So, let’s just get this out of the way. Today is the anniversary of my dad’s death nine years ago. So, I’m feeling all the feels. He died just a couple months shy of what would have been his 79th birthday, and likewise just a couple months shy of the birth of my youngest son, Nathan. I’ve always described them as ships passing in the night.
As I’ve written recently and for a while, my relationship with my dad was complicated. Here’s what I said about him in that recent post:
As warm and loving and kind and perpetually self-sacrificial as he could be, he was very enmeshed of course in my mother’s emotional field, ever her enabler. I’ve often lamented his awareness of my mother’s abuse and the daily trauma she inflicted, really on everyone, and that his response was not to actually “rescue” me, especially as a young child, by removing me from the situation, sadly through divorce. Instead, his response was to daily “lay down his life” by trying to shield me from as much of her abuse as he could. Of course, this was not a terribly effectual strategy in terms of reducing harm.
It did, however, make him pretty saintly in my eyes as a child. He was, after all, warm and loving to me (when my mother would allow such expression), and he tried to protect me, in his own ill-advised way. It made him look like a rescuer, of course, and it constantly motivated me to in turn try to rescue him by constantly monitoring my mother’s emotional status and doing whatever I could to prevent the next angry outburst. I’ve been rescuing ever since.
Hurt People, Hurt People, Sometimes by “Rescuing”
Of course, in his case I actually did have a couple of opportunities to actually “rescue” him. I should mention that I didn’t exactly grow up right in the middle of the “middle class” here in the U.S. I should also mention that my story is pretty complicated; there’s just a whole lot of trauma. I guess I should back up and give you the extremely abbreviated version. My dad had three much older kids through his first wife, Mary Lou, who died. So my youngest sibling is 17 years older than I am. He married my mom not years, not months, but a few short weeks after Mary Lou died. Though she had been sick for a while before she died, it’s not believed that there was an affair or anything like that. More likely, to speak in the trauma language I might use now, my dad was “in the back of his brain” when he married my mom- grieving, lonely, etc. It’s also true that my mom had been so very traumatized in her childhood and lived in the back of her brain all her life to such an extent that she pressured him- “If you love me, you won’t wait to marry me.” I probably digress at this point, but needless to say my childhood was…complex.
So the first time I “rescued” my dad was around the time I started seminary twenty years ago. I mentioned above that I didn’t exactly grow up right in the middle of the U.S. middle class, which meant that most of my growing up years, from about the age of 12 or so on, I lived in a trailer park. My parents had owned a home, but largely through “back of the brain” financial decisions driven by my mom, they went through bankruptcy and lost it. Anyway, they had a friend that helped them get a single-wide mobile home, and that’s where we lived from that point on. Again, there’s a whole lot that happened between getting that trailer and where we pick up the story twenty years ago, but by that time (twenty years ago) my mom had died and every single one of my three older siblings had gone through trauma of their own and had moved in with my dad in that trailer. My same age niece was there too, and her twin boys. So my niece and her twin boys had the largest bedroom in the trailer, two of my siblings had two other (very small) bedrooms, one sibling slept on the couch, and my dad had a small bed in the living room. And you know what? My dad wouldn’t have had it any other way. No doubt he saw himself as something of a “rescuer” too. He needed to be needed, no doubt, and defended their situation by describing the financial disaster that would happen if any one of them tried to move out or extricate themselves from the mutual aid they participated in.
Jesus Followers Strive for Being Inter-dependent, not Independent or Co-dependent.
So there’s a real tension here. The norm around the world and through much of human history is for multiple generations to live under one roof and support one another. It’s only the myth of the “American dream” and capitalism that glorifies single family homes as the ideal that all should aspire to, judging anyone a failure at “adulting” if they don’t “make it” in this way. As a Jesus follower, I reject this. Mutuality is to be encouraged; community is good. As members of the household of God, we look forward to living in our father’s house together, where there are many rooms, (not “mansions”). Likewise, when you live as a community under one roof, the work that is required to build and maintain healthy relationships is the hard work of growing up that many of us never get to, especially in the U.S. This is true whether your household is made up of members of your family of origin or is instead made up of brothers and sisters in the family of God (sometimes the two categories overlap, I know). Kirsten and I have tried our hands at “intentional community” with others not from our families of origin a few times, and each time we learned just how much we still have to learn, how much growing up we have yet to do. That too is another story. I suppose the crux of the matter is whether or not your household and the mutuality it represents is one in which there are healthy relationships or not. Inter-dependency, especially with Jesus at the center of it, is to be encouraged. Co-dependency is not.
And in my humble opinion, co-dependency was the web that held the relationships together in that trailer of my youth full of seven people twenty years ago. And it was taking a toll on my dad’s health. He didn’t know it yet, but he was dying when we asked him to come live with us as I started seminary. He did, and my first year of seminary was marked by two major surgeries that my dad endured and months of being bedridden in our seminary apartment in between. I was, of course, the only seminarian living on campus with my wife…and father. His health improved, and he quickly moved back to the trailer in TX, having spent less than two years with us. I wonder, of course, was this “rescue” necessary? Who knows? He said later that he had already made a doctor’s appointment in Texas (where he lived and where I grew up) when we intervened. I don’t know if he would have gotten all the medical care he needed there. I don’t know if his living situation would have been conducive to the recovery he needed.
Jesus is Our Only Real Rescuer, but Following Him Doesn’t Mean Sitting on the Sidelines, Keeping Our Hands Clean.
What I do know is that he lived more than a decade longer than he would have if nothing had happened. And I know that after that decade passed, his living situation in that trailer, with all those people, was not a good or dignified one in which to finally die. When his health began to take another turn for the worse again in 2010, I took time off from work and drove down to TX with my oldest son, Sam, then about 6. This is what I found:
Now, please hear me when I say that I don’t offer the above voyeuristically, as some sort of poverty porn. This is part of the story I’m telling, part of my story. Perhaps by seeing the pictures you can see what compelled me to act. You might argue with how we acted, but love compelled some sort of movement, again. A decade prior we asked my dad to come live with us to get the medical care he needed. This time around, we later learned, he was already well on his way to dying again and past the point of a cross country move himself. So, we moved back to TX for about a year-and-a-half to be with him and find him a more dignified way and space in which to die. That’s another long story, but in the end we were able to help move everyone, all seven of them, out of the trailer and into a rental house. My dad still didn’t exactly wind up with a bedroom, but did have a small room in which eventually a hospice bed could be placed, and in which he died on this date in 2011.
His death took longer than expected. We moved early in 2010, expecting it would come soon. It took, obviously, more than a year, and the last few months were rough. There was a stint in a palliative care unit and talk of institutional hospice before home hospice was settled on. My siblings weren’t hearing the same information I was from the doctors. I made it my business to be very informed, and so when the hospice conversation began, my siblings weren’t on board. They accused me of trying to kill him. There was a brief relational cutoff then, but it was probably less than a week before they finally heard and understood what I already knew, that the end was (relatively) near. They apologized, but the damage was done. Even then, his actual death process was still slow. By the end he was leaking fluid out of his vessels and had swelled up, unrecognizable. I can’t remember the last conversation we actually had in which he responded. Finally, the day came and I got “the call.” He waited for me, and I was able to be there as he breathed his last, along with my siblings of course. His was the second death I had witnessed; there has since been another.
Even writing about it now and trying to remember the sequence of events and how I felt, it’s all a jumble. I know grieving takes time and is never “done.” Like so many things, it’s not terribly linear. Today, I’m feeling it.
As I’ve said, though, my dad was a complicated guy, as was our relationship. Part of the complication was just how loving he could be. He was known as a “friend to children and animals.” My dad made a ton of mistakes and enabled the trauma that I’m haunted by every day now. I’m making my own mistakes now, no doubt. But love wins, doesn’t it? Look at the pictures below, taken from our time together in that year + before he died. It’s love I see in them. The love of Christ that knits the universe together has a long arc, and this is how I want to remember my dad, full of that love, and sharing it as best he could.
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.
I can’t stop thinking about this since reading it this morning. The good folks who make up Circle of Hope, our former faith community in Philly, put out not one, but two, daily prayer blogs. One is for folks a little further down the road with Jesus; the other is for those taking the “first steps on the journey of faith and community.” Remarkably, what I’ve re-posted below, in its entirety, is from that latter daily prayer blog, for those maybe just starting to follow Jesus (or perhaps, if you’re like me, just starting to follow Jesus in a new way and hopefully with new depth). I’ve written recently about my growing awareness that “capitalism is just another ‘ism Jesus wants to save us from.” This post is a reminder of that, and in spades. Here it is:
Generating justice and hope in our neighborhood must be at the heart of us. Wealth and power reduce sympathy for the poor and powerless. A marriage between unfettered capitalism and piety makes the Lord’s words inconvenient at best and heretical at worst.
Today’s Bible reading
Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land,
“When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?”— skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat.
The Lord has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done. — Amos 8:4-7
More thoughts for meditation
Many people say American Christians have generally reduced their faith to “moral therapeutic deism,” where the shapes and colors of religion are imported into mass-market self-help schemes. Meanwhile, the “Christian right” persevere in old political battles (sexuality, marriage, education, etc.) for which they sold their souls to the “economy.” But the strength of their efforts appears to be waning; the once coherent evangelical voting bloc is splintering. The titans of industry intent on fostering a pro-capitalist politics can no longer rely on them to bolster their project. The most ardent pro-capitalists, don’t generally speak in terms of Christ and country any more; they are more likely to talk about self-improvement and actualization.
Why pray about this? Why give ourselves proverb to remember? We are all in the grip of capitalism and tend to believe its narrative about life more than the Lord’s. Whether with or in spite of Oprah or Franklin Graham, we’re moving with or resisting the flow.
Free-market economics and Christianity were not always the twin pillars of a uniquely American gospel. Yet the last election was kicked off by Ted Cruz spinning a free-market yarn to the student body of the world’s largest Christian college. He wanted to get the born-again Christians into the voting booth giving him dominion over the economy. At this point, thanks to the tireless efforts of the pastors and politicians, the disparity between the Christian ethos and the spirit of capitalism is now little more than a periodic gurgle of protest from believers who lean “left.” Most pastors preach some variation on self-help and self-reliance.
Capitalism needs a story to make its excesses and failures palatable to the masses. Regular people need to be convinced that the system that benefits the rich actually benefits them too. Lately there have been stories about the prophets of capital like Bill Gates and Sheryl Sandberg. The stories about the rich and successful have different plots, but the same goal: to patch up leaks in capitalism and advance its shuddering bulk for one more day. In the 1950’s it was Christianity that was deployed to offer this endorsement, now it is more likely the Koch brothers or Mark Zuckerberg.
