I know people do this, compile a list at the end of the year of their top 10 posts from that year. Though I’ve been blogging for more than 15 years now, I don’t think I’ve ever compiled such a list, for at least a couple of related reasons. First, I still struggle with a paradoxical lack of confidence in and probably some false humility related to what I write, and second, I tend to post sporadically. So some years I seem to have a lot to say, while other years I’ve said nothing at all. Nonetheless, as we move well into the 2020’s, and I (I hope, anyway) move (“well” or not) into what Richard Rohr and others call the “second half of life,” it’s a time for new beginnings, for resolutions made, if not always kept, for hopeful starts. So you’re getting this a bit late, but here’s my “top 10” list for 2020. Please note that I didn’t write many more than 10 posts in 2020; so what I’m giving you now for what I think is my first ever top 10 list is the top 10 posts read in 2020, though not necessarily written in 2020.
This is some 2020 writing I did early in the pandemic, touching on one of my favorite Circle of Hope songs and how it resonated with how the Circle of Hope Daily Prayer blogs were leading us to pray at the time, and how all of that brought to mind a book I reference often, Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land.
This is another 2020 bit of writing I did relatively early in the pandemic, also touching on songs sung among Circle of Hope, some original to Circle of Hope, some not. In this post I say again how we were “surprised by (the) joy” that came as we reconnected with Circle during this terrible pandemic. I talk about my (still ongoing) journey doing EMDR and reflect on some writing done by Circle’s founding pastor, Rod White.
You may begin to sense a theme from the writing I did do in 2020. This post also reflects on Circle of Hope music. It also touches on Laird’s Into the Silent Land, and it also alludes to the healing I’ve been reaching for of the trauma stored in my body, and the love I choose to believe is stored there too.
It took me a while to conclude that we could do better than capitalism, “or any -ism, for that matter,” as Ferris Bueller reminds us. Rod White and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (and yes, my own guilt) helped me get there in 2017.
I’m not sure why people keep finding this 2020 post written on the anniversary of my dad’s death. It could be because of the pandemic and how many people are dying and seeking to remember their loved ones. I don’t know. I write about dependency, “co-” and otherwise, and rescuing and the impulse to “keep our hands clean.”
This was my #2 post read in 2020, but is far and away my most read post of all time. I wrote it in 2017 as we were trying out a local to the Twin Cities faith community, Church of All Nations (CAN). CAN has much to offer and we connected with them because so much of what they do seemed to resonate with the alternativity that Circle of Hope has been going for for so long. Still, as much as we respect CAN and have no ill feelings toward that community or any of its leaders and did not leave them, I hope and pray, in a bad way at all, there was something missing in our experience with them that has very little to do with them. I’ve written a fair bit now about being “surprised by joy” when we began to reconnect with Circle in 2020, even from a geographic distance. It surprised us, I think, because we suddenly realized that we didn’t feel much like we had it, though we hardly knew it. If I could name the source of this joy, I would have to say simply that it’s Jesus. Circle works so very hard to be Jesus-centered, not just honoring him as a respected ancestor or learning from him as a political agitator, but seeing all of that and incorporating it into loving him as Lord, the one “in whom all things hold together.” I think this is what generates the gravity that keeps connecting us in the Circle of Hope and which our dialogue protects. It is the love which is our belief. Anyway, I talk about the Bruderhof in this post, and someone made it a source on their Wikipedia entry (it wasn’t me, I promise). I’m sure this is why people keep finding this post of mine.
I tried to write a 2020 Christmas letter for our family and instead my #5 post above came out. I tried again, and was successful, and I’m glad folks have read it. It’s a “protected” post; so if you’d like to read it, contact me for the password. Thanks for reading my writing in 2020, and here’s to 2021 being one of those years when I have more (good, helpful things) to say, not less.
What follows was supposed to be our first family Christmas letter in a while, but read on and you’ll see that’s not exactly what this is. I just don’t know if I (Robert) can easily produce those customary Christmas letters any more. Of course I would love to tell you what we’ve been up to during the pandemic, how we’re all blessed to be working and attending school from home and how the pivot to widespread use of video technology for as much of life as possible has led to a deeply renewed connection with our “home” church in Philly, to the point that we’ve rejoined their covenant and daily consider what next steps we might take, but I find that I just don’t have very many words to spend on all that right now. Instead, I find my gaze shifting outward, to you, dear reader, and to Jesus, whose Advent we’re celebrating as I write.
This Advent I picked up a devotional I intended to use, Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, by our (figurative) friends at the Bruderhof. I’ll confess I haven’t made time to read it every day as the usual Christmas doldrums set in some time ago, this year multiplied many times over by the global pandemic we’re all still suffering through. But I read it today, and since doing so this morning I can’t stop thinking about it. Today’s offering was from that old ragamuffin, Brennan Manning. I was privileged to actually hear Manning speak when I was in college many years ago. It probably was around that same time that I saw Rich Mullins in concert, and the two probably belong together in my imagination, as their lives were intertwined in the fabric of God’s grace. One writer’s take on their relationship as depicted in a 2014 Mullins biopic can be found here. A year earlier, another writer described Manning’s influence on Mullins this way:
The first time the late singer-songwriter Rich Mullins heard former Franciscan priest Brennan Manning on tape as he drove through the edge of the Flint Hills in Kansas, his eyes filled with tears. He steered the truck to the side of the road. There, as he later wrote, the message “broke the power of mere ‘moralistic religiosity’ in my life, and revived a deeper acceptance that had long ago withered in me.”
The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus
What is this acceptance that Manning helped Mullins recover? It likely has little to do with the usual niceties of a consumeristic Christmas. The piece from Manning I read this morning was titled Shipwrecked at the Stable and was originally published in his book Lion and Lamb: The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus. In this piece, Manning writes:
The spirituality of Bethlehem is simply incomprehensible to the advertising industry. The opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are being used to sell us pain reliever, and the prayer of St. Francis is being used to sell us hair conditioner. The Bethlehem mystery will ever be a scandal to aspiring disciples who seek a triumphant Savior and a prosperity Gospel. The infant Jesus was born in unimpressive circumstances, no one can exactly say where. His parents were of no social significance whatsoever, and his chosen welcoming committee were all turkeys, losers, and dirt-poor shepherds. But in this weakness and poverty the shipwrecked at the stable would come to know the love of God.
Manning goes on:
The shipwrecked at the stable are the poor in spirit who feel lost in the cosmos, adrift on an open sea, clinging with a life-and-death desperation to the one solitary plank. Finally they are washed ashore and make their way to the stable, stripped of the old spirit of possessiveness in regard to anything. The shipwrecked find it not only tacky but utterly absurd to be caught up either in tinsel trees or in religious experiences—“Doesn’t going to church on Christmas make you feel good?” They are not concerned with their own emotional security or any of the trinkets of creation. They have been saved, rescued, delivered from the waters of death, set free for a new shot at life. At the stable in a blinding moment of truth, they make the stunning discovery that Jesus is the plank of salvation they have been clinging to without knowing it!
I’ve been trying to move a bit more into contemplation this year. I’m finding more and more that meditation and silent, contemplative prayer are key to helping me calm my anxious body and traumatized mind and rediscover my own belovedness. Another Catholic priest, Father Martin Laird, has been a guide of sorts in this process. His book Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation, has been extremely helpful. In it he talks about the passage from John 15 where Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches,” and Laird adds that “to the branch, it’s all vine.” To the branch, there is no point at which the vine has ended and the branch has begun. There is only oneness and unity. I wonder if it might not be this acceptance that Rich Mullins found revived when he heard Brennan Manning for the first time. Could it truly be that all things were created in Christ, through Christ, and for Christ, and that in Christ therefore, “all things hold together?”
Here’s Manning again, talking about the shipwrecked:
All the time they were battered by wind and rain, buffeted by raging seas, they were being held even when they didn’t know who was holding them. Their exposure to spiritual, emotional and physical deprivation has weaned them from themselves and made them re-examine all they once thought important. The shipwrecked come to the stable seeking not to possess but to be possessed, wanting not peace or a religious high, but Jesus Christ.
The shipwrecked don’t seek peace because they aren’t disturbed by the lack of it. By that I mean the subjective feeling of peace. Circumstances can play havoc with our emotions, the day can be stormy or fair and our feelings will fluctuate accordingly; but if we are in Christ Jesus, we are in peace and there unflustered even when we feel no peace. Meister Eckhart’s equation, “In Christ equals in peace,” is always valid. When we accept the truth of ourselves- shipwrecked and saved- our lives are henceforth anchored in the Rock who is Christ, not in the shifting sands of fickle feelings.
