professor writing a book about a topic. He is working things out as the body of Christ, led by the Spirit, “in Christ.” You can make your own discernment in Christ, but it looks like we should apply a principle of Bible interpretation that says the closer a teaching in the Bible is to the culture of the day, the more likely it is to be culturally bound, and the more counter-cultural it is the more likely it is to be universal in application. It’s not an ironclad principle, but a useful guide.
This guide is useful indeed. The closer a teaching in the Bible is to the culture of the day- the more in line it is with how things were for the folks who originally wrote and read the Bible- “the more likely it is to be culturally bound.” In other words, if Paul, inspired by God’s Spirit, were writing to us today, the teaching in such passages might be written very differently. Remember, it was Jesus who so often did this very thing with his Bible- the Old Testament- when he repeatedly said, “You have heard it said….but I tell you…” Likewise, if something that runs truly counter to the culture of the folks who originally wrote and read the Bible made it into that very Bible, it’s very likely to have a universal application, to be a timeless truth that is just as “true” for us as it was for its original hearers, and in much the same way.
So, going back to the “finally” that the “armor of God” passage above begins with, let’s see what’s being summarized. Paul begins in Ephesians 1 by giving thanks for those to whom he was writing and describing how Christ has been given authority “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.” This is quite a claim in the midst of the Roman Empire of his day. As I’ve so often repeated, to say that “Jesus is Lord” is to say that Caesar is not. Shane Claiborne, I think, gets close to getting it right when he says that this is like saying “Jesus is President,” and Trump (or Obama or any other) is not. Paul’s assertion here is one that Christians in the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the world- richer and more powerful even than Rome in its heyday- should likewise be making today. The “leader of the free world,” and all the world indeed, is not the President of the U.S., and any power the President or Congress or Supreme Court or any other earthly ruler thinks he has pales in comparison to that of Jesus, but I digress.
In these first few chapters of Ephesians, Paul addresses himself to Jews first, and then turns his attention to the Gentiles, to whom he has a mission to preach the gospel. In chapter 2 he describes how those who have been “saved” have received this salvation as gift, through grace and faith, “so that no one can boast.” He’s making a case here. He declares that Jews and Gentiles are united in Christ, who has preached peace (shalom) to those who were thought to be far from God (Gentiles), and peace to those who were thought to be near to God (Jews). Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) at the time did not “naturally” associate with one another, and up to this point it would have been unthinkable to imagine that the Jewish Messiah, the would-be political liberator of his people, was not only not going to violently overthrow Rome, but to make matters far worse in the eyes of Jews at the time, was going to offer his salvation (whatever that meant) not only to Jews but to their Gentile oppressors too! This was a scandal of the worst kind. It’s no wonder Jesus was executed with approval from the Roman state and the Jewish religious leaders. So then, Paul in Ephesians is writing to persuade his Jewish hearers and readers who have begun to follow Jesus that (again, quite scandalously) they are no more worthy of salvation than Gentiles are, for God’s free gift is indeed free, and is available to all. Paul makes this explicit in Ephesians 3. This is good news, but of a subversively revolutionary kind. Jews of the time had been hoping for a revolution, after all, but this is not the revolution they thought they were signing up for.
Paul spills a lot of ink in Ephesians 4 continuing to describe this gospel of peace and the unity that all who would follow Jesus are to share. He goes on to describe the new life that we who are united in and by Christ are to share. Paul tells us to live according to this new life we have been given, and to stop living like those who do not follow Jesus, who “are so greedy that they do all kinds of indecent things.” Isn’t it interesting how often in Scripture, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, we find instruction (not rules) for how we are to relate to one another economically? “The love of money is the root of all evil,” indeed. Paul in Ephesians 4 even gives examples of what the new life in Christ he’s been describing looks like by way of contrast with the old. Notable among them, and again related to God’s economy, is this gem: “If you are a thief, quit stealing. Be honest and work hard, so you will have something to give to people in need” (italics added). Sharing with those who ask of us is baked right in to the description of why we should work (and not steal) at all.
Do as God does. After all, you are his dear children. 2 Let love be your guide. Christ loved us[a] and offered his life for us as a sacrifice that pleases God. 3 You are God’s people, so don’t let it be said that any of you are immoral or indecent or greedy (italics added).