Each of the stories keeps a glimmer of the past pro-capitalist Christian crusades burning — they are all sermons about the economy with moral imperatives, altar calls and an application that will not only save your finances but save the country, if not humanity. As religiosity drops off in the United States and is replaced either by faithlessness or individual spirituality, capitalism is reformating its defenses to match those changes. That could be the best possible thing for true Christianity in the United States. If the Christian story is the latest to be shucked aside by capitalism, then Christianity might find itself slipping the grip of a rather oppressive relationship.
Out of the grip of capitalism, American Christians would be free to offer up a genuinely revolutionary Christian politics: one that neither seeks to bolster capitalism blatantly nor offer meager patches for its systemic problems. Having an historical perspective on the ways in which Christianity was co-opted in service of the capitalist cause could help new Christian activists avoid the pitfalls of the recent past. Our proverb names the problem and calls us to enact the transformation that makes us truly free, not just free to pay the system for the privilege of consuming.
Suggestions for action
Pray: Make me a heretic in the religion of capitalism and a prophet among those who follow Jesus.
It takes some study to see beyond the ocean of capitalism in which we swim. We have all bought the story to some degree, as follows: Holiness and profit go together. The special capacity of capitalism to help the poor is assumed. The respect due to those who “make it” is something to which children are taught to aspire. We elect millionaires to lead the country. It goes on, often unexamined.
Take some time to ponder our proverb and Amos’ prophecy again. What does your participation in the “economy” do to your ability to follow Jesus? Don’t immediately figure out how you will fit more of Jesus into your busy schedule. First consider just what it costs your faith to have it married to capitalism, if it is. How does Jesus speak into you life in the U.S. and direct you?
Every day- and especially on this day- I’m more and more convinced that the two big questions of our time as Jesus-followers are:
How do we more fully participate in God’s economy; that is, how do we really and truly order our actual everyday lives as if everything really does belong to God?
How do we more fully follow the Prince of Peace; that is, how do we really and truly order our actual everyday lives as if violence in any and every form is antithetical to the way of Jesus?
I suspect that I and my family will spend the rest of our lives working out the answers to these questions. I also suspect that the world would know that we were Christians- that we were children of our father in heaven- if the rest of those who would follow Jesus would dedicate themselves to struggling with these questions too. Anybody who has read this blog at all this year will know that the call to live as participants in God’s economy was a call we heard as if for the first time in 2017, despite having the heard the call no doubt as long as two decades ago, though it fell on deaf ears all the long many years since. It’s only been over the past year or so that we’ve made any serious attempt to really consider what it means that nothing really belongs to us, that we are called to ask for and gratefully receive only enough bread for today- and if more than enough bread for today comes our way- it is no doubt because we are “blessed to be a blessing,” because we are meant to be conduits of God’s blessing and goodness for others.
Retirement and Savings Accounts are Exercises in Functional Atheism
Of course that means we are asked to have great faith. We are asked to trust God for each day’s bread each and every day. While manna does not generally rain down from heaven each day to sustain us, as educated people of European descent in these waning days of USAmerican empire and global capitalism, we are incredibly privileged, and have access to more “bread” than most people in the world today and certainly in the history of the world could ever know what to do with. The actual, everyday implications for how we are to order our lives in light of this means, for starters, that we can stop storing up treasure on earth. Our retirement and savings accounts are exercises in functional atheism. They develop the muscles that would be necessary in a world in which God did not exist, in a world in which we were not the beloved children of our father in heaven. Jesus seems pretty clear about this in Matthew 6:25-32:
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[e]?
28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
That little “therefore” that what I’ve quoted above begins with is a hinge on which everything hangs; so let’s back up. Matthew 6 begins like this:
6 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Jesus Gave a Sermon Once
All of this comes in the famous, but not nearly famous enough, Sermon on the Mount. In it Jesus radically reinterprets everything his Jewish audience thought they knew about God and how to follow him. It starts in Matthew 5, just before the passages from Matthew 6 quoted above. Repeatedly in chapter 5 he says, “You have heard that it was said…..but I tell you….” Each time he takes something heretofore known as “gospel truth” and then alters, adds to, or flips on its head whatever they had heard before so that it was nearly unrecognizable. Remember, he’s doing this with their Bible. Usually whatever followed the “you have heard that it was said” was a quote right out of the Hebrew Bible, and usually whatever Jesus said after “but I tell you” required a radical reorientation of everything they had known to be true. Before they were subject to judgment if they murdered. Now they were subject to judgment if they get angry with a brother or sister. Before they were not to commit adultery. Now they are not to look lustfully at one another. Before men could divorce their wife on a whim. Now they are to let their “yes” really mean “yes,” especially in marriage, and to make this point Jesus follows up his words on adultery by enjoining the people to not only fulfill the vows they’ve made but to refrain from otherwise resorting to oaths at all, because their word should be their bond. In a culture in which women had little power, this is a radical shift, but that is a discussion for another day.
The Other Great Commandment: Give to the One who Asks
Before they had “…heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h]39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” According to what they used to think the Bible said, retributive violence was just fine. Now Jesus tells them not only to refrain from such violence, but to refrain from resisting an evil person at all. Here, though, a critical shift occurs in this discussion of enemy love, for the very next words out of Jesus’ mouth are: “40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (italics added). The command to give to the one who asks of us is italicized because it has been such a theme in what we’ve been learning. It’s become so important to us because it’s so very counter-cultural; it’s anathema to the USAmerican way of life and the pursuit of the “American dream.” Confronted with constant messaging about scarcity, about the need to acquire more and more and more (if for no other reason than to keep the consumption-based late capitalist economy going for as long as it possibly can so that the rich can get just a little bit richer), we seldom know not only how to simply say “enough!”, but even more so, we’ve forgotten how to share. We no longer know how to give, expecting nothing in return. We outsource our generosity to the government, and then attach so many strings that it hardly qualifies as generosity. Sure, we may support a charity or two, but when we do, we think we’ve done our part and otherwise order our lives in such a way that we continue to accumulate far more than we need while others lack even the most very basic of necessities.
Giving to those who ask of us is a profound exercise, then, not in functional atheism, but in functional faith, in the belief that we are children of our father in heaven, the one who feeds the birds and clothes the flowers, and therefore will surely do so much more for us. Notice, then, what Jesus is doing here. Jesus puts his command to give to those who ask of us right in the middle of instructions about how to love our enemies, and he doubles down in the part that follows the command to give to those who ask of us. He says:
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Let Jesus Be Your Bible
The progression here is remarkable. Jesus has already said early in chapter 5 that the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake will be blessed. He then tells them that they are to be salt and light, that they are there for a purpose. Indeed, Jesus says, they are the very “light of the world,” and that light was meant to “shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Before moving into his list of all the ways that what they thought was true wasn’t true after all, or more accurately, wasn’t nearly true enough, Jesus responds to those who might say that his words are so radical, so very re-orienting indeed, that he must have come to “abolish the Law and the Prophets,” and therefore everything that the faith of Israel had stood for up to that point. Jesus says this is not the case. He says: “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” Do you see what he did there? He doesn’t say, “you must continue to observe the Law down to the smallest letter and the least stroke of a pen” if you are to have any hope of entering the kingdom of heaven. In fact, he says: “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (italics added). No, what Jesus says is that he has not come to the abolish the Law and the Prophets; rather he has come to fulfill them. In Jesus, the work of the Law and the Prophets is complete. They are not abolished; they are fulfilled. Their purpose has been served. Their job was to point, eventually, to Jesus. They were signposts along the way, and sometimes not very good ones at that. Be that as it may, “in Christ all the fullness of …(God) lives in bodily form.” So it’s not that the Law and the Prophets were all for naught; they were important again because they point to Jesus. It is Jesus, though, and Jesus alone, that is the “living word.” It is Jesus, and Jesus alone, who reveals the Father perfectly; so as the Father said at least twice in the gospels, we would do well to “listen to him.”
Only then does Jesus begin reinterpreting their sacred text, showing them that it could and had only taken them so far, but there was much farther to go still. Nowhere is this more true than in the injunction to love one’s enemies and give to those who ask of us. First he says that to those who would take our shirt, we should give our coat too. Then he says that for those who would force us to go a mile, we should go two. It’s important to know that usually such demands in occupied Palestine were made by the occupying Roman soldiers, who would force locals to carry their heavy soldier’s pack for a pace. Thus the oppressed Palestinians were made to carry the tools of war, the very instruments that could be used to oppress and even kill them. Usually a soldier would demand that a local do this for a mile. Jesus says not to resist this, and then to give them another mile too. Doesn’t it cast his later instruction to his disciples to “take up their cross and follow him” in a new light?
Your Poor Enemies
After saying all this, he then tells them to give to those who ask of them, and not to turn away from those who want to borrow from them, and without missing a beat moves on to another “you have heard it was said…but I tell you…” In this case, he tells them that while before they were encouraged to love their neighbor (and by implication, they were therefore permitted to hate their enemy), now they are to love even their enemies, and they are to pray for those who persecute them, so that they might be children of their father in heaven (italics added). Throughout this bit on loving enemies, there is an implicit, and sometimes explicit, assumption that the needy will be among their enemies. Those who are poor, those who might ask of or borrow from us, are in at least one case no different from brutal, oppressive, occupying soldiers. In both cases, we are to love them and give them what they ask, and more. We are not to resist them. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove again makes this point better than I ever could in his seminal work, God’s Economy. He says:
In both Matthew and Luke’s gospels, Jesus presents the tactic of relational generosity as part of his teaching on loving our enemies. Our problem with beggars, Jesus seems to say, is that we imagine them to be our enemies. Most of us would rather not think too deeply about people who are poor that way. We want to think that we pity them or perhaps we’d like to help them. But the last thing we want to do is consider that their poverty has anything to do with us (italics added). Those of us who have access to resources don’t like to name the poor as our enemies. But our fear of beggars and our efforts to control people who happen to be poor reveal the dividing lines that the poor already see so clearly. Through nonresistance, Jesus’ tactic of relational generosity exposes our fear of the poor. By giving to the one who asks, we don’t deny our fear. Instead, we act in faith that love can drive out fear. When it does, friendship becomes possible where there was only division before. And friendship across the dividing lines of our world may be just what we really need to really know the abundance of the life that we were made for.