This is a point of capital importance for those who would fully experience the grace of Christmas. When we are in right relationship with Jesus, we are in the peace of Christ. Except for grave, conscious, deliberate infidelity, which must be recognized and repented of, the presence or absence of feelings of peace is the normal ebb and flow of the spiritual life.
Manning continues, invoking the passage from Colossians I alluded to above:
The shipwrecked have stood at the still-point of a turning world and discovered that the human heart is made for Jesus Christ and cannot really be content with less. They cannot take seriously the demands that the world makes on them. During Advent they teach us that the more we try to tame and reduce desires, the more we deceive and distort ourselves. We are made for Christ and nothing less will ever satisfy us. As Paul writes in Colossians 1:16, “All things were created by him and for him.” And further on, “There is only Christ: he is everything” (3:11). It is only in Christ that the heart finds true joy in created things.
To the clotheshorse fretting about what to wear on Christmas Day, the shipwrecked say, “Put on Christ.” To the merchant whose Bible is the Wall Street Journal and who pants down the money-making street, the shipwrecked say, “You have only one Master; serving him is incompatible with any other servitude.” To the power-broker dealing strength to get things done, the shipwrecked say: “However powerful you are, the most you can do is change the décor of a world that is collapsing into its own death.”
The shipwrecked stand on firm ground. They live in truth and are rooted in reality. They do not allow the world to order them around. Kneeling at the crib they find the vanity of the world ridiculous, bloated, preposterous…
Do you hear what the shipwrecked are saying? Let go of your paltry desires and expand your expectations. Christmas means that God has given us nothing less than himself and his name is Jesus Christ. Be unwilling next Christmas to settle for anything else. Don’t order “just a piece of toast” when eggs Benedict are on the menu. Don’t come with a thimble when God has nothing less to give you than the ocean of himself. Don’t be contented with a ‘nice’ Christmas when Jesus says, “It has pleased my Father to give you the Kingdom.” Pray, go to work, play Trivial Pursuit, eat banana bread, exchange presents, go caroling, feed the hungry, comfort the lonely, and do all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Stripped and Filled
I’m 45 years old this Christmas, and so much of my life has been spent clinging to my paltry desires, somehow believing them to be the best that I might hope for. I fret about not just what I’ll wear, but about so much more. Far too many of my worries, of course, are sadly about myself, about whether or not I am okay in any number of ways. This is very much related to the complex trauma that I endured as a child, but this nagging self-concern is likely a temptation we all must face, in one way or another. Manning asks in this Advent reflection: “As Christmas approaches, an honest question is: do I want to be or merely appear to be a Christian?” And then Manning begins to answer the question by telling a story about a conversation between St. Francis and Brother Leo about how to be pure of heart. Soon into the conversation, St. Francis says:
“Leo, listen carefully to me. Don’t be so preoccupied with the purity of your heart. Turn and look at Jesus. Admire him. Rejoice that he is what he is—your Brother, your Friend, your Lord and Savior. That, little brother, is what it means to be pure of heart. And once you’ve turned to Jesus, don’t turn back and look at yourself. Don’t wonder where you stand with him.
The sadness of not being perfect, the discovery that you really are sinful, is a feeling much too human, even borders on idolatry. Focus your vision outside yourself on the beauty, graciousness and compassion of Jesus Christ. The pure of heart praise him from sunrise to sundown. Even when they feel broken, feeble distracted, insecure and uncertain, they are able to release it into his peace. A heart like that is stripped and filled—stripped of self and filled with the fullness of God. It is enough that Jesus is Lord.”
After a long pause, Leo said, “Still, Francis, the Lord demands our effort and fidelity.” “No doubt about that,” replied Francis. “But holiness is not a personal achievement. It’s an emptiness you discover in yourself. Instead of resenting it, you accept it and it becomes the free space where the Lord can create anew. To cry out, ‘You alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord,’ that is what it means to be pure of heart. And it doesn’t come by your Herculean efforts and threadbare resolutions.”
“Then how?” asked Leo. “Simply hoard nothing of yourself; sweep the house clean. Sweep out even the attic, even the nagging painful consciousness of your past. Accept being shipwrecked. Renounce everything that is heavy, even the weight of your sins. See only the compassion, the infinite patience, and the tender love of Christ. Jesus is Lord. That suffices. Your guilt and reproach disappear into the nothingness of non-attention. You are no longer aware of yourself, like the sparrow aloft and free in the azure sky. Even the desire for holiness is transformed into a pure and simple desire for Jesus.”
This Christmas, I suppose I feel a little more shipwrecked this year as we approach the stable. I’ve long resented the emptiness I’ve felt inside, and have tried to fill it with Herculean efforts and threadbare resolutions, not to mention with tinsel trees and religious experiences. Unsure of where I stand with God, which is to say nothing of where I stand with my long-deceased mother or even with my own self, I’ve settled for paltry desires and lowered expectations, desperately praying that the next city, the next job or church, or mentor or friend, will finally fill me and meet my needs. But of course they cannot, and thank God for those who will not. No, no longer will I settle, not if Christmas really does mean that “God has given us nothing less than himself and his name is Jesus Christ.”
I will accept the emptiness inside me, and let it become the free space where God can make something new. I will remember that I am a branch on the vine, and that therefore the vine is always with me. I will put on Christ. I will serve no other master. I will pray and work and play and eat, give and receive and nourish and comfort, and I will do it all in Jesus’ name. Advent and Christmas mean God-with-us, and in the free space inside me I’ve known as my emptiness, something new is being born. God’s very self is being born, and his name is Jesus Christ. May Jesus find a home with you and yours this Christmas too. Amen.
If my math is right there are over 30 (nearly 40, if memory serves) posts on the Circle of Hope blog about “alternativity.” I now have a few posts as well in which I mention or allude to it. What is alternativity? Responding to the blatant racism of the current presidential administration (as opposed to the more subtle racism of some of the recent previous ones), Rod White, the Development pastor of Circle of Hope, tries to answer the question of “what do we do?” in response to the oppressive domination of “the powers” and the complicity of all too many would-be Jesus followers in that oppression. He says:
The answer comes from being the Body of Christ, not just a reaction or a resistance, but an alternative reality.
Scarcity is met with mutuality and generosity in the body of Christ. We will have to do better than to think about it. But we are trying.
Fear-mongering is met with trust in what God puts together, not in what the invisible hand creates. We’ll need to integrate our faith into the actions of our daily life more. But we are trying.
Foolishness is met with truth telling, just like Paul boldly states the new reality Jesus is making. We’ll have to listen to the Spirit directly and in one another and test it out, not just flee, resist and resent. But we are trying.
Alternativity is the word we use to sum it all up. We are trying to live in it. Deactivating Twitter is my act of defiance as much as self-preservation. Tackling the health care debacle is about perseverance as much as survival. Writing this little post, complaining about our terrible experiences, griping about Charlottesville, denouncing Trump, quoting Paul, insisting that there are better ways and that we are living them right now is how I keep myself on track. And I hope it has helped you, too. We have an alternative reality to build with Jesus, and it can’t wait for things to get better.
Circle of Hope has a habit of getting together face-to-face from time to time to “do theology.” The results of some of those conversations show up on their The Way of Jesus site (an incredible resource for Jesus followers worth plumbing the depths of). Thus, in May of last year, as primary season was winding down during the presidential election, they posted on The Way of Jesus a reflection based on their conversation about the relationship between God’s kingdom and the powers. They say:
When we do theology about elections we run into the line that has always separated Reformed Christianity from Anabaptist. The Reformed Christians can be called part of “magisterial” Protestantism, retaining the sense of “magisterium” that also marks Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox members of the Church. Alistair McGrath says that reformers like Luther and Calvin, who had a huge influence in European and American forms of the church, taught that, “The magistrate had a right to authority within the church, just as the church could rely on the authority of the magistrate to enforce discipline, suppress heresy, or maintain order.” In addition, the term magister relates to the emphasis on authoritative teachers. Often this is seen in the names of theological schools descending from magisterial reformers (i.e. Lutheran and Calvinist).
“Radical” reformers, who were later called Anabaptists, thought the church had fallen from grace and wanted to restore it. They traced the root of the fall to point of the fusion of church and society of which Constantine was the architect, Eusebius the priest, Augustine the apologete, and the Crusades and Inquisition the culmination.
When Constantine claimed Christianity, he turned the church right-side up, so to speak, from its former upside-down reputation. He consciously thought he was baptizing the empire. Perhaps his motives were good. Many Christians in his day, like the historian of the Church, Eusebius, thought he was the gift of God to end persecution and to honor the faithfulness of the church as it triumphed over the evils of Rome. Christians in Constantine’s empire extolled him as their champion. Bishops personally escorted him into battle against rival nations. The church quickly adapted to this new opportunity and used empire means to achieve Kingdom ends. The adaptation meant the end of God-ordained, missional non-alignment with imperial powers.