Paul talks about living in the light of God’s love and “making every minute count” as we do so because “these are evil times,” and then begins to move into more instruction about how to relate to one another “in light” of all of the above. The “two tiers” of Paul’s theology again becomes helpful here. At the end of chapter 5 Paul discusses how to get along in marriage, and much damage over centuries has occurred because of Paul’s accommodation to patriarchy as he describes male “headship” in these verses. The two tiers are quite evident here, though. Paul goes along with (accommodates) the culture of his day in describing husbands as “the head of his wife,” (tier 2) but then he goes against the grain of his culture and maybe gets timeless as he moves to tier 1 and says that if men are going to be “head” of their wives they are to do so like Christ does for his church: they are to love their wives and lay their lives down for them, just as Jesus has done for all of us. In a world where men could give their wives a “certificate of divorce” on a whim, Jesus in the gospels tells men that this can no longer be the case, that only adultery is sufficient cause to even consider such a move. Now, Paul goes further and describes what marriage should look like, using the dressing (language) of his culture not to enshrine it for all time but to render it near meaningless. The point is NOT that male “headship” is God ordained. This should be more clear in the NIV version of chapter 5, in which before Paul says that wives should “submit” to their husbands, he says to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Again, the point is not that male “headship” is God ordained. The point is that suffering love is. This is subversive and radical, but again only for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
At last, then, we get to chapter 6. The two tiers of Paul’s theology have been evident in his description of how we are to live in light of God’s love, including/especially in marriage. Remember, Paul begins Ephesians by describing Jesus’ power and saying that all rule and authority and power and dominion belongs to Christ, the executed outcast, the poor wanderer of an occupied people who “had no place to lay his head.” This same Jesus is now the ultimate authority in the universe. To one powerless group in the society of Paul’s day, women, Paul describes how the powerful- men/their husbands- are to lay down their lives for them. Paul now in chapter 6 moves to another powerless group in the society of his day, children. Look for the two tiers again, and remember that of all the powerless groups in Paul’s day, including women, children, and slaves (all of whom are addressed here in what is surely not a coincidence), children were the least powerful of all in the household economy. I’ve written about this. To children, sure, Paul says they are to obey their parents (tier 2), but then he goes back to the Ten Commandments and reminds his readers that of all the commandments, “The commandment Honor your father and mother is the first one with a promise attached:so that things will go well for you, and you will live for a long time in the land.” This is tier 1 (the eternal, timeless tier that most fully reveals God’s intent for us) in spades, and Paul doubles down on it next when parents get a command too: “As for parents, don’t provoke your children to anger…”
Paul talks to slaves next, with the two tiers again very evident. You see Paul accommodating the culture of his day in his practical, tier 2 instructions as he tells slaves to “obey their human masters” and “serve their owners enthusiastically, as though they were serving the Lord and not human beings.” But then Paul moves to tier 1 as he reminds slaves and masters both that “…the Lord will reward every person who does what is right, whether that person is a slave or a free person.” And so, like husbands and parents, masters get instructions too: “As for masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Stop threatening them, because you know that both you and your slaves have a master in heaven. He doesn’t distinguish between people on the basis of status.” Revolutionary! Paul tells “masters” that they have a master too. All authority has been given to Jesus. These instructions render status differences between slaves and earthly masters (and parents and children, and husbands and wives) moot. All power is given to Jesus, who wields it by dying for those he loves.
At long last, finally indeed, we move to the armor of God. How are we to be strong? “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.” To his readers who were all too familiar with the violent military garb of the Roman soldiers who patrolled the streets they walked daily, keeping “law and order,” he says:
Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Remember, Paul has already declared that these same “rulers” and “authorities” and “power” are already subject to Jesus, the same Jesus who did not violently struggle against the “flesh and blood” of the Roman soldiers that crucified him at the behest of the empire- the Roman one and the Jewish religious one of his day. Jesus did not need to employ violence against the flesh and blood acting on behalf of the rulers and authorities because the freedom he offers is much deeper than any they could take away. As Rod White of Circle of Hope put it, as “slaves of Christ,” we are “being freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to you.” So in our struggle against the schemes of the devil, the Accuser who would blind us to the truth that his power is at an end, Paul reminds us of all the tools- not weapons- that God has given us. In place of a Roman soldier’s belt, we are to wear Truth. Where a Roman soldier’s breastplate would be, we put on Righteousness, the reality that all the wrong things are being made right, that justice is and will be done. Where the fittings for a Roman soldier’s feet would be, we are fitted with the “readiness that comes from the gospel of peace” (which surely has nothing to do with flesh-and-blood war!). Where a Roman soldier would take up a shield, we are protected with faith, and in place of a helmet and sword, we are given God’s Spirit. We are given Jesus, the living word of God. And beyond all that, Paul says, we are to pray.
Upon further review, this text is indeed troubling, but not because a violent God is calling us to think and act violently. It’s troubling because it subversively reveals how no violence can stand against the Prince of Peace and those with feet ready to follow him in preaching with their lives the gospel of peace. This is what I would have said to the kids of Mill City, if I could have. May we all live like children of our Father in heaven, who calls us to just such a generous, peaceful life. May we put our trust in the name of Jesus Christ, not in chariots or horses, or gold or earthly riches. Amen.
P.S. I should note that in this post Circle of Hope recently wrestled with this text too, in their daily prayer blog for folks just starting to follow Jesus. It’s worth a read, and also has a link to the song above.