Thus it is Jesus himself who makes the connection between living as part of God’s economy- in which there is abundance, not scarcity, and we are to give to those who ask of us- and renouncing violence because we follow the Prince of Peace. It is Jesus himself who makes the connection between giving up our selfish ways and giving up our violent ways. It is a message that the U.S. would do well to hear. This country was built on violent oppression and genocide no less than its economy was. The privileges that those of European descent in the U.S. continue to benefit from to this day were only made possible by decimating the lives and way of life of the “real Americans” who have made this land their home for millennia and by likewise enslaving our African brothers and sisters in this stolen land so that we could build our capitalist empire. It may ultimately be a blessing to the world that the U.S. empire is now on decline in nearly every way.
The Lord’s Prayer was Part of Jesus’ Sermon Series on Generosity
Meanwhile, Jesus offers us participation in a kingdom that is decidedly not of this world. As I’ve been learning all of the above I keep saying how shocking it was to discover what was likely there all along, this notion that Jesus calls us to give up all the ways of the world in order to follow his way. All along, Jesus has been telling me to give to those who ask, to love my enemies and not resist them, especially when my enemy is poor. For as long as I can remember, I’ve participated in so-called “Christian” culture. I grew up in the church, saying the Lord’s prayer. From a young age I’ve asked God to “give us this day our daily bread.” I wrote recently how shocking it was to discover just what I had really been asking for all this time. I was simply astounded to realize that right there in the prayer Jesus taught us is the invitation to trust God simply for today, no more, no less, “for each day has enough trouble of its own.” And notice it’s not “Give ME this day MY daily bread.” It’s US. Community- and sharing- is assumed, though that truth fell on deaf ears for the first four decades of my life. When God blesses this rich male of European descent in the 21st century “American” empire with enough “bread” to last for today and many of the days to come, then it is incumbent upon me to remember that I am blessed to be a blessing, that I am a conduit of God’s blessing and provision for others. I am to be a vessel in the river of God’s goodness, not a dam. I may not always remember this, though, unless I’m close to the poor, proximate to those whom I might otherwise think of as my enemies, because I fear they would want to take what I’ve been hoarding.
Today as I worked my way again through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 and 6 I experienced another one of those shocking revelations. Over, and over, and over again in these passages Jesus keeps telling us, essentially, to share. He tells us not to worry about tomorrow or about our material needs because God clothes the flowers and feeds the birds. He tells us not to store up treasure on earth, but to store it up in heaven instead. He warns us implicitly that our wealth might cause us to see the poor as our enemies, and so he commands us to love our enemies and give to those who ask of us. Perhaps when we’ve given enough away, not only will we no longer be so rich, but our neighbor will no longer be so poor, and enemies can become friends because both are children of the same good, generous father in heaven. Tellingly, though, the Lord’s prayer comes immediately after instruction on how to give to the needy (in secret, lest we give so that others will praise us), and it is shortly after teaching us how to pray (in part by asking for only enough bread for today) that Jesus tells us again to store up treasure in heaven rather than on earth and not to worry about what we will eat or wear tomorrow.
This is a radical teaching, indeed. Again as Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove says, “If truly following God’s call to abundant life makes Christians into well-adjusted middle-class citizens, it makes you wonder how Jesus ever got himself executed:”
Pie-in-the-sky sentimentality, this is not. Salvation as “fire insurance,” this is not. Let’s give up the stuff we have. It isn’t really ours anyway. Let’s get small so that we can experience what it’s like to really need a little saving now and then. Let’s give up our violent ways. Whatever treasure we have on earth isn’t worth defending anyway. Let’s stop violently resisting those who practice evil among us, returning evil with evil in an eye for an eye world. Let’s return evil with good. Let’s be willing to love even when we’re confronted with enemies, for in loving them they cannot long remain an enemy, and such love may very well be the instrument by which we and our enemy both are saved.
She had one sock raised higher than the other, which I thought was a little strange. She came to the rear of the church building to the little room where I was passing out sample size toiletries and the like to people experiencing homelessness who were coming to use the showers. This is a great ministry an urban congregation offers to their downtrodden neighbors three Sunday mornings a month, along with access to a clothing closet and a free hot breakfast. The missional community I’m a part of from Mill City Church volunteers at this ministry once a month, and my job this past Sunday was to serve in the shower area. This brings me back to the woman I met whose socks were not at the same height. She asked me for the usual items she’d need if she were going to take a shower- soap and shampoo, etc., but she wasn’t taking a shower; she wanted to take them with her. We also had toothbrushes and toothpaste, some razors, etc. to give out, and lotion. She kept looking for a particular kind of lotion, which it turns out she had found to be most helpful with the very bad eczema on her leg. It was so bad she had been hospitalized for it recently, and the doctor told her to keep it covered or it would get infected and she’d be back in the hospital. It’s hard to keep your eczema covered when you live on the street, but she was trying- hence the raised sock. She was older than me, I’m guessing in her 50’s or 60’s, and naturally there’s a lot more to her story. We didn’t talk long as she was looking for the lotion that would help her most, but I did learn that she had been “staying” at an “artist’s camp” somewhere- obviously an outdoor encampment of people experiencing homelessness, but had left one day to visit her daughter. When she came back, the city of Minneapolis had come in and bulldozed the camp. All her stuff was gone or destroyed. She was most upset about the two sleeping bags she had recently been given that were now gone. She said a young man came around doing homeless outreach and gave them to her. She said he told her they were donated, but they were nice; so she thought he must have bought them and given them away. They were now gone along with any toiletries she might have had with her belongings. So she said she was “starting over,” and she wasn’t the only person I heard say that. Before she left she asked if she could keep one of the towels and a washcloth that are there to be used for the folks using the shower, and are not supposed to be given out. As she said, she was starting over.
I’ll Just Start Over
The church that offers this ministry three Sundays a month goes a step further and will wash whatever the people who use their shower are wearing. They can come back in subsequent weeks and pick up their washed clothing. The clothes are in plastic bags with the person’s name written on the bag with a Sharpie, hopefully. As I was working last Sunday, I had a few people ask me for their clean clothes; so I went through the bags a few times. Some didn’t have a name, or had “no name” written on them. Those will likely be donated to the clothes closet the church runs to then be given away to others. I was able to find the person’s bag I think two of the times I was asked; another time I could not. That gentleman- whose clothes I couldn’t find- explained it had been a few weeks since he left his clothes to be washed, and he hadn’t come back he said because “honestly last week I was high on meth and I didn’t think it would be appropriate for me to come.” I couldn’t find a bag with his name on it. He said it was no big deal, that he too would “just start over.” He may have only had the clothes he was wearing; I don’t know. He wasn’t too attached to the clothes he had left to be laundered, though. He was willing to start from scratch, perhaps for the umpteenth time.
I saw an older couple come through. The woman in the couple seemed to be in poor health, with the guy doing some caregiving for her, even as both lived on the street. I saw a family come through- a mom with teen and tween boys, a younger girl, and a toddler. I thought I heard the girl call the woman “grandma;” so I can’t say for sure what all of their relationships with one another were. The young men played basketball for a while in the nearby gym. At one point the woman sent the toddler into the gym and as she walked away, over her shoulder she hollered for the boys to “watch him.” I don’t know if that message was ever received. Soon the toddler got in the way of their game, and the oldest (teen) boy bounced the basketball off the toddler’s head to get him to move. It wasn’t vicious, but it sent a message. Later in their game the younger (tween) boy fell, hitting his arm hard on the gym floor, hard enough he started to whimper, if not cry. I asked if he was alright, and he didn’t respond. The teen just looked at him. His attitude could have been interpreted as cold, but I suspect their life is such that the teen knows if the tween is to survive, he’d have to learn how to not let a little pain bother him, or at least not to expect anyone to rescue him if he gets hurt.
More happened that morning, of course, but those are the stories that stand out, now a week later. What, then, am I to make of all this? Am I to make anything at all, or is my role simply to show up when I can and love the people in front of me as best as I can, whatever their circumstances? I’m me, of course; so I can’t help but think about the implications of it all. One thing I was struck by was how willing the folks I served that morning were to simply “start over” with possessions as basic as having more than one set of clothes. Of course this may be a willingness born of necessity, but it was there nonetheless. This is one of the gifts the materially poor have to offer we who are materially rich. I and my family have been struggling to learn how to store up treasure in heaven rather than on earth, and have therefore been working through what it looks like to hold possessions loosely, recognizing that everything belongs to God, not us. The materially poor do this as a matter of necessary habit. We do well when we do likewise. This is at the heart of our recent efforts to “get small.” We know that we follow Jesus more closely when we do so from “under,” not “over.” Those on the margins of society- the poor, the disenfranchised, the dominated- not the dominators- they are much more ready than we who are privileged to both receive the good gifts God the Giver wants to give his children, and to embrace, I think, a kingdom that is not of this world.
The Gospel Breaks Out
An old acquaintance of ours recently posted a link to an article and YouTube video featuring Jim Carrey talking to a group of formerly gang involved and incarcerated folks who are part of the amazing Homeboy Industries. In our acquaintance’s intro to the link/video, he said:
Throughout history, when God’s “official” messengers get off track and begin to seek power, spew condemnation, and set up walls of exclusivity, God gets his message of grace, truth and forgiveness out in unconventional ways. I think I see that happening more lately in this day and age.
Meet Jim Carrey, preacher of grace. This is powerful. Praise God.
Here’s Jim, in his own words:
If you’re short on time, just watch the first half of this 7-ish minute video; if you get nothing else from this post, but watch that, my “work” here is done. Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, says: “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.” Indeed, as I said above and keep learning, the poor have much to teach us. When I was a student at Luther Seminary, I had a great old prof.- Dr. James Nestingen- who always talked about the “gospel breaking out.” In Lutheran theology, there’s much talk of “law and gospel,” of sin and grace. The law serves to show us our sin- to highlight the condition in which we are caught in which we are unable to live and love as we should- and the gospel is the good news that God has already saved us, that we are set free from this entrapment. Too often this gospel word can get cloudy, muddled, and muddied, lost amidst all the other things would-be “Christians” dare to say on behalf of God. Too often the good news that we have been set free from a life enslaved to sin and death gets lost in the midst of the condemnation of others, and especially in the midst of our own self-condemnation. In such times, Dr. Nestingen would say, the gospel “breaks out.” Good news of God’s grace comes from unexpected places. When “professional” would-be Christians bless the greedy violence of empire and insure their place within the fold of worldly power….