The Anabaptist’s disgust with Constantinianism is not about the sincerity with which Constantinian Christians use top-down, coercive, worldly power or about the goodness of the ends toward which they wield such power. The shift labeled “Constantinian” is the willingness of God’s people to deform their specific God-given identity by merging with worldly power structures and using top-down, coercive, worldly power to accomplish what God has given his people to do without such power.
How do they know that the Constantinian way can and must not be equated with “the way of Jesus?” Well, they look to Scripture, for starters:
Jesus demonstrably did not take the same route as Constantine, although he received the title king.
When the Messiah came, he distanced himself from the Jerusalem establishment (John 2:13–21).
Jesus did not reconstitute Israel land-based empire based in Palestine but prepared his people to be scattered across the world by his Spirit (John 4: 21– 24; Acts 1: 8).
Jesus unmasked the powers’ claims to be benefactors and self-consciously adopted the suffering servant posture (Luke 22:25– 27).
Jesus proclaimed a kingdom whose citizens are committed to peacemaking, enemy love, and transnational disciple-making (Matt 5: 38– 48, 28: 19).
Previously scattered Jews from as far back as Jeremiah’s time formed synagogues throughout the world that became central to the church’s missionary expansion (Acts 9:19-22, 14:1, 17:1– 3).
The earliest Christians viewed themselves as aliens, exiles, strangers, and dispersed ones (Jas 1: 1; 1 Pet 1: 1, 2: 11-12) whose citizenship is in heaven as opposed to Rome or Jerusalem (Phil 3: 17-21).
Finally, then, they conclude that “We are pretty much descendants of Anabaptists and the pre-Constantine church.” Then, while offering some ever helpful reminders such as “The Bible can’t really be seen if it is read from an empire perspective,” they offer this nugget, which brings us back to alternativity:
The main way we respond to the ways of the world is to build the alternative: the Kingdom of God being lived out as the people of God, the church. We go to the system from the church and return to the church. We hope the grace we bring transforms and changes the world, but when we are not assured of that, we know who we are and where we come from and we preserve the possibilities of a better world by existing.
That’s it, right there. To the extent that we as the church and the Bride of Christ embody an alternative reality to the powers, principalities, and systems of this age, then we live into our prophetic calling to declare with our very lives, as Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove wrote and I discuss elsewhere, that “the end of our story has interrupted us in the middle” (italics added).” Though we live yet “between the times,” we are to be an outpost of God’s kingdom come. Thus,
In the midst of violence, we bring peace.
In the midst of (perceived) scarcity, we bring abundance and generosity.
In the midst of fear-mongering, we bring fearlessness.
In the midst of so much foolishness, we bring wisdom.
In the midst of domination by the powers and principalities of this age, we bring alternativity.
Consequently, as Rod White writes in the title of another post that has been a touchstone for us in our season of “devolution” and “getting small,” “for the slaves of Christ, existence is resistance.”
Thus, I suppose it should come as no surprise that the Bruderhof has been on my mind of late. As our year of devolution and learning to be peacemakers winds on, and most recently as we’ve felt called to move on from Mill City Church and explore becoming part of Church of All Nations, I’ve found myself returning for inspiration again and again not only to Circle of Hope but also to the Bruderhof. They, of course, are the community of 2,000+ Jesus followers on several continents that not only resist capitalism in order to follow Jesus- as we feel called to do- but almost reject it altogether (collectively, they own some businesses, all the proceeds from which go back into supporting the life of the community). They were founded by Eberhard Arnold in Germany just as Hitler was coming to power, and today, nearly a century later, they live together in rural villages around the country and around the world, and even have some community houses in urban areas like the Bronx. Everything they do, they do together. They literally sell all their possessions and give any proceeds to the church, which is a requirement for any person or family that seeks to join the Bruderhof. Thus they live into God’s economy in a more real and tangible way than scarcely anyone else I’m aware of or could imagine. Since those who join the Bruderhof don’t engage in capitalism, they hold everything in common and do not earn wages. The necessary work for their life together is divvied up among the members, and each does his part. No man or woman is richer or poorer than any other. All belongs to all and is received from God as a gift for all. They practice communal discernment and decision-making, and hold one another accountable to Jesus and one another as they practice their way of life together. As they say of themselves here:
We are an intentional Christian community of more than 2,900 people living in twenty-three settlements on four continents. We are a fellowship of families and singles, practicing radical discipleship in the spirit of the first church in Jerusalem. We gladly renounce private property and share everything in common. Our vocation is a life of service to God, each other, and you.
The Bruderhof was founded in 1920 by Eberhard Arnold in Germany. None of us owns anything personally, and our communal property belongs not to us as a group but to the cause of Christ. Anyone who has decided to become a member freely gives all property, earnings, and inheritances to the church community. In turn, all necessities such as food, housing, and health care are provided for. Members generally work for and in the community, but none of us receives a paycheck, stipend, or allowance. In our homes and daily lives, we try to live frugally and give generously, to avoid excess, and to remain unfettered by materialism. In these practical ways we seek to witness that under the stewardship of the church, everything we have is available to anybody in need.
I’ve probably known of them, at least dimly, for a while, but their faithful witness lo this past century as a distinct community of Christ that stands in contradistinction to that of empire- whether that of Nazi Germany as they were being founded or the U.S. today- is striking and admirable. They are themselves an embodied word of truth spoken to power. So my dim awareness of them has come alive of late as I’ve been reacquainted with Eberhard Arnold, whom I wrote about here. On Circle of Hope’s Celebrating the Transhistorical Body blog, they remembered Arnold on Nov. 22 of last year. I was surprised when reading their post about him to be reminded that it was Arnold who said that “Truth without love kills, but love without truth lies.” This quote can be found in the header for Rod White’s blog and is one of Circle of Hope’s proverbs. I was also surprised, though in hindsight I shouldn’t have been, to learn that it was MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) that helped the Bruderhof escape Nazi Germany. For those who don’t know, “MCC is a global, nonprofit organization that strives to share God’s love and compassion for all through relief, development and peace.” Thus, they are the relief, development, and peacemaking arm of those from the Mennonite and other Anabaptist traditions, and Circle of Hope contributes a significant percentage of their tithes and offerings to MCC.
Anyway, there is much affinity between Arnold/the Bruderhof and Circle of Hope. Both have Anabaptist roots. Both strive for alternativity, though in very different settings. Thus, on MLK, Jr. Day of this year, Rod White re-posted on his blog a piece from the Plough (the publishing arm of the Bruderhof) titled “Alien Citizens: Karl Barth, Eberhard Arnold, and Why the Church Is Political.” I urge you to go read it. Above I spoke of the Circle of Hope writer who wrestled with the implications of a Trump presidency not by saying that this administration is “bad” while some others were better and the alternative potential Clinton presidency might at least have been better than this Trump one; rather, they said that any secular administration can only ever be the latest attempt by the powers to secure their rule. Meanwhile, what we really need and are to strive for is the alternativity of the kingdom of God, a truth which would be no less true if Hilary were president. Similarly, in the piece from the Plough by Will Willimon, he writes about the questions surrounding how to respond to the Trump presidency. He says:
For Christians, these questions, while interesting, are not the most pressing. Jesus’ people participate uneasily in American democratic politics not because we are torn between the politics of the left and of the right, but because of the singular truth uttered by Eberhard Arnold in his 1934 sermon on the Incarnation: “Our politics is that of the kingdom of God”.
Because Arnold was a man of such deep humility, peacefulness, and nonviolence, in reading his sermons it’s easy to miss his radicality. How well Arnold knew and lived the oddness of being a Christian, a resident alien in a world where politics had become the functional equivalent of God. How challenging is Arnold’s preaching in our world, where the political programs of Washington or Moscow can seem to be the only show in town, our last, best hope for maintaining our sense of security and illusions of control.
Christians carry two passports: one for the country in which we find ourselves, and another for that baptismal nation being made by God from all the nations. This nation is a realm not made by us but by God; Arnold calls it a “completely new order” where Christ at last “truly rules over all things.”
As storm clouds gathered in Nazified Germany, and millions pinned their hopes on a political savior who would make Germany great again through messianic politics, Arnold defiantly asserted that the most important political task of the church was to join Paul in “the expectation, the assurance of a completely new order.” How quaint, the world must have thought; how irrelevant Christian preachers can be.
Rather than offering alternative policies or programs to counter those of the Nazis, Arnold made the sweeping claim that “all political, all social, all educational, all human problems are solved in a concrete way by the rulership of Christ. This is what glory is.”
This, again, is alternativity in a nutshell. And what a bold claim it is! Could it be that “all human problems are solved in a concrete way by the rulership of Christ?” Is it possible that to whatever extent humanity’s problems have not been solved is the exact extent to which we do not truly or fully subject ourselves to Christ’s rule instead of that of Washington, D.C.? Notice that Arnold says such problems are solved “in a concrete way.” This is no abstract theologizing in a blog post, as I may be accused of doing here. In yesterday’s worship gathering among the people of Church of All Nations (more about Church of All Nations later), the worship leader alluded to the recent trip by some 17 folks from Church of All Nations to the Bruderhof to learn from and fellowship with them. He said that their theology is a “lived theology.” In other words, they spend much less time talking about it than they do simply doing it. As they say in response to the question “Are Bruderhof members religious?”:
We are religious in the sense that our Christian faith is of utmost importance to us. That said, most Bruderhof members are not religious in the sense of highly developed or frequently displayed personal piety. We are extremely ordinary, and tend to speak less about our faith than some other branches of Christianity.
To live in a Bruderhof community you have to want to follow Jesus. Whether you call that being a Christian is not so important – but you have to want to follow Jesus and live the way he showed people how to live.
Much of the world thinks (so-called) “Christianity” is about believing certain things (giving intellectual assent to a set of propositions) and being sure to utter a single prayer at least one time to make sure you get your “fire insurance” and thereafter is about imposing your beliefs and morals on others through the power of the state (how very Constantinian!). What if we were instead known by our love for one another and those around us? What if our efforts were directed at living the kind of life Jesus embodied and taught us? What if we rejected not just empire and the politics of the powers but also the economics of the powers? In the face of the oppression of the powers that divides us into “haves” and “have-nots” be it via capitalism or any other worldly economic system, what if we shared everything and thereby made not only such oppression irrelevant, but also made irrelevant whatever worldly economic solutions the powers allow, again because we renounce the world’s economic systems and share everything? It is just such questions that the Bruderhof attempts to answer not primarily with their theology, but with their lives.
Willimon touches on this in the Plough piece when he says, “As Hauerwas famously puts it, the church doesn’t have a social policy; the church is God’s social policy.” Indeed. I alluded above and have written elsewhere about our recent entrance into Church of All Nations. There are many reasons for this. I’d like for now to note that, as we’ve participated in a couple of worship gatherings and the simple community meals that follow and as we’ve listened to sermons and read articles written by Pastor Kim online, I’ve been struck by the lack of publicity at the very least regarding any sort of social outreach or justice related initiatives. I don’t mean to needlessly be critical of any other church we’ve been a part of or other churches like them, but the study in contrasts is, literally, remarkable. Whole swaths of “Christianity” out there adopt “missional communities,” for example, to marry the mission to somehow “be the church” through service and outreach to others, with community. It seems to me, though, that this is a marriage of convenience that is nonetheless necessary if you’re still trying to “do”‘ (or even “be”) “church” within the convenient folds of Christendom. If you don’t even realize the extent to which you’ve been compromised and perhaps literally “owned” by empire, then it’s hard to see how all your outreach programs and justice initiatives, as well-intentioned as they may be, merely perpetuate the rule of the powers, principalities, and powers over/against that of Christ and his kingdom. Meanwhile, instead of “having a social policy,” we’re supposed to be one. To the extent that we embrace alternativity by renouncing perpetual temporal power grabs in seeking to influence society through elections, to the extent that we embrace alternativity by renouncing violence in all its forms and, to the extent possible (ha, hear my compromising fearfulness?), resist capitalism and participate in God’s economy by sharing possessions and giving to those who ask of us- to whatever extent we do all this no “social policy” or program is necessary. From what I can tell so far, this alternativity is something that Church of All Nations is going for too. I’ll have a bit more to say about this below.
Returning for now to Eberhard Arnold, the Bruderhof, and Willimon’s Plough piece, I’ll say again that Arnold founded the Bruderhof about a hundred years ago. Like I and my family, Arnold became convinced that the Sermon on the Mount was to be lived, not just “loved” as some idyllic dream to aspire to. He likewise learned that living the Sermon on the Mount could not be done alone. Community was required. As I’ve said, you can’t follow Jesus alone, especially not if you’re trying to follow him down the narrow path of radical discipleship, through the narrow door of enemy love and participation in God’s economy. Thus, the Bruderhof was born.
Willimon’s Resident Aliens piece in the Plough has much to contribute to this discussion, and bears further quoting at some length. He writes:
Asked by The Christian Century to respond to the twenty-fifth anniversary of my book with Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, a dozen reviewers dismissed the book as politically irrelevant, sectarian escapism from the great issues of the day. None noticed that the book was meant to address the church, not the US Senate. Resident Aliens was a work of ecclesiology that assumed that when Christians are pressed to “say something political,” our most faithful response is church. As Hauerwas famously puts it, the church doesn’t have a social policy; the church is God’s social policy.
Many of our critics showed that they still live under the Constantinian illusion that the United States is roughly synonymous with the kingdom of God. Even though the state alleges that it practices freedom of religion, the secular state tolerates no alternatives to its sovereignty. Christians are free in American democracy to be as religious as we please as long as we keep our religion personal and private.
Contemporary secular politics decrees that people of faith must first jettison the church’s peculiar speech and practices before we can be allowed to go public and do politics. Many mainline Protestants, and an embarrassing number of American evangelicals, cling to the hope that by engagement with secular politics within the limits set by the modern democratic state, we can wrest some shred of social significance for the Christian faith. That’s how my own United Methodist Church became the Democratic Party on its knees.
Saying it better than we put it in Resident Aliens, Arnold not only sees Christ as “embodied in the church” but calls the church to go beyond words and engage in radical, urgent action that forms the church as irrefutable, concrete proof that Jesus Christ really is Lord and we are not: “Only very few people in our time are able to grasp the this-worldly realism of the early Christians.… Mere words about the future coming of God fade away in people’s ears today. That is why embodied, corporeal action is needed. Something must be set up, something must be created and formed, which no one will be able to pass by,” on the basis of our knowledge of who God is and where God is bringing the world. Our hope is not in some fuzzy, ethereal spirituality. “It takes place now, through Christ in the church. The future kingdom receives form in the church.”
In his sermon, Arnold eschews commentary on current events, as well as condemnation or commendation of this or that political leader, and instead speaks about the peculiar way Christ takes up room in the world and makes his will known through the ragtag group of losers we dare to call, with Paul, the very body of Christ. “It is not the task of this body of Christ to attain prominence in the political power structure of this world.… Our politics is that of the kingdom of God.”
Because of who God is and how God works, the congregation where I preach, for all its failures (and I can tell you, they are many) is, according to Arnold, nothing less than “an embassy of God’s kingdom”: “When the British ambassador is in the British embassy in Berlin, he is not subject to the laws of the German Reich.… In the residence of the ambassador, only the laws of the country he represents are valid.”
Arnold’s sermon is a continually fresh, relevant rebuke to those who think we can do politics without doing church. Among many pastors and church leaders, there is a rather docetic view of ministry and the church. We denigrate many of the tasks that consume pastoral ministry – administration, sermon preparation, and congregational leadership – because we long to be done with this mundane, corporeal stuff so we can soar upward to higher, more spiritual tasks. Arnold wisely asserts Incarnation and unashamedly calls upon his congregants to get their hands dirty by engaging in corporate work: to set up, create, form, and learn all those organizational skills that are appropriate for an incarnational faith where we are saved by the Eternal Word condescending to become our flesh.
There’s so much to unpack here, but I trust I’ve already done some of that work and could do no better than Willimon, to be sure. I do want to highlight some things, though. Willimon notes that Arnold describes the church as being “an embassy of God’s kingdom” and reminds his readers that in an embassy the only “laws” that apply are that of the kingdom/state that the embassy is from. Thus, we are to live as if the authority of Christ and his kingdom “trumps” that of any secular power. Where the state tells us to keep the economy (and all its related wars) going by consuming ever more, Jesus calls us to sell our possessions, share God’s gifts which were given to all for all, and give to those who ask of us. Where the state devalues black and brown lives through its racially biased education, housing, employment, and criminal “justice” systems; and through the mass incarceration of people of color via the school to prison pipeline (in order to keep profits flowing to the prison industrial complex), we are to assert and live as if black lives matter.