….rock stars remind us that while “God may well be with us in our mansions on the hill,” we can far more readily find him with the poor, with the sick and suffering, among the ravages of war, and therefore “God is with us, if we are with them:”
Ironically, as we drove to Mill City Church‘s worship gathering this morning, we passed a scene not entirely unlike the one above in our own NE Minneapolis neighborhood. A man was sleeping on a bus bench, kind of like this:
Instead of continuing on our way and attending the worship gathering, which we did, no doubt the best worship we might have given this morning to Jesus- that (homeless) “preach of peace-” would have been to be good Samaritans and stop and render whatever assistance we could to our bench-sleeping neighbor. Instead, it was more important to us to go hear a sermon that would in some way, I hope, touch on how to follow Jesus by loving our neighbor, never mind the one we passed by who, just like Jesus, had no place to lay his head. Thus, if the mission of the church is, like Jesus’ mission, in no small part to proclaim good news for the poor, the irony of a person experiencing homelessness sleeping on a bench festooned with an advertisement for the “new life” that comes through the covenant to be had among God and his people is no greater than that of I and my family this morning ignoring an opportunity to love an actual neighbor so that we could go hear about how to be in right relationship with God and our proverbial ones. Even worse, if we meet Jesus among “the least of these,” we skipped right by him this morning on that bench, preferring to meet him in a more comfortable setting, among other privileged people like us.
Give Away Your Shirt(s)
During that worship gathering we skipped out on loving our neighbor in order to attend, Jesus drove home the point. I didn’t get to hear all of Pastor Michael’s sermon due to an unruly 6 year old (mine :/), but the passage he opened with was in itself sermon enough for me, from Luke 3:
…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. 5 Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. 6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”[a]
7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah.
Just like a valley is exalted when it is filled in, again and again the way of Jesus is revealed to be a way that exalts the poor, the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the sick and in prison- those on the margins. Just like a mountain or hill being made low, likewise the way of Jesus is revealed to be a way that humbles the rich, the oppressors, those who can easily access worldly political systems, the well and those who can easily access healthcare, and those who leverage the language of “law and order” to maintain their systems of power and control. In case the point is missed, John makes it plain. To we rich (do you have more than one shirt? I do), he says:
“Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none…”
To we well-fed he says:
“…anyone who has food should (share with the one who has none)…”
To tax collectors, he says:
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to.”
The importance of God’s economy is so very important that to soldiers, instead of addressing the violence of their occupation, he makes an economic appeal:
“Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
I was able to be present toward the end of the worship gathering, when we sang the Chris Tomlin version of Amazing Grace, which quotes this part of the original:
The Lord has promised good to me
His word my hope secures
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures
If you hear those words as I do, Jesus is still making his point. God the Giver has promised good to me. In other words, he who causes bread to rain from heaven and supplies enough for today, day after day after day, promises to continue to give us this day our daily bread; so we need not store away “bread” for tomorrow here on earth, where thieves break in and steal and “moths and vermin destroy.” The point is again reinforced in the lyric above with the reminder that the Lord “will my shield and portion be.” Jesus is our “portion;” he gives us enough, and we need not violently defend the good gifts of God the Giver, because Jesus is our “shield” too. He has defeated the power of violence by surrendering to it; thus, it was put to death with him on the cross. As a result, violence has no more power over us than death or sin does.
Again and again I see more and more every day the interlinking of violence and the world’s economy, and conversely how both are put to an end through Jesus’ death and resurrection. If we live as part of God’s economy in which there is more than enough for all; if we share freely and give to those who ask, what reason would anyone have to take up arms against us, and what reason do we have to take up arms ourselves?
Am I saying (repeatedly now) that following Jesus is mostly about how we order our economic lives and whether or not we reject or embrace violence? Yes…and no. To speak of the creator God is of course to speak about cosmic, spiritual truths that defy any words we might seek to ensnare them with. Who God is and what God does, and who we are and what we ought to do in response, is a sublime mystery. But if the gospel is true, God has chosen to reveal the fullness of who he is in Jesus, the one in whom all things hold together. It can be said, and I have often said, that God hides. We do not find him where we expect to. But that it not to say that he cannot be found. God, after all, can be found “in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house.” He can be found “in the cries heard under the rubble of war.” He can be found lying defenseless in a manger, or on a cross.
God may very well be found in me, and in you.
Because God chooses to be with us, how we order our lives and live in relation to one another matters profoundly, and we ignore at our peril the fact that in John’s ministry and in that of Jesus himself, both lead with literal “good news” for the poor. Most of us spend the majority of our days pursuing economic activity. We work. We spend. We consume. We buy, and we sell. We barter. We support the bottom lines of multi-national corporations, or resist them. Likewise, most of us spend much of our days deciding whether or not to live peacefully together. We honk at the person who cut us off, or not. We return a smile, or we don’t. We respond to a harsh word with one of our own, or we swallow hard and forgive right then and there by choosing not to retaliate. We consume violent media, or try not to. Often, the two are inextricably intertwined. The cheap shirts we buy at Target and Wal-Mart may have been made by basically enslaved people half a world away who are prevented from leaving their workstations by violence or the threat of violence. The taxes we dutifully pay to our government support the ever-growing military-industrial complex, and are used to rain death from the sky around the world, all in the name of “keeping us safe” or “defending” (our) freedom.
Sure, God wants to heal our broken hearts, make us whole, and bring us into right relationship with God’s self and with one another, and with God’s good world. The good news is that God has done this, and still is. Just because this is so, we are entrusted with the family business of reconciliation. We are charged with the sacred task of practicing resurrection. We are to live as if God’s other-worldly kingdom really is upon us, already. We don’t have to serve Mammon anymore. We can freely give to those who ask of us. We can share with one another in radical, counter-cultural ways that can’t help but facilitate the gospel breaking out. Following Jesus means following him into such a life. Maybe we just need to be willing to start over. The poor can show us how. We just have to believe that another world is possible, but that’s not so hard to imagine, is it, especially if even in this world Bono is among our most truthful prophets and the good news of God’s grace keeps breaking out such that even Jim Carrey can be heard proclaiming it.
Jesus’ rail thin body still hangs from a cross in Minneapolis, a discomfiting sight that begs a lot of questions. Among them are: Did this really happen? Are we capable of such violence? As I wrestle with these questions, I’m reminded of my privilege. Far too many around the world know such violence all too well, and all too often Jesus seems far away from them. Meanwhile, I’m struggling to write. I start posts, and don’t finish them, or scrap them and start over. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say; the torrent of observations, reflections, and new learning continues much as it has, especially over the past year or so, and I clearly have no deficit of words to offer in response to all that I’m learning. Nonetheless, I find it difficult to produce the volume of writing that I had been for a while. I think some of this has to do with the time, energy, and effort involved in putting into place all that we’ve been learning. In short order over the past few months we’ve moved, the kids have started new schools, I’ve started a new job, we switched banks, and more recently, we gave away the newest of our two vehicles and I’ve begun biking to work. Here’s “my” bike parked at work:
This bike was a gift from a fellow member of Mill City Church whose health prevents him from using it any more. Having it allows me to bike to work, and freed us up to give away the vehicle mentioned above. So I’m doing this all wrong if I’m not using my time spent on it every day to pray both for the person who gave me the bike and the family we gave the car to.
Meanwhile, truth be told, I’m tired.
I think some of my struggle to write also has to do with just what I’m learning, I suppose. The way that we’ve been talking about what God is teaching us and calling us to is to say that we feel called to “get small,” to give up some of our wealth, position, privilege, and power so that we can experience the generosity that God wants for us both as givers and receivers. We experience it as givers when we lean into God’s economy and give freely to those who ask for anything from us, remembering that everything belongs to God and nothing is truly ours, that God asks that we acknowledge our dependence on Him by asking for what we need for today and no more. When we do this, what once we would hold on to for tomorrow or in case of a rainy day or so that we can retire, etc., now becomes a blessing we’ve been made stewards of for the sake of others, making us conduits of God’s provision. Likewise, the “smaller” we get- the more money, privilege, and power we give away- the more ready we are to grapple with our own need and the more likely it is that we will be open to receiving through others God’s provision and blessing for us.
As I keep saying, we wasted two full decades as adults hoping God would see fit to give us a little more, to bless us with enough money to pay down our debt so that we could be more generous and faithful. Living within our means was thus to be achieved by hoping God would increase our means. When we did get a raise or a new job with more pay, our selfishness grew right with it, and still we found ourselves struggling to keep up as the debt kept growing. We’d go through cycles of being a little more restrained and paying the debt down, only to find some circumstance or situation that provided a convenient excuse to revert to our more selfish ways, and thus the debt would accumulate anew. Sure, some of those situations involved outbursts of generosity on our part, but they were always the exception to the rule, and they usually gave us fodder for trying to bargain or negotiate with God, believing that our hospitality or generosity had somehow “earned” us the right to expect more from God.
Why is it different this time around? Maybe it won’t be, I will admit. The lure of Mammon is strong. It’s tempting to want to fall in line and be a good consumer. All I can say is that there is a depth to both our learning this time and our willingness to do the hard work of following Jesus instead of Mammon. Our minds have been renewed, and thus we are being transformed. Things we thought we really needed (smartphones, two cars, more than 1200 feet of living space, etc.) we’re learning that we don’t, and we’ve given them away. Forgoing those things, coupled with forsaking our retirement plans and savings accounts- which we came to see as “treasure stored up on earth” instead of in heaven- has opened our eyes anew to just how much God already has blessed us, just how much he’s been trusting us with all along. No longer willing to hoard God’s goodness, in probably less than four months we’ve wiped out much of our personal and consumer debt, and expect to have much of the rest of it eliminated in less than a year. All this capacity being created in our budget will very soon mean that we can give a large percentage of our income away, and/or have the capacity to work less so that we can give a large percentage of our time and energy away.
All of this represents our effort to live as participants in God’s economy rather than capitalism or any other system this world can dream up. In God’s economy there is always enough. The hand that guides God’s economy is visible, not invisible, and it has nail marks in it. God’s economy is one of giving and sharing, of blessing and being blessed. In God’s economy we give to those who ask from us so that we might be children of our Father in heaven, because whatever we have to give was already given to us in the first place by our good, good father, and it was meant for the blessing of all. Thus, if we have two coats and our neighbor has none, we are called to give him (at least) one along with our apology for hoarding God’s provision that was meant for him. If we are so rich that we can poison our bodies with carbonated, caffeinated water while our neighbors around the world die because they lack access to clean water, or sometimes water at all, then we are most faithful when we skip the soda aisle and make a donation (at the very least) to a water relief agency.
Astoundingly, this is but one of the two big revelations over the past few months that we will likely spend the rest of our lives trying to respond to. In the first, we were broken to realize that we were wholehearted consumer capitalists but lousy lovers of God and neighbor. After all, the love of money really is the root of all evil, for the first part of the Great Commandment is to “love the Lord you God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” I can’t love God with my whole heart if part of it can’t stop thinking about my Amazon cart. And I can’t love my neighbor very well either if I won’t think about the modern-day enslaved persons that made the cheap clothes I got from Wal-Mart, or if I can’t come up with resources to bless my hungry and thirsty neighbor around the world while I throw away nearly half the food I buy, in part because I eat out three times a week.