I could go on, but I also want to echo Arnold in saying that “Mere words about the future coming of God fade away in people’s ears today. That is why embodied, corporeal action is needed. Something must be set up, something must be created and formed, which no one will be able to pass by.” Likewise, he said, “The future kingdom receives form in the church.” Doesn’t this sound a lot like “the end of our story has interrupted us in the middle?” Indeed.
Willimon goes on to allude to the Charleston church massacre and its aftermath. He says:
I know a pastor who began his sermon after the Charleston massacre by asking, “How come our Bible studies in this church have not been truthful enough, intense enough, for anybody to want to kill us? Church, we need to figure out how to be so faithful in our life together that the world can look at us and see something that it is not. Our little congregation is called to be a showcase of what a living God can do!”
It’s a profound question Willimon’s pastor colleague asked. Why don’t more people want to kill us? The “politics of Jesus” were sufficient to get him executed by the state, and he promised that we would be persecuted too. May I suggest that if we (European American) U.S. residents who want to follow Jesus are not being severely persecuted, it’s not because of the “freedoms” that U.S. soldiers are said to die for. Rather, I would argue that it’s because we spend most of our days pledging allegiance with our lives to the ideals, dreams, and aspirations that are symbolized in the U.S. flag, rather than to Christ and his kingdom.
So then, as I’ve been re-acquainting myself with the Bruderhof of late, I’ve been surprised to see what a vital presence they have. Despite the pastoral setting of most of their communities, they have not retreated from the world (because the Sermon on the Mount cannot be put into practice in isolation from one’s actual and metaphorical neighbors). They operate the Plough magazine and publishing house, which I’ve quoted at length above and am glad to subscribe to. They have a vibrant presence on social media, especially Youtube, where one can find a plethora of explainer videos and vignettes from their life together. Take this one, which explains who and what they are in their own words:
I also want to show you this one, titled “Living in Community is Not the Answer:”
This several minute long video by Melinda, a young woman from the Bruderhof, is a profound meditation on life in community and what it’s for, and on our relationship to the powers as we seek to embody alternativity, though of course she doesn’t quite put it that way. In the video Melinda is answering the question posed by a commenter, Christian, which he describes as a “haunting question.” Christian asks: “Is community an end in itself, the cause for dedicating your life, or is it preparation for the mission?” Melinda answers by saying that we are called to life together, but such life is not an end in itself. She says that “community is the vehicle by which we can help and uphold ourselves in our dedication to the cause” (of following Jesus, together). She concludes by stating essentially that the life of alternativity that we are called to must be a life together because we can not do it alone. She says that Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves means that we can not be richer than our neighbor and can not turn a blind eye when our neighbor struggles or falls into sin. She says, “Show me a way of doing all that without full Christian community, and I’ll consider it.” Then comes the coup de grace, as she repeats what I think another Bruderhof member must have said in responding to Christian’s “haunting question.” She says:
“I’m not sure why this is a haunting question. My haunting question for Christian is why he feels like owning his own stuff and living for one’s self is preparation for mission.”
It’s an incisive rejoinder which I, putting myself in Christian’s place, do not have a good answer for. So, as the Bruderhof was on my mind, and given my knowledge that some folks from Church of All Nations were at the Bruderhof over the past week, I looked for a Church of All Nations (CAN) sermon to listen to last Sunday when we couldn’t make it to their worship gathering because one of us was sick. I chose this sermon, titled “Saved from What?” I already knew enough of CAN and Pastor Kim to know that this would likely touch in some way on radical discipleship as an alternative to the “traditional” USAmerican presentation of the gospel that I’ve described at length on this blog, including above. I wanted to hear it and expected to view it as something of an answer to another recent sermon I heard about what following Jesus means. That is, I had a pretty good idea that this sermon would be about alternativity. Gratefully, I was not disappointed.
I was surprised, however, as the sermon, from May of this year, was in Pastor Kim’s words, “essentially all about the Bruderhof.” Pastor Kim speaks at length about the call to community and alternativity as embodied and practiced by the Bruderhof, and holds it up as something to be strived for by CAN. As Kirsten and I sat listening to this, when we heard him mention that the sermon was largely about the Bruderhof we looked at each other, a bit stunned. We had spent much of that day reacquainting ourselves with them. Arnold had already risen up as a guide to our next steps in our journey of “getting small” that we keep talking about, and again I’ve written about that. I had likewise been pleased to find all the resonance between how the Bruderhof embodies alternativity and the way Circle of Hope strives to do so in a very different, urban context. And I knew that Church of All Nations currently (at the time, a week ago) had a delegation visiting the Bruderhof, but I did not expect this sermon from May to be largely about them too.
We’ve had several moments in our journey over the past year in which we felt like it was very hard NOT to say that God was somehow speaking to us. Several times we heard the same piece of scripture, for example, from several different, diverse sources, all coming to us at the same time, a time in which we had ears to hear that bit of Scripture anew. This moment as we listened to Pastor Kim preach online about the Bruderhof felt at the very least like another one of those bread crumbs along the trail we are to follow. It was confirmation that we were paying attention to the “right” voice(s) at the “right” time. Imagine my delight, then, when I came across this article online, written for the Plough by Pastor Kim, no less, for the upcoming issue. Bear with me as I give you the whole thing below, because it’s worth it. It’s not really that long, and if you’ve read this far, I appreciate it, for starters, and you’ve shown yourself to be committed to seeing this through to the end. I’ll have just a few words to add of my own below. Pastor Kim writes:
In October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther ignited a movement in the Western church that would lead to the Protestant Reformation. It was a bold response that captured the people’s yearning for comprehensive reform of a church that seemed to have lost its moorings. In modern times it has become apparent to more and more Christians that the church seems to be obsessed with its own institutional survival, which is akin to a dog chasing its own tail. What kind of reformation do we need today for the church to remember its identity and pursue its mission?
Every few months at Church of All Nations (CAN), we offer a class for visitors who want to become members of our congregation, and by extension, of the church catholic. In the class we discuss discipleship, membership, and the theological concepts at the core of our community. But the majority of class time is devoted to a two-thousand-year overview of the Christian story. Why do we spend so much time discussing history? We see no other way to know who we are as a church, and where we are going, apart from knowing how we got here.
It doesn’t take long for our new member candidates to see that our congregation, though part of the mainline Presbyterian family, draws its inspiration from the radical reformers persecuted as “Anabaptists” by Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists. The Anabaptists’ clear identification of church–state collusion as idolatry made them a threat to both the Catholic Church and the fledgling Protestant movement. At CAN, our commitment to costly discipleship doesn’t come from Reformed catechisms and creeds, but from the way that the Confessing Church emerged to challenge Nazi rule in Germany, and the daring witness of Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer – their courage, “real world” theology, and pastoral insights.
Today, we are seeing growing impatience with the institutional church’s accommodation to temporal power. Younger generations, no longer willing to give the church the benefit of the doubt, are driving the mass exodus out of the Western church, which they see as a primary source of pain and abuse in the world. But for those who have not given up on the church as a vessel of God’s grace and transformation, the contours of a new reformation are beginning to surface.
Our congregation, for instance, is trying to root itself in the anti-imperial gospel community that Jesus inaugurated in Galilee. We hope to be heirs of an unbroken tradition of radical faithfulness to the God of Israel. Though the church has given in to the temptations of empire throughout her history, we are encouraged by the long and continuous witness of uncompromising faithfulness to Jesus as well.
The Early Church
What can we learn about reformation today from the early church? The Gospel of Mark opens with John the Baptist proclaiming “repentance and the forgiveness of sins.” John was consciously harking back to the traditions of Moses and Elijah, legendary leaders of Israel who practiced the dual roles of prophet and pastor. They boldly entered the courts of Pharaoh and King Ahab and demanded justice. They re-taught the people how to live as family, how to practice hospitality, and how to rely on God for their daily bread. John the Baptist had a simple message: The kingdom of God is just around the corner, so you better get your act together. At the core of his teaching was an ancient biblical ethic of mutual aid and restorative justice: Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; whoever has food must do the same.
Jesus opted to be baptized into the radical wilderness movement that John had faithfully stewarded for years. The Gospels give us a portrait of a scandalously loving and spirit-filled messiah who healed those plagued with evil spirits. He dared feed the hungry whose common lands had been gobbled up by massive estates. He taught the Galileans how to live with one another like Moses had originally taught them. God’s law was to love one’s neighbors as family, to not scheme about tomorrow, to not give in to the strife and petty jealousies that fracture communities and make them easy to divide and conquer.