The other big revelation that we’ll be trying to respond to probably for the rest of our lives is simply that Jesus really is the Prince of Peace. He really meant that we shouldn’t kill one another, and that we should turn the other cheek when confronted with violence. He really meant that we have not been given a spirit of fear and that nothing, not even death, can separate us from his love. And if it’s true that we not only shouldn’t commit adultery but shouldn’t lust after one another, isn’t it even more so that we not only shouldn’t kill one another but shouldn’t entertain ourselves with killing every time we watch TV, go to a movie, or play a video game? Isn’t it true then that we likewise shouldn’t participate in violence vicariously with our tax and gas dollars as our Mammon-loving economy and warmongering country trudges along, raining death from the sky around the world in the name of “freedom-“ to buy cheap gas?
If in the end capitalism is just another “–ism” Jesus wants to save us from, and violence is a way of life that was put to death with Jesus on the cross, then the way of Jesus insofar as it passes through the good ol’ U.S. of A. is a hard way, indeed. Some well-meaning would-be Jesus followers have the sense to wonder why they aren’t persecuted if Scripture promised they would be, and I was among them for most of my life, but no longer. If I and my family continue to lean in a direction that runs counter to the greedy (read: capitalistic), violent ways of our culture, I trust that our persecution, in one way or another, will come. Kirsten has been reluctant to explain to a member of her family of origin that we gave away a newer car we’re still paying $17,000+ for, while I wonder if I’m getting funny looks for showing up to work on a bicycle (full disclosure here: I’m not showing up drenched in sweat, but I may not smell like I’m fresh from the shower either). These obviously aren’t “persecutions,” though. What if we take the next step, however, and become war tax resisters? What if, as we plan to, we start joining with a few others to build up a mutual generosity fund out of which we’ll give away hundreds of dollars a month to those we meet around us who are in need? What if we start talking openly about our budget and finances, revealing how much we make and how we spend it, and asking others to hold us accountable to our ideals and perhaps risk such vulnerability themselves? What if the Spirit inspires us to ever more creatively subvert an economic system that keeps creating more “have-nots” than “haves?” What if we refuse to pledge allegiance to anyone or anything but Jesus and his kingdom?
A line from Hillsong’s recent song “What A Beautiful Name” keeps playing in my head and heart: “You have no rival; you have no equal. Now and forever, God, you reign.” Here’s the requisite video:
I listened to this song repeatedly in the car today (my first time driving all week!) and every time through I heard a new allusion to- or direct quote from- Scripture. I should probably write a separate post breaking all that down (scratch that- Hillsong already did; you can find it here). But right now I want to focus on the line I quoted above: “You have no rival; you have no equal. Now and forever, God, you reign.” What does it mean to declare that Someone is without rival, without equal? Every time I hear that line I think of the two pretenders who keep vying- often violently- for the throne that only Jesus can or will occupy- Mammom, and “Uncle Sam.” Singing those words- declaring that Jesus has no rival, no equal, that now and forever he reigns- has to mean something. Remarkably, I know folks who can sing those words on Sunday and then can remove their cap and place their hand over their heart to pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag on Monday.
I simply can’t anymore.
If God reigns without rival in this land that European settlers violently seized from its original inhabitants while decimating their population, then we descendants of those European settlers have much to repent of and many amends to make, and it all starts by forsaking all others and living as if God is our only true King, as if Jesus really does have no rival.
If God reigns without rival in this land that European settlers built the world’s most powerful economy in, then we descendants of those European settlers must recognize that that economy was only possible through violence- because of slavery and its aftereffects- and again we have much to repent of and many amends to make, and we must start by forsaking all others and living as if God is our only true King, as if Jesus really does have no rival.
Living in such a way doesn’t mean attending every protest, though some protest attendance will probably be required. It doesn’t mean everyone has to quit their job, though some very well may. I did, and I can imagine it being hard to continue working for some employers when your only true King continually calls you to participate in an economy that will not only decimate your corporation’s bottom line, but even worse, may very well make it irrelevant. Likewise, I can see it being hard to continue working for some employers when your only true King continually calls you to give up violence forever because it was put to death on the cross with Jesus.
Living as if Jesus has no rival means that while all the external things out there- in the world- are in dire need of attention and there are many urgent causes to be taken up, even so the most profound change that has to occur is in our own minds, hearts, and souls. If we really do work at loving God with all of our mind, heart, soul, and strength- forsaking all others- then we begin to see with new eyes. We begin to be transformed. Things that weren’t possible before suddenly are. And none of it’s because we’ve successfully organized around all those urgent causes; none of it’s because we’ve finally achieved the social progress we were hoping for. It’s because to whatever extent Jesus has no rival, to whatever extent we forsake Mammon and violent “Uncle Sam” so that we can follow “that preacher of peace,” to just that extent we will find that we really can love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves.
I think of the anti-religious vitriol of the “new Atheists” and all the popular backlash in our culture against so-called “Christians” who are too busy pursuing secular political power to notice the neighbors they’re harming along the way. What if instead of trying so desperately hard to pass or repeal Obamacare or establish or reform “Entitlements,” what if the people for whom Jesus has no rival instead devoted all their energy to loving and serving those around them, to giving to those who would ask of them, to being people who practice a ministry of presence with profound sincerity, effort, and steadfastness? Wouldn’t people know we were really Christians then, because of our love?
Still, I remain tempted to want to be great. I like to be able to tell a splashy story about that big thing I did. I’m far too easily seduced by the proverbial search for significance. I keep hoping someone will discover my blog and offer me a book deal, or a pulpit to supply, or a writing gig. Yet that’s just the opposite of where Jesus is leading me these days. Jesus isn’t calling me to get big; he’s challenging me to get small. Jesus isn’t calling me to lead workshops and study groups; he’s calling me to love him like he has no rival, and not just to like my neighbor, but to really love them.
The great Henri Nouwen said it best:
“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but you truly love them.”
At the end of Mill City Church‘s worship gathering yesterday, we sang one of my all-time favorite hymns, Be Thou My Vision. We sang something close to the version I’ve posted above. Give it a listen as you read. Here are the lyrics, which are important as they will inform the rest of this post:
“Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.
Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, put first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.
Oh, God, be my everything, be my delight
Be, Jesus, my glory My soul’s satisfied
Oh, God, be my everything, be my delight
Be, Jesus, my glory My soul’s satisfied
My Jesus, You satisfy
My Jesus, You satisfy
High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, bright Heaven’s Sun
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.
Oh, God, be my everything, be my delight
Be, Jesus, my glory my soul’s satisfied”
There’s a reason why this is an all time classic hymn with deeply resonant lyrics still today, and writing those words reminds me why I lament so much worship music being written today. How much of it has lyrics that will still matter a few decades from now, let alone a few centuries or even millenia? Yes, millenia. Wikipedia notes what became Be Thou My Vision began as a text that was part of a monastic tradition dating back to the 6th century. Like the Biblical text itself, it existed for centuries as an oral tradition before being written down. Wikipedia says:
The original Old Irish text, “Rop tú mo Baile” is often attributed to Saint Dallán Forgaill in the 6th century. The text had been a part of Irish monastic tradition for centuries before its setting to music. There are two manuscripts, one at the National Library of Ireland, and a second at the Royal Irish Academy. Both manuscripts date from about the 10th or 11th century.
The oral tradition was no doubt different from what was finally written down, and what was finally written down in the 10th or 11th century was different from English versions of the text recorded in the early 1900’s, and that too from the “English Methodist Version” that was produced in 1964, which is obviously still being adapted to this day. Nonetheless, at the heart of this song is something timeless, but I’ll have more to say on that later. So as I said, we sang this toward the end of our worship gathering yesterday. Towards the beginning of the worship gathering, as likely took place in thousands of worship gatherings across the country yesterday, a prayer was offered in honor of Memorial Day, to recognize those who have served in this nation’s military (or, more accurately according to the designated purpose of the holiday, to honor and recognize those who died while serving). In some such gatherings the conflation of following Jesus with following “American” civil religion was more over-than-top than in others. Here are a few examples from a cursory web search:
The image above begs a lot of questions. For starters, is the instrument of Jesus’ execution at the hands of the occupying empire of his day, operating in collusion with the church leaders of his day, to be understood here as a patriotic “American” symbol? The U.S.A. is the closest thing to the Roman Empire the world maybe has ever seen, complete with direct comparisons which can be made between the “Pax Romana” and the “Pax Americana.” Perhaps then this makes perfect sense. It is in the nature of empires to co-opt whatever symbols- not of their making- that are necessary to maintain and extend their control. Often this takes the form of wholesale cultural (mis-)appropriation (see Cinco de Mayo or the recent controversy surrounding the short-lived new piece of art the Walker Art Gallery here in Minneapolis tried to display). Beyond this, what is the relationship between the patriotic executioner’s tool above (the cross is so ubiquitous and has been so domesticated that it might be more helpful to replace it in your mind with an electric chair, guillotine, or hangman’s noose) and gun-toting soldier, aside from the obvious, that both are instruments of death, tools of the state to violently enforce its will?
What then, of this graphic? Clearly the folks who run the Southeast TX Church Guide want to bless folks on this “American” holiday, but then they include some Scripture for good measure. There’s probably some good hermeneutical work that should be done about that particular verse from Proverbs, but for now let’s take it at “face value” (understanding, as I do, that all reading is interpretation, especially when it comes to the Bible). Is the point that all fallen U.S. soldiers are necessarily and automatically “righteous?” In what way? Who says? For those with ears to hear, there is a litany of abuses and atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers at the behest of our government, in the name of myself and every U.S. citizen, that could be recited, right up to and especially including the present day. Is this to be ignored? Does service and especially death while serving=righteousness, always and forever, no matter what?
Youth of First United Methodist Church, Koppel, Pa., raised money to buy an American flag for all 225 residences in the little town. “I’m a flag-waver,” admitted the Rev. Donald A. Anderson. Quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he expressed hope that the flags would “bring Koppel a sense of pride in participating in this great holiday honoring those who fought to protect our freedoms.”
Thankfully, “Idea #12” is to:
Glorify Jesus as the Prince of Peace and reach out to those whom others may forget. On Memorial Day – as he does throughout the year – John Alexander, a member of East Lake United Methodist Church, Birmingham, Ala., will be involved with Kairos Prison Ministries. A Christian, lay-led, ecumenical, volunteer, international prison ministry, Kairos brings Christ’s love and forgiveness to incarcerated individuals and their families.
Still, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Most of the other ideas the United Methodist Church presents on the page, with a few notable exceptions, focus again on the conflation of following Jesus with following “American” civil religion. Under such an arrangement, the U.S. flag is a welcome partner to the “Christian” one, and in too many church buildings across the country the two are displayed in tandem, as if they belong together.
Lest there be any confusion about the point here, here’s another image, this one from a church in Georgia:
So here we have the cross again, used along with the flag, again, as the backdrop for what appears to be a veterans’ cemetery, and again we get some Scripture, this time from the gospel of John, in which we read: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Clearly the makers of the image above think this somehow applies to those who died as U.S. soldiers. In truth, nothing could be further from said truth. Here’s that verse in context, from John 15:
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.14 You are my friends if you do what I command.15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.17 This is my command: Love each other.
Do you really think what Jesus is saying here has anything to do with military belligerents dying sometimes to protect the “freedom” of U.S. citizens (lots to unpack there, but not now), but more often of late to protect U.S. “strategic interests” in the oil-rich Middle East? Take a look at the passage above again. Jesus is urging his followers to “remain in his love.” He says if they keep his commands they will do so; they will remain in his love. Then he tells them just what he wants them to do, what his command is: Love each other- as he has loved them. Then comes the misappropriated verse in the image above: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Notice what comes next, though. After talking about the love involved in laying one’s life down for one’s friends, he doubles down on just how they can remain in his love. He says: “You are my friends if you do what I command.” Remember that he’s just told them what his command is, that they would love one another as he has. Then he makes the point even more clear. He tells them that he no longer calls them servants, but instead has called them friends. They are his friends because they remain in his love by doing what he’s told them to do- by loving one another. And just how great is that love of his they are to remain in? It’s so great that he would lay down his life for them, which this passage is clearly foreshadowing. Thus Jesus is the one laying down his life for his friends- we who love as he has loved us.
A call to give the “ultimate sacrifice” on the battlefield- or to honor those who have- this is not. In fact, such sacrifices are not even “ultimate.” Responding violently to the threat of violence and thereby suffering the consequences of violence may be the way of the world, but it is not Jesus’ way. Jesus on the cross broke the cycle of the world’s violence by absorbing it without retaliating. As those who do indeed follow the Prince of Peace, we are likewise called to be peacemakers. Ironically, what comes next in John 15 is an admonition by Jesus, who tells his followers that they have been chosen out of the world, and so will likely be persecuted and hated by it, depending, I suppose, on how closely we follow him, how faithfully we love as he has loved us and remain in his love. If, as much as we possibly can, we live into this ministry of reconciliation and follow Jesus down the path of peace rather than violence, those who prefer violence (even/especially those who have subscribed to the myth of redemptive violence) may very well hate and persecute us indeed.
Going back to our part of John 15 above, in the last bit of the passage Jesus again reminds his followers that he chose them, not the other way around. He chose them so that they might “go and bear fruit,” and so that “whatever they ask” in his name, the Father will give them. Then, just to be sure they’ve gotten the message, he repeats his command that they love one another. It’s interesting that God the giver includes a reminder in this passage that he has chosen his followers not only so that they can bear fruit, but also so that they can receive from him whatever they would ask for in Jesus’ name. By so doing he reminds them of who- and whose- they are. They are children of their Father in heaven; they are the beloved of the Creator God, the one in whom “all things hold together.” Those who remember this know that they really don’t need to store up treasure on earth. They really can trust God each and every day for their daily bread, without worrying about tomorrow or the bread they’ll need then. Their Father, after all, is the keeper of the “cattle on a thousand hills,” and he knows what they need before they would even ask him. So then, if they are remaining in his love by faithfully following his command to love one another, they can ask their Father for anything, and he will give it to them. This is economic language that stands in stark contrast to the language of the world’s economies.
The “freedom” that we “Americans” of European descent enjoy most of all involves some basic human rights that ought be enjoyed by all- freedom of speech and of movement, religious freedom and the like, but a well-defended argument can be made that the most essential “freedom” “America” has been exporting for quite some time is an economic one- the freedom to consume as much as one’s hard work, credit, or inheritance will allow. It is, after all, a freedom that even the Chinese enjoy. But it does come at a literal “price,” and it’s often a violent one. There is a direct relationship between capitalism (aka our “economic freedom”) and violence. Don’t believe me? Watch this:
In contrast with “America’s” violent capitalism, Jesus tells us that we have only to ask our Father for “anything,” and he will give it to us. Why? How can this be so? Don’t those who peddle the so-called “prosperity gospel” use verses like this to justify their cheap grace? That may be. Be that as it may, if we who would follow Jesus are loving those around us like Jesus loved us (remembering that his love was so great that he laid down his life for us), isn’t it true that our heart’s desire won’t be for our own health, wellness, and prosperity, but for that of our neighbor near and far? Isn’t this what we’ll want to ask our Father for, knowing that he’s already got our own needs taken care of?
This is what I’m learning, slowly but surely, after lo these many years being so very focused on my own needs and wants. This is the vision that I find so captivating these days. It’s a vision placed in my heart by its Lord. It’s a vision so very captivating that all else is “naught” (nothing) to me. “Be Thou My Vision” continues in the next verse:
Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.
God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is our wisdom, our true Word, and because of the Holy Spirit we know that God is ever with us, and we with him. God’s Spirit within is the animating presence that continues to give us life from one moment to the next and enables us to remain in his love as we make our feeble efforts to love those around us like we’ve been loved by him. As true sons and daughters of the Father and those in whom his Spirit dwells, we experience unity with God, the most precious gift of all.
That’s what Mill City Church is “fighting” for these days in the current sermon series- unity. We’re being reminded that unity does not equal uniformity and that it’s okay to disagree so long as we do it well. We’re being reminded though that while uniformity is not required, unity is “non-negotiable.” As we sang that line from “Be Thou My Vision” yesterday morning, the one that goes, “Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one,” I was reminded that if we who would follow Jesus are indeed one with the Father, we are necessarily united with one another. We can’t be united with God and be separated from others who are also united with God. If we all are indeed united with the Father, it’s impossible to be separated from one another. This is convicting, as it means that to whatever extent we are experiencing disunity with one another, our unity with God is compromised.
Just what is it, then, that all too often divides us? The next verse of “Be Thou My Vision” offers our first clue:
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, put first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art
“Riches, I heed not,” this English version of the ancient hymn says, and shortly thereafter explains why, because “Thou” (are) mine inheritance, now and always.” This is what God has been calling I and my family to over and over an over again in 2017 (and no doubt before, if we had been paying attention). What does it mean to live in this culture as if these words were actually true? What does it mean to live as if our chief task on this earth is not to accumulate as much wealth as possible for myself and then leave it to my children as an inheritance, but rather to live as a conduit for God’s many good gifts, knowing that Jesus is our inheritance? What does it mean to live in this culture with the knowledge that our heart will be where our treasure is, and so as followers of Jesus that treasure must be in heaven, not on earth? I am convinced now more than ever that Jesus spends so much time talking about money (and that so much of that talk touches on the relationship between money and politics) because truly “the love of money is the root of all evil,” and it is that temptation- to love money and the economic and political systems that get us more of it- more than Jesus that we rich would-be “Christians” of European descent are faced with more than any other. A recent FB post I happened upon makes the point for me. It’s a video of “10 Rules You Will Never Learn in School.” It’s paired with a cartoon-ish picture of Bill Gates. There are layers upon layers of disingenuous misattribution that led to the video being produced and shared on FB (in other words, it’s “fake news”), but the bottom line is that it doesn’t come from Bill Gates, and the version I saw on FB isn’t even a thorough copy of the actual source, who definitely is NOT Bill Gates. Nonetheless, people, would be Jesus followers even, believe this stuff; so I’ll show you the last “rule:”
From “life isn’t fair” to (don’t expect to) “make $60,000 out of high school,” but do expect to “flip burgers” and do expect there to be “winners and losers” in life, and to have to “leave your coffee shop to go to work” (for a “nerd,” apparently), to the final coup de grace- “being born poor” is “not your mistake,” but “dying poor” is, apparently; every one of the “rules” or life lessons in the “fake” video have to do with our relationship to money, and every one of them, I would argue, encourages us to love and pursue it in place of loving and pursuing Jesus. No, life isn’t fair, but instead of investigating why and working to subvert whatever powers promote the injustice and unfairness of life, this video would have us accept this “fact” and use our good ol’ “American” ingenuity and Puritan work ethic to overcome it, perpetuating the myth that this country is the “land of opportunity” for those with the gumption to seize it. All the other “rules” play in to this narrative. The last one, though, is of course the one that really gets me. Being born “poor” is rightly understood to not be the “fault” of the one being born, but it is someone’s fault, and the makers of this video and those who would spread it around seem to have little interest in this.
Moreover, they double down on the injustice that leads to the inequality of some folks being born poor by telling the lie that it doesn’t matter, and that if they would just work hard enough they too, could get rich (by historical standards, as even the “poorest” of the U.S. “middle class” truly is). What, then, of generational poverty even here in the U.S.? What of the legacy of 4 centuries of slavery and Jim Crow era de facto slavery up to, including, and even after the Civil Rights era in the U.S.? When will rich males of European descent like myself stop pretending that there’s some other reason why people of color in this country remain disproportionately poor, uneducated, and incarcerated? And of course all of this says nothing about the rest of the world. Is it the fault of poor North Koreans that they die poor? What of the poorest child in the most desperate part of Africa, whose mother spends much of her day trudging to get dirty water for him, which may very well kill him anyway, thus greatly decreasing the time between that child’s poor birth and poor death?
Meanwhile, Jesus tells us to give to whomever asks of us, to lend without expecting repayment, and that the widow who gives her only mite gives far more than the one percent-er who gave a much greater amount, but much smaller percent- by orders of magnitude- of his available resources. I would argue again that it’s not your fault if you’re born poor, but it is someone’s. Likewise, there’s much to be said about dying poor. Remembering that you “can’t take it with you;” that there were no needy among the early church because they shared what they had; that likewise one of the chief lessons of Israel’s wilderness wanderings was that they had to trust God for their daily bread and share such that “he who gathered little did not gather too little” and “he who gathered much, not too much-” a lesson repeated and expanded on in Paul’s letters to the early church(es); remembering that Jesus challenged the “rich young ruler” to go and sell all he had and give it to the poor- in light of all of this and so much more, I would argue that as Jesus followers our goal actually should probably be to die poor. Doesn’t “every good gift come from the Lord?” If God the giver gives for our flourishing but just as much so that we too can be givers because we bear his image, then we are duty-bound to hold the resources we’re given access to lightly, even those we think we “earn” at a job, because we’re only able to “earn” them using the brain power, heart, will, and muscles- not to mention air, light, and raw materials- that God the giver gave us in the first place. If we hold those resources lightly, we will allow them to pass through our hands freely to those who need them, and if we do this well, we really ought not have any left when our first go-round on this earth is complete.