When Jesus died, his followers experienced his presence among them. The brutal execution of their Lord could have ended the movement. Instead, they saw that Jesus refused to counter violence with violence. When the women reported an empty tomb, they took it as a sign of Christ’s vindication. The story of the resurrection and ascension of the Lord to “the right hand of the Father” became a rallying cry for those who knew Jesus in his life. Jesus had stayed faithful to the Father, the God of his ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, even on pain of death. Rome had done its worst, its most terroristic act, and Jesus turned the whole spectacle on its head with the words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” For the disciples, death had truly lost its sting.
Paul, the “strict constructionist” rabbi who sought to protect the integrity of Pharisaic Judaism by any means necessary, was also a privileged Roman citizen. He was interrupted on his way to Damascus by the stark presence of the resurrected Messiah. Blinded by the Lord’s presence, Paul went from being the chief enforcer of temple law to “least of the apostles.” As an alternative to Caesar’s patronage in the imperial familia, Paul could now offer a place in the loving family of God, the body of Christ.
For most of its history the institutional church has been both the master and servant of Western empires.The church has been a force for good in countless ways, and it is right for Christians to celebrate that heritage. But an honest accounting also requires us to admit that for most of its history the institutional church has in alternating ways been both the master and servant of Western empires. Is there another way? Can modern disciples truly follow the Way of Jesus over the American Way?
A New Generation
The church continues only as the next generation accepts the call to be Christ’s body, and his hands and feet to the world. As a pastor in a mainline church for twenty-five years, I have noted the dwindling numbers of young people in the local church. The children of boomers see the church today as complicit in, and co-opted by, the ways of the world. They have little interest in perpetuating the Constantinian arrangement in which churches produce loyal foot soldiers for the empire du jour.
The Protestant Reformation and the Radical Reformation were supposed to inaugurate a new era of integrity and faithfulness for the church. But today we see that, whether a congregation is Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Quaker, Mennonite, or Presbyterian, they are overwhelmingly white, old, and declining. Such is the fruit of the Reformation after five hundred years.
The church I currently serve was founded in 2004 with a demographic of mostly Korean- American immigrants raised in this country, roughly twenty-five to thirty-five years old. In recent years, CAN has become a slightly majority-white church, although our members still hail from over twenty-five nations and cultures. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that two-thirds of our congregation is made up of twenty- to forty-year-olds. Ministering to a mostly millennial congregation has given us some insights about the future of the church in a postmodern context.
What is it that our young people don’t buy anymore?
Uncritical patriotism and American exceptionalism (“my country, right or wrong”).
Unexamined white supremacy, both the nativism of the Right and the paternalism toward people of color by the Left.
Unfettered consumerism at the expense of global fairness and environmental sustainability, and endless consumption as a personal coping mechanism.
Rugged individualism and the subtext of the American dream – the accumulation of enough skills and wealth so as to be completely independent.
Christian denominational sectarianism, parochialism, and triumphalism in the face of religious pluralism.
Young people today are desperate for what only the church can offer:
Our young people are searching for their vocation. Many are educated enough for a job or career in the present order, but are desperately searching for a calling.
Our young people hunger for healthy relationships, to meaningfully and deeply relate to another human being (half grew up in divorced or single-parent homes, and others in dysfunctional households).
Plagued with loneliness, isolation, and alienation, our young people are seeking enduring Christian community that functions like a diverse yet intimate family.
Our young people are looking for stability in a highly mobile world, and concreteness in an increasingly virtual and socially networked existence.
Our young people desire authentic faith. They are prone to agnosticism or even raw atheism, as they see little evidence of a God that makes a difference in the religious institutions of the day, namely the local church. If local churches would respond evangelically to these needs, they would open the possibility of spiritual renewal for this searching but confused generation.
A New Reformation
Many professional religious leaders are working tirelessly for the church’s “renewal,” hoping that a new reformation might save the institutional church from demise. But people today are not interested in institutional score-keeping like membership, attendance, budgets, and square feet. If the only motivation for reformation is preserving a middle-class lifestyle for the clergy and preventing the sanctuary from turning into a condo, then people are saying, Let the temple be torn down, for Jesus can raise it up in three days. Amen, so be it.
We firmly believe that, after five hundred years, the Protestant Reformation is giving way to another tectonic shift in what it means to be church. A new reformation is coming indeed.
One element of that reformation will be learning to live together in intentional Christian community. Our congregation has been forming households of unrelated people almost from our beginning, and now we have multiple community houses that are structured, ordered, and thriving. We were making steady progress, or so we thought, until we began to learn about the Bruderhof way.
We were blown away by this community that goes back almost a hundred years – the lifelong commitment to the community, the common purse, working for businesses that are owned and operated by the overall community, the care of its members from cradle to grave (if they choose to stay). CAN is in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, a highly urbanized area, and cannot as yet match these characteristics. But we have been inspired by an actual community that has done it and is living out the Acts 2 way of being church – of sharing all things in common in an age of individualism, greed, loneliness, and despair.
For us, a radical reformation in our time demands that the church live into its vocation as ecclesia, meaning the “called-out ones.” Christians are to be called out of a sick society built on the evils of racism, sexism, militarism, exploitation, and destructive competition. We are to create a new community of love. This does not mean withdrawal from society or indulging sectarian impulses. Church of All Nations is in the middle of an urban and suburban landscape, and hopes to witness to God’s love for the world, right here where we are.
With this goal, we seek to pool our people’s resources, talents, ideas, and labor for the common good. We want our members to feel that their work is rewarding, that the fruit of their labor is being shared justly, that they work together, live together, play together, and worship together because it is very good and pleasant when kindred live together in unity. We will have to participate in the broader economic system, but we will not allow capitalist dogma to influence our internal economics. We will draw people from our immediate context of great brokenness, but our mission will include the casting out of imperial demons and the healing of bodies and souls so that we can relate rightly to our God, our neighbors (human and non-human), and God’s good green earth. We aspire to create an urban village founded on the love and teachings of Jesus Christ our Lord, a type of Bruderhof in the city, and to share God’s abundance with an impoverished world.
Is this part of the next reformation, or just a pipe dream? We’re not sure, but we are grateful for the witness of the Bruderhof, and pray that Christians can live together in harmony as a counter-witness to a world falling apart.
Pastor Kim offers a compelling vision, does he not, of a kind of Bruderhof in the city? Is it any wonder that we feel drawn to CAN just now? We can’t escape the haunting questions asked above by the pastor colleague of Willimon and by the member of the Bruderhof. Why, exactly, is it that that the way we not only study but live out Jesus’ teaching in the Bible has not “been truthful enough, intense enough, for anybody to want to kill us?” Why haven’t we more fully figured out “how to be so faithful in our life together that the world can look at us and see something that it is not?” Or, as the Bruderhof commenter challenged, why do we “feel like owning (our) own stuff and living for (ourselves) is preparation for mission?” Quite simply, it’s not.
Thankfully, we do have the witness of the Bruderhof, whatever unavoidable shortcomings their life together may entail. I can’t help, though, but wonder if Pastor Kim is aware of Circle of Hope. Their life together has shortcomings too, but they’re the only urban church I know of that is really going for alternativity in the way that Pastor Kim seems to want to be a part of, and I and my family do as well. From the very intentional way they go about being the church together through cell groups and a network of congregations that form one church, to their frequent witness and action against the powers in solidarity with marginalized groups, to their willingness to boldly renounce capitalism and violence and share the resources they develop freely (see here, for example, or read about how they share resources here and the power that unleashes here), to their Bruderhof-like subversive use of the world’s economic system to generate resources for their life together (go here and here, for example)- all of this seems to me to be an embodiment of what a “Bruderhof in the city” might look like. Like CAN, Circle has folks that live together in community, so much so that Rod wrote a resource for them as they do so way back in 2004. CAN was a “sponsor” of the Carnivale de Resistance that we attended last year, which I wrote about here and for which our former Circle of Hope pastor Joshua was a member of the Carnivale team. Naturally, Circle of Hope has a Carnivale de Resistance support team, and the organizers of Carnivale spoke at a CAN conference a few years ago. Circe also has a Watershed Discipleship team and as a community has been profoundly influenced by Ched Myers. Meanwhile Ched, of course, also came to speak at that same recent CAN conference. I could go on, but for now suffice it to say that there’s much resonance among Circle of Hope, the Bruderhof, and CAN. Therefore, with Circle of Hope and the Bruderhof as inspiration, I and my family are glad to enter into the life that CAN is having together. We pray that we will ever more fully embody, together, the alternativity that we are called to. Lord, let it be so.