The last verse of “Be Thou My Vision” goes:
High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, bright Heaven’s Sun
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.
What does it mean to be subjects of the “High King of Heaven” and to acknowledge that he has won our “victory?” What victory could this be? Is it merely some “pie in the sky” triumph over “sin and death” that has nothing to do with our lives here and now? Quite the opposite, it seems to me more and more these days. Some will use the occasion of this day- “Memorial Day” here in the U.S.- to again conflate following Jesus with following “American” civil religion, and the fact that so many uncritically do so is a devastating testament to the seeming triumph of the “powers” over that very High King of Heaven. This, by the way, is as intentional as it is insidious. The Wikipedia Memorial Day page notes:
Scholars, following the lead of sociologist Robert Bellah, often make the argument that the United States has a secular “civil religion” – one with no association with any religious denomination or viewpoint – that has incorporated Memorial Day as a sacred event. With the Civil War, a new theme of death, sacrifice and rebirth enters the civil religion. Memorial Day gave ritual expression to these themes, integrating the local community into a sense of nationalism. The American civil religion, in contrast to that of France, was never anticlerical or militantly secular; in contrast to Britain, it was not tied to a specific denomination, such as the Church of England. The Americans borrowed from different religious traditions so that the average American saw no conflict between the two, and deep levels of personal motivation were aligned with attaining national goals.
Memorial Day has been called a “modern cult of the dead“. It incorporates Christian themes of sacrifice while uniting citizens of various faiths.
Did you catch that? “American civil religion….was never anticlerical or militantly secular” and “was not tied to a specific denomination.” Here’s the kicker: “The Americans borrowed from different religious traditions so that the average American saw no conflict between the two.” In other words, the “average American” is blinded to the fact that there is, indeed, a conflict between following Jesus and following the president, whatever party is in power. There’s a conflict between unmitigated consumer capitalism and God’s economy. There’s a conflict between the use of violent military force by this or any other government and the peacemaking ways of Jesus. Many of us in this country sadly just don’t see it.
Being a subject of the High King of Heaven means you can swear no allegiance to any earthly king, or president, or flag. Following Jesus as your Lord, Savior, and Leader means no other leader ought hold sway over you. Participating in God’s economy marks you as being in rebellion to and only a reluctant participant in the economies of this world. What we are called to and what we must live into is alternativity. We’re supposed to be different, so different that we get persecuted and hated for it. While I’m grateful my church didn’t embrace the worst excesses of “American” civil religion in the passing allusion to Memorial Day yesterday, what I didn’t hear was anything that called me to alternativity. I didn’t feel challenged to acknowledge that the U.S.’ soldiers are probably honored best when the Church holds the government to account for its oil wars, for its military drift, for its exploitation of the poorest among us as canon fodder, and for its call not to sacrifice for the common good but to shop more. We can do better than this. Lord willing, we will.
So by all means, honor those who have died while serving as soldiers, but do so as a Christian. Maybe hug a soldier today, sure. Then call your congressperson and argue for more spending on healthcare for veterans and less spending on new guns, bombs, and missiles- tools which beg to be used. Lobby for the winding down of the many wars the U.S. is fighting right now and the ending of current deployments so no more soldiers on either side have to die, let alone the many civilians our soldiers keep killing as “collateral damage.” Then do something even more radical. Go find an enemy soldier, and hug him or her too. Honor the fallen sons and daughters in Iraq, or Vietnam, or Korea. Or, if that proves difficult, sign up for Christian Peacemaker Teams. Find a way to do your duty as a subject of the Prince of Peace and sojourner in the world’s latest empire, the U.S.A. March for peace. Write letters to the editor of your local paper. Consider engaging in war tax resistance. Don’t worry about your life, or the bread you’ll need tomorrow, or the danger of standing between two warring parties. Your Father has the cattle on a thousand hills, and the High King of Heaven has already won your victory. Live like it. I and my family are going to try to. Won’t you help us?
It’s been over a month since my last post, an uncharacteristic drought for me, at least of late. I’ll chalk it up to the incredible busy-ness surrounding our move from the ‘burbs into theBeltrami neighborhood in NE Mpls.
That’s an attribution I could get away with, but I’ll confess that there’s a little more to it. Forcing myself to be honest, I think I’ve experienced our arrival here and the aftermath as a bit anti-climactic. Of course, that’s only possible because clearly I had built this move up in my own head to entail something of a climax. In the space of a month I’ve found myself with a new place to live, a new job, and even a new bank, and with all that change has come all the disruption you might expect. I didn’t quite plan it this way, obviously.
As we began to, I hope and believe, really listen to what God might be saying to us in new ways and with a new willingness to literally follow where we were being led, we found ourselves open to new possibilities as they began to present themselves, and present themselves they did. While we knew we probably weren’t long for the ‘burbs, this move to Mpls. only came about because we were talking to some folks from our church about what we were learning and our sense that our calling toget “small,” coupled with our realization that solidarity (with the “least of these”) requires proximity, would likely mean moving. Out of that conversation the opportunity arose to move into the space we’re living in now. There was a little more intentionality behind my job change, though not in regard to the timing. As my former employer, a for-profit social service agency which had recently given its CEO job to a former investment banker/pharmaceutical industry type, began making ever more changes under that new CEO’s leadership that reflected the priorities of the Mammon-serving industries from which he came, it became ever more clear that I would need to find another job soon. It just so happened that the opportunity arose to work for a faith-based non-profit I’ve long respected and have some familiarity with, and it just so happened that this opportunity included working less than 2 miles from our new home. Thus, as I’ve been so grateful for of late, the “rare trifecta” has been achieved in which I live, work, and worship within the same community- all within a 2 mile radius of our new home.
We had been planning to change banks too, though again hadn’t quite planned to do it just yet. Our soon to be former bank began locally but now has a footprint in a number of states, and its former CEO infamously has a boat named “Overdraft” after all the $ collected from charging fees when overdrafts occur. When we learned that there was a much smaller, “certified B corp.” bank whose mission is to give financial access to under-served communities, we knew we had to bank with them as soon as we could. When it became clear that we were not only moving but I was changing jobs at the same time (and therefore our direct deposits would be disrupted due to the job change anyway), it made sense to just make all the changes all at once. So we did.
Still, we’re not just doing all this because we felt like it. We truly have experienced a profound sense of calling to again get as “small” as we can, and this move represents a significant step of faith in that direction. Though our place in the ‘burbs was not huge (by rich Western USAmerican standards) and represented downward movement (in terms of space) from what I still describe as our “modest” home in OH, we’ve now cut our space down by probably a third again with this latest move. We share a garage in our new space, and our side is relatively full, and sadly we do have some stuff in storage at Kirsten’s mom’s; nonetheless, we got rid of a lot of stuff as we moved here, and I’m grateful. As I keep saying, we shouldn’t have more stuff than can fit in our current space.
We went from a street on which the houses/townhomes were widely spaced out and one could really go a long while if one desired without interacting with or even hearing one’s neighbors, to a neighborhood in which the houses are tightly packed together with some so close to each other that you could literally pass items through open windows from one house to another. Many of the houses on our current street aren’t all that much smaller than those in the ‘burbs we came from, but many of them here in the city have been converted into multi-family homes with several rental units in each, including ours. That, plus the much greater density of the housing stock means that there is much greater density of people to go with it. Our street is busy with frequent foot and bicycle traffic, and we often interact with our neighbors (well, some of them anyway). There’s a real sense of community here- desired or not- that was designed away in the ‘burbs from which we came. We’re glad for that.
NE Mpls. is ahaven for artists and is the setting for the just completedArt-A-Whirl, an annual open house of all the local galleries packed into this part of the city that showcases local art. It’s the largest event of its kind in the country. One of those galleries is at the end of our street. Right across from that gallery, also at the end of our street, is what we already know to be a delicious Asian food restaurant from which we had take-out last weekend. Across the street from our house, a few houses up, is a house at which folks frequently come to the stoop to smoke. Whenever they do, they almost always sing- loudly, beautifully, and in harmony. I don’t know if all the singers live there or if they sing vocationally or if they just can’t help themselves, but they do it well, and I always appreciate it and try to listen. It’s less than a mile from our new place to the onlyvegan “butcher”in the country, which is very close to a taco chain from TX that has some good vegan options and one of our favorite running stores. While this particular section of Minneapolis is still fairly Caucasian, there’s much, much more diversity than there ever was in the neighborhood from which we came. Both of the new schools the boys go to are very diverse, and Samuel is in fact a minority at his. We can see some of the landmark skyscrapers of downtown Mpls. just over the tops of the trees from the windows on one side of our new place. The ‘burbs this is not.
Of course, it’s not exactly the “ghetto” either. Like many urban settings,NE Mpls. is gentrifying, and it gave us pause to consider that we would be contributing to that phenomenon by moving here. We only hope that on balance our presence does more good than harm. Obviously, it remains to be seen if that will be the case. Nonetheless, being here, especially taken with all the other changes in our lives, is a step in the direction of much more consistently and with integrity living into our values. Our rent here will be cheaper than in the ‘burbs, and as we moved here we made many, many changes to try to live more simply and more consistently act as if we really believe that everything belongs to God, that everything is a gift from God, including the money we “earn” using the gifts God has given us. As has been well documented on this blog, prior to moving here we gave up our smartphones and “cut the cord” again. We quit contributing to our retirement plans because of all the unjust ways in which those funds were being used and because we’re supposed to be storing up treasure in heaven, not on earth. We gave away a lot of the stuff we had accumulated and sold some other things, and we pray that this purge represents changes to our way of life that we will be able to sustain. Doing all this has freed up a lot of money in our budget, and with it we’re more rapidly paying down debt than we ever could have imagined just a few short months ago. We’re building capacity into our lives, both financial and otherwise, to much more faithfully be who we feel called to be.
We know we’re called to be generous, for starters, that this is somethingGod the giver wants for us, not from us. We know we’re called to tread lightly on God’s good earth and to be present to our neighbors, let alone to one another in our own immediate family. We know, as I’ve been saying, that we’re called to get as “small” as we can, tolive as citizens of God’s kingdom from “under,” not “over” the kingdom(s) of this world, especially the kingdom which is the U.S.A. and the unmitigated consumer capitalism and war-making empire for which it stands. All of this means that we’re more keenly aware perhaps than we ever have been of the degree to which we’re called to swim upstream in the culture(s) we’re immersed in. We’re immersed in the culture of consumer capitalism, for example, but we now know more clearly than ever before that we can’t follow Jesus and the dictates of that culture. We can’t serve Jesus and Mammon, and that actually means something. It means we have to act in contradistinction to what most consider to be wise and prudent financial behavior. Many think it wise if possible to not be in debt (though few seem to live this out). On this point, we agree, and we’re grateful that all the other financial choices we’ve made of late to help us get “small” have built up capacity in our budget to enable us to rapidly pay off some debt we’ve been accumulating for many years (not counting student loan debt, which we’ll continue to carry for quite some time, sadly).