“Maybe the end of the world comes one person at a time.” That was the provocative suggestion by one of my former pastors, Russell Rathbun from House of Mercy. If memory serves, this was near the end of his still memorable sermon series many years ago now in which he told an elaborate story about “the end of the world.” He was working through the common U.S. “Evangelical” understanding of the “end times” in which the “Rapture” is a prominent feature along with the belief that the primary task of a Christian is to “win souls” for heaven and save them from the eternal torture that awaits all who don’t say the “sinner’s prayer.” The idea that God would allow- if not cause- this goes hand-in-glove with the idea that the crucifixion of Jesus was an incident of “cosmic child abuse” in which Jesus had to be tortured and murdered in order to change God’s mind about we sinners (whom he would otherwise allow to be tormented eternally in order to satisfy his “justice”). I probably digress.
Anyway, what Russell was suggesting, I think all these years later, in that sermon series was 1) the idea of God and how he operates in the world as depicted above is the unbiblical baloney that I now know it to be, and 2) that there nonetheless is something to this idea of the “end of the world.” There’s actually some really great stuff in the Bible that gets at this, for those with eyes to see and ear to hear, but it takes a little work to find the treasures that are there in Scripture to be found. Here’s just one little idea that is captivating my imagination as I think about this, this morning. In the creation story as we find it in Scripture it seems to end badly. Adam and Eve were given only one rule that was meant to preserve and protect their right relationship with God their creator and friend. This rule was not meant to limit or diminish them or keep them from all the goodness God had made for them and given them. It was meant, as all good rules are, to point them in the direction of right relationship. Thus, as I keep saying, “rules are for relationship.” As we know, they broke the rule, and their relationship with God and creation itself was damaged. This part of the story ends with Adam and Eve being sent from the garden, and the text says a “flaming sword” acted as a gate barring them from ever returning. By the way, Russell once told another great story in a sermon in which he re-told the creation story and when he got to the part where Adam and Even were sent from the garden, he depicted the garden as being fenced off from them, and in his telling of the story, just as Adam and Eve leave for good, God hops the fence to join them. Astounded, they ask, “what are you doing?!” to which God replies, “I’m coming with you.” Remarkable, isn’t it?
“I’m Coming With You.”
So at the beginning of the Biblical narrative a fateful decision is made that results in us being exiled forever from the place where we were with God as we were created to be. Even then, however, there was a hint of the promise of God-With-Us (again and forever), and one day Immanuel did indeed come, never to leave us again. God was and is with us, indeed. Meanwhile, God’s good creation remains marred by sin, that condition in which we all are caught and which serves as the backdrop for our many unloving, sinful acts against God, one another, and God’s good world. And because God is a good, good father who will not coerce his children into receiving the freedom that Jesus gives us from the sinful condition in which we are caught, the long work of reconciliation goes on. As we take halting steps into the freedom we’ve been given, we move a little closer into right relationship with God, one another, and the world. One day the work of the family business of reconciliation will be complete, and on that day we won’t escape into the sky while the earth burns; rather, heaven will come to earth as both are remade into what they have always been meant to be, and we are too. How does the Biblical narrative end? Remember, at the beginning of the grand, sweeping narrative of the Bible there is a flaming sword barring our return to the place where we were with God; remember too that some Christians would have you believe that heaven is like that too, that it’s inaccessible to those who don’t say the right thing before they die. That, however, is not what we find in the text. What’s actually there, near the end of Revelation, for those with ears to hear, is the astounding statement that the heavenly city’s gates “will never be shut.” This is important because we also find in the text language that describes various categories of sinful folk being left outside the city. But it would seem that if they choose to stay there it is not because God prevents them from entering the city. Rather, it seems clear that 1) heaven’s gates are always open, and 2) there is a standing invitation to enter. Where the first humans broke the one rule to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, by the end of the Biblical narrative all people are invited to enter the heavenly city and drink, to take “the free gift of the water of life.” John the Revelator puts it this way:
He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. 7 Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.”
I find this language- of being children of God the Father, in heaven- super interesting, since none other than Jesus describes how to become children of the father in heaven. I’ve written about this, but it’s found in the Sermon on the Mount, and has to do with giving to those who ask of us and renouncing our violent ways.
Anyway, later John the Revelator says:
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.
Look, there is fiery language in John’s Apocalypse to be sure. I don’t deny this. What I deny is that such “fiery” language is the point. What’s notable I think is that where humanity was once barred from returning to the place where they could be with God, by the end of the Biblical text there is a standing invitation to enter the eternally open gates of that very place and drink of the water of life. This invitation seems to apply even to those who are self-exiled in the “fire” of “hell.” Sure, there’s language in the text describing those sinful categories of folks who will remain outside the city: “Outside are…those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” But the point isn’t that they must remain there; rather, it’s that they are eternally invited to choose love, forgiveness, and right relationship and so enter the city, having shed their immoral, murderous, idolatrous, and lying ways. It’s important too to remember that John’s Apocalypse is just that, an apocalyptic tale that’s probably best read not as a “magic 8 ball” telling us our future, but rather as a prophetic critique of Empire (particularly the Roman one, but that critique applies just as well to our current “American” one) and a dramatic proclamation that the rule and reign of God in Christ is here to stay.
One of These Is Not Like the Others
So, then, what if the “end of the world comes one person at a time?” I think part of what Russell may have been getting at is that if we are to follow Jesus into the freedom and new life he makes possible, we really must leave one world and enter another. We must put an end to our fidelity to all the “isms” of this world, and by “world” of course I don’t mean the created order; rather I mean the world of Empire- all that is set up in opposition to the rule and reign of God in Christ- our history, language, culture, customs, economies and secular politics. I’m talking about the “stream” that we’re swimming in, our worldview. What we need, as always, is alternativity. Growing up in Texas as young person I thought Republicans were good God-fearing folk doing their best to follow Jesus in the world of secular politics. Maybe there are some folks who self-identify as “Republican” who would also call themselves “Christians” and think they are doing just that. However, for a good long while I thought being a “Republican” was essentially the same thing as being a “Christian” in the same way that I thought being an “American” was essentially the same thing as being a “Christian” (I guess in this view “Democrats” are neither “Christian” nor “American”). Later, of course, I learned how far that was from the truth and predictably I swung to the other side. If Republicans gave lip service to “life” (in the womb only) but were otherwise bloodthirsty in their support for capital punishment, war, and deadly lack of healthcare and living wages, then Democrats surely had a better approach as they at least gave lip service to aligning themselves with the folks Jesus seemed most interested in spending time with- the poor, the sick, the marginalized, etc. It’s taken me a long time to realize that neither approach gets it right, that both are inevitably mired in Empire- the principalities and powers that are set up in opposition to the rule and reign of God in Christ.
This doesn’t mean we need not vote or do what we can to get what justice we can within those now defunct systems; what it does mean, however, is that this is not our primary task; it doesn’t deserve the bulk of our attention and energy. I don’t think Jesus died at the hands of Empire so that we could then spend our days working to bring about a better, more humane and loving Empire! No, as N.T. Wright says in the title of his recent book, the crucifixion of Jesus is “the day the revolution began.” As one reviewer of Wright’s book put it, summarizing Wright’s argument:
The early Christians turned things upside down with a seemingly ridiculous announcement of a revolution through the crucifixion of a Jewish teacher, such that “by 6 p.m. on that dark Friday the world was a different place.” But the church has tamed this radical message, domesticating it to the powers he came to subvert.
The reviewer goes on:
The traditional presentation of the gospel—e.g., the “Romans Road”—has little contact with the story the apostle is telling in that famous epistle, Wright argues. Abstracted from the story of Israel, the gospel becomes reduced to “Jesus bore God’s wrath in your place so you could go to heaven when you die.” That old-time religion had some legitimate pieces of the puzzle, but it didn’t put them together properly. Consequently, evangelicals have moralized the problem (sin merely as violations of a code), paganized the solution (an angry Father punishing his Son), and platonized the goal (going to heaven when we die).
Our Lives Must Be Our Message
The gospel story is so much bigger and more compelling than what it’s been reduced to as described above, and if we are to follow Jesus in subverting the powers, we can no longer go on domesticating our message- or our lives- to them. Indeed, our lives must be our message. So again, we need alternativity. It’s interesting, isn’t it? As good “Americans,” so many of us are so individualistic and selfish that we think salvation is all about us, individually. And because we don’t want to have to feel too guilty about getting our “fire insurance,” we sometimes try to sell our (fire) insurance policy to as many of our friends and neighbors as we can. To their credit, lately many in the “Evangelical” world seem to have discovered justice, or at least are newly focused on it, and this has become a welcome emphasis as there is talk of a “whole Gospel” (that includes both corporate dimensions of institutional sin and salvation including work for justice, and more individualistic responses to the call to follow Jesus that include emphases on holiness and personal morality). But again, it remains my contention that all of this is still very much rooted in and is accommodating to those very powers that we are instead supposed to subvert. It is with a heavy heart that I repeat that so much of our justice work is likely just the application of “band-aids on capitalism,” including my 9-5 daily job in the social service field and much of what many churches do to serve the poor.