That said, most would say it’s wise, prudent, and faithful to not only not carry debt but also to save- preferably up to three months’ worth of salary or more to help provide in the event of illness, injury, or job loss. Most say it’s wise to save for retirement and to plan for it someday. Most say it’s wise to own a home and take advantage of the chance to build equity and maximize tax savings. I could go on, but on these points we’re just not so sure anymore, and again we must consider: what if Jesus really meant what he said? He said, after all, that our hearts will be where our treasure is, and that we should store up for ourselves treasure in heaven, not on earth. The hard truth is that every savings account, IRA, and disability insurance policy is a tool meant to do just the opposite of what Jesus called us to. They’re tools meant for no other purpose than to literally store up treasure on earth, however virtuous one’s intentions might be regarding that earthly stored-up treasure. Though we’re still figuring (all) this out, we’re not even sure of the logic of home-ownership any more. I wouldn’t suggest that every home purchase represents something less than what God wants for us. Buying a house certainly helps one be rooted in a community, and that is a good thing. However, I’ll say again that when we gave up the home we had owned for 10 years to come here in part, but certainly not solely, to help Kirsten’s mom, we readily accepted the frequently used and seemingly Scriptural logic that “…no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospelwill fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age.” I’ve written a lot about this passage from Mark 10 and the stunning realization I had about it as I heard it used in several Mill City Church sermons and especially inJonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’sseminal book, God’s Economy. I’ll give you the verse again, with a little morecontext. Just after Jesus has said to “let the little children come to him,” thereby radically giving prestige and status to those whose socioeconomic position in the household economy of the day was lower even than that of slaves, and then after the “rich young ruler” has “gone away sad” because Jesus has told him to go and sell all he has and give it to the poor because this is the “one thing he lacked,” after all this, this is what happens next:
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is[e] to enter the kingdom of God!25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”
29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
I’vewrittena fair bit already about my stunning realization that after learning, I thought, so well that so many of the “you’s” in the New Testament that talk about how to live the Christian life and follow Jesus were plural, addressed to you, the church; somehow I still managed to think this particular passage was about me (the individual). Of course it’s not. Jesus isn’t saying that I and my family will be rewarded handsomely with material goods if in fact we have given any up for his sake. He’s saying we don’t need them. He’s saying that we’re part of a community that collectively has so much more than any one of us or any one family among us could ever want or need. So, thanks be to God and still, Lord willing, I and my family are doubling down on our “downsizing” ways. Thus, we find ourselves here in our new space in the Beltrami neighborhood.
Interestingly, I had yet another of those stunning Scriptural revelations within the last couple of weeks. As someone who supposedly has been trying to follow Jesus for most of his life, I’ve probably said the Lord Prayer’s thousands of times- without ever fully realizing what I was really asking for. As I’ve alsowritten about recentlyrelated to all this, in the desert God rained down manna from heaven daily (except on the Sabbath), and he who gathered much never “gathered too much,” and he who gathered little “never too little,” because they shared. And those who tried to hoard and save some for the next day found it spoiled the next day (except on the Sabbath). Thus, each and every day they had to trust God for their “daily bread.” In the prayer Jesus taught us, he invokes this bit of Israel’s collective history and invites his followers to continue to trust God for their daily bread with the simple words: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Again after 41 years on this earth and 20 of them as an adult trying to follow Jesus, I realized that Jesus doesn’t say to ask God for our weekly bread, or our monthly or yearly bread, or enough bread to hide some away so that some day we can retire and stop collecting bread. Jesus doesn’t say any of that. He invites us to trust God every day for just what we need for that day. Capitalism and good, common sense financial wisdom- even what most consider good stewardship- this is not. This is utter nonsense, utter foolishness in the eyes of the world and I would argue in the eyes of most “Christians,” but this is the life Jesus invites us into.
And it kind of makes sense, if we’re also invited to “give to whomever asks.” Especially in this society and especially for people of my gender, location in history, and skin tone, I have access to more “bread” than I could ever possibly need. Thus a life of radical generosity is not only possible but clearly demanded of me. What other reason could there be for the unimaginable bounty I’ve been given? So then why am I still so rich?
That question- why am I still so rich?- has been haunting me of late in terms of my own life of course but also as I’ve wrestled with the ideas and thinking ofBob Luptonin his much talked about (at least in the circles I’m a part of these days) book, Toxic Charity. Let the reader of this post beware that I myself have not read Toxic Charity. Naturally, I’m not in the habit of commenting much on books I haven’t read, but obviously I’m about to. The book has generated enough “buzz” since it came out a few years back that there’s a lot of discussion of it to be found online. It also seems to be well-esteemed among the leadership of my faith community; so I’ve found myself repeatedly encountering some of the ideas Bob and his book(s) present, and am feeling more and more compelled to respond to them even as I continue to learn about them (learning which, I assure you, will include reading the book in the near future!). At first glance, Bob should be someone that I would be inclined to like, respect, and esteem myself. He’s a Christian Community Development practitioner and has spoken at theCCDAconference. He’s a Jesus-follower who was himself compelled to respond to the “good news for the poor” by moving his family from the ‘burbs to the “inner city” to live among, love, and serve his neighbors there, thus enacting one of the “three R’s” of Christian Community Development- “relocation.” As is often said about this principle, “Jesus didn’t commute from heaven every day when he walked the earth and loved and served us.” There’s a lesson there. Bob took it to heart and has lived in “inner city” Atlanta for 40 years, and for that I do indeed think well of him. Moreover, he’s calling the church to “do no harm” in its efforts to love the poor and wants to see all God’s children realize their full potential and not be dependent on government entitlement programs for their sustenance and well-being. This, I suppose, is what he says is often “toxic” about charity, that by indiscriminately giving “handouts” to the poor- apparently whether it’s the church doing so or the government- the “have’s” create dependency in and “destroy the work ethic of” the “have-not’s.” There’s a lot to be said about that, which I’ll get to shortly.
All that said, it’s precisely because of Lupton’s history and associations (with CCDA, with many church leaders who think well of his message, including the leaders of my own faith community) that should incline me to want to agree with him or at least give him the benefit of the doubt that I find myself struggling so mightily because I just can’t. The more I learn and reflect on what Lupton’s message seems to be, the more I discover that I simply don’t agree with him, and this has bugged me enough that I’ve been compelled to research, think, pray, and now write about it all. Lupton seems supremely interested in the results of charity work, while Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Miroslav Volf might say that the act of giving to whomever asks is as much about us as givers and therefore image-bearers of God the giver, as it is about those to whom we give or the “results” of said giving. Nevertheless, Lupton wants to center the conversation on “results-” what lifts people out of poverty- but is overly critical of the poor along the way. One reviewerwrote:
One criticism is that Lupton moves uncritically between uplifting the capacity and creativity of the poor and degrading them as lazy and dishonest. “Most [panhandlers] are scammers,” he states (45). Most poor people in the United States “assume that their subsistence is guaranteed” and so lack any kind of work ethic, he claims (121). I won’t dignify his words with the verb “argues” because Lupton doesn’t argue his points; he simply states them. I would be concerned that statements like this, when coupled with his criticisms of charity, would motivate more people to avoid service work in the first place than to engage in the community development he suggests.
Another reviewer of his follow-up book, Charity Detox, which builds on the ideas presented in Toxic Charity, said:
…the author seems unwilling to address (or even admit) that some of the root causes of and root solutions for poverty are related to social policy. It is hard not to sniff ideology. The author talks more about the rich than the poor, telling story after story of rich entrepreneurs whose faith and business acumen change impoverished communities. Meanwhile, too often “the poor” are mostly faceless, nameless, and never described as “low-income communities” or even “our sisters and brothers.” It makes for uncomfortable reading.
Interestingly, when Jesus tells stories, he seems to take the opposite approach. In the story of the “rich man and Lazarus,” for example, it’s the “rich man” who lacks a name while the poor man is named- Lazarus- and known. Indeed it is the poor man who is “carried to Abraham’s side” when he dies, while the rich man is “in torment” “in Hades.” This is a subject for another post, one I’ve already written. Meanwhile, Lupton seems to want to say to the rich two things, one of which I wholeheartedly agree with. On the one hand, he encourages rich folk to live alongside poor folk (he did it, and again I respect him greatly for it). He seems to think that by doing so rich folk will “see” (and hopefully “hear” through meaningful relationships with their neighbors) what poor folk “really need.” By virtue of proximity with poor folk, rich folk will then on the other hand be better able to invest in “good” charity. Meanwhile, the effective message he seems to have for the poor is essentially to ask, “why aren’t you less poor yet?” There’s a corollary question that goes unasked, that might be asked of the rich, “why aren’t you less rich yet?” Lupton seems silent on this subject, but it’s a question I can’t avoid, especially as I direct it at myself.
What bothers me most about Lupton’s “argument(s)” is just how firmly they seem to be rooted in the economy of this world- capitalism, specifically, and thus just how firmly they are out of place in God’s economy. Lupton’s ideas for helping poor folks pull themselves up by their own bootstraps so that they can better participate in consumer capitalism simply have no place in an economy where everyone shares everything because every good thing is an unearned gift from God the giver. They have no place in a world in which we give to whomever asks, without judgment. They have no place in a world that lacks only one thing- scarcity. In God’s economy, there is more than enough for all and since all share freely there finally “are no poor among us;” neither are there any rich. This is the world I want to live in, and as for me and my house, we will be living as if we do.
Our challenge is to find partners who want to live in such a world too. I suspect that may be why our move to our new place and everything it represents for us may feel a little anti-climactic now that we’re here. We’re excited to get to know our neighbors here, and some- though not all- of our new neighbors seem to feel likewise. Still, while we’re so very grateful to now be leaning into the life we feel called to much more than we have in a very long time, it still feels a little…lonely. We remain convinced we simply can’t live this life alone, and we believe that this is not what Jesus wants for us either. So then perhaps our biggest challenge is simply to be patient. It took us 20 years to finally be “ready” to follow Jesus like we should have all along. Lord willing, there are partners who will join us- or whom we can join- along this way with Jesus; I only pray they learn a little faster than we do.