Band-Aids on Capitalism
The people who make up Circle of Hope in Philly have a “proverb” about this, which goes:
Generating justice and hope in our neighborhood must be at the heart of us. Wealth and power reduce sympathy for the poor and powerless. A marriage between unfettered capitalism and piety makes the Lord’s words inconvenient at best and heretical at worst.
Many people say American Christians have generally reduced their faith to “moral therapeutic deism,” where the shapes and colors of religion are imported into mass-market self-help schemes. Meanwhile, the “Christian right” persevere in old political battles (sexuality, marriage, education, etc.) for which they sold their souls to the “economy.” But the strength of their efforts appears to be waning; the once coherent evangelical voting bloc is splintering. The titans of industry intent on fostering a pro-capitalist politics can no longer rely on them to bolster their project. The most ardent pro-capitalists, don’t generally speak in terms of Christ and country any more; they are more likely to talk about self-improvement and actualization.
Why pray about this? Why give ourselves proverb to remember? We are all in the grip of capitalism and tend to believe its narrative about life more than the Lord’s. Whether with or in spite of Oprah or Franklin Graham, we’re moving with or resisting the flow.
Free-market economics and Christianity were not always the twin pillars of a uniquely American gospel. Yet the last election was kicked off by Ted Cruz spinning a free-market yarn to the student body of the world’s largest Christian college. He wanted to get the born-again Christians into the voting booth giving him dominion over the economy. At this point, thanks to the tireless efforts of the pastors and politicians, the disparity between the Christian ethos and the spirit of capitalism is now little more than a periodic gurgle of protest from believers who lean “left.” Most pastors preach some variation on self-help and self-reliance.
Capitalism needs a story to make its excesses and failures palatable to the masses. Regular people need to be convinced that the system that benefits the rich actually benefits them too. Lately there have been stories about the prophets of capital like Bill Gates and Sheryl Sandberg. The stories about the rich and successful have different plots, but the same goal: to patch up leaks in capitalism and advance its shuddering bulk for one more day. In the 1950’s it was Christianity that was deployed to offer this endorsement, now it is more likely the Koch brothers or Mark Zuckerberg.
Each of the stories keeps a glimmer of the past pro-capitalist Christian crusades burning — they are all sermons about the economy with moral imperatives, altar calls and an application that will not only save your finances but save the country, if not humanity. As religiosity drops off in the United States and is replaced either by faithlessness or individual spirituality, capitalism is reformating its defenses to match those changes. That could be the best possible thing for true Christianity in the United States. If the Christian story is the latest to be shucked aside by capitalism, then Christianity might find itself slipping the grip of a rather oppressive relationship.
Out of the grip of capitalism, American Christians would be free to offer up a genuinely revolutionary Christian politics: one that neither seeks to bolster capitalism blatantly nor offer meager patches for its systemic problems. Having an historical perspective on the ways in which Christianity was co-opted in service of the capitalist cause could help new Christian activists avoid the pitfalls of the recent past. Our proverb names the problem and calls us to enact the transformation that makes us truly free, not just free to pay the system for the privilege of consuming.
Suggestions for action
Pray: Make me a heretic in the religion of capitalism and a prophet among those who follow Jesus.
It takes some study to see beyond the ocean of capitalism in which we swim. We have all bought the story to some degree, as follows: Holiness and profit go together. The special capacity of capitalism to help the poor is assumed. The respect due to those who “make it” is something to which children are taught to aspire. We elect millionaires to lead the country. It goes on, often unexamined.
Take some time to ponder our proverb and Amos’ prophecy again. What does your participation in the “economy” do to your ability to follow Jesus? Don’t immediately figure out how you will fit more of Jesus into your busy schedule. First consider just what it costs your faith to have it married to capitalism, if it is. How does Jesus speak into you life in the U.S. and direct you?
This gets at the heart of the alternativity we so desperately need. I think most Christians and most churches who sincerely want to follow Jesus direct most of their efforts to trying to figure out how to fit more of Jesus into their busy schedules. Rarely do they consider what it costs to have their faith married to capitalism as much as to Jesus, and thus can’t hear Jesus speaking into their lives in the U.S. and directing them. Jesus doesn’t want us to fit as much of him as we can into our busy capitalistic schedules. He doesn’t want us to knowingly or unknowingly allow ourselves to be reduced to mere consumers, whether of the goods and services the “invisible hand” of the market is constantly shilling, or, worse, of the “religious goods and services” too much of the Church spends most of its time peddling.
Want to Have a “Sure Foundation” for your Faith? You Can If you Live the Sermon on the Mount, According to Jesus
Such questions are troubling, of course, and may get one into all kinds of trouble. It’s hard for one’s “world” to end, and to enter a new one, just as it’s hard to die and be born again. Even so, this is the experience I and my family are in some small way having. Eberhard Arnold, one of the saints in the “great cloud of witnesses” I have immense respect for and any reader would do well to learn about, wrote about this. As he became convinced that he must follow Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, which Jesus described as the “narrow road/gate” that “leads to life” and about which Jesus said was the way to build one’s house (of faith) on rock rather than sand, he wrote:
Shortly before the outbreak of the war (WWI), I wrote to a friend saying that I could not go on like this. I had interested myself in individuals, preached the gospel, and endeavored in this way to follow Jesus. But I had to find a way actually to serve humankind; I wanted a dedication that would establish a tangible reality by which men could recognize the cause for which Jesus died.
He also said, describing the situation in Berlin during and after the war:
Then hunger came to Berlin. People ate turnips morning, noon, and night. When the people turned to the officials for money or food, they were told, “If you are hungry, eat turnips!” On the other hand, even in the middle of Berlin there were still well-to-do “Christian” families who had a cow and had milk when no one else did. Carts went through the streets bearing the bodies of children who had died. The bodies were wrapped in newspaper, for there was neither time nor money for a coffin. In 1917 I saw a horse collapse in the street: the driver was knocked aside by the starving people, who rushed to cut chunks from the warm body to bring home to their families.
He continues: “After such experiences…I realized the whole situation was unbearable,” and then he goes on to say:
…it soon became clear that Jesus’ way is a practical one: he has shown us a way of life that is more than a way of concern for the soul. It is a way that simply says, “If you have two coats, give one to him who has none; give food to the hungry, and do not turn away your neighbor when he needs to borrow from you. When you are asked for an hour’s work, give two. You must strive for his justice. If you want to found a family, see that all others who want to found a family are able to do so, too. If you wish for education, work, and satisfying activity, make these possible for other people as well. If you say it is your duty to care for your health, then accept this duty for the health of others too. Treat people in the same way that you would be treated by them. This is the law and the prophets. Enter through this narrow gate, for it is the way that leads to the kingdom of God.
I and my family can not go on like this either. This whole situation of ongoing accommodation to violent, capitalistic Empire in “American civil religion” is “unbearable.” I do not mean to judge, and I know that if I am judging I will be judged by the very same measure that I am using. What I’m saying is that I want to be judged, and I have heard the judgment rendered! I have participated in and accommodated the violent, capitalistic Empire I was born into for far too long. But now, since I have been born again, it’s high time to live like it! If it is the “whole gospel” we are to be after, then let’s get on with it! Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew something about resisting Empire, even if he found himself at one point famously accommodating violence to do it (an act inconsistent with the rest of the direction in which his life of faith was moving). About Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, which Eberhard Arnold came to have a burning desire to obey wholeheartedly, Bonhoeffer wrote:
We have listened to the Sermon on the Mount and perhaps have understood it. But who has heard it aright? Jesus gives the answer at the end (Matthew 7:24-29). He does not allow his hearers to go away and make of his saying what they will, picking and choosing from them whatever they find helpful and testing them to see if they work. He does not give them free rein to misuse his word with their mercenary hands, but gives it to them on condition that it retains exclusive power over them. Humanly speaking, we could understand and interpret the Sermon on the Mount in a thousand different ways. Jesus knows only one possibility: simple surrender and obedience, not interpreting it or applying it, but doing and obeying it. That is the only way to hear his word. He does not mean that it is to be discussed as an ideal; he really means us to get on with it.
To the extent that we do get on with it, we will “establish a tangible reality by which (people) could recognize the cause for which Jesus died.” Thus, the end of one world will come, and a new one- the kingdom of God- which even now is upon us, will further break